A Southerner in Nicaragua
By David E. Whisnant
Vol. 10, No. 5, 1988, pp. 1-5
David E. Whisnant, longtime commentator on Southern Appalachian culture who is perhaps best known as the author of All That Is Native and Fine (The Politics of Culture in an American Region CINC Press, 1983), returned this summer from a five-month visit to Nicaragua as a Fulbright scholar. Whisnant, a professor of English, American studies and folklore at the University of North Carolina, was interviewed in Chapel Hill in June by Southern Changes editor Allen Tullos. The topic was Whisnant’s trip and the historical study of the politics of culture in Nicaragua that is his current project. His edited comments follow.
THINK THE FIRST thing to say is that I came to Nicaragua from a different direction and with a different set of expectations than those which were characteristic of many of the internacionalistas (and there were many) whom I met there. Some of them came out of a history of political activity that goes back in their families for a generation or so. One of my acquaintances was the son of a Communist Party organizer from New York in the 1930s. There were people who had come out of SDS or other kinds of 1960s organizing. I did not. I came there with political awarenesses and interests that had developed relatively late in my life, primarily through work I was then beginning to do in the Appalachian region.
As I got to know more people from the U.S. who were in Nicaragua, I discovered some other Southerners. I had a few discussions with a couple of them about whether and to what extent their being from the South had anything to do with the way they experienced being in Nicaragua.
One reaction we turned out to share was that as Southerners we frequently had difficulty conversing with Nicaraguans. The difficulty seemed not to have much to do with the language barrier, since we all spoke Spanish. As well as I could understand it, it had to do with people’s accustomed styles of verbal interaction. For a number of
reasons, Nicaraguans, particularly Nicaraguan men, tend to be highly verbal and domineering in conversation. Such a style and dynamic are uncongenial to me, mainly I think because in the mountains where I grew up, people talked relatively little and listened a lot. They tended to be self-effacing in conversational situations. But most of the Nicaraguan men I met weren’t.
When a Nicaraguan man begins to talk, I learned to my utter astonishment, he may talk for an hour and a half without stopping. Although he may give certain verbal cues which are (at least formally) invitations for response, it is clear that he really doesn’t expect you to respond, because no time is left for a response to occur. I found that difficult to deal with, and so did the friends I made there from the South.
Men and Women in Nicaragua
I had more serious difficulties with Nicaraguan men’s treatment of women. Having grown up in the South, I am not unfamiliar with macho behavior, and I know also that macho, though it has a Spanish name, is a virtually universal phenomenon. Nevertheless, what I witnessed in Nicaragua was frequently shocking and depressing. In conversation among a group of adult married couples, for example, men frequently would literally shush their wives when they tried to say anything. Such a gesture offended me; I had never seen anything like it. Although women in the mountains where I grew up were somewhat more taciturn than men, when they did talk they were usually listened to.
Partly to try to avoid seeing such behavior, I spent a lot of time talking with women–frequently about machismo, about the ways Nicaraguan women and men interact, and about the general situation of women there.
Margaret Randall and others have written eloquently of the central and heroic roles Nicaraguan women played in the armed struggle preceding the overthrow of Somoza, and of their continuing importance in national reconstruction. What has not so often been talked about is that machismo is still a fundamental fact of life for virtually every man and woman in Nicaragua. Indeed a number of women told me it is worse now than ever. It takes a larger variety of forms than I ever imagined before I went. I had never imagined how pervasive it was, how many aspects of life it affects or even determines, how brutal it can be and frequently is. And how ultimately dysfunctional it is for a social order that is trying to go through the transformations that Nicaragua is trying to go through.
Besides being degrading and painful to individual women, machista attitudes and behaviors (personal and institutional) block and frustrate the potential contributions that a vast number of very bright, sensitive women could make and are trying to make to the process of reconstruction. They are making contributions nevertheless, basic and crucial ones, but much less efficiently and effectively than they might, and at an unconscionably high personal cost.
What Nicaraguan women say about machismo varies depending upon who one is talking with–on how self-consciously ideological they are, on their social class and profession. One woman friend of mine–a highly transitional professional who has suffered considerably from the operation of machismo–said in essence that dealing with this and some other women’s issues has to wait because the first priority must be the solidification of the revolution. In her mind there was a hierarchical ranking between the urgent needs of “the revolution” and the urgent needs of women. My own feeling is that it is artificial to partition those two dynamics in such a way. It is also damaging, because it leaves things too much in the hands of men, who are still for the most part setting the parameters of the revolution and controlling its institutions.
If one talks to working-class women–and I spent a lot of time talking with maids, with the women who came to wash clothes and iron, with women who were working in the markets–one finds that the forms machismo takes in their lives are sometimes very brutal. Wife-beating is quite common, and there is a great deal of drinking and philandering. Women know it and know what it costs them, and have little protection against it, though some recent laws expressly forbid such behavior. In any case, working-class women seemed to me less willing than some more ideologically oriented professional women to excuse machismo, or to comprehend it within some higher critique.
If I frequently felt out of sync with Nicaraguans in conversations, and if I felt put off by machismo, I also felt that we Southerners had a real commonality of experience with them in certain other ways. We knew in the first place what it was to be in a subjugated, dominated and deprecated culture. More particularly, as a hillbilly I felt that I had some intuitive feeling of what Nicaraguan people had experienced culturally and politically vis-a-vis the U.S. And that helped me in some ways with what I went there to do.
Culture and National Reconstruction,/hi
I went to Nicaragua to work on a book on the politics of culture there, to follow up some questions I had dealt with in All That is Native and Fine. I took as my focus for talking about the politics of culture the development of cultural policy and programs under the Sandinistas since 1979.
But one obviously cannot begin to talk simply about what has happened since 1979. So I tried to do a lot of historical work on the dynamics of cultural change in Nicaragua since the middle of the nineteenth century. As soon as one begins to look at Nicaraguan cultural history it becomes clear that one must talk about intervention.
Certainly the Spanish conquest was a massive and destructive cultural as well as economic and political intervention. Many of the most fundamental dynamics of Nicaraguan cultural and social history since the 1600s flowed from that conquest: the virtual extermination of the original population, mestizoization and catholicization, the east/west division of the country, the Liberal (Leon) vs. Conservative (Granada) antagonisms and wars.
But the Spanish intervention was not the only or the last one by any means. The British, for instance, intervened in the seventeenth century on the east coast and dominated life there until the 1860s. Serious U.S. intervention began in the 1840s and has continued with few interruptions since. One of the best known nineteenth century books about Nicaragua, Nicaragua: Its People, Scenery, Monuments and the Proposed Canal (1862), was written by Ephraim G. Squire, the U.S. consul who was sent to Central America to do reconnaissance in preparation for building the proposed canal through Nicaragua. Passing up the San Juan river, Squire noted that a few American business establishments were already there, and some Nicaraguans had already picked up a few phrases of colloquial American English.
The arrival of the U.S. Marines in 1912 was a cultural as well as military and political intervention. The national sport of Nicaragua, for example, is baseball, brought there by the Marines. Following the ascension of the first Somoza to power in the mid-1930s, Nicaragua became a major consumer of the worst of U.S. commercial popular culture. That pattern continued through 1979 and in some degree still continues, though it has been modulated considerably by Nicaraguan’s lack of money to travel or buy goods, and of course by the Reagan trade embargo.
What have the Sandinistas done about those historical patterns? My answer is that the original intention was to institute a whole range of policies that were culturally sensitive and responsible, and they have attempted a number of things, some more successfully than others. They have tried in the first place to counter the history of cultural intervention, particularly that emanating from the U.S. They have also tried to democratize cultural activity, to make it more accessible, to legitimize more forms of it, to disperse cultural institutions throughout the country. Nicaragua had very few cultural institutions before 1979, and Managua had become almost the only center of institutionalized cultural activity. So an effort was made to build a new set of cultural organizations and institutions–museums, libraries, theater and dance companies–and to distribute them throughout the country.
They have also focused more on cultural production than on consumption–on empowering and training people to think of themselves as producers of culture rather than as passive consumers. They have tried to integrate cultural concerns into other arena of development policy, such as economic policy and housing policy.
Such a projection seemed very attractive to me when I began to read about it several years ago. After all, I had just spent a couple of years reading about cultural policy in the United States, and it was precisely the lack of such concerns–for democratizing cultural institutions, for extending respect to non-elite culture, for sensitivity to cultural values in other policy sectors–that seemed to me to characterize most cultural policy in this country, where there has been any at all.
So I went to Nicaragua with a very positive set of expectations. And having been there, I still feel that the Sandinistas’ intentions in the area of cultura1 policy were good. But the situation proved to be much more complicated than what I had read led me to expect.
In the first place, at present most efforts at social or cultural reconstruction are effectively at a standstill and have been for several years–as a result of the war. Unfortunately, the militarization of Nicaraguan society has been necessary to confront the real threat that U.S. policy has presented. The past eight years have made it clear that there is nothing the Reagan administration won’t do to
destroy the Sandinistas if they think they can get away with it. Whether they can get away with it is the only consideration. So one cannot know what the Sandinistas would have done in the cultural arena if they had had the tranquility (and money) to do it.
If you look at the national budgets from 1979-81, what you find is that military expenditures were taking less than 10 percent. By 1987-88, it was about 50 percent. And the problem is not only the expenditures themselves, but also the social and cultural distortions that occur when you’re putting that percentage of the budget into warfare. Virtually all young men over the age of sixteen, and many young women, are going to end up in the military. And there are many losses because of that. People who might be poets, who might be writers, who might be singers or dancers or whatever are not doing those things with proper concentration and intensity. The years between sixteen and twenty-five, after all, are crucial years for the education and artistic formation of any creative person.
So the loss of human potential is enormous, and in a small country of three million people such losses are especially critical. The distortion of institutions, including cultural ones, is also serious. The country has managed to open several small new museums, start a number of new dance and theater companies, an art school, a school of dance, and so on. But the facilities of all are pathetic; there is no other way to describe them: tiny buildings minimally converted from other uses, and virtually no equipment. Clearly, things have not happened on anything like the scale envisioned in the heady days of late 1979.
On the other hand, as some Nicaraguan artists and writers have pointed out, revolution and war can also offer new creative challenges and possibilities. Nicaraguan poetry during the past quarter-century is a good example. If one reads it not only from 1978-79 and later, but also from the early 1960s on, one sees that it is remarkable in both quantity and quality. The forced transformations of people’s lives and consciousness led to enormous creativity. Poetry by FLSN people who were imprisoned by Somoza in the 1970s–such as that written by Ricardo Morales Aviles from Managua’s La Aviacion prison–is deeply moving and beautiful, and it could not have been written under any other circumstances. Similar things occurred in music and theater.
But the war and its economic consequences have not been the only problems in the area of post-revolutionary cultural development. It turns out that some of the Sandinistas’ thinking about culture, and therefore their programmatic projection of it, has not been as well-grounded as it might have been. The most dramatic case of their lack of cultural sensitivity and sophistication was of course their treatment of the Miskitos on the east coast. That has been much discussed. It arose out of a complex set of circumstances, but central among them was the fact that like the majority of Nicaraguans, the Sandinista leadership was from the west coast and knew very little about the east coast of their own country.
It also seems to me that there has been some tendency to romanticize and simplify the cultural history and the contemporary cultural realities of the country. In a way this is understandable because so little has been written about either. The kinds of detailed cultural studies that exist in abundance for the United States and for many other countries simply have never been done in Nicaragua. A researcher in the area of culture or cultural history in Nicaragua cannot hope to have the kind of research materials and facilities that would be necessary to do the job well. Archives, where they exist, are small and poor. So in some ways it is hard even for Nicaraguans to learn about their own cultural past or present.
Moreover, a good many of the Sandinista leadership came out of urban, middle-class backgrounds, which afforded them limited understanding of the culture of the majority of Nicaragua’s rural, agricultural population. So in a curious way I see the Sandinistas making some of the same kind of romantic assumptions that were made by the New England ladies who came to protect and revive Appalachian culture at the turn of the century: projecting some of their own somewhat romantic and simplistic cultural fantasies on a situation that is complex and dynamic, reviving “traditions” of debatable authenticity, and so on.
For instance, there is a fairly extensive folk dance movement in Nicaragua, supported by the Ministry of Culture and Sandinista Association of Cultural workers (ASTC). Some of the dance groups are splendid, and it is in any case extraordinary that such things are going on at all under such difficult economic and social circumstances. Nevertheless, as has happened at other times in many other places (the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, to cite one well-known example), some of the dance productions amount to a rather prettified and romanticized version of what they may once have been.
Nevertheless, what is going on now in dance in Nicara-
gua is far healthier culturally than what was going on before 1979, which was mainly importing second-rate ballet companies from the U.S. or Europe to perform for the Managua elite in El Teatro Ruben Darzo itself an Edward Durrell Stone white marble copy of Edward Durrell Stone’s Kennedy Center.
Perhaps what ought to be said finally is that these things are difficult and perilous to talk about. The processes are subtle and complicated, and I feel uneasy about making any generalizations at all. Although I have read a vast amount about Nicaragua, and have spent some time there traveling, talking, reading and observing, I am acutely aware of the dangers of commenting on the cultural situation in such a cursory way.
On the other hand, it is important for U.S. people to know these issues exist–that the cultural life of a nation moves forward even under the most difficult of circumstances–and must be understood if we ever are to play a positive role in the reconstruction of a small and struggling country we have done so much for so long to confuse and destroy.
I would hope that people in the South who have been put down culturally for so long by so many, who have been stigmatized as rednecks and hillbillies and crackers, who have been the pitied objects of many a cultural missionary effort, who live in a part of the world the snobbish and sophomoric H. L. Mencken dismissed as the Sahara of the Bozarts at about the same time the U.S. government was trying to discredit and destroy Augusto C. Sandino as a bandit–may find themselves able to draw upon their own experience to comprehend and empathize with the struggle of Nicaraguan people to survive, decolonize, recover and reinterpret their own cultural past, and shape a cultural future for their children.