There is a verb in Spanish – conocer. It means to know. It’s used in the context of meeting and becoming acquainted with people. It’s also used in the context of geographical place. I could write, for example, he estado a Nicaragua. I’ve been to Nicaragua. But these are empty words when I contemplate all that I’ve learned from one of the richest (World Bank dubbed “poorest”) nations in the Western Hemisphere.
Nicaragua is a place that’s sunk beneath my skin (to borrow the expression from Nicaraguan revolutionary and poet, Gioconda Belli) and so the only way I could describe my relationship to her, with justice, is to write conozco Nicaragua. I’ve come to know her.
And to know Nicaragua is to have inherited the greatest education of my young adulthood. She’s taught me to communicate in a language punctuated by two times the exclamation marks (with one flipped ¡upside down! on its head). She’s taught me to be unforgiving for passionate expression with words, songs, hand gestures, hips.
Over nine years, I’ve met so many of her people. Nicaraguans who’ve shared with me many stories made up of diverse perspectives on food, family, gender, politics, songs, rituals, hopes and fears for the future. On war, revolution, social transformation, struggle and resistance. On imperialism, poverty, development, and neo-liberalism. On solidarity. And on the many contradictions between what people say and how people live.
I’ve known poets in peasant farmers. Painters in mechanics. Musicians in politicians. Nicaragua has taught me that everyone is an artist (in the truest sense) with a story to share and ideas to express. Beyond labels applied by historic and current global politics (“socialist/developing”) and economics (“failed state”), there is so much more to Nicaragua than meets the (unknowing) eye.
My story is an ode, of sorts, to Nicaragua and what she gave me – a startling, passionate, eye-opening education on social justice, revolution and creative resistance.
Discovering ‘Resistance’ in a Wasteland – La Chureca
In the capital city of Managua, only a minute’s drive away from one of the richest neighbourhoods, there’s a sprawling wasteland on the edge of Lake Managua: the city dump, known as La Chureca, where nearly three-thousand Nicaraguans live and work.
In 2007, I was there, sort of. I was on a bus, rolling through the landscape, one of the participants of a volunteer group from Canada. I remember La Chureca as a sea of grey waste. Small mountains of shredded tires, metals, broken furniture and frames, decaying organic leftovers. And then, in the distance, I saw the bodies of hundreds of men, women and children. Here, people actually lived, worked, struggled, learned, laughed, cried, gave birth, and died. I saw the homes constructed from battered sheet metal, ratted tarps, old car doors, where they lived. I saw the sunken ribs of their cows, grazing on garbage.
One could never conceive living in La Chureca. One should never have to conceive of living in La Chureca. The scene stank, literally, of human injustice.
I saw women clawing through the discarded and snatching at goods to place in their soiled aprons. Half-naked children shrieking with their whole bodies at the gray gulls who took off in terrorized flight. They smiled up at me. They were kids, after all, some who were born into their environment. People were scavenging through a dump of waste, deposited fresh from a city garbage truck. The words on the side of the garbage truck were lit up in cursive, friendly letters: todo nosotros debemos comprometer por una ciudad limpia. WE MUST ALL COMPROMISE FOR A CLEAN CITY. Some more than others, apparently.
I held my forehead against the bus window until the waste disappeared into the distance. And then I saw something else, a powerful symbol that would help me reframe the way I understood poverty in Nicaragua.
I saw a flag. A black and red striped flag, flying defiantly atop a mountain of material waste. I was struck in that instant by what the flag sang out. Someone had erected that flag as a sign of their political will, their voice, and their hope. No matter their poverty. No matter the perceived ‘dirtiness’ of their work. No matter the Nicaraguan government who would eventually try (and fail) to relocate people from La Chureca into concrete homes erected far away from the city’s trash and their source of income (2013).
No matter how pathetic their lives appeared, the people in La Chureca weren’t apathetic – they had their politics and they wouldn’t be pushed out, swatted away like flies, by those in power. They recognized that it wasn’t housing at the root of their problems – it was inequality. It was their difficulty of generating income within the city’s limits, of gaining access to the few jobs that were available to Managuans. They knew that to move away from La Chureca was to lose their (limited) livelihood altogether.
It taught me that no matter how destitute their lives appeared (let alone from the fleeting perspective of a bus window), no matter their exploitation – people were, on some level, aware of their situation, and wouldn’t be moved until their voices informed a better alternative.
For me, to know Nicaragua and the culture of resistance in Nicaragua is to know about a history of imperialism, repression and revolution.