The Country Under My Skin – Nicaragua (Part III)

peace1Building a Nation of Poets, Painters and Peace-Makers

To know Nicaragua, over the years, has been to recognize the artist in every Nicaraguan I’ve met along the journey of my travels, and volunteer and work experiences. Poets, painters, musicians, folkloric dancers, graffiti artists, actors, sculptors, weavers, carvers…

Art in Nicaragua, whatever medium, hasn’t been produced solely by a gifted, or trained elite, or those born with ‘natural aptitudes’ for creating masterpieces. Following the 1979 Revolution, there was an explosion of art and expression in Nicaragua, and a movement (which became another revolution altogether) for sparking the creative in everyone and provoking poetry, song, graffiti, theatre, paintings and public murals.

“In 1979, we embarked on the making of a new visual language within the framework of a popular-based revolution…Our new identity required us to look critically at both our past and our present situation. The revolution gave us the right to freedom of expression, experimentation, and recovery of the heritage taken from us throughout five hundred years of colonialism and neocolonialism” – Raul Quintanilla (Sandinista Party, 1980).

peace2To create was a natural propulsion, after so many years of political and artistic repression by the Somoza dictatorship. How liberating to dip one’s brush into paint and redefine a canvas, or to speak aloud and share a poem with a gathering of people at a public place. To create in public, and not only in clandestine locales, without the fear of disappearing into the night, being thrown into a volcano or lake, and dying without one’s name written into a headstone.

Nicaraguan art came alive after 1979. It popularized through education and democracy campaigns, linking to literacy and leadership programs, and involved students, peasants, and children living on the street who began producing, without shame, the same spirit of popular art that I would fall in love with, twenty-eight years later, when I first began to know the meaning (and necessity) of expression in Nicaragua.

peace3The Father of Peasant Poetry 

Ernesto Cardenal is one of Nicaragua’s most well-known poets and political critics. He knows that art and poetry go hand-in-hand with influencing politics – and he’s been exercising that belief in writing political poetry from the days before Somoza’s fall from power, following the Revolution of 1979 as the Minister of Culture, and even to the present day as a major critic of the Sandinista Party (led by Daniel Ortega) and continued foreign intervention in Nicaragua.

from Zero Hour


“They corrupt the prose and they corrupt the Congress.
The banana is left to rot on the plantations,
or to rot in the cars along the railroad tracks
or it’s cut overripe so it can be rejected
when it reaches the wharf or be thrown into the sea;
the bunches of bananas declared bruised, or too skinny,
or withered, or green, or overripe, or diseased:
so there’ll be no cheap bananas,
or so as to buy bananas cheap.
Until there’s hunger along the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua.”

Poetry could be considered an art form that is consumed exclusively by a moderate to wealthy elite, those blessed with education, access to books, and more than anything, time – to write, read and appreciate the ‘world of meaning’ in a few lines of poetry.

peace4What I respect so deeply about the poet and political leader, Ernesto Cardenal, is that he believed so much in the value of poetry and written expression that he extended the privilege of power to the peasantry masses in Nicaragua. He, among other revolutionaries, dreamed the idea to build a citizenship that could not only read and write, but articulate their experiences (from poverty, oppression, war and conflict) in such a sophisticated art form as the poem.

His idea was actualized through the Literary Crusade of the early 1980s, whereby high school students traveled into rural Nicaragua and taught peasant farmers how to read and write, and even express themselves through poetry. Cardenal’s political efforts in the 1980s resulted in social transformation at its very greatest – by empowering the poorest, most marginalized members of society to not only write their names, but to write the contents of their hearts, souls and experiences. To write their own stories.

peace5Children of the Streets Holding Paintbrushes in their Hands 

War and conflict shape the personalities, psychologies and behaviors of a society’s most vulnerable. The vulnerable will always be children. And the most vulnerable will always be children without stable, safe parents and homes. Those who live on a city’s streets, and a city’s scraps. Those who learn how to play a hard game of survival.

After 1979, the explosion of social art in Nicaragua drew many international activists, community workers, and artists to the war-torn country to participate in community rebuilding. Amongst those who came to Nicaragua, were three artists – Janet Pavone, Daniel Hopewell and Cecilia Herrero. They began painting huge murals in the northern city of Estelí, Nicaragua, using bold and colourful images of Nicaraguans overcoming the military dictatorship, and messages of working towards establishing peace and social well-being (FUNARTE 2013).

peace6In 1987, Janet, Daniel and Cecilia organized the first Mural Painting Workshop for boys and girls in Estelí at a local community centre. It was time for the “experts” to put down their brushes and extend the opportunity to some of society’s most vulnerable children to take up the art and task of rebuilding their community. The methodology was simple: give children and youth the tools to create art, express their realities, and cooperate in groups to transform crumbling walls into educational structures. They held weekly mural painting workshops with children and youth, and the number of murals about education, health, human rights and freedom increased throughout public structures in Estelí. Murals designed and painted by groups of children working together.

peace7Erasing Art, Erasing Culture, Erasing Justice

But in 1990, many of these murals would be lost, all over the country in villages, cities and especially in the capital city of Managua. Murals, their rich stories, expressions, and symbols, were erased and smothered by a blanket of white paint. The drastic policy to cover up the murals was, purely, political. It arrived with the new government (backed by the US) that was elected into power in 1990. Quite possibly, they viewed the public art as graffiti with the potential to cause social unrest. But the Nicaraguan artists who spilled the contents of their souls on public surfaces through art wouldn’t let the murals be lost without a fight. There were stories of stand-offs in the streets between artists and armed civilians who had been ordered to paint over the murals:

“When a civilian points a gun at one of the artists, the artists respond by throwing paint all over the adversaries” (Brooks 2010).

The government won the battle, though – and hundreds of murals were lost only a decade after the spirit of art had been revived, cultivated in Nicaragua. The history books that school children learned from were also stripped of calling Somoza and the US involvement in Nicaragua for what it really was (for the vast majority of people) oppression.

peace8Fortunately, the mural painting movement started in the barrios of Estelí didn’t lose all the original murals painted by children and youth. And their organizers, that had grown to include Nicaraguan teachers and social workers, didn’t lose heart either. They saw the positive impact the Saturday mural painting workshops were having on the kids. The community centre provided them with a safe space to learn, have fun, and reflect with creative eyes on the world around them. Fundacion de Apoyo del Arte Infantil (FUNARTE) was born in 1989 and twenty-four years later, today, they’ve painted the whole city with colourful images that communicate education, gender equality, food security, environmental preservation, indigenous rights and so on.

The children that grew up with the weekly mural classes, many of them, are now experienced facilitators and muralists, who are teaching the new generation of youth in their communities how to paint. They also have traveled the world teaching about the power of the paintbrush to transform walls into public spaces, while transforming the participants into empowered citizens.

I volunteered with FUNARTE in 2007 as one of the facilitators of the ‘Grupo Verde’ – the Green Group which they called the youngest collective of children. Maybe thirty-something five-year-olds (some bringing along their two-year old siblings) would show up on a Saturday, we’d lay out paper and old lids with the primary colours, buckets of water with old paint brushes, and we’d read them a story about love, family, sharing, being honest, and whatnot – from which they’d paint images about what stuck out to them as important. It’s amazing what five-year olds can do when you believe in their creative abilities. My time with FUNARTE transformed me – just as it transformed the children and youth who were participating in their programs.

peace9The City of Murals – Creative Expression for Today and Tomorrow

Today Estelí is known as The City of Murals because there’s over 150 murals celebrating the sides of schools, health clinics, private property, the municipality, churches and so on. And the weekly mural workshops at FUNARTE continue on. It’s impossible to say what they’ll paint next, and where, and using which medium. Creativity is ever-evolving.

Since that formative experience, I look at public and private property differently now – I look for large, open spaces where paint could be put down on surface, where a message could be realized by a group of young people, or any group of people that had come together to make a positive mark on their community. I know the amazing feeling of participating in a group mural, of transforming a space, and actually becoming a part of that space – in the past and the future. Now I see walls so differently than before. And to close now with the words of one of my favourite Nicaraguan poets, dreamers and authors, Gioconda Belli:

“Dare to change the world. There is nothing quixotic or romantic in wanting to change the world. It is possible. It is the age-old vocation of all humanity. I can’t think of a better life than one dedicated to passion, to dreams, to the stubbornness that defies chaos and disillusionment.” (The Country Under My Skin – A Memoir of Love & War)

To know Nicaragua has been many experiences, many lessons, many stories. Resistance. Revolution. Expression. But mostly, to know her is to know about the importance of dreaming. To chase dreams, even unlikely ones, for a better situation – which happened in Nicaragua before the revolution, after, and even today…

Forever gratitude to a place that shared with me, honestly, who she is – Nicaragua.


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