A Passionate Memory in Times of Disillusion
August marked the 20th anniversary of the National Literacy Crusade. Thousands of the young Nicaraguans who participated in that experience recalled and honored a feat that permanently marked their lives This is one of those recollections.
José Luis Rocha
In 1980, we Nicaraguans were better than the people we have become after so many ups and downs. In two decades our dignity has been mortgaged off, our values transmuted and we have found out who’s who, which has brought us no spiritual comfort or edified our fellow beings. The colander of history has strained out many mosquitoes that disturbed the system, while letting through heavy-laden camels, particularly those from Miami with their "made in the USA" safe conduct pass.
Knowing that human beings are what circumstances let them be, push them to be and suggest they be, we are tormented by a nostalgia that reminds us we are unlikely any time soon to witness a repetition of the circumstances we experienced in 1980 at the beginning of a decade that brought out the best in so many Nicaraguans and foreigners acting in solidarity. It was another era, when we were removed from the market and things had a value but no price. That was before we were forced to live in the market’s reject section and before the opening up of the market brought a hurricane of cultural debris down on us.
The National Literacy Crusade was a child of that decade. It was carried out in an exceptional context and was a breeding ground for the best of passions. To quote a current reflection by those who coordinated that effort, "we need the kind of social explosion that made it possible."
This year we are celebrating the twentieth anniversary of that heroic feat. Some wondered what we were celebrating, among them current minister of education Fernando Robleto who claimed that "there is nothing to celebrate." One of his predecessors, Carlos Tünnermann, answered this unjustifiable but not surprising nonsense by stating that "what we are celebrating is that there was a moment in which education was a priority, a moment in which Nicaragua became one great school. We are celebrating the fact that the brigadistas, after finishing the literacy work, were not the same people they were before."
He added, "I believe that the idea of commemorating this anniversary is to encourage the young people of today, showing them that there were young people like them who left behind the night clubs, the holidays and the discos to go and live with the campesinos and share everything with them."
Even before the revolution’s triumph on July 19, 1979, it had already been decided that reducing illiteracy would be one of the first tasks in reconstructing the country. Thus, just a couple of weeks after taking power, the Sandinistas proposed to Jesuit priest Fernando Cardenal that he organize the National Literacy Crusade. Fernando immediately got down to work. From his years as a professor of educational philosophy, he had developed enormous respect for the approach of the great Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, and felt that applying this method to the Crusade was one of the best credentials he could offer it. The Crusade was thus inspired by Freire’s method, in which the illiterate learn their letters while the literacy workers, or brigadistas, learn about their reality and history and thus "become conscious."
The Popular Literacy Army (EPA) consisted of some 100,000 brigadistas, 60,000 of whom were sent to teach in the mountains. All of them traded a year at school, five months of which were actually teaching, for something great, massive and national. The EPA was organized into squadrons, platoons, columns and brigades so that youths who had admired the struggle against the dictator could now participate for themselves in another great struggle as "literacy guerrillas" behind "barricades of notebooks and blackboards."
Why opt for such a massive campaign? Why not advance slowly but surely through literacy night class campaigns? Why not choose a more traditional model? The fear of large-scale desertion counseled against the idea of such a full-scale mobilization, but it was a different era and there was a different way of thinking. Something had to be done that lived up to the needs and the enthusiasm of the times. Fernando Cardenal pondered the different options and concluded that a definitive blow had to be delivered to illiteracy and not just make a token effort in dribs and drabs. The 1971 census had revealed that illiteracy stood at 42% and it was later discovered to be over 50%. Some 800,000 people did not know how to read and write or calculate basic mathematical sums.
The young brigadistas wanted to make a sacrifice for others. They were willing to go to the mountains and their families gave them permission and support, although worried about where their sons and daughters would sleep and what they would eat. Soon, the campaign’s remarkable consciousness-raising effect would lead these parents to realize that the inadequate diet their children suffered for five months was something the peasants had been suffering for centuries. The young girls in the literacy crusade had to break taboos that limited them to "delicate" tasks and denied them access to adventure while their families had to confront the stupid urban ideas that campesinos were madmen who would rape any woman if given half a chance, and the rumors peddled by sanctimonious women that all the girls would come back pregnant.
Thousands of age-old prejudices, myths and discriminations came tumbling down. "The campesinos stopped being abstract entities and became someone you could reach out to and love," recalls Fernando Cardenal. The peasant families with whom they shared food and clothes, the cold and the floor or sleeping mats adopted the literacy workers. The brigadistas called their host family "mother" and "father" and the gap that separated the countryside from the city quickly began to close.
The crusade gave us brigade members a new perspective on life because we immersed ourselves in rural culture. Many of us had never left the cities before and now we were learning Nicaraguan geography and the misery that the peasant population was living in firsthand. We learned how to lasso mules, milk cows, chop firewood, sow beans, make tortillas, harness oxen, identify edible roots and leaves and ford rivers. The female brigade members proved more able to learn and insert themselves into their new communities than the males, and were thus more highly valued when it came to distributing us in the rural districts.
This great school started at dawn each day. We were all farmers; we all chopped firewood and lit the fire. We were also all anthropologists, collecting hundreds of songs and popular tales about Juan Dundo and Pedro Urdemales [literally "Juan Stupid" and "Pedro Mischief Plotter"]. We all picked up a new vocabulary full of rural metaphors. In other words, we were all the ideal men and women that Marx talked of in "The German Ideology:" hunters in the morning, farmers and latrine builders in the afternoon and literacy workers at night… It was as if in an attempt to produce a cultural mutation, the new man and new woman were being incubated in rural Nicaragua.
A new reality, carved out with machete blows and weaned on chicha bruja [an alcoholic drink made of fermented corn], conflictive and bucolic, surreal and suspect, was opened up to us by exceptional characters who had worlds under their hats and taught us so many things. What they taught us was crude but well founded because they did not deal with the world as it should be, but as it was, the existing world. I received my classes in Rancho Alegre, 213 kilometers from Managua and light years away from my habitual hangouts. I was a member of perhaps the youngest squadron in the literacy army.
I learned about agriculture and also about survival from don Chimino, a man with copper-colored skin, eyes that jumped out of his face like fleas and a labyrinthine mind. He was also an expert machete wielder and slept on a mat out by his mounds of recently harvested corn to fool the thieves. It was this expert on the effects of the phases of the moon and women on agriculture who told me that some unnoticed visit from a menstruating woman must have been responsible for drying up my bean patch.
Don Chimino, who hunted wild pigs with a long spear-like weapon and tamed rebellious parakeets with mouthfuls of cigar smoke, could spend several weeks in the mountains without taking any food with him. He knew millions of edible leaves and roots and could sense changes in the atmospheric pressure without a barometer, the right direction without a compass and the volume of rain without a pluviometer. He could tell when it would rain and for how long from the crowing of the roosters, the murmur of the wind, the position of spiders and the movement of clouds of mosquitoes.
I learned about eroticism and business administration from the perverse and prosperous Juan Lazo, who was famous for maintaining three simultaneous relations: with his wife in the city, with a woman on the farm and with a clandestine lover. As a result everything had to be multiplied by three—sacks of corn, dresses, bars of soap, curtains, frying pans, rings, articles to be bought, hard work. There were three afflictions for every occasion, all multiplied by the number of children at each of his "branch offices."
Juan Lazo managed to live in peace with his women but was constantly at odds with his neighbors. The boundaries of his lands were not as well defined and socially consecrated as the ample boundaries of his eroticism. In his quarrels with his neighbors he found support in his very poor cousin Pedro Lazo, to whom he rented the disputed lands, those exposed to fires or those with rickety fences not respected by other people’s cattle. Pedro, who sowed beans on the lands he rented, was Juan’s buffer zone against both natural and man-made disasters.
It was old Chu, who had been the local justice of the peace in the times of "Tacho" [Anastasio Somoza García, the first Somoza dictator], who taught me about thought systems. He had a pool table with only two balls, but charged the same price as his only competitor across the street, whose table fulfilled all the established norms for this particular vice. And he had no reason not to, because the 25-cent coins kept showering down on him. At 85, he could mount a horse like a 15-year-old and got a 37-year-old woman pregnant. He was irredeemably opposed to our installing latrines at his house or counting his cattle because nothing was less natural than using a latrine and nothing closer to communism than the surveys the Ministry of Agrarian Reform had ordered us to do.
The professor of literature and a humanist cosmological vision of the universe was frank, parsimonious José, an oracle in the region. He told "road tales," called that because they were originally meant to entertain travelers during long journeys and help pass the time. Every time he opened his mouth a procession of characters filed out, including the Cegua [a wild, female lurer of men], the Big-Headed Dwarf, the now-familiar Juan Dundo and Pedro Urdemales, Francisco de Quevado and the Mica Bruja [the bewitched monkey].
José had been hexed thousands of times: by rivals, spurned women, people who envied him, foremen. For long periods of time he had been alternately mute, blind in one eye, lame, bald, cross-eyed, deaf… There was always some medicine man from the country’s Caribbean coast to whom his enemies could turn, but he always knew how to extract some redeeming moral from his stories that was capable of breaking the spell.
All of the local characters gave the class in machismo together, particularly on payday. Every fortnight the accountants working for the haciendas and farms, the cattle traders and the middlemen of the coffee and basic grain market paid off their laborers. Following the smell of money, peddlers brought their wares to town and turned it into a giant flea market where a little bit of everything was for sale. The noisy atmosphere also attracted liquor, which was eagerly swallowed up along with the wages. And after the family income had all been "distilled," it was the women who bore the brunt—and blows—of the established order.
The only ones coherent enough to worry about the household budget, the wives planted themselves outside the local bar waiting to wrest away some financial crumbs to buy essential items such as salt, sugar, coffee, soap, some clothes for the baby and school books for the older kids. From the bottom of the crate of beer bottles, the men reveled in a world without bosses, work or family obligations. Waiting outside the bar, breast-feeding their latest newborn, the women had their feet more firmly on the ground.
The women had a heavy cross to bear during the journey home, hanging on to their husbands so they wouldn’t slide out of the saddle, alerting them if their enemies surrounded them, cleaning up the vomit and quite often taking an unprovoked beating because "women need to be hit, and if you don’t know why, she will." It was the same old story every fifteen days.
The Glasseater, who was always happy to grind up and swallow any light bulb or drinking glass placed in front of him in return for cususa [powerful moonshine corn liquor], gave an interesting class in nutrition and prophylaxis. He claimed that this strange diet was the best remedy for stomach worms as the animals have an insuperable weakness for sugar, and unable to tell the difference between pulverized glass and their favorite morsel are cut to pieces in the ensuing banquet.
The Glasseater could speak Latin, English and Chinese, or at least some gibberish that passed for those languages. The most active tongues in this rural area assured that he had been a seminary student, but had to give up his studies when economic difficulties hit his family. They said that he had been drowning his sorrow over his frustrated vocation for many years now.
Don Eleuterio, my linguistics professor, owned the most prosperous corner-shop in town. Every time he had his hair cut he recalled the story of Death, who, unable to find the person he had come to take away because his victim had shaved all his hair off in an attempt to avoid his fate, hastily declared, "Shit! I don’t want to have come for nothing, so I’ll take this bald guy instead!" Then, from his barber chair, don Eleuterio solemnly proclaimed, "Nobody escapes from Death."
Don Eleuterio was totally illiterate, but he sat in his armchair doing his books, jotting down the amounts different people owed—he didn’t let pigs get away with corn cobs, as they say in the countryside. The linguistic symbols he used in his notebook were unintelligible to the rest of us mortals, but he knew how to decipher them, even when they were reminders of debts he had been owed for over a decade. Don Eleuterio wanted to learn to read and write and did so with no difficulty even though he was 80 years old. But he went on keeping his books with his old tried and true system, which he tried to teach me, a less apt pupil than he was.
I learned about theology from 11-year-old Hildebrando, whose mop of hair was immune to combs and brushes and who had great difficulty talking. Unwilling to read and reluctant to write, he was always happy to wander through the wild countryside, his bare feet hardened with indelible calluses and his arms all scratched up by the sharp-edged grasses. With a permanently flashing smile, he carried food to his father and brothers and sisters in the countryside and helped make the tortillas, sweeten the chicha [another fermented corn-based drink but with less kick than cususa], carry firewood, saddle the mule, harvest the corn, wash the clothes and dream.
Hildebrando was a dream-child who heralded better times ahead. Tracing his actions over the predicted bonanza, he gave away his shirts, lent out his boots, gave up his ration of meat. Others always came first; he was only first when it came to being scolded.
Hildebrando was the eternal whipping boy, dubbed jiñocuago because he was as scarred as that tree’s bark, but he remained absorbed in his dreams. A big scar on his chin was a reminder not to approach a mule from behind. He had been dumb for three years after a lightning bolt hit him and dragged him like a telegram along a barbed wire fence. At least that’s what his brothers concluded when they found him half a kilometer from the house after a storm, lying unconscious in the mud, his skin covered in deep scratches etched by the wire. But who could doubt that God had chosen Hildebrando to demonstrate generosity that asks for nothing in return, cost-free love?
And finally, there were doña Ciriaca’s gynecology classes. She was baptized Maritza and it wasn’t the Bristol Almanac that bestowed this sonorous name on her, but rather the fame of her aunt, to whose petticoats she was tied from an early age. Half by design and half by negligence doña Ciriaca ended up with 18 children, 2 of whom died at an early age. With such a track record, she had excellent credentials to practice as a midwife, a profession she exercised to the pride of her community, the relief of the pregnant and the limited benefit of her pocketbook.
Doña Ciriaca was as gentle and sweet as the spirited elixirs she prepared to help her patients through labor and to restore energies, souls and broken bodies. Like one of her elixirs, she left her mark on the house in which I was lucky enough to live as a literacy worker.
The National Literacy Crusade turned into an intensive five-month course—from March 23 to August 23, 1980. The path was strewn with obstacles and there were 59 deaths as well as threats and pressure for the brigade members to return, but during that short time illiteracy was reduced from 51% to 12.9%.
It was permanently feared that everything would fall apart, particularly after a young brigadista was murdered by members the incipient armed counterrevolutionary groups several months into the crusade. But the fear was unfounded. Instead of flinching, her brigade companions refused to abandon the cornfield right before the harvest. They coined two slogans: "They won’t get us off the crusade with bullets or with beatings" and "The homeland will never be entirely free as long as it is not completely literate."
In a country where everything is improvised, the preparation of the brigadistas had been exemplary, conscientious and comprehensive. It lasted for months and covered very different areas: first aid, including the identification of venomous snakes; pedagogical methods; physical training and latrine building… The training prepared us for the essential, the necessary and even contingencies. In fact, it also prepared us to deal with rumors, the famous lies we would hear, such as "the campesinos are putting out brigade members’ eyes with the pencils."
We were trained to carry out surveys without offending people’s sensibilities or fueling their suspicions. One old lady, for example, was worried that, because of the survey, government officials would come and confiscate her sewing machine. She would not calm down until one of the brigadistas dispelled her fears with a compelling argument: "Doñita, why would the government want that old machine?"
They even prepared us to resist the terrible plague of biting insects that for months during the rainy season, particularly in the afternoons, took sadistic pleasure in biting our ears, arms, hands, neck and legs, glutting incessantly on our blood.
The crusade also prepared us to lay the foundations for a new consciousness of being a group. A general feeling of camaraderie existed among the brigade members, both male and female, a feeling that everything belonged to everyone. One for all and all for one. The brigade members were all dressed the same and shared a common situation. All differences were cancelled out, as was the former craving for private possessions.
This spirit of solidarity infected the rest of the country as well, whether or not they were directly involved in the crusade. Strangers would give us rides, invite us to eat with them or offer to put us up in their homes. Our neighbors were not yet people to be feared and our loose cotton pull-over shirts (cotonas) and cloth badges bearing the crusade’s logo were the best identity papers, credit cards and talismans we could wish to have. We had free access to radio to make announcements as well as to telephone and telegraph services, and were offered open credit at corner shops, bakeries and local eateries. The crusade involved everyone in a conspiracy of solidarity.
Many years have passed, twenty in all, and as at the end of the Joan Manuel Serrat song, this nostalgia, this pain, hits us: "It’s over; the sun tells us the end has come. For one night we could all forget who each of us is." Today the system once again makes the peasants think they have nothing to teach us and that the best thing they can do is to come to the cities to sell little sealed bags of icewater at traffic intersections. History has many twists and turns and we have slipped back into an era in which the peasants have once again become fodder for the big haciendas, brothel fodder and another form of cannon fodder in the increasingly dangerous streets of Managua.
So where are the literacy workers now? Many are managers of prosperous businesses looking steadfastly toward the future, for whom the world seen through a bottle of Chivas Regal doesn’t look so bad. Some work in NGOs and most know how to disassociate the "principles" of their work from the "ends" of their domestic life. As the options of public life should not be allowed to contaminate private life, they have become experts in administering their own form of schizophrenia. That’s what happened to the new man and woman, eaten away by the enemy but who we ourselves were responsible for butchering.
Values were transmuted. From that return to firsthand experience, the evidence, the simple, the indispensable, we have now moved toward glorifying the superfluous, to the cult of appearances. We have journeyed from frankness to dissembling, from a straightforward and direct way of doing things to one involving a thousand twists and turns. From taking pride in being able to walk for hours, tame a horse, rope a mule and milk a cow, we now boast about our new cars, our credit cards and the clubs and graduate degrees we are accumulating. What we have is what we are. The Miami way of life won out over the revolutionary culture. We lost that battle… and it was the most decisive one.
Since Heraclitus proclaimed that nobody bathes twice in the same river, our longing to relive the unrepeatable has only served to increase the unbearable triviality of our existence. It is therefore inevitable that the inventory of what we had during the National Literacy Crusade coincides with the inventory of what we currently lack.
Deep down, or perhaps not so deep, many will feel that we have more than enough compensations. We have the new Metrocentro shopping mall, even if the poor are eating less food and of a worse quality. We have a higher proportion of luxury vehicles on the streets of Managua than any US city, though many poor people spend 50% of their salaries getting from point A to point B on a terrible public transport system. We now have far more universities, though they are mediocre and school desertion levels have skyrocketed… We have so many things like this that we didn’t have before…
Is there nothing more to do than resign ourselves and wait for better times? The generation that participated in the Literacy Crusade has a leading role to play in the task of changing Nicaragua. All human beings are capable of heroic acts and those of us who made the crusade possible were given the chance to develop that capacity. "Nicaragua is being destroyed for us socially, politically, economically, ecologically and morally and we have to save it," Fernando Cardenal told the brigadistas of twenty years ago during the jubilant and evocative celebrations held to commemorate that epic feat. Perhaps we really can make the same river water flow by again so that the best of today’s youth can also bathe there.