On May 3, Costa Rica’s Ministry of Culture awarded
César Meléndez the National Prize for Best Lead Actor of 2003
for his performance in “El Nica,” a one-man play also created
by this Nicaraguan-Costa Rican actor -playright.
envío celebrates his success by offering a
particularly poignant sampling of his dialogue.
On nearly 400 occasions over the past two and a half years, César Meléndez has lived and relived the role of ”El Nica” in a two-hour monologue performed at sold-out Costa Rican theaters, parish and cultural centers, schools and universities.
The play has been performed only a handful of times in Nicaragua, once in the experimental theater in the basement of the Rubén Darío National Theater and, finally, in early May of this year, in its main concert hall. This Nica has turned his vibrant energy and talent into an extraordinary work of art dedicated to building a more humanist relationship between Costa Rica and Nicaragua and between the people of both nations.
In a one-sided yet lively conversation with his humble tabletop crucifix, Meléndez’s character, José Mejía, narrates his problems as a desperately poor, illiterate Nicaraguan day laborer in Costa Rica. By turns humorous, despairing, angry and loving, but always with impressive dignity, Mejía, who enters his humble room clearly in some physical pain, tells the small Christ figure how his just-concluded day went. As we watch him put a few measly bills in an envelope to send to his wife María, who waits for him in Managua following a tragically failed attempt to cross the river with him, we learn that he has just gotten a six-month contract as a construction assistant. He tells how surprised he was when his boss invited him for a beer, and how, after the boss left the canteen, a group of hotshot young Costa Ricans showered him with insults and ridicule. Mejía answered them angrily but cautiously, unwaveringly proud of his origins but continuously asking permission and forgiveness. With his typically disordered Nicaraguan emotions, Mejía brings tears to the eyes and chuckles to the throats of his theater audience, but neither to those in the bar. As he relates to his long-suffering Christ on the cross, when he finished, “there was silence… then they beat the shit out of me!”
Below we reproduce fragments of this extensive response to those who offended him:
“I stopped them and said: Be quiet! Be quiet! Ah, how many millions of men will we have to speak to in English to get them to respect our dignity? Do you think you’re going to hurt us with your words, your cruel jokes and your ridicule? Look, most of us aren’t here because we like it better. Many of us are here… because we… we need help. And when you have an emergency in life, you always turn to your nearest brothers.
Isn’t that right? And you’re our nearest brothers!
Ah, but of course, I forgot. The thing is that you’re better... Sure, you’re the best! Isn’t that what your Presidents have been preaching all over Central America? That you’re the best, right?
Excuse me, then…because we don’t want any problems… I surely don’t want to make trouble! How unpleasant for you to border on Nicaragua, right? I’m sure you would’ve liked to be next door to the United States, right? Or in the very center of Europe!
Don’t worry, I understand you. It’s clear, quite clear! I know that what I’m saying annoys many of you… It’s obvious! Look, I don’t know how to read, but I can read your faces and I know you’re not the least bit interested in what I’m saying. And I know why : it’s because you’ve never felt hunger. That’s why you aren’t interested. You’ve never gone hungry. That’s why you don’t care! You don’t know what it’s like to feel that burning in your stomach. And you can’t even imagine what it means to feel the burning hunger of all your children in your own stomach.
I don’t want to disturb you… But…how I wish, my God, how I wish I had the words, the education in this little head of mine to explain to you that I’m not the one to blame for the fact that I’m here. Believe me, little brother, believe me. It’s not my fault I’m here. I don’t even know why I’m here or what I’m here for! I can’t understand why some dark force in the world pushed all of us poor, hungry people out of our own country...
Pardon me, pardon us immigrants, us poor foreigners, and if you like, forgive me for Rubén Darío! That Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío that my mama taught me about, the same Rubén Darío who even recited in Nicaraguan canteens. Pardon me for Sergio Ramírez Mercado, for Gioconda Belli, for the Mejía Godoy brothers, for Father Cardenal... Look, I don’t even known them, but people in the know say that their novels, their plays, their songs, their poems are famous all over the world … But that isn’t my doing! Believe me, little brother, that’s not my fault either! It’s not my fault that they don’t teach you to idolize your writers or your poets or your musicians. Pardon me, it’s not my fault that many of you sitting here prefer foreign things to your own.
Pardon me, brother, pardon me for having gone hungry. Pardon me for walking seven days through the mountains with my Maria and with my little girl to get here. Pardon me for reaching the San Juan River at two in the morning, and for trying to cross those seventy meters of water to get to this country… Pardon me, brother, pardon me, because in that effort to find a better future for my family I lost my little girl, drowned in the river… And still I came back, after all that… I came because I… I think that any father would do anything for his family’s future … Pardon me, then, for returning, for coming back. The thing is that hunger returns every day. Every day the hunger comes again, little brother, every day…
Pardon me for being in this country looking for work, any work! One wonders what would happen to Costa Rica’s coffee if we weren’t here, huh? What would happen to the bananas, the sugar cane, the pineapples? Pardon me for the hundreds and hundreds of watchmen, security guards, guards in the streets, houses, elementary and high schools, universities, churches, theaters, most of whom are my countrymen! I’m sure it makes you nervous knowing that your safety is in the hands of people as illiterate, as uneducated, as violent as us, right? Pardon me for the thousands and thousands and thousands of women who cook your meals every day and are the ones who send your kids off to school with a kiss and are there to receive them when they come home, because you, their parents, are too busy with your own lives.
Pardon me, brother, because we don’t pay into social security; pardon me, bro, for getting paid less. They pay us less than the minimum wage! Pardon me, too, for Sylvia Poll and for Claudia Poll, the only Olympic medal winners in Costa Rican history! Pardon me because they were born in Nicaragua! And haven’t you wondered where some of your Presidents were born? And there’s more! You even owe your Nobel Peace prize to Nicaragua! Because you’d never have won it if there hadn’t been a war in Nicaragua!
Pardon me for my accent, too. Pardon me for the way I talk. Pardon me for having the skin of a toasted Indian. Pardon me for these two black eyes, for this black Indian hair. We in Nicaragua are proud to be descended from indigenous people, but I know it isn’t the same here in Costa Rica.
Look, I swear I’m not to blame for being how I am. I’m not responsible for being born where I was. Tell me, brother, are you to blame for the color of your eyes? Tell me, little sister, are you responsible for the color of your skin? Me neither! And I’m not responsible for the country I was born in! I’m not responsible for that, and you aren’t either. I’m not to blame for the fact that two, three, four, five hundred years ago, all the nice, educated Europeans came here to Costa Rica and none went to Nicaragua! That’s not my fault! Look, if things had been the other way round in history, then we’d be living here today…
What a pisser that things turned out this way… but they could’ve been different. If things had been the other way round, if they had simply been the opposite, you’d all be… Nicas!
At some point they killed our journalists, including Pedro Joaquín Chamorro. That kid had the nerve to denounce the corrupt, so they killed him! We also had Augusto César Sandino. Eh! Now that kid even had the nerve to put together an army to kick out the foreign invader… And Sandino did his job so well, so well, so well, that foreign investment has been afraid of coming to Nicaragua ever since!
What a bummer to be a stranger in a strange country, especially when you don’t want to be a stranger! I don’t want to be a foreigner! But you treat me like one… I need the words of Rubén Darío in my mouth, the words of my poet… How right you were, wherever you are, when you said: ‘How lucky the tree that barely feels, and more so the hard rock... How lucky the hard rock that doesn’t feel anything…because there is no greater pain than being alive nor sorrow than conscious life...’
Pardon us for our nasty habit, the really bad habit we have that when we don’t like something, we say it to your face, in your face, not behind your back or in secret or with stories or in whispers or with giggles or in little groups or with jokes… We say it straight out!
Ah, and while I’m at it, pardon me for the huge tortillas we make… We still haven’t learned to make them like you do: small and paper thin. We still don’t have the marvelous sensation of having them come apart in the hand! We’re still primitive and we make them like this: big and thick… Pardon me for living with the doors open, pardon us for meeting in the parks, which is the only way for a poor foreigner to see if we can get together to help ourselves, since you can’t. Or, I’m not sure… maybe you just don’t want to. I’m not at all sure any of you want to help us!”