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  Number 303 | Octubre 2006
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Nicaragua

A Train Ride Through Memory and History

The “Cultural Train,” an innovative experimental project, toured the country this year to rekindle the memory of Nicaragua’s most important educational event ever: the 1980 National Literacy Crusade. Fueled by a blend of effort and creativity, the Train will keep circulating ideas, values and memories.

María López Vigil

In August 2005, Jan Kees de Rooy—a Dutch-born Nicaraguan national who always thinks big—called to tell me about a dream he was working on in the Institute of History of Nicaragua and Central America in Managua’s Central American Universtity (UCA) and offered me the chance to participate in the adventure. From then until February 2006, when his dream had materialized in the form of a “Cultural Train” that recalls the great dream-turned-reality of the 1980 Literacy Crusade, I was convinced that the spirit of Fitzcarraldo was abroad in Nicaragua.

Fitzcarraldo: All for a dream

At the end of the 19th century, Peru’s Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, who would go down in history as Fitzcarraldo, set out to build an opera house in Iquitos, capital of the department of Loreto, in the middle of the Amazon jungle. Fitzgerald, also no small thinker, planned to bring the great Enrico Caruso to sing in his new opera house. The son of an Irishman, this great opera lover was transfixed by the idea of providing the local population with an unforgettable artistic spectacle. His dream was incredibly expensive, but nothing, not even mosquitoes, fever and heat, could hold him back. The height of his illusion was to “navigate” the Contamama, a boat full of building materials, over mountains nearly 500 meters high to the place where he would build his dream. In 1982 the German director Werner Herzog brought the story of Fitzcarraldo to the big screen, in what turned out to be yet another crazy enterprise. According to Herzog, it was one of the most difficult and desperate pieces of work in cinematic history, making Coppola’s notoriously problematic Apocalypse Now seem like child’s play.

Mad dreams or madmen dreaming the future...?

Over twenty years later in Chiapas, during the Zapatistas’ “Intergalactic Encounter,” Subcomandante Marcos evoked “Fitzcarraldo’s boat” as a metaphor of the arduous journey so many of us dream of helping crew until we reach the “other possible world,” clear of the thick and impossible neoliberal jungle.

An event that united Nicaragua

Between March and August 1980, just as Herzog was planning his film, a hundred thousand high school and college students and other young volunteers from Nicaraguan cities and semi-urban areas spread out into rural Nicaragua in an adventure aimed at teaching the 52% of adult Nicaraguans who were illiterate to read and write. Within months they had brought the illiteracy rate down to 12%, a heroic effort that earned a UNESCO award.

After that great collective effort the country became embroiled in a decade of agitated and conflict-ridden revolution, followed by the sustained erosion of 15 years of neoliberalism. Before we knew it the year 2005 had come around and we were celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Literacy Crusade, an event that in itself suggested that the Crusade was virtually the Sandinista revolution’s only initiative that could claim national consensus, a very special silver thread that had managed to unite the whole of Nicaragua at a stellar moment in its history. It was the anniversary celebrations and this evidence of national consensus that sparked Jan Kees’ dream: the contents of the Literacy Museum, inexplicably destroyed during the nineties, ought to tour Nicaragua recovering the memory of that epic event. This traveling museum would “navigate” the country like Fitzcarraldo’s boat.

From the flesh to the spirit

In the eight months between its February 2006 inauguration and September, some 20,000 young people visited the Cultural Train. It spent five of those months in Managua, in a former rubbish dump transformed into a park by the municipal government. Then it traveled north to Estelí, where it received endless visits for a month, before setting up in Jinotega for three months. Although the idea was to get out of Managua, where cultural investments are almost invariably made, it couldn’t spend more time on the road or venture further into the interior in this first stage due to limitations that not even a dreamer has yet been able to ignore in a country like Nicaragua. Following November’s elections, however, it will start rolling again with the beginning of the new school year in February 2007.

The Cultural Train consists of three long truck trailers that assemble around a stage and a tent once they get to their destination, opening out to form a “route” that begs to be followed. The trucks are air-conditioned, carpeted, beautifully organized and equipped with state-of-the-art technology so that the girls and boys of today can meet the youth of 1980 who taught people to read and write.

Before becoming the three stations of the train-museum, these trucks transported meat from slaughter house to market. Margarita Vannini, director of the Institute of History and one of the brains behind the dream, recalls how worried she was when she first saw them after having evaluated the alternatives and deciding that they were the best and cheapest option for a traveling museum. “They were impregnated with the smell of meat, stained with blood and rusty...,” she says. “I really worried. How could we transform them into what we wanted?” But within a few months the Train had cast off all trace of its meat-filled past and acquired a whole new spirit.

Cleaning up the trucks wasn’t the only challenge. According to Rodrigo Castillo, the dream’s producer, “It was difficult for all the people who participated—the carpenter, the electrician, the welder and all the others involved—to envision what we were going to do, that those three very narrow spaces would be a museum. It was a tremendous challenge to work to achieve an esthetic, taking care with even the most minimal details. None of the workers had ever experienced anything like it.” Jan Kees, the project’s artistic director, found himself totally misunderstood. “Only at the end, when everything was ready,” he recalls, “did one of them come up and say ‘I’m sorry about all of the obstacles I put in the way; I never thought that what I can now see before me is what you were talking about.”

History is a house we have to enter

The aim of the Train was to turn that great feat of literacy into memory, but not an institutionalized or ideologized one, much less a propagandistic one. It was to create a bridge between today’s youth and the youth of that time; to connect them with the history of their country, and with their parents and others who were their same age back then.

Chacko, one of the main characters of Indian writer Arundahati Roy’s impassioned and enthralling novel, The God of Small Things, describes history to his niece and nephew, the twins Estha and Rahel, as like an old house at the night, with all the lights on and the ancestors whispering inside. To understand history, Chacko explains, we have to enter and listen to what they say, look at the books and pictures on the walls and smell the smells.

It was in the same spirit that Nicaragua’s house-train was organized, searching out, selecting, ordering and presenting photos, films, eye-witness accounts, faces, written messages, animated images and objects from the crusade on the transformed truck walls. The objects included the literacy workers’ emblemed cotton smock, back-packs, water bottle, boots and primer, extracts from their field diaries… Only technological limitations put an end to the crazy but wonderful idea of including a “museum of Crusade smells” in the second truck: the smell of fresh morning tortillas and strong coffee, sacuanjoche (the national flower), cow dung, wet earth and many more. Even Fitzcarraldo has to throw in the towel sometimes.

“Reading is power”

From morning to dusk, an average of 250 boys and girls from 82 secondary schools in Managua, Estelí and Jinotega entered this “house” of history every day for those nine months, accompanied by their teachers, attentively listening to the whispers of their ancestors and hearing and looking at the different exhibits on the walls. They smelt the smell of an adventure that many of them knew nothing about. As Jan Kees put it, “We found a magical way of playing with time. Through that magic, the kids not only saw an interesting, nice exhibition, they also identified with a message. In just 45 minutes two generations leaped 25 years in time to come together. This can only happen with art.”

After their 45-minute tour involving 15 minutes in each truck—the first “informational,” the second “testimonial” and the third “reflection and commitment”—the young people jotted down their impressions in the visitors’ book. The more detailed messages expressed their emotions at seeing into the hearts of the generous youth of those years, or realizing the importance of doing something collectively for others and the country, or just how strongly they had come to understand that there can be no development without readers—the slogan “reading is power” is written in giant panels on the side of the trucks. And mixed in with these longer reflections is an accumulation of adjectives: wild, cool, super-great, bitchin’, exciting, unforgettable, excellent, fantastic, really fantastic, super-fantastic...

Many of the students complained that the trip in time was too quick. None of them found it boring. They would have liked more time because they couldn’t see everything. And a large number were so enthralled they lost all sense of time so that their 45 minutes in the different rooms seemed more like 10.

Scaling the mountains
of a country of impossibles

Like Fitzcarraldo’s boat, the Train had to scale various mountains to reach the hearts and minds of so many thousands of young people. The first was a financial one. In Nicaragua, a country where resources are limited because they are shared out among top government officials who receive “mega-salaries” and a minority that has decided to live in this corner of the fourth world without renouncing any of the privileges of the first, this cultural initiative—like so many others—became possible only through the solidarity of international cooperation. The municipal governments of Managua, Estelí and Jinotega provided what they could, such as land, electricity, personnel and enthusiasm, and the rest was provided by a great deal of voluntary work and collaboration from everyone who picked up on what the project was all about. The next mountain, related to the first, involved juggling the generous funds received and stretching them out like bubble-gum. Fitzcarraldo is always ambitious and the budget came up short as the Train began to be outfitted in line with such ambition.

Another mountain involved finding the magic of technology that could communicate the ideas in the most convincing and beautiful way possible. Materials were needed that don’t exist in Nicaragua and had to be bought abroad. The initiative experimented with innovations rarely used before in the country. Equipping the museum technically, technologically and esthetically was a challenge among challenges.

The mountain of prejudices

The steepest mountain of all was ideology. The project initially met rejection when it was first presented to the Education Ministry’s departmental delegates. Many high school directors reacted the same way when invited to take their pupils to visit the Train. They feared it would be full of “Sandinista propaganda” due to the subject matter involved and, above all, because it was an election year. Although the success of the Literacy Crusade has achieved broad national consensus, the FSLN’s official monopolization of it down the years, while understandable, has generated strong antibodies among certain sectors.

The Train’s methodological approach quickly dissipated any prejudices. One of many cases was told by Rodrigo Castillo, who has accompanied the Train throughout its journeys. “On the day of the inauguration in Estelí the Education Ministry delegate arrived and told me, ‘I’m here because the municipal government invited me, but I can’t support this project because it has a party bias.’ I showed her the book with the written impressions of young people who had already visited it in Managua and she said, “Yes, I already know that its contents have an impact on the kids, but it’s pure manipulation.’ She was really closed. I invited her to enter the Train and told her we could continue talking later. When she came out she was emotional and came over to apologize to me. The day we left for Jinotega, she presided over the farewell ceremony and in her speech told everyone that the Train was a “cathedral of history” and congratulated us because it was a methodologically novel, forceful and efficient way of transmitting a very positive message. There were heartfelt acknowledgements and big hugs all around.”

Females at the helm

The project was designed for today’s youth who are the same age as yesterday’s literacy workers. With the exception of Rodrigo, Jan Kees, Margarita and a few others, everybody involved in developing the concept were also young, as were most of the visitors. Students between 15 and 18 years old entered the first truck in groups of 14 and then passed onto the second truck after 15 minutes, allowing the next group of 14 to start the trip into the past.

Each group was welcomed and then accompanied by three guides in colorful Cultural Train t-shirts. The guides explained and answered and posed questions, encouraging the visitors to make a final reflection and generally switching on the lights of history. The idea of having only female guides turned out to be an intuitive bull’s-eye. The voice of the literacy worker in the “time tunnel” in the first room telling the visitors about “the most important experience in my life” is also female. And in the second room, half the voices talking from the computers are female and half are male. Sadly, rural teachers and quite a lot of the young visitors from the three areas where the Train made its stops didn’t know that the flat screens in the second room belonged to computers and didn’t know how to use the mouse.

Those in the third room who helped the visiting groups flesh out the departing commitment they were invited to make by Father Fernando Cardenal, who had directed the Crusade, were also young women. In such a machista country, the project sought to give women a leading role, and they were quick to take it on.

Little Alejandro: Forever a literacy worker

In the first room 11-year-old Alejandro is the star of unforgettable scenes from a film Jan Kees shot in the eighties in the northern municipality of Quilalí. Alejandro went out into the mountains to teach adults to read and write without his family’s permission, lying about his age so he wouldn’t be stopped from participating. In a country in which half the population is under 20 yet with such a deep-rooted “adultist” culture, to use the currently fashionable term, Alejandro’s example gives prominence to the youngest of those literacy heroes who ventured out into the unknown armed only with pencils and letters. All of the young visitors to the Train are older than he was when the film was shot.

“Little” Alejandro is now 37, lives in Australia and is an engineer in exact science. He’s a brilliant mind. Nobody was sure what had happened to him until some of his cousins visiting the Train recognized him and the Institute of History got in contact with him. Through the magic of cinema he’s still teaching people to read and write, although now in this museum of memory rather than the mountains.

Recovering memory in the land of forgetfulness

The project’s creators hadn’t anticipated the role the teachers accompanying the groups of students would play in the tour through the Train. It turned out to be enormously important time after time because many of them had themselves been literacy workers in 1980. If the Train provided the students with a thread connecting them to the youth of 1980, for the teachers it turned out to be a reencounter with their own memories, with the boys or girls they were at the time. Teachers were often quite emotional when they left the first room. “They ended up with a big lump in their throat,” recounted Rodrigo, “experiencing a very personal internal process.” When they moved into the second room they would always laugh at the different testimonies, and then when they set eyes on the identical cotton smock they all wore, the primer they used and the field diaries they kept, the miracle occurred and they became guides for their pupils. The pupils in turn discovered that their teacher had also been one of those brave young people.

It still brings tears to Margarita’s eyes when she remembers how one teacher stayed outside talking for another 40 minutes to her pupils, who hung on her every word. “It was impressive,” she said, “to see how proudly she told of her adventures in the Crusade. But what moved me most was hearing one pupil ask her at the end, in a mild rebuke, ‘Why haven’t you ever talked to us about this? Why are you only telling us now?’”

For several years after the Crusade, the topic always came up in conversations with anyone who had participated. The literacy workers were proud of their experience, brimming with anecdotes about the learning experience it had been for them, especially if they were urban students, to go out into the depths of the rural areas and live the life of a poor peasant family, working with them during the day and teaching them in the evening. But Nicaragua is the land of forgetfulness. The history of many personal and collective heroic acts has been buried by their own protagonists, whether out of shame, fear, distrust of the validity of one’s own memory, the piling on of new events or simply the task of daily survival. The culture of forgetfulness is something you learn. As Margarita explained, “One of the greatest joys the Train has provided us is to break through that forgetfulness, to give people a sense of permission to recover memories, to rescue memory.” All of this has been possible because the Cultural Train is what is known as an “emotional museum” in which a dramatic tension is evoked through the presentation of problems and their outcome. There are emotional peaks and laughter and tears are evoked by humor and emotion. These tools of the heart succeed in breaking 25 years of forgetfulness.

Why only now?

“In 2004, when we marked the 25th anniversary of the revolution with a festival of cinema, projecting all of the national and foreign films made in the eighties, hundreds of adults and young people came together for six days,” explained Jan Kees. “Most important were the young people. I remember 200 students watching Susan Meiselas’ film on the last day and at the end there was a tremendous silence. Then several young people stood up and in tears asked why they had never been told those stories before, why their primary and secondary school studies turned the history of the revolution into a dark episode. It was that rebuke of ‘why didn’t you tell us?’ that inspired this Train.”

Recovering memory and history also recovers identity and meaning. The Literacy Crusade marked a whole generation; it’s a vital fiber in Nicaragua’s heart. But years of changes, disappointments and even betrayals clouded over the dreams, hopes and aspirations until forgetfulness reigned, and a society that forgets, whose collective memory has blurred over, is subject to all kinds of ghosts. They range from the somber ones of the “dark night,” to quote a metaphor used by Pope John Paul II to describe the eighties in Nicaragua, to the hypocritically rosy ones of the “love, reconciliation and peace” that the FSLN proclaims in its bright-pink campaign billboards and posters.

As the fight of empowerment against power is also the fight of memory against oblivion, the Train fulfills the very important political mission of unblocking many people’s memories. Rodrigo enjoys telling a story from Estelí in this respect. “A lady who passed through the exhibition was very moved and said to me, ‘I want to come tomorrow with my husband and the whole family, so tell me what time there won’t be many students around.’ ‘Why?’ I asked her. ‘It’s because he’s got a heart problem and he’s going to get very emotional. I’m going to bring his pills just in case, but I don’t want anything to happen in front of the students.’ The next day we made a space for him and his family and we had a pick-up truck ready in case anything happened. When the man came out of the first room he was trembling with emotion. They gave him a pill and I told him not to worry because the pressure would go down in the second room. And that’s what happened: he laughed so much he cried. And in the third room he grew. Something woke up inside of him and he started talking to his family about everything he had done 25 years before, about responsibility to Nicaragua and commitment to the country. It was quite a speech and he became quite a leader. It was very beautiful, with the whole family listening to him in admiration and surprise. And then at the end, the same thing happened. One of his nephews asked him, “Uncle, why haven’t you ever talked to us like this before? Why only now?”

Reflecting today to build a new tomorrow

Margarita Vannini delightedly explains that the UCA’s Institute of History has discovered in the Cultural Train a way of transmitting values by teaching history and doing it in a fun, playful way. She also recognizes that the Train got the Institute out of the university campus for the first time, allowing it to reach thousands of young people who would never visit an on-campus exhibition.

She also mentioned that the Train participated in the iNicaragua Fair for new computer and communication technologies at the end of September. “There among all that ostentatious display of technology,” recalls Vannini, “we focused attention on the essential and unresolved issue of literacy. We hit that raw nerve, because what kind of a ‘knowledge society’ can we build in Nicaragua if 50% of our population doesn’t know how to read or write and those who do never read or write anything?”

Following this initial challenging and novel experience, the Train wants to continue traveling around Nicaragua. It connected so many people to their own history and memories and showed so many young people that there is a future if we recognize the past—that yesterday of so many shared efforts and dreams—that the Train wants to continue rolling. And there’s no lack of Fitzcarraldos determined to see that it happens.

For Jan Kees, the most important thing about the experience—a surprise for all involved—was discovering that the Train’s methodology was a useful pedagogical instrument for non-formal education in other social, cultural and historical subjects. “That’s been the greatest success: we’ve discovered a successful methodology that includes technology and art,” he explains. “And as we discovered this while developing the concept, we rethought everything so that the Train wouldn’t be just for this specific occasion and issue; it would remain with us as a long-term pedagogical instrument.” For this Train, long-term would mean being around for ten years or so.

And what messages will be carried by this Train... or its offspring? The young visitors have already suggested other themes such as human rights, ecology, civil rights, the meaning of development and women’s rights. They’ve also proposed other historical subjects, wanting to know more about the Spanish “discovery,” conquest and colonization of Nicaragua; the war against William Walker; Sandino’s resistance against the US Marine occupation; what happened during the revolutionary eighties... They want to go back into the house of history to hear more whispers from their ancestors.

The Train’s creators are determined to continue traveling through Nicaragua teaching and learning. And as their dreams are big, they will surely be more than capable of scaling new mountains.


María López Vigil is editor-in-chief of envío.

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