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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 334 | Mayo 2009
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Nicaragua

The Constant Potter

Having known Ron Rivera, I’m sure he would have felt deeply upset by an article about him, but would have been thrilled by an article about his “Filtron.” Since Ron is no longer with us and we can’t argue this point, I’m writing about the legacy of this exemplary gringo-Nicaraguan, perhaps the person who has worked most passionately to ensure that all human beings on the planet have clean water to drink.

María López Vigil

The auditorium of Managua’s Central American University (UCA) was beyond standing room that September 6th Saturday. The smell of wet earth, drenched by a particularly heavy rainy season, was the celebration’s first evocation of water, but certainly not the last. Placed inside a clay pot filter just like the one he had taught thousands of people to make, Ron Rivera’s ashes entered the auditorium embraced by his wife. Behind her, their two sons and two daughters. He was met with an ovation. And we began to weep and to remember him, singing.

It was a farewell to one of Nicaragua’s best sons. Nicaragua and he had adopted each other twenty years earlier, and since then Ron had become a sort of international Nicaraguan, an anonymous hero, the kind that makes less noise than the sound of running water. Ron Rivera: promoter of the most globalized and famous “product” made in Nicaragua, more than rum, more than coffee or hammocks. We were saying goodbye to the father of the Filtron, an invention that had saved so many lives around the world.

“I give you a real weapon
of mass destruction!”

The title of the exhibit at New York’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum in 2007 was provocative: “Design for the other 90%.” Surrounded by dozens of people, Ron Rivera held up a piece of ceramic in his hands. It had the recognizable shape of a clay pot. “I give you a real weapon of mass destruction,” he announced. He then proudly and passionately explained that the clay pot was actually a filter that destroys massive quantities of bacteria and parasites, turning the most contaminated and filthy water from wells, rivers and streams into crystalline drinking water “for the other 90%.” That same scene was repeated at numerous universities before hundreds of other teachers and students.

The weapon Ron presented is now well known and is being used successfully by thousands of people, thousands of families, in thousands of the poorest and most isolated communities in more than two dozen countries. Meanwhile, other gringos are still occupying Iraq, where they were supposedly sent to find weapons of mass destruction that never appeared, because they never existed. This “weapon” does exist, and is fulfilling an urgent mission wherever it goes.

At the end of the 20th century, the nations of the world pledged to cut the number of people without access to potable water in half by the year 2015 (the seventh of the 15 Millennium Development Goals). According to the World Bank, at least one billion of the planet’s 6 billion inhabitants have no clean water to drink. Because they must drink dirty water, they die of diseases caused by the micro-organisms that this filter utterly destroys. For Ron Rivera, the UN goal was too timid and 2015 was too long to wait.

Is there enough water for so many people?

Two-thirds of our planet is covered by water, but only 3% of it is fresh. Most of this small portion of fresh water is frozen at the two poles, in glaciers and on snow-covered mountain peaks. Less than 1% of this small percentage is water we can drink. It’s roughly the same amount that existed two thousand years ago, when Jesus of Nazareth lived and spoke of the “rivers of living water” that would run through the hearts of those whose faith led them to work for a more just world. The image was powerful: Jesus was born in a desert land in which any source of water was valued.

During these two thousand years in which the volume of water has remained the same, humanity has multiplied thirty-fold. Is there enough water for so many people? Not only is the amount of water limited, but less of it is drinkable due to the contaminating substances we dump into rivers and lakes every day. The forecasts are alarming. Environmental scientists predict a dry and thirsty future. They estimate that by 2050, half the world’s population won’t have enough water to drink, wash themselves with or cook their food in; water will be the most valued asset. Wars will no longer be fought to control oil or coltan reserves, but instead to control the world’s still existing water resources.

Life began in the water
and we’re made of it

The first life forms appeared around four billion years ago, in the water. And we human beings are water: 80% of our bodies are made up of it. We can survive for many days without eating, but not without drinking. To live decently a person needs at least 50 liters of water a day. But as with everything, distribution of this most essential “nutrient” for human beings is unequal. While people in Africa consume far less than 50 liters, people in the United States waste ten times that per person every day. And while in dozens of countries women and girls walk many kilometers in the arduous task of finding a little bit of water to satisfy the most basic needs, carrying heavy buckets of it back on their heads, in others huge amounts of water are wasted on luxuries such as private pools and golf courses.

When we drink unclean, impure, contaminated water, we’re imprisoned by disease. Eighty percent of illnesses in the underdeveloped world are related to using contaminated water. The main victims are young children. The 4th Millennium Development Goal is to reduce the under-five mortality rate by two-thirds by 2015. Each year, 1,700,000 children under five years of age die because of the water they drink, one every 15 seconds. We could count many in the time it takes to read this article.

Ron Rivera knew all these facts and numbers by heart. They moved from his head to his heart, then quickly to his potter’s hands. They urged him on and fed his tenacity and impatience.

Another “Motorcycle Diary”
and a passion for clay

If Ron Rivera could be called an “anonymous hero,” it’s worth asking where such everyday heroism comes from. It would seem to come from hard work, effort and day-to-day decisions and convictions. It’s always little by little, not strident. Nice and easy.

Ron was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in the Bronx, New York. At a young age he joined the Peace Corps, a US institution that many have branded as “interventionist.” He did it, he explained, “to learn about the world and to help people.” He was learning about the world in a poor barrio in Tocumen, Panama, when the government of Omar Torrijos expelled the Peace Corps from that nation. He was then sent to Guayaquil, Ecuador, to an even poorer barrio. He may not have actually “helped” people, but he did learn about the world of the poorest. When his stint was over, he still had an itch to learn more about the world, so he traveled by motorcycle from Panama to Mexico. In this “initiation journey,” he passed through Nicaragua only days before an earthquake destroyed Managua two days before Christmas in 1972.

His “motorcycle diary” took him as far as Cuernavaca. The anarchic thinker Ivan Illich, a multifaceted Austrian who had been censured by the Vatican as a “rebel priest,” had gone there to live in the sixties. His presence had led to the birth of a range of initiatives that planted the seeds of change in Latin America. At a meeting convened by Illich, Gustavo Gutiérrez took the first steps toward building the Liberation Theology movement. And Paulo Freire’s Liberation Pedagogy was alive and thriving in Cuernavaca. Twenty-five years old and filled with a desire to learn, Ron found himself at the hotbed of revolutionary ideas called the Intercultural Documentation Center (CIDOC), founded by Illich. Of all the things he learned, a concept Illich stressed over and over again remained most deeply imbued in him: many human beings have so isolated themselves from the earth that they no longer know how to produce the food they eat, sew the clothes they wear or build the homes they live in. Ron realized he had never done any of those things; in fact he had never done anything with his hands. So he decided to learn to make pottery. From that moment on, ceramics was his passion.

Finding and becoming
disenchanted with “politics”

He learned about ceramics from an old Mexican potter, then returned to Puerto Rico where he started a workshop in Old San Juan. “The potter and his friends,” he called it. Thirty years of working with clay made his large hands even stronger and more sinewy.

But the “enchanted island” was too small for his adventurous spirit. He went back to Ecuador, and then to Bolivia. It was hard times, not only in Bolivia but in all of Latin America. These were the years of military dictatorships and ingenious armed movements working to overthrow them. “He told me,” recalls one of his closest collaborators, “that one day at a political meeting they started passing around rifles to arm the ‘popular revolution’ and once he had the rifle in his hands, everything suddenly made sense. At that moment it seemed that this was what the struggle for a better world was all about.”

Like so many others, that embryonic armed movement failed. Ron had to leave Bolivia, and his baggage included the pain of tortured and murdered friends.

He went to Miami to work as a bricklayer, and there he witnessed the wave of Cubans who’d left the island on the Mariel Boatlift and disembarked in Florida. But he didn’t just sit back and watch. He became a social worker to help them enter the new world they had set foot in. It was then that he developed a certain allergy to “politics.” So where next? Because by then he was familiar with several societies, this self-described “sociologist” decided to use his life credentials to enroll in a master’s program on development. Soon after he finished, he began to practice what he had learned in Ecuador, where he worked on different development projects with indigenous groups, women and NGOs.

His first project:
Insulators “Made in Nicaragua”

He was called to Nicaragua by a revolution that was capturing the imagination and hopes of people all over the world, and by the first girl he’d loved, when he was just 19 in Puerto Rico, then had lost contact with over the years. The double appeal was irresistible, and after several visits Ron Rivera moved to Nicaragua in 1988.

A magnificent observer of detail, the first thing he noticed was the insulators that sat atop Managua’s electricity posts. Some were glass and others porcelain, but all were imported. In Ecuador, he had taught a group of potters to make these insulators. Why not in Nicaragua? It was his first revolutionary project. With its economy in a stranglehold by the war financed by Ronald Reagan’s government, the country could save money and the production of insulators would provide jobs for some of the already hundreds of disabled war veterans.

Fernando Cardenal, then Minister of Education, found him a space where he could set up a workshop to study the qualities and consistencies of different kinds of clay from around the country and decide which was best for producing the insulators. For 16 months he tested and tested, and finally a group of veterans produced the first thousand insulators, “made in Nicaragua.” But just as everything was ready to start large-scale production, the Sandinista government was defeated in the elections of February 1990. As with so many other innovative and valuable projects, this one was discontinued by the new government. But anonymous heroes don’t give up. There was much to be done in Nicaragua, with or without a revolution, and with or without government support. In 1990, Ron was asked to coordinate Potters for Peace.

“I want to know each and every one”

Potters for Peace had been founded in Nicaragua in 1986, at the height of the counterrevolutionary war. Its first coordinator was ceramic artist Mika Seeger, daughter of legendary folk singer Pete Seeger, who was living here with her Nicaraguan partner at the time. Mika quickly understood what many Nicaraguans still don’t grasp: she was living in a country of artists. Potters for Peace worked to improve the techniques of local potters and open up new markets for their work.

When she turned the post over to Ron Rivera, he took it on with the same passion he had brought to his dream of covering all of Nicaragua’s electricity posts with insulators made right here. Representing Potters for Peace, he visited all the ceramics cooperatives around the country and brought brigades of potters from the United States to Nicaragua to share their experiences. For years, ceramic plates and bowls crafted by Nicaraguan hands were sold on the streets of the United States. Untiring, he continued to travel all over Nicaragua. “I want to know each and every one of Nicaragua’s artists.” This was his goal, and it’s exactly what he did. At his farewell, many of those who filled the UCA’s auditorium were mourning women and men whose hands, like his, had been tanned by clay and fire. They had come from Ducuale Grande, Matagalpa, Jinotega, La Paz Centro, El Bonete, Calle Real de Tolapa, Sabaneta, La Naranja, Mozonte, San Juan de Oriente, El Calero, Loma Panda… to say goodbye, all of them incredulous at his unexpected death.

Awakening the pride of the
wise people from “The Cave”

During his first years here, Ron worked to improve the skills of artisans he was meeting and discovering in the most remote communities of Nicaragua. Anyone familiar with the qualitative leaps Nicaraguan craft production has made over the years can see the traces of his efforts. Ron awoke a great potential that lay dormant due to inertia, impoverishment and lack of support and recognition.

Although molders of clay have a “divine” origin, according to Genesis, and although humanity has been enriched by their products for tens of thousands of years, potters are less and less valued in developed societies, and have tended to disappear with the onslaught of industrialized ceramic production. It is an increasingly marginalized “poor man’s trade.” Cipriano and his daughter, the protagonists of Saramago’s novel The Cave, discover this, to their amazement and pain.

In societies such as Nicaragua, this trade still plays a vital role. It’s a thread of identity woven into its social fabric. Stephen Earp, a volunteer with Potters for Peace and fellow gringo who knew Ron in Nicaragua, defined the key to Ron’s great success working with artisans besieged by more than a hundred years of solitude: he incited pride in their work. “At the most basic subsistence level, pride is an extremely potent survival tool,” says Earp. “He took a small, loosely knit solidarity organization and turned it into a respected global development asset.”

Hurricane Mitch and that
“wonderful invention”

In October 1998, Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America. In addition to three thousand deaths, hundreds of Nicaraguan communities lost homes, crops, tools, animals and wells… Mitch changed the lives of thousands of people, who are still recovering from that tragedy. It also changed Ron Rivera’s life. And it demonstrated in an extraordinary way the oft-repeated phrase “all crises create opportunities.” Anonymous heroes seem to have special antennae for discovering such opportunities.

During this type of cataclysm, potable water is key to saving lives. Cleaning up the closest water sources for the disaster survivors is the most urgent need. Several local and international humanitarian organizations asked Ron Rivera, already known as a dedicated and tireless potter, to produce water filters.

Deep in his memory was an invention he had learned about years before, by Guatemalan chemist Fernando Mazariegos, whom he had known during the years he worked in Ecuador. In 1981, while conducting industrial research in Guatemala, Mazariegos had gotten support from the Inter-American Development Bank for his idea to create a filter that could purify the dirtiest water. Consisting of clay coated on the inside with colloidal silver, it was easy to make and use in communities where water couldn’t easily be boiled or adequately chlorinated. As in the case of so many other inventions, the idea didn’t receive the attention it deserved due to a lack of resources or interest. Nonetheless, in 1994, four years before Hurricane Mitch, research by the Family Foundation of the Americas demonstrated that deaths from diarrhea had dropped by 50% in rural communities where this filter had been employed. It had been proven that the invention was effective.

Ron Rivera had never forgotten about that “wonderful invention,” as he called it. And Ron’s spark reignited the embers of that fire: he decided to begin making the filter in Nicaragua. In the first six months, the potters he brought together produced five thousand. He quickly realized how urgent it was to get the filter everywhere in Nicaragua to respond to the needs generated by Mitch and also many prior disasters. Thus began a decade of boundless passion in the life of an anonymous hero.

Helping others in the rest of the world

Very soon, Nicaragua had become too small for Ron. He had become “the water man,” and from this moment on his obsession was filtering water and helping people have clean water to drink. He worked 16 hours a day for 16 years on the filter until September 2008, when he returned from Nigeria, where he had just gone to set up a new filter factory. While there he was bitten by the kind of mosquito that breeds in stagnant, dirty water and carries the deadly falciparum malaria. Sometimes the legends of heroes end paradoxically.

Logically, as Ron always said, Mazariegos is credited with having invented the filter. Ron’s great contribution was standardizing it. The filter is handmade by potters, the artisans of clay. Ron invented a manual press which, with the aid of a jack like those used to change a car tire, pushes the combination of clay mixed with sawdust or rice husks or any other organic and flammable material into an aluminum mold. Once the filter is fired, the flammable ingredients leave behind a fine network of pores in the clay recipient, which will later capture the micro-organisms and allow one to three liters of clean water to filter through every hour.

The inside of the filter is coated with a thin layer of colloidal silver. Mazariegos had discovered that this coating acted as a magnet, capturing the bacteria, parasites and viruses in the pores, where they would then die. This, more than the filtering itself, is what purifies the water. After experimenting, Ron used a different proportion of this “magic” potion that causes the “mass destruction” of micro-organisms. Standardization also meant insuring that all filters are the same size and guaranteeing that each one has the same filtration level, insuring quality control and giving each filter a number.

With the production of the first filters in Nicaragua, Ron joined his love of ceramics and knowledge of different kinds of clay with his first love: “helping others” and “learning about the world.” Ron’s other great contribution to Mazariegos’ invention was taking it around the planet, personally promoting the artisan workshops that would produce it. By the time he died, he had helped to set up 30 filter workshops in almost the same number of countries. Tens of thousands of filters have been distributed around the world by the Red Cross, the Red Crescent, Doctors without Borders, Oxfam, USAID, UNICEF… One and a half million people are drinking clean water today thanks to the passion that Mitch unleashed in this man.

A single man and a worldwide
movement through the magic of Internet

The filter soon became known in Nicaragua as the “Filtron,” a name given it by a young potter working with Ron. “What do you think of this: Filtron, the solution!”? He liked it and it stuck. The promotion of the filter in Nicaragua emphasized three steps: “When you buy a Filtron: 1) you are supporting the Nicaraguan economy; 2) you are supporting the artisan who made it; and 3) most importantly you are protecting your health, which is priceless.”

It goes by other names in other countries: Eco-Filter in Guatemala, Atabey Filter in the Dominican Republic, the Rabbit Water Filter in Cambodia, and also Aqua-Filter in Nicaragua… Ron’s idea was that the company producing the filters should be sustainable and generate modest earnings. There are currently two factories operating in Nicaragua, one large and one small. A small workshop staffed by three or four artisans can produce as many as fifty filters a day. The average price of the filter is $10-20, depending on the country. After three or four years, the inner filter needs to be replaced to insure its effectiveness.

Ron strongly believed that the filter shouldn’t be patented, that the technology should be part of the public domain and used for the common good. Practicing his own type of “socialism,” he began to make all the information needed for producing them available on the web, so anyone in the world who wanted to could produce them. Soon requests poured in from around the world for more details, more information. And for his presence. Over the years, when he wasn’t traveling here and there, Ron would spend the evening and early morning hours answering email messages or testing different types of clay to measure their filtration. How could just one man create a worldwide movement? The answer lies in the Internet, as magical as the colloidal silver in the fight against bacteria. Internet: a road that today’s anonymous heroes know how to use.

The Nicaraguan “trademark”
from East to West

Ron soon learned that good will and money weren’t enough. The most important element was local potters, the “Ciprianos and their daughters,” those who know about the clays in each place and the best combinations of the most abundant organic materials available in different areas. So he began traveling to find these local artisans and work side by side with the people in each country who know about pottery.

During the last ten years of his life, he went to Vietnam, Cambodia (which has one of the biggest and most successful filter factories, promoted by a Protestant church), Indonesia and Sri Lanka (sponsored by the Red Cross after the tsunami) in Asia.

In the Middle East the Palestinians sought him out and even the US Army contacted him to make filters in Iraqi communities. While he shared all of his information, he adamantly refused to go there on behalf of the invading army.

He also presented the Filtron in several European countries, including at an international colloquium on Science and Technology for Development in Granada, Spain, in 2007, an event aimed at facilitating contacts between scientific collectives around the world. Over 50 projects were presented that year, including the Filtron. One participant who heard Ron explain the filter tells of going to Granada’s Darro River, which was filthy, to bring back some water: “The clean water I drank after it passed through the filter couldn’t have surprised me more.”

In Africa he was in Mozambique, Ghana, Tanzania, Kenya and twice in Nigeria, the last country he visited. In Latin America he worked in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala. Regrettably, the Bolivians were left waiting for him. He also took the Filtron to Cuba and returned happy. “The great advantage there,” he told me, “is that the government has made the project its own and is promoting it. And they’ve put their best people in charge of it.” On learning of his death, Amado Cepero sent a message from Guantanamo: “We are left with the dissatisfaction of not being able to show Ron what he taught us to do.” While this project was never sponsored by the Nicaraguan government itself, no other product has put Nicaragua’s name at such a high level in the world.

“A strong wind pervading our memories”

That’s how dedicated potter Ian González remembers him in Guatemala, where Ron traveled numerous times. “Ron was untiring in his work training communities of potters about improved techniques and technologies. He covered all of Central America in an old pick-up truck filled with potter’s tools, many of which he invented himself and had made at industrial shops in Managua. He always had his laptop and a video camera, and documented every potter he met along the way. He interviewed them and saw their products, their techniques, their inventiveness and their weaknesses. He taught them to be more efficient, to improve their clay mixtures, the way they fired their pieces. With his leathery artisan’s hands, he taught them to make molds, to build kilns that ran on wood, gas or electricity. He made their production lines more effective and improved their glazes. He did everything he could to help improve their skills and, as a consequence, increase their incomes.”

“I never met anyone less interested in his own comfort. His per diems would have allowed him to stay in $100/night hotels, but he never let us take him to one that cost more than $20. Everything he saved on hotels, restaurants and airfares he invested in the filter project or the potter communities. I saw him get up before sunrise, not just once but several times, to start building a kiln in San Antonio Palopó. Later, he came to Guatemala to train the potters in Chinautla to use a kiln he’d recently built, or an extruder he’d designed. Then he’d go back to Atitlán at night to put finishing touches on the day’s work, first passing through El Tejar to load 200 bricks into his truck that would be needed there.

“It was as if he knew he wouldn’t have enough time. Ron didn’t know how to rest, not on Sundays or holidays, or even on days he’d been traveling. One of the last times I saw him was when he was getting ready to go back to Managua so he could catch a flight to Vietnam. But since he wanted to write one of his exhaustive and incisive reports about what he had just accomplished and the follow-up activities that would be needed, he hired a young indigenous man to drive the pick-up while he typed the report on his laptop during the 14-hour journey back to Managua. Those who had the privilege of working with him can’t imagine him sitting still, ever. Now he’s like a strong wind from the sea that pervades our memories.”

Copyleft: Another type of
socialism for the 21st century

Traveling, learning about an area, living in the most hidden-away communities—where he usually found the most experienced local potters—all helped Ron discover the best materials, imagine the most ideal place to set up a workshop or factory, figure out where to make the required tools, calculate how to sell the filters… In more recent years, he also had to learn about marketing.

Some years after information about the Filtron had spread from Nicaragua to the rest of the world, the US Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, USAID, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and several other universities—Tulane, Colorado, North Carolina and Johns Hopkins—studied and re-proved the Filtron’s effectiveness and gave it their endorsement.

Universities and NGOs around the world found out about Ron and the Filtron on the internet, and contracted him. When they made contact with him, they imagined that Potters for Peace was a huge organization, but the staff was just Ron and another half-time person. The web expanded the Filtron exponentially. A factory was apparently set up in Peru based solely on the information available on the Internet and the same thing may have happened in other places as well. Pure copyleft. Such a different concept than the greediness of copyrights and individualism of so many companies today. And also those of yesterday: the recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken’s greasy batter is written on an old piece of paper that’s tucked away in a strongbox with a double lock in some American city. While the secret formula of indigestible fried chicken is a well-protected secret, the lifesaving Filtron was shared with the whole world.

The last trip

Ron’s last trip was the hardest in his long love affair with the Filtron. He flew to Nigeria in July last year with a group of engineering students from Princeton University, accompanied by their professor. The target was an extremely impoverished corner of this oil-rich African nation that lacked both electricity and water. Even worse was the corruption that impeded their every step, placing obstacles in the way of building filter factory number 30.

Everybody in the group took anti-malaria pills, except Ron, who never took them. “Mosquitoes don’t bite me,” he frequently claimed. He was sad when he got back to Managua, uncertain about whether he’d been able to do anything useful in the face of the deadly mix of poverty and corruption. He also came home sick. When the symptoms began to appear, he erroneously thought it was hemorrhagic dengue. It was too late by the time he was correctly diagnosed. Although the symptoms of the diseases are similar, he had actually been infected with the most deadly form of malaria, which travels to the brain and makes the heart collapse. Ron returned from Nigeria on August 20th already infected. He celebrated his 60th birthday two days later and died on September 3.

His last home wan an oven

God, give each of us our own death, prayed Rilke. Sometimes it happens. Ron’s wife, Kathy McBride, reflected: “He hated the heat, but those who called him were all from really hot countries. And he would go, to sweat a lot. And he chose Nicaragua as his home. During his last days, his fever was incredibly high, and his last hours were spent sweating copiously. His entire adult life involved putting pieces of clay into ovens.

“When I went to ‘talk’ to him, to say goodbye for the last time the morning after he died, he was finally cool, serene, finally resting after so many days of such unimaginable heat. And now we were going to put him into an oven, like all the filters he had made. When they gave me his ashes, they were still warm, just like his filters right after they were fired. I thought, you were a man of clay, fire and water, and you’ve gone back to your essence. It seemed like the most logical thing to put his ashes into a water filter, so he would be with us a few days later as we celebrated his life.”

The atheist revolutionary for a just cause

During the farewell event at the UCA, his brothers, cousin, friends and wife all spoke, as did several students and potters. Reynaldo Díaz, who had accompanied Ron to universities in the United States and Europe (and who will hopefully continue Ron’s work, spreading the word about the Filtron around the world), said this, his voice occasionally breaking:

“I know if Ron were here, he would be uncomfortable because we’re talking so much about him, and because he’s lost an entire week without managing to get the filter technology to some new place during these days since he left us. I know it, but I need to talk about him… I’ve been a fan of Ron’s as long ago as I can remember. He combined a great sense of humor with immense tolerance, which was an impressive mix for a boy. Ron started telling me about the Filtron while I was studying at university, and when I needed to do an internship with a nonprofit organization as part of the requirements for a scholarship, Ron took me under his wing.

“To start off, he put me to work at the filter factory in Managua. After the first day of work, I was cursing the Filtron and he was on the verge of firing me. But that day he told me how he had felt years earlier when they’d put a gun in his hands in Bolivia. ‘Times have changed, Reynaldo,’ he told me, ‘but it’s the same injustices, and we need a revolution.’ He said it with so much passion that I stayed to work with him. Until today.

“This is why we need a revolution: every year, almost two million boys and girls under five years of age die of complications from diarrhea caused by microorganisms in the water they drink. Nobody talks about this much, because the victims have no voice. They’re children living in extreme poverty, with no ability to influence world and national politics. They’re no more than a statistic that doesn’t threaten the power or lifestyles of the powerful and privileged. Today I understand what Ron told me: it is truly revolutionary to struggle against these microorganisms. And he was a revolutionary. After eight hours of work, when even an Olympic athlete would have cried uncle, he kept on working at his computer for another six hours.

“Ron was a fervent, self-acknowledged atheist. I saw the nature of his atheism one day when he was being interviewed by Catholic Relief Services. They asked him when he had learned about Jesus, and smiling he responded, ‘Who, Jesús Martínez or Jesús González?’ Ron’s faith was his belief in the equality of and his responsibility to all human beings, and that faith compelled him to produce filters that would bring clean water to everybody in the world. He wanted to build a hundred of these factories; that was his goal. But he didn’t have enough time. I’ve never known anyone so committed to a just cause in my entire life.”

“Number one”

Ron Rivera, who never thought of himself as a hero, is one for all these reasons: for saving the life of an average of 50,000 people every year who are today drinking crystalline water; for the filter factories he helped build in the world; and for reclaiming the social value of potters. A man who was never concerned with his own importance has made Nicaragua important. This “old, middle-class US American hippie”—as he used to describe himself—has become part of our history, one of the most inspiring examples of solidarity between North Americans and Nicaraguans. And he’s part of a bigger history, one that isn’t always known: in its unwritten pages, he already figures as the gringo-Nica who has had the greatest humanistic influence on our world.

María López Vigil is envío’s editor in chief.

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