|Central American University - UCA
Number 360 | Julio 2011
Memories of a lost generation
Thirty-two years after the birth of the attempt to build a revolution,
what do those who were children at the time remember?
I interviewed 12 people born during that decade.
These are the memories that were sparked.
William Grigsby Vergara
July marks the 32nd anniversary of the initiation of the Popular Sandinista Revolution, which inspired so many of our parents, committing them to a common cause. Under the red and black Sandinista flag that for so many represented freedom, solidarity, a struggle for a new country and an empowered people, a generation of Nicaraguans shed their blood in Nicaragua’s fields, first to bring down one of the most atrocious dictatorships of last century, friend of so many US Presidents over its nearly five decades in power, and then to defend the new project from a war financed and led by President Reagan but again fought on our home ground between brothers.
The metalic wail of the “Blackbird”Thirty-two years after those epic events, I decided to pause to reflect on my childhood, the scant but intense recollections I have of the first five years of my life. I tried to hold on to each of the moments that filled my childhood with memorable experiences as the last five years of the Sandinista revolutionary project passed by.
I still recall the dread instilled by the dangerous winds of Hurricane Joan, which flooded the country in 1988, and the unexpected bomb blast in the mausoleum of Carlos Fonseca Amador, where the thick-spectacled martyr is buried under a flame-topped monument. I also remember the metallic wail of the “Blackbird,” the US reconnaissance jet, the fastest in the world at the time, as it repeatedly tore through the Nicaraguan sky, terrifying us as it sought to locate the logistical support bases of the Reagan-funded counterrevolution. The rattle of the windows vibrating in my house as it broke the sound barrier remains embedded in my ears. Nor can I forget “Las Piedrecitas” park, near the Motastepe housing estate, where my brothers and I rode around on our bikes. That was back when it was still safe to go by bike, when children could play in the parks without being attacked by some criminal lurking around the corner.
These are just some of the flashbacks, snapshots of those tender yet difficult years. I experienced them while my parents were participating in that common project that brought so many internationalists to the country and whose unique and charming nature turned the world upside down. Back in the present, I wondered what other men and women of my generation recall. What has remained fixed in the memory of our generation, the “offspring” of an unfinished project, young people who, like me, spent their childhood in that historic decade of literacy crusades, war and popular slogans?
What do they remember of those times that began 32 years ago? What were the advantages and disadvantages they felt during those years? How do they define that era? What scared them? What memories do they have? To find out, I sought out 12 young people from Managua and other places. My interviews took us back to the time of my childhood and sparked the following memories. The original “Group of Twelve” was made up of a dozen well-known establishment adults who supported the FSLN struggle against the Somoza dictatorship in the prologue to that revolution. This group of twelve provides a post-epilogue to that same revolution.
Adelayde (32):“I spent my childhood in Managua’s Altagracia neighborhood, a traditional grassroots barrio. I remember shortages, nothing of abundance. My parents worked hard, but we often had to stand in enormous lines to get kerosene, coffee, soap and other stuff from that bloody house-front shop assigned to distribute such things. My mom would get my sisters and me up early, 4 in the morning, to join queues that formed well before opening time and ran for three or four blocks.
A ball was worth its weight in gold
I belonged to the Association of Sandinista Children (ANS). We had our bandanas, our badges, all those symbols. I joined because I was forced to, not because they asked me or gave me any other option. The adults’ idea was to indoctrinate the children with a leftwing ideology. I also had the ‘Carlitos’ schoolbooks, which I remember clearly. They taught you with phrases like ‘One rifle plus two rifles equals three rifles!’ illustrated with a picture of one.
Our ball games involved a stone wrapped up in a sock. We played a lot of baseball. I also remember the famous “kick ball,” a kind of baseball where you kicked the ball. And if you had a real ball, you had to look after it because it was worth its weight in gold. Nobody could buy balls in sporting goods stores like they can now.
Our favorite TV programs were El chocoyito chimbarón, El chavo del ocho, which was a classic, a Bugs Bunny rerun, La vida es así, Micha Bear, Marine Boy, Candy, Popeye the Sailor and the unforgettable Matatiru-tiru-la.
When there was a piñata birthday party in the neighborhood, all the kids descended upon it even if we hadn’t been invited. We were always enthusiastic; there was a natural spirit of unity. At those piñatas they gave out gifts of soap, Ace detergent, money and Chipirul candies, the ones with the little bee in the middle.
My first backpack was made from a bit of parachute. My father found it in a storeroom and took it to a seamstress who made two backpacks out of it. My sisters and I felt really cool with two waterproof backpacks made out of parachutes. That was the creativity of the time.
If I had to sum up the revolution in a word, I’d say ‘dream.’ It was an unfinished dream. We’re a generation of resentful young people, because we’re neither completely revolutionary nor completely apathetic, like today’s young people. We’re in limbo, stuck in the middle between justice and hunger.”
Martín (31): “I was born in ’79, the year of the triumph, so I’m the same age as the revolution. My mom says she was pregnant when she went to the Plaza to celebrate and had to leave in the midst of all the hullabaloo because she was being crushed and felt bad. I feel linked to that historic day because I was there at the celebrations in my mother’s womb.
From my mother’s womb
I liked the simplicity of things back then. I remember that the TV programs didn’t start until 3 in the afternoon. We really wanted to see cartoons and were prepared to wait a long time to see them. I remember that not everyone had a television in the eighties. I lived close to Motastepe hill, where the big carved FSLN letters were; they could be seen from various points of the capital city. I spent my childhood there and since not all neighbors had a TV, we’d invite them over to watch ours in the afternoon. It was nice to live like that.
I was also in close proximity to the power structures. I studied at the Central America high school with the children of the comandantes, except for Daniel Ortega’s. I was in preschool with Humberto Ortega’s kids, then met up with them again at the Central America, and I recall a lot of protection at the school. Humberto’s bodyguards were always there looking after his kids. I could see that the quality of life of the comandantes’ children was different. I noted the favoritism some teachers showed them just because they were the leaders’ kids. It was also strange for us when we’d come back from vacation and those kids would be talking about having gone to the US, about visiting Disneyworld. They always had the best toys and went around showing them off.
I’d sum the revolution up with the word “ingenuousness,” because I wasn’t aware that my parents split up over ideological differences and over the revolutionary guard duty in the neighborhood that my mother did to give a hundred percent to her homeland. In that sense, the revolution was negative for me.”
Consuelo (30): “At that time, unless you were from State Security, someone with a lot of power or a government official, you only had three shirts and two pairs of pants in your wardrobe. That was normal for kids of the time. You didn’t have enough to buy the latest Barbie either, and there weren’t any in any shops anyway. I didn’t realize those were required toys for kids in the consumer world. I didn’t have them and didn’t even miss them. The revolutionary years were nice in that regard: you didn’t feel you were always missing something, that you always had to have and have and have; you were more aware of what was going on around you.
Just three shirts and two pairs of pants
My parents only supported the revolution at the beginning. Then they broke with it over ideological differences. And that made them live in fear. My grandparents on both sides lived under threat, because at that time if you had something you’d really worked for—a car, a farm with some land to sow—they might take it away from you. Or they simply did. My grandparents and my whole family were constantly afraid of that. The great thing was they didn’t succeed in infecting me with that fear. Although I knew the sound I’d hear wasn’t firecrackers but rather bombs dropping somewhere and that people were dying as a result, I never saw it up close; I never experienced it in the flesh. I never felt it as much as some other kids did.
Around 1987, we left for Costa Rica. I remember being afraid because they’d already tried to break into my grandparents’ house and were taking over properties. We left at dawn one December morning, when it was cold, and crossed the border at Peñas Blancas. We felt a premonition. Everybody was scared without knowing why, until the following day we learned that the contras had taken the border and killed everyone there. We’d escaped death by one day.
If I could encapsulate in a word what the revolution was for me in my childhood, I’d choose ‘karma.’ It was something that was neither good nor bad, a learning process I had to go through. I went through it and it’s been useful for me in many ways afterward.”
Javier (35):“I was born in Boaco in ’76. I remember when I was in third grade, there was a contra ambush at the school. They killed a little girl who studied with me and all of her family, too. About 12 people died. I remember the wake, which was in front of my house, and I saw loads of coffins. They were things I didn’t understand as a kid but I saw them because we were at war.
An office full of coffins
I remember the grassroots demonstrations in Boaco, the marches, the red and black flags everywhere, the literacy campaign, the agrarian reform, the public health campaigns. The “red and black” volunteer work, which included picking coffee on Boaco farms. I started picking coffee when I was 10, with my twin brother and other people who came in trucks.
I remember the flashing images in the introduction to the Sandinista 8pm news program shown on [the State-run] Channel 6—they’re etched deep down inside me. Every day that intro showed a naked, burnt girl from Vietnam. I didn’t understand that war-time image, but it really had an impact on me.
My mom worked in an institution called “The Center for all Combatants.” She was in charge and provided support for the war wounded and mothers of the dead. She was also responsible for delivering the bodies of dead soldiers. She went to the places with the coffins and returned the dead to their families. It was awful. I still retain a powerful image of going into my mother’s office and seeing a load of coffins filled with corpses dressed in olive-green and camouflage uniforms. I remember other children lifting the lids and looking at the war dead. Many military people would come to my house and then all of a sudden they would tell my mother, “They killed Andrés, they killed Roberto, they killed Juan…” So death surrounded my childhood; it was something very present and very ambiguous at the same time.
Another image I have is the way Pope John Paul II humiliated Ernesto Cardenal in ’83. I saw it on television. I didn’t understand it, because I was just a boy, but the image of the Pope waving a very threatening finger at Father Cardenal has stayed with me. I also remember the Mass the Pope gave on that first visit to Nicaragua, with the mothers calling for prayers for their children who had died in combat, and the Pope telling them off. So many things happened and left their mark on me…
If I could talk about advantages during those times, I’d say there was more humanity and less consumerism. There were no luxurious shopping malls like there are now. Everything revolved around the utopia of a more just society, which people fought and gave their lives for. The war was the great disadvantage of the revolution. Death was no longer a concept; it was a palpable reality, an everyday event.
In a word, the revolution for me was ‘liberation’. The liberation of a whole country, the liberation of peasants from ignorance, liberation from the transnationals, which are sadly dominating Nicaragua again today. Even faith was liberated from so many prejudices and from a distant God.”
Ana Margarita (33):“I was born in León, but my family decided to move permanently to Managua following the triumph of the revolution, so my childhood memories are of revolutionary Managua. My four older brothers went on the literacy crusade and my parents and I went each weekend to a distant place to visit them.
The fear of death
Since I have memories of mobilizations, mass events and the like, I have the sensation of having been part of that whole process. Perhaps that’s the nice part, but for me the revolution also meant a lot of loneliness because my family was completely committed to the revolution and that involved us children being abandoned. We missed out on the accompaniment that children should receive in their development processes. As I was too little, I didn’t go to the mobilizations or the coffee picking; I stayed home alone.
Being from such a committed family, I was sure something marvelous was being done in Nicaragua, something that seemed to me like a fairy tale. I felt I was living in a special country where something very special was happening. All that’s very nice when you’re innocent. I remember Hurricane Joan in 1988 and going to the Red Cross to sort clothes for the victims, spending whole days there working on that. It made me feel important to be with so many people working together like ants, with even children able to do things to make Nicaragua a better country.
But I also remember my mom’s anguish when my brothers had to do their military service. No matter how much she used all her strength to channel the anguish, you could sense it in her eyes. My brother was one of the war disabled. He was in one of the Irregular Fighting Battalions when they were ambushed by the contras. He got a serious head injury from an explosion that riddled his body with shrapnel, perforated his bladder and intestines and shattered his right hand. The Cubans gave him a miracle operation, taking nerves from his feet and putting them into his hand and moving a piece of his buttock to his head, and managed to save him. My dad and mom were out of the country when that happened and I vividly remember my brother weighing only a hundred pounds fighting for his life in an intensive care bed.
That left me pretty badly traumatized, so when it was my next brother’s turn to do military service I got sick. I cried a lot because I thought he was going to die the next day. These are impressive memories that no girl should have. Despite everything, my brothers survived in a country where most families couldn’t say the same. During those years my main fear was death. Friends of my brothers died. My cousin died and I remember what a tragedy it was for my family. There was always someone who had died. That was the dark side of the revolution
If I could define my childhood in the revolution in one word, I’d choose ‘bittersweet.’ The example I had during the revolution is what made me who I am, and I’m very grateful for that. After the revolution, I felt betrayed by many things I previously defended almost intolerantly.”
Marvin (31):“My family was very Sandinista. My dad was a guerrilla fighter before the revolution then worked in State Security. My mom was a member of the Army Chiefs of Staff.
Stripping and assembling an ak-47
Our childhood was divided into periods: the spinning top period, the yo-yo period, the marble period, the community piñata period… We learned to share because of the shortages, not like now when there’s a lot of selfishness, a lot of individualism. I remember how incredible it was for me when the first glue-sniffing kids started appearing in the streets in the early nineties, because during the eighties you didn’t see kids begging or working at the traffic lights, let alone sniffing glue or getting high out in the open.
I remember it as a time of freedom. I could go where I wanted without fear. I was never scared of anything during the revolution. I was never scared a burglar would break into my house or that someone would get on a bus or into our Lada to rob us. I was never afraid. We were all more organized. I remember we used red tokens instead of money to get on the bus.
There were all kinds of weapons in my house, because my dad was part of the ‘Pablo Úbeda’ Special Troops (TPUs), under Tomás Borge. When I was nine I learned to assemble and strip an AK-47, an UZI rifle, a Makarov. I learned to shoot at the military base where my father worked. I played war games with him and he taught me martial arts and how to hide in the shelters built at the time in backyards or in the schools to protect us from bombing.
Why put that whole arsenal into a kid’s head? I used to ask my mom and she’d tell me that we’re at war and someday I’d need to defend myself. We never thought the revolution would be brought down. I think my dad was preparing me for military service, which was obligatory from the age of 16 at the time.
The shortages were the revolution’s great advantage. Shortage teaches you humility and companionship and forces you to work, to be creative, to contrive things to survive. Not having something makes you think about how to get it. As kids of that time, we learned a lot of things that today’s kids don’t know how to do. That was a great advantage: we learned to cook and to get along with each other, knowing that nobody would just let you die.
The great disadvantage was that we weren’t allowed to have our own criteria and had our brains washed in our own homes, where we listened to revolutionary music, and in our schools, where we sang the FSLN anthem. I studied at La Salle high school and we realized that all that brainwashing was for the personal benefit of our parents, our teachers or their leaders.
In a word, the revolution was ‘hope’ for me. But it was a false hope.”
Lonnie (29):“What I remember most about those years is Christmas and my birthdays. They were special moments because I got to see my dad, who was doing military service in the mountains, which forced him to be away from home most of the time. I remember opening Christmas presents with my cousins one year… and all the presents were the same! Hey, I said, all these rascals went to the same place to buy the same present! We each had to write our names on our toy so we didn’t mix them up. We didn’t realize then that all there was in the store at that time was that toy.
Books that were toys
I remember that the only TV we had was bust for a really long time. Without TV, we had to resort to other forms of entertainment. Books. They took me every week to the Granada public library where there were illustrated tales and pop-up books that had elements that moved when you opened them. They were all Russian. I played with those books; they were like toys. I interacted with them. Nowadays kids just want to play Nintendo, video games. On Saturday mornings back then we played in the dirt with little tanks, green plastic soldiers, black toy pistols… All of it with a war-related theme, although we didn’t cotton on to the direct violence the country was experiencing.
I never liked how families separated. Some aunts and uncles had to leave the country with their children. As a kid, I grew up with cousins who later left and it’s only now with technology and social networks that I’m getting back in touch with them because they never returned to Nicaragua.
One advantage of the revolution was the mass access to culture. You’d go to a park in the afternoon to see puppets and then spend the rest of the day with your family. That’s unthinkable today. Kids don’t even read anymore.
For me, the negative part of the revolution was my father’s absence. It was a whole ritual, sometimes happy and sometimes sad, going to see him once a week. We’d walk with the family to the regional barracks in Granada and if I’d behaved well during the week I could enjoy his company. But if someone snitched that I hadn’t done my school work, my father with his military training would get all serious and scold me.
A word that defines the revolution for me? ‘Nostalgia.’ A semi-romantic stage. Despite the limitations of those times, there was always a cake on my birthday. And I liked the fact that clothes weren’t bought from the store but sewn by your grandma. If kids ask for a shirt nowadays, they even specify the brand name.”
Fernanda (33):“I was born in Panama and my parents are Honduran. We came to Nicaragua when I was two, motivated by the triumph of the Sandinista revolution. I remember and think that what I constructed in my thoughts and what I feel is what my parents felt during that time. That’s the basis of my feelings about being a little girl in the revolutionary period.
Minutes of silence for the dead
I remember my dad’s great commitment and passion. He was really convinced about what he was doing. And I remember my mom trying to make sure we didn’t do without in the house.
For some strange reason I was always certain my dad would come back alive from the mountains, despite seeing him set off from home with his olive green uniform, his rifle and his thick black leather boots. I wanted to be a man because they let the boys do more things, but it was a mixed feeling at the same time because I didn’t want to have to do military service.
Every Monday at the high school where I studied they talked about what was happening in the war. If someone in a student’s family had died they announced it and there was a minute’s silence. That’s a vivid memory for me. I remember some boys coming back from the war in a school bus that passed through my neighborhood. There were a lot of much older boys and I watched them with great admiration. It seemed to me that those bearded and mustached young people in the bus were doing dangerous and brave things. I didn’t really understand what was happening, but I suspected it wasn’t anything very good because they had the hard look of war.
I recall when we used to go to old Managua with my mother. There was a really nice library in the Luis Alfonso Velásquez Park and we’d spend hours there reading and looking at books that I didn’t have at home. We’d also go walking down by the Rubén Darío Theater and along the lakefront. And I remember going to Cinemateca, which didn’t have air conditioning like today’s theaters but they showed films and documentaries about the revolution, as well as Cuban, Russian and German films.
I have very happy memories of a time in which not everyone was so positive. Now that I’m an adult, I know very well that most young people in Nicaragua don’t share my happy memories. The only time I was got really sad was when I realized the FSLN had lost the elections. That was very painful for my dad. It was the first time I saw him cry.”
Norman (37):“I was born in Siuna. On December 20, 1989, the contras took all of the mines [Siuna, Rosita and Bonanza, in an area known as the Mining Triangle]. I remember that they burnt the radar and the stores the Sandistas had there. The Sandinistas were murderers. They grabbed kids like dogs and sent them to do military service. And if they refused they tortured them, pulled out their nails, eyes or tongue. They were murderers. The war crossed from Honduras to Waspam, from Waspam to Bonanza, from Bonanza to Rosita, and from Rosita to Siuna. It happened in stages.
Old lard and black sugar
Those of us who were poor ate old lard they sold in the distribution posts, where they gave us about half a liter of oil a day and we’d mix it with cow fat, melt it and eat that. We cooked those big biterra beans and some other beans that were full of weevils. And we only had three pounds of rice to last the week. We ate a really black sugar that looked like dirt and had to queue up in long lines to get it. We washed ourselves with half a bar of soap and well water. People were clamoring for everything, but where could we get hold of it?
I lived on my grandma’s little farm in Siuna. Once, my brothers and I were milking and the cow fell over dead from a piece of shrapnel that cut through its spine. The shrapnel hit the cow’s back and it dropped dead on our bucket of milk. Some people, including women, kids and the elderly, lost feet, hands, eyes…
When I was under 13, I steered clear of the draft, but after I was 15 the Sandinistas started grabbing kids and throwing them in the backs of military trucks that went around looking for them like they were criminals. When they found kids hiding, they rounded them up like cattle and took them for military training.
One relative died while coming from Managua to Waslala in a civilian pickup, and they shot an uncle of mine while he was asleep with his wife. And they really pulverized another kid, wounding him in the hands and feet, just because he refused to do military service. Kids died for stupid reasons: a cousin died while a friend was stripping down an AK-47 and it went off when he thought it wasn’t loaded. It hit him in the chest and killed him by accident.
My big fear was the war. There were almost no men in town, just women, as the men were taken off to the war. The women reared the animals, milked the cows, cooked, kept an eye on their hens, and did everything on their own because their husbands were away fighting in the war. I was on the contras’ side because I didn’t want to be with the Sandinistas. And I was against Sandinismo because we were against the war and against obligatory military service.
It was terrible and painful. Everything they did to the mothers was painful. When their sons were killed by anti-personnel mines, they brought them wooden coffins with bunches of bananas inside, pretending they contained their sons’ remains. That’s what they did to the mothers of the fallen. And they didn’t let them open the coffins so they wouldn’t realize it was bunches of bananas, not their sons inside. They [the mothers] buried those coffins. It was an atrocity. I remember that, so I’d choose the word ‘sadness’ to describe those times.”
Heydi (30):“I was born in Estelí in 1980, a year after the triumph of the revolution. Estelí is a city where most people support the FSLN, a city that distinguished itself during the struggle against Somoza. My mother worked for the FSLN and although we didn’t experience the war because we lived in the city, not the mountains, it was common to see Sandinista compas [soldiers] at my house.
Piñatas and Cuban dolls
My mom was a compa, too. One of the things I most recall was seeing her putting on her leather boots and her military uniform to go out and do her daily battle. She used to put elastic on her boots to keep her pant legs tucked in. What I most resented during those times was her absence, because my mom was on long night watches and daily shifts that meant she got back really late at night. There was always an AK-47 next to her shoes in the wardrobe. Luckily it never occurred to my siblings or me to touch that weapon.
As a girl I played with Cuban dolls. My mom organized the neighborhood piñatas and when the donations of Cuban toys arrived, she was responsible for distributing the dolls. I recall that on one occasion she gave a girl who was younger than me a really big black doll. The girl burst into tears because she was frightened of that doll, so my mom said to me that maybe it would be better if I gave her my brown doll with a hair net in exchange for the black one. I felt sorry for the doll she rejected and took it enthusiastically. It became my special childhood doll.
I remember my mom, who was like the neighborhood leader, organizing movie showings on my grandma’s betamax video player. All the kids came, some 15 or 20 of them, to watch movies we all yearn for now. Another pastime of that period was pretend marching with the kids from the barrio. We’d parade around the block with propaganda banners that read “The people united will never be defeated.” I remember falling off a really big Ukrainian bicycle because I was a tomboy. We took our own cups to school to drink the Klim milk they gave us, which I ended up detesting because we drank so much of it. They also gave us fluoride as a mouthwash each month and vitamins as often as possible. I can’t forget the “devil’s meat,” which was tinned processed pork. Nor can I forget the enormous queues to receive the AFA [rations of rice, beans and sugar, for their initials in Spanish].
The big disadvantage of the revolution was my mother’s absence and the abandonment we felt as kids. Another disadvantage was living with the fear that someone might die. It was a time when there was a lot of talk about the dead and the military service.
Advantages? There was much more special attention at school, much more concern about children’s growth. And the values instilled in us during that period were very good: honesty, loyalty to the homeland, discipline, solidarity, human rights…
After the FSLN’s electoral defeat, many people, including my mom, were left unemployed and economically abandoned. They were forced to go to the USA or Costa Rica. That also affected me a lot as an adolescent. I think that Nicaragua has always existed in a context of violence. Before, it was the war; now it’s delinquency. The context has changed, but not the fact. That’s very sad. How many of us recognize we grew up in a country at war? Surely very few. I believe we should have talked openly about that stage of our national history and acknowledged everything that happened. In a word, the revolution was ‘melancholy” for me. I have mixed feelings when I remember those times.”
Henry (27):“I was born in Chontales in ’84. I lived in Los Chinamos at first then went to Santo Domingo with my family. We were poor. I saw Sandinistas in the army pass by throwing candies, tinned corn, wrapped chocolate and vegetables when they had some activity in the mountains.
There was no fun
At night we’d listen to the bombing in the mountains and I’d snuggle up to my brother in the house with a straw roof and wooden boards at my grandmother’s, where we were living. My brother, Carlos Manuel, was a year younger than me. My uncle Pablo died at the age of 20 in Los Chinamos doing his military service. They sprang an ambush and he died with several other compañeros. After that loss, we kept moving closer to the center of Chontales because it was increasingly dangerous in the mountains.
My mom was in the army and then she married my stepdad, who was an army captain. He died recently because he got really agitated during the war, got water in his lungs and from then on his case got more and more hopeless. I was always afraid some mortar round or missile they were firing close to our house was going to land on me. You could hear the missiles exploding in the mountains, in the middle of the night. When the contra guerrillas came down from the mountains to the village they dumped the Sandinista corpses in rows and everyone went to collect their relatives. The mothers howled when they saw their slain sons. We had to collect Uncle Pablo and that image remains in my head.
The great disadvantage of the war was the poverty. We didn’t have safe conditions. The army brigade had health centers, but they were few and far away. They made us go there for treatment when someone got sick. Special brigades also came through, giving medicines to those of us living there. In my opinion the Sandinistas were neither good nor bad, but at least they didn’t treat people badly. I lived with my grandma because my parents were away with the army. My real dad was a contra and the last time I saw him was ten years ago.
We had our few acres of land where we grew beans, maize, cassava and quequisque, so we only had to buy sugar and rice and got the rest from our vegetable plot. Sometimes the Sandinista military passed through the plot and damaged our crops. Many contra fighters came to my grandma’s house to ask for food. Seven turned up once and my grandma fixed them about 30 tortillas and some bags of pinol [a corn-based drink] they’d asked her for. They gave them that without expecting anything in return.
There was no fun at that time. I never had fun as a kid. My brother and I spent our time sheltering at home and couldn’t even go bathe in the river because it was dangerous. The war was at its peak. For me, the word describing the revolution would be ‘historical.’ It was something that happened and will never happen again. There’s greater freedom of expression now; these are other times.”
Lourdes (30):“I was born in 1980 in Bluefields. I lived in the San Mateo neighborhood and studied at the Moravian School, where everything was in Creole English. In the [Caribbean] Coast we experienced the war very differently from the way they experienced it in Managua. From the time I was two weeks old we had a girl working for us at home. I have a childhood memory of the fear we felt going with her to wash clothes at some wells near the house. It was a terrible fear. We knew that the piricuacos, the Sandinista soldiers doing military service, raped women who went there to wash clothes. You had to go quickly and in the early morning with quite a lot of people to make sure nothing happened. I remember that the soldiers communicated by whistling. And when we heard those whistles we’d run off home to be safe. Those who stayed behind got raped and drugged with floripón, that big flower that contains a drug that leaves you unconscious.
A terrible fear
In the Sandinista era, you were either Sandinista or Somocista, even if you actually had no affiliation to anyone. They turned up in the early morning to search the house of my father and uncle, which they had built with honest work since before the revolution. They forced open the door and took them to the bathroom, where they stuck their heads in the toilet before taking them off as suspected counter-revolutionaries. My dad knew all those Sandinista neighbors well; they’d been his friends before the revolution. When they came to search him, he responded to and argued with them. So they beat him quiet and then locked him up for eight days, for thirteen days. While he was in jail, my father threatened them, saying that he’d go looking for them one by one to get his revenge when he got out. So when he got out, they beat him up and locked him up again, until it reached the point where my dad had to leave Nicaragua. My uncle didn’t have the same luck and they took him off to the reserves, where he suffered a lot. They later sent him back to us because his feet had gone all rotten from going around in boots soaked in the water and mud of Kukra Hill, in the middle of swampland. They brought him back because he couldn’t even walk anymore.
My grandma had 21 children. Two of them, Jorge and Lionel, were taken off by force to do their military service. When the Sandinistas searched my grandma’s house, they found them and accused them of ‘betraying the homeland’ for supposedly lodging ‘Costa Rican contras.’ They grabbed them viciously, taking one off to Masachapa and locking him up in a recruitment center. They shot the other one in the testicles, ripped out his nails, tortured him and then threw his dead body in a park called Glorias de Bluefields.
Another uncle met a similar fate. They put the corpses in dump trucks and tipped them on the platform of the central park in Bluefields. I remember my mom identified my dead uncle among the corpses when she found a body with a ring she had given him. His face was destroyed, they’d torn out his nails and burnt his chest. They tortured him before killing him.
I was little. I remember my mom shouting at the Sandinistas to turn over her brother’s body rather than burn it. A militiawoman told my mother they weren’t corpses but dogs, and there was no place for dogs in the cemetery. My mom continued shouting, demanding my uncle’s body until a friend of hers who was also a Sandinista told the militiamen that my mom was crazy and it would be better to give her the body. So they gave it to her. The others were thrown in a common grave.
With all of the shootouts, you couldn’t go out to buy food. And the markets were all empty anyway. So sometimes we had to eat three meals of oats: porridge, oat drink, everything made of oats. I remember we used a deodorant called Toque final [Final touch] and ate cans of Pork & Beans and other beans called biterra, which were like big capsules that tasted like dirt. We brushed our teeth with the famous Dentex toothpaste, which felt like you were putting salt in your mouth. And people made their own soap wrapping animal fat in plantain leaves. That soap stank. During the night, as there were always power cuts, our main distraction was watching tracer bullets streaking the sky as lights of war, stray bullets that killed who knows how many kids. That was our fun.
In a word, the revolution was a ‘tragedy’ for me, due to the violence and everything that it was our lot to live through. It wasn’t necessary.”
A lost generationAfter gathering these 12 accounts, some told in tears and others with smiles, but all with the seriousness instilled by the keen experience of the war, I realize that not everything was rose-colored and that quite contrary to what some of us thought, the Sandinista Popular Revolution was a cruel and heartbreaking period for many families. Many people died unnecessarily. Many necessarily left the country. Others stayed on in Nicaragua with their traumas and were never the same again.
Who’s responsible? A National Directorate run only by men, educated in the parameters of an authoritarian and patriarchal culture? Other leaders who didn’t have enough ethical fiber to avoid falling into corruption? The US government, which insisted on the war? Fidel Castro and his influence on what was happening in Nicaragua? I don’t think any good can come from pointing the finger at anyone anymore. It’s in the past. The revolution is history now, and as a historical period our job is to reflect on that stage and accept what was good and bad about it. How can we recall all of the good and all of the bad? I don’t know. The one thing I feel sure of is that mine is a lost generation. We’re the generation that got left half way down the track with a project that promised to build a new man but was never completed.
Thirty-two years after that event that marked a before and after in the history of Nicaragua I offer a minute’s silence to all those killed in combat during my childhood years fighting to realize the dreams of so many martyrs who have since been betrayed.
William Grigsby Vergara is a Nicaraguan social communicator.