Words are my machete
The Young Cervantes Award was created in 1992
to distinguish the creative journey of Spanish-language writers
in the field of children’s and young adult literature.
This year a new category honors Ibero-American authors.
On July 11, the Alcalá de Henares City Council
and the Organization of Ibero-American States
for Education, Science and Culture (OIS)
honored the work of Nicaraguan writer María López Vigil,
a recognized pioneer in children’s literature in her country,
with its first Ibero-American Young Cervantes Award
for Children’s Literature.
María López Vigil
Those whose calling is to write were readers first. It’s practically a law. My father was a journalist, and his workspace was packed with books. I felt they were alive, waiting for me. My mother, who didn’t go beyond elementary school, could always be seen reading. All my brothers and sisters read for pleasure.
I learned to read when I was five. And I soon discovered that books are windows through which I could discover a world larger than my own. They are planes and ships for traveling. They are a path into the head and heart of those who write, even after they have left this world. My passion for reading had a precocious development. I was addicted to the classic tales all children read. Later, to Jules Verne’s adventures and Agatha Christie’s murders. And later... and still later... Today I passionately read books on scientific discoveries.
My hope for what I write
I have always felt that writing is a way for me to transcend myself. I’ve never written for myself, as a kind of outlet. I began just one teenage diary, but quickly abandoned it. Nor do I think of myself as someone with a writer’s “calling.” And yet, I have spent my whole life writing, using the written word to communicate with others.
It was life that did that work, beginning when I took the crazy step—and made the mistake—of becoming a nun. From the time I was 18 they charged me with writing, month after month, all or nearly all of the magazine—Jesus Maestro was its name—for the girls in the dozens of schools run by the Teresian sisters in Spain and Latin America. So I had thousands and thousands of girls and young women as readers for over a decade. I would write about everything: stories, movie reviews, animals, countries and writers... Everything. Nothing bore my signature, but it was a decisive workout. In those years they also made me study journalism, which is the job of writing about reality.
Since that time and for the rest of my life, I have done nothing but write and speak. And I wouldn’t know how to do anything other than work with words.
It was the words I heard when I came to Nicaragua, now nearly 40 years ago, that most fascinated me about this country. Nicaraguans’ way of speaking is amazing. I think I fell in love with Nicaragua for the way people talk. And it is with this profoundly true Nicaraguan saying that I have defined myself for a long time: “Words are my machete.”
What I have done with this machete is broad and varied. I have written while wearing different hats. Analysis of political and social reality. Photo-novels. Theological reflections in radio installments, the most famous of which is Un tal Jesús (A guy named Jesus), written with my brother José Ignacio. Other radio series on Latin American history. Testimonial literature, of which Piezas para un retrato de Monseñor Romero (Pieces for a portrait of Monsignor Romero) is the most important. And children’s literature.
In any genre, narrative and dialogue are the waters in which I swim best. In any genre, I hope that what I write provokes thought, tears, laughter, doubts and learning. I hope, above all, that those who read what I write are moved and carry it with them, that they get excited and remember it.
Why so underdeveloped...?
When I came to Nicaragua, children’s literature was virtually nonexistent. Even during the revolution, when so many innovations were flourishing, children’s literature remained dormant. In this area, too, we were an underdeveloped country.
With such abundant literary stock in Nicaragua, so many good writers, I was surprised that there were not more pens devoted to writing for children, especially in a country where the young are the majority. I wondered why. In this country of poets, could it be that writing for children is considered a lesser art, a type of handicraft, or something even less? Could it be that writers’ egos prefer their colleagues’ paeans and the applause of adults? Or is it that many writers suffered unhappy childhoods and have dissociated themselves from that stage of life? Or could it simply be that no publisher was promoting children’s literature...?
Un güegüe me contó
I had already been here for seven years when Un güegüe me contó (A wise elder told me), my first children’s book, was born. The Swedish International Development Agency, SIDA, promoted a contest in 1988 titled “We children want stories.” Aha! Swedish solidarity had the same questions as I, and very sensitively understood that what Nicaraguan children were reading were stories from other realities and other cultures. There was no children’s literature from and about here, and there needed to be.
The contest gave me an opportunity. My accomplice was my brother Nivio. He was already working as a children’s book illustrator in Spain and was also an archaeologist with a passion for Mesoamerican subjects. Nivio was the “wise elder” who “told” me what should be turned into a story. With the text I wrote for that contest, to which Nivio added two of the many delightful illustrations that would later grace the book, we won first prize. The book was printed in Sweden sponsored by the Stockholm Royal Library and with the imprint of what was at that time the Nicaraguan Association for Children’s and Young Adult Literature (ANLIJ). The Swedes had large-scale thoughts and printed on a large scale: no fewer than 18,000 copies arrived in Nicaragua in 1990, when children got to see it.
The splendor and chaos
of Nicaraguan speech
On its twentieth anniversary in 2009, the Libros para Niños (Books for Children) Foundation released a second edition, because the book was out of print. Over these 30 years I have had the immense satisfaction of meeting many young people, now parents, or professionals, whom I call “the güegüe kids.” I am fascinated to hear the excitement, laughter and enthusiasm that reading that book brought them.
Among other surprises, it allowed them to see written for the first time the words they used on the street, their grandparents’ sayings, the Nicaraguan way of talking, with all its splendor and chaos. It was a real novelty to read jodido (screwed up) in print. It was joyful to see in writing the young Mingoxico’s exclamation Hijueputa calendario! (Friggin’ calendar!). It was a revolution to read the indifferent decree exclaimed by the old lady who lay dying on her mat: Muerta yo, hagan sopa de mi culo! (Once I’m dead, make soup out of my ass!).
Between the two of us, Nivio and I crafted a work of great harmony between text and illustrations, one of the keys to good children’s literature. This combination is the basis for the interest with which the book was received by young and old alike. I’ve always thought that the best test for knowing if a children’s book is good is that adult readers like it too.
Un güegüe me contó soon became the children’s literature classic in our country. Today it is considered the book that pioneered this literary genre in Nicaragua.
Thanks to this book, Sergio Andricaín and Antonio Orlando Rodríguez—international specialists in children’s literature who were working in Costa Rica’s Ministry of Culture creating, promoting and researching children’s literature in Latin America—invited me to participate in the “Children’s Literature for Peace” International Conference sponsored by UNESCO and UNICEF in San Salvador in February 1994.
There I had the chance to read a short text at the round table titled “Children’s literature on the cusp of the 21st century,” joining other authors from the continent, highly trained authors with many books under their belts.
El Salvador’s civil war having recently ended, I wanted to overcome the methodological and didactic emphasis the Salvadoran authorities sought to place on the event, so I chose a tenor of political commitment for my words...
Two values in stories:
Solidarity and cultural identity
This is what I said: We are talking about children and about books. And in Latin America, most children are poor. And most poor people are children. This is a general, and certainly disturbing, conclusion of UNICEF’s most recent reports... The majority of these poor people who are children, and of these children who are poor, eat only occasionally, and go to school only occasionally as well; they hardly play because they work too much or are in fields that each day grow poorer, or are on the streets of cities growing more and more violent. The majority do not read. Because they don’t know how to read. Or because even if they know how, they don’t have the time or the place to read. Or the money to buy a book...
I don’t want to list off all the values that should be present in our children’s literature. I will mention just two that I believe are the most strategic: the value of solidarity and an appreciation of one’s own cultural identity.
Children’s literature must teach competition and sharing. Fair competition and sharing out of solidarity. Competition makes life less boring. Solidarity does, too. It’s a value that goes so much against the flow that it makes life more challenging, more colorful. Showing solidarity is precarious adventure, full of danger, in which you have to face very powerful monsters, get around abysses and challenge fate. An adventure that calls for bravery, fantasy and decisiveness. Elements, it turns out, that are classic and essential to a good children’s story.
Appreciation of one’s own cultural identity is the other value we must nurture. Many voices are now making themselves heard in defense of biodiversity... In Latin America we must also raise our voices in defense of cultural biodiversity. Which is also in grave danger. The owners of information, producers of images and messages, want to cut us all out of the same cloth. They want us all to play the same games and buy the same trinkets. For us all to dress alike, sing alike and eat alike. So that we will all think alike... With our books, our stories and our tales we must raise parapets against the avalanche that threatens our cultural biodiversity...
The surprising excitement with which Un güegüe me contó was received spurred me to keep writing, despite the exceedingly slim chances of having anything—much less children’s literature—published in Nicaragua in the 1990s, given the dearth of publishing houses. Nevertheless, five years later I gave birth to another book.
The text is not “mine.” The underlying text for my second book was El Güegüense o Macho Ratón, a literary jewel of the 17th Century, the oldest surviving work of theater ballet or ballet turned theater in Latin America. The work of an anonymous author, it was written in Nicaragua and performed—both theatrically and in dance—in the villages along the Pacific coast that were known in colonial times as “la Manquesa.” Today it is still performed during the feasts of St. Sebastian in Diriamba. In November 2005 UNESCO named El Güegüense Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
In describing the values of El Güegüense, UNESCO characterized it as a “satirical drama.” The play is considered “one of the most significant Latin American expressions of the colonial era.” UNESCO states that the text is a “forceful expression of protest against the colonial system.” And the character of the Güegüense is appreciated for his ability to “undermine Spanish authority”; they note that in contemporary Nicaragua “to play the güegüense” means “being capable of this challenging skill to undermine power and authority.”
Understanding El Güegüense
was of almost importance
Before UNESCO showered El Güegüense with compliments, I had already read and re-read the original text. But could I be sure of understanding it fully? The archaic theatrical structure of the plot and the text—full of humor, but with twists and words in mangue| (Nahua-Castilian)—does not make it easy for children or adults to discover its transgressive and revolutionary essence.
I felt that better understanding both the text and the character of El Güegüense was imperative. I thus dreamt of re-creating this classic, modernizing its structure and some of the language. A tremendous challenge. We took it on. I speak in plural because in producing this work, Nivio was once again my counselor, repeatedly reviewing the text and suggesting new ways to polish it.
We called the book Historia del muy bandido, igualado, rebelde, astuto, pícaro y siempre bailador Güegüense (The story of the roguish, uppity, rebellious, shrewd, sly and ever dancing Güegüense), gathering from the very beginning all the values that constitute this character and his clash with power.
The illustrations Nivio drew out of the words are a masterwork of color and movement, humor and creativity. Once again we achieved a work in which text and image are wonderfully integrated.
In a twist of fate, which is what happens while one is making plans, the book was first published in German. It was presented at the 1992 Frankfurt Book Fair, for the 500th anniversary of the Conquest of America. In Nicaragua it was published by Anamá Ediciones in 1994.
has much to teach us
In 2007, after El Güegüense was honored by UNESCO, the Libros para Niños Foundation produced a second edition. It was presented in a beautiful ceremony in the atrium of the St. Sebastian Basilica in Diriamba. The book was greeted by Nicaragua’s renowned poet Ernesto Cardenal, its famed cultural songwriter Carlos Mejía Godoy and Juan Bautista Arrién, UNESCO’s representative in Nicaragua. That afternoon I talked about the meaning of El Güegüense as an extraordinary literary character.
More than three centuries distance us from the text. Three hundred years! It is a very, very, very old and very, very, very valuable text. It is a treasure. Not just for Diriamba, not just for these Villages, not just for the Pacific coast. Not just for Nicaragua. It is now a treasure belonging to the whole round earth, to all Humanity.
Some say that to be a Güegüense is to be cunning and conniving. They say that this wonderful old man who survives by dreaming and playing with words is just a thief we should be ashamed of. No, no and no. This ingenious old man, a vagrant peddler, intelligent, sly and mocking, preening and talkative, uppity and joyfully happy, thieving, sly and shrewd, rebellious and brave, this audacious man has, therefore, many positive things to teach us, to tell us and to remind us.
“Believe in the power of words”
Nivio and I made this book for you, who are growing. We wrote it and we illustrated it so you can know a small slice of our history, so you can know how our ancestors thought. And so you can learn how they faced down the powerful people of their time. Remember: we don’t know where we’re going if we don’t know where we came from.
We wrote it and we illustrated it so you could learn to resist abusive power by laughing in its face. Just like the Güegüense mocked the fat, rude Governor Tastuanes. Remember: laughter really gets to power. And that’s why we have to laugh at arrogant and abusive people with power.
We wrote it and we illustrated it so you could learn to dream of a different Nicaragua, the one that is waiting for us to build together. Let’s learn from the Güegüense, who slept curled up on a reed mat and dreamed that he lived in a palace. Who carried around four old tchotchkes in his bundle and presented it as full of treasures. Always remember that reading teaches us to dream. And only by imagining and dreaming will we be able to change Nicaragua.
We wrote it and illustrated it so you would believe in the strength and power of words. In the power and strength you have in your words. The Güegüense well knew that it’s not enough to pray. And he didn’t use prayer to beat the abusive Governor. He thought on his own of how to do it, how to turn the tables on Tastuanes. The Güegüense trusted his words to get him out of trouble. And he got out! He was triumphant and he won! He could have failed. And most importantly, he didn’t just win, he fought.
Today we celebrate, more than anything, his rebelliousness. Trust your words, resist powerful people with your laughter, making a mockery of them. And trust the power of words. Keep all this in mind when you read this book. And from now on, when you hear someone say, “He’s a güegüense!” know that it’s a compliment, not an insult.
“La Balanza de Don Nicolás Sandoval
In these first two books I was diving into the country’s indigenous culture, trying to help children get to know something of their past, so they could feel proud of being Nicaraguan and see the value of the Nicaraguan way of speaking, so amazing and rich in humor and wisdom. I wanted to promote literary biodiversity in the field of children’s literature and rescue such valuable cultural and oral roots from extinction.
After these books I moved on to other topics. 1999 saw the birth of a new project again involving my brother Nivio’s amazing expert advice: La Balanza de Don Nicolás Sandoval (Don Nicolás Sandoval’s Scale). It was presented first as theater and then as a book published by Ediciones Anamá and sponsored once again by SIDA.
This Nicolás is another wise man, who in one of his ingenious experiments invents a magic scale. Its magic works to discover the worth of any person based on what they weigh. And when he weighs them with the scale, Don Nicolás confirms equality: between boys and girls, between white children and black children and kids with curly hair, between poor children and rich children and preppies, and between babies and adults.
I found a kindred spirit in Libros para niños
In 2005 and 2010 I wrote two little love stories. I think a childlike nature is also always present in love. Children also fall in love and find joy and suffer for these first loves. Older lovers have also really liked Los dientes de Joaquín (Joaquín’s Teeth) and La lechera y el carbonero (The Milkmaid and the Coal Seller).
By then I had already met Eduardo Báez, a man in love with reading and amazingly conscious of the importance of children’s literature for transforming Nicaragua. In 2003 we had already been fellow travelers. That year we published one of his talks in envío featuring ideas we shared.
Each time we read a work of literature, Eduardo told us, our minds create mental images and form new connections among our cerebral circuits, which is essential to developing vital mental skills. Reading is fundamental to reaching our full human potential and becoming creative citizens able to imagine that our lives and the life of our community and our country might be different.
Inspiring love for reading
among the poorest
For years I worked in Adult Education, Eduardo recalled. I first participated in 1980 in the National Literacy Campaign as a Department Coordinator for Managua. Afterwards, I spent six years in the Education Ministry’s adult education program. In 1993 I came across Libros para Niños, a recently created nongovernmental organization. They hired me for a 6-month consultancy and I’ve been there ever since.
I soon discovered I was still working on the same problem. It was just that in the 1980s, in adult education, I had worked on the problem’s end result: an illiterate adult. And at the Foundation I was working with the start of the problem: lack of reading. In promoting a love for reading we were helping to use that love to shut off one of the spigots that produced illiteracy.
In Libros para Niños we’re working to create a place where children can have an agreeable, free, informal, non-academic encounter with the world of books and reading... We were devoted to promoting reading and educating readers. But we prefer to say that what we are looking for is to inspire love for books and reading. Because we believe that this love is the most effective starting point for becoming real readers, permanent and independent lifelong readers...
We worked in that field because we believed it was essential for our population—especially among the poorest, who are the majority in Nicaragua—to have access to written culture. It is that population of children who have no books in their homes, who cannot buy them, that we prioritize with the best literature.
Cinco noches arrechas
Since 2005 everything I have written has carried the imprint of Libros para Niños, the publisher that opened its doors to me and allowed me to keep writing, always with Nivio illustrating my words.
Even before the two little love stories, I had been thinking of a book that would retell Nicaragua’s most popular traditional ghost tales, but in a new way. I even had a title for the book: it would be called “Ocho noches arrechas” (Eight furious nights). But life intervened and the book had to wait a long while. I was only able to write five horror stories.
I planned it with my brother, Nivio. I would turn off the lights to read him the text with full terrorizing effects... and without his go ahead, I stayed put. His illustrations are simply ingenious and frightening.
El Cura sin Cabeza (The Headless Priest) had appeared to some school kids in León Viejo. El Cadejo (a mythical animal with the appearance of a shaggy dog and glowing eyes) followed the footprints of a boy who stole from another boy in Managua’s Colonia Centroamérica neighborhood. La Cegua (The Siguabana) was hired by women in Totogalpa to teach a lesson to Bernardón, a womanizing sluggard. The rattling bones of La Carreta Nagua (the Phantom Cart) appeared to three drunkards in Chinandega. And El Caballo Arrechavala (Arrechavala’s Horse) rode through León letting rip a monstrous fart...
Why do we love to scare
ourselves so much?
I presented “Cinco noches arrechas” in Managua one night in 2008, with support from Norwegian and Finnish cooperation.
Lately, I said on that happy night, I’ve been asked if I think these frightening tales and horrifying drawings are appropriate for children... And yes, I think children will really like this book. And adults, too... As a girl I always loved to hear ghost stories and read scary books. And when I got older, I became addicted to mystery novels... For the pleasure of feeling scared.
I leave you all with the following questions... What instinctive need to feel fear does reading scary stories meet? Why do children like tales of ghosts, wolves and witches so much? Could it be because we are rebelling against an overly secure life? Could it be that we human beings need a certain measure of danger to feel alive? Could it be that we always require something terrible to face so we can test ourselves? Or is it that feeling fear from reading a book prepares us to face our many real-life fears...?
Whatever the answer, although there are many scrupulous parents who believe this book is inappropriate, experience has taught me that it’s the book children of all ages ask for when I go to schools and story nooks to read them what I’ve written. It’s always the most requested, most applauded, most read and most borrowed book from the Libros para Niños reading spots and story nooks. So, confirmed! They love to be scared...
The next-to-last “paper children”
The last project I did with Eduardo Báez, before he was killed by an aneurysm, was of five small books: “Mi mamá me quiere” (My mother loves me), “Mi papá me quiere” (My father loves me), “Mi abuelita me quiere” (My granny loves me), “Yo quiero a mi escuela” (I love my school) and “Yo me quiero” (I love myself). I wanted to explain to children what “this thing called love” is...
The books were distributed free in schools, sponsored by Save the Children. Eduardo didn’t live to see them.
In 2014, Nivio and I took on the task of reviving, updating and promoting Rabinal Achí o Baile del Tun (Rabinal Achí or the Dance of the Trumpet), a text also designated Oral and intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, along with Nicaragua’s El Güegüense.
The value of this text is enormous: it is the only surviving ceremonial representation predating European arrival to Mayab lands. It is the only written testimony of the Mayan worldview left to us from the pre-Colonial period. It is a text that reveals worldview uncontaminated by loanwords; but it is incomprehensible and impenetrable for today’s reader.
In a loose interpretation of the text and words and giving a touch of feminine sensibility to this warrior’s drama, we brought this hero’s tale into the present day. It had been sung six centuries ago in the Rabinaleb language in the land of the K'iché , converted to popular theater five centuries ago and rescued 150 years ago by a European who fell in love with the splendor of Maya culture, translated it and brought it to world attention. We presented it in Guatemala City in 2015.
A debt to the rich tradition of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast was paid that year when we had the opportunity to convert and illustrate four Miskito tales: “Por qué hablan así los dantos” (Why do tapirs talk that way?), “Por qué nadan así los patos” (Why do ducks swim like that?), “Por qué son enemigas la tortuga y la culebra” (Why are turtles and snakes enemies?) and “¿Por qué son así los sapos?” (Why are toads the way they are?).
La guía del pipián
If thirty years ago Un güegüe me contó led children to know something of their past, telling them about Nicaragua’s pre-history, in 2016 I was so disheartened by how things were going in our country that I wanted to leave them a legacy... to help them imagine a better future, a future different from the present that was causing me so much pain.
To that end I whisked readers off, together with fictional Guayo and Nayita, to a field of magic squash... there to follow La guía del pipián (The Squash Guide). They could hear the two most famous inhabitants of the squash bed, Uncle Coyote and Uncle Rabbit, both conjuring up and paraphrasing Nicaragua’s famed 19th-century poet Rubén Darío with new dreams: “Though the homeland be small... one dreams it green... one dreams it wise... one dreams it happy.”
In La guía del Pipián there is a dejected realism that is also hopeful: the squash guide is so super-magical that it talks to children to share its secret with them: “I’m on the ground... but I’m flowering.”
When I presented this text at Managua’s Central American University (UCA) I never imagined the blue and white rebellion would take place less than two years later, an awakening of so many people rising up from the ground and flowering. I didn’t expect so much bravery and dignity in such youth... I never imagined that so many would fill the country demanding a better future.
Still in 2017, one last birth: El chavalo relámpago (The Lightning Kid), vignettes from the childhood of baseball legend Dennis Martínez, the national glory. Listening to him for hours telling of his childhood gave me the measure of this man’s human values. He is a man who played a perfect game in the Big Leagues and another perfect game in his personal life.
An award for Nicaragua,
its language and its people
My works of children’s literature, like all my other books, are my paper children. I remember with deep feeling when and with what love they were conceived; I remember the pains of their birth and the joy of seeing them born. I know them; they inherited my DNA and I see myself in them. I have seen them walk and grow and go farther than I ever imagined when I wrote them. So far that they have come to deserve the Young Cervantes, and to have Nicaragua, its language and its people, be honored with this award.
María López Vigil is envío’s editor-in-chief.