The Nicaragua Photo/Testimony Project
Paul Dix and Pam Fitzpatrick
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The letter below is one of a series written by Pam Fitzpatrick and Paul Dix during multiple journeys they took to Nicaragua between 2002 and 2010 to locate people who were the subjects of photos taken by Paul in the 1980s (during the U.S.-sponsored Contra War). Pam and Paul's goal was to document and share with the people of the U.S.—through photographs and testimonies in Nicaraguans' own voices—the horrific long-term effects of the Contra War and ongoing U.S. international policy on the lives of ordinary Nicaraguans.  To see a list of all of the letters and their topics, visit the Letters page.  To learn more about the Nicaragua Photo/Testimony Project, see About the Book and About the Authors.

In 2011 Pam and Paul published a beautiful 220-page book of photographs and testimonies, NICARAGUA: Surviving the Legacy of U.S. Policy. Order it here!

February 27, 2003    Guasimo (Jinotega), Somotillo, Pajuil, Santo Tomas del Norte, Chinandega, Barrio Milagro de Dios (Managua)

Including stories about or testimonies from: Marta, Pablo and Justina, Reina, Maria.

Note: To see some of Paul's photos taken for the Photo/Testimony project, visit the Photos and Stories page.

Well, the most important news is that today is COURTNEY´S BIRTHDAY!!!  Needless to say, I wish I were with her to bake a cake and celebrate!  What a gift she is!!!

We’ve been away from email contact for nearly three weeks, feels good to touch base again.  We wrote this report February 14, and hope to have another one headed your way soon. Much has happened needless to say!

We want to thank each and every one of you for whatever you’ve been able to do to stop this mad march toward war. As we dig into the continuing torment of the US war on Nicaragua we keep hoping there might be a chance to stop Bush.

So here’s the report...of February 14.

Guasimo, Jinotega--We are today in Guasimo in the beautiful Pantasma Valley of Jinotega. In a couple hours we start the long, bumpy, back of a large truck, ride to Quilali.

We had a very hot week in the border town of Somotillo. It’s about a 5 hour drive from Managua, with a 2 hour "challenge road" from Chinandega to Somotillo. The road is actually intertwining chains of pot holes connected by a smattering of asphalt. The asphalt helps keep the edges of the pot holes firm so the trucks can get a better jolt!

It’s truly amazing to watch the 18 wheelers from Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala weave from the far left of the road to the far right, facing each other head on sometimes, searching for the least bumpy path.

It was an exhausting but fruitful week. We had hoped to find Marta, who, while riding in a civilian truck at age 7, survived a contra attack that killed 5 of her relatives, including her grandmother. Mauricio, a Swiss agronomist, was also killed. It’s his wife, Chantal, that toured the U.S. with Florentina
of Lagartillo, speaking out against U.S. aid to the contras (we talked about this in an earlier report).

The contra set off a remote controlled land mine which destroyed the truck, but most of the people were actually killed by gun shot. Marta was shot in the lower part of her leg, and we’re told she still has difficulty walking and can only do light work.

After we reached Somotillo we headed up to the tiny community of Jinocuao where we had been told Marta lived. Within 5 minutes we learned she had moved to Costa Rica, one of the many Nicaraguans searching for work there.  Then we set out to find her sister who might be able to give us an address in Costa Rica.  Luckily a friend with a truck gave us a ride to the trail that we then walked over around and up to her house.

The sister didn’t have the address but the mother, who lived south of Somotillo might. So, when Paul and I were very much looking forward to collapsing in a rooming house (our journey had started at 4 am) we found ourselves accompanied by the sister on a bus heading south of Somotillo to Pajuil, searching for Marta’s parents.

Now I was getting worried. Several of the women in Jinocuao had told me the walk from the bus stop to the community of Pajuil was long. When Nicaraguan’s say it’s a short walk, it’s an exhausting walk for me. When they say it’s along walk, I cringe (our last "long" walk could not have been done in one day!).

So we got off the bus and faced a long dusty road. Marta’s sister kept saying it was just up the hill, just a little more. Then up the NEXT hill. We finally got to a trail that meandered deeper into the hills and there it was. Their house! Only about an hour...not bad.  I give these details just to help people understand how difficult simple things can be for the people of Nicaragua.  They keep going when Paul and I would have collapsed!

Marta’s parents live in a tiny house surrounded by tiny homes of some of their other children and relatives. Pablo and Justina are raising Marta’s 7 year old daughter, Aren, while they still have a few children of their own at home. If the children go to school they have to walk nearly the distance we did, to a school which sits right next to a dusty noisy gold mine.

Pablo picks up work when he can, but they’re clearly struggling just to have enough food. In spite of their losses and current difficulties their spirits seemed strong. We returned several days later and recorded a testimony from Pablo, as he took a break from helping his nephew build a home.

Marta is supposed to visit the family at Easter time, but we’ll be back in the U.S. by then. IF we can squeeze out the time and the money we’ll try to find her in Costa Rica. Working in Costa Rica is clearly an important part of the Nicaraguan story.

Santo Tomas del Norte--
The next day we headed north of Somotillo to Santo Tomas del Norte, a population center of about 100 homes. In March 1987 the Honduran military launched mortars into Santo Tomas for 5 days, a blatant invasion of one country by another, ignored by the US media.

The Sandinista army evacuated the entire town to a spot about 4 miles further from the border, to a spot called Ojo de Agua. People lived there in tents until it was safe to return. We’re told that 3 children and 2 soldiers were killed during the attack.

When we got off the bus at Santo Tomas we started talking with a small cluster of people, showed the pictures of the evacuees in Ojo de Agua.  They called others over. Within 5 minutes, after lots of pointing and giggling, everyone in the pictures had been identified.

But the main person we wanted to find, Reina, was living back in Chinandega. We spent the day reliving the other pictures, visiting, and trying to get an address for Reina. We interviewed one woman who called the 5 day mortaring an accident (drunk soldiers...5 days?) and reported that Somoza was the last great president. We finally located Reina’s mother, then her sister, and finally her brother who was able to give us a general address for Reina in Chinandega.

After a few more very interesting and full days we headed to Chinandega  (one more trip on the "challenge road").  A first clue to Reina’s living situation came when the taxi driver refused to take us to her barrio. But for an extra fee he entered the barrio, garbage trucks kicking up dust in front of us as we passed the dump which borders Reina’s barrio.

We got out of the taxi, feeling a bit cautious after the warning by the taxi driver and started showing the picture of Reina and asking for her by name. No one seemed to know her. At last we were directed to a pastor that happened to be standing in the middle of the road, just down from us (no pavement here, just dusty dirt trails). Pastor Luis didn’t know Reina by name, but he recognized her face from the 16 year old picture! He took us directly to her. Again, we felt amazingly lucky.

Reina has 4 beautiful, energetic children (the 5th, oldest, died of a high fever several years ago) and a husband who is able to pick up a day’s work here and there.  She clearly loves her children and makes them a priority.  Her beautiful energy glowed out from her unusually dirty clothes and dirt stained face (is she a garbage picker?).  She does her best to send the children to school, but when her husband can’t find work, they don’t eat, much less go to school.

Paul has a picture of Reina stepping out of her tent at Ojo de Agua, a temporary home in 1987. Her permanent home is sadly similar, cardboard, black plastic, flattened tin cans, and shaped like an army wall tent. She said it leaks when the rains come and added they "go around wet". The entire barrio must be a muddy slop when the rains start!

As we left the community a young drunk told us "we shoot gringos here", as he pretended to reach for a rock, a joke perhaps, but unnerving. We mainly felt sad to see Reina’s light and her children trapped in this harsh community. Reina and her husband had been given this little plot of land after Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

Managua--Back in Managua we found Maria. We began our search for Maria back in Yali in December. Paul had a picture of her, but no name, at about age 7, standing by the cooking fire in an orphanage. This orphanage cared for children who had lost 1 or both parents in the war. It provided housing, food, psychological counseling and sometimes covered the needs of up to 180 children! It was started by the Sandinistas and then helped out by donations from Finland.

Children who had lost both parents slept at the orphanage. Those who had only lost 1 parent generally returned to their homes at night. What a huge help for single parents. And how nice to get some psychological help! Maria was in the second category, having lost her father.

Maria’s father had been head of a farming cooperative and was killed by the contra in the early 1980s. Her brother, with the Sandinista military, was killed 3 months later.

While in Yali we had shown the picture to nearly everyone we met since we didn’t have a name and the picture didn’t show her face clearly. We knew only the mother would recognize this child. And on our very last day in Yali we met Maria’s mother!

Sweet 25 year old Maria now lives with her 30 year old husband, Levy, and their 7 year old son, Levy, in the Managua barrio, Milagro de Dios (Miracle of God). Hearing it was a dangerous barrio; Paul walked in one day with no pack, money, or camera and started asking for Maria. When he was nearly ready to give up, a woman said she thought a woman from Yali lived across the street. Yes, it was Maria’s home!

Levy was home, but Maria had just started working at a local maquila (assembly plant). According to Levy, the "miracle" was that Paul, a gringo, walked into the barrio without being robbed. He walked Paul out and made arrangements to meet for lunch on Sunday. Levy was drinking, so Paul wrote out the information and we weren’t sure the meeting would actually happen.

But they came!  What a sweet, young looking, affectionate couple. Public signs of endearment are not common in Nicaragua. Levy’s had his own set of problems with alcohol and early gang activity, but he seems to be doing much better and they seem to care deeply for each other.

This is Maria’s first job. She’s at the Roo Hsing garment factory, a Taiwanese maquila, from 7 am to 5:30 pm, but expects to work from 7am to 7pm after she completes her training. She says she’ll also be expected to work on Saturdays. She’s on her feet the entire time, except for a 45 minute break for lunch, which she brings from home.  For this she is paid 47 cordobas a day (about $3.32).

School’s open. The Nicaraguan school year began the same day Maria started work. When we met with Maria she was carrying a plastic bag with 2 small notebooks for her son (small ones of folded, stapled pages, not fancy spiral notebooks). At the beginning of each school year the schools publish a list of exactly which notebooks each student needs in a particular grade. The list for little Levy might include the small notebooks with single lines, one with double lines, one with graph paper, a spiral notebook, pencils, and more. Maria was able to purchase the 2 smallest notebooks which cost about 5 cordobas each, but not the spiral notebook which she said cost 20 cordobas.

Nearly 5 hours of work to purchase 1 small spiral notebook! I later priced some of the notebooks at a local store - 11 cordobas for a small 70 page spiral notebook, 37 cordobas for a larger one with 3 sections, 60 cordobas for a 200 page, 5 section notebook.

This is the constant refrain we hear from parents. There are just too many barriers for parents who are struggling to feed their children to also send them to school. There’s the uniform (a few communities let children attend the public schools without uniforms, others don’t, and few children want to be the only ones without uniforms), the socks, the closed toe shoes, and then the school materials. And THEN there might be a long walk to school! On top of all this the parents are asked to pay the school 10 cordobas each month for each child that attends school.

A recent Nicaraguan report stated that 860,000 school-aged children are not enrolled. In addition the country is lacking 5,000 schools and 30,000 teachers (half the teachers that are needed). The end of the article quoted a government official saying the parents of the public school children need to be more involved, like the parents of private school children, which is a gentle way of saying they need to pay more for their children’s education. The official said the parents need to organize fundraising bazaars!

Young people also have an incredibly difficult time going to college. We’re constantly talking with bright, talented, energetic young people who can’t pay the $20 a month tuition for the public college.

This past weekend we had dinner with a U.S. friend near Managua who teaches at a U.S. based college in Nicaragua. Tuition is $8,000 US per year. The majority of the students were in the US during the 1980s, still have US residency or citizenship, and qualify for US Pell grants and Stafford loans. In very real terms the US is helping the least needy, not an unusual theme!

We’ve got a bus to catch!  Thanks for traveling with us, and thanks for helping us sort through this experience!


Pam and Paul