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!

January 8, 2005    Solentiname Islands, Juigalpa, Lagartillo, Las Lajas, Venecia, Condega

Including stories about or testimonies from: Alexi, Florentina and Perez family, Jose, Juana Maria, Franklin, Nora, Mauricio.

Note: The photos in this letter are Pam's casual digital photos. To see some of Paul's professional photos taken for the Photo/Testimony project, visit the Photos and Stories page.
What a difference a bit of land makes!

We've covered a lot of territory since our last newsletter and, or course, can only share a tiny slice.  Toward the end of December we were in southern Nicaragua, and partially as a reward for a very grinding bus ride we went to the nearby Solentiname Islands in Lake Nicaragua for a few days.  We visited the church where in the 1960s and 1970s Ernesto Cardenal helped the local people read the bible from the perspective of fairness and justice right here on earth, rather than from the perspective of salvation after death; we took long slow boat rides for hours of bird and monkey watching, visited with some of the amazing local artists.  A truly amazing place.   We highly recommend a visit!

Last week, while Paul and I were out in the countryside, there were demonstrations in Managua against the privatization of water.  The right leaning newspaper, La Prensa, reported that people were demonstrating against the modernization of the national water system.  Reminded me of the articles in the U.S. papers when people "against progress" would demonstrate against energy deregulation.  Look at what happened to energy rates!

Those of you that have seen our slide show might remember Alexi from Juigalpa, now a young man of 17 who lost his leg at age two months to a contra bullet that passed through his mother before it shattered his little leg.  We visited with him on our way to San Carlos in southern Nicaragua.  Beaming with pride he showed us his recent report card from his first year of high school; later he took us on a tour of his school, pointing out the room he worked in all last year. He especially loves poetry but mentioned that he needed an algebra book for next year (the new school year starts February 2).  Paul and I searched out a book store and bought it for him as a Christmas present.  The one book cost a bit over $16.   Actually YOU bought it for Alexi - thanks!  High school students need to purchase their text books in addition to the standard uniform, shoes, socks, notebooks, pencils, etc, that all students at all levels need to purchase for an estimated cost, according to a recent La Prensa article, of about $20.

We're not at all sure how Alexi's family has been able to cover his school expenses, but we do know they're extremely poor and it's an amazing accomplishment!  Silvio, his father, is able to periodically find work as a carpenter; his mother, traumatized by the war in the 80s deserted the family; Silvio's mother is basically raising Alexi working as a domestic for 600 cordobas a month (about $36).  She feels lucky to have the work!

Alexi at 17
Alexi, now 17, lost his leg at age 2 to a contra bullet.

Walk to Achuapa
The 2004 walk to Achuapa commemorating the anniversary of the flight of the women and children of Lagartillo from a deadly contra attack in December of 1984.
We spent several days around New Year's Eve in one of our favorite places, Lagartillo. For the past three years many from this tiny community have gathered at 5:45 am on December 31st to begin the 6 km walk to Achuapa, through the hills and brush, following the route the women and children took on the panicked flight from Lagartillo as the contra attacked early morning December 31, 1984.

This year we were able to stand with them in their morning circle as people shared their memories of that day. One woman spoke of her last moments with her father, one of the six people killed. Others remembered their terror,  some still overwhelmed by the emotional pain they still carry.  Along the journey we stopped several times as women pointed to places where they had to lower the children over cliffs. We eventually reached Achuapa and walked into the cemetery where we formed another circle around the graves of the six who were killed that horrible December day.  A few offered reflections, a few led songs, "presentes" were shouted.  We then boarded a truck for the return to Lagartillo for an afternoon commemoration and a celebration of life highlighted by the young people's folkdance.  A very powerful day and an unusual one for Nicaragua.  Largartillo is the only community we've visited that is trying to teach the young about the history of the contra war and the revolution.  It seems that everywhere else, that history is being ignored, erased, or distorted.

Our hostess, Florentina Perez, whose husband, Jose Angel, and  20-year-old polio-crippled daughter, Zunilda, were killed by the contra as they defended the community long enough for the women and children to escape, took us to Las Lajas the next day. Florentina and her family had lived in Las Lajas, an hour walk from Lagartillo, until they were so frightened by nearby contra activity that they moved to their cooperative in Lagartillo for more security.  Las Lajas is our new favorite spot, quiet, peaceful, overlooking hills and valleys. How sad they were forced to leave!

Florentina managed to hold on to this house and now her newly married son, Chema, lives there.  Zunilda's murals, painted inside and outside the house with different shades of mud, have been maintained.  

If you want to see all this for yourself remember the language school in Lagartillo:
Florentina looking out the window of the home in Las Lajas she was forced to leave due to contra activity.
Zunilda drawing #2 Zunilda drawing #1
Details of Zunilda's murals on the walls of the house at Las Lajas.
view from Florentinas house
View from the home in Las Lajas.

Next we headed to Venecia, a small coffee cooperative in the hills north of Condega.  Another beautiful community, but at 1,300 meters, it was windy and colder than we had expected.  I survived by wearing every stitch of clothing I had with me.

During the U.S.-funded and directed contra war of the 80s, the Sandinista government bought this land and helped people from the surrounding area, who were being threated by contra attacks, to relocate.

While other cooperatives, legally purchased by the Sandinista government, lost their land to re-armed contra forces in the 1990s, Venecia has managed to continue their ownership.  The land is divided amongst them, so they each own and work a particular plot, but they cannot sell the land without approval of the cooperative. This gives other co-op members the right of first purchase and the co-op has continued to exist while many have collapsed.
Venecia, a small coffee cooperative north of Condega.  The community is constructing a small tourist hotel in hopes of attracting income for the cooperative.
This is another exceptional place you might want to visit. They are currently constructing a little community hotel for eco-tourism, an income for the entire cooperative.  It's not yet complete but for more information you could call Teito, a co-op member who works with UNAG in Condega (715-2202).  Venecia itself has no electricity or phones and cell phones don't function there.

Members of the co-op grow beans, corn, and organic, shade-grown coffee for income and for their own consumption.  We watched Jose, Juana Maria, 12-year-old Franklin, and 8-year-old Nora as they were washing and drying their recently picked coffee beans. As is so often the case here and in the U.S., those who work the hardest and longest are paid the least.  The "real" coffee money is evidently with the middle people and the roasters, not the small growers.  But the income is still a huge help!
  Jose spreading coffee
 Jose spreads coffee beans to dry.
Juana Maria sorting coffee
Juana Maria sorts coffee beans.

It's with this money that they can pay for their children's school supplies, buy some medicine and purchase a jacket and hat for those windy cold months.

But life is still difficult. Twelve-year-old Franklin who was born with his intestines outside his body cavity, still has not been able to have the surgery that would enable him to do the heavy work required of farm life.  His family just doesn't have enough money.
The grower has to tend the new coffee plant for about 5 years before there is significant production, and then, of course, needs to tend the plant and cut back the brush for the life of the plant.  They hand pick the beans, remove the pulp generally with a hand turned grinder, wash the pulped beans, pick out the damaged or still pulped beans, spread them out to dry for a few hours, and then rebag them and take them to a larger center where the hard husk is removed and the beans are dried for several days. It's a very labor intensive process.  Since the co-op is now certified organic they receive 700 cordobas (about $42) for a hundred pound bag of coffee beans.

washing coffee beans
Franklin, Nora, and mother Juana Maria wash coffee beans.

What strikes us is the dignity of the people in Lagartillo, Venecia, and Las Lajas.  Yes, they're poor, and it's still extremely difficult to go to high school or college, but they have some land, food, and a little income.  You know and we know that having land, especially in an agrarian country, makes a huge difference in one's quality of life. Getting land to the landless was a main objective of the Nicaraguan revolution that so frightened the U.S. government, that enabled the U.S. government to justify killing 30,000 to 50,000 people and leaving the poor even poorer.

The people of Lagartillo, Venecia, and Las Lajas are still living without their fair share of the earth's bounty, but their desperation is not as extreme as those who have no land.

No matter how forcefully the economically secure try to convince us that maquilas and, in Nicaragua, cigar factories, are the answer to increased economic security for the poor majority we know it's a lie.  It's the same lie as when they say energy deregulation is in our interest, or privatization of water will benefit us all.

Maquilas just eat up the youth and spit them out tired and untrained.  We had some extended time over the holidays with a woman who works in the same maquila as Maria Auxiliadora from our last newsletter.  People who work as inspectors, or in other non-production capacities, earn 37 cordobas (about $2.30) a day.  If they are one minute late they are fined 20 cordobas, three minutes late 100 cordobas.  They earn this money working 5 days a week and generally are away from home 6 am to 6 pm.  Maria was able to increase her monthly income to 1400 cordobas by working overtime, meaning she would return home well past 6  pm, totally exhausted, and still without enough pay to cover her very basic needs.

More and more maquilas are opening in Nicaragua, and yes, hungry people are lining up for work.  But we all know that maquilas are not the answer.  The only ones truly benefiting from the maquilas are the owners and the stock holders of the goods produced.  In addition, most of Nicaragua's maquilas are foreign-owned and can be moved to another country, such as China, at any time.  Speaking of China, next time you're in a department store try to find a mass produced toy that was NOT made in China!

More and more "Cuban" cigar factories are opening in Nicaragua, too.  Cigars made from tobacco grown in Nicaragua, rolled in Nicaragua, boxed in Nicaragua, but owned by Miami Cubans and therefore sold at a high price as "Cuban" cigars.

Mauricio (also in our slide show) and his family, lost their land during the contra war and his mother, Juana Hernandez, had to move their house from a beautiful hill overlooking a valley, to a tiny plot on the outskirts of Condega.  Since our last visit Mauricio has finally found work and has been employed for over a year in a tobacco-dust filled warehouse rolling cigars for $2 to $3 a day, or $0 a day if the manager determines that too many of his 300 cigars did not meet the standard.  The cigar factories are eating up the young workers and spitting them out exhausted, untrained and with lung disease.

For the 78% of the people in Nicaragua that are living on $2 or less a day, owning a small farm will provide a life of hard work but, at least, land to a Nicaraguan means dignity.  If CAFTA passes, this too can be taken away since many who depend on selling some of their beans and corn will not be able to compete with imported grains. How much desperation can they contain?

When I sit with someone who has worked all day in someone else's field, or in a maquila, or in a cigar factory for long hard hours for $2 and I hear how they can't cover the costs of public school for their children a fury rises from a very deep spot in my soul.  I can't help but feel our government bears responsibility for much of this suffering.

Thank you for caring. Thank you for your support for people here in Nicaragua and for your local work, especially for your efforts to stop this obscene concentration of wealth that seems to be moving forward without limits!     

Paul and I will be on tour with our slide show next year. We're thinking we'll be in the northwest for October and November, and in the southwest for February and the rest is wide open. Actually nothing is scheduled yet so it's all wide open.  But it's time to start organizing our tour, so if you have any college contacts to share with us it would be a huge help. We do need to charge for our presentations; the fees fund our work and will help us with publishing the book.  Write us at  We very much enjoy hearing from people.

Again.  Thanks for traveling with us!  

Pam Fitzpatrick and Paul Dix