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!

June 10, 2005    Bluefields, Kukra Hill, Orinoco, Pearl Lagoon, Managua

Including stories about: Ruby Temple, Rosita Davis Zenon.

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.

We flew out of Managua on the 28th of May with that unsettling feeling that we were abandoning our friends and all the people we interviewed and photographed, those generous, gentle, kind people that had opened their homes and hearts to us during these last 7 months.  While they remain stuck in their poverty with few or no options, just the desperate day by day struggle for survival, we board a big silver bird that whisks us away to, by comparison, a life of luxury.

Our last few weeks were rushed as we tried to wrap up our work in Nicaragua.  Early in May, we flew east to Bluefields, on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua and traveled in small boats north through canals and rivers to the towns of Kukra Hill, Pearl Lagoon, and Orinoco.

We started the water travel part of our journey in Bluefields, waiting several hours until there were enough to fill the small boat traveling toward Pearl Lagoon that would also stop at Kukra Hill.  We disembarked at  the tiny community of Kukra Hill to look for Ruby Temple, a colorful evangelical woman with amazing energy that Paul had photographed in the 80s.

This was our introduction to the reality of water travel between these small coastal communities that are not connected by roads.  After learning that Ruby had moved to Managua we learned we'd just have to wait until there were 18 people that wanted to travel to Pearl Lagoon or another boat came by that had space, either of which might take days. As was our experience day after day in Nicaragua, we only had wait through one heavy rain storm and several hours before a full boat from Bluefields passed by Kukra Hill and then turned around, came to our dock, and squeezed in the three of us that were waiting for transit to Pearl Lagoon.

Pearl Lagoon
On the waterfront,  Pearl Lagoon.
The eastern half of Nicaragua, referred to as the Atlantic Coast, is a different world from the western part of Nicaragua - culturally, linguistically, racially.  It is separated from the more populated Pacific Coast area by mountains and has, historically, been inaccessible by land.  What roads existed were generally washed out for most of the year. Generally people traveled to the Atlantic Coast by boat or plane.  We remember hearing Nicaraguans from the Pacific side joke about needing a passport to travel to the Atlantic Coast.

In the 1600s the Pacific side of Nicaragua was colonized by Spain and the Atlantic side by Great Britain.  The British brought slaves from Africa to work the plantations and the ancestors of those slaves now are the majority population of the region.  Because the British didn't bring masses from Britain to live in Nicaragua, more of the indigenous population survived, and for that reason the Atlantic Coast is infinitely more culturally diverse than the rest of Nicaragua.

While Spanish is the language of the Pacific side, the Atlantic side is multilingual. To us they spoke a soft, gentle English, pronouncing the words meticulously and using expressions like "snap me a picture" and "there was a sit-up last night" (a wake).  Nearly everyone also speaks Spanish and the black people, among themselves, speak a dialect they call Creole.  To us it was incomprehensible and sounded like a totally different language.  Add to this the indigenous language, Misquito, which many also speak, as well as Garifano which some elders still speak.  A polyglot society, switching from language to language so naturally.

Historically, the people of the Atlantic coast have been at odds with the majority of Nicaraguans who live on the Pacific side.  They call the people from the west "Spaniards" even though they are mestizos (mixed race) just as most Latin Americans.  Through out the history of Nicaragua they have been treated as second-rate citizens, their resources exploited by outsiders, and their lives controlled by these same outsiders or politicians in Managua.

The Sandinistas, when they came into power, planned to do better.  They tried,  but in every way - politically, militarily, economically, - they made serious mistakes.  Many of the young men from the Atlantic coast joined the contra ranks, "went to the bush", and, with U.S. support, fought against the Sandinistas.      
The agenda of these Atlantic Coast combatants was quite different than that of the much larger U.S.-backed contras of the Pacific.  What the people of the Atlantic Coast wanted was independence or, at least, some degree of sovereignty so they could reap the benefits of their own resources, control their own lives, and have much more representation in the political arena in Managua.  Their struggle, however, was co-opted by the larger contra war of the "Spaniards" and the goals of Washington which were to oust the Sandinistas and return Nicaragua to "free market", corporate capitalism with the same colonial dynamic that the country had under Somoza.

Only later in the 80s did the Sandinistas admit their mistakes and initiate what turned out to be a very unique and revolutionary autonomy process for the Coast.  This was a positive step but too late and since 1990, when the Sandinistas lost the election, there has been little progress in the autonomy process.
The pace on the Atlantic coast was mellow.  People had time to talk with us and make us feel at home.  The children were polite and respectful, greeting us with a smile and a "good day" when we passed them on the paths.  The seafood was delicious.

In Orinoco, a small village on Pearl Lagoon, we located Rosita Davis Zenon whom Paul had photographed in 1985.  Expecting to find pro-contra politics, we were surprised that Rosita, as well as most of Orinoco, was sympathetic to the Sandinistas.  She expressed the situation in these words.  "And plenty boys from around here, was plenty in the bush, and join the contras.  I really didn't - up to yet, I can't tell you what was their objective of the contra inside the bush.
(But here in Orinoco) they understand the Frente (Sandinistas).  They tried to understand, what it is am I going to fight for in the bush?  Why am I going there into the bush? If it's to fight, it's best to stay in the town on the best side to fight than to go in the bush 'cause you will have someone to visit you and you know it would be plenty different than to just be in the bush like that.  They decide to stay.  They decide to stay and, if they fight, rather to fight to defend the old people, the children and others than to go in the bush to fight against the children and old people."

Rosita did arm herself during those contra war years and did help defend her community from attack.  She definitely doesn't want to return to those years.  She's now a primary school teacher making a bit less than $100 a month, struggling to feed her small family and dreaming of adding windows and doors to the small house she built.  But she seems exhausted and would like a "vacation" at some point,  time to rest and heal.

The unemployment rate of the Atlantic coast is the highest in Nicaragua, a country with overwhelming unemployment.   As Rosita explained, the only jobs in Orinoco are for teachers and nurses, both of which do not pay anywhere near a living wage.  But every so often relief comes in the form of a bag of white powder that washes up on the shore.  Suddenly, a few construction workers have work, a windowless wooden shack is replaced by a small 2-story cement house, and others benefit as the money filters through the community.

Cocaine, on its way from Colombia to the U.S., is sometimes dumped into the ocean when DEA boats are in pursuit. Families take outings from the lagoon to the coast to walk the beaches and look for the packets that can give them the opportunity that their hard work does not provide.  Someone generally appears soon after the packets have been found, some foreign man, perhaps from Colombia they say.  The going rate is $2,000 for a one kilogram packet.

This has had a noticeable impact on the economy but unfortunately violence inevitably follows the drugs.  Four people were recently kill in a drug-related shootout in Bluefields.  Also, people in the transshipment countries between Colombia and the U.S. are becoming consumers of the drugs.

Others find work by leaving their family for 8 months to a year to work on the luxury cruise ships.  At the end of their term they generally return home for a month or two to be with their spouse and children.  Yes, these families have a better life, but at what cost to the worker?  Others work in the Cayman Islands, often as domestics.  They have to have these jobs lined up before the arrive and generally have to pay a large fee to obtain the work and pay for the transit.  They can be away from their families for years.  And then, as on the Pacific coast, some go to Costa Rica to find work.  It's clear, those families that eat well, have minimally secure and comfortable shelter, and can send their children to high school generally have some sort of "out of the region" or drug income.

We decided to leave Orinoco on the Friday morning boat since there wouldn't be another boat until Monday and we had a Tuesday flight to Managua. There we are, first on the wooden dock, a full hour before the 7 am departure as another 15 or so people gradually join us. We're not worried, the boats hold 18 people or more.  At last the boat pulls in, already full from earlier stops!  A few students get off, making room for a small percentage of us, not a pretty scene.  At least half are left on the dock, having to wait until Monday when the same scene will be repeated.  We're reminded how life is difficult in Nicaragua in ways that we can't even imagine.  If you don't have money, you have to be incredibly creative to lead a somewhat healthy and sane life.  Again and again the Nicaraguans amaze us!

After the Atlantic coast we made a lightning trip to Costa Rica searching for three people who, along with perhaps a million Nicaraguans, have been forced to emigrate to that country in search for work.  We found 2 of the people and taped interesting testimonies, giving us some insight into this important part of the Nicaraguan reality.  One family is doing well, the other is hurting as much as they would be in Nicaragua and have plans to return.  The one consistency in their experience was the shock they felt at how the Costa Ricans saw them as second class citizens, much as what happens with people from Mexico in the U.S.

Ruby Temple.
Back in Managua we found Ruby Temple.  She has made the Managua garbage dump neighborhood her home and lives next to the evangelical church where she sings, prays and sometimes preaches.  We visited in her home, a nice cement structure which she was able to build with help from Evangelical church groups in the U.S.   She talked of her past, her dedication of her life to God, her work in the community. She played the guitar and with her rich, powerful voice shared songs of her faith and her life.  ("One Day at a time, sweet Jesus",  "Where could I go but to the Lord?", "My Friend it is Very Sad to be Without Your Dear Beloved Mother")

Several days later we returned for a Sunday evening church service where she was giving the sermon.  The church filled, a group of young people played rocking music while a member lead us in about a half hour of rocking religious songs.  Four-foot-tall Ruby Temple gave her sermon about the leprosy that we have within us, the sin that is eating us, but cannot be easily seen.  Are we willing to do the work of ridding ourselves of this leprosy?  One man did want to rid himself of his sinful ways, came forward and was prayed over by another woman of the church.  Then more wonderfully uplifting songs.  All this with the smell of the dump washing over us, washed scraps of plastic  drying on the fences outside (people in the neighborhood make their "living" by digging through the dump to find things that can be recycled), forest mural on the canvas behind the alter, colorful plastic flowers everywhere.  What an important contribution this church is to the community.  Ruby has found her place, the place where she knows she is helping to reduce the pain and suffering of the world.

We hope that each of you finds ways to heal your heavy hearts, ways to refuel, ways to continue being hopeful so you can continue with your important work. For us, Ruby is an especially fine example, beauty and joy in the smelly, poisonous, dangerous garbage dump of Managua.
We are writing this in Montana two days after driving up from New Orleans.  It's good to be back and sad at the same time.  Nicaragua seems like a second home now and we are going to miss our friends, the lush hills, the colors, the smells, and those tree-ripened mangos.   

We've begun scheduling the northwest fall tour and have firm dates for  Butte, Great Falls, Carroll College, University of Montana, University of Idaho, Washington State University (tentative), Gonzaga (tentative),  Seattle University, University of Puget Sound (tentative), Reed College and University of Oregon.  Anyone have contacts at other colleges in the area?

For the winter tour we'll head south from Livingston through Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado and in the spring we'll be in the northeast. Contacts are more than welcome.

We could never have made this trip without your support, without knowing you cared about the inequities of the world, without knowing we are all struggling to do our very best to stop this mad rush toward deeper chaos and destruction. You have been a huge source of strength to us.

Thank you!

Pam and Paul