| The Nicaragua
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!
|November 27, 2002 Lagartillo
Including stories about or testimonies from: Florentina.
Note: To see some of Paul's professional photos taken for the Photo/Testimony project, visit the Photos and Stories page.
Paul and I have just returned from a week and a half in the Jalapa area. Beautiful! We’ll report on that trip later this week. Do know that we continue to make amazing contacts...and we’re both healthy and enjoying!
A few words from Paul:
Each day is packed full of experiences. Too much to relate in full but we do want to continue to share some of this adventure with you.
As we track down some of the people that I photographed in the 80s, we come in contact with some of the poorest of the poor. Many of the photos show a victim of the contra war, so we’re finding people who are not only dealing with the national impoverishment but with the added problem of their physical and psychological disabilities. The statistics that place Nicaragua as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, needless to say, are alarming but they don’t compare to actually seeing the reality, this is, visiting a family with hungry children, with an unemployed head of family, no electricity, no running water, and school age children unable to study because they can’t afford the shoes and notebooks that are required.
Often there is a serious medical problem, one that needs immediate attention, either an operation or medicine. This was all free during the 80s but is now a major problem.
We’ve recorded around 20 testimonies so far and the most prevalent topic has been the poverty, lack of medicine, the cost of education, the corruption in the government, and the dismay at having lost so many of their sons and daughters in the 80s...all for nothing.
Hopelessness has replaced the dream. Almost all have mentioned something about their religious faith and that their only hope left is with "El Senor". When asked how things have changed since the 80s, almost all have said that the war was terrible and they don’t want to return to those times. On the other hand, they say that in spite of the war and the US economic blockade of the 80s, there was free education, free healthcare and medicine, and everyone was assured the basic "canasta" or food basket. Some have said it was even better under Somoza than it is now.
There are some exceptions to this dismal portrayal of Nicaragua. We have visited some progressive communities and cooperatives where there’s an element of hope. In spite of bad roads, a government that has forgotten about the poor majority, national disasters (especially Hurricane Mitch in 1998), and the leftover trauma of war, these people continue to struggle in the spirit of the 80s.
I’ll let Pam write about one of these communities. Peace!
Saturday November 9th we took the three hour bus ride from Esteli to the community of Lagartillo and the Perez family. The bus dropped us off "right at" Lagartillo...which translated into a walk of at least a mile. We were carrying our packs and food donations...and planning on staying a few days. All along the walk Paul reminded me that it was very likely that Florentina, our main contact, would not remember him.
We reached the edge of the community...hot and tired...and saw a huge baseball game...even some uniforms! The entire community is actually only a gathering of about 20 houses. We started asking for directions to Florentina’s house. We finally come to her house and Florentina looked out the door and IMMEDIATELY says "Paul, is that you?" What an amazing welcome. What an amazing woman!
In the 1980s, Florentina and her husband, Jose Angel, were leaders in the formation of the cooperative - Lagartillo. It was on land that had belonged to a Guardia lieutenant. This coop was made available to many landless people in the area. For two years, Jose Angel traveled the 3 kilometers every day to work the land since there were no houses there yet.
But in November 1984 the contra passed by LAS LAJAS where Jose, Florentine, and the children lived, kidnapped several people, and left a death threat for the Perezs. Soon after that the Perezs and several other families moved into the school building at the cooperative, hoping they would be safer. They dug trenches and divided up 24 hour guard duty.
At about 8am on December 31 the contra attacked Lagartillo. The coop had about 5 minutes warning. Jose Angel and Zunilda, their 19 year old daughter, crippled with polio and just one week home from school for the holidays, took up guard duty. Florentina helped lead the other children into the hills - hills they still did not know....and ran terrified for three hours to Achuapa. In Achuapa Florentina took her 4 children down by the river and quietly waited for news. She soon learned that Jose Angel, Zunilda, and her 14 year old nephew, Javier Perez, had been killed.
At age one Florentina had suffered a horrible burning accident to her feet and hands and was in misery for months. As an adult she survived grinding poverty...thinking that was just the way life was. Then she almost lost Zunilda to polio and then did lose a son, Osmar, at age 6 to an overdose of anesthesia when the doctor was setting his broken arm. This loss of Osmar had nearly destroyed Florentina. She dreamed of him night after night after night and could think of nothing else. She eventually, with the urging of Jose, prayed for help. Prayed for a way to welcome life again....and did find that help.
Florentina truly wasn’t sure she could survive this new loss. She said she was dead inside for at least a year, but credits a Witness for Peace stateside speaking tour with the beginning of her recovery. She traveled with Chantal Blanche, a Swiss woman whose husband, Mauricio Demiere, had been killed by the Contra in 1985. Florentina found that telling her story over and over to concerned, caring people triggered a new energy. She felt she was doing something about the atrocity and she returned to Nicaragua with a new sense of purpose.
Florentina and her four remaining children did return to Lagarillo. Lagartillo continues to be a very pro-Sandinista community and they report that this small community has no Contra sympathizers. They have a new, small elementary school in the heart of the community, a community that has fewer children per family than most Nicaraguan families since they took family planning seriously. Each house has running water...right into the sink in the kitchen! This is partially thanks to a donation from Florida Quakers that helped dig a well and piping system to the houses. They’ve had water in the houses for about a year now; until then Florentina spent a major part of each day hauling water. The well system is on the outskirts of the community and people have to go there and pump the water each day. They seem to have a functioning system of who pumps when and for how long...based on the number of people in the household. We accompanied one woman who was beginning her hour and a half session!
While they have no electricity they do have several solar panels on the cultural center, a small rectangular one room wooden structure with a small stage and several light bulbs.
It’s clearly a community that continues to be well organized and has put international support to good use. (We’ve already seen many failed international projects...empty clinics and schools dot the country. One man in Jalapa maintains that poorly thought out international donations actually hurt the country by slowing down the internal organizing process.)
Florentina reports that she continues to fight depression and after all she’s been through she wonders if she will ever die. The international flood of visitors in the 80s did affect Florentina’s life. Coni, her 20 year old daughter just returned from a year in Switzerland with Chantal, her other daughter. Julie now lives in London with her English husband, her son, Osmar (named after the six year old that died), lives in France with his girlfriend, and her other son, Chem, just returned from visiting his brother and sister. One of Florentina’s nieces who now lives next door, married Luis, a professor type that was visiting from Cali, Colombia. They recently returned to Lagartillo to live, after 10 years in Cali, out of fear for the safety of their approaching-teen-years sons. Quite the international family!!!
There is a spark in this community, a chance for a better life. As a child Florentina was the only child in her family with shoes, her burned feet meant she needed what her parents couldn’t afford to give the other children. During the literacy campaign in the early 80s Florentina was excited to learn to read and write; there hadn’t been schools in her poor community.
Where would Florentina’s children be today if there hadn’t been a revolution?
Luis’ analysis of Nicaragua is that in the 80s more people were working for the well being of everyone, not just their own personal well being, as seems to be the rule now. But the people of Lagartillo (overwhelming of the Perez family) somehow managed to save this vision! Their vision, combined with international contributions and help from relatives in Colombia and England, has produced a nugget of hope in Nicaragua. Needless to say...it was hard to leave. This December 31 they will honor their dead with a walk to Achuapa...as they did in 1984. Paul and I are hoping to return to accompany them.
Thanks for traveling with us!!! We hope that each and every one of you is preparing for a most fine Thanksgiving sharing!
Pam and Paul