| 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!
2004 Somotillo, Chinandega, Managua
Including stories about or testimonies from: Marta, Reina, and Maria Auxiliadora.
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.
hoping you each had a restful and renewing Thanksgiving
Day! We had a very fine time with friends from North Carolina who
live and work at the Jubilee House Community, which they started here
in 1994, even had turkey and pecan pie!
In this letter we'd like to share stories of our visits with Marta in Somotillo, Reina in Chinandega, and Maria Auxiliadora in Managua. Each of these women has an interesting story that is detailed in our February 27, 2003 newsletter.
We chose to head to the Somotillo area in November this time since we remembered how sweltering it was in late February 2003; in November it’s only hot, dry and dusty. The Nicaraguans, of course, kept reflecting on how nice and cool it was. Are we ever wimps!
we tried to visit Marta in late February 2003 she was working
in Costa Rica, trying to earn some money for her family. She had
left her 7-year-old daughter, Aren, with her parents and done the three
day trek into Costa Rica (bus, boat, foot), entering as a “mojada” (wet
back) since she, like most Nicaraguans, didn’t have the money to cover
the fees to enter Costa Rica legally. But when we visited the
family they were very excited about her expected return for Easter.
Pablo, her father, would often walk into Somotillo on Sundays to
call Marta. They knew she had found work and would soon be home.
This time, as we walked into her community, Madrono (Pajuil, Somotillo), one man proudly pointed out his crops of corn and sorghum, another talked about the gold mining history of the area. Each said that yes, Marta was back from Costa Rica. Were we ever excited! We were actually going to meet with her this time.
travels fast in Madrono and by the time we reached Marta, she and the
extended family, more children than we could count, met us, all
grinning. And yes, they had received the photos we’d mailed after
our last visit. We pulled out the extra photos we’d brought and
they all gathered around, pointing and giggling.
Marta is glad to be back with her family, but her time in Costa Rica was not a success story. She did locate work on a farm, cooking with two other women, 3 meals a day for 400 workers. This meant getting up at 1 am and working until 7 pm, 7 days a week for $200 a month. But she was able to save $600 and with this money planned on returning to Nicaragua and purchasing a cow for the family. Life in Costa Rica had been difficult but at least now she could return and provide a steady supply of milk for her extended family.
But the night before she was to begin the three day journey back to Madrono she was robbed. She, her sister, and a friend were all packed, ready to start the early morning journey when it was light, but while they slept someone entered their room and stole the money of all three! How very heartbreaking. This is a common problem for all “migrant” type workers. People know they generally have cash on them and they become prime targets for robbery.
you might be thinking, why didn’t she wire the money to her
family? We checked with Western Union in Somotillo and
the fee for wiring to Costa Rica from Nicaragua is 17.25% and they
assumed it was the same in reverse. It’s easy to understand
why someone doesn’t want to work that hard and then lose nearly 20%
to fees! I was shocked since I’d been hearing over the past year
that fees were dropping.
now has her 8-year-old daughter, a one-year-old baby, Osmar, no work
and no husband. Her father, Pablo, says he’s now the father of
the entire household. We weren’t sure if there was even room on
the dirt floor for everyone to sleep at night. There’s no work,
but several of them pick up “odd” jobs here and there. It’s the
same refrain over and over “there’s no work” and “we can’t buy beans,
they’re just too expensive”. We always take a large bag of
food with us for the families we visit, as a way of thanking them for
spending time with us and sometimes we make a small financial
contribution to help with more food or medicine, but we recognize it’s
just giving them a bit of a “coffee-break”, a very tiny break.
While we were talking with Pablo about the February 16, 1986 contra-placed land mine attack and ambush that injured Marta, killed his mother and three other female relatives, plus a 15-yr-old girl, and Mauricio, a 29 year-old Swiss agronomist, he suggested we try to find Renaldo (fictional name), the contra leader that participated in and directed the attack. He gave us the man’s name, said he frequently sees him in Somotillo, and feels no animosity toward him; “he was only doing his job”. He said it’s difficult in war-times, you do what you’re told to do or you get killed yourself. How could he so easily forgive this act? The contra group had targeted a clearly marked civilian vehicle, murdered women and children, AFTER letting several army trucks pass. Nicaraguans must have a special “forgiveness” gene that most of us did not inherit!
a day of detective work we did locate Renaldo’s home in Somotillo but
learned he was now mainly living over the border in Honduras with his
“other” wife. This meant driving off the main road for only about
4 kilometers and then crossing the river into Honduras (which we
couldn’t do without a visa and it wasn’t an official crossing point
where one could get a visa). Everyone said it wouldn’t be wise
for us to walk in, too rough an area for gringos, but that we’d be safe
in a truck (a car couldn’t travel the series of ditches that passes for
a road on this path). With amazing luck we were able to hire a
and driver and a young man from the area that could find Renaldo for
off we went. Would we actually find him? Would he even
finally got to the river and waited for an hour or so while our
Somotillo friend went to “fetch” Renaldo. We couldn’t believe
it when we saw him returning with someone. It was Renaldo for
sure, there was the “machetazo” or machete scar across his face (we
told he’d had a fight with other contras) and a big “machetazo” on his
arm (we were told he received this as he was trying to kill his
or wife). This was going to be interesting!
We described our project and the fact that Pablo had explained that he had no hard feelings and had urged us to contact him so he would have the opportunity to tell his story. Well, not today, couldn’t meet today, but he could meet with us the next day, in Somotillo.
he actually show? I had my doubts since he had agreed to the
interview and said we could take pictures tomorrow, but wouldn’t let
Paul take even one photo while we were with him at the river. The
next day we waited from 8:00 until 10:15 at the assigned spot for
our 9am meeting. We finally gave up but learned later that he had
shown up at about 11. So we walked over to his Somotillo house;
he couldn’t meet with us then but would come to our room in about an
hour. He actually did come, talked with us, explained he’d talk
about anything, but not the ambush, then left again for an hour for
reason. And he was asking for a sizable amount of money for
the interview. We did pay him a little, feeling that was absolutely
since we generally gave people bags of food, and he did lose a day’s
(if he had work..actually he seemed hung over to us). Finally he
back and agreed to the interview, but said again he wouldn’t talk about
the ambush and now decided no photos would be allowed. We explained our
project was a photography project and ended the session there. It
clear he was toying with us.
Again we were wondering how Pablo could be so forgiving. Over and over we’re seeing the victims forgiving the perpetrators, when the perpetrators aren’t even acknowledging they need to be forgiven, and they certainly were not asking for forgiveness.
Within half an hour we were on the bus to Chinandega; that was one goodbye that didn’t feel the least bit depressing!
This time the 47-mile bus ride from Somotillo to Chinandega took 3 exhausting hours, everyone covering their faces to avoid breathing the dust, and pot holes on top of pot holes. In Chinandega we were hoping to find Reina, who had survived a 1987 mortar attack by the Honduran army (who were in collusion with the contras) on her border community, Santo Tomas.
Early the next morning, hoping that the gang members might be hung over and still sleeping, we caught a taxi to the community on the edge of the Chinandega garbage dump where we had found Reina, her husband, and their 4 children in February 2003. We went straight to the children’s lunch program center that is run by Pastor Luis and there he was! And yes, he had received and delivered the photos of Reina’s family that we had mailed last year, but Reina was no longer living in his community. She had moved to the other side of town to a new “squatters” community.
had worried about her living in her old community, mainly because of
the gang activity and the proximity to the garbage dump, so we were
hopeful that her new community would be better. We caught a bus later
that day, an open-sided truck-bus heading back up the road toward
Somotillo; another hour of dust. We finally reached the entrance
to Villa Santa Catalina and walked past an established neighborhood to
a “tent city” on the far edge of a field. At least they weren’t right
next to the dump, and they had an open area nearby.
As we walked down the path of tents we spotted Reina peeking out from her tent. Paul had photographed Reina in 1987 living in a tent after the March mortar attack, and then in 2003 living in a house that appeared to be made of flattened tin cans, and now she’s back in a plastic tent with a metal roof.
and the kids were all smiles, as they always seem to be. We
visited in the tent for a while, talk about hot, and then went outside
behind the row of tents and sat under a big tree; much better.
She updated us, still no work, her husband too sick with heart pain to
work, sometimes no food, but some how the children are still going to
school. Several times she said, “sometimes I just want to
But where would she go, what are her options? Again the chorus of
“no work” and sometimes “no food”. We saw her home, we knew there
was no food.
After the interview the kids told stories and sang songs into the tape recorder, then we played them back and everyone was giggling, delighted. They’re so bright, cheery, and well-loved. Wish they could also be well fed!
Then we headed back to Managua, hoping to meet up with Maria Auxiliadora over the weekend. Maria had lost her father to a contra attack when she was 7 and the last time we visited she had just started working in a maquila in the Free Trade Zone. We had no idea if she’d still be there, but we knew if she did, Sunday would be the only day we’d be able to find her at home.
We carried as little as possible with us on the bus to her community, Milagro de Dios (Miracle of God). She too lives in a community that is considered especially dangerous, for those living there and for those entering (this is becoming a refrain, along with “no work” and “no food” for the people we are interviewing). And she was home! I hadn’t visited with her in her home on the last trip, and was surprised by the harsh conditions. She’s really quite beautiful and young, and I was struck by how very exhausted and numb she appeared this time; much of her sparkle that we saw on our visit in 2003 was gone.
she’s still working in the same maquila, as an inspector of
pants. This is considered a higher paying position and she
earns 700 cordobas (about $44) every two weeks, working from
7 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday and 7 am to 12 noon on Saturday.
She leaves the house for work at 6 am and needs to take two buses; if
you are at all late your pay is docked and if you’re twenty minutes
you can’t enter. After you subtract the 10 cordobas a day bus
she ends up with about 41 cordobas for life expenses for each of those
14 days in the two week work period. The week before our visit the
of beans had risen to 18 cordobas a pound. Maria said they just
couldn’t eat beans during that period and that “rice without beans just
same, “cuajada” (a type of salty fresh cheese) without beans just isn’t
same”. The price of beans has now come down to 8 or 9 cordobas a
but how sad to think of someone working the hours Maria works, and not
able to afford beans. Next time you’re in the grocery store pick up a one-pound
bag of beans, note how little it really is and know that for a while,
at least, Maria worked all day and ended up with the equivalent of 2.3
bags of beans for each day of the week. Since she also had to pay
for water and
lights and cooking fuel and anything else she might need to be alive
those 41 cordobas, she did without her beans.
She’s still close with her husband, Levy, but he’s having health problems and hasn’t been able to work. In addition, that very morning she had to send her young son, Levy, back to Yali to live with her mother, who also has next to nothing. She felt Milagro de Dios was just too dangerous a community for him, and she was always at work.
did have a nice visit with Maria, plan to visit again, and met her
at her maquila the next morning. They, of course, wouldn’t let us
enter, but we watched Maria and the mobs of other young people crowd in
the front gate.
As I had feared,
each of these three women is, at the very least, not doing better than
when we visited in 2003. It actually feels they are having an
even more difficult time.
We’ve begun to
realize that this 6-month journey will be financially more expensive
we had planned, more truck rentals, no free place to stay in Managua
after December, plus we’re making somewhat larger contributions to the
families we visit. If you feel moved to help in any way, we
feel moved to accept your offering! Please do know we’ll be
OK as we are, it would just make the project move a bit more
Contributions can be tax-deductible (Bozeman Friends Meeting) or just
written to me (Pam Fitzpatrick) if you don’t use the deductions.
We have a mailing address on our home page (NicaLetters.ppaponline.org) and have access to the funds
Pam Fitzpatrick and Paul Dix