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!

November 27, 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.
We're 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!
When 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.
Road into Madrono 
Road into Madrono

News 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.
Marta's family looking at photos
Now 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.

Marta, Aren, Osmar
Marta, Osmar (in lap), Aren

Marta 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!

After 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 truck and driver and a young man from the area that could find Renaldo for us…and off we went.  Would we actually find him?  Would he even speak with us?

We 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 were 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 daughter 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.
Waiting for Renaldo
Paul (foreground) waiting for Renaldo at the Nicaragua/Honduras river border
Would 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 some reason.   And he was asking for a sizable amount of money for the interview. We did pay him a little, feeling that was absolutely legitimate since we generally gave people bags of food, and he did lose a day’s work (if he had work..actually he seemed hung over to us).  Finally he came 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 was 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.

We 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.

Reina in front of her house
Reina in front of her house

Reina and son
Reina and son
Reina 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 leave”.  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.

Yes, 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 late you can’t enter.  After you subtract the 10 cordobas a day bus fare 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 price 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 isn’t the same, “cuajada” (a type of salty fresh cheese) without beans just isn’t the same”.  The price of beans has now come down to 8 or 9 cordobas a pound, but how sad to think of someone working the hours Maria works, and not being 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 with 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.
Maria Auxiliadora
Maria Auxiliadora just before she enters the maquila
We 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 all know that Marta, Reina, and Maria are at the losing end of the global economy.  They are the ones that are clearly being denied their fair share of the earth’s bounty.  We don’t need a Ph.D. in economics to know the system has to be changed. We need a more humane system that includes the basic needs of all people. Thanks for the work you are doing to help bring about this change!  Maybe Marta, Reina, and Maria will help keep you energized, help make your work more concrete.  Of course, we’re hoping you’ve contacted your senators and congress people and urged them to vote NO on CAFTA.
 [For more information about CAFTA, how to contact elected officials, and sample letters and talking points, see our letter of November 13th.]

We’ve begun to realize that this 6-month journey will be financially more expensive than 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 smoothly.  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 ( and have access to the funds from here.

Thank you for traveling with us, you are a big help to us!  We’re always happy to hear from people at

Pam Fitzpatrick and Paul Dix