Tuesday, January 11, 2011

apprender espanol

I get a little distracted while I'm learning Spanish. Interesting things are happening all around us. As I mentioned in the last post, there's lots of animal life, and I can get lost watching a chicken settle into a small self-made trough in the dirt to lay an egg. There are also ducks waddling about, a half dozen dogs, white-faced monkeys, humming birds everywhere, large yellow birds high in the trees called Grees, squawking parrots and men working, doing stuff I can't quite identify. I'm like a six year old. What are they doing, Davixia? Que estan haciendo? (Yeah! Took me more than a year to be able to write that)

Under the thatched palapa roof that covers our small outdoor classroom, for five mornings this week, Davixia, my conversation instructor, and I go about discussing -- whatever. Like two friends, we have no structure to our conversation, although that is mostly my doing. I'm a recalcitrant student. I want to know about an odd, unrelated assortment of things. But one morning I agree to look at the book she's brought -- of old sepia photographs of Nicaragua ca. 1900. Men with puffed out chests, probably medals pinned to them, and large mustaches who I try to place. Only two possibilities I assume. With the Americanos, or fighting them. Nicaragua I believe, after skimming a few books on the subject, has fought against invading Americanos more than any other country in the world. (I ran this by Al, my resident historian (and husband). Nicaragua must have been invaded more than anywhere? He says 'no' Mexico takes the honor. I ask the table of lunch diners who've become my dear friends by now, and one of them counters, no not Nicaragua. Haiti takes the role of the most invaded-by-U.S. country. Someone else mutters -- Cuba)

I don't really care who the mustachioed man is. But drawing from late night reading -- Salman Rushdie's The Jaguar Smile (a fascinating, meandering writer's travelogue which I pulled off a shelf in the very well stocked library) I suddenly want to know about how land was reapportioned after the Sandinistas' victory (1979) I was in my 20's at that time, and remember how my hometown, Brooklyn, became a sister city to a small city in Nicaragua near the coast whose name I don't remember. We'd send stuff down (What on earth did we send? I think it was whatever we got the word was needed) via a member of our small group, who was perfectly bilingual, and very strong, as he needed to be for this mission of riding in trucks and unloading dozens of boxes, and who would describe his trip when he returned home. I remember him saying how beautiful Nicaragua is. I think, condescendingly I'm sure, that the younger people (kids in their 20s and 30s) staying here at La Mariposa Spanish School don't have a clue! We were campesinos! Revolutionarios! Rushdie writes about farmers who came down to offer help -- tractors, help repairing tractors, seeds, and not least, solidaridad. Nicaragua holds the romance of a country that stood up to the bully, magnificently, with guns, song, bravado, and as I learned through Rushdie, with reams of poetry. I may have known, but by now I've forgotten, that Ortega and half the founding council were poets.

I ask Davixia, who's not yet 20, about this history. What happened to the land, I want to know. On a trip up to Managua, we see people toiling in the fields. I hope that it's their land. I fear the worst, that they're tenant farmers and earn meager wages. Davixia tells me that some of the poor campesinos did receive land, which was taken from los ricos (the rich landowners). Rushdie says no. No land was seized. Land was abandoned, though, as the Contratistas fled the country for Miami. I ask my young teacher, who had signed on to teach me English, not history, I realized. I am being unfair. But I ask anyway, in broken Spanish -- Did they work the land collectively? Were there re-education campaigns? Was there an ideology? D seems unsure, and I sense underneath, a little uncomfortable.

Davixia is only 20 and she seems not only vague about her country's history, but far more interested in talking about things much more close at hand. And to her gratitude, I'm sure, we move on to another topic. She asks, will I continue to study Spanish when I'm home? I ask - What is she studying at la universidad (English) And I tell her about my neighbor -- who's from Puerto Rico - whose bright pink lipstick somehow distracts me from speaking Spanish to her in the hallways. Que colore? The same color as your bright pink shoes! Como tus zapatas! We both giggle helplessly.

So, it seems I'm by myself on the subject, but I want to know -- what has happened not only with land reform (the answer to my queries regarding collectives still are answered only partially.) but the whole Sandinista -- thing. I learn from an afternoon's lecture on Post-revolutionary Nica history that the first thing that the elected-with-CIA-assistance President Violette Chamorro did upon assuming office was pave some new roads and sell and rip up the railroad system, and, oh, buy up all the guns. Not a railroad car in the country now. I'm sure that any support for the small, stuggling but very idealistic communal farms up in the north was pretty well squelched by the Chamorro team.

photo (left): Paulette after a new delivery of laying hens.

The question that lingers after all these questions on this tragic past is - what kind of high school history instruction did Davixia receive? Is the Sandinista movement and its victory told? Do they still sing their songs? What about the role of Reagan and the illegal arms deals? (Let alone the drugs for cash deals.) Under another palapa roof, monkeys hopping around in the background, Paulette fills us in on these not quite forgotten transactions.

Equally importantly, how much of this history are the kids in the US in high school classes today being taught?

On our sightseeing trip to Managua, our guide, Berman (photo at right), also the Spanish instruction coordinator, a licensed veterinarian who can dance La Salsa like nobody's business, who'd fought with the Sandinistas, sticks a CD in the audio console of our camionette, and out pours an hour of vintage Sandinista revolutionary songs. Some of it sounds generic, but the a capella songs are heart stoppingly forceful and plaintive. (I found and bought the CDs in the Managua airport) Berman drives us past the modest street in downtown Managua where ( the re-elected) President Ortega lives, informing us, "he chooses not to live in the President's palace." Berman wears this proud, somewhat mischevious grin.


  1. If you go to amnesty.org and enter nicaragua sandinista in the search bar, you might find info you're looking for. The bit about the railway ripping up to sell more oil brings to mind the Zinn animation just posted. I believe you've crossed the line, CS - all your questions show your distress about the corporate take-over of a theoretically voiceless people. Yay!

  2. I'd assumed the same -- that the selling of the railroads was in response to pressure from Big Oil. But haven't had a chance to look at the history of commentary. --sh