A Memoir of the Sandinista Revolution
By Sergio Ramírez
Duke University Press
Copyright © 2012 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One Partial Confession
Sergio, my eldest, and his sisters, María and Dorel, were born in San José, Costa Rica, Central America's peaceful oasis from the clandestine cemeteries of the sixties. My wife, Tulita, and I had lived there during our virtual exile since we were newlyweds. Afterward, we all went to Berlin in the German Democratic Republic for two splendid years. This was thanks to a writer's grant that also allowed me to see all the German expressionist films at the Arsenal cinema. I saw all of Brecht in the Berliner Ensemble on the other side of the Wall, and I spent long afternoons contemplating Lucas Cranach's paintings in the picture gallery at the Dahlem Museum and enjoying matinees with complimentary tickets to the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Von Karajan. Those were also years of marches in the snow through all of Kurfürstendamm to Nollendorfplatz to protest Augusto Pinochet's military junta in Chile or the Greek colonels, or to celebrate Portugal's Carnation Revolution. Then we finally returned to Costa Rica, with no plans other than to overthrow Anastasio Somoza Debayle's dictatorship.
Sergio is finally writing his thesis, which is about the market for low-fat dairy products. By the time this book is published, he will have already graduated in business management. Today, for example, he left very early this morning for Camoapa, one of the country's cattle regions, busy working on his research. He is still single, although I know his private feelings because, in the end, after so many twists and turns, we are good friends and trust each other. His plan now is to specialize in systems analysis, perhaps at the Comillas Pontifical University in Madrid, or at the University of Maryland. While I am not very familiar with that science, he has explained it to me. It is of vital importance to the modern world and works to organize personnel and supplies according to advanced mathematical calculations, similar to armies, but applied to businesses.
Born in 1965, he lived the disruptions of a life of moving from place to place, the same as his two sisters. They had their own country, Nicaragua, which they did not even know since they were children of exile. When we went to Berlin, they missed San José, and then in Berlin, by the time they spoke only German with each other, they did not want to leave their friends in the Wilmersdorf neighborhood. It was worse for them back in San José when I was completely devoted to the struggle against Somoza, and even more when I returned to Managua in 1978. This was despite an order for my arrest from the dictatorship—something they never knew about—and with a death threat from "El Chigüín," (the kid), Somoza's son. My departure left them and my wife deep in despair, in the worst kind of waiting, because everything in Nicaragua was already marked by death. It was the color of the landscape in which the people moved about.
Since I have been digging up memories lately, I found a folder with all the letters my children sent to me in Managua telling me about their childhood routines. Sergio's are written on squared pages torn from his school notebooks, and María and Dorel's are on pastel-colored stationery with printed designs that they must have brought from Berlin, with ladybugs, daisies, and wild mushrooms in between the words glück viel glück (luck, good luck). Read in a far-off place, in hiding, those letters seemed full of extraordinary events. It feels that way again now since they do not show any wear, nothing that time would have erased, and they always tremble in my hands like live fish out of the fishbowl that had been our life until then.
I later returned to San José. During the final insurrection, our house in Los Yoses became a center for conspiracy, a storehouse for supplies, a treasurer's office, a barracks, a public relations office, and a safe house. For them, those months involved arriving home from school to find people coming and going as if it were a big market. The living room and hallways were packed full of boxes with medical supplies, bundles of uniforms, and rows of boots. That was until the revolution was finally victorious, and once more they watched me leave one night without knowing if I would see them again. Then they all came to settle in Managua at the end of 1979, practically strangers and yet missed. They landed in their country, which was so unknown, unfamiliar and uncertain to them, where everything was being reinvented, turned upside down and improvised, and the future was glowing in the distant horizon. They walked into the house full of empty rooms where we would live from then on. Sergio was always shy and reserved, unlike María, who quickly adopted the general enthusiasm and at age thirteen began experimenting with her gift for leadership. Dorel, only nine, was just happy that we were really all going to be together now, which is not what happened, because it was already written that they would be without me once again as I dedicated myself to the revolution's nonstop schedule.
The National Literary Crusade began, and all three wanted to enlist, but Dorel was still too young. There is a photo of her with long pigtails standing next to Fidel Castro when he came to our home. That was on the night of July 19, 1980, the revolution's first anniversary. He is speaking to her in the photo, and she has a very sad, painful look on her face. We had to take her to the hospital a few hours later to have her appendix removed. Sergio and María had already gone by then, leaving with the boisterous literacy contingents dressed in their gray peasant shirts and carrying their brigadista backpacks to the homes and districts in the depths of rural Nicaragua. This was the Nicaragua of the mountains they did not know, and they were not the only ones. The whole other Nicaragua of the cities was unfamiliar with it.
This was how Sergio came to teach reading and writing in Muan, near the Rama River towards the Caribbean coast. He lived there in the adobe and palm-roof house belonging to Don Pedro and Doña María, who were also his pupils. It was a location only accessible by foot or by horseback. Don Pedro was a patriarch who was obeyed by all of his relatives, his brothers, nephews, cousins, friends, and godchildren, all scattered throughout the village. They never ignored his orders to come every night to classes at his house where Sergio had set up a chalkboard outside near the fire.
María taught as well, in Los García, near the town of Santa Lucía in Boaco. Doña Ofelia was the owner of the house and head of another large family. Her husband was also named Don Pedro. Already very advanced in age, he wanted to learn, and he set about sharpening pencils early in the morning and preparing his workbooks so that the fourteen-year-old girl, my daughter, could teach him in front of the chalkboard. However, this Don Pedro was very old, very deaf, and very blind, and he was not able to master the letters. For years, María continued to refer to Doña Ofelia as her other "mom." María brought all of them one day from the mountains to show them the ocean they had never seen, Doña Ofelia and her nine children listening with fear to the sound of the waves breaking on a Pacific Ocean beach, trembling with fear with their feet in the water. Doña Ofelia was her other "mom" in an era when you could speak naturally about new love, an age of innocence that was magical, a spell, an illusion that began to crumble so soon. The news Sergio received during the war from the other Don Pedro became increasingly sporadic. No one would be left in his village, some kidnapped by the Contras, others fighting alongside them, and we never discovered on which side this Don Pedro, the one from Muan, had ended up, he and all his relatives.
Later, with the country already at war, all three, Sergio, María, and Dorel, went to pick coffee on the plantations in Matagalpa and Jinotega with the Sandinista Youth Brigades, which they all belonged to. Sergio also worked as a volunteer translator for groups of Germans who came to Nicaragua to help with the harvest. One of those groups was headed by Henning Schörf, the mayor of Bremerhavena, who was so tall that everyone came to their doors just to watch him walk by. Then the Sandinista Youth needed María as an organizer for the night school in the Acahualinca neighborhood, located on the shore of Lake Managua, where people live at the mouths of the sewers and garbage dumps. So she left the German School, and that was a problem for my wife who did not understand how anyone could serve a revolution by renouncing a bilingual education. At age fifteen, María joined the women's battalion "Erlinda López" that had its barracks in the San Judas neighborhood. She stood guard there many weeknights, furious that I wanted to have one of my bodyguards keep an eye on her, saying "I'm not a little girl anymore, Dad." It was even worse when she was mobilized for a short time, with the war now escalating, to Planes de Bilán in the Jinotega Mountains. She left me a goodbye note, which I have here in front of me, telling me that she was going to fulfill her duty "somewhere in Nicaragua," ready to shed her own blood if necessary. I hid letters like those from my wife. In any case, the EPS (Sandinista Popular Army) eventually declared that war was for men and that women would be sent to the rear. Even so, she returned with Leishmaniasis on her ankle. It is an illness known as mountain leprosy, which is transmitted by an insect, the sand fly, ulcerating the skin to the point of exposing the bone.
Tulita even went herself to pick cotton on the Punta Ñata plantation on the Cosigüina Peninsula. She spent two months there as headmistress for a brigade of professors and students from the Jesuit Central American University. She could write a book about that period if she wanted to. They would go into the fields early in the morning with the sun beating down on them all day, and return late in the afternoon, exhausted, to weigh the sacks of cotton on the roman balance scales. She could also tell about keeping a careful watch at night so that the young men would stay out of the women's quarters. It was, after all, a contingent from a Catholic university. Even so, the couples found ways to meet anyway, in the cotton fields or on the cliffs by the sea with the waves breaking below in dense streaks of foam. From there you can see the lights from the towns in El Salvador on the other side of the gulf. There is also the story of the wedding party one night between two men who wanted to get married, one with a mosquito net veil and a crown of wildflowers. The couple, along with everyone else, refused to eat anything but the same ration consumed by the cotton pickers—steamed plantains, rice glop, and a stale tortilla—because it was time not only to fight for others but to live as others did.
Now Sergio goes everyday to Hercules Gym, lifts weights, and subscribes to bodybuilding magazines. He is a big guy, over six feet tall and weighing more than 220 pounds, but at age eighteen, when he decided to give up his studies in his first year of civil engineering to go off to war, he was a weakling with a peach fuzz mustache, beanpole thin, and very similar in appearance to my father who was skinny his whole life. It was entirely his decision. No one could have forced him to serve in military duty with me standing in the way. I also have no doubt that he did it out of respect for me, since I was at the pinnacle of power. That way no one could say that I was preaching a defense of the revolution while I kept my son out of harm's way. Everyone in my family was involved, although we did not really talk about it since there were few opportunities to sit down and discuss it. We were all deeply committed to a cause that we believed was fundamentally ethical in nature.
There is a photo of Daniel Ortega and myself when we were candidates for president and vice-president during the 1984 electoral campaign. It was taken in Managua on July 26 at a ceremony in the "Roberto Huembes" market plaza, which was a send-off for the "Julio Buitrago" Sandinista Youth contingent, where my son was. That photo shows us leaning on the platform railing and laughing because one of the recruits, in the commotion below, had a pie thrown in his face, reminiscent of the Buster Keaton gags. The photo turned out so well, the laughter so natural, that it was later used on campaign posters. I am there laughing, and no one who sees that photo, not even now, would guess that, despite the laughter, which does not seem forced, I am overcome by such grief that it is like suffocating, drowning, feeling like being immersed in turbulent water where you cannot swim, where you are unable to move and waiting to see what will come, the inertia of fate that carries you floating adrift.
Later that same night, as the recruits were leaving, the truck horn blared. Sergio was already at the door when Tulita and I rushed to say goodbye. He looked skinny, even skinnier in that olive green uniform, the hint of a moustache on his slender face under his tattered cap, lifting his big backpack off the ground where, when he was not looking, his mother had stuffed things to eat, some cough syrup, cream for athlete's foot, a prayer leaflet, and a scapular sewn in the pockets of a couple of fatigue shirts. Then she said to him, I will not forget: "You know already, be brave." Maybe it was just to say something to keep herself from crying. Sergio climbed up on the back of the truck where his compañeros were shouting for him, cheering happily as though they were going on an adventure. We stood there in the deserted street until the sound of the motor, fading in the Managua night, could no longer be heard. Then we returned silently to bed, which from then on would become an enemy to sleep.
Sergio spoke so little. He went through long melancholic periods. Besides, I was not just any father. I was a father who was always busy, so busy that one time my wife, with grave irony, asked Juanita Bermúdez, my assistant, to put her on my agenda for my meetings for the day. Then she showed up in my office with a list of matters she wanted to discuss with me. A different kind of woman would surely have left me a long time ago. So uninterested was she in power and its pretense, that she was still driving around Managua to the market in her 1975 Volvo. In fact, it was still running until recently, the same car that had transported supplies from San José to the Southern Front on the Nicaraguan border, and that had brought other supplies from Panama. It was the car we used to pick up Idania Fernández in Liberia, Costa Rica, when she was injured. After all those years and so many miles, it was falling apart and always smelled like market produce, especially onions. Well, Sergio, who spoke so little, and who was so melancholy, came up to me one afternoon before he left, while I was reading government documents in the hammock in the hallway. Visibly nervous, he asked me why I was not the presidential candidate in those elections. Those were questions to which I had no answers, just evasions or a prepared response: each of us has his role to play in the revolution, etc. Perhaps it was a brusque reply, making it impossible for other questions like that or for more dialogue with my one and only son. He was growing up far removed from my nurturing and, just like his mother, distant from the machinations of power.
Then Tulita discovered one day that Sergio was in a training school in Mulukuku, at the edge of the jungle region on the central Caribbean coast, near the source of the Grande de Matagalpa River. She went with other mothers every weekend to visit their sons who were recruits there. Those were remarkable journeys. One time they found the highway closed, because the Contras were close by, or you could hear battles echoing over the treetops, mortar explosions, the rattle of machine guns, the sound of helicopter blades cutting through the wind as they transported the injured. Then, after a great deal of insisting, they let the group through at their own risk. They came back aching to the bone, but happy to see them, to touch them, and to watch them happily eat what they had taken. It was the only war ever fought with mothers on the battlefield. They would chat about the trip with nervous laughter when they returned. That was until the last time when Tulita came back carrying her provisions: Sergio was no longer there.
Excerpted from ADIÓS MUCHACHOS by Sergio Ramírez Copyright © 2012 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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