A line of drummers, dressed in the traditional blue and white, beat past with a background mass of colorful dresses pirouetting on stage. Disembodied voices, emboldened by the poignant atmosphere, chant “Nicaragua Libre!”
Danzas por Nicaragua, a subset of the Nicaraguan cultural San Francisco-based nonprofit Chavalos de Aquí y Allá, organized the performance of “El Güegüense o Macho Ratón” at the Mission’s Brava Theater on Oct. 12, 2019. The famed satirical drama and dance was conceived in the 17th century colonial town of Diriamba, Nicaragua, and the theme of the evening’s show was, most fittingly, “raza y resistencia.”
Concerted efforts by Nicaraguans to come together through cultural events and protest have grown in the face of a worsening political crisis in Nicaragua that has resulted in 70,000 refugees to neighboring Costa Rica and 325 deaths. The political crisis has its echoes not only in the country’s late 1970’s revolutionary period but also within the nation’s rich history of reactionary, often anti-authoritarian art.
The Twitter hashtag “SOSNicaragua” first emerged around April 19, 2018, according to UN DISPATCH in-depth analysis, following controversial government reforms to social security. The “reforms,” which would’ve increased the amount paid by the employed and reduced the amount received by pensioners, were the proverbial last straw on a decade’s worth of abuses. Nicaraguan President Daniel Oretga enacted them in an attempt to address the deficit of the Instituto Nicaragüense de Seguridad Social (INSS), the country’s social security administration.
Daisy Zamora—a professor at SF State’s College of Ethnic Studies, who is also a poet and served as the Vice Minister of the Nicaraguan Ministry of Culture for the Sandinista government after the Nicaraguan revolution—described in detail the internal and external factors that gradually soured the 1979 revolution she had been a part of; that eventually lead to the accession of Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, to power in 2007.
After the Sandinista victory of July 19, 1979, the Ministry of Culture, according to Zamora, worked to combat the long history of anti-culture and illiteracy that existed in Nicaragua during the regime of the Somozas—their family dictatorship lasting from 1936 to 1979.
“You know the beginning of the world? It was like Genesis. We were creating everything from scratch, from nothing,” Zamora said. “Because it was the first time we ever had a ministry of culture in the history of Nicaragua.”
Internal and external forces set in motion a series of governmental distortions that led to the modern-day oppressive Ortega regime. Zamora said the Ministry of Culture, along with other branches of the revolutionary government, changed over time by external war and fractions within the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN).
“Rosarillo Murillo, who is now the vice president of Nicaragua, she started, let’s say, an internal war against the programs of the Ministry of Culture,” Zamora said. “It was impossible to counteract what she was doing, because she was then, and since then, the partner of Daniel Ortega. And she was using her power to erode the programs in the Ministry of Culture.”
This perversion of the new state was not without resistance, Zamora said. Those loyal to the revolution’s ideals were eventually discarded and replaced by individuals more faithful to Ortega and Murillo, who have been the cause of several recent anti-government protests.
The end of November 2019 saw large scale demonstrations and protests from thousands of exiled Nicarguans in the streets of San Jose, Costa Rica, (as reported by Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa) and Nicaragua Actual, who describe themselves as a group of exiled Nicaraguan journalists. Notable among these vocalizations of dissent was the commencement of a hunger strike by the mothers of several political prisoners who are nearing a full year of exile in San Jose, Costa Rica, and the recent formation of a Costa Rican chapter of La Unidad Nacional Azul y Blanco (UNAB). UNAB is an organization aimed at the peaceful construction and promotion of democracy in Nicaragua, and the expedited removal of Ortega from power.
“I think the Nicaraguan community has woken up here in the Bay Area,” said Erik Leiva, Executive Director of Chavalos de Aquí y Allá. “The way we’ve handled it is we resist through art, whether it be through dance or music.”
According to Leiva, Chavalos de Aquí y Allá fundraises, via events like “El Güegüense,” for donations that are used for humanitarian efforts. These efforts usually, according to Leiva, coelce into necessity baskets referred to as “Canastas Navideñas,” which are filled with essential goods such as rice, beans and soap that are given to low-income families in Nicaragua.
Carmen Gonzalez, an organizer with “SOSNicaragua San Francisco,” said that the Mission’s Nicaraguan community demonstrated during the subsequent weeks and months following the news of the violent protest suppressions. They can be spotted, swaddled in upside down flags, tabling near the 24th street BART entrance on “Sandino plaza”—as it came to be known in the late 70s by Nicaraguans in San Francisco who supported the Sandinista Revolution, according to John Ross’ book “Murdered by Capitalism: A Memoir of 150 Years of Life and Death on the American Left.”
“I lived in Nicaragua during that first era of the supposed Sandinista revolution,” Gonzales said. “So what the Sandinista Government is doing in this second stage is that they’ve been dismantling all of the powers of the state and the judicial system.”
The response from the Nicaraguan community itself has been strong, according to Gonzalez, though this enthusiasm of support is not universal.
Mission-based artist, Calle 24 council member and Chavalos de Aqui y Allá board member, Gabriela Alemán, was dismayed by the reaction of many of those not directly connected to Nicaragua, within the Mission.
“The Mission has been really disappointing. People are sympathetic, but I don’t think Nicaragua is in the mainstream of anyone’s frame of mind,” Alemán said. “When things happen in Puerto Rico, the Mission stops. When things happen in Mexico, the Mission stops and the community at large stops. With Nicaragua the only reason there’s still been like traction is because of the internet.”
According to a recent cultural analysis essay by Nicasio Urbina—professor of Hispano American Literature and Director of Latino American Studies at the University of Cincinnati— called “La nueva música revolucionaria de la insurrección de abril en Nicaragua,” 2019 saw music take on a revolutionary or iconoclastic stance toward the Ortega government.
“The April 19 movement has inspired a new wave of revolutionary songs,” Urbina wrote. “Using the tools of the new Latin American song—the Cuban trova, the Chilean protest music, and the Nicaraguan song—reproposes the political values of a revolution that betrayed its principles.”
The voices involved in this dissent are not ideologically homogeneous, according to Zamora. Some oppose the Ortega regime for reasons that stem from purely anti-Sandinista sentiments.
“They are people whose origins are counterrevolutionary, they fled the revolution perhaps because they were Somocistas,” Zamora said. “And then they are supporting the rebellion against Ortega and Murillo for that reason, nothing more.”
Regardless of any political differences Zamora feels, generally speaking, there is “a great solidarity among Nicaraguans.”
Diana Aburto Vega, co-choreographer and lead dancer “El Güegüense,” commented further on the necessity of solidarity through community, for Nicaraguans.
“If there has been one thing that I have dealt with ever since I left my country,” Aburto Vega said. “It has been homesickness … we bring a little bit of home to anyone in that audience.”
“El Güegüense,” which has its own revolutionary origins, has gained a new significance for many during these trying times. “El Güegüense” has become, in many ways, a means to reconnect with a remote home and a place to voice shared pain.
“At the end of our last show,” Aburto Vega said. “Everybody just got up and started clapping and singing with us. And it brought not just tears in me but tears in a lot of people that were just there.”
Although several theories estimate the exact date of creation and identity of the writer, it is generally accepted “El Güegüense” debuted in Nahuatl and found its first home among street theaters under the noses of Spanish colonial authorities. The word “Güegüense,” the name attributed to the play’s main character, also has its roots in the Nahuatl word “huehue,” meaning “wise man” or “old man.” The resplendent costumes, dresses, masks and large wooden “Gigantona” shown and used throughout the performance are all seminal pieces of Nicaraguan cultural iconography.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the play a Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005.
“The production we put on represents the many parts of Nicaragua…I feel like [people], don’t really know too much about the other side of Nicaragua,” said Armando Ibarra, co-choreographer. “There’s so much more that people can know, there’s so much diversity in just that small country.”
Through partially subdued tears, Aburto Vega commented on the political crisis affecting Nicaragua.
“It all goes to the heart,” Aburto Vega said. “To the bottom of it, seeing our people die.”