“J.P.’s Nica Lexicon” [from DREAMING NICARAGUA, available from Fenway Press]
(c) 2011 David G. Gullette
ALMIBAR: A cooked fruit compote for special occasions, especially Semana Santa (Holy Week). Ingredients may include mango, raisins, jocote, etc.
ANO VIEJO: In the days leading up to New Year’s Eve in San Juan del Sur, you might make a human effigy out of a man’s pants and shirt stuffed with straw or paper. You call it “El Ano Viejo”–the old year to which you are about to bid farewell. Its head is carved from wood or styrofoam and painted with a roguish face; you put a cigarette in the mouth, stick a bottle of rum in the pants or shirt pocket, and maybe pin a note to the shirt saying something like “Adios todas mis amantes.” On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, you might put your Ano Viejo on a burro’s back and parade him through the streets. Just before midnight, you join your friends carrying their Anos Viejos and make your way out to the wharf. Everybody has one last trago and then all the Anos Viejos are set on fire and thrown into the sea. Good riddance!
BALDE: A ten-gallon plastic bucket with a hundred uses. A good way to contaminate your drinking water is to let your balde sit in pig shit before lowering it into the well.
BOBO: Literally, idiot. Also used about a type of dark goggle-eyed land crab that scurries about the rocks near the sea.
BOMBA DE MECATE: Rope pump: a clever piece of low-tech with two moving parts, a crank attached to motorcycle wheel without its tire, and the nylon rope that is drawn up one tube of 2″ PVC and pulled down another (there’s an intake valve at the bottom of the well). The rope has plastic “beads” every five feet; the friction of the beads against the water in the up-tube is what creates the flow. Ought to mean lots of campesinos are planting in the dry season and irrigating, but stubborn old habits die hard.
CAMPESINO: “Peasant” doesn’t quite do it; nor does “sharecropper.” “Rural agricultural workers” is too formal. Campo means countryside, so a campesino is a small farmer or worker who lives off the land. A less neutral term is jincho, which has the slightly derogatory quality of “hick,” or “hillbilly.”
CASA CHICA: One way you know a Nicaraguan man is really macho is if he has, in addition to his wife, a girlfriend on the side whom he keeps–along with the obligatory brood of illegitimate children–in a “little house” somewhere.
CEIBA/CEIBO:The grandest, tallest tree in Central America. Sometimes called “kapok tree” after the silky filaments in the seed pods. The bark is smooth grey and the massive tuca (trunk) will often rise 200 feet in the air–bellying out slightly between the base and the top–before the branches jut out almost perpendicularly. The best one in the San Juan del Sur area is on the Ostional road just beyond the ford at Escamequita. This tree was sacred to the ancient Maya. The lid of the sarcophagus of Pacal Shield at Palenque in Chiapas, shows the ceiba as a Tree of Life rising out of the chest of the dead king. In the highest branches perches the holy Quetzal, half-bird, half-god.
CENZONTLE: Nahuatl word for Mockingbird.
CHELE: Any fair-skinned or fair-haired person, Yanqui or Nica. The term carries much less venom (and history) than the Mexican term gringo.
CHICHA: A special drink made of raw ground rice, water, sugar and ginger. It can be fermented, but it’s pretty undrinkable no matter what state it’s in.
CHICHARRONES: Cracklins (if you have to ask, you won’t like them). Served at baseball games on a banana leaf, nestled in a bed of yucca, and topped with chili-vinegar. The juice runs off the leaf and down your arm but you don’t care if the game is any good, which it always is.
CHILAMATE: This must be the tree they call banyan in India, the one with the aerial roots that drop down from the branches, suckle into the soil, and start a lot of vertical mini-trunks (although they look like props or crutches). Another one of those Nahuatl words ending in -ate signifying a plant or plant product: tomate, chocolate, aguacate (avocado), zacate (reedy grass), probably even mecate (rope made from hemp) although now I think of it there are some -ote ones, too: zapote (sapodilla), elote (corn on the cob), chilote (a baby elote, eaten cob and all) jocote (crunchy green olive-shaped fruit, tastes like a Granny Smith), achiote (Central American paprika), and on and on.
CHILTOMA: Little crumply sweet green peppers, too wimpy to be called a bell pepper, very little taste, hardly worth your trouble, might as well skip it.
CHISME: Gossip, lie, slander, backbiting, badmouthing, calumny. This disease is epidemic in San Juan del Sur, poisoning an otherwise poor but cheerful population. Everybody knows everybody else’s secrets, but everybody also knows false rumors about everybody else and spreads them without hesitation or remorse. Chismes dissolve the social glue by feeding a systemic cynicism.
CHUNCHE: Heap, jalopy, rattletrap; any old rundown car or truck.
COCO: Name of an important river separating Nicaragua and Honduras. Of course, having a rich and fabled history, it goes by many other names as well: Segovia, Wanks, Wanki, Benks, Vankes, Wanx, Wonx, Huanqui, Oro, Yoro, Yore, Yari, Gold, Rio del Encuentro, Great Cape, Pantasma, Telpaneca….
COMPA, COMPITA: Short for companero (comrade, buddy), a term popular in the Sandinista ’80s; disappearing in the neoliberal ’90s, it will no doubt sound merely quaint in the new century. Compita is for children.
CUADRADO: A stubby green plantain with four boxy sides, whence the name “squared-off.” They are boiled like potatoes; they are dry and tasteless; they are a staple. In southern Nicaragua you can see trucks loaded 15 feet deep with cuadrados heading off to market.
CUAJADA: A dry salty cow’s cheese resembling a feta that took a wrong turn somewhere, although those from Chontales sometimes have a delicious smoky taste. Not for serious cheese lovers; but it grows on you.
CUCARACHA DE MAR: A monovalve mollusc, a limpet in fact, that can be pried off the rocks at low tide and used for bait or in a ceviche (marinate in lime and chili).
CUSUCO: Armadillo. Now farmed in Nicaragua for its meat, which when marinated in an adobo and grilled is rich, fatty, succulent beyond belief. Best place for cusuco in Region Four: La Lucha, on the Pan American highway between Rivas and La Virgen, just up the hill to the north of Rio Las Lajas, where the Interoceanic Canal was supposed to leave Lake Nicaragua and wind through the low hills to the Pacific, but never did, thanks to the P.R. skills of the French-Panamanian hustler, Philippe Bunau-Varilla who convinced TR that Panama was the way to go. If you’ve come across the Rio Las Lajas bridge and you’re hungry but you’re going to fret about your cholesterol, just skip the cusuco. Tell yourself you’ll have some next life.
FILIBUSTERO: Filibuster, freebooter, soldier of fortune, a corruption of the Dutch word vrijbuiter, meaning roughly “he who freely helps himself to booty in wartime.” In Nicaragua the term refers mainly to the mercenaries of William Walker’s “American Falange” (1855-60) who, invited as hired help, took over the country and changed Nicaraguan history forever. Of the roughly 2500 men who fought for Walker in Nicaragua (and some of them were Nicaraguans), 1000 died in battle or of disease; of 17,000 allied Central American soldiers, 5800 died. In most of the U.S. “filibuster” denoted heroism and derring-do, at least from 1855 to early 1857, when Walker’s men began to lose some battles. Nobody likes a loser. By 1860, condemnation of filibustering in Nicaragua was widespread in (newly) enlightened circles, but not in the South and other pockets of die-hard bravery, such as parts of the West. Of course the idea of “privatized wars for private profit” has always been popular in the U.S. Senate, which is perhaps why the term is current in that august institution for a one-man attempt to disrupt and obstruct communal business for the sake of passionately-held personal beliefs.
GALLO PINTO: The national dish of Nicaragua: the tiny red local beans and the small-grain local rice, pre-cooked separately, then fried together with onions, garlic and too much oil. Some even toss in a splash of the Nica salsa inglesa, a vapid facsimile of Worcestershire. Don Carlito Guzman cooks twenty or so pounds of beans in a huge cast-aluminum porro over a wood fire on Sundays; ash and woodsmoke get into them, which is good, very good. The name means “painted rooster.” It is reportedly called Cristianos y Moros (“Christians and Moors”) in El Salvador, a charge some Salvadorenos heatedly deny.
GARROBO: A small iguana; lives in trees and caves. Although protected by law, often hunted toward the end of “summer” (March, April, May) with dogs and fires (which sometimes get out of control and scorch miles of hillside, stripping the watershed of water-retaining vegetation; but then, March and April fires are a tradition as old as the slash-and-burn agriculture of Meso-America, that same stream of organic knowledge that gave the west such foods as tomatoes, chocolate, beans, corn, squash, chili peppers, etc. , so ecologically-correct rebukes should be delivered with humility and patience.) Garrobo makes a delicious pinol (corn-meal-thickened stew) de garrobo, also called pebre de garrobo. To skin your garrobo, slap him right down in the fire until his thick outer hide is completely blackened; then cut away the (now tender) skin, pull it off, revealing the pale flesh beneath. Simmer with squash, batata, cilantro, garlic and anything else at hand; add the pinol at the last minute, covering to allow time for steaming and absorption of the broth.
GASPAR: Gaspar Garcia Laviana, a Spanish missionary who was parish priest in San Juan del Sur in the 1970s. After Somoza tried to have him killed for his progressive views, he went underground, joined the Sandinista rebels, and rose to the level of comandante. He was killed in combat with the Guardia Nacional, December 11, 1978, months before the revolution triumphed. He was also a closet poet of great (sometimes manic) force. For sanjuanenos old enough to remember him, you mention his name and their eyes fill up with tears, so deep is the sense of loss.
GUACAL: see Jicaro
GUARO: Booze, esp. the cheapest rum.
GUEGUENSE: A character in traditional Nicaraguan street theatre, Gueegueense wears the pasty-faced mask of the pink skinned European, while the indigenous characters, Macho Raton (Super Mouse) and Toro Venado (Bull Buck), dance around him cracking jokes at his expense in Indian dialects. Thus the Gueegueense represents the naive, importunate chele who comes to town to lord it over the brownskinned Nicas, whose subservience is only a mask for ridicule and cunning. Seen spraypainted on a wall in Rivas in the late 1980s, the cryptic motto: !SOMOS TODOS GUEGUENSES!
JOCOTE: Almost every yard in San Juan has its jocote tree sending out its low scraggly branches every whichaway. In January it’s leafless, with only little redbud-like red buds on the limbs. By March/April it has flowered and set fruit. They look like fat green olives and have a sharp appley taste. Kids clamber up the trees, fill their pockets, then stroll the streets with a palmful of salt for the crunchy jocotes.
JODIDO: (adj.) fucked up, screwed up, messed up; (noun) jerk, asshole, dope.
JICARO: A tree that bears ovoid or spherical fruit with a thin hard shell that can be hollowed out, carved like wood with intricate designs–tendrils, flowers, birds, animals–and used for the traditional indigenous drinking vessel, the guacal. The jicaro is sometimes called “calabash” (gourd) tree in English. Of course calabaza is the generic name for squash.
HORMIGON: A coarse brown-sugar-colored volcanic gravel used with cement. Some masons dislike its tendency to suck up the cement rather than extend it like seaside lajilla (peastone) does. The best source of hormigon in southern Nicaragua is in the river beds that flow down from the Mombacho Volcano near Granada. When it’s ground down over the years into sand it becomes the highly valued arena de rio, excellent for mortar and stucco.
LARGARTO: Small lizard. The terms lagartito and terrepota are also used.
MADURO: A type of plantain, longer and sweeter that the cuadrado. It’s ripe when almost black on the outside. Best sliced lengthwise and slowly sauteed until golden brown.
MANTECA DE CASCABEL: Rendered and clarified fat of rattlesnake, sovereign cure for snakebite, arthritis, burns, gunshot and machete wounds, headaches, fungal infections, bee stings, and whatever else ails you. Not to be confused with the mythical food everybody talks about but nobody eats, ceviche de cascabel.
MECANA: A digging tool with a flat, square-headed blade used to cut through tough soil like dried sonseguite, where a shovel would be useless. That’s the mecana above pointing to 10 o’clock, crossed with a hook-billed machete.
MELOCOTON: In Spain, the name for peach, but in Nicaragua, the deeply-finned yellow fruit that when cut in cross-sections yields slices in the shape of five-pointed stars. Called “star fruit” in the US, where you can pay a buck apiece. The taste is acidic but penetrating. Great to throw into the blender with whatever other fruit you have on hand to make a refresco. This use of European names for Central American species can be confusing: laurel is not laurel, but a hardwood tree valued for its lumber; roble is not an oak, but a tropical tree with purple blossoms visible a mile away; almendra is not almond, but a gangly tree with leathery leaves; it produce an almond-shaped pod that kids break open with a rock so as to fish out a bit of sweet inner nut; acasia is not the acacia of Southern Europe, but a low leguminous tree with clusters of violet peablossoms. In Escamequita the road passes under a long allee of acasias that meet at the top to form a tunnel and coat the roadway below with fragrant fallen blooms. You would think the Spanish would simply learn the indigenous names for these trees they had never seen…. No, why would you think that? Nomenclature is imperialism’s most effective tool of mental control.
PARGO: Red Snapper. Up to the turn of the century (that is, the turn that leaves the 20th behind and sets sail for the 21st), fairly easy to catch in the waters off southwestern Nicaragua, although they seem to get smaller every year. (When the Costa Ricans, who have over-fished their waters, come sneaking up for pargo, we seize their boats, or at least we say we do.) Will hit on brine shrimp, cut bait, squid, you name it. Likes big piles of rock in deep water a mile or so offshore. Check your motor carefully before setting out; don’t assume you can “troll for some bait on the way out.” Suppose there are no mackerel or black tuna? Nica fishermen with a propane burner on board cook pargo in the following fashion: scale, slash the sides vertically in three or four places, put sea-salt and lime juice in the slashes; heat about a quart of oil in a deep frying pan or wok; slice onions and tomatoes; when the oil is hot, deep-fry the pargo on both sides until the skin and head are toasty brown; toss in the tomatoes and onions; take fish, onion and tomatoes out of the oil with a slotted spoon; serve with more lime, platanos, and a cold Victoria (failing which, lukewarm Flor de Cana rum will do, failing which, any old ron plata or nondescript guaro will do).
NACATAMAL: The Nicaraguan tamale is a more formidable than its Mexican cousin. The nacatamal is a big handful of cooked cornmeal masa shaped around a core of cooked pork, tomatoes, and sometimes chili, the whole thing then wrapped in several layers of banana leaf, and tied round and round with a string like a birthday present or chunk of gelignite. A big batch of nacatamales is then covered with water and slowly steamed in a big cast-aluminum pot over a wood fire. Your heart always leaps up of a Sunday mid-day to be walking down the streets of San Juan del Sur and see the words HAY NACATAMALES chalked on someone’s old wooden door. You knock, enter, the lady of the house leads you to the pot and fishes out from the dark green water as many as you want. One nacatamal is enough lunch for a hungry adult. You cut the strings, unwrap, unwrap some more, and there it lies, soft yellow and steaming…. Nacatamal pindongo refers to a nacatamal which is all masa and no meat; by extension it means an idiot (no meat between the ears) or a baseball pitcher who just doesn’t have what it takes.
OJALA: “Let’s hope,” “if only,” “God willing,” from the Arabic, meaning “If Allah wills it.” The Spanish version, Si dios quiera, was seldom used during the ten years of optimistic self-reliance after the triumph of the revolution, but in the more desperate decade that followed the defeat of the Sandinistas, you’d be more likely to say to someone, “See you tomorrow,” only to be answered by, “Si, manana, si Dios quiera.”
OMETEPE: The double-volcano island in Lake Nicaragua (Cocibolca) near the Western shore. The name means Twin Peaks. Thus any Nica name ending in -tepe refers to a mountain. Thus Coyotepe, the big hill above Masaya from which Somoza’s Guardia Nacional shelled the insurrectional town, or Masatepe (the great furniture-making town) or Jinotepe (cool and prosperous).
PACHINGA: A big plastic gas-can with an invertible pour-spout. Necessary equipment for anyone using an outboard or chainsaw.
PATO CHANCHO: Cormorant (literally, “pig-duck,” or “dirty-duck”). Pato chancho is also the Nica name for a crowbar, which when you stop to think about it, looks a hell of a lot more like a cormorant’s neck than a crow’s. The word chancho, which literally simply means pig, also has (as in English) a moral connotation. Thus dirty dancing is bailar chancho, and if you were to burst into the National Assembly brandishing AK-47s and take a lot of dirty politicians captive, you might call it Operacion Chanchera–Operation Pigpen.
PICA-PICA: A common weed in Southern Nicaragua. When the seedpods break open in the dry season (about March) millions of tiny filaments–rather like the threadlike filaments at the base of a prickly-pear cactus spine–are released into the hot wind. They blow into town. Think of wind-borne nettles. They get into your clothes, under your belt and into your underwear, they can penetrate bedsheets, infest the cushions of a couch. They bite and they burn and they itch and they’re no damned fun at all.
PICO: A pastry made of sweet dough with a glop of honey in the center which has been folded into a triangular shape with three “peaks.” Pico also means “a little bit,” or “loose change,” as in Me costo cien cordobas y pico: it cost me a hundred cordobas and change.
PIJUL: A large black grosbeak. These birds are always found in groups, crying out “pee-hool” again and again.
PINOL, PINOLERO: A coarse flour, usually of corn, used either in a sweet drink (you stir it in but it sinks to the bottom in a mass but you’re supposed to drink it anyway) or to thicken a stew (see Garrobo). Drinking pinol is a bit like drinking pancake batter, except grainier. An acquired taste. Pinolero means someone who drinks pinol and has always drunk pinol and is thus someone authentically Nicaraguan. Es un Nica pinolero means he’s 100% pure blooded dyed-in-the-cotton Nicaraguan.
PINUELO: A low, spikey plant of the palm family. You plant a row of pinuelos as a fence: neither animals nor people will care to make their way through the razor-sharp spines.
PINUELERO: A Pacific fish. They attack schools of sardines along the shore, rather the way bluefish will hit sand eels in the Atlantic. It’s a great sight, seeing the surface explode, with sardines flipping up into the air. All you need to catch them is a bit of rag or string attached to your hook, whipped through the water at high speed. Good eating!
PIPILACHA: Dragonfly or Darning Needle. Also sometimes called nivedula.
PITAYA (also PITAHAYA): A vine which is actually a member of the cactus family. It will grow out along the branches of an old tree or across a roof with no roots going into the soil. Amazing. Red blossoms, and a bright red fruit which resembles that of the prickly pear.
PITO: Kid, squirt.
POCHOTE: A common tree in Nicaragua, used for lumber. An older pochote with a rotten hollow in it may be home to colonies of tiny bees. They make extraordinary honey.
QUEMADO: Burned. Figuratively, fingered, identified as a rebel or outlaw. If you’ve been quemado you’d better make yourself scarce.
SABALO REAL: Tarpon. For some reason, American translators of Nicaraguan literature insist on translating sabalo as “shad,” which is ludicrous. Certainly, shad and tarpon are in the same family, but so are a one-pound dogfish and a giant Mako Shark. The tarpon in Lake Nicaragua (Cocibolca) have grown up to 125 pounds (lake record). Of course overfishing and pollution have drastically reduced the numbers of the Sabalo Real, as well as of the famous freshwater (bull) sharks and the semi-prehistoric sawfish and the Gaspar–which is a large version of what is sometimes called in English an Alligator Gar. There’s a stuffed and varnished Gaspar in the semi-abandoned Hotel Barlovento on a hill high above San Juan del Sur (anyone who builds a hotel on a hill a mile from a perfect beach should have his head examined, although apparently some fool wants to do so on the big hill above Indian Head Rock).
SANDINO, AGUSTO CESAR: The General of Free Men. Returning from revolutionary Mexico, he fought on one side of a brief civil war, but when the U.S. Marines were brought in to pacify things, Sandino alone refused to disarm. He fought a guerrilla war (pleonastic redundification) against the Marines and their Nica lackeys from 1927 to 1933. Invited to a Peace Banquet, he was taken out to the airport and murdered by forces under one Anastasio Somoza, whose dynasty remained in control of Nicaragua until 19 July 1979. Was Sandino a communist? Donald Hodges writes: “For Marx there can be no emancipation short of abundance. …Create abundance and exploitation loses its rationale. Meanwhile, he refused to blame exploiters for doing what is natural in a context in which one person’s gain is another person’s loss… In stark contrast, Sandino denounced exploitation as immoral and a transgression of divine justice as well as human. . . Sandino’s communism was moral and spiritual rather than scientific.”
SOLENTINAME: An archipelago of islands down in the southeast corner of Lake Nicaragua (Cocibolca). The poet and liberation theology priest Ernesto Cardenal lived there among the local campesinos between 1965 and 1977, enacting a dream he and Thomas Merton had elaborated in the Trappist Monastery in Kentucky: a “Christian base community,” in which political and spiritual consciousness would grow side by side. Communal living and basic literacy were followed by poetry and painting workshops. Their eyes now open, the liberated campesinos took part in a 1977 assault against a Guardia Nacional fortification on the mainland; as a result, their community was destroyed and the islanders fled into exile (except for some poets who were either killed or imprisoned). After the Revolution triumphed, Ernesto became Minister of Culture for the new government. The painting school has continued; the poetry has disappeared.
SONSEGUITE: A heavy clay-like soil common in southern Nicaragua. In the rainy season it turns into instant mud and squeezes water to the surface in localized flows called vertientes, so that if you build a floor on sonseguite and cover it with tiles, the water may come oozing up through the floor and flood the room. Try to dig wet sonseguite and it sticks to your shovel or mecana like moist pumpernickel bread-dough. When sonseguite is dry digging it is like trying to cut through half-baked bricks; dried vertientes in a field of sonseguite crack open to form mini-crevices. To build a house or school where there is sonseguite means you have to excavate to a depth of at least 40cm, fill the hole with piedra balon (fieldstones) or cascajo (rocky rubble), smooth it out, and then proceed to build your floor.
TAMAGAS: A small tree with sweet flowers favored by honey bees. In Carlos Mejia Godoy’s hymn to the revolution, “Nicaragua Nicaragueita,” we sing “Ay Nicaragua sos mas dulcita que la mielita de Tamagas/ Pero ora que ya sos libre, Nicaragueita, yo te quiero mucho mas” [Oh Nicaragueita you are sweeter than the honey from the Tamagas tree, but now at last you're free I love you even more].
TEPISQUINTLE: A wild rodent, called paca or capybara in South America; sometimes confused with the wild peccary known as guardatinaja.
TERREREQUE: A Nicaraguan cornbread made with freshly-milled yellow corn, salt and the heavy brown sugar known as dulce. The best cornbread is made in the traditional wood/stone/clay oven built on legs above the ground: you build an immense fire in the oven by thrusting dry brush into the open doors; when the heat is at its peak, you sweep out the burning fuel, put in the terrereque and other breads you have ready to go, seal up all the entrances, and leave it for an hour. The subtle smoky taste is wonderful.
TRAGO: Shot or slug, usually of rum. Flor de Cana is the preferred (national) brand in Nicaragua, coming in a range of grades, colors and ages.
WALKER, WILLIAM:”The Grey-Eye’d Man of Destiny” came to Nicaragua from Tennessee via California and an ill-fated attempt to liberate (invade) the Mexican state of Sonora. In 1855 he and his “American Falange” of dropout roustabouts and fleabitten mercenary desperadoes known as “filibusters”(q.v.) signed on to fight for the Leon “Liberales” in Nicaragua’s chronic civil war. In little over a year Walker had had himself “elected” President, reinstituted slavery, burned the colonial city of Granada to the ground, and might have arranged the annexation of Nicaragua to the U.S.A. (southern branch) had he not unwisely attempted to stiff the redoubtable Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, who had obtained a trans-isthmian transit concession from a previous government. The Commodore rallied other Central Americans (and some Brits) who forced Walker to flee the country. After several abortive returns, he was seized in Honduras in 1860 and shot. His fascinating book, The War in Nicaragua, published in Mobile earlier in the last year of his life is the Mein Kampf of the era of Manifest Destiny (southern branch).
WIWILI: A town in northern Nicaragua
ZACATE: A thick-growing, wiry grass, suitable for both fodder and thatched roofs.
ZANATE (f. ZANATA): Central American boat-tailed grackle (Quiscalus Macroourus). Common in towns; likes the tops of coco palms. Song, especially at dawn, a loud piercing rising glissando. The poet/priest/revolutionary Gaspar Garcia Laviana writes:
Hee! Hee! Hee! The zanate confronting the lake keeps his face up into the wind his plumage ruffled and whipped and his musical beak wide open. Hee! Hee! Hee!