Margaret Gullette

Floricita la Suerte
by Margaret Morganroth Gullette

Poor Nicaragua, so far from God, so close to the United States.(Nicaraguan saying)

The baby turtle high on the Sahara of the noon beach looked dead. We had been told the hatching season had ended. This one hadn’t made it to the sea. Out of curiosity, I picked up the tiny corpse by its hard, ashy shell. It had the look of a dessicated coin of leather left too long in the sun. But when I turned it over, I saw a pulse beat in its fragile throat. Shielding its shell from the sun, I carried it to the edge of the waves. I let the waves wash over it, tilting its head above the surf. The surge was powerful even at the edge, and kneeling there, several times I almost lost my two-finger grip on its little body.

The Beach at La Flor

The water turned its shell less ashy–blacker, shinier. It immediately looked less dead. But its tiny feathery front wings remained limp. I couldn’t tell whether I was merely sluicing its polished cadaver, like brightening a stone by holding it under water. But after long minutes, its right plume sketched a small swimming motion. Holding it with one hand, I made a pond of sea water with the other. I settled its belly on the cool shallows. I had to keep scooping sand out of the drying hole and lifting the turtle above the higher washes of the tide. Busy as this kept me, I peered once at its face. Shut tight as a baby’s, its sightless eyes were set into ancient wrinkles. For some reason I decided to do what it took to give this heiress of ancient lineage her chance to extend her line toward infinity.

The sky, oddly for Nicaragua in the dry season, had been overcast–otherwise I would never have been walking at noon–and suddenly a steady drizzle began to fall. It seemed an omen of good will. I could keep her minute pool full while the moist air too cooled her skin. Her shell seemed to soften, but I didn’t know what that meant: whether decay or rehydration. Then her right limb stroked, and then her left. She seemed to be trying to swim. Keeping ready to snatch her out of a crashing wave, I released her for the first time to private effort. She made three strokes and stopped, as if that one attempt had used up her moribund energy. It was no use. But then she stroked again. Perhaps something indefatigable was at work. A few days earlier, I had said that I had no particular interest in “nature”; that wasn’t why I came to Nicaragua, beautiful as the country is. But this force was nature, in some way that the names of volcanos and strange birds and flora were not. She appeared to be resting, not dying. Her back legs pushed out against the sand, thrusting. She might yet live. Soaked to the skin, on my knees in the sand, myopically close to this winged, deep-lunged lizard, I was actually beholding the life force, measuring its ecstatic reach beyond death.

By this time, my husband and our friends had surrounded the circular speck in its eye of water. The children were making channels to keep water running to her lagoon. When I accidentally put her down with her head facing the tree line, she swiftly righted her sight to the sea. It was perhaps half an hour since I had found her. After another fifteen minutes or so, Michelle, a doctor in our other North-American life, pointed out that she had recovered the symmetry of her stroke. Our opinions diverged. “She may be tiring herself climbing out of the pool.” “Is she strong enough yet?” someone asked worriedly. Eventually we agreed that it was time to let her her chance the open sea. “Okay, hada madrina?” teased my husband. Fairy godmother.

“Let’s name her and bless her,” I said. I asked Tano, aged six, for a name. Without hesitation, he said, “Lucky.” “La Suerte,” I translated. “Florcita,” said his mother, Michelle, “after the beach.” “Florcita La Suerte,” her human godmother addressed her, “long life!” As I put her on the edge of a receding wave, she caught its rhythm and paddled undaunted out of sight on its oceanic swell west.

Nicaragua 1999

La Flor is a national park, one of only a few Pacific beaches where the endangered leatherback turtles can still be born. The cycle begins in October, when the huge mother-turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. In the nearby town of San Juan del Sur, our sister city, people say, “The turtles can be as big around as the diameter of a giant Ceiba tree.” They say that in October the beach at La Flor is paved with them. I think it must look like a mosaic floor in a medieval church, those dark circles on the moonlit sand. The mothers move rapidly; they dig rapidly. When the babies are born in January, after breaking out of their shell and climbing the steep sides of their sand cave, they skedaddle. That old fable of the tortoise and the hare–whoever invented it never saw turtles dash for the sea. Although hatching is believed not to occur in the daytime, after Florcita set off we watched other dark alert heads surface from the pale sand, their compass set, driving toward their waterworld. We hadn’t missed the season.

Suddenly giant predators swooped onto the beach: the scissor-tailed frigate-bird, the Nicaraguan eagle called the cara-cara, the fearless and omnivorous zopilote, a vulture. Ready to munch soft-shelled babies two at a time. Running, shouting, and waving their arms, my husband David and our friend Derrick kept them off until twenty or thirty of the next generation reached the relative safety of the ocean. Whatever happens on land is risky for a turtle. But the sea is full of eaters too. Maybe its whole life is at risk.

Florcita la Suerte could be an allegory for Nicaragua these days–for the sister city that I fell in love with ten years ago, for this indomitable country that I return to every year even while it sinks toward being the poorest in the Western Hemisphere–still beautiful, struggling, irresistible. Fewer than four million people survive on a wedge of dry rainforest between the Carribean and the Pacific, with all the forces of the world against them. They made a revolution that put them on the heroic side of the twentieth-century’s dismal history and then–since 1979–have survived hostile American presidencies, foreign-led war and economic embargo, the IMF, and global capitalism’s downward pressure on wages, the environment, and the spirit of cooperation. Since 1990 administrations calling themselves “neoliberal” have left 60% of the population unemployed and deprived small farmers of credits for seeds, while in the resort part of San Juan the ill-mannered children of the Miami rich cavort in $200 sneakers and drive four-wheeled golf carts on the beach.

For most years dry winds whirl the topsoil into the ravenous air, and farmers lose some crops to dust and mistimed rain. Hurricanes come relentlessly: Juana in 1988, Mitch in 1998; this year, they were nameless. The rains inundate the rivers, gash the dirt roads, drown the harvests, fill the latrines and overflow, spreading contaminated water over yards and fields. Turbid water spins through house-walls of board and zinc, snagging away a baby’s dress, a plate filled with rice and beans, one broken-backed shoe without laces, the last egg-laying chicken–leaving malarial mud, dengue fever, the fungal infection called “mushrooms,” and the risk of cholera. Owning the clothes they wear, the rural families return. The mud lies ridged and hardened across the once neatly-swept dirt floor. This part of the country suffered less than the areas of mudslides: no deaths to Mitch. But half a harvest was lost in 1998, and again in 1999. For some, these are not much worse than other years. They have survived and dragged their lives up steep hills for decades; been knocked down, crept up again. Their mother and father were both called Sisyphus. Which will win–frigate-bird or hada madrina?

Wartime Nicaragua, 1989

Revolution made Nicaragua a lodestar for lovers of social and economic justice. In ‘79, the Sandinistas–waving red bandannas, women combatants alongside men–swam into cheering crowds in Managua as into a sheltering sea. When we first arrived in 1989, a veteran named Marcelo–a hardscrabble farmer whose fingernails were hard as toenails–told us the revolution had put a stop to droit de seigneur in his own village. Somoza’s regime had been so evil that many stories about it sounded as if they had occurred centuries ago, in some fabled villainous past. And the Sandinistas were at first good enough to make old socialists and liberation theologists weep. They built roads, they brought health care and free medicine, they sent out teams of educated people to teach illiterate peasants, they shared out the land of Somocista cronies who fled to Miami. They were formally reelected in 1984, a ratification of their progressive policies. But a president of the United States had got it into his head that the nurturing revolution was upstaging capitalism. He sicced the CIA on the country, mined the harbors, lodged armies on the borders, diverted money illegally to pay them, lied to Congress and the people, and was then allowed to depart into senility without responsibility. In 1990 the next American president bought the Nicaraguan election by promising to end the contra war and give 200 million dollars to the opposition if the people voted out the government that was bringing them social democracy. Even with so sizable a bribe, forty percent said no.

In 1989, when we arrived in San Juan, the US-funded contra war had wreaked terrible havoc: although we were far from the fighting, mercenaries were still mutilating the north; fifty percent of government funds were going into defense; the clinic pharmacies were almost empty; the shop shelves were even emptier. Inflation was exorbitant. We came for a three-month visit, to see how our American sister city could help; decided to return, and have come back every year since. We became the delegates who carry the donations and work with rural communities building schools. It’s hard to say briefly or rationally why we fell in love, but we did, both of us. It was hardship we confronted, but hardship more fairly shared than we had imagined possible. The people we came to know were not utterly demoralized; indeed, they scarcely complained. And we met with goodness–unpretentious, unnamed, resolute goodness. To begin with, no one blamed us for the war. That intelligent understanding, that Americans differed politically from one another; that generous assumption, that if we were there it was out of good will–touched us. Still, acquaintances politely avoided calling us “North Americans,” norteamericanos, to our face; they used “internationalists.” (Except for our friend Pajaro Loco, who roared, “Yankee, enemy of mankind” from the Sandinista anthem.) The people we admired were unsentimental and hard-working. They included us matter-of-factly among themselves, as if we had already proved our worth when indeed we had still proved nothing more than the fact that we had enough money to pay for the plane trips.

There were many people to admire. After a decade of practical activism, they were motivated not by enlightened self-interest, as philosopher John Brentlinger has put it, but by their historic tradition of popular struggle, the bonds of community-building, ethics and spirituality. At the port authority, where the work was often punishing, people volunteered for an occasional extra half day, Sunday, for no compensation but a meal with meat. “We are making the revolution,” someone said when we joined them one Sunday to construct forklift pallets and knock rust off boat keels. The much-loved “Doctora Patricia”–Dr. Patricia Claeys, a Belgian internationalist–delivered babies to women who had never imagined receiving skilled help. Then she multiplied herself, starting a network of paramedics to serve all over San Juan’s 200 loose square miles of wilderness and farmland, spotted with isolated houses, divided from the port (and resort) by the little rivers that swell in the rainy season. In finding and training one woman in each locale, she was helped by Rosa Elena Bello, a community leader and public health activist. When hunger mounted after 1990–as the government reduced farm credits–Patricia and Rosa Elena started a register of malnourished children and a food program, giving away milk and cereal. The teachers worked with children some of whom who had breakfasted on nothing but a half cup of coffee, in classrooms without electricity, where the roof leaked and there was no money for repairs unless they raised it. They all said, “We are making the revolution.” Just that way. “Estamos haciendo la revolucióon.”

And I felt toward them a great wave of envy, one of those surges of passionate feeling that can arise at any point in life and can change a life. It was a wholesome, uninvidious envy; immediately assuaged by the thought: Yes, we can be doing that; we too can be with them.

San Juan del Sur, the Landscape in History

When our neighbors in town wanted to treat us in the midst of hardship the end of which no one could see, they drove us out to see their treasures. The great white-sand beaches north and south of San Juan proper, with names that sing in the mouth. La Flor, of course. Marseilla. Boquito. Yanqui. Coco. Ostional. We piled, fifteen or twenty of us, into the back of the only privately-owned truck in town, and off we went. (The other long flatbed was the town garbage truck, always breaking down and sitting in front of the mayor’s office covered with flies.) Some are secret bays, curved like a wrist. At each end, like the knobs on a bracelet, rise rocky headlands that forbid access from one beach to another. The promontories often have columnar cactus growing out of the live rock like spiked asparagus. Some beaches only the locals know how to reach; only fishermen in boats can actually get there. Some are calm as lakes. On others, giant breakers fall in a single curl across the whole front. My husband body surfs. He says the waters are unmatched for their perfect size, degree of shelving, and length of ride, and (when the Humboldt current isn’t close to shore), perfect temperature. You can spend a day on some of these beaches and see no one except, toward dusk, two mounted men on horses trekking across the white sand, or a boy and a dog, or a small herd of cattle trailing home to be milked. Pelicans in flocks come to Remanso in late afternoon to fish the north cove just beyond the tide pools. In repose on the water they have the profile of swans. This is my favorite walk, to the flat smooth dark rocks; I pick my way looking for baby fish in brilliant colors. Anyone with a tank could see full-grown adults in cobalt, turquoise, yellow.

In the forests where the new schools go up, grow some of Nicaragua’s giant flowering trees. In summer–December, January, February–the woods are lavish with bloom. The madroñno, the national tree, bears white flowers on thrusting branches like the arms of dogwood–if dogwoods had the grandeur of madroñnos. Poro poro is decorated with large buttery-yellow popcorn. Pera drops its violet petals like a carpet on the steep hillsides. Malinche, a shrub named after Cortez’s Aztec mistress, is like a lantana blown up into tropic luxuriance. The giant Ceiba flanges to the ground like caressing hands, as all right-angled trees–with their elbows tucked to their sides–wish to do.

These special places are still, for a while, the unadvertized wonders of the world. To repair the long-lasting damages of deforestation, the Sandinistas regulated felling of trees; even under the current government, when we need wood for the roof beams of a rural school, a delegate goes to the mayor for permission to cut down a sick tree. When we hike, we follow the eco-rule: Take nothing but images, leave nothing but footprints. But the land is now being discovered by international capitalism. Hurricanes don’t stop the implacable tourist industry. It may back off for a while, but only until the relief agencies restore the necessary infrastructure, bring poverty back up to an endurable quiescent level, and disappear, signaling the end of “the emergency.” “Tourism is the single largest item in world trade,” according to anthropologist Andrew Ross, “and growing 23% faster than the global economy as a whole. . . . [It is] the modern medium of neocolonial relations between First and Third Worlds.” The first American ambassador to the federation of Central America, visiting in the late 1830s, saw the volcano at Masaya, one of many wonders, as “good property”–in the hands of “people who know how to turn them to account.” “At home,” Ambassador John L. Stephens wrote to antebellum entrepreneurs, in the same language they respond to today, “this volcano would be worth a fortune; with a good hotel on top, a railing round to keep children from falling in, a zigzag staircase down the sides, and a glass of iced lemonade at the bottom.” As soon as he returned to publicize the loot, the rush to commercialize nature and culture began.

“40 acres of Pacfic coastline for sale,” says the ad in the American real-estate brochure. It advertises our sister city, San Juan del Sur, as the “best buy.” It mentions a parcel of 360 acres. This takes my breath away. How could so much coast be alienable? We meet a Chamorro married to a Holman, the magic names linked in a single woman who talks about her grandson’s baseball team. But when the conversation touches the attractions of San Juan, she says, “I own a beach. Hermosa. One kilometer, 276 meters.” We hadn’t asked for her water frontage.

Strictly speaking, if there were anyone to speak strictly, the coast is not for sale. Legally, the litoral is national patrimony to 100 meters above the high tide mark. It used to be a bigger swath; the National Assembly keeps cutting it back. De facto, however, anyone who has enough land can treat it as private property by simply making it inaccessible: wherever it impinges on a road, by building cattle fences, barbed wire and gates, posting signs. Or by ignoring the law.

At Remanso, a builder has clearcut the trees, broken up the land into lots, and dropped five houses on the slope overlooking the beach–well inside the hundred meter limit. Something made out of concrete blocks is being dug in so close to the foam line that its future windows will be sprayed at high tide. Someone told us the farmers sold their land for only $US 100 per hectare, a pittance; they had to sell because they couldn’t get credit from the banks for seed. Yanqui is closed with a grille; the farmers at the gate admit you for a fee. The pelican-spawning grounds in the savage high cliffs just south of town are for sale. Someone will want to build a lodge at the top–with a lemonade stand at the bottom–even though development would destroy the wilderness that the pelicans need. Even La Flor, now protected by being a national park, may be privatized. Snobirds from Quebec and Montreal love Nicaragua. (As tourists go, they’re “good”–not too rich, not too young, not exceptionally drunk or rude to the locals.) There are not a lot of tourists in San Juan–yet. But developers and cruise lines have grandiose plans.

San Juan in fact already has amenities enough for people who like to go somewhere before the crowds do. The California surfing bums with their pricey boards and cultivated tans elbow one another in the one new German-run restaurant, the one American bar. They drift on to the next country leaving only small change for locals in their wake. There are hostels, one once lovingly known by internationalists as the Green Sandino, where the shower stalls are clustered in the patio; another where the walls don’t go all the way to the ceiling. You can get a cooked meal from the market stalls, with the smoke climbing above the wooden tables, and the hot sauce bottle the only ornament. Latin America on $10 a day, still. Within blocks of the town beach, however, the new hotels are impeccable: Casajoxi’s small rooms look as if someone cleaned the tile with a toothbrush every morning; it provides fax and email and cashes travelers’ checks. Piedras y Olas, in construction on the slope of the tallest hill, will provide a view that embraces the palm trees on the boulevard edging the beach, the hills that end in fists, the little rio winding between stilted houses. Only this hotelier, an American internationalist who has lived in San Juann for a decade, is reforesting his land; he plans an arboretum that school children can visit. A Canadian is going to build a hotel at Marseilla, on the beach where the lagoon almost reaches to the sea, and dozens of white egrets sit in trees in late afternoon like housewives in aprons come out on their front porches to chat in the cool of the day.

Tourism brings in foreign dollars, but it doesn’t spread them around much or evenly. There’s almost no return for the rural people, who are the primary producers of basic grains and true owners of the land. Strangers are stealing it from them–Americans, some of them, which puts a stigma on me that I cannot entirely erase. And these strangers are also stealing the beauty. The beauty now belongs to everyone who can see it, a consolation and a reward in the midst of suffering. A subsistence farmer who is the mother of three stands in the welcome shade of her guanacaste. Her sister, living in a Managua barrio, has a family income of US $80 a month, but the air stinks of uncollected garbage, and her electricity costs a quarter of her income. The San Juan sister–call her Maria Dolores Paz–is separating the wormy little red beans from the sweet ones that will get the family through the dry season, when no one plants a crop. When she lifts her eyes, or even just breathes in the cinammon-scented air, her mind is soothed. After the contra war–after the boughten elections of 1990–after the Sandinistas dwindled from running Reagan’s gauntlet– after the droughts and the floods: How can the frigate-birds dare take anything else away from her?

San Juan del Sur, November 1998

As soon as Mitch spun back out across the Caribbean, Rosa Elena Bello went off on horseback to visit some of the rural communities that had been left incommunicado. She’s a stocky unassuming woman who looks about thirty although she must be at least a decade older, a mother of two, with features that are considered “Indio” here: broad pommettes, even coloring, a ready smile that slowly broadens across her face as if it would never stop. When I first saw her she was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, no-nonsense clothes in a place where most women even in the backwoods still wear dresses or pencil skirts. I’ve known her, by good luck, since our first visit. When Doctor Patricia, the Florence Nightingale of San Juan, went back to Belgium, Rosa Elena inherited the far-flung rural health outreach program. She oversees eighty paramedics–brigadistas de salud, they call them. She has since taken on many responsibilities. When we send dentists or eye-doctors to San Juan, it is her network that informs the people, and brings the clients–1000, 2000 at a time–to the clinic she runs in San Juan. She started a rabbit-raising project, giving the first breeding stock to the mothers of malnourished children; after a year, each will provide a set to another family on her long list of the hungry.

Using e-mail from three different countries, Rosa Elena and Patricia and I wrote a grant application for a literacy project for women. Their concept was brilliantly simple: the illiterate women, aged 14 to 55, would be taught in small groups in their home villages, by the same health worker who was already bringing them family-planning information or prenatal care, first aid, and good communication with the clinic. The reading workbook, written by a collective in Matagalpa, appeals to women’s knowledge of their real lives: a story about marital rape, a cartoon showing how “men work from sun to sun, but women’s work is never done,” and syllable lessons that feature “pe-ne” (penis) as well as “pe-na” (pain). Paulo Freire for Women. The vanguard theory behind literacy–endorsed by United Nations conferences on development in Cairo, Stockholm, Vienna, and Beijing–is that if you empower women you go a long way to solving many other problems, all interrelated: spousal abuse, unwanted babies or abortion, child abuse, malnutrition, preventable illnesses, illiteracy in the next generation. I translated this remarkable proposal, hustled funding; won enough for the first year, and then for the second, and started questing for the indispensable third. It takes three years for a woman to earn the government certificate, three years to get familiar enough with reading not to lose the learning afterward.

Down there, they found 230 women who wanted to read, selected thirty-three of the best educated health workers to receive training in how to teach reading to adults, bought the blackboards. The program began in July 1998: the learners sat down with the feminist workbooks in their laps, looked up eagerly and anxiously at the teacher, and started the journey that begins with A. By October, many were sounding out syllables. Then Mitch hit, veering eccentrically off its course to crash on Central America. Some women left the program; others the country. But a year later, despite the dislocations, almost all the rest have moved on to the second-year workbook.

Skillfully pushing beans left and right, Maria Dolores Paz is thinking about numbers. She has three children and doesn’t want four. Not now with hard years coming. She won’t see the foreigners’ aid; will any get to the backwoods of San Juan del Sur, backed up against the Costa Rican border? Much winds up in deep pockets in Managua, just as gravitation dropped it into Somoza’s after the earthquake in ’76. No more children, not ever. The Norteamericana who separated beans with them one day years ago said she had only one child. Maria Dolores went to the clinic; they explained prevention clearly, but they didn’t always have the pills, her husband won’t use the other thing. . . . And they gave her a paper she couldn’t admit she didn’t know how to read. Although there was no shame, exactly no shame: when she was a child, there hadn’t been a school nearby. As far away was the idea that girls should have education. Maria Dolores joined the literacy group over the objections of her husband.

A neighbor told her quietly that in Las Parcelas some women had dropped out because their men shouted, “The program makes women leave their husbands.” The fundamentalists didn’t want their wives pronouncing bad words and looking at dirty pictures. Some let the wives go back, however, because after all it is better for a woman who must go into town to know something, not to be so humble she hangs her head like a dog in front of the shopkeepers, los burgueses. Maria Dolores would like to know the words on the homework sheet her oldest girl brings home from school. The other day, among all the words swimming on the page she recognized one. “Lu-na.” It surged up in the most surprising way, like the face of a smiling friend amidst the tumult of strangers in the Rivas market. “Moon” did not seem a useful word; nor did “pain,” nor did. . . any of the others, really, one by one. But reading was different from a word and a word and a word. Eventually, si Dios quiera, if God will it, she will decipher a poster or a story.

International foundations funding emergency relief: for food and medicines, then for rebuilding infrastructure, maybe even for houses and latrines. So much immediate need, just to return once more to normal levels of immiseration. But what of the long-term programs that invest in human potential–that do not give a person a fish to feed her for only a day, because they see how much more valuable it is to teach her how to fish? Even such godparents– committed and dedicated to development efforts–may be distracted, perhaps for years, or move on to the next emergency. Not a good prognostic for programs like literacy, that start women, woman by woman by woman, each on her long solitary march toward the embrace of the pounding sea.

Documentation

Brentlinger, John. The Best of What We Are. Reflections on the Nicaraguan Revolution. Amherst: Univ. of Mass Press, 1995

Ross, Andrew. The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life. London and New York: Verso, 1994, p. 55.

Stephens, John L., Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, Vol. II.

New York: Dover, 1969; reprint, 1841.

This essay is copyrighted by the laws of the United States. To reprint or for other information contact the author, Margaret Morganroth Gullette, at mgullette@msn.com.

About the Author

Margaret Morganroth Gullette is a writer and activist whose next book, Agewise,  will be published in early 2011.  Aged by Culture  was named a “Noteworthy Book” of the year by the Christian Science Monitor. Declining to Decline. Cultural Combat and the Politics of the Midlife has been recognized as “the best feminist book on American popular Culture” by the 1998 Emily Toth Award, given by the American Culture/Popular Culture Associations. Her earlier essays on Nicaragua have appeared in the North American Review and Yale Review.  Several of her essays have been cited as notable in Best American Essays ; another is reprinted in the Garland series, Twentieth Century Literary Essays. A Resident Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis, she is a member of PEN America. Her trip to San Juan del Sur in August 2001 was her 14th. She goes annually to monitor the programs of the Free High School for Adults.

This essay is copyrighted by the laws of the United States. To reprint or for other information contact the author, Margaret Morganroth Gullette, at mgullette@msn.com.
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