In 1979 after the Nicaraguan dictator was overthrown, the face of Nicaragua changed and problems that were overlooked or hidden in preceding years manifested themselves. One such problem was illiteracy: more than 50% of Nicaraguans could neither read nor write. Recognizing that this was one of the highest illiteracy rates in Latin America at that time, the new government developed a bottom-up literacy campaign known as alfabetización and the plan was set into action by a man named Fernando Cardenal. After one year of alfabetización, only 13% of Nicaraguans were illiterate.
Although Fernando is most known for his work in alfabetización, throughout his lifetime he has been a prominent figure in Nicaragua’s history, serving Nicaraguans as a Jesuit priest and leader in a Jesuit school network known as Fe yAlegría. The mission of Fe y Alegría (which so fittingly translates as Faith and Joy) is to bring education to the poorest and most underdeveloped areas of the world. Two of the JV’s whom I had lived with last year served in Fe y Alegría schools as teachers and as the year came to a close, we had the opportunity to share a meal with Padre Fernando.
Over dinner Padre asked us questions about our work in Nicaragua and our values as Jesuit Volunteers and then proceeded to share inspiring stories about where his life has taken him, primarily throughout the Revolution. Besides winning my esteem by being the most endearing, good-natured man, within one of his many stories, Padre Fernando left a lasting impression on me by speaking the following words: “Espero que los jovenes regresen a la calle para hacer la historia.” (I hope that the youth return to the streets in order to make history). As I heard this from a man who has made Nicaraguan history and affected an immeasurable numbers of lives, these words took on a poignant meaning. My mind was racing, “Surely such a man knows how to pass on the wisdom of how to motivate himself and others to create history!” I sat across from Padre pondering the greatness and merit in his message and I saw the world becoming a more just, more equal place within in a matter of seconds. Then I caught myself. I came back to the dinner table, back to reality and realized that Padre Fernando’s wisdom alone will not change the world overnight (nor in the blink of my mind’s eye) but, his words do indeed carry a strong, powerful message for the people of Nicaragua.
Life for the majority of Nicaraguans is not easy. The stories I have seen and heard are endless. Jovenes who have to cease studying in the university because their grandmother is ill and the family does not have enough money to pay for transportation. Men working 10-hour days on their feet in zona francas (essentially the equivalent of sweatshops), suffering the abuse of inadequate working conditions because the pay is decent and they want to feed their kids. Single mothers living with their children in a small room next to a trash dump, falling asleep every night with rats crawling across the bed because the rent is cheap for this room. A young girl with Down Syndrome returning to Pajarito Azul because her family realized once again that they didn’t have the money to support her in their home. The injustice, the poverty runs deep. It can be numbing, depressing, infuriating, saddening, and so much more but what brings me consolation is that I have seen the hope of Padre Fernando’s message manifested in la gente (the people) of Nicaragua on a day-to-day basis. In this midst of the difficulty, Nicaraguans still wake up and luchar (struggle) one more day. Yes, tomorrow most Nicaraguans will still wake up with the same problems that they had today but the idea of change is not to destroy the bad but to make the good stronger. Maybe nothing is changed by the solitary acts of taking care of a grandmother instead of studying or working in a zona franca or tucking children into bed at night or bringing a smile to the people’s faces with a big hug. But each action is done out of love, a place of true compassion in which they’re all trying to make the good stronger than the bad. And in my opinion, that changes everything. That’s returning to the calle. That’s making history.
I’ve been keenly aware and observant of how Nicaraguans return daily to their own calles since Padre’s visit to our house three months ago (and yes, I have been slowly working on this blog post since then). While this message is well-tailored and fit to the reality of Nicaragua, I also think that the beauty in Padre’s message is that it is not a call for just the jovenes of Nicaragua, nor for just Nicaraguans: it applies to the lives of everyone. Every day, at every turn in life, just as our friends in Nicaragua, we face difficulties and we can choose to sit inside, or we can take to the streets and make history. I think of my family who recently visited and saw firsthand the realities of life in Nica. I hope that they have returned to their calles in the States, creating their history as they carry with them the sights, sounds, and feelings that they experienced here. I think of countless stories of people being laid off or losing a loved one or suffering from long-term illnesses and in each of these cases, I hope for a return to the calle, a desire to continue luchando. The message is huge, maybe even idealistic or simplistic but I believe it’s possible and I believe in its worth. For some people, their daily mantra is carpe diem, for others, ‘grab the bull by the horns,’ and for me, since that moment in November, espero que los jovenes regresen a la calle para hacer la historia has been my daily mantra… and more. It is a hope that I see fulfilled in the world around me.