When you live in Nicaragua, says 31-year-old poet Ulises Alaniz, “ it’s like you never get over things. It’s like tragedy after tragedy after tragedy.” In recent years, Nicaragua has enjoyed relative peace in a region otherwise torn by violence. In April 2018, all of that changed. Since then, the government of President Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo, have killed at least 325 and as many as 500 people for protesting the government. About 500 people have been jailed as political prisoners; dozens of them have claimed to have been tortured. According to local human rights groups, about 1,300 people have been disappeared. More than 50,000 Nicaraguans (the country has a population of approximately 6.2 million) have fled, mostly to neighboring Costa Rica.
The initial spark that ignited the blaze was small. On April 18th, university students and pensioners organized marches both in the capital, Managua, and León, the country’s cultural center and home to one of its biggest and most important universities, the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN León for its name in Spanish). The protests were in response to reforms to Social Security that would increase workers’ contributions and decrease pensions. Riot police and so-called “paramilitary groups,” Ortega sympathizers armed and organized by the government, beat the protestors with sticks and launched tear gas. But rather than quieting down, protestors showed up again the next day, this time in larger numbers and in towns and cities throughout the country. This time they were met with rubber bullets and live ammunition. Two civilians and a police officer died. They were the first victims in what has become a prolonged massacre, one that the Nicaraguan poets presented here have lived in the flesh.
Kevin Berry’s poem, “April, I Have Kisses for You,” memorializes two of the first victims. One is 15-year-old Álvaro Conrado, shot in the neck in Managua on April 20 while bringing water to student protesters. The other is 42-year-old Ángel Gahona, a journalist and father of two children, who was shot in Bluefields on April 21 while transmitting video of the protests on Facebook Live. In August, two men, 18-year-old Brandon Cristopher Lovo Taylor and 20-year-old Glen Abraham Slate, were arrested, tried, and found guilty of Gahona’s murder. Taylor was condemned to 23 years and six months in prison, while Slate was condemned to 12 years and six months. But Gahona’s own widow has rejected the sentence, claiming her husband was murdered by the police. The arrest and sentencing are widely considered to be a coverup.
On April 18, Berry, who is also a musician, was managing La Bibliothèque, a new café, bookstore, and live music space in León. As the protests unfolded, he began organizing poetry readings and concerts in support of the marches. He saw it as a natural part of being an artist. “We have a great weapon, that’s a pen and a paper,” says Berry. “It’s a great responsibility because we transmit messages to whoever reads us . . . we have to define what side of the road we’re going to stand on, and write from there.”
On April 20th, seventy-eight-year-old León native Jorge Eduardo Argüello y Sansón, who splits his time between Nicaragua and Florida, was driving into León. As he maneuvered his car to park close to his family home, steps away from both the town’s emblematic white cathedral and the UNAN León, he had to squeeze his car between two lines of people—student protesters on one side, and members of the Juventud Sandinista, or Sandinista Youth, on the other. “Some of the students said, ‘Poet, come join us,’” says Argüello, who is something of a local character. Later, at his house, he heard screaming. “They said, ‘They’re coming, they’re coming’”—armed Sandinista Youth and police were on the way to attack the protesters. Argüello took his car and left the city, spending the night at the house of a poet friend who lives on the outskirts. The next morning, the pair returned to the city to find the student union burned to the ground.
Just a few blocks away lives 50-year-old Marcia Ondina Mantilla, another León native and lawyer. When the number of deaths reached 63, Ondina, who was on faculty at the UNAN León as an hourly lecturer, resigned publicly during a meeting. Like many major universities and institutions in Nicaragua, the UNAN is controlled by Ortega’s Sandinista party. Ondina’s adult son, who runs a small cab and trucking business, had begun receiving death threats. But her resignation went beyond the personal. Staying “would have made me complicit, and responsible, by omission. Because lawyers, more than anyone, are fully conscious of what was happening,” she says. She is also the daughter of Sandinista revolutionaries who, like President Ortega and Vice-President Murillo themselves, fought to topple the murderous Somoza dictatorship. If she stayed at the university, she says, “I would be betraying my revolutionary principles.”
Like Ondina’s parents, both of Alaniz’s parents had fought in the civil war of the 1980s. Even so, Alaniz, a León native who currently lives and teaches English in the town of San Marcos, about two hours away, was too apprehensive to get involved in the protests. But after seeing the marches on TV, he says, “I sensed that something very important was going on, and I wanted to feel the energy myself.”
At his first march in León, he was at first “very uncomfortable . . . But then the energy started pulling through me.” On May 30, Mother’s Day in Nicaragua, Alaniz and friends attended a march in Managua meant to call attention to the 91 civilians who had been killed since April. Things started peacefully, but then, less than a mile ahead of Alaniz, paramilitary groups began attacking the protesters. “If [the attack] had started 20 minutes later, we would have been where they opened fire,” he says.
Seventeen people died that day in Managua and other towns across the country. But Nicaraguans continued to take to the streets, and what began as a protest against social security reforms became a categorical demand for Murillo and Ortega to step down. But the government only cracked down harder. A house in Managua was burned, killing six people, including a two-year-old and five-month-old baby. Young female students, thrown into jail, suffered miscarriages in prison. In mid July, the government, wanting to unseat a group of students who had taken over facilities of the UNAN-Managua, laid siege to the university for 20 hours, driving them to seek shelter in a neighboring church, where they were further bombarded. In the ensuing rain of bullets, in which priests and journalists were also caught, two students were shot in the head and killed.
It wasn’t long before Berry began receiving death threats on Facebook. They were so persistent and blood-chilling—one mentioned seeing Berry and his son after school—that finally, in late July, Berry decided to flee the city. Since then he’s stayed away from the marches. “I’m scared,” he says, but adds, “I still help in ways I can, I just try not to be in the front lines as I did before.” Berry is hopeful that Ortega will eventually step down, but worries about the deep divisions in ideology made horrifically clear by the fact that many of the attacks on protestors were carried out by paramilitary forces—that is, civilian sympathizers. “How are we going to live in the same country, still having these feelings?” he asks. “I’m going to walk up into somebody tomorrow that today threatened me on Facebook. Am I going to be able to look him in the eye? Is he going to be able to look me in the eye and apologize? I don’t know. I think, what comes after this, that’s what’s going to mark how Nicaragua is going to walk for the future.”
Death threats finally drove Ondina’s son out of the country as well. But Ondina has stayed in León, continuing with her private practice. She’s opened a small shop of items made from recycled materials to try to make up for her lost salary from the university. And every evening at 6 pm, when the sun goes down, she locks the front gate of her house. It’s the house she grew up in, and before the revolution it was used to stash arms. “Here I watched them clean FAL rifles, I watched them clean Garands, .45s and .22s,” she says. In 1978, when the revolution reached its boiling point, Ondina was twelve years old. She was recruited to make tourniquets and give injections to wounded soldiers “at the age when other girls were playing with dolls.” For Ondina, that her son, the grandson of dedicated revolutionaries, has to fear for his life because of the Sandinista Front, is the greatest of ironies.
For Ondina, who remembers Somoza dictatorship and the terror produced by the National Guard, the violence and oppression being felt in Nicaragua today are all too familiar. In her poem “Similar,” from Episodios, a book of linked poems about her neighborhood, the son of a street vendor is captured by the National Guard, never to be seen again. This isn’t fiction—he was a friend of Ondina’s. The arrests, torture, and disappearances happening today in Nicaragua remind her all too much of the dictatorship the Sandinistas fought and died to overturn.
On the 29th of September of last year, it became illegal to protest in Nicaragua. In December, the government expelled the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a part of the Organization of American States, as well as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Sandinista-dominated National Assembly voted to abolish the legal status of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, along with several other NGOs. Newspaper offices have been sacked, and dissenting television and radio channels have been shut down. Opposition newspaper La Prensa claims that the government’s customs agency has impounded necessary paper, printing materials, and ink since September, provoking the newspaper to run a blank front page this month in protest.
Ordinary citizens feel pressured to stay silent. While being interviewed over video chat, Ondina said, “They’re recording me and they could throw me into jail. But well, the mouth was made to speak. The thinker is obligated to think.” Thirty-year-old poet Ricardo Ríos, agrees—he asked to keep personal information to a minimum, due to fear of reprisals. “We poets are called to participate in the changes that the nation demands,” he says. “Words allow us to reach the people’s conscience, and to take the voice of that conscience and translate it into poetry. The poetry being written in Nicaragua right now is another means of protest.”
Jorge Argüello, the oldest of the poets gathered here, was stateside when the Sandinista revolution triumphed. He moved back to Nicaragua soon afterward to teach, but was later blacklisted for not following party doctrine and had to leave the country once again if he hoped to find work. But unlike the Sandinista revolution, which had a clear ideology and leadership, Argüello says, “This movement is amazing because it has the profile that it doesn’t belong to anybody. When I was there, you could test it. There was no leader. It was a spontaneous thing coming from the heart.” Argüello stayed in Nicaragua until May 8, crashing at his poet friend’s house on an air mattress in the living room along with two students who were also trying to lay low. But after two trips to the hospital for stomach problems that turned out to be due to anxiety, and at the begging of his adult son, he returned to the US—“I’m 78 years old,” he says, adding, with characteristic mordancy, “We’re going to win because the people have already decided . . . They don’t care if they die or not.”
Alaniz hasn’t been to a march since Mother’s Day. But something for him has changed. Before these events, he didn’t feel obligated to write about politics and could focus on what was important to him personally. But now the political is personal. Desperate to do something, Alaniz floundered at first. “But I got to this point where I realized the only thing I can do is write,” he says. “I can’t do anything else.”
The events of the last few months have also changed how Alaniz views his own generation. Alaniz, who has taught English since the age of 20 in universities and private colleges in and around León, had perceived his generation as vacuous and unengaged when compared with his parents’ generation. “Everyone’s worried about their phones and going to parties and Snapchat. They’re worried about viral videos.” But extremely young students, many of them under the age of 20, have led the protest movements. They’ve been killed and imprisoned, but they haven’t gone silent. “I was wrong,” Alaniz said. “Something had to happen to fire up the same courage in people. But it was there. It hadn’t disappeared . . . That is why I feel that it’s a very painful, but a very exciting time . . . I feel like what’s happening now is part of what was started more than 40 years ago.”
Berry, speaking from the other side of the country, agrees: “No matter how many bodies you can take away, what you can’t take away is the thoughts and the hope of a new Nicaragua. And it’s coming soon. I don’t know when, but it’s coming soon.”
No aquel que lamentablemente dice estar
En el cielo
Sino ese que anda en la tierra
Y es parecido a aquel que lustra zapatos
En el parque;
Hacé tu lavatorio de pies
Este jueves que no es santo,
Pero jueves en fin.
Mirá como los senos de aquella mujer
Podrían alimentar a todo tu rebaño de ovejas
Incluso a vos mismo que estás cansado
De sacar brillo
A tanto zapato.
Sumate a esta escena señor
Para retratarnos en nuestra santa cena
Porque todo lo que interesa a nuestras barrigas
Es ser saciadas
Y a vos seguir siendo alabado
Por tu rebaño de ovejas.
(Not the one who, sadly, claims to be
But the one who walks here on Earth
And looks like that guy who shines shoes
In the park);
Do your Washing of the Feet
This Thursday which is not Holy,
But a Thursday anyway.
Look how the breasts of that woman
Could feed an entire flock, including you
who are tired of getting
So much shine
Out of so much shoe.
Abril, Tengo Besos Para Vos
¿Pensaste en la mujer que lo amaba?
¿Te detuviste a pensar en la mama que lo esperaba?
Sólo tenía quince años, llevaba agua.
Y vos, sí vos, le tiraste un beso de muerte directo al cuello.
“ME DUELE RESPIRAR”
A otro besaste en la frente, lo besaste frente a los ojos de todos.
Lo besaste y después jugaste con su memoria….. seguís jugando.
“EL PUEBLO UNIDO JAMÁS SERÁ VENCIDO”
“NO ERAN DELINCUENTES”
Los besos tuyos. Ésos que escupís desde la podredumbre de tu boca, esos mismos te cobrarán beso a beso cada vil canallada.
Ochenta y tantos besos que se han multiplicado en todas estas bocas que exigimos devolvértelos beso a beso, uno por uno por aquellos ojos que cerraste pero que aún te ven.
En el rincón de la sala de una casa, junto a la imagen de una Virgen iluminada por dos candelas. Allí mismo Abril del demonio… Allí mismo están naciendo los besos que serán tuyos.
Y si mañana decidís besarme a mí tal cual Judas y cerrar mis ojos mientras lo hacés.
En un rincón de una sala de una casa, junto a mi foto, una Virgen y unas velas habrán más besos para vos.
-Mama, ¿Qué le pasó a mi papa?
Sobre el planchador está listo el uniforme que usarías mañana a la escuela.
Me quitaste la carne, pero sólo eso pudiste.
Abril de mierda….. Tengo besos para vos.
April, I have kisses for you
Did you think about the woman who loved him?
Did you stop to think of the mother who was waiting for him at home?
He was only fifteen. He was carrying water.
And you, yes, you, blew him a deadly kiss, straight at the throat.
“IT HURTS WHEN I BREATHE”
“THEY WERE STUDENTS”
You kissed another between the eyes, you kissed him
before everyone’s eyes.
You kissed him and then you played with his memory. You’re still playing.
“THE PEOPLE, UNITED, WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED”
“THEY WEREN’T CRIMINALS”
Those kisses of yours. The ones spit from the foulness of your mouth, you’ll pay for each of them, kiss for kiss, each vile atrocity.
Eighty something kisses have multiplied in these mouths demanding that they be repaid, kiss for kiss, one by one for those eyes that you closed but are still watching you.
In the corner of a living room, next to an image of the Virgin lit by two candles.
Right there, April from Hell,
The kisses that will be yours are being born.
And if tomorrow you decide to kiss me like Judas, and close my eyes while you do—
In the corner of a living room, next to my photo, the Virgin, and a few candles
There will be more kisses for you.
“Mama, what happened to my daddy?”
On the ironing board waits the uniform you would have used at school tomorrow.
You took my flesh, but that’s all you could do.
I have kisses for you.
Jorge Eduardo Argüello y Sansón
Porque somos malos
Y va llover cuando seamos buenos
Ese día todo va nacer otra vez
Y habrá alegría.
Nos saludaremos con obediencia.
Las cosechas serán grandes.
Y habrá paz con las especies.
Y todo volará otra vez en el aire.
Y los ríos y las montañas
Estarán llenos de vida y de agua.
Y no habrá resentimientos.
Pero si no llueve
Y seguimos de malos
Vendrá el castigo.
Y sombras invadirán
Nuestra maldad y estarán posadas
En nuestro espíritu.
Y comeremos hambre
Y nos quedaremos mudos
Llenos de tristeza y faltos de amor.
It won’t rain
Because we’re bad
It’ll rain when we’re good,
When we change.
Then everything’ll spring back to life
And there’ll be happiness.
We’ll greet each other meekly.
Harvests will be bountiful.
Harmony will rule among the species.
And things will go back to flying like they used to.
And the mountains and the rivers
Will fill up with water and with life.
There’ll be no resentment.
And no revenge.
But if it doesn’t rain
And we stay evil
Punishment will come.
And darkness will take over
Our wickedness and set up house
In our souls.
And we’ll eat hunger
And we’ll turn mute
Full of sorrow and empty of love.
Marcia Ondina Mantilla
de la muerte
Reciente fue la muerte de la Juana
parecida a la muerte de Juanito
más triste todavía.
No hubo llanto
no hubo vela
ni amigas en la puerta acompañándola.
Para la gente murió
a una hora inapropiada
las dos de la mañana, quizá un poco más tarde.
El reloj dio las tres y el féretro continúa descubierto.
La Juanita crucifijo en el pecho me recordaba
con sus manos blancas
revelando sus huesos.
la enterraron a las diez
había que olvidar la pérdida.
Recent was the death of la Juana
similar to the death of Juanito
There were no tears
no girlfriends at the front door keeping her company.
People felt she had died
at an inconvenient hour
two in the morning, maybe a little bit later.
The clock struck three and the casket stays open.
La Juanita—crucifix on her breast—reminded me
of the others
with their white hands
revealing their bones.
she was buried at ten
it was necessary to forget the loss.
También la lluvia
Llueve a cántaros.
No importa si alguien se moja
se enloda la ropa
cae una pared
la calle se inunda y
la actividad cotidiana se paraliza.
Igual sigue lloviendo.
Con todo y eso,
seguirá siendo siempre
Also the rain
It’s pouring down.
It doesn’t matter if someone gets wet
clothes get muddy
a wall crumbles
the street floods and
the day’s activities come to a stop.
It keeps raining anyway
And even so
it all continues to be
Ulises Alaniz is a poet and English teacher from León, Nicaragua. He has participated in poetry recitals organized by La Promotora Cultural Leonesa and the International Poetry Festival of Granada. Some of his poems have appeared in translation in the Italian literary magazine Minerva.
Jorge Eduardo Argüello y Sansón was born in León, Nicaragua in 1940. He is the author of several works of poetry and fiction, including the novel Los Héroes del Algodón. He is a corresponding member of the Nicaraguan Academy of Languages.
Kevin Berry was born in Bluefields, Nicaragua, in 1976. A writer, musician, and entrepreneur, he is a founding member of the musical groups Zona 21 and Los Tormentos. His book of poems Jugando con fuego was published by the Promotora Cultural Leonesa.
Marcia Ondina Mantilla was born in León in 1966. A practicing lawyer, she is a member of the Nicaraguan Association of Writers. She was a co-founder of the literary group SPJO, with whom she published an anthology in 1997. She is the author of Episodios, a book of linked poems. Her poems have also appeared in the anthology Mujeres de Sol y Luna, published by the Nicaraguan Center for Writers.
Ricardo Ríos, born in 1987, is a poet, lawyer, and psychologist. His poems have appeared in two anthologies published by the literary group SPJO and La Promotora Cultural Leonesa.
Lauren Schenkman is a fiction writer and journalist. Her writing has appeared in Granta, Hudson Review, and the New York Times Magazine, among other places. She has an MFA from Cornell University and was formerly a reporter at Science magazine. In 2015, she received a Fulbright student grant to research a novel set in Nicaragua.
The Spanish text of Marcia Ondina’s “de la muerte” originally appeared in Episodios, published by La Promotora Cultural Leonesa.