Nicanotes: To Die for Others

Nincanotes : A blog about nicaragua by solidarity activists

By John Kotula

Over the last couple of weeks, I have lent a hand on the restoration of a mural on the long wall in front of the Ajax Delgado municipal police headquarters in Managua. This large complex is named after a student activist who fought against the Somoza regime and was murdered on September 5, 1960 at the age of 18. The young painters I worked with were from the Movimiento Cultural Leonel Rugama. Rugama was also a revolutionary and martyr, killed in a notorious shoot out on January 15, 1970, two months short of his 21st birthday. He was also a renowned poet whose reputation has grown over the decades since his death.

Movimiento Cultural Leonel Rugama

There are five or six young men working on the project. They are a friendly, energetic, and talented group. Since I have grandchildren their age, I am struck by their youth and also that they are about the same age as the martyrs the police station and their cultural organization are named after. The mural has both faded and darkened over the years. It has lost all its highs and lows. While sticking to the original images, the painters are brightening up its colors and punching up the contrasts between the lights and darks. The sections they have worked on are sharp and easy to read. Someone driving by on the busy street in front of Ajax Delgado can see exactly what is represented in each section. Most of the mural represents the contribution of the police to Nicaraguan society. There is also a beautiful portrait of Ajax Delgado and a reproduction of a famous photo documenting his death.

The boys work hard on their project, but they also have a good time. They crack jokes and horse around. They eat food from the street venders passing by, check their Facebook and Whatsapp, chat with their girlfriends. I’m glad to have the opportunity to make a small contribution to the mural and to spend some time with these young men. The grandfather in me is pleased that they get to spend their days documenting their country’s past rather than risking their lives fighting dictators and foreign aggressors.

I did some research on the young martyrs and some thinking about what it means to die so young and so violently for the freedom of your country.

Those of my grandsons who are about Ajax Delgado’s age are focused on getting their driver’s license, studying for the SATs, mastering the standing back flip, and clearing up their acne. Delgado was engaged in armed revolution to over throw a murderous dictator and gain Nicaraguan sovereignty. Earlier, in the era of Sandino, when Anastasio Somoza García was consolidating his power and setting up a dynasty that maintained absolute control over Nicaragua for 44 years, Ajax’ father, Santiago Delgado, was part of a group of National Guardsmen who opposed the power grab. He was jailed and threatened with execution, but eventually released. Many of those who opposed Somoza left Nicaragua. Santiago stayed on as a coffee farmer, but was in the dictator’s cross hairs as a permanent enemy of the regime.

At the age of 17, the younger Delgado was jailed for student activism and participation in demonstrations. Those in Somoza’s jails were routinely tortured and frequently killed. The father went to his enemy and begged for his son’s life. Somoza assured him that nothing would happen to the boy. Santiago went home with the expectation that his son would be released and come home to the family. Instead, Somoza arranged for an “escape” to be staged during which the 18 year old was shot in the face. Ajax’ homecoming consisted of his body being dumped from a jeep in the neighborhood where his parents lived.

Muerto de Ajax Delgado

For those from the US reading this story, it is important to remember that the murderous Somoza dynasty had the full support of our government throughout their reign of terror. Supposedly, in 1939, Roosevelt famously remarked that “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” However, this apocryphal quote has been attributed to several presidents about several dictators. It says something about our foreign relations that we can’t keep our sons of bitches straight.

There seems to have been a strong connection of art, faith, and revolution between Leonel Rugama and Ernesto Cardenal. Cardenal, a priest and arguably Nicaragua’s greatest modern poet, was 24 years older than Rugama. I haven’t found any record of them meeting in person. However, they knew each other’s poetry and both were dedicated to a Nicaragua free from the atrocities perpetrated by the dictator Somoza. Rugama gave his life to the revolution and Cardenal, for many years, dedicated his life to it. Rugama only wrote poetry for a couple of years before his life, and those of two even younger compañeros, was ended in an urban guerrilla shoot out. Cardenal is still alive, still writing. At the age of 92, he has had a long, complex life full of great achievements and course changes; the kind of life you would have wish for a young man of Rugama’s promise. If he had lived to be 21, I’m sure at his birthday party someone would have made a toast to a long and fruitful life. They would have had in mind a life like Cardenal’s.

In about 1973, when Rugama had been dead for three years, Cardenal wrote a 25-page poem called Oracle Over Managua. Although written in simple, accessible language, it is an amazingly complex, layered history of the capital. It weaves together archeology, legend, religion, revolution, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, evolution and economics. Anyone who thinks poetry is not essential to understanding the world owes it to themself to read this epic meditation. At the heart of Oracle Over Managua is Cardenal’s telling of Leonel Rugama’s story.

“a new man and a new song

that is why you died in the urban fighting

a new man to dream new dreams.

You, Leonel Rugama, bullet-riddled and carried off to the morgue

Stained with earth and blood said La Prensa

you were the light at the end of the tunnel.

After all, to die for others

was not an act of scientific analysis but an act of faith.

Other poets get drunk or go whoring. You died.

DEATH to give LIFE.”

Ernesto Cardinal, Oracle Over Managua, from Zero Hour and Other Documentary Poems,1973

Translation by Donald D. Walsh

Here is Leonel Rugama’s best known poem. (Acahualinca is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Managua. It is also described in the Cardenal poem.)

The Earth is a Satellite of the Moon

Apollo 2 cost more than Apollo 1

Apollo 1 cost plenty

Apollo 3 cost more than Apollo 2

Apollo 2 cost more than Apollo 1

Apollo 1 cost plenty

Apollo 4 cost more than Apollo 3

Apollo 3 cost more than Apollo 2

Apollo 2 cost more than Apollo 1

Apollo 1 cost plenty

Apollo 8 cost a fortune, but no one minded

because the astronauts were Protestant

they read the Bible from the moon

astounding and delighting every Christian

and on their return Pope Paul VI gave them his blessing.

Apollo 9 cost more than all these put together

including Apollo 1 which cost plenty.

The great-grandparents of the people of Acahualinca were less

hungry than the grandparents.

The great-grandparents died of hunger.

The grandparents of the people of Acahualinca were less

hungry than the parents.

The grandparents died of hunger.

The parents of the people of Acahualinca were less

hungry than the children of the people there.

The parents died of hunger.

The people of Acahualinca are less hungry then the children

of the people there.

The children of the people of Acahaulinca, because of hunger,

are not born

they hunger to be born, only to die of hunger.

Blessed are the poor for they shall inherit the moon.

Translation: Sara Miles, Richard Schaaf & Nancy Weisberg

From: Poetry Like Bread, Curbstone Press, 1994


  • The Committee on Production and the Economy of the National Assembly reported out the 2018 General Budget which now is ready for a vote in the full Assembly. The proposed budget lowers the deficit by 14% and continues the commitment of the Ortega Administration to economic justice and poverty alleviation. For instance, the amount allocated to the Ministry of Health in the 2018 budget is 82.9% higher than in the 2007 budget that Ortega inherited from the neoliberal governments that preceded him. (El Nuevo Diario, Dec. 4)
  • Vice President Rosario Murillo announced that the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) approved a US$276.8 million loan for highway improvement and water and sewage services. “With the approval of this important loan, the CABEI has assigned more than US$478.3 million for infrastructure projects and the fight against poverty in Nicaragua,” she said. (Nicaragua News, Dec. 1)
  • World Bank Director for Central America Seynabou Sakho, met with President of the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) José Adán Aguerrí last week to present the World Bank – Nicaragua Strategic Plan 2018-2020. At the end of the meeting, Aguerri said the World Bank has reaffirmed its firm commitment to strengthen cooperation with Nicaragua and has assigned US$355 million to support development projects, agricultural production and the fight against poverty. The World Bank does not appear to be concerned that the infamous NICA Act will pass the US Senate and cut off US votes for multilateral loans to Nicaragua. (Nicaragua News, Dec. 1)
  • Perhaps reflecting the changing demographics of Nicaragua’s North and South Caribbean Autonomous Regions due to migration of mestizos from the Pacific side of the country, Pope Frances has created two new dioceses, one in Bluefields in the South and the other in Siuna in the North. He appointed two new bishops. The dioceses will be under the Archdiocese of Managua headed by Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes. The North and South Caribbean Autonomous Regions were long a British protectorate and are where the majority of Nicaragua’s indigenous and Afro-Nicaraguans live. Historically they were proselytized by the Moravian Church, a protestant Christian denomination, in contrast to the deep Catholicism of the Spanish-speaking Pacific half of the country. (El Nuevo Diario, Nov. 30)
  • The New York Times Travel magazine dedicated last week’s main article to Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío and the country that inspired his literary work. The article states that Nicaragua is a land of poets, music, dances and tradition. “This is a land of lakes, volcanoes and colonial cities like Leon, final resting place of the immortal Prince of Spanish Literature, Ruben Dario”, the New York Times states. (Nicaragua News, Nov. 29)
  • Putting to rest for all time the passionate debate about which is the best rum in the world, 400 experts in London last week for the International Wine and Spirit Competition, declared Nicaragua’s Flor de Caña the best rum among the 90 countries competing. This is something that solidarity activists have known for decades. [Some activists boycotted Flor de Caña for a period demanding resolution for cane workers suffering from kidney disease but the company has improved practices since then.] Flor de Caña employs about 2,000 people in Nicaragua and has been steadily increasing its share of the world rum market. Sales in the first nine months of 2017 exceeded the same period in 2016 by 13.4%. (El Nuevo Diario, Nov. 29)