NicaNotes: Guest Post: A Reflection on Living in Nicaragua: 30 Years Later

Nincanotes : A blog about nicaragua by solidarity activists

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A Guest Blog by Philip Wingeier-Rayo

This year marks the 30th anniversary of my moving to Nicaragua in 1988. I was touched by Chuck’s 30th anniversary blog last month, in which he reflected on his experience with the international the coffee picking brigades in 1987 and 1988. This triggered memories for me—many of which I had forgotten until I read his blog. My first trip to Nicaragua was also to pick coffee for two weeks in December of 1986 and I had very similar feelings and experiences as Chuck. That initial immersion led me to move there two years later. I appreciate Chuck’s gracious invitation to write a guest blog to reflect on my experiences.

Banner of work brigade to build school in Batahola Sur, December 1989 (Author pictured left)

These early Nicaragua experiences continue to be part of my life and have shaped my worldview, as well as my personal and professional journey. I learned to get out of my comfort zone, to connect with people different from myself and to immerse myself in another culture. Fresh out of college, I boarded a plane for Managua as a mission volunteer through The United Methodist Church. I was assigned to the Baptist Theological Seminary in Managua under the supervision of Manuel Morales, a Cuban professor who oversaw international students. He designed an array of month-long internships for me to immerse in several local organizations, including living and working on a rural farm cooperative, the Episcopal Church development office, CEPAD, and the Comunidades Eclesiales de Base (Christian Base Communities) of the Roman Catholic Church. In October Hurricane Juana hit Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast and I traveled to Bluefields to survey the damage and spent one month in Mulukukú building houses with Habitat for Humanity. Out of all of this, I would like to reflect on a few impactful experiences.

I spent my first couple of months in Managua interning at a couple of the aforementioned non-for-profits doing mostly office work, practicing Spanish and navigating the capital’s public transportation system. My supervisor was very helpful and one day took me out to the four extreme corners of Managua and explained to me what direction was arriba, abajo, sur and el lago. Anyone who has been to Nicaragua knows that addresses are by reference points. So rather than giving a street and a number, addresses are “una cuadra y media arriba, dos al lago” (one and a half blocks upward and two toward the lake). To get around Managua you need to know this orientation. While I was getting acclimated to the major reference points and bus routes, my stomach was slower to adjust to the food. The heavy diet of rice and beans (seemingly at every meal) was a bit much and I started losing liquids at an alarming rate. I lost about 30 pounds in my first two months and everything went straight through me.

Work on a Rural Farm Cooperative

At this point my supervisor arranged for a one-month stay on a rural farm cooperative outside of Managua. He drove me out on a pick-up truck and dropped me off with my water bottle and a backpack full of clothes. The cooperative was owned by eight families who jointly worked the land. I was hosted by a family with four kids who slept in a 12 x 12 wooden house with a plastic wall that divided the bedroom from the living room. The living room had a hammock strung diagonally from corner to corner. The family slept in two beds in the back and I got the hammock. There was no running water or electricity and the cooperative drew their water from a well on the land. There was an outhouse behind the house for the family. The cooperative had one tractor but most of the farming was done by hand. When my supervisor dropped me off I had been suffering from diarrhea for several weeks and I looked around at my living conditions and thought I was going to die.

The next morning I was awakened at 6:00am and the father handed me a hoe. I went out with him to weed the rice field. There were about 12 men (between the fathers and sons) and everyone was given a row. I did the best I could, but naturally was the slowest and the men had to go back over my row. We stopped for lunch and headed back home where the women were making fresh tortillas on the comal to go with rice and beans. I don’t fully understand it, but eating freshly harvested rice, beans and corn with well water healed me. Out on that farm cooperative, in that out-house, I had my first solid bowel movement in several weeks and started regaining my weight and strength. From that day until I left Nicaragua I never had diarrhea again and learned to love rice and beans.

Accompany a Priest to his Rural Parish in the War Zone

As part of my work with the Comunidades Eclesiales de Base (Christian Base Communities) I met a priest based in Bocana de Paiwas serving a rural parish in the mountainous region of Matagalpa in north-central Nicaragua and he invited me to accompany him to his parish. We crossed over the river in a dug-out canoe called a pipante and were met on the other side by a man with two horses, which they called “bestias.” Perhaps this means that they were mules and not horses, but being a kid from suburban Chicago I did not know the difference. My only experience riding a horse was at summer camp in Michigan. Fortunately I was only thrown off once when the bestia took off for no apparent reason and did not heed when I pulled on the reins. Fortunately the terrain was very muddy and the horse’s hooves got stuck in a mud puddle and threw me into a soft landing in the mud.

There were no roads, no vehicles, no electricity and no running water. As we trotted through the majestic Nicaraguan countryside, stopping occasionally to pick guava right off the tree, the priest turned to me and said “When we encounter the Contra, just tell them that you are here accompanying me to my parish.” Sure enough, when we arrived at the first village of Via Siquia we found that there had been an ambush by the Contra the night before and one local villager had died. The priest explained to me that the Sandinistas and the Contra regularly swept through the region and had skirmishes in their efforts to secure land. Sometimes the Sandinistas attended mass and other times Contras—depending on who was controlling the village at the time. This naturally made me feel uncomfortable. Later I found out that the reason that the priest invited me was that he feared for his own safety, and thought that having a North American as a human shield would be a deterrent for the Contra.

In spite of the danger, this was a wonderful tour of rural Nicaragua. Each rural town welcomed us by killing a cow and serving fresh beef. There wasn’t too much else to offer. Some meals were just tortillas, beef and coffee, yet it was served in heaping portions topped by Nicaraguan hospitality. The priest said mass in each of the nine villages, performing marriages, baptisms, and in one case a funeral. The priest was supportive of the Revolution, but had to be careful of what he said because he was literally preaching in a war zone. We slept on hammocks in the sacristy in the back of each chapel and woke up early the next morning to travel by horseback through the mountains to the next village.

The Comunidades Eclesiales de Base (Christian Base Communities)

In addition to these rural immersion experiences, most of my time was spent in Managua working with La Iglesia de los Pobres (The Church of the Poor), a network of Christian Base Communities (CEBs) in 23 poor barrios—many were settlements of refugees who had moved to the capital during the war. CEBs are a grass-roots movement that began in Brazil after the Second Vatican Council that allowed the Roman Catholic faithful to read the Bible in their own language–rather than Latin. A new 3-step methodology (to see, to judge and to act) revolutionized biblical interpretation allowing common people to read Scripture in light of their immediate context.

This was followed by the publication of Gustavo Gutierrez’s groundbreaking book: A Theology of Liberation (1973). This grassroots movement among the poor conscientized many to join the resistance movement against Somoza and some became Sandinistas. Perhaps the most publicized example of the movement was the community on the island of Solentiname led by Father Ernesto Cardinal. The transcription of their Bible studies was published in the book: The Gospel According to Solentiname.

My job with the CEBs was to drive a pick-up truck for Father Arnaldo Zenteno and Sister Margarita Zavala, a Carmelite nun who was the treasurer and ran the office. Among other random tasks, I drove them to customs to pick up shipments of used clothing sent from Spain in solidarity with Nicaragua. I went to pick up sheets of tin roofing that the CEBs donated to poor families in the barrios. I drove to the headquarters of the government grain agency (ENABAS) so that the CEBs could provide a canasta básica (basic basket) of staples full of corn meal, rice, beans, salt and sugar to families in the barrios. The CEBs had very high governmental connections that opened the doors for ministry.

Raquel Lopez, of the CEB based in the barrio of San Judas of the CEBs, December 1989 (Author standing right)

I also drove around Managua every Monday night to pick up the coordinators from each barrio to attend the weekly planning meeting. Father Arnaldo taught the Bible study for the week that the coordinators, in turn, were to lead with their CEB in their barrios. This is when the common folks would gather in homes to study the Bible and reflect on how God was at work in their community. My favorite part of the job was driving Father Arnaldo to Matagalpa every other Saturday where the CEBs were building houses for the Mother’s of Heroes and Martyrs. This was a group of widows and mothers of those who had lost their lives during the Sandinista Revolution and ensuing Contra war. These were powerful encounters with the women who were working through their grief and trying to make sense of their sacrifice for the sake of the Revolution. The women gave their testimonies, cried, sang and found support.

Every Thursday I had permission to go into the office late in order to attend the protest outside the U.S. Embassy on the Panamerican Highway. The ex-pat community and the visiting fact-finding delegations gathered to voice our opposition to the U.S. foreign policy in Nicaragua, in particular the ongoing embargo, low-intensity conflict and Contra war. We rallied around the assassination and legacy of Benjamin Linder and purchased a house where some NGOs could have office space and the solidarity movement could gather for talks on the coyuntura (current events) by guest speakers. I was also part of an ecumenical community of international mission workers representing the Quakers, Mennonites, Baptists, Episcopalian, Presbyterian and United Methodist Churches in the US. These workers served in Nicaragua, often hosting delegations, and then returned to the States to tell the story to their constituency.

Peace Commission

Through CEPAD I was invited to form part of the peace commission that brokered the Peace Accords facilitated by 1987 Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias. These commissions were created to supervise and fulfill the cease-fire agreements signed at Esquipulas in 1986 and Sapoa in 1988. I traveled out to the fifth region, Nueva Guinea, with other members of the peace commission to dialog with Contra soldiers to assure them that if they would lay down their weapons, we would supervise their safety and they would be given land in exchange for guns—per the cease-fire. The commission was comprised of Christians, Catholics and Protestants, from different walks of life and not too closely aligned with either the Sandinista government or the opposition.

I remember that we drove to the end of the road and then hiked up into the mountains to the designated meeting spot. The Contra were camouflaged and appeared out of nowhere. We were searched and then made to feel at ease. The leaders put down their weapons to talk while other soldiers kept watch. Together we read the Bible with the soldiers, most of whom appeared to be young teenagers, and then had an open dialogue about their fears, concerns and demands.

U.S. Invasion of Panama

During my time in Nicaragua I also hosted, organized and translated for several delegations from the States. One such group came in December of 1989 as a work brigade to build a school in Batahola Sur—right next to the U.S. Embassy on the Panamerican Highway. We arranged host families where the group could stay in the barrio to work in the morning and then visit organizations in the afternoon to hear guest speakers and learn about life in Nicaragua. Among the many visits were a presentation by COSEP (a private pro-business council), a rehabilitation clinic for those who had lost limbs to landmines, the church music school of Father Angel in Batahola Norte, a visit to the U.S. Embassy, and another talk by Rene Nuñez, Minister in the Sandinista government.

These afternoon visits gave the visitors a broad perspective of the complexity of the Nicaragua situation. One day, while I was on my way to meet the group at the job site in Batahola Sur, I found the Panamerican Highway was blocked by tanks. As I turned on the radio I learned that the U.S. was invading Panama and so as a precautionary measure the Nicaraguan army had blocked the highway and surrounded the U.S. Embassy. The delegation was startled, but our Nicaraguan hosts assured them that they were safe in their homes.

The most significant part of my time in Nicaragua was the relationships that were formed. I stayed in the home of a Nicaraguan family who adopted me as one of their own. I went to mass with them on Sunday, even though I was Protestant. I went to visit grandparents, aunts and uncles. They took me on excursions to Las Isletas (the 365 islands in Lake Nicaragua that were formed when a volcano erupted eons ago). One Saturday night in late May the CEBs office staff went out to a concert to celebrate Palo de Mayo, the May Day celebration brought to the inhabitants of the Atlantic Coast by the English.

Nicaragua wedding with Father Joe Mulligan, my wife, Diana, her parents and myself, June 1992.

In our group was a beautiful Nicaraguan woman whom I met and we exchanged phone numbers. A few days later we spoke on the phone and I invited her out on a date. We went to Sandy’s to eat hamburgers and one thing led to another. Three years later we were married with two ceremonies—one in Nicaragua and one in my home church in Evanston, IL. Twenty-five years later we are still married with three children and have lived in Cuba, Mexico, North Carolina and currently reside outside of Austin, Texas where I teach at a seminary and she serves as a pastor. In addition to my wife and my host family, I made many other friends with whom I am still in touch. Clearly, the experience in Nicaragua was transformative and changed the trajectory of my life.

I left Nicaragua in February of 1990 shortly after the UNO victory of Violeta Chamorro. I watched Daniel Ortega’s speech when he committed to “rule from below” and saw how he remained an outspoken member of the General Assembly. I have followed the news of the neo-liberal governments of Enrique Bolaños and Arnoldo Aleman until Ortega’s victory in 2006 to put the Sandinistas back in power. I have taken four work brigades back to Nicaragua that did construction in the mornings and did fact-finding visits in the afternoons. Over the years I have seen the economy grow stronger, improved infrastructure, increased foreign investment, more tourism, and a higher standard of living. I’ve also seen fancy new shopping malls and greater gap between the rich and the poor. The revolutionary dream of 100% literacy, free health care and the eradication of poverty has waned and a younger generation has become more materialistic. I’ve visited my wife’s family and my host family and watched their families grow and prosper. Nevertheless I’ve also I seen them so proud of being Nicaraguan. They have come to visit the U.S. and returned happy to eat gallopinto, dance salsa, speak Spanish, lay in a hammock and root for their sports teams.

Nicaragua has become my second country and has given me a unique perspective on life as a global citizen. I realize that the U.S. is not the best country in the world envied by the rest of the world—as our blind patriotism or Fox News tries to tell us. The U.S. is a country with a history of being a bully in Latin American, of trying to force other countries to do things our way, and imposing a way of life. Living in Nicaragua for 18 months made me a better person with a more global perspective and greater sensitivity to the impact of my actions and my government upon the world.

In conclusion, I have learned that we are more aware of the plight of others when we 1) get out of our comfort zone and immerse ourselves in another culture. 2) I have learned that it is extremely valuable to connect with people and try to understand them in their context. And finally, 3) it is very useful to have cross-cultural competency and be an effective listener and communicator in another culture. Today, 30 years later, I gave thanks for the experiences and relationships that I cultivated in Nicaragua and how they continue to shape me in an attempt to be a responsible and informed global citizen.

Pining ceremony for recognition by the president of the Comite en Defensa del Sandinismo, Batahola Sur.

Author’s Bio

Philip Wingeier-Rayo is Associate Professor of Evangelism, Mission and Methodist Studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He teaches courses on the Missional Church, Evangelism, Christianity and Culture, Global Christianities, and has led travel seminars to Nicaragua, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, Japan and India. Previously he taught at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, Pfeiffer University in North Carolina, Baez Camargo Seminary in Mexico City and the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Matanzas, Cuba. Along with his wife, he has served as a mission co-worker for a total of 15 years in Mexico and Nicaragua, the Rio Grande Valley, and has the distinction of being the first U.S. citizen to enter Cuba as a missionary after the Revolution. He has published numerous articles and three books: Choices and Other Stories from the Caribbean (Friendship Press, 1993), Cuba Methodism: The Untold Story of Survival and Revival, (Dolphins and Orchids, 2006) and Where are the Poor? An Ethnographic Study of a Base Christian Community and a Pentecostal Church in Mexico, (Pickwick Publications, 2011). He has a forthcoming book in 2018 from Discipleship Resources, which is comprised of 52 Bible Studies in Spanish. Dr. Wingeier-Rayo and his wife, Diana, just celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary in June and reside outside of Austin, Texas. They have three adult children: Massiel, Keffren and Isaiah.