This year's question: "What recent event or political process that
you have participated in, witnessed or studied has given you inspiration
and confidence that 'a better world is possible' and why do you think
the fight for a better world will succeed?"
The Contagion of Euphoria
In 1989, with the Contra war still being fought, I went to Nicaragua, to
a small, impoverished town on the Pacific coast. There I started on a
long road, which leads from capitalist alienation and bourgeois
appropriation through the various forms of "tourism" to the discovery of
the collective and wholehearted identification with vulnerable others.
I became a social activist. The contrast between my two states,
geopolitical and psychic--my formerly passive self-absorbed
North American state of mind and my new Nicaraguan-grown selfhood--could
not have been more extreme than it felt then. My husband and I went to
San Juan del Sur for three months and it changed our lives. It was
amazing that this could happen to me when it did, in my forties, because
by then I had a new hunger for ego-feeding renown. I had found the
courage to leave an administrative job at Harvard and had published my
first book, Safe at Last in the Middle Years. It had just been
reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review, in the same
issue as my husband David's translation of Nicaraguan Peasant Poetry
from Solentiname. I felt I should stay home marketing my book and
breathing in the heady fumes of fame. I left the States reluctantly.
A few people in our Massachusetts town had started the Newton/San Juan
del Sur Sister City Project as outrage grew against Reagan's Contra War.
People wanted to make a separate peace through solidarity. Fifty Sister
Cities were formed in the U.S. at that time. In 1988, our twenty-year-old
son, Sean, had driven a truck with the Veterans Peace Convoy, carrying
food, medicine, and clothing to Nicaragua. David, the vice president of
the project, who had made two earlier trips, decided to use his
sabbatical to discover what the small Newton group could "do for our
Sister City." I expected San Juan to be one of the armpits of the world
but I kept trying to reassure myself, "You can do hardship." We entered
the town over the Intercontinental Divide, where there had been a
landslide. As our decrepit Czech taxi crawled through the rubble,
runnels of gravel and rock dribbled down and fell behind us. It felt as
if the way back would be closed off. And then there we were, confronting
three bare rooms under a superheated zinc roof. There was no
refrigerator. (We had forgotten to ask, having taken it for granted. So
we said to each other, in the tones in which couples on the Titanic
observed that neither had thought to inquire about the adequacy of
life-rafts.) When I asked for the excusado it turned out to be in a
separate room outside, with a door in plain view. Then the toilet didn't
flush (I didn't know then how remarkable it was to have a flush toilet)
and a bashful boy handed me a bucket of water. The shower room had
spiders as big as my hand. When the landlord's family left and I could
stop smiling, the magnitude of it all truly came home to me.
For ventilation, the wall area under the eaves was left open, with no
screens. Trying to cheer us up, David said, "It's like living in a
The town was not torn by fighting but the war affected everything. There
was little food or anything else on the store shelves. Milk delivery
coming from Managua went no farther than the next big town. In that
hyperinflationary period the bank often had no big bills and gave us a
heap eight inches high: twenty dollars worth of cordobas in bills worth
two cents each. San Juan had the Pacific as its backdrop and perfect
surf, but Nicaragua was not a prepossessing place after so many years
using 50% of its budget fighting the war. Certainly a Graham Greene, a
V. S. Naipaul, would have found the town grim.
Yet no one hated us, despite U.S. terrorism. They generously saw us as
good-will ambassadors, internacionalistas. Having no Spanish was
crippling. I was unable to offer condolences to a grieving neighbor who
had lost a son to Reagan's illegally-funded mercenaries. I started
teaching myself, sentence by slow sentence, deciphering Omar Cabezas'
great Bildungsroman about becoming a revolutionary, La Montaña es
algo más que una inmensa estepa verde (Fire on the
The Sister City had given us $500 for projects, and we had brought
another $500. It took an enormous amount of time to figure out how to
spend that paltry $1,000. We didn't know what to do first, except listen.
Every terrible need cried out in a different voice. These voices were
astonishingly matter-of-fact, given the misery they described. People
didn't complain for themselves. We learned by chance that teachers
earned $3.00 a day. The leader of the stevedores said work had almost
stopped in the two main businesses, the port authority and the
fish-processing plant. The government continued to give workers a
monthly food basket. A doctor displayed the nearly empty pharmacy
shelves in the Health Center. Medical care was free, but not medicine.
Teachers pointed out classrooms where roofs leaked. There was no money
for repairs unless they raised it themselves. One teacher said, "Kids
can't learn if they are hungry, and some of these kids get only a few
spoonsful of coffee for breakfast." With a local mason, Julio Pisarro,
we helped pour a concrete platform for a pre-school. "Kids will be able
to play in the muddy rainy season," I enthused. We got a carpenter to
build equipment for a children's park that had none. "See-saws!" I
exclaimed. Finally we decided to provide healthy food to
elementary-school children a few times a week. "Fresh fruit, milk!" I
said in glee. Once I hard-boiled 150 eggs on our hot-plates under the
baking roof. Then we carried them up the hill to the main elementary
school in a borrowed cart with wooden wheels. Many of the children had
to be taught how to peel an egg. They had never eaten one.
Over the course of that absorbing and difficult visit I changed. One
night lying exhausted under the mosquito net, I turned to David, reached
out and shook his hand, and said, "Another great day."
The Nicaraguan writer Gioconda Belli says rightly that "in the struggle
for the happiness of all, the first happiness that one encountered was
one's own." And she adds, "Nothing could compete with the contagious
euphoria of collective dreams."
Euphoria--paradoxically, in a dire
time--turned me into an activist.
* * *
If my political identity was ever going to grow, I think
retrospectively, it had to be outside the United States. The empire that
turns its back on the needy--whose president in the 1980s was pandering
to the rich at home and destroying popular liberation movements
I found the magic combination that could undo my inhibitions, energize
my will, and nourish my spirit in Sandinista Nicaragua. It was the right
"restorative niche" (as psychologist Brian Little calls it). The
Sandinistas had overthrown a dictatorial dynasty, the Somozas, installed
by American Marines. They had written a new Constitution. Everyone we
met talked about "The Triumph," meaning not only the warfare that Susan
Meiselas had documented but the aftermath of struggle: the endurance,
the innovative problem-solving, being able to rely on the moral support
of state agencies. Everyone we met--the stevedores knocking rust off
hulls, the member of the women's center teaching manicuring, the nurse
in the health center--they all said proudly, "We are making the
revolution." Despite the aggression of a great power, the inflation, the
deaths of friends, "Estamos haciendo la revolución." Using
a word Americans no longer dared to use, they meant nothing more by
it--and nothing less--than peaceful progress where the government has your
back. My head swam in shock and rising hope. I felt toward those
resilient people 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 realizing,
Yes, we too could be doing this. Long before the end of that three-month
stay, we had decided to return and, if the Sister City could fund it,
build housing for school-teachers.
Then and there a process began whose end is unknown. I had been a
liberal with convictions but I was giving nothing of my intellect and
little of my time. First I had to become a tourist on foreign ground,
conscious of being an outsider and pained by exclusion, before I could
learn--truly learn--how not to be one. I had to move beyond the terror,
the picturesqueness, the exoticism, American guilt for the Contra
war--no longer romanticize, no longer be appalled. The rest would work
out in time.
It was almost the last minute I could have found that utopian space. The
revolution, under siege, was to last only two more years. By promising
to end the death-dealing war, George Bush One extorted the electoral
overthrow of the left.
Supporters all over the world responded with alarm, confusion, disarray.
In the U.S., 100,000 people had visited the revolution. Many
progressives now refused to work with the incoming Chamorro government.
"Of the myriad sister-city groups and faith-based organizations, some
faded away, some struggled ahead with a smaller base. . . some continued
their pre-1990 level of activity," the late John Brentlinger observes in
his remarkable unpublished history of solidarity communities. In Newton,
the membership of the Project dwindled, but the remainder felt we
couldn't desert needy people we now knew.
Our Nica friends didn't want to stop struggling simply because the
elections of 1990 deprived their leaders of power. These Sanjuaneños had
breathed in the values of social activism for eleven formative years;
they had developed socialist instincts and habits of action. The town
kept electing Sandinista mayors throughout the neoliberal years,
although some were corrupt and inept. Even as the new government cut the
safety nets, brought back the rich, created inequality, grassroots work
could--and had to--continue. With their yearning willingness as our
guide, our commitment survived that disheartening moment and the bitter
years that followed. Nicaragua, glossy again on the surface, remains the
second poorest country in the hemisphere.
David and I have returned every year since 1989. We go in the dry
season, when the roads are not swamps of mucilaginous mud, in order to
be able to transport building materials. It is always a good project.
For years after the teachers' housing, it was a one- or two-room school
built with the local families, in the jungle where no paved road goes,
helping to replace some sorry leaky cracking ruin with a community-built
structure everyone can be proud of. A necessary project.
The word project has many blissful meanings for me now. It meant first
the materials the Sister City bought to construct schools. The gritty
concrete of cement blocks, the corruscating silver of zinc roof panels,
the dark iron rebars for armature, the terra cotta of home-made bricks.
A project means the absorbed faces of the villagers when we have the
first meeting on the land they have provided, when the group chooses a
committee, decides how the work brigades will be set up, where the
school will be sited. The adults begin to imagine a better future and
see the power in community action.
I tell them in my increasingly-understandable Nicaraguan Spanish that
their willingness to work for education is what inspires us in far-away
Newton to raise money for the schools. "Nicaraguans are known for their
love of education," I say, reminding them of the world-famous Literacy
Crusade, when the government closed the high schools and universities
and sent students into the rural areas to eradicate illiteracy. To
encourage love of reading, I display the gorgeous colored plates in the
children's books that we leave with the teacher.
With my bad back, when we excavate for foundations I have to shovel
cautiously. But if I did not get that communal labor into my year, my
muscles would ache from the lack, and my heart too. The word project
means sweating and eating oranges together in the shade of jungle trees.
I read aloud to rapt children from the picture books. The children crowd
my knees, and the mothers fill the next rows; adolescents trail over,
and finally, old people shyly approach the edge of the crowd. For two or
three weeks a year I cleanse my soul of personal ambition and dissolve
into the work.
But there's been another development. Since 1997 the word project has
meant my projects, helping adult women and men become literate and
independent. For these programs I had sole fiscal responsibility for
many years. We rescue the lost generation of parents that the Ministry
of Education, and most systems focused on children, ignore. I can stand
here now, almost two decades after that first long stay, and asseverate
from the deepest and most satisfying experience that even when you fall
in love with a mission, you can fall still more deeply in love with it.
You can find the Mission that has your name on it.
* * *
There were many people to admire in the Nicaragua we came to. Over a
decade, their practical activism under state auspices had been slowly
withered by the Contra war. Those who hung on were motivated not by
enlightened self-interest, but, as Brentlinger put it in his fascinating
book, The Best of What We Are, by the historic tradition of popular
struggle, the bonds of community-building, ethics, and spirituality.
Three women guided me--one Belgian, one Nicaraguan, one Italian: three
women operating dextrously inside a global economy most of whose
benefits are for the rich or the male. In my earlier phase, I might well
not have seen any distinction in them.
Early in our time in San Juan I came down with a rash on my arms and
went to see a doctor I knew only by reputation. Patricia Claeys was
slender, Belgian, impatient, with blond strands hanging around her face.
She brusquely dismissed my complaint as measles, unworthy of medical
attention. For the first time I was confronted personally by triage, a
practice imposed by scarcity. The spots disappeared soon after but the
experience of not being important enough lingered soberingly.
Thus I met the much-loved "Doctora Patricia" of San Juan, who
looked like an intense schoolgirl. She delivered babies to women who had
never imagined receiving skilled help. When the government of Violeta
Chamorro was inaugurated, Patricia, correctly anticipating danger,
immediately opened a private clinic and pharmacy and a health outreach
program for women and children. In finding and training one or two women
in each rural locale--the brigadistas de salud--she was helped by
Rosa Elena Bello, already a nurse and public-health activist. Rosa Elena
was in her thirties then, rather solemn, laconic, but with a sudden
dazzling smile. The two of them multiplied themselves through a network
of paramedics serving San Juan's 240 loose square miles of wilderness,
farmland, and beach, spotted with isolated houses in 32 villages,
divided from the port town by little rivers that swell in the rainy
season. Eighteen thousand people all told.
They wrote to me back in Newton. "The brigadistas need a medicine
chest, filled with hydrogen peroxide and Merthiolate, scissors, gauze,
syringes. . ." It was a long list. I went to Newton-Wellesley Hospital to
make a presentation, and employees from janitors to surgeons collected
the items and filled forty-five lightweight portable plastic medicine
chests, one for each of the health outreach workers. The Sister City
Project rented part of a container and shipped them off.
When the neoliberals stopped programs that helped the poor, they
terminated a farmers' loan program. There started to be empty bellies
even in the rural areas where subsistence farming should have made that
impossible. Patricia began a register of malnourished children and a
program to feed them. There could be no health where there was
"The prescription for hungry children is food," Patricia said in her
peremptory way. So David and I went back to Newton to raise money for
cows: a donor could buy a whole cow for $250 or a part of a cow for $25.
In San Juan, the clinic started giving milk to mothers of malnourished
With the Cow Project underway, Rosa Elena said, "When the wells are
contaminated, everyone gets sick." So the Sister City Project raised
money for a brilliant bit of technology called rope-pumps. The pump
design prevents dirty bucket-bottoms from ever going into wells and
makes cranking a handle to raise water into child's play.
I needed those two weeks of rinsing my soul every January, but I
intended my relation to San Juan to be nicely bounded by those weeks.
Indeed, I counted on that containment. I was also a writer, scholar, and
cultural critic. Age Studies, my new name for the emerging field,
couldn't afford distraction: it was ideologically important; it was
intellectually energizing. But San Juan's appeal kept reverberating
deeper inside me.
Patricia went back to Belgium for good but she still raised money for
the clinic, Community Medical Services. Rosa Elena, even younger than
Patricia, took on all the organizational responsibilities and was
willing to add even more. She also got a medical degree in naturopathy
and a Masters in public health, going to Managua every Saturday. By then
I saw the two of them, like George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, as always
longing "for some ideal task . . . some social captainship, which would
come . . . as a duty, and not be striven for as a personal prize." And
that was my humble goal for myself.
Rosa Elena said she wanted to start a literacy program for women. "You
can give a woman a fish, or you can teach her to fish." Literacy could
be the beginning that these isolated, hopeless women needed: the hook
and the line. We would teach women words about their real lives--body
parts, men's drunkenness and abandonment, women's empowerment. I called
it Paulo Freire for Women. My two indefatigable colleagues, who no
sooner had an idea than they had a plan, designed a program from their
two separate hemispheres and sent it to me in North America. I was
convinced that they had the most thoughtful plan for teaching literacy
to women that could be invented.
Then I really started bringing it home. I learned how to write a grant
proposal, compiled lists of possible donors, mailed twenty-five applications. It
turned out not so easy as I anticipated to find financial backers for
women's literacy, even for a wonderful scheme. It was turned down twenty-four
times. Then an Italian woman, Flavia Robinson, head of the Agostino
Foundation, took the risk and gave us money for the first year. Her
focus was educating illiterate Maya women, but she opened her embrace
wider. After that first-year donation it became easier to find money for
the following years.
Seeking funding, writing reports for donors, monitoring programs--this
eats into my scholarly work. And I regret that: age studies is another
mission. But one year when a foundation gave us $6,000 more than we
needed, I wrote to Rosa Elena, "Remember you wanted to start a second
literacy program on that island in the Great Lake? Well, now we have
enough funding to get it going for the first year, and I'll start
raising money for the next two." I knew Rosa Elena would commit herself.
Thus I engaged two more years of my own life. Turning down a chance to
educate another 100 women never crossed my mind.
* * *
Rosa Elena heads up an expanding team. When the first literacy program
graduated 246 women in 2001, the women wanted to go on to high school.
They had a voice now, they used it: We designed a Free High School for
Adults. It would be open on Saturdays to all the people who are formally
excluded from the public high schools, men as well as women: people who
work all week, any woman with children, anyone over eighteen, rural
people under eighteen who can't get in to town five days a week. Rosa
Elena would direct it. Again, I found a first year of funding and we
opened the Saturday School or "Sabatino" in 2002. At the opening, now
able to make a speech in Spanish, I warned the first students that they
had better take full advantage of their year of schooling, because we
didn't know whether there would be a second. Rosa Elena writes the
proposals that can be done in Spanish. So far, the funding has dribbled
in, year by year.
Over 70% of our students are rural and over 60% are women. They work
hard, doing in one long day what regular high school students do in
five. Ours also learn gender, research skills, and community
responsibility. Then they enlarge the ranks by passing it on: Before
they graduate, they teach other adults--hundreds of them by now--to read
and write. The Free High School now has 158 graduates. (Five started the
long journey that begins with A in our first literacy program.) Some
graduates attend a Saturday Technical High School that we opened four
years later, that offers degrees in Accounting, Management of Tourist
Industries, and Civil Construction. Our graduates also work in
government offices, study in universities, start small businesses. They
read, and their kids read. Dorquis Muñiz, a remarkable math teacher,
says, "The Sabatino is a continuation of the revolution."
In the value system of San Juan, the lucky people are those who get jobs
that help advance the revolution. Many envy those who get foreign
grants, like Fidel Pavon, a farmer who now runs the Newton Workshop in
Appropriate Technology, or Rosa Elena's faculty in the High School. It's
soft money, it may not last, but it enables you to do good
Rosa Elena has attracted a staff of dedicated teachers. Many come from
the class and generation that would never have gone to college if not
for the Triumph. Two of our best teachers had taken part in protests
against the program officially called "autonomy" (our friend Carlos
Guzman, a former principal, called this the "commercialization of the
schools") and they were fired illegally when they helped organize a
teachers' strike. For some years Maria Dolores sold tacos on the street;
Dorquis commuted to a private school in a nearby city. Now Maria Dolores
is the Executive Director of both the Free High School and the Technical
High School. Dorquis teaches so imaginatively that we have twice
produced winners in the regional Math Olympics.
Outsiders help. Sanjuaneños call them "cooperantes." Some move
there and get inventively involved. Chris Berry is a hotel owner who is
the biggest employer in town, a naturalized Nicaraguan. His foundation
gives scholarships to high-school grads to continue their education.
Another hotel-owner from Colorado opened the first Nicaraguan free
public library. We had said "Sanjuaneños don't read," but even fishermen
going out to sea borrow books to read by lantern light, and the free
library model has spread to other towns.
Professionals have been volunteering in San Juan via the Sister City
Project since early on. Volunteers in Optometric Service to Humanity
came first. ("We're making our own foreign policy" in San Juan, a VOSH
optometrist said to me, only half joking.) They, like the dentists in
Project Stretch, were attracted by the infrastructure that Rosa Elena's
network of brigadistas de salud provides. Through their outreach, the
optometrists can attend 2,200 people in four days. A professor at Boston
University provided a small-business curriculum which a local Austrian
restaurant owner taught to women who got micro-loans from a California
surfer. Two bilingual social-psychology professors from New York City
are going to monitor the progress of a shelter for battered women that
Rosa Elena plans to open in 2009.
The first younger volunteer we sent, Jason Schweitzer, went for six
months after high school. He mainly weighed rural babies, checking for
malnutrition. That public-health experience decided his major
(Latin American studies) and his first job (in AIDS services, where he
landed a $5 million grant). He's now in medical school. When our son
Sean designed a Website for the Sister City, Jason's story went up with
others' (www. Newtonsanjuan.org/Volunteer). Many people
have their lives transformed by doing social service with our San Juan
Newton's North and South High Schools send contingents annually. Simmons
College students go for two weeks, led by David, who prepares them with
a course in Nicaraguan culture and politics. Harvard Med students go for
summer internships. Parents and children from Union Church of Waban go
regularly. Young people flood in to San Juan from other countries too.
Two German boys did their in-lieu-of-military service in the clinic.
Lyndsey Rosevear, a smoke-jumper with blond dreads, saw what David was
doing under Sister City auspices--providing poor villagers with
appropriate technologies in exchange for sweat equity--and went back to
Canada to raise $50,000 for BioSand filters, eco-latrines, and
Some young people come to surf the perfect waves or because their
universities pressure them into "service learning." Some are allured by
the autobiographies on our Website. San Juan brings out the idealism
mocked or undernourished in other settings. San Juan has charisma even
if you are neither a leftist nor religious. Elsewhere you tan your buns.
Here, you land one afternoon, have a beer overlooking the Pacific, and
by the next day start teaching sex ed to teenagers or digging a ditch
for water pipes in a village. I ran into a college grad in a bar, told
him this was a town where visitors participated with local leaders, and
Nathan Beck helped write a funding proposal that provided 200 villagers
with BioSand filters to purify their water.
All cooperantes find their niche: From each according to their
abilities. They teach handwashing to school children or English as a
second language in the Sabatino, fix computers, or read aloud in the
library, which has a mobile van that brings children's books to village
schools. One young artist taught village children photography.
Most live with families, paying for room and board. The Sanjuaneños,
known for their frankness and left values, teach visitors what life is
like. The foreigners improve their Spanish by hearing thrilling gossip.
They learn their Nica father can't pay the electric company bill (what
"privatization" means), and why there is no water all day. Only richer
people with tanks and pumps can produce enough water pressure to access
the town's supply. They swim and shower at will, while others lack water
until the rich go to bed.
In the streets, always full of other internationalists, volunteers of
all ages compare work blisters, marvel at the real estate boom, share
stories about their host "parents." They get a political education that
starts with the hard facts of poverty and gets part-way at least to the
theories of immiseration. Many learn the bitterness of class divisions,
the systemic nature of oppression. Foucault called this "subjugated
knowledge" that has been "disqualified," but in this context it gets
respect. And then, through their daily work, the volunteers
unconsciously absorb the steady pace of cheerful resistance. This is
what optimism of the will needs, lifelong.
The basis for involvement is their emotional connection. "Don't you love
San Juan!" "What is it about this place?" They may spend the rest of
their lives trying to figure out a mystery that I, after twenty years,
think has a simple solution. There, everyone learns about inequality and
acts on behalf of social justice--that euphoric
combination--simultaneously. Activism makes a space, in thousands of
hearts and minds, for living socialism to rush in. As the locals say,
they're all "making the revolution."
* * *
The Nicaraguans needed us, in different ways, during the 1980s and
since 1990. It is a new kind of revolution now, without much state
support, with anti-Ortega activists starting a new political party and
small groups working cooperatively to respond to burgeoning needs. But
as much or more, we internacionalistas need engagement with Nicaraguans
whose formations were revolutionary. The last forty years have been hard
for the left--the decline of labor, the spread of globalizing
imperialistic capitalism; "there is no alternative." North American
leftists may have been privileged economically, but politically many
have burnt out. When volunteers came to San Juan, the good people we
encountered transferred to us their reliance on hope, the necessary
persistence that their long-twentieth-century history of colonialism,
revolution, and counter-revolution had given them. And we brought not
just our useful money, but our gratitude and revived energies. We needed
one another as equals and friends, and we still do.
In San Juan, it's true, our Nicaraguan-America civil society,
independent of the government, is not organized or powerful enough to
attack large-scale national problems--debt and structural adjustment
programs, privatization, maquiladoras, so-called free trade, nor to
advance goals like economic justice and socialization of resources. But
the long-term relationship has enabled the modest international partners
to grow in ambition and success, from assisting elementary education to
providing adult tertiary education, health care, mental-health care,
legal aid, green technology--a broad spectrum whose further expansion we
anticipate. Activism in San Juan transports us out of the USA into a
place where a big, busy left movement is the majority. Nicaragua is
almost as poor as Haiti, but you can walk down the street and feel the
Special as our international relationship may feel to us, San Juan is
not unique. On the contrary. Talents, urgent feelings, affectionate
connections, the valuing of social justice and equality--these are
widespread and potentially universal resources. It's a longer chancier
haul than the ways we would prefer, but perhaps the state of the world
can be ameliorated one or two or a thousand towns at a time.