I try to answer the question about living and writing far away from Nicaragua. It’s been a long time since I left, thinking it would only be for a couple of years. Now it’s been more than seven. I don’t know if I will ever go back, physically speaking. Nonetheless, as I start to piece together an answer to the question, I think about history. A country comes to mind. One scene in particular. It takes place in a dusty classroom, in a district of León, the temperature hitting almost forty degrees. The students’ shirts are stuck to their bodies in the heat.
I can see it: heroism comes back to life in the history classroom as the professor tells the story of the US intervention in Nicaragua, expounding on William Walker’s landing as he barged into the country with a horde of filibusters who would then turn Nicaragua into a (quasi?) colony of the United States.
That and more, the professor says, marking on the chalkboard that scrapes every time he draws a line with the white chalk handed over in a solemn ceremony by the Ministry of Education a couple of weeks before.
The future had reached us in a box of chalk.
I believe he spoke next of Andrés Castro: the hero—and what a deed!—who, finding himself disarmed in the midst of the battlefield at San Jacinto on September 14, 1856, threw a rock at a filibuster who dropped dead right then and there: a spot-on impact that won the sergeant immortality.
Then came the words “Revolution” and “Contra”: Sandinistas versus Counterrevolutionaries.
I must have been fifteen years old the first time I heard of Rigoberto López Pérez: the poet—a remarkable story!—who ended the life of Anastasio Somoza García, the father of the Somocista dictatorship. At the time I did not quite understand the meaning of the word dictatorship, much less what Somocismo meant in Nicaragua. Nor did I understand the stories told by my friends’ fathers who had been in the armed forces. Stories full of pride about doings my generation knew absolutely nothing about. At least that was the case for those of us who lived with single mothers who worked over nine hours a day in the dusty streets of a sad city like León, flooded with sand from an active volcano.
Nobody thought about history because nobody looked to the past.
Our parents looked to the future like an ideal stained with blood and forgetting.
I remember one of those stories especially well: Carlos’s father, one-armed and lame, who said he had lost his right arm after he was rescued from a “strong, angry” river. He told how they had been ambushed in the mountains up north, close to the border with Honduras. He told how, if it had not been for some nearby kids, he and his comrades would have died. He told how, after the explosions went off, the only shelter was the river; but the current, he said, almost dragged us to our deaths: luckily those kids showed up.
Carlos’s father was proud to have survived the war in the eighties. He told how, thanks to the war, the country could now live in peace.
A peace stained with poverty and hunger, of course.
Sometimes I summon up a passage from one of those stories.
I summon them up from the chair where I sit to write, and since I don’t remember the exact details, I turn to my friends for help; I call them up, asking what street runs in front of what building, and if the building that was next to the military hospital still exists: What about the cars? Which vehicles are most common in Managua now? How much does a beer cost these days? Is the bar that was on the road to Masaya still open? Whatever happened to Julián? What’s the name of that street in León where that porno movie theater burned down ten years ago and then the Jehovah’s Witnesses turned it into a church? And what was Carlos’s dad’s name, the guy who used to brag about how proud he was to have lost half his body?
My friends, before they answer, tell me I’ve turned Mexican… I respond shamefully that none of that fit on the boat, and I’m only asking because I’m working on something, and I prefer to get the facts straight.
In actual fact, writing through my friends’ memories is a way of going back home. It’s a way of building an identity through words. The country I left behind no longer exists. It has become a ghost that sometimes jumps out at me on some street, in some place. No part of the house still stands. All that’s left are historical references to that faraway day in history class in a district of León.
I think of something. I think of the word “caído,” fallen, the word that, along with “poeta,” is the most common in Nicaragua.
You can find a caído on any old street corner.
“Caído + Mártir = Héroe.” “Fallen + Martyr = Hero.” This was the equation I had in mind when I started writing Los jóvenes no pueden volver a casa, “the kids can’t go back home.” They are stories of neglect and post-war struggles I used to hear around the corners of my house. And maybe, even though that title bears some similarity to what’s going on in Nicaragua today, I think that just like the characters in those stories, the book’s author is looking for a place where he’ll feel safe. He is traveling in search of something he probably already found.
The reasons why one goes back are not the same reasons why one leaves home.
I often record audio messages for my friends in Nicaragua as a way to help them understand I’m still here: I have not lost the language, the lingo; the words, the phrases, the sayings are still with me and in my characters’ mouths; and they should spare my life if I include a Mexican word in a Nicaraguan phrase every so often. It’s not on purpose, I swear. I try to find the right word, so much so that I’ve ordered a dictionary from Nicaragua to find the words I sometimes supplant with Mexican ones. Words exchanged, some for others, out of similarity of meaning.
A couple of days ago, in a room in an apartment in Mexico City, I was asking two friends from Nicaragua: what do you miss most?
They sat there staring at the white walls, as if looking into emptiness, solitude, poverty; a couple of seconds later they told me, “Everything.”
“What’s everything?” I asked.
They stopped smoking and said it again, “Everything.”
I tried to bridge the gap my question had opened. I tried to decipher that everything, perhaps a space, an instant, I said, suggesting that my way of returning to that “everything” is through words.
Roque Dalton claimed, “you can’t spend your life going back, especially not to the muck you call your country, the wreck they’ve made of your parents’ house.” But we, unfortunately, those of us who relive that piece of our country in memory, go back as if constantly going back to our own grave.
For some time now, I’ve lived in a loop of homesickness. Sometimes I go back to my old house in Managua. I watch myself leaving work in the evening, on my way to Colonia Centroamérica where my two cats, Simone and Monet, are waiting for me. I remember them when I look back at photos of a life that no longer exists. It’s a country in memory. A country in the mind. A country where everything burned up in the distance, as Nicaraguan poet Joaquín Pasos would say.
Absolutely everything, Joaquín.