I was born in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, the country which, from that day on, I would call and will call my own. I was born during one of the bloody years of the counter-revolutionary war, which bled our borders dry, leaving young people homeless and shelves empty. That year, my country’s president was Daniel Ortega Saavedra. Today, so many years later, the same man clings to power.
As children of the post-war era, once the conflict was over, we had to face up to aftereffects that my generation endures to this day. One of them is the ideological polarization we understood nothing about as we took our seats in elementary school classrooms with lunchboxes and tidy uniforms. Anyone who had fought for one side or the other was still a source of stigma, to be kept away from by order of our parents because that kid’s family belonged to one faction or another during the armed conflict. And so, as children, we learned peace can be accorded, but never attained.
During those years, surrounded by that climate, magic happened: I learned to read. The seed was planted that would mark my future and my life’s calling: literature. As they tell me—I remember little to nothing of this—I was a contemplative child, living in a somewhat isolated house outside of town with no neighbors, much less kids my own age. On top of that, for many years I was the youngest in my family, which compelled me to spend a lot of time alone and to find in reading the shelter and adventure that every child should have. I don’t know if this made me a writer, but it is something for which I’m deeply grateful.
I don’t remember a Nicaragua free of conflict. I don’t remember a Nicaragua at peace. During the nineties, the war disappeared from our borders and mountains, but found its way into the veins of Nicaraguans. Protests, deaths, immeasurable embezzlement of public funds, rampant corruption in broad daylight, more misery than poverty, obscene contrasts between people dying in garbage dumps and politicians living it up in beachfront mansions. Learning by heart, from childhood, the same sad sentence: “Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the hemisphere after Haiti,” as if being in second place rather than first meant we had achieved some victory over something.
It could be said that we are a country to which tragedy was already indifferent. But then came the month of April 2018, and the lives of the world’s almost seven million Nicaraguans changed drastically overnight. General discontent after so many years under Ortega’s oppressive authority exploded into the streets with heartening torchlight, to the extent that many thought the Ortega dictatorship was finally about to collapse. Ortega, much like his fellow dictator and old nemesis, Anastasio Somoza, had spent years controlling all State power, violating the constitution in every way possible, dominating and suppressing the media, crushing peasant, student, and feminist movements… causing anyone with enough support to threaten his position to fall into disgrace, creating a sort of tropical monarchy in which his family served as the country’s absolute leadership, sucking out its profits to the point of creating an astronomical, immoral fortune. But the collapse never came. Ortega carried out the final act he needed to earn his dictator’s diploma: a massacre.
All civil protests were crushed with bloodshed and fire by the presidential police and paramilitary groups armed with high-caliber weapons. Young people began to be hunted down and murdered, and the country reached the point of total breakdown in a matter of days. Every night we fell asleep to the distant or nearby sound of automatic gunfire and explosions. In a matter of days, everything we knew of our lives and everything that made us who we were was erased, disappeared. What was broken could never be put back together.
During those days, I was working as director of the Pablo Antonio Cuadra Cultural Center, named for one of the most significant poets of Nicaragua’s 1930s literary avant-garde. I enjoyed that job more than any other I’ve had in my life. Along with my team and through the center, I was able to give space to writers, musicians, dramatists, and journalists where they could exhibit their work and engage in dialogue with their audience. All of this fell apart, becoming unsustainable as the repression escalated into a whirlwind of death and bloodshed. Our freedoms were cut short, and so my vocation as a writer, whose raw materials are imagination and freedom, became unsustainable too. In this context, like thousands of my fellow Nicaraguans, I was forced to make the decision to leave my country, with no set date of return. Months later, people who showed any hint of dissidence against the dictatorship began to be imprisoned.
I landed in Mexico on July 17, 2018 and found myself faced with the task of rebuilding my life, with all the difficulties that implied and still implies. The classic story of those who find themselves in exile: economic hardship, difficulty finding work, learning to swim in another culture and different customs, being seen as the other, learning new codes, unknown argots, memorizing streets that were not my own, navigating miscommunications. And making literature.
Writing from outside Nicaragua has turned into the trope of seeing the island from afar and trying to understand it as a whole. I am comforted to think of all the ghosts that precede me, all the writers who—in similar or worse circumstances—found themselves forced to leave their countries behind and build their bodies of work from other lands, sometimes even in other languages. I, along with many colleagues from my generation, have appealed to the relevant authorities in search of a new life. We have become part of Mexico’s long tradition of welcoming outsiders in need of refuge.
It will always be impossible for me to return to my Nicaragua because that Nicaragua no longer exists. The landscapes are still indomitable with their lakes and volcanoes, but everything that made up my idea of my country has been forever eradicated. It lives on only in my memory. But at least I can recall it whenever I wish, in my mind or with my words. I can summon up Nicaragua, but never go back to what it was. This is something like what happened to the generation that lived through the Managua earthquake of 1972; in a few seconds, everything they knew of life came crashing down, and their city then lived on only in memory. Something similar happened in 2018; our friends have left, our places have disappeared, our loved ones have died, our dynamics of cultural exchange have been wiped out with a snap of the Ortega-Murillo family fingers.
Now I write and publish from the outside. I work on my books with a homesickness that will be hard to shake while I’m alive, even when the dictatorship comes to an end and we embark on the mission of building a new country; but that’s just it, a new country, the one I had will not come back. At least that’s what I tell myself while I write. Now I pursue my literary practice from a place where I am allowed to do so in freedom—that word that has become a synonym for subversion in my country. I have had the chance to get to know new colleagues, new spaces, new readings. To enrich the Nicaraguan writer I am with the elements of other lands, not leaving behind the identity I come from, not leaving behind the post-war child who, like my own children and as sad as it sounds, had never known peace. Everything that enters into the inner world of a writer enters also into his literature.
In conversations with friends and in interviews, I have been asked the inevitable question: what’s going to happen in Nicaragua? What does the country’s future hold? It’s a question I cannot answer, and I’m sure almost seven million Nicaraguans ask themselves the same question every single day. All we can do—all of us—is hold out as long as we can. We must continue to form part of this fractured country that has now been scattered across the globe in the greatest migratory wave in its history. I have never been in favor of the word “homeland,” but there is something I cannot explain that I will always carry inside myself, and that is something one cannot get rid of. Rebuilding, from the outside and in my head, all that which once was and will never be again has led me to understand, as a writer, that my personal homeland is the blank page, and no dictator can take that away from me.