I write this article from the pristine safety of a California university library where I have taken refuge to sort out our new lives following our self-imposed evacuation from Nicaragua in the first week of July. My son, Aiden and I left Granada with the intention of waiting out from afar the violent conflict resulting from the recent political protests. We optimistically hoped that the remaining summer months would produce a resolution in favor of the blue and whites, a return to security in the streets, and an overall better Nicaragua.
As we reach the end of the month, a Nicaraguan human rights group (ANPDH) reports the growing number of deaths due to the Orteguista state-sponsored civil repression at 448 people. This is devastating news and points to the probability of a protracted conflict without clear victories or endings. I decided that we cannot wager on a spontaneous change in the political dynamic to determine our course this year. We will stay in California and begin again figuring out out each new life step as we go on the fly.
Frankly, when we arrived to California, we were exhausted both physically and emotionally. Living through a developing crisis characterized by violence and the ever looming threat of violence is like being the proverbial frog that delays leaping from heating water that he doesn’t notice is set on course towards a rolling boil. My mind had played tricks on me for months, gravitating towards indications that that all would be well and that we had ample time to react. Strangely, I tended to ignore most signals to the contrary (a sure case of ‘normalcy bias’ that I wouldn’t have predicted for myself).
My son was the opposite. He asked me constantly for details about what was happening around us and the daily death count due to the unrest. He wanted to know if and when we were leaving and told me in no uncertain terms that we were not safe. In the end, I could not deny that he was right. Whether we were directly in harms way through violence on the street, or potentially limited access to basic resources, or that we might have our car and cellphones searched for political material at random there were threats everywhere to our sense of well-being, security, and happiness.
The day that we left Granada, I was fraught with nerves, having heard enough stories from friends to know that the roads to the airport were unpredictably blocked by various factions. Oscar, our capable driver periodically pulled over to talk to locals to ask who was waiting further up ahead. Guided by this information he would then U-turn round to avoid roadblocks that might either be manned by righteous protesters, or bandits who could pilfer all that we had packed to take with us to the States. Off-roading through muddy routes untraceable on a Google map, he steered us near to the airport and into one last student roadblock.
We waited on the highway agape as masked students waved beautiful flags for Nicaragua in front of the makeshift wall that had been built to defend the UCA, a university that has been entrenched by indignant students for almost three months in protest. The homemade crosses that lined the street in front of the entrance counted each of their young colleagues that had been assassinated in that pursuit.
“When are we going to move, Mom?” Aiden anxiously wanted to know.
“Soon, probably,” I answered. Of course, there was no way of knowing. Roadblocks could delay motorists anywhere for 20 minutes to two hours, or in some cases indefinitely for weeks on. It was unlikely that this one would keep us much longer however, being so near the airport. Government responses to these tactics had become increasingly aggressive despite the youthful profile of the protesters involved.
There were no police or paramilitary in sight. His eyes scanned the road watching a few students pace back and forth with home built weaponry in their hands. “They’re armed. They have mortars,” he stated.
“They need something” I said. “But they hardly work at all.” These kind of images of civilian Nicaraguans using rudimentary firearms appear somewhat menacing and hearing them blast through the night is equally unsettling (memories of texting friends, Do you hear that? Is that by your house?). Having said that, most of their effect is all bark and no bite. The numbers of injured Orteguistas had been consistently underwhelming.
And then a final piece of wisdom from my son, “Don’t take pictures, okay?”
“Why?” I asked, curious as to his reasoning.
He pointed to the grave markers, “It’s not right,” he said. Aiden’s natural instincts on target yet, again.
Minutes later the students cleared off the road and waved for traffic to start moving again and we arrived to the Best Western Las Mercedes directly in front of the airport. I have stayed at this airport hotel and endless others like it throughout the years but never with a feeling in my heart like this. When we got out of the taxi, our driver asked if he could take our picture for their web page. “No,” I said. “I can’t. I’m glad that we made it here, thank you so much. But we are leaving Nicaragua. I honestly can’t smile.”
It was true. We were equally relieved to both arrive and to depart the very next day, but my heart was achy and heavy. Our exit felt like a betrayal and something inside me had already sensed that we weren’t coming back for a long time. I knew that we were doing the right thing for our family, but I wasn’t sure that we would be any help at all to Nicaragua from the outside.
Arriving to the United States felt surreal as if we were going home to a foreign country. We had visited in December for family holidays but this time we arrived feeling unsure of ourselves and the finality of our destination. Was this a visit? Or were we really back now? I guiltily observed that we were Americans who were now carefully playing their cards, having lost one hand but banking that we could always circle back to the safe bet.
But it was worth it. Within just a few days of our arrival our bodies began to unwind and the smile reappeared on my son’s face. He seemed more at ease and definitively happier. When I saw the reemergence of his former self, I began to realize how we had both increasingly held on to stress physically and emotionally since April. Immersing into the safety of a normal California summer, it felt okay to start to let it go and to focus on the new world around us.
At first, I checked the news feed constantly still looking for signs that the opposition was gaining momentum. Sadly, when I finished my media rounds, I could not conclude that their position was improving. From afar, the movement appears unwavering, but stagnant against repression articulated through superior weaponry. It is painful to witness this kind of grotesque bullying from any distance.
I read the news less vigilantly now, trying to focus on the challenges that we face here being new to the area: housing, a job, a school for Aiden. Thankfully, much of these goals are being reached step by step and we are finding our way.
I continue to check in with Facebook groups about Granada and read about all the local businesses bravely struggling to keep employees on the payroll and our friends who strive to find some kind of safe enjoyment and normalcy outside of the house. We were just there. It’s still so fresh. The daily routine of watching, worrying, and waiting.
Will we ever go back to the life we were living?
While we delayed and stalled in Nicaragua this summer, I acutely ached for the Granada glory days. I looked around for the familiar faces but they were gone. Many of the restaurants were closed and the recreational destinations were off limits. There was a horrible emptiness in the streets and the smiles on all our faces were strained.
We were blessed to have had the good fortune to have been a part of the beautiful life while it lasted. But I sense strongly that is gone. Not for good, but for now. It’s going to take some time to rebuild that world, but there first needs to be the right, secure conditions on the ground. It requires a political solution founded in fairness and justice, or Nicaragua will never be ready for a true recovery.
I cannot ask Aiden to suffer through this process when we do have a choice to stay or leave. He is twelve and I feel that he is relying upon me to keep him safe and to provide him with opportunities to grow. As a mother, I cannot make grand last stands at the expense of his happiness and security. It’s not a sacrifice that I even want to ask him to make. When he is older, he will have all the time in the world to make those kinds of decisions for himself if he should want to and own their consequences personally.
But thank goodness that we were there and that we have our memories of the best of times forever.
Swimming and hiking in craters, leisurely surfing in the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean, enjoying a slow afternoon BBQ with the best of friends, building lives that were difficult sometimes to explain back home but not to each other.
We had our shining moment under the brilliant Central American sun.