Saturday, January 13, 2018

My visit to a "shithole" country

Central Managua/WikiMedia Commons
I’ve visited a lot of what Donald Trump might call “shithole” countries in my life, but the one that evokes the most poignant memories is Nicaragua. I spent a week there in 1986, at the height of the U.S.-funded Contra war, as part of a delegation of journalists and artists. There were about ten of us, although I remember only two by name: Bill Press, the liberal talk show host, who back then worked in television in Los Angeles; and Fionnula Flanagan, the Irish actress and political activist. Fionnula, who by then was already well known, had just the year before achieved some notoriety by performing Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in the nude, in the film “James Joyce’s Women.”

The delegation was organized by my good friend Alice McGrath, a legendary political activist who got her start in Los Angeles in the early 1940s coordinating the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee. In Luis Valdez’s Broadway musical and film “Zoot Suit,” based on the Sleepy Lagoon murder case, her character was called Alice Bloomfield (her “maiden” name was Greenfield.) We became close friends in the middle 1980s, when UCLA’s Oral History Program, for which I worked at the time, assigned me to interview her. As a friend of Alice, I was drawn into a tight group of friends and admirers in California who loved her strong spirit and her dedication to social justice; all of us are still in mourning over her death in 2009.

Alice had invited me to join the delegation, which I was thrilled to do. Our group stayed in a guest house in Managua. Every morning during our week-long visit we piled into a van and headed out to visit various Sandinista politicians, political activists, agricultural specialists, and anti-Contra fighters across the country. One day we supposedly ventured within firing range of the Contras, at least that’s what we were told; we were all skeptical that the Sandinista leaders would put us in danger. But while near the front, we did talk to a female soldier who told us the story, interrupted at times with torrents of tears, about the death of one of her comrades during a fierce battle.

We thought of ourselves as a sophisticated bunch, and treated what we were told, especially by Sandinista leaders, with the suspicion that all propaganda deserves. But at the same time, we were overwhelmed by the incredible kindness and generosity of the Nicaraguan people, with whom we had plenty of unrehearsed contact. We were often left to wander in Managua’s central market, or in the villages we visited, and had encounters that could not have been anything but genuine. Back at the guest house in the evening, we would sit around and share these experiences. None of us had ever met people as nice as these, and we were in a state of shock about it. As Fionnula said at one point, “Something is happening here, and we all know it.”

Most of the people we met were incredibly poor, which made their generosity all the more remarkable. One afternoon our van was heading down a dirt road when a couple of girls, perhaps 12 or 13, waved at our driver, asking for a ride to the next village. He let them in the van where they took a couple of empty seats behind Fionnula. There is no way they could have known who she was, but they immediately formed an attachment for the woman they repeatedly called the “ bella dama” (“beautiful lady”) and fluttered around, firing questions at her between their giggles and laughter. (I must confess that I, too, was fascinated by Fionnula, and did a poor job of covering up my star-struck infatuation with a veneer of coolness.)

The van arrived at their village. The girls, obviously looking for some kind of gift to give to Fionnula, suddenly produced a 20 cordoba note (worth less than a dollar today, but probably a few dollars back then) and thrust it into her hand. Before she could even jump up to protest, the girls were off the bus and running towards their home.

I was sitting across from Fionnula, near the front of the van, and I think I was the only person who could see her clearly. As long as I live I will never forget the emotions that passed across her face as she held the 20 cordoba note gingerly in her hand, all the way back to Managua: A mix of shock and guilt, disbelief and anguish, and, I suspect, hopelessness that she would ever be able to completely absorb why two girls who had almost nothing would bestow a valuable gift on her, who had so much.

I guess I have Donald Trump to thank for inspiring me to tell this story, which I have related to only a very few friends over the past three decades. But it’s gratifying to see that over the last 24 hours, a lot of other writers have also been inspired to tell stories about the “shithole” countries they live in or have visited, and the wonderful people who live in them.

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