The History Lesson


I am trying not to break eye contact with a Sandinista. This is particularly difficult because, part-way through his history lesson on La Guerra Civil, his wife hands me a heavily garnished tostada.

Juices from the tomato and cabbage slaw quickly reach the thin tortilla platform, weakening its foundation. My concentration is now divided: try to understand the Spanish, try not to drop the food.

We are perched on three wooden stools in the cave-like confines of the Sandinista's living room. A single light bulb hangs from the ceiling, casting only dimness. My two Spanish class members and I shuffle our feet on the dirt floor with unease and struggle to stay alert.

Occasionally more light enters as passersby tap on the door (a piece of aluminum sheet metal), and the Sandinista's young granddaughter slides it open. The women at the door place an order for tajadas — plantains cut into thin slices and fried into chips. The sheet metal door is unmarked, yet somehow they know that the Sandinista's wife is in the back room, flipping tortillas and enchiladas over a tire-sized, cast iron skillet.

The Sandinista is our Spanish professor's father-in-law. We do not know his name, since Profe only refers to him as "el padre de mi esposa." Seated in front of him —this old man who has granted his time to educate a few gringas—we are ashamed to ask.

One poorly spoken question sparks the Sandinista's lecture:

"Profe says you (formal noun) are a Sandinista. What was Esteli like during the war?"

I, perhaps the most uneasy in the silence and therefore the most bold with my Spanish, am the one to pose it. And so the Sandinista decides I will be his sole audience member, locking eyes with mine and rarely glancing at my classmates. Sometimes he sprinkles in pop quizzes about his lecture, further testing my Spanish. When I am wrong (I am mostly wrong), he is swift to correct me and blunt in his delivery.

It requires every brain cell to hang on to his lesson. To listen so intently for a word I recognize. To study the Sandinista's mouth as he forms each word because the shape of its sound might help me to place it. To string that word together with the few I caught before and attempt meaning. To hold his intense gaze so that he knows I am listening, that I'm trying to understand.

At best, I extract themes:

To understand the Sandinistas, you must go back to the beginning: to Augusto Sandino, who led the revolution against U.S. occupation in 1933. You must acknowledge how much the U.S. has interfered in Nicaragua, acting with self-interest veiled by anti-Communism.

The only direct quote I recall elicits a sly smile from the Sandinista's granddaughter and makes my Spanish professor chuckle. "Daniel Ortega? Yeah, he's a son of a bitch," the Sandinista says. "But he's our son of a bitch."

Back when Nicaragua's civil war was world news, it would have been rare — even controversial— for Americans to hold court with a Sandinista.

Now, "Sandinista" is less weighty. It's no longer charged with rebellion; it doesn't stand for everything America isn't. Nicaraguans who identify as Sandinistas often denounce Ortega's corruption. They are not loyal to him so much as they are to the principles of his party. Foremost, Sandinistas are loyal to Nicaragua — to its freedom and the wellbeing of its people. Many, like the Sandinista in front of me, have even fought for it.

I don't catch the Sandinista's lesson word for word. But I think I understand what he is saying.

He isn't some anti-capitalist, anti-American revolutionary. He is old and he is poor and he is tired. And he thinks maybe, after everything that's happened to Nicaragua, we could all try sharing the wealth.

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