Photo by Julienne Gage for World Learning.

Ay Nicaragua, Nicaragüita

After a week in Cuba, Experimenters return to Nicaragua with a greater understanding of history, politics and the arts

by Julienne Gage

Thousands of Nicaraguans bused into Managua Wednesday to celebrate the 37th anniversary of the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution, which put an end to a four-decade dynasty run by the country’s powerful Somoza family. In an effort to avoid the chaos and the crowds, participants of the 2016 Experiment in International Living program to Nicaragua and Cuba stayed home. Still, they were at no loss for dancing, war stories and neighborly interaction in Managua’s working class Máximo Jerez neighborhood where they dined with their host families and took salsa classes at the Experiment’s local student center. Each summer, The Experiment sends dozens of high school students around the world for month-long trips to study language, current affairs and culture while developing youth leadership skills. The Cuba and Nicaragua trip looks at those issues through the lens of arts and social change.

Photos by Julienne Gage for World Learning.

Within 24 hours of their return from our weeklong trip to Cuba, Experimenters had already bonded with their new Nicaraguan families. It was easy to see why. Out of cultural obligation, this communications specialist found herself stuffed with two lunches during visits to document homestays, and local mothers and grandmothers of this historic Sandinista stronghold wasted no time in recounting their memories of the revolution. Yes, they witnessed battles and the perils of war. No, they hadn’t forgotten the images of bloodshed, but they also remembered the hope of a new era, one they said marked the end of an elitist dictatorship and a great leap forward in social inclusion.

Photo by Julienne Gage for World Learning.

Their accounts were similar to the stories Experimenters heard in community meetings, arts and culture workshops and museum visits covering Cuba’s 1959 revolution. In both countries, students learned of the difficult economic and political conditions that inspired revolutions with socialist tendencies, and of the many ways the United States intervened to stop what it saw as Cold War threats. They also gained a better understanding of shifting international politics. Cuba’s revolutionary government is considering next steps in the restoring of ties with the United States after a five-decade freeze in diplomatic relations. Now that the U.S. government has lifted most restrictions on travel to the island and talk of ending the embargo becomes more frequent, Cuba is focused on accommodating greater numbers of visitors, increased foreign investment and nationwide entrepreneurship while maintaining its ideals. Meanwhile, Nicaragua is accepting increasing amounts of aid from countries like Taiwan and contemplating a third presidential term for historic Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega.

As the sun went down over Managua, some Experimenters hung out on their porches chatting with their families, playing board games with the kids and even sharing a little ukulele for passersby. Local children ran through the streets and back alleys playing tag, hop scotch and soccer, anxiously awaiting the next day’s opening of a new state-of-the-art playground, complete with streetlights and security guards.

The calm and innocence of the evening contrasted greatly with the reality of neighboring El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Those countries also experienced civil conflicts during the Cold War era, and their citizens fled in far greater numbers. Many refugee families settled in the United States’ gang-infested inner cities, prompting thousands of their children to get caught up in lives of crime. As the conflicts came to an official end, many were deported, introducing gang life to their homelands.

Photo by Julienne Gage for World Learning.

Sandinista supporters contend the social reforms that took root during the triumph of the revolution also helped to curb crime and instill important community values, oftentimes through popular education that came in the form of media and literacy campaigns, poetry and the arts. On Thursday, Experimenters got a better glimpse of that intersectionality, as they learned more about Nicaragua’s current social and political affairs. Students boarded the bus for the day’s field trip just as a paperboy biked past selling newspapers headlining Ortega’s anniversary address and his latest political aspirations. Down the street at the new playground, loudspeakers blasted Ortega’s festive campaign songs to hoards of families flocking to the seesaws, swings and sandboxes.

Experimenters were on their way to a meeting with Podcast for Peace, an arts and media-oriented community center in a poor Managua neighborhood that makes its living recycling garbage from the city dump. Upon their arrival, Podcast for Peace leaders screened a series of videos they helped local youth produce on everything from ideas for addressing poverty to city pollution cleanup efforts, then they asked visitors to join them in small groups to identify and compare social concerns in their own American communities, as well as discuss how art and media projects could help to build awareness.

Photo by Julienne Gage for World Learning.

Increasingly comfortable with their Spanish language skills and with jumping into deep thoughts with complete strangers, many Experimenters enthusiastically shared their concerns about the environment, racism, poverty, violence, and political upheaval back home in the United States. And while some of the Nicaraguan youth touted the triumphs of the revolution, one Nicaraguan teen pulled out a smart phone picture, lamenting how the shantytown where her family lived in Managua had been displaced to make room for the loads of buses that took Sandinista supporters to Ortega’s anniversary speech.

“We’ve got an ongoing discussion here,” said one of the group’s local leaders, explaining that Podcast for Peace hopes to create a safe space for creative civic engagement.

The tin-roofed center was hot and humble, but the energy was vibrant. After the discussion, Experimenters shared lunch with the local youth, assisted the younger kids with reading and language lessons, bought the teenager’s handcrafted bracelets, and joined in dance and sports workshops presented by Podcast for Peace leaders.

Photo by Julienne Gage for World Learning.

I felt hopeful as I snapped pictures of the Experimenters laughing and dancing with the locals. These are sophisticated themes for high school students who were born well after the Cold War, but they’ve got this. They were cultural troopers under challenging social and logistical conditions, and they could see that social justice is a continuous challenge, one that requires lots of dialogue and experimentation in order to move forward with the times. Most importantly, they gained vital wisdom for coming of age as young leaders and, in some cases, first-time voters in a complex political era at home and abroad.

Julienne Gage is a senior writer/editor for World Learning. She traveled with the Experimenters and group leaders in Cuba and Nicaragua.

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