All it took was reading the New York Times on the subject of Nicaragua to know something was fishy. It was the spring of 1984, after I had returned to stripping and had money and flexibility in my life. The Times would run some piece making a big deal out of nothing as an excuse to call the Sandinistas a “Stalinist, atheistic, totalitarian regime”. It was all so obvious.
I checked around and the first Construction Brigade to Nicaragua was being organized from Manhattan where I was living so I joined it. Prior to this, brigades had only gone to help with coffee and cotton harvests. Getting on to the brigade was in itself a hurdle, as during the interview process I had admitted that I didn’t want to eat meat in Nicaragua if it was offered to me. This was seen as culturally insensitive, and it was only because I had shown around a copy of a previously published piece that I stood out in the organizers’ minds enough for them to go to bat for me with the interviewer, calling me “a key part of the equation of this brigade.” That was also the first time anyone went to bat for me.
So I brought what tools I could muster for our donation crate and packed up for a month to build a school in Managua: “Construyendo por la Paz” was our slogan, “Building for Peace.” Prior to flying down I had had the opportunity to meet with Daniel Ortega, then Commandante and later president of Nicaragua, but chose to do my laundry instead, as I had no idea who he was.
On the ground in Nicaragua it was impossible not to cry at the beauty of driving through the countryside where so many young and vibrant souls had given their lives for the love of their homeland’s freedom. Our brigade was large enough that we split into two groups, with me being assigned to the smaller one in Bello Amanacer, a suburb of Managua whose name meant lovely dawn, as in a new day coming.
My job was to be the Water Responsible (when you were responsible for something the word, “responable”, became your title). This meant that each morning I treated two 2 ½ gallon jugs with iodine, then squeezed limes into them to further disinfect and cover the iodine taste. After that I made continual rounds to the builders so they wouldn’t have to put down their very engaging work to get a drink of water and would stay hydrated. It was sweltering hot and very dusty there in November, near the equator and before the rainy season. I took great pride in the fact that almost no one got sick on our team, although our counterpart group did suffer rampant illnesses.
The construction style was to plant tall concrete pillars six feet deep with grooves in them into which cement planchetas would be slid. This was so the building walls could slide and rock in earthquakes. The Nicas called it Cuban style construction, since Cuban volunteers had developed it, while the Cubans called it Nicaraguan style. In addition to the deep holes that had to be kept wide to the bottom, a shallow channel was dug between the holes that would be filled with cement reinforced with four lines of rebar held in a quadrangle by wire bent into four loops to hold each piece of rebar. So there was much hammering to bend these wires around a template, as well as digging and removing of earth with coffee cans.
Prior to the revolution Bello Amanecer had been notorious for its high rate of crime. But now since the triumph the peace was effectively being kept by a citizen’s militia. Once a month on rotation two people would patrol the streets all night carrying baseball bats. There were rumored to be great stories told on this shift, but I never walked it as I wanted my sleep.
It was my first time to travel outside the United States, and many things were new. I kept thinking I recognized my fellow brigadistas, in the distance or in silhouette, only to find they were indeed Nicas. There was a welcome party where everyone, including small children and old people, danced together to Creedence Clearwater’s Born on the Bayou album on vinyl. (Creedence had been my first concert as a fifteen year old, in the era of those same songs.) Once an elder woman host put a meal aside for her son who was working. She simply put the food on the plate, pulled open a wide, empty drawer from a living room desk, slid it in and closed it shut–done!
One sight that took my breath away with its bizarre beauty was looking down the hole of an outhouse at night. In Nicaragua we used pieces of newspaper as toilet paper and perhaps for sanitary reasons we were to light the paper on fire before dropping it in. What I saw in the flicker of the charred newspaper swirling downward was the light’s beautiful, gold reflection playing off a seething wall of backs–shining, brown cockroaches lining the entire well. They were large, three inches or so, like the palmetto bugs in Florida. My artist friends on the brigade said it reminded them of something you would see as an art installation by Joseph Wolf.
I stayed in the home of a couple who had four children. They were somewhat better off than most, the wife owning her own hair salon, “Unisex”. Even so, they preferred to all sleep piled in the same bed, which freed up a child’s bunk for me. Their living room furniture consisted of a single decorative hammock draped across the room, into which they would also all climb together. It was lovely. It was the first time I had lived without mirrors.
I seemed to be popular among the young girls, and it turned out my name, “Wendy”– there is no Spanish translation for Gwendalyn–belonged to a beloved cartoon dog on television. As I walked through the streets, which were more like broad dirt roads, I would hear my name echoing from a chain of delighted little voices, “La Wendy! La Wendy!”.
Since taking high school Spanish where I’d learned very little, I had evidently invented many words that I believed to be authentic as I had attempted to drill myself by speaking Spanish in my head during the intervening 13 years. One of these was my transliteration for embarassed, for which the word, embarrasada, means pregnant in Spanish. I was actually pertubodo, perturbed, even more so by my mistake!
We were very taken with the feeling of romance for this country that had so recently found the strength to stand tall and liberate itself. Even my friend who was lesbian recounted being turned on by dancing with a young male soldier who kept whispering into her ear, “I kill Contra” (literally, “against”, as the U.S. puppet mercenary army was called). She asked him how it felt to kill them. He said it felt natural, that they were known for running away from battle while firing their weapons pointed backward over their shoulders. There didn’t seem to be a family who hadn’t lost someone in the war.
So here is where the story takes a turn. If you are offended by graphic adult information,please stop reading now. Skip to the next bold type and begin again.
Let me say that, at the time, for complex reasons, I did not respect the sanctity of physical union with another. I thought the whole idea to be a myth perpetrated by a controlling society, a myth I needed to dispel.
During our entry phase to the country we had been housed for several days at a compound where diplomats came to brief us about Nicaragua’s history, its economy, interim government, electoral system, and so on. The food there was not so great and one of the things they served us was a huge boiled plantain. Plantain is like a giant banana, except instead of tasting sweet it is starchy. Being a good sport I ate the whole tasteless thing and boy did it ever stop me up. For ten days after that I did not go to the bathroom at all. I had no access to anything that could relieve the situation, so I turned to desperate measures.
After the party where we danced to Creedence Clearwater the hostess had insisted that we all sleep over, all 15 of us. I got paired up with an extremely cute carpenter named Jack. The little boys called him “Zacks”. Already I had flirted with him, attempting a stunt to buy time to sleep in by crawling into his bed and posing as if we’d been lovers, hoping that the shock would intimidate the Responsible for waking us, but had only angered the fellow.
I knew that if I could get the energy in my lower body to loosen up somehow I would have relief. So, as quietly as possible in a room full of people, I proceeded to have sex with Jack in the pitch dark. Had I known him better I would have asked for an approach that would have addressed the issue more directly, but that was far too much to ask from a first date, much less in a fully populated room. The medicine did work, however, and I was very grateful for that.
Jack and I tried being together but the results were unsuccessful, so we soon called it quits.
Ok. Back to the normal narrative…..
One of the purposes of our visit was to observe the nation’s first election—ever. There were people lined up around the block at four a.m., little elder peasants (Nicaraguans tend to be very short) too excited to sleep. They had fifteen political parties with views that seemed to range from religious parties, to single issue conservatives, with workers parties on the far left. Everyone agreed the Sandinistas would win, which they did.
There were international observers invited to make sure that the election was conducted fairly and honestly. These were diplomats from around the world, and our brigade didn’t qualify to be part of this.
While we were there, Reagan was re-elected in the US. It was all of our worst nightmare. Within a day of the election, the White House launched a media campaign against Nicaragua called the MIG crisis, claiming that the country was in possession of high-tech Soviet MIG jet fighters, and, as such, a threat to US security.
The accusation was funny if you saw the level of technology that existed there at that time. Crop dusters was about as sophisticated as it got. I saw them dropping parachutists in the sky and thought something was going on, but it turned out that was the military dropping off soldiers to their homes.
The MIG crisis served to distract American attention from the internationally acclaimed election, and to put a huge scare into the Nicas (after all, the U.S. had invaded them about 100 times already–that never made it into my history courses!) Nicaraguan tanks stormed the streets of Managua at four in the morning in preparation for an attack.
Our brigade had a long and intense meeting to decide what to do in case of an American invasion. We knew we wouldn’t be effective at fighting, especially if we had to face countrymen of ours who couldn’t get civilian jobs. Our plan was to evacuate, but fortunately we didn’t need to as the situation quieted. The whole thing had only been to drown out the election.
Ok, here comes another adult part. If you object stop reading now and skip to the next bold type.
Ehrlin Davila Castillo was a young man from the barrio. Our paths would cross in the morning on my way to the construction site and he would look at me, pause and sigh with a flower in his hand over his heart. I would notice the safety pin holding his broken fly together and my heart would go out to him, but I never considered dating a native.
Somehow, near the end of our time, he managed to get through to my heart. I read his palm and saw that he had an extremely short life line, that he was to have very little time left on earth.
It happened at the final celebration for our brigade, a big surprise party with tables in the street, lights and lots of fresh crab. Ehrlin told me, “I must seem little to you.” And for whatever reason, reason having nothing to do with these things, I got to know him enough to fall in love that night. I took a walk with him where we became lovers out in the field. I did not foresee and was quite annoyed by a dog whom we could not chase away that kept trying to lick my mouth.
There was one thing amazing about the way Ehrlin made love to me.He was actually vibrating inside me, and it drove me crazy in a good way. Later on I compared notes with a woman engaged to a Nicaraguan and she confirmed this experience.
Back to the normal narrative….
Back in New York, I came very close to returning to Nicaragua to make a life with Ehrlin. Somehow providence prevented me. During the night before my flight at 5 a.m., I had a realization. I recognized the extent of my political ignorance. My brigade partners were ready to teach me history and a context for all I was committing my life to changing. So I stayed in Manhattan doing street theater and postering on behalf of Nicaragua’s freedom. (Our brigade group was electric. We’d come up with an idea and 24 hours later 1,000 copies would be wheatpasted all over Wall Street.)
It wasn’t until a year later that I discovered Ehrlin had been killed shortly after my departure, after writing a letter apologizing for “this very ugly thing”, asking for money. He and his uncle had gone out logging in the remote jungles to the east, where in isolation they like many other unarmed loggers and peasants became sitting ducks for the Contra.
Ehrlin’s gentle spirit stays with me to this day. I feel that he honors me and has never forgotten that I was his one great love in life.