I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to return to the village of Parsila, where I stayed during the 2008 delegation. This time, I was placed with a family more currently active in the UNAG — Jacinta Torres and her husband Ernesto. They have three adult children, all married with children of their own. Her two sons visited quite a bit, but I never met her daughter, who was living in Estel with an apparently abusive spouse. I spent most of my time helping Jacinta with housework — cooking, making tortillas, carrying water from the well, washing clothes in the river, etc. — visiting neighbors who I had known on my last visit, playing with children and listening to people's life stories. It was very moving to be able to rekindle the relationships I had started in Parsila two years ago and gain a deeper understanding of the region's problems. Parsila is one of the driest and poorest communities in Limay, and the diet includes almost no fruits or vegetables because they are so difficult to grow. It was frightening to see how things had worsened in the past two years. The river I had once swam in has almost entirely dried up, due to El Niño and climate change in general. More men have left their families to work in Costa Rica or the US. Many farmers lost their crops this year and are scrambling to make ends meet. What hasn't changed is the warmth, hospitality and resilience of the community. I saw how the loans have helped women own their own land, achieve food stability and improve their self-esteem and I was continually impressed with the UNAG's ability to respond the needs of its members and creatively respond to the problems of each region. I became very close with many of the matriarchs of Parsila and hope that I can fulfill my promise of visiting them again someday.
For ten days, I lived in Pedernal with Doña Bertha, her sister Darling, her husband Antonio, and their three teenage daughters Haydi, Carla, and Yerling. Bertha, the Vice-President of the UNAG in San Juan de Limay, was just one of the many UNAG members in Pedernal. When Bertha took me around to talk with her neighbors, they all emphasized the importance of the micro-loans, pointing to their eggs, livestock and land, which they couldn't have gotten without the loans. Despite these gains, the people in Pedernal have very little food variety, eating only tortillas, beans, rice and occasionally eggs, with no access to the fresh produce that other communities had the ability to grow. They also are victims of the current drought, and the river where they get much of their water is running lower than ever. Besides helping make tortillas and eating with the family, I spent my time with Bertha's outgoing and adventurous daughters, washing clothes and bathing in the river, teaching them English, and attending Evangelical church for the first time in my life—6 times in 10 days! While the people in Pedernal are extremely limited by lack of resources, I was overwhelmed by their generosity and drive to expand beyond the confines of the campo. All of the daughters bike every day to the closest town to attend high school; Haydi, the oldest daughter, wants to become a doctor; and Bertha is taking veterinary classes on Saturdays. Furthermore, Bertha's leadership within her community was astounding: she is not only the Vice-President of the UNAG in her area, but also registers all the youth in the community for school, spends every morning running a day-care facility, takes care of her entire family and disabled sister, and does it all with a warm, loving attitude. In such an impoverished community, Bertha exemplifies an empowered woman who has broken out of the traditionally patriarchal system and used the UNAG to become a leader in her community, helping those around her achieve a better life.
I stayed in the community of San Antonio with Maribel Espinoza, her husband Juan, and their five children. Their home is surrounded by orange, mango, avocado and pear trees that thrive on San Antonio's comparatively decent supply of water. The relatively adequate water supply allowed the family to rely on a gravity-fed tank, or pila, for watering, washing, and drinking. Both the fruit trees and the pila were bought with micro-loans from the UNAG. Having a semi-reliable source of water saves them daily treks to the river—a real convenience because each day is already so full. Every morning Maribel and her 16-year-old daughter Ligia wake up with the sun and start making the day's tortillas. After a few days I was able to get up early enough to help (or at least to try—my tortilla-making skills still need some work). While Juan, Luis, and Julio were out working the fields of corn, beans and sorghum, I stayed at home with Maribel, Ligia, and Mayra. During the day we worked around the house cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, washing dishes, looking after baby Belén and taking care of other household chores. At night the kids and their cousins would gather on a bench outside to play Old Maid until the light from the oil lamp dwindled. During the school year only Ligia and Mayra attend classes; the boys are all needed to help in the fields. In addition to attending high school in the city of Limay, Ligia teaches classes in San Antonio. Without her, the tiny elementary school would end at fourth grade and her younger sister would not be able to continue going to school. The only teenager from the community who attends high school, Ligia works so hard for her education and hopes to go to college someday. I continue to be inspired by her determination and will never forget my generous, loving host family in the campo.
I stayed in a small community called El Zapote with Noél, the president of the UNAG in Limay, his wife Arely, and their young son Kendal. For the first couple days after I arrived, I felt shy and uncertain about what my role should be. Noél went out during the day, either on horseback to care for his cattle, or by motorcycle to attend to UNAG business in surrounding communities. Arely stayed home to take care of numerous chores: preparing all the meals, washing clothes on a rock in front of the house, sweeping, looking after the chickens, and keeping an eye on her energetic son. She was also in charge of managing the family's small store. The family bought their own dry goods in bulk and sold the excess to their neighbors, providing the only store for miles around. I gradually settled into a daily routine in the community: rising before seven to help grind corn and learning to make tortillas with Arely, and spending much of the day visiting with neighbors. The conversations I had with Noél's family and neighbors were the most valuable part of my experience. I heard harrowing stories of people who had escaped the Contra War, but had seen their family members murdered. I also heard inspiring accounts of how the UNAG has helped so many people improve their lives, through loans and workshops. (Noél and Arely were able to buy the land they now own and subsist on through a series of micro-loans from the UNAG.) At every house I visited, I was met with unbelievable generosity and kindness, and after long conversations, I was often sent home with a bag of oranges or baby corn. I am amazed and thankful that I was able to create such deep connections with people after such a short time and coming from such different backgrounds. The homestay experience solidified my commitment to do all I can to help the people of Nicaragua.
This January a group of 5 students went to visit OSCA’s sister organization in San Juan de Limay, Nicaragua (run by UNAG, the National Union of Agriculturalists and Ranchers). By visiting we hoped to strengthen the relationship we have had with UNAG since 1993, and to create a stronger sense of solidarity. We went to experience Nicaraguan culture first-hand while assessing the sustainability of our loan program and its accessibility to the women in the area. We also hoped to investigate widening the fund to offer various types of loans for its members. By visiting the organization and seeing how the UNAG works up-close, our group was able to forge strong and lasting relationships with people who have been directly affected by OSCA.
Our group had a variety of goals, many of which followed up on goals from the 2006 delegation. We wanted to get a general idea of how the UNAG functioned, and to develop a relationship between UNAG and OSCA that was not one-sided. To do this, we planned to spend time with people and talk, and to provide any help asked for by the community. We also wanted to learn about the history and current political and social issues in Nicaragua, how those related to the US, and how they are manifested within the UNAG. To achieve this, we met with groups throughout our time in Nicaragua and informally interviewed leaders and community members throughout our stays. Finally, we wanted to closely evaluate the micro-loan program, including whether or not it is approaching a sustainable level, and we planned to examine the status of the Educational Loan fund that was going to start in 2006 but whose progress was delayed (and now deemed unnecessary through the new open fund). We also wanted to investigate where else within the UNAG OSCA’s money could be used. We were successfully able to address all of our goals and to evaluate many aspects of our relationship with the UNAG in San Juan de Limay.
My host stay was the most powerful part of my experience on the delegation. I stayed with the extended family of Noel, the president of the San Juan de Limay chapter of UNAG-Estelí. The family I stayed with had a total of 13 people living in the house, which was in located in the small town of Comayagua, only accessible by truck, horse, or foot along a dirt road an hours walk from the nearest major road. My home stay exposed me to the daily realities of life for the small farmers and their families that are members of UNAG. On a daily level they are so isolated from the larger world yet at the same time they are very much aware of the massive impact that the international community can have on their world. Their lives are so intertwined with each other and many of them could not imagine living away from those they love. Life in Comayagua moves at a different pace, as the day starts at 4:00 AM for the women as they begin to make tortillas for breakfast and doesn’t finish until 9:00 PM when they put their children to bed. The lack of variety in people’s lives is what left the largest impact upon me, as they perform the same exacting chores every day and enforced my belief that small organizations such as UNAG can make a difference in these communities by helping people improve their lives little by little.
I was placed in a village called Parcila a few kilometers off the main road, with former UNAG leader Juana Ordoñez and her family. After several days of talking with the townspeople, it finally dawned on me that the whole village was essentially a permanent refugee camp for families that lost their homes and farms during Hurricane Mitch in 1998, making it the most destitute of all the homestays. There were no men in my family and few in Parcila—they had either all been killed by the Contra War or were working abroad in the U.S. or in Costa Rica. My family had three young girls who I spent a lot of time playing with, as it was their summer vacation and they were often bored. I helped in the kitchen and with the family’s milk cows, and also put in many hours painting the town’s schoolhouse. I found that the women in Parcila feel cut off and abandoned by the UNAG, and want better communication and involvement in its workings. They blame their local leader for not passing on relevant information when she receives it, but culturally don’t want to confront her about it. I related their problems to the UNAG leaders in Limay, who thanked me for bringing Parcila to their attention and promised to look into it and help re-integrate them into the greater community.
I spent a week living with Maribel Espinoza and her family in San Antonio. San Antonio is a scattered community about 15 minutes walking off the main road to San Juan de Limay (about an hour and half in bus to Limay). Maribel (32) is the coordinator of the Women’s Sector in San Antonio, which has 12 members. Maribel and her husband, Juan (39), have four children and live in a house next to Juan’s father and sister. Both households have beautiful fruit trees planted all around the house. They have chickens, ducks, guinea hens, geese, and turkeys as well as a dozen or so cattle and two horses. Across from the house, Juan and Maribel have a tilapia tank (for fish), and fields with yucca and camote (two types of tubers) and some basic vegetables and herbs. The majority of their cattle and livestock were purchased through loans from UNAG. Down the road from the house is the large stream, which dips off into a large waterfall. Further up the road is the community of Cacahuatl, which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Mitch in 1998. We met doña Paola, whose house has only two walls, and has yet to be completed still 10 years after the storm. My time with Maribel was mostly spent hanging around the house and helping her with whatever she was doing. Juan and his sons (on summer vacation) leave every morning to work in the sorghum, corn, and bean fields farther up the mountain. Maribel and her daughters stay home, making tortillas, painting the stove, washing dishes, milking the cows and making cuajada (a soft, salty cheese). The heaviness and challenges of having no other alternative made a big impact on me. I came to hate being in that beautiful kitchen! Some of the best times were playing with the kids, though the boys are very cautious and nervous around foreigners. Maribel enjoyed my company, however, and having someone close by to talk to. It was wonderful to spend time with this small family and understand their life and share daily moments with them, from bathing in the stream to climbing trees to gather sweet limes.
I stayed with the Vice-President of the UNAG in San Juan de Limay, Bertha, who lives in the small community of Pedernal. Pedernal has about 250 people, and about 50 of them are members, which is to say almost every single woman was a member of the UNAG. Thus, the evidence of the loans was clear, as the women would have horticulture in their backyard gardens, or chickens scrambling in their porches, or pigs snuffling and looking for scraps—and everyone appeared to have enough food to feed their families. I absolutely loved my host family, and was really surprised at Bertha’s mobility—she would routinely leave her house to travel with me to other communities, to meet other organizations or leader, to see her land, or simply to visit among the women in Pedernal. This was a stark contrast to the majority of women I met who, due to the expectations of rural women, stayed in their houses for most of the day cooking and cleaning. Bertha’s mobility was due in large part to her three fabulous teenage daughters, who would often stay at home to cook tortillas, get water from the well, wash clothes and maíz in the river, and clean the house while Bertha traveled for her work as vice-president. Bertha’s husband, Antonio, was also very supportive of her independent role. One thing that really struck me in Pedernal was the closeness of the community—everyone was related in some way, and knew absolutely everything about each other. This meant that a lot of time was spent just sitting and talking, as there were very few activities in the community, especially for the young people, and especially for young women who often did not play sports or go out to work their parents land like the young men in Pedernal. This meant that I spent lots of time hanging out at the river with my host sisters, going to Evangelical church with them, or walking around with them completing their daily chores. I was instantly grateful for the huge hospitality of my family—accepting me as one of them from the very beginning and allowing me to fit in to the daily fabric of rural life in San Juan de Limay.
I stayed with Carmen Baldivia, the leader of a group of 30 affiliated women in Mateare, a community built along the road that goes to Limay. Carmen proposed last year to the UNAG to be the leader of this new group in addition to the « older » group of 40 affiliated women. All the discusssions I had with affiliated members during this week gave me a very positive image of the UNAG. The women who came to the house were proud to tell me that they were affiliated and often proposed me to stop by at their house to show me their new well or horticulture funded by the UNAG. I stayed at Carmen's house but I was living most of the time with her sister-in-law, Miriam, and her family. She told me about how much she learned from UNAG trainings. After each meeting she shares what she learned with her husband who is not affiliated. Carmen also told me that these trainings were helping her to learn how to do horticulture by herself, since her husband left to Miami last year.
This week spent with the family was absolutely essential for my understanding of our project. Living with them allowed me to better understand their daily life and helped me to realize the huge impact even a small loan can have on their life. The lack of opportunities people have to improve their standard of living is very striking. Women are working at home, starting at 5am making tortillas, getting water from the well, washing clothes, cooking...and everyday seems to look exactly the same. Many men are leaving to Costa Rica or the United States to find a job, as there is absolutely no employment in Limay. Children are helping as much as they can but have nothing to do all day. Two out of the three children in my host family had left the school around 13 years old and didn't know how to read. My host family's fascination for the US and their awareness of their isolated situation, that they sometimes seemed to consider as a fate, leaves a big impact on me. I had an amazing experience and I learned a lot from them.