Una despedida/A goodbye

I first set foot in Latin America when I was 19. An upper-middle class, western volunteer in Oaxaca, Mexico equipped with moderate Spanish skills and zero experience abroad.

As I entered my host family’s bathroom for the first time, I noticed something missing. Where I assumed there would be a shower was a hole in the cement floor. The bathroom window was slightly ajar— a green garden hose snaked through the window and settled in a white plastic bucket.

I proceeded to have a panic attack. Because I didn’t actually think I could make it through a summer without a hot shower.

This experience came back to me recently, as I was drifting to sleep underneath a mosquito net in San Juan de La Concepción, Nicaragua.

It's been more than a decade since that bathroom panic attack. And I realize what I felt in Mexico wasn’t culture shock. It was a realization that I am the beneficiary of a fundamentally unjust system -- the scale of which I still cannot totally comprehend.

I’ll return to my California home tomorrow, after two months in Nicaragua.

The lesson I’ll take home with me isn’t about gratitude for the riches of the United States — the hot showers, the reliable wi-fi, the ability to attain a comfortable job typing away on a heinously overpriced, silver laptop…

It’s about the debt those of us from Western nations owe to nations that have been oppressed for our benefit. It’s a particularly potent lesson for an American in Nicaragua.

I’ll wager that most Americans have a vague notion of the Contra War — it will remind you of some vaguely forgotten lesson about the Iran-Contra scandal — when the our government used proceeds from arms sales to Iran to fund a counter-revolutionary guerrilla war in Nicaragua. This effort was part of President Reagan’s efforts to contain communism around the world (paying no mind to the fact that the Nicaraguan government wasn’t actually communist).

The Contra War caused the deaths of at least 30,000 Nicaraguans, left countless more disabled and orphaned, all while crippling the nation’s economy. And it’s not the only time the United States has interfered in Nicaragua. A Tennessean named William Walker declared himself president of Nicaragua in 1856. His stated goal was to mold the Central American nation into a slave state for the United States. I’ll let the reader guess as to who would be among the enslaved.

Just a week or so ago, I had the opportunity to visit a reading enrichment program for Nicaraguan school children. The program, funded by a local business known as La Mariposa, provides reading and writing opportunities to children who make their home in a neighborhood derisively known as “El Chirigete” — a term that means ‘dirty’ and references the community’s poverty.

More than 100 children showed up for the opportunity to receive reading and writing lessons in a single room with a dirt floor. And I was reminded of a reporter's summation of the Contra War:

Today, as in generations past, Nicaragua is among the leaders of Latin America in much that is bad, from infant mortality to rates of preventable diseases to percent of families without access to electricity or running water. The intense attention that the world — and especially the United States — focused on Nicaragua during the 1980s. And the money that was poured into fueling the civil war, could have been used to help resolve these desperate conditions. Instead the outside world made them worse.
— Stephen Kinzer

So when I return to the United States, it’s not so much gratitude I’ll feel as it is guilt. Because I know that many times in my life I’ve walked into a store as arguably worthless as Sephora and blown enough money to sustain a Nicaraguan family for a week. I know that my often lazy, consumerist existence is only possible while people in nations like Nicaragua remain poor.

Nicaragua’s poverty, indeed, the poverty and violence afflicting much of Central America, is very much our problem. It is because of the historic exploitation of these countries that we remain so rich, and the global south so poor.

It's another one of those things that I don't have a particular solution for, other than doing my small part to alleviate some of the burden my ancestor created.

...So, uh, I guess I'll see you guys around the good 'ol U.S.A.