In the late 1980’s, an unlikely series of events carried me to Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador to meet high-ranking political figures and rebel leaders. But, it was an unexpected encounter with an unknown woman in Managua during La Gritería that made the trip so memorable and changed the way I see the Advent season forever.
Back then, Ronald Reagan was the sitting president, the nuclear clock was ticking loudly, hemispheric relations were fraught with Cold War geopolitics, and the deployment of the state of Minnesota’s National Guard troops in central Honduras was part of a foreign policy that became a focal point for protest and debate. The state actually filed a lawsuit contesting the federal government’s authority to deploy the state militia overseas. Its significance is hard to grasp now, when our “weekend warriors” are an integral part of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it was a different military and a different time then.
Revolutionary governments in the region were thought to destabilize American interests, even potentially the Panama Canal. In Nicaragua, the revolutionary Sandinistas toppled Anastasio Samoza, the last of a dynastic dictatorship. In El Salvador, “the disappeared” was a terrifying coinage used to describe the thousands of people who were killed by death squads.
In the midst of this as a local news reporter for Minnesota Public Radio, I accompanied a group of attorneys and lawmakers on a trip intending to learn about the long history of human rights abuses in the region, an important piece of history this blog post can’t begin to retell, and explore the constitutional and legal safeguards of those rights.
We had an exhausting itinerary and were being received by the highest ranks of Central American governments. We met with then-president José Napoleón Duarte in the presidential palace in San Salvador. Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega came to meet with us in Managua.
These were, without exaggeration, dangerous times in Central America. As we rode from Sandino International Airport to the city of San Salvador, one of our guides nodded down a road where, a few years earlier, a Salvadoran death squad had murdered a group of church women. A couple days later we stood at the tomb of the assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero, all but enveloped by flowers and cards containing personal prayers and petitions from the faithful. …
Our visit occurred in early December, and we arrived in Nicaragua just before possibly the biggest religious holiday of the year. La Gritería falls on December 7th, the day before the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and for days leading up to the occasion, chant-like songs to the Virgin Mary are heard in every market, and on every radio.
To a gringa like me, the celebration seemed a cross between Christmas and Halloween: each home builds a small shrine to the Virgin Mary, and people go from door to door shouting, “Quien causa tanta allegria?” (“Who causes so much joy?”) As they hand out trinkets, candy, and sugar cane, those within answer, “La Concepcion de Maria! Que viva!” (“The conception of Mary! May she live!”) We spent the evening of La Gritería in Leone, and each of us stayed with a different host family in whose home we celebrated and later slept.
That night I leaned over a porch railing and watched at midnight as hundreds of fireworks and rockets, to my amazement, were joined by tracer bullets lazily drifting through the night air between where I stood and the middle distance.
But the memory that sparked all this reminiscence of a time so far gone by occurred in Managua, the capital city, before we got to Leone. We went to see a Moravian bishop from Bluefields, on the Miskito Coast where the indigenous people at one time clashed with the Sandinista government. His name has disappeared over time, along with all my notes from the trip but the image of him stays with me in this photo.
On my way into the church where we met the bishop, I heard the soft voices of children singing a familiar, dirge-like hymn to the Virgin, and followed the sound down the block to a small house, whose porch was lit by dozens of candles. As I lurked in the bushes and tried to capture the impromptu choir with my field tape recorder, I was found out and admonished by a woman who seemed to be in charge of the gathering. She led me up the steps and into the home where I found myself knee-deep in a sea of small children who continued to sing their simple, transporting song to Mary.
When they finished, the children swarmed at me, pressing me with sugar cane and oranges, which I politely and insistently refused, until, surrounded and becoming overwhelmed, they shouted at me sweetly in unison, “Take it! Take it!” as though I were deaf, or just too stupid to understand. “Take it! Take it!!” They persisted, as the woman held out the gifts to me. Finally, I accepted.
During this trip, we had spoken to the mothers of the disappeared in Salvador, going over massive binders full of pictures of mutilated bodies. We had sat at the feet of the Honduran Supreme Court explaining habeas corpus. We’d visited prisons and refugee camps. We’d been cordially trailed by the secret police. In a world so badly broken, so frightening and irredeemable, when you’re offered the feast of sweetness, of light, of the conception of new life, there’s no room for the merely cultured response. There is no option of polite refusal. When gifts like that are offered, it’s a miracle. And the very least you can do is to say yes in return.