An Interview with Stephen Kinzer

Va Pue Magazine

514951During the Sandinista-Contras civil war in the 1980s, journalist and author Stephen Kinzer reported from the front lines for The New York Times. His experiences, observations, and analysis were published in his book Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua. Since then, his work has not only become an authoritative account of one of the nation’s darkest decades, but it also serves as essential reading for anyone looking to gain a better understanding of the nation as a whole.
In April, I had the privilege of speaking with Mr. Kinzer via Skype from my site in Nueva Guinea. The electricity was spotty the entire day, making me fear we’d have to reschedule. Fortunately, it held steady and we were able discuss his time here, how much Nicaragua has changed, and where it is heading.

Stephen Kinzer (SK): Hi, there! So where are you calling from?

Conor Sanchez (CS): Hello! I’m calling from Nueva Guinea.

SK: Wow!…

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Watching some soccer on a Sunday morning.

Are we playing basketball or soccer?

By Conor Sanchez

In a recent episode of his podcast Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell offers an analogy for how we should think about society. Basically, he says there are two kinds of people in this world: those who think we’re playing soccer and those who think we’re playing basketball.

In basketball, a winning strategy is to focus on one or two superstars instead of the weakest players. The reason being that one awesome player can conceivably carry the ball across the entire court to deliver more baskets for the team. In soccer, a better strategy is to focus on the weakest players to ensure the best player occasionally gets the ball and scores a goal. Even if your team has the greatest soccer player in the world, his or her success depends on the other players much more than it would if they were playing basketball.

Gladwell uses this analogy to criticize a trend in philanthropy that started when a man named Hank Rowan gave $100 million to a little-known university called Glassboro State College, which at the time was almost broke with just a little over $700,000 in its endowment. His actions inspired a wave of donations. From July 1992 until 2000, 20 gifts of $100 million were given out and as of spring 2016, 87 gifts of $100 million or more have been given to higher education. Sounds pretty great, right? The problem is that almost all of the other gifts after Rowan’s actions went to wealthy prestigious schools.

Gladwell’s viewpoint can be summed in his tweeted response to a billionaire’s decision to donate $400 million to Harvard University: “It came down to helping the poor or giving the world’s richest university $400 mil it doesn’t need. Wise choice John!”

As I was listening, I couldn’t help but think of my own experience here in rural Nicaragua, where I have worked in grassroots development for two years. Upon arrival I was given assignments to work at two different schools (a secondary school and a university). Although I was obligated to devote a a minimum number of hours to each school, I was left with ample time to allocate as I saw fit.

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My students in La Esperanza, a tiny community 15 kilometers from Nueva Guinea.

This was tough. How was I supposed to know where my extra time would be the most valuable? To borrow from economics theory, I wanted to avoid reaching the point of diminishing returns, where my increased presence yielded lower incremental per-unit returns, particularly if I could be devoting myself to areas where my increased presence would lead to higher incremental returns. In other words, where would I be most impactful?

For a while, I simply devoted my time to those that expected it most. My small rural school, located about 15 kilometers outside the city, practically rolled out the red carpet for me on the days I taught. I was the first foreigner to ever teach there and they seemed, frankly, grateful that I even showed up.

The university, on the other hand, always gave me the impression that I wasn’t there enough. At first, I thought, well, I understand; they have the strongest English department in the city. They have access to incredible resources, like the internet, computers, and books in English. The brightest and most motivated students attend their school. Why wouldn’t I devote all my free time here?

Overtime, the answer to that question became increasingly apparent. The school had more than enough to work with and improve upon. I was the third Peace Corps volunteer to work there in four years. They had over ten fluent, full-time English teachers. I was definitely helping, but again, the question of how much and relative to what kept coming up. With only so much free time to spare, one day I realized my time would be much better spent lending additional support to the places that don’t have access to as many resources as the university.

Gradually, I began to peel myself away. I started an after-school English Club at my rural school, where students asked permission from their parents to miss a few hours working on their family farm to learn a second language. At the same school, I developed and received a grant to build a library equipped with computers, a printer, and books in English and Spanish. I picked up a new teacher to work with at a different secondary school in the city. I helped my co-teachers find professional development opportunities and the resources necessary to afford them.

In time, I felt my level of productivity begin to rise. Looking back, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish these things if I had devoted all my spare time to the university. Undoubtedly, I would have other accomplishments to reflect on, however, I am not sure they would have been as impactful. I pivoted to begin working with teachers who, on the whole, taught a larger segment of the population, thereby amplifying the impact of my added presence in the classroom. There was also a huge disparity in the resources available to students who lived just 15 kilometers apart. Adding a library to their school will give them skills they wouldn’t otherwise get unless they could afford to go to college in the city.

Now, obviously, this isn’t a perfect example of what Gladwell was talking about in his podcast. The university in my city isn’t exactly comparable to a wealthy university in the United States. But there is a lesson learned here that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. That is, in philanthropic efforts, we shouldn’t ignore the weakest players on the team. Or another way to put it, we should find the least best player and help them get better.

We naturally gravitate towards our superstars, whether it’s in a classroom, a company, or a nation. And sometimes this works. Nurturing and empowering a leader with unique abilities and talents can have a trickle-down effect that helps the whole team succeed.

However, more often than not we tend to underestimate the effectiveness of the opposite strategy. That by giving additional attention and support to weaker players , whether it’s in the form of donations, tax dollars, tax breaks, or our time, we can help increase the competitiveness of the team as a whole. And what it comes down to, I believe, is whether you think we’re playing soccer or basketball.

I have to agree with Gladwell’s conclusion that, for the most part, we are playing a good old-fashioned game of soccer.

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Nicaraguan Cities And Their American Counterparts

By Conor Sanchez

In the nearly two years I’ve lived here, I’ve been lucky to see a lot of Nicaragua. In a place roughly the geographic size of Arkansas, you might not think that’s a big deal, but once you factor in the infrastructural challenges and the high costs of traveling (on a Peace Corps volunteer’s budget), it’s actually a big feat.

During trips to Nicaraguan cities, I can’t help but draw comparisons to cities I have traveled to in the United States. Something in its history, its climate, or in the way outsiders view it consistently reminds me of some place I’ve already visited. Relying on my familiarity with home, I started to make a list of places that I think match the characteristics of cities in the United States, and in doing so, I feel like I understand the country a little better. By drawing comparisons in how one part fits within the context of the whole, I start to see why a certain city gives off a particular vibe or garners a certain reputation.

Think about smaller social groups for a minute, such as an office or a sports team. Everyone has the funny guy, the outgoing one who organizes the parties, or the serious one that gets everyone back on track, etc. Likewise, every country has its economic powerhouse, its conservative culture, its alternative scene. Every country has cities with strong local identities and I’m obsessed with analyzing them, especially as I feel more and more acquainted with Nicaraguan culture. Whereas when I first arrived, every city seemed pretty similar to me, I now notice drastic differences from cities just a few miles from one another.

It made me wonder if a Nicaraguan reacts the same way when they visit the U.S. I like imagining what a Nicaraguan might feel like if they were plopped down in the middle of Nebraska, which would obviously give them a whole different perspective on the U.S. than if they were placed in Miami. Am I having as distinct of an experience living in Nueva Guinea – not in Managua or San Juan Del Sur?  In some respects, I’d say – yes – it’s that different.

In any case, below is the list I’ve come up with. I’m sure plenty will disagree and no doubt each of them requires some stretch of the imagination, but bear with me. I do give my reasoning, but mostly these are just based on gut feelings. I start with the city I live in – Nueva Guinea.

Nueva Guinea – Salt Lake City

IMG_2377Just a little over 50 years ago, Nueva Guinea was a thick rainforest with few inhabitants. Then, evangelical Christians from the north began to travel East looking for a place to settle where they could build an agricultural colony rooted in their faith. That place ended up being Nueva Guinea, which they originally dubbed “Luz en La Selva.” Today, evangelical Christianity remains the dominant religion here and it plays a big part in the city’s culture. The Israeli flag – which for them represents the land of God more than a Jewish sovereign nation – adorns hundreds of car windows and storefronts. Few people celebrate La Purísima, a catholic celebration that takes place in December. The catholic church on the south side of town was only built around ten years ago. This city’s history reminds me a lot of Salt Lake City, which was founded in 1847 by Brigham Young and other mormons traveling west in mid-19th century seeking a secluded area to safely practice their religion, far away from the violence and the persecution they experienced in the east. At that time, it was the Wild West. This time, it’s Nicaragua’s Wild East.

Leon – Boston

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These two cities are about the same age if you don’t count Leon’s original location, which was abandoned after the nearby volcano erupted. Both of them definitely have some of the strongest local identities I’ve ever encountered, to the point where you feel nervous rooting for any other sports team but their own. They have a fighting spirit that tells others, we are who are – deal with it. Both cities have the oldest (and perhaps the most prestigious) higher education institutions in their respective countries. Both served as the epicenters of their respective revolutions. If you want a textbook history of the U.S., go to Boston. The same goes for Leon if want to understand Nicaragua.

Granada – New York City

Granada Door 6What New York City is to Boston, Granada is Leon. The only difference is that the historical rivalry between Leon and Granada is a hundred years older (NYC was settled in 1624, while Granada was settled in 1524). Both cities are the number one most-visited places in their respective countries. You really can’t visit the U.S. without seeing New York. The same goes for Granada in terms of visiting Nicaragua. Granada also has some of the best restaurants in the country. After dining at one of them, you can go on a horse carriage ride in its central park.

Matagalpa – San Francisco
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The coldest winter I ever spent in Nicaragua was a week in Matagalpa during the summer. Just looking at Matagalpa conjures up images of San Francisco. It’s the only place I’ve actually worn a jacket here. It’s hilly. Walking around town, you’re bound to find yourself walking up an unfathomably steep road, where I hate to imagine what would happen to me if I was driving a car with a stick-shift. I would say it’s one of the more fachenta (a Nica word used to describe something fancy or flashy) places to live in Nicaragua, which also puts it in the same league as San Francisco. There aren’t any beat poets hanging around, but Carlos Fonseca, a Sandinista revolutionary and intellectual who was born there, kind of looks like one. In my opinion, it’s probably one of the most beautiful cities in Nicaragua, which also makes it a great companion to San Francisco.

Juigalpa – Fort Worth

IMG_2091Fort Worth is considered the most cowboy city in the United States. Aside from being stranded there after missing a connecting flight, I really have no idea if that’s true but I’ll take people at their word. I can say for sure, however, that Juigalpa is the most cowboy city in Nicaragua.  This is the heart of cattle country. If the department of Chontales were a U.S. state it would definitely be Texas. Arid, rugged, and full of independent-minded Nicaraguans, Juigalpa is a place that takes Hípico (a traditional horse parade that pretty much every major Nicaraguan city has) to a whole new level. On weekends, ranchers and farmers fill a steakhouse called La Hacienda and the city’s fiestas patronales features bull-riding, rodeos, and horseback games. Neither Fort Worth nor Juigalpa boast a ton of tourist traffic, which make them fairly authentic places – what you see is what you get.

Bluefields – New Orleans

New Orleans might be my favorite American city and Bluefields is my favorite Nicaraguan city, so it’s no wonder they remind me of each other. One is known for its spicy, singular cuisine reflecting its history as a melting pot of French, African and American cultures. The other is know as heart of Creole culture, famed for its distinct music, colorful dances and delicious food. Both cities feel a little forgotten about on the outside. Both have been hit hard by hurricanes that nearly wiped them off the map and certainly changed life forever for many of their residents (Bluefields with Mitch in 1998 and New Orleans with Katrina in 2005). Finally, although unique in their significance obviously, both cities host an annual city-wide celebration that send dancers and musicians through the city’s various neighborhoods.

Managua – Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

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Managua is the capital of Nicaragua and the seat of the nation’s government, which makes it an obvious counterpart to D.C. The president lives here. Laws get passed here (theoretically, in the case of D.C.).  It was chosen to be the capital as a compromise to avoid conflict between rival cities Granada and Leon, which isn’t unlike our decision to make D.C. the capital anticipating that southern politicians would resist placement too far north in New York or Philadelphia. What stops me from considering it a true D.C. counterpart is their lack of urban resemblance. Managua is a huge, sprawling mess of a city. Public transportation is terrible and reaching your destination on foot is almost impossible. Earthquakes occur often (one so violent it flattened the city in 1972). On the positive side, Managua has virtually everything – shopping malls, movie theaters, fancy grocery stores, theater, nightlife, parks, museums, and a strong economy. For all those reasons, I say it also compares with Los Angeles.

San Juan Del Sur – Las Vegas

Very little to explain here. San Juan Del Sur is party central. It’s pretty popular among backpackers, especially young Europeans traveling on their gap year. It also has great surfing. South of city you can see turtles hatch from eggs and crawl their way to sea. But mostly, you go here if you want to party.

Chinandega – Phoenix

It’s hot. It’s crazy hot. Outside of the fact that both these cities are known to be deadly hot, I’m not sure they really have much in common. One is known for resorts and golf courses, while the other is known for sugarcane production and a bus called Bus Pelon (bald bus) that gives tours of the city.

Bilwi – Bismark

In short, few people visit this place. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t!

Here’s a map so you can the geographic location of some of the aforementioned cities (and a few I didn’t write about):

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Six Ways I’ve Changed After 76 Days in Site

By Conor Sanchez

I’ve been in site for 76 days. Prince was still alive the last time I left Nueva Guinea. I turned a whole different age. The world was a younger planet and the fate of Jon Snow had not yet been realized.

Tomorrow I’m leaving and I’m prepared to encounter a world I hardly even recognize. What the world doesn’t know, however, is that I, too, have changed. Here’s how:

  • I used to think acclimating to the climate here would make me indifferent to air-conditioning. Instead, the reverse happened. A/C has become a luxurious amenity that I only get to enjoy when I pretend to have something to do at the Claro store on main street. I dream about it occasionally. I crave it especially around 2 pm when the sun is angriest. I’d go so far as to say that I would take an A/C over the latest iPhone. Yup, I said it.
  • I’m taking the LSAT next week, and I’m pretty sure a rave could be happening at the test center and I’d barely notice. That’s because Peace Corps provided me with nearly perfect study conditions. Roosters screaming outside, music blaring at the house next door, firecrackers randomly going off in the distance, and the man circling the neighborhood yelling, “I got popcorn and toilet paper! Popcorn and toilet paper!” are just a few of the things you hear as you try desperately to understand the reasoning error in a curator’s assertion that a “piece of artwork possesses aesthetic value if, and only if, there are people who see it and enjoy it.”
  • I can now trust my wife to handle any animal or insect crisis while she’s at home alone. Whenever I’m gone, for some reason that’s when all the creepy-crawly creatures of Nicaragua decide to come out. One day I got a call from her telling me a giant lizard called a basiliscus trapped itself in our roof, then dive-bombed from a hole in the ceiling to the floor, and ran to hide in our shower. Scorpions, roaches, and beetles the size of my hand have all stopped by to say hello while I’ve been away…under normal circumstances I wouldn’t be disappointed, but I kind of wanted to see that lizard.
  • I get really excited when the water returns. So excited that I usually sing this song when it’s back on.
  • I can hold the attention of 50 seventh graders for more than hour. Seriously, they actually listen and carry out some of the tasks I ask them to perform. Pretty sure this qualifies me to do anything.
  • Apparently, I thought the pink and blue shirt with an enlarged polo logo in the photo below would be an excellent choice to wear on my birthday. Yeah, we’ve been in site a little too long.

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Goodbye Summer, Hello Winter

By Conor Sanchez

June usually signifies the start of summer, getting outdoors, taking vacations, and enjoying warm weather. Here in Nicaragua, June is the start of winter, which means tons of rain followed by lots of mud and, most importantly, cooler temperatures.

Lucky for us, winter seems to have arrived a few weeks early and Michaela and I couldn’t be happier after experiencing some of the hottest months of our lives.

During most of March and April, the air was still, sticky, and sweltering. Without rain to wash out the skies, the air fills with a thick cloud of dust thrown up by all the cars and trucks rolling through town. We’d do most of our work in the morning, but by afternoon, you could do little more than sit inside your house with a fan blowing two inches from your face. Even then, you could feel the sweat running down the front of your shirt.

I tried everything to stay cool. Wetting my hair, taking a shower midday, putting my feet in a bucket of water. It got to the point where I actually looked forward to paying my electricity bill because it’s one of the few places with air-conditioning. The really surprising thing is just how tired it made me. A short walk to the store at 2 pm and I was spent for the next couple of hours; I returned home exhausted and tried to sit as still as possible so as not to overexert myself. Then, I’d go teach and get exhausted all over again.

Nights offered little reprieve, especially if the power went out (as it occasionally does). I’ll never forget the sound of our fan – perhaps our one saving grace in an otherwise scorching evening of sleep – turning off at around 11 pm only to be left with the sound of your own breath and of course the chicharras outside. We once tried to soak our bed sheet in water (a tip given to us by a foreign service officer in Managua from her time in India), but that just seemed to add to the humidity. Also, it just felt…weird. So, don’t do that if you’re super hot one night.

Likewise, I’ll never forget the relief felt when the power returned five hours later giving us at least a few hours of cooler temperatures and a deeper REM cycle. Until around 9 am, it was actually cool enough to think straight so I’d go over my lesson plan, write a bit, and study for the LSAT (which I’m taking in June). Then, I’d walk to class, arrive drenched in sweat, and get stared at for the next hour because for some insane reason, I’d be the only person sweating in the entire city.

But I don’t have to worry about that anymore. From here on out, we’ll get rain pretty much every day. This is a rainforest after all. Humidity will rise a bit and the afternoon can still cause you to break a sweat without even trying, but a fierce afternoon downpour can usually be expected to break the spell and bring the temperature down. After a while, the mold will build up in our closets and it’ll take our washed clothes a week to go from soaking wet to merely damp. My running shoes will see a lot more mud in their paths. And walking across town might take triple the amount of time if I forget my umbrella (which I often do) forcing me to take shelter under a tin awning outside some lady’s pulperia as the picture above exhibits.

But I’ll take that before I ever have to go through another dry season. Good riddance, summer! Hello, winter.

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Grant Approved, Ready to Rock N’ Roll

World Connect, a non-profit based in New York City that support grassroots development abroad, has approved a grant to help fund the project I’ve been working on with my counterpart teacher, Freddy.

The project is to develop a new library at the school we teach at, which will include books in Spanish and English, computers, a printer, and trainings for teachers and students on how to use and care for the new resources. It’s in a small town east of Nueva Guinea, called La Esperanza, where I’ve been co-teaching for more than a year.

In that time I have noticed that one of the biggest challenges teachers face is the lack of knowledge and informational resources. Teachers have to travel 15 kilometers to reach the nearest computer or the nearest library. As a result, students lack the resources necessary to help them prepare to compete in a global economy that increasingly demands workers who can communicate effectively, speak English, and use a computer.

No construction will be necessary; the library will occupy a room currently used for storage. We’ll install computers that can be used by students to conduct research for classroom assignments, practice English, and gain 21st century technological skills that will prepare them for university. The equipment would also be used by teachers to print materials, develop curriculum, and improve evaluations.

This project will be carried out in three stages:

  1. First, students will help raise $375 within their community. That’ll happen this month. Simultaneously, we’ll clear out the room currently being used for storage and begin making renovations.
  2. Then, we’ll purchase the new equipment. Teachers will be trained in using and maintaining computers.
  3. Last, students and teachers will help set up the library by organizing books, alphabetizing them, and creating a check-out system. By September or October, we should be able to implement a series of activities that teach students how to use the library and to encourage students to read for pleasure.

All of this will take place over the next six months (the remainder of our service). I’m thrilled to be able to inform parents and students this week about the good news. I’m super grateful to World Connect for granting us the funds necessary to carry it out.

If you’ve never heard of World Connect, check them out. They exemplify what sustainable, grassroots development should look like.

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The Nicaraguan Quinceañera

By Conor Sanchez

Across Latin America, it is traditional for girls turning 15 to have a fairly elaborate celebration with friends and family to mark the occasion, which for centuries, has signified the transition from childhood to womanhood. Here in Nicaragua, the celebration is known as a quinceañera (in some countries they call it a fiesta de quince).

Every country celebrates it a little differently, but the gist is this: at a banquet hall or restaurant, tables are set up for guests and decorated with table cloths and centerpieces. The girl turning 15, who wears a very large, elaborate, and brightly-colored dress, is escorted inside by her father and received by her mother and other family members on the other side of the room. Someone makes a toast or a priest gives a blessing, guests eat dinner, the daughter and father do a dance called El Balet.

In our time here, we’ve been lucky enough to attend two celebrations, one for a student of Michaela’s at the community center for English and another for a student of mine from the local high school. Both celebrations were very distinct from one another, but the flow of things were very similar.

At least in the town where I live, guests arrive much later than the official time given on the invitation. We learned this the hard way by showing up en punto once and having to sit at an empty table for an hour. At our second celebration, we showed up a bit late (meaning we were right on time!). We also knew a lot more of the guests, so we didn’t feel so out of place. The family usually sits at a long table at the front of the room facing out towards the guests. One or two of the tables is is usually filled with a raucous group of chavalos and chavalas (teenagers).

During the fiesta, someone usually gives a toast, but the last one we attended actually had a fairly religious component to it, including a short prayer from a priest and a blessing. Supposedly this is a recent development in some countries as less and less families regard it as a true transition into adulthood.

In any case, a brief timeline of the girl’s life is given, listing her milestones and accomplishments up until this point. They talk about her growing responsibilities as she grows older and what she hopes to accomplish in the future.

Then, the chicheros begin playing (a traditional Nicaraguan brass and percussionist band that shows up for all types of events). Then, the soft drinks come out, including Fanta or Coca-Cola. Then you eat some grilled chicken with rice and beans. And then dancing. By 9pm things have settled down and it’s time to go home.

It’s an enormous rite of passage for girls, not unlike a bat-mitzvah or a confirmation in the United States, but it’s actually quite rare in my town for girls to have a huge quinceañera party. Many of them opt to have a small quite celebration with family in their homes.

In Managua and other cities that have a lot of wealth, I’ve heard they are much more common and girls even have an entourage of male and female escorts (more typical of Mexican quinceañeras). In Nueva Guinea, throwing a party that big requires a lot of money, which most people don’t have. Even if you do, it’s considered a little fachenta to host one (fachenta means showy or ostentatious), so some families opt out.

In any case, it’s still far more common to hear about quinceañeras than weddings. In fact, in my time here, I haven’t known a single person to get married. Even my counterpart, who is expecting his first child in December is not getting married, although he’s committed to his partner and plans to move in with her soon. Overall, I think there’s a lot of distrust toward the institution of marriage in my town. People think it does little to keep families together and that it’s just as likely for them to break up regardless of what vows are made. This really surprised me. I guess I expected the opposite for some reason.

Instead, the biggest milestone celebration you’ll see, if you see one at all, is the quinceañera. And we’re happy have witnessed two of them.

It definitely gives us some ideas for Michaela’s doble-quince in July!

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How To Teach About Gringolandia

By Conor Sanchez

“Profe, nos diga algo de gringolandia,” my students call out during class. “¿Es tuani?”

At least once or twice a week, I’m asked this question from students in class who want me to tell them something, anything, about what the United States, or as they like to called it – gringolandia, is like. Most of all, they want to know if it is indeed tuani (cool).

Impressions of the United States are all too often funneled through various distorting lenses such as television, movies, the Internet, and what national leaders say about America. As is always the case when information is limited to these four mediums, impressions tend to be a bit exaggerated. America is blonde-haired, blue-eyed. Everybody is rich. Everybody has a good job. Everyone is basking in the good life. Americans are ruthless capitalists. Guns are rampant.

Occasionally, there are some really bizarre questions like, is the Colorado River actually green?  Why hasn’t Ronald Reagan given us the money he promised? Do people love Michael Bolton’s music as much as they love it here? The hyperbole, the half-truths, and the flat-out falsehoods are not entirely surprising since few tourists ever visit my town. For the most part, foreigners are either Christian missionaries, NGO workers, or Peace Corps Volunteers like Michaela and I (there are presently a total five of us here).

Few people, in my community have ever talked to an actual American, which puts a lot of weight on my shoulders as one of the official gringos in town. To play the part, I’ve often considered sporting an Elvis costume and running up and down the main street waving an American flag, yelling, “U-S-A, U-S-A!” Might as well give in to the loud, obnoxious stereotype we’ve given ourselves, right?

Seriously, though – explaining America is tough. Where does one begin when asked, “What’s America like?” Do I talk about the things I love most (red and green chile, national parks, running culture) or things I know others love but that I know little about (Nascar, grits, snowmobiling)? Do I show them pictures of Hollywood, which they’ll surely recognize, or do I show them pictures of Santo Domingo Pueblo, which they’ve never seen and might challenge their notions of who is American and what their communities look like?

It’s never an easy task, but overtime, I’ve learned to do a little of both. I engage students with things they already know, but then I introduce seemingly contradictory or surprising ideas. As an English teacher, it’s pretty easy to do this since I’m often expected to give students some context to the language they’re learning. And because the idea is ultimately for them to hold a conversation with a native English speaker, I hope they’ll appreciate knowing what questions to ask or, if nothing else, not to assume Americans always act the way they do on television.

What I’ve learned to do: 

  • Raise Awareness About American Diversity – I want my students to see America for the salad bowl that it is. Too many people are surprised to hear my last name is Sanchez. Too many people ask if my site-mate is from Japan. Too many assume we’re all Christian. To understand America, you have understand that its culture has been shaped and formed by the people who inhabit it, and that is always fluctuating.

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    A dialogue I made for my class between a fictional American and a fictional Nicaraguan.

  • Represent Underrepresented Regions – Most people know about big states like California, Texas, and New York. Few know about New Mexico, Iowa, or Rhode Island. I also try to differentiate between cities and states. Sometimes students of mine ask if Miami is a state, since it contains one of the biggest diasporas of Nicaraguans. I think giving them a better geographic sense of the country will inevitably help them understand the country as a whole, instead of relying on the points of reference they get from relatives or popular media.

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    A jeopardy game we played with university students studying to be English teachers during a presentation we gave about how to teach American culture.

  • Dispel the Notion that Everyone is Rich – While even low-income Americans tend to enjoy a standard of living higher than those in some low-income countries, many Americans face daily struggles that are comparable. In fact, a recent study by the New York Times showed the certain Americans have life expectancies equal to some of the poorest countries in the world. To teach students about this, I talk about the different debates happening in the elections right now. As always, wealth disparity and social mobility are always hot topics.
  • Explain What Americans Could Find Offensive– In my community, it’s common to hear people refer to someone by their skin tone or nationality, whether it’s el moreno (the brown guy), la chelita (the little white girl), or el gringo (the American dude). As far as I can tell, there is no negative connotation to these terms. They use it with close friends, colleagues, and with me. These terms, however, are obviously abrasive and off-putting to an American. You can imagine what would happen if you walked down the street yelling at people, “Hey white guy!” or “What’s up, brown man?” Nevertheless, my students ask me why Americans seem to bristle when they hear it. I find it suffice to tell students that in the U.S., racial tension is alive and well. In such a diverse society, we’ve learned to get along by respecting each other’s differences. Being called out by your ethnicity in public like that can feel objectifying and is therefore considered disrespectful.

What I Know Not To Do:

  • Assume Behavior in the U.S. is Culturally Appropriate Here – I learned this the hard way a few weeks ago during an outing I helped facilitate with university students. I planned a scavenger hunt for students, which included getting a photo with someone giving bunny-ears to one of the teachers. Turns out bunny ears don’t have the same childish, goofy meaning that they have in the United States. Here, by putting two fingers behind someone’s head, you’re placing horns on them and signifying that their spouse is cheating. Yes, I was that guy. At least they learned something about America, right? Lesson for next time: run your activity by someone before doing it.
  • Assume People Want to Learn About American Culture – Some people might not care to learn about American culture, and that’s perfectly fine. I mean, obviously, I wish they did because I love my country and love talking about it, but if someone doesn’t care about learning about it, I’m not going to force it upon them. (For the record, I haven’t met anyone who told me they’re uninterested in learning about my culture, but if that happens, I won’t be hurt).
  • Compare Our Systems and Share My Opinion – Nicaragua and the United States have very different forms of government and a different philosophical approach to democracy altogether. In my classes, I never draw comparisons, much less share an opinion. Why? My job here is at the invitation of the government of Nicaragua and we’re not here to meddle in politics. We want to avoid even the slightest perception of political involvement.

Fortunately, I’m happy to say that I rarely face anti-Americanism. The overwhelming view is positive, especially among young people. A poll in 2014 by the Pew Research Center found that 71% of Nicaraguans held a favorable opinion of the U.S. I honestly can’t trust how accurate that poll was, but I can safely say that, at least in my experience living and working here, people really like the U.S. and I enjoy being to able to share more about our culture with the people I encounter on a daily basis.

Now, if I could only get my students to ask me that first question in English.

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Summer Time in Nicaragua

By Conor Sanchez

As most Americans welcome the first few signs of spring, here in Nicaragua, we are heading into the dog days of summer, which means things are about to get real hot.

Fortunately, Semana Santa arrives just in time for folks to get some respite from rising temperatures by granting them time off to head to nearby beaches and rivers. Michaela and I were very happy to have the week off from school, which we used to explore our community by accompanying friends to their farms and water escapes.

First, we headed to Michaela’s counterpart’s farm, which is about an hour and a half outside Nueva Guinea. After a hot and very bumpy ride in the back of a pick-up truck, we finally made it to the grounds, where the family has a facility that includes a pool, a kitchen, and a cabanas for shade. We rode horses, spotted monkeys in the trees, and lounged by the pool, which they fill using water from a nearby river.

We also learned to make hornadas (baked goods) like rosquillas, abuelitas, and torta de leche. I watched how cuajada ahumada (a traditional type of cheese eaten with just about every plate of gallopinto) is dried out and smoked above a fireplace as it hangs from a contraption called a tapesco. Some people prefer the cheese unsmoked, which makes it cuajada fresca.

The following day we went to a river in Rio Plata with another counterpart teacher and her family. Fortunately we arrived early in the morning before the crowds got there and were able to lazily float down the tranquilo river on inner-tubes. Later in the week we joined our neighbors and went to Salto Esperanza, a popular waterfall about 15 kilometers outside Nueva Guinea, where we were barely able to find a spot to picnic amongst the hundreds of families that had flocked there earlier in the day. Using the face of our old air-fan, we grilled some chicken and pork and heated up yuca to go along with it. We bypassed the chinamo where a much rowdier bunch spent the afternoon dancing under a fairly rickety canopy.

The rest of the week was spent catching up on work and passing time with our neighbors, who are pretty much a host-family to us. We went to a quinceñera of a friend’s daughter, which was very fun. It’s always interesting to see how different these celebrations can be from one another. Overall, it was a nice break before we head back to work tomorrow.

Two great things that came out of this week: first, we now know a few more places where we can keep cool this summer (especially in April when this place turns into a furnace) and second, I now have a posed picture of me riding a mule. See below as I scratch this one off my before-I-turn-30 list.

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A History of U.S. Intervention in Nicaragua

By Conor Sanchez

Most Americans remember Nicaragua from the nineteen-eighties, when this small Central American nation became a staging ground for the global ideological struggle being waged between two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. By supplying covert funds to an armed resistance intent on toppling the leftist Sandinista government, the United States helped sustain a very bloody civil war. The resistance fighters, known as the Contras, were mostly former national guardsmen who served under the American-backed Somoza regime until the Sandinistas took him out in 1979.

What Nicaragua was actually like or what its people really wanted was of very little concern to those in charge. In his book Blood of Brothers, Stephen Kinzer describes how William Casey, CIA director at the time, couldn’t even pronounce the word Nicaragua (the best he could muster was “Nicawawa”). During a congressional committee meeting, one staff aide reportedly told Casey, “You can’t overthrow the government of a country whose name you can’t pronounce!” But that didn’t matter to Casey, nor did it matter to President Reagan, who were primarily concentrated on defeating yet another Latin American group that had aligned itself with Marxist ideology to gain power.

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William Walker

This wasn’t the first time Americans interfered with domestic affairs. That would be William Walker, an eccentric Tennessee-born racist, who described himself as an instrument of divine justice and some how got it into his head that he was meant to “liberate” Spanish-speaking people by granting them a white leader. In 1856, with a team of 48 men called the “Immortals” Walker led a four-month campaign through western Nicaragua until he captured Granada. Within a year, he capitalized on his popularity among Nicaraguan liberals (who thought he might usher in an era of democratic idealism similar to what was espoused by the United States’ founding fathers) by announcing his candidacy for presidency. At 33 years old he became president of Nicaragua, establishing English as the official language and reinstating slavery. Unsurprisingly, most Central Americans thought this was really weird and before long, they decided to get the foreigner out. Joined by soldiers from Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, an armed force finally attacked Granada and Walker fled, leaving the city in flames. About four years later he was executed by a firing squad in Honduras.

Walker was part of a growing movement in the United States called filibusterism – an offshoot of manifest destiny, which saw the entire continent of North America as a place waiting to be explored and conquered. While technically illegal, filibustering operations in the late 1840s and early 1850s were romanticized in the United States. The Democratic Party actually endorsed William Walker’s filibustering in Nicaragua and wealthy American expansionists often financed expeditions based out of New Orleans, New York, and San Francisco. It was also around this time when the United States began to operate more and more under the so-called “Monroe Doctrine,” which viewed efforts by European interference with countries in the Western Hemisphere as acts of aggression against the United States. Somehow, the doctrine came to be interpreted as the United States could do whatever it pleased in Latin America, especially after President Theodore Roosevelt intervened to end a blockade imposed by several European nations against Venezuela in 1902. His actions took the Monroe Doctrine a step further by justifying such interventions in what became known as the “Roosevelt Corollary.” Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua would all fall victims to this misguided policy.

After the Walker-affair, interference took a brief pause, but by the turn of the century, it was apparent that Nicaragua was increasingly out of step with America’s growing influence over the region. In 1909, President Taft decided President José Santos Zelaya López (perhaps the country’s first stalwart nationalist) wasn’t being friendly enough toward U.S. business interests in the country and ostensibly forced his resignation. After whiffs of growing resistance, U.S. Marines invaded in 1912 and occupied the country for the next 21 years, inspiring a schoolteacher named Benjamín Zeledón to form a military regiment to fight the gringos. After he was killed, a mineworker named Augusto César Sandino took the baton by leading a six-year campaign against the Marines, igniting what would become one of the most symbolic and legendary fights between the Latino world and the United States. This David-versus-Goliath struggle would reach epic proportions, even resulting in the Western Hemisphere’s first military bombardment from the air in a small mountain village called Ocotal, until President Herbert Hoover eventually decided to pull troops out in 1933.

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Augusto César Sandino

It is difficult to overstate the enormous role Sandino’s resistance towards a world superpower played and continues to play on the Nicaraguan psyche – or for all Latinos for that matter. Before there was a Fidel or a Che – there was Sandino. He accused the United States of imperialism, who in turn called him a “bandit.” He became a hero to many Latin Americans precisely because he stood up to the United States and (in a way) called them out on the hypocrisy of the Roosevelt Corollary, which claimed to intervene in the interest of limiting European influence, but instead merely served to protect U.S. business interests by justifying military action to install ruthless dictators who were obedient to U.S. policy.

In the eyes of Nicaraguans, Sandino had single-handedly kicked out the gringos. The truth probably had more to do with the Great Depression and the fact that the United States government couldn’t afford foreign adventurism anymore, however, policy toward Latin America did indeed begin to shift in a significant way after troops were pulled out. The Roosevelt Corollary was replaced with President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy,” which not only wanted Latin Americans to think better of Americans but also wanted Americans to think better of Latin Americans. The idea was to facilitate more trade partners as Europe spiraled into war. FDR even enlisted Hollywood to help by getting them to produce movies and hire actors that depicted Latin Americans in a good light (and helped create some long-lasting stereotypes of Latinos that we still see today).

After 1945, this warm and fuzzy attitude toward Latin America changed when Europe became our trade partners again and the Cold War started. The United States needed friends who were willing to stand up to communism, which once again meant they were willing to tolerate brutal dictatorships if it meant they would suppress communist movements within their borders. In Nicaragua, a man named Anastasio Somoza García had taken control of the country (he had also assassinated Sandino) and turned out to be just the man for the job. FDR (or Truman – it’s unclear who) was once quoted in reference to Somoza, “[He] may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Other books I’ve read say he was referring to Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, but the fact still remains; we tolerated his regime despite some grisly human rights abuses. The Somoza family would go on to dominate Nicaragua for the next three decades ending with the removal of his son Anastasio Somoza Debayle at the hands of the Sandinistas (FSLN) in 1979. Today, the Sandinistas, the socialist political party we tried to overthrow, are still in power.

Fortunately, relations between Latin America and the U.S. have changed dramatically and we are even seeing warming relations between countries that used to be considered foes. The change is evident here in Nicaragua. In fact, to a millennial like me who wasn’t even around throughout most of the Contra War, it wouldn’t be something I knew much about unless I read about it. It doesn’t come up in conversation often. It’s certainly not on the news. People don’t look at me suspiciously or think I secretly work for the CIA. To the contrary, Nicaraguans are super warm and welcoming to Americans. Young people talk to me about the Internet, learning English, and how they can attract more tourists to their communities. Likewise, there are now an abundance of intercultural-exchange programs being offered by the U.S. government, including opportunities for low-income students to learn English, professional development programs for high school teachers to study in the U.S., and, of course, the chance to work with Peace Corps volunteers like me!

But I wouldn’t say its forgotten history. Political rhetoric here still harks back to the days of Sandino and the “yanqui, enemy of mankind” (lyrics from the Sandinista anthem). To me, Nicaragua represents a micro-example of how the U.S. treated parts of of Latin America throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries. The dictatorships we tacitly (or sometimes explicitly) condoned, the revolutions they inspired, and the brute force we exercised demonstrated why these policies were shortsighted. It is reassuring to see that this has changed and hopefully what’s in our past can stay there.

We may not have been the “good neighbors” FDR had hoped we’d be during the last century, but things are looking good this time around.