Looking back on the revolution that shaped her life, Graciela Morales Castillo is wistful yet clear-eyed.
“Now that I am an adult and a mother and have a twelve-year-old daughter, I compare my daughter’s childhood with my own, and I realize all that I lost. That’s because we did not have a childhood; we were not children. I look at my little girl, so innocent, so very small, and there I was at the age of 14 going around with a rifle,” says the 45-year-old former Sandinista fighter, who is now a doctor living in Costa Rica with her children and husband.
Graciela does not romanticize the past, but says the struggles of the revolution led to gains that helped her get where she is today.
“I am convinced, coming from my particular background, that if there had not been a revolution I would not be a doctor today…I would be a peasant myself, perhaps the mother of five or six little kids, working in the fields with my husband,” Graciela says.
The revolution also taught Graciela to have a critical analysis of power, and to speak out for social justice—even when it’s against her former comrades.
“I am not in agreement with many of the things that are happening today. It’s not the Sandinismo we had all hoped for. There are many of us Sandinistas without a party who don’t identify with what they have done with this project, for which so many people gave even a part of their body in order to have nothing so others could have too much.”
Graciela’s testimony is one of 30 profiles included in a hauntingly powerful new book by former Witness for Peace photographer Paul Dix and U.S. peace activist Pam Fitzpatrick. The combination of photographs and testimony that combine to form “Nicaragua: Surviving the Legacy of U.S. Policy,” offers a raw and sobering narrative of human strength and fragility, determination and misfortune, hope and betrayal, love and violence—all that Nicaragua was in the 1980s, and in many ways still is.
Unlike the various memoirs penned by former leaders of the Sandinista revolution, “Surviving the Legacy of U.S. Policy” is a people’s history of the revolution and counterrevolutionary war. It is the story from below, from those unknown Sandinistas who were supposed to be the protagonists in a classless revolution that ultimately ended up crowning a few and relegating the rest.
Connecting the past to the present
In 2002, Dix and Fitzpatrick—two authentic peace activists whose commitment to and compassion for the people of Nicaragua did not end when the Sandinistas lost their sex appeal—reviewed an aging stack of old black-and-white photos that Dix had taken of war victims from 1985-1990. They wondered about what had become of the untold stories from these unknown war victims who were staring back at them through the frozen timelessness of photographs.
Rather than wonder forever, the couple decided to investigate. So Dix and Fitzpatrick, who make their home in Eugene, Oregon, selected 100 of the more provocative photos—the ones that were begging to have their stories heard—and set off for Nicaragua with a tape recorder and a camera to track these people down.
“We knew we were facing a challenging task—in many cases we did not even have names of those in the photographs,” Fitzpatrick writes in the author’s preface to the book.
Fitzpatrick says she and Dix started their quest—one that eventually spanned 17 months spread over four trips in eight years—by taking a bus to an isolated community in the mountains where Dix remembered photographing war victims in the late 1980s.Then they would begin their search by stopping people in the middle of a dusty street, showing their photograph and asking questions.
“Soon a crowd would gather, and usually someone would say we’d never find the child in the photograph, who would now be grown and married with her own children. But then someone would recognize ‘Ana Maria’s little girl,’ and would know which town the family had moved to,” Fitzpatrick says. “We’d climb on another bus, follow thread after thread, and finally locate that ‘child’.”
At times, Nicaragua—a country where the impossible is possible, but everything is difficult—seemed to be toying with Dix and Fitzpatrick. But they stuck with it.
“We had a joke that every time we had totally given up hope, I mean absolutely given up hope, we’d find the person we were looking for,” Dix said. “We found almost all 100.”
Not all of the people they were looking for were still alive. Santiago, an idealistic 19-year-old campesino who volunteered to defend the revolution in 1985—a moment in time Dix captured on film, as Santiago attended the funeral of a friend from his town in Matiguás—died less than a year later in a contra ambush in Rio Blanco, Matagalpa.
Dix and Fitzpatrick caught up with Santiago’s parents, Francisco and Victoriana, in 2003. They are living in a shack made out of a few boards and black plastic, after “Liberals” burned their house down in 2002. Francisco, who fought in the insurrection and lost two sons in the counterrevolutionary war, said he now makes an average of $2 dollars a day doing odd jobs. He and his wife remain loyal Sandinistas.
Ultimately, the generosity and kindness of the Nicaraguan people—to whom the book is dedicated—made the project possible. Fitzpatrick says many times unknown Nicaraguans would go hours out their way to walk the two foreigners miles down a country road to get to the right home, or even get on busses with them to take them to other towns. Others took them into their homes, offering the strangers a meal or a place to stay for the night.
Ultimately, and appropriately, the book became a project that took a whole village to produce.
Like Nicaragua itself, “Surviving the Legacy of U.S. Policy” wears its politics on its sleeve—or, in this case, on its book sleeve.
The book is a powerful and graphic rebuke of U.S. policy in the 1980s, and a timeless call for nonviolent conflict resolution and respect for all.
“We do have an agenda,” Dix said at a recent book presentation at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “We are peace activists; that’s where we come from.”
But both Dix and Fitzpatrick are not blinded by political ideology. In fact, like Graciela, they are now very critical of the born-again Sandinista government that is in power today.
Their disgust with the current state of Nicaraguan politics demonstrates the divorce that many international peace activists who were once willing to put themselves in harm’s way to defend the Sandinista revolution feel about the current Ortega administration.
“Of the 30 people we interviewed for this book, Graciela was the only one who was economically secure, as a doctor in Costa Rica. The rest of them are struggling to survive, day to day,” Dix told The Nicaragua Dispatch.
He said many of the former Sandinista enthusiasts who once harbored great hope for the revolution now deposit their faith in other existential movements.
“Many people were totally disillusioned with politics; they don’t want anything to do with politics, and a lot of them had turned to evangelical or charismatic Christianity,” Dix says.
Still, he says, the Nicaraguan peoples’ resilience, kindness and capacity to forgive was truly humbling.
“This book is really about small, poor countries around the world where the U.S. has intervened. We focused on Nicaragua, but it’s really about countries all over the world,” Dix said. “A lot of it is about the aftermath of war, the story that is forgotten by the media. It’s about how wars impact people and how they continue for generations.”
Dix’s voice fades to a whisper, as if lost in his rumination over the intersections between Nicaragua’s past and present.
“We are trying to show people that wars don’t end with the signing of the peace accords. The psychological, economic and physical wounds endure…”
Then, speaking slightly louder, Dix adds, “Of course we hope this book will make people peace activists.”
“We don’t have illusions of grandeur,” he adds with a gentle laugh; “all we want is world peace.”