Finding My Latino Roots in a War Zone

Michelle and I flew into Nicaragua in the fall of 1985, a country that gringos weren’t supposed to visit. Ronald Reagan was at war with the country. The Nicaraguans had run Somoza out of the country, the bloody dictator whom the United States had propped up for decades. The Sandinistas were now in charge. And Reagan hated the Sandinistas.

We loved the Sandinistas. And we hadn’t even met one yet. But we knew about the illegal war Reagan was waging against Nicaragua. He had hired the dictator’s National Guardsmen as mercenaries to take back the country. Nicknamed the Contra, they  burned villages, raped women and children, slashed men’s throats, all in the name of ending communism.

We were both twenty-two. We had a job: to report on contra atrocities. I had turned down a Ph.D. program in English literature to do this. We were excited, filled with idealism and, as the plane  approached the Sandino International Airport, scared shitless.

This venture meant everything to me. Because, while believing deeply in the cause, I also had personal reasons for moving there. I was in search of my Latino self.

I started forgetting about my Latino self when we walked through the airport, which was little more than a concrete shell. Bombs had blown glass out of the giant window frames that faced the tarmac. Chunks of cement were piled in a corner of one gate. Sandinista soldiers stood every few feet,  their AK-47 automatics slung over their shoulders.

It was hot. No, it was boiling. We could have swum through the humidity. And the Spanish, oh man–I had studied my ass off, working to regain my mother’s tongue, but Nicaraguan Spanish? It sounded like liquid that flowed from one person’s mouth to another’s, a river’s rush of lilts and cadences that were simply impossible to follow.

A fellow gringo picked us up. I don’t remember his name. We tossed our luggage into the back of his twenty year old piece of shit called a car. He closed the hatchback and tied it down with hemp rope. I pushed the car, he popped the clutch. The motor turned over. I jumped in. There was a hole in the floor of the front seat. There was also a hole in the floor of the driver’s seat. I considered The Flintstones and imagined me and our host putting their feet through the holes and running the car home.

Home. It smelled like an armpit. Other gringos wandered about, greeted us kindly, told us where we could sleep: on the tile floor. I used a towel for a pillow. The floor smelled of piss. Or was the piss from outside, where men drank, sang revolutionary songs, and someone shot a gun?

Piss. That’s what sticks with me now. Michelle somehow fell asleep. I stared at the ceiling and thought This is all one big mistake. A mistake, to look for my roots, to get involved in a struggle that was not our own. I smelled the piss and wondered, was it too late? To go back to the States, study English, get my doctorate, settle down? Piss, a gunshot, and men laughing raucously outside. This was all wrong. I wanted to run back home, to the safety of my gringo world, and forget this bullshit about finding my Latino roots.

The next morning we got up, had breakfast, and started training on how to live in a war zone.

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