Everyday we learn new Nicaraguan Spanish words, and try to unlearn (at least temporarily) a few of those apparently “gringo” words we picked up in Spanish classes in the U.S. The word for “kids” is a good example. I had always used “ninos,” but in the last couple of weeks I’ve picked up some synonyms: chevalos, cumiches, chiguines, cipotes, and most recently, chatel.
Chatel, literally translated as chattel, is a synonym for “kids” in Nicaragua. My Spanish language dictionary defines “chatel” as: an item of personal property that is not freehold and that is not intangible.
This fact is puzzling, not only because it is grim and even sickening, but because the advancement of young Nicaraguans and children’s rights were at the forefront of the values of the Nicaraguan revolution. During their temporary success, the true Sandinistas organized a literacy campaign. By busing privileged Nicaraguans out to the countryside, the Sandinistas were able to bring Nicaragua’s illiteracy rate from 45% in 1981 to 12% in just six months. But in 2008, roughly 50% of Nicaraguans are illiterate.
Since 1990, eleven years after the revolutionary war ended, and the year that the US-financed Contra War that followed the revolution ended, hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguan street children have picked up a “habit” of sniffing glue. The toxic glue, manufactured and distributed by H.B. Fuller in Minneapolis, is ostensibly used for shoemaking and repairs. Perhaps some people here use it for that, too. The primary consumers of H.B. Fuller glue, however, are children between the ages of four and beyond, and their mothers, who use it to pacify their hungry children. It helps that H.B. Fuller glue has a sweet scent.
We went to the capital city landfill, La Chureca, where 1,200 people live and scrounge for food and recyclable plastics amidst 55 years of garbage of 1.5 million of Managua’s citizens. I saw a child eating H.B. Fuller glue there, tearing apart a Styrofoam cup and licking the insides clean. That was his only “meal” of the day. He was probably around seven or eight years old. I won’t try to describe the environment of Managua’s dump, since even Tolstoy could not capture this hell on earth. Look up “La Chureca” on youtube. It’s worth millions of words. Keep in mind that as bad as it looks, one cannot even begin to imagine the smell before she has experienced it.
When U.S.-backed candidate Violeta de Chamorro was elected President of Nicaragua in 1990, children’s rights fell far, and fast. A member of the oligarchy, whose election meant the end of the U.S. embargo that robbed Nicaraguans of access to food and medicine, as well as the U.S.-financed Contra War, Chamorro put her energy into pleasing her supporters at the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the United States government. Her cooperation ensured not only that 80% of the new generation of Nicaraguans would remain uneducated and live in the streets, but that Nicaragua would be indebted to international financial institutions and the United States of America for five generations to come. She was elected by citizens who had a gun to their heads. Literally.
There is a saying in Nicaragua: “Vive en el momento, porque manana no sabe lo que va a pasar.” Live in the moment, because tomorrow you don’t know what’s going to happen. It isn’t the same saying as it is in the U.S., because the things that you suspect might happen here include hurricanes, earthquakes, wars, and, at best, grossly inadequate governmental aid. Think New Orleans, at regular intervals.
In this country, where children are viewed as chattel, incest is rampant, particularly in the countryside. Fathers consider their little girls their property, and thus they “deserve” to have their daughter’s bodies before any other, less “deserving” man. These girls’ bodies end up deformed and hormonally retarded because grown men have forcefully penetrated their seven-year-old bodies. They become pregnant with their fathers, uncles, or brothers babies before their bodies are developed enough to survive pregnancy. In a country where even therapeutic abortion is illegal, these mothers, who are children themselves, die giving birth to deformed babies, the products of incest.
Who takes care of these babies?
H.B. Fuller, since 1958. As they state on their website, “Your day probably begins and ends with us.” How right they are. (www.hbfuller.com/About_Us/index.shtml)
The parents of the young ladies who survive incest, childbirth in their preteens, and anything else one can imagine, have endowed their daughter with a single skill. Many of these girls use this “skill” to persuade truck drivers to take them down to La Chureca in Managua, where they can live in garbage, scrounge for garbage, and prostitute themselves to sanitation truck drivers in exchange for choice pieces of trash: plastic bottles.
Many young girls have told non-governmental organization workers at La Chureca that they are pleased to be there, as it is better to be in the dump, than to be at home. At home, they are forced to wake up at 4am, prepare corn-on-the-cob into tortilla bread, and sell it in the street. Failure to sell all of the tortillas they have prepared in a given day often results in a brutal beating. These girls opt to prostitute themselves to truck drivers and others, who buy their unsold tortillas in exchange for unprotected sex. As a rule, protected sex only obligates a pedophile to buy half of the tortillas, since “protected sex provides half the pleasure.”
55% of Nicaragua’s population is under eighteen years old. What hope is there for the future of Nicaragua?
There is some. Despite the hundreds of thousands of glue-addicted Nicaraguan children living in the streets or in La Chureca, 6,000 of them are sheltered by non-governmental child protection agencies.
Braving the unimaginably dangerous Nicaraguan streets to reach out to glue-addicted street children, Los Quinchos began its project in 1991. Children who agree to leave their glue behind and enter the program are brought to a filter house for food, clothing, shelter, showers, education, recreational activities, and detox. Once they are weaned off the glue through therapy, love, and care, they are transferred to the main house in San Marcos. Boys and girls live in a comfortable campus setting there with children of the same sex and similar backgrounds. They attend the local school, receive tutoring, mentoring, guidance and counseling. They have weekly dance, music, art, theater, and other classes. They learn skills such as hammock weaving, sewing, and professional serving. They smile and laugh a lot, and they hug anyone who walks through the gates.
Children who were once filthy, uneducated, drug addicts transform into mature, capable young adults who support each other and achieve a healthy level of self-esteem. Once they graduate from the program (age at graduation varies, since eighteen is the minimum age at graduation, but Quinchos kids are never “kicked out” of the program), many of them receive scholarships to attend university in Venezuela or Cuba. Others often opt to work at Los Quinchos with the younger children who are still in the program, or use the skills they have learned to begin a business.
I bought a beautiful hammock from a former Quincho yesterday for $20. He lived in a nice home, and his wife was preparing chicken and rice while his young son played with a ball and the dog kissed anyone who came near her. Twelve years ago, this professionally and socially successful man was in the streets, smelling of glue and filth. Despite his success, hundreds of thousands still are.