Women of Nicaragua

Women2

By Chris Dray

A recent editorial in Nicaragua’s national paper El Nuevo Diario stated “It is the machista culture that is destroying men, women and families and what we have to understand clearly is that 40% of household in Nicaragua are now sustained by women alone”. The impact of this situation is succinctly summarized by a Central American University (UCA) study which states, “In some ways, the Nicaraguan family is unstable and disintegrated.”

Talk to any working woman in Nicaragua about their families and you will soon hear stories of abandonment, betrayal and loss in their personal lives, or in the lives of those close to them.  A sales clerk at a kitchen supply store in Leon tells me over the counter, “there are no men left at home, just three generations of women”.  Marie Jose Moran, an unemployed single mother and student reflects on her own situation and says, “in Nicaragua, when a man divorces his wife, he also divorces his children”.

Abandoned families, children left in the care of extended families, single women and mothers who become the sole providers for their children; all are desperate plights for women and children living in a deeply impoverished country. According to a report by the country’s office of Family Protection and Counselling, the father is absent in 34% of urban homes, 60% in Managua (the countries one large city). In these homes, the mother is economically responsible for the children, and she is the most influential force in their upbringing. Statistics such as these tend to support a matriarchal picture of the Nicaraguan family.

I have often heard women say, “los hombres aqui no servan para nada… ninguna” (the men here are good for nothing… not one of them).  I am told that machismo makes them bad boyfriends, husbands, fathers, and providers…  arrogant, unfaithful, lying, abusive and worse.

Of course women also play a role in creating unsustainable families. According to the Family and Fertility Bulletin, 38.28% of women in Nicaragua become sexually active between 14 and 16 years of age, and 72.72% between 17 and 19. As a result, 25% of women under 20 have children, one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the world. One of my farm workers told me that in his village of San Antonio, a girl of 12 is considered sexually mature. This is borne out by the number of 13-year old mothers in our neighbourhood.

In fairness, machismo is not the only factor in the erosion of family unity in Nicaragua.  Evangelical churches play a role by encouraging parishioners to go forth and multiply, as instructed by the book of Genesis, and by discouraging parents from talking to their children about sex, let alone birth control and the hazards of sexually transmitted disease.  My devoutly evangelical neighbour, Dona Carmen told me she never talked about sex with her children, and her oldest daughter Gesenia agreed and said that as a result, she got pregnant at 13 with a fellow parishioner… during the Sunday service no less… because she had no idea what the man was doing.  Another neighbour, Seniora Pinell, confided that her Pastor told his congregation that childless people were not allowed into paradise, and she was worried for my eternal soul.

The Catholic Church also contributes to the crisis by continuing to advocate abstinence over birth control.  And make matters worse, the Sandanista Government has limited women’s options by outlawing abortion as a sop to gain favour with the Catholic clergy.

In addition to these unhelpful influences, the problem of unsustainable families is exacerbated by poor economic conditions. Nicaragua is the poorest country in Latin America and many families endure the relentless daily pressure of grinding poverty.

One farm worker told me. “I can accept any hardship for myself, but I cannot watch my children suffer”.  As a result, families are often divided by the need to migrate within the country for work, as well as beyond the nations borders.

Remittances are a major source of income and are equivalent to 15% of the country’s GDP, which mostly comes from Nicaraguan immigrants who have emigrated outside to Costa Rica, the United States and other European Union member states. According to Wikipedia, approximately one million Nicaraguans contribute to the remittance sector of the economy, but many more have left the country and do not send money home to support families.  Over 25% of Nicaraguans now live outside the country, over 800,000 in Costa Rica alone.

The situation is dire and after four years living in the Leon area I can bear witness to the relentless suffering of women and children. Yet I have also seen courage and determination among families struggling for basic subsistence, and I have met individual women who have risen above the economic malaise, religious misguidance, government dysfunction and an oppressive machista culture to survive and even thrive.

In this article, I present the stories of a few of these women from the Leon area. I believe they, and others like them, are Nicaragua’s greatest hope for the future.

The Cooperative

Early in 2010, the construction of the Leon-Poneloya highway was winding down.  Both MECO, the Costa Rican road construction company, and the US Millenium Fund, the project sponsor, were preparing to shut down operations in Nicaragua.  As they began to lay-off local workers, office manager Silvia Torres felt increasing concern for the women who had worked on the project over the previous year.  Many were single mothers and the sole providers in their families, and all were local hires from the rural area around Leon, one of the most economically depressed zones in the country.

Torres gathered the women together and suggested that they form a collective to bid on federal government contracts for road cleaning between Poneloya, 20 kilometres to the west of Leon, and Chinendega, 60 kilometres north of the city. She hoped that the group could serve as a model for other women marginalized in the job market by the machismo culture that perpetuates the belief that women cannot do rural labour as well as men.  In June 2010, 12 women ranging in age from 22 to 37 formed their collective and started work clean brush from the roadside, clearing ditches and cutting overhanging tree branches.

“We work from 6:00 AM to 4:00 PM six days a week. It’s exhausting”, says Reyna Natividad Perez Salgado who now at 39 is the eldest in the group, “but we were all raised in the country, we know how to use a machete and we are not afraid of hard work. We all have children, most of us are single, and the few married members earn more than their husbands”, noted Perez with a laugh.  “Our families take care of our children while we are working”.

“We have to complete 25 kilometres of highway each month to make enough to eat”, says Perez.  The members each earn about 3,000 Cordobas a month ($130 USD), which is considered a good wage by local farm workers.

Cooperative workers are exempt from taxation. The group has government health insurance coverage for medical expenses, and if a member is ill, they continue to receive their wages from the Collective. “We have to take care of each other… nobody else will”, Perez said when I asked about one of the members who was at home recovering from a lengthy illness.

The cooperative owns its own equipment and work clothes as well as a truck which is rarely used because of the cost of fuel. “We decide as a group what equipment we need”, says Perez, “and we all share the cost of the equipment and repairs”.

As a collective, there is no leader or supervisor. “We make all decisions together” says Perez.  “There is no boss here.  We are all the boss”.  I ask how the group deals with a member who is not doing their share, and the group laughed and told me that they keep each other in line with insults and encouragement… all in good humour. “When we start work in the morning, the women tell jokes and laugh a lot” says Ruth Gonzales, the youngest member of the Collective. “By the afternoon, we are all tired and the sun and heat makes the work even harder.”

I ask if the group would consider taking on other projects, like land clearing for ranches and farms in the area.  Perez tells me that they want to rent land and plant corn, but they are saving to pay for the tractor time required for ploughing.  I tell her that I have 10 acres of cleared meadow laying fallow on my farm near Poneloya, and I can arrange to have the land ploughed by oxen.  Perez squints and says the field has to be ready for planting in August… and the negotiation has begun.

Ruth de las Angeles

If she lived in Canada, Ruth de las Angeles Gonzales Vargas could have been a fashion model.  She is a tall, long limbed, elegant Mestizo woman with sparkling clear eyes, a radiant smile and perfect teeth… all natural.

At twenty-two, Ruth is the youngest member of the women’s collective, a single mother who is the sole provider for her four year-old daughter, her younger brother and her mother. “I went to work on the road construction when I was 19”, she says.  With the father of her baby gone, and her own father recently deceased, there were only women left in the house.  She worked as a flag person for MECO, but worried about how she would care for her family when the project was finished.  The women’s collective offered her the financial security she hoped for. “The grass keeps growing… that is my job security” she says with a laugh.

“The work is very hard” she tells me.  “When I started the job two years ago, my body was not strong enough, but now I can work all day.”  Despite her increased strength and endurance, punishing physical labour and poor nutrition is taking its toll and she is now experiencing the beginning of kidney problems similar to those that killed her father.

Gonzales looks me in the eye and says, “listen, the two best things in my life are my daughter and the women’s collective.”  She says she wants to improve her employment skills by attending vocational courses in computer systems, but the school is in the next department (province) and she is unable to make the time or bear the cost of continuing her education. And she has more immediate priorities, like feeding her family and saving to build her own house.  “I live on my father’s land, and that belongs to the whole family”, she says.  “I would like to have my own home, something I can pass on to my daughter”.  She is in the process of buying a small lot near the evangelical church at La Gallena where she is an active member of the congregation. “Religion has been important for me since I was a child”.

I ask her if she has a boyfriend and she laughs telling me she has no time for romance.  “When the father of my baby left, I was only 18.  It was a very hard time for me”.  I ask her if he helps to support his daughter and she shakes her head and tells me she does not even know where he is.

“I have a dream for my daughter… that she will have a better life than mine.  Now I live for her”, Gonzales says with finality.  I tell her she sounds like an old woman looking back at her life when she is really only 22 with many possibilities.  She gives me a look that I have become accustomed to in Nicaragua.  It says, if you are born poor you will stay poor and you will die poor. It is the mantra of acceptance that enables her to swing a machete under a broiling sun and consider herself blessed to be able to work among friends, celebrate her faith and care for her family.

Whitney Phoenix

“Whitney” is her working name at the Club Phoenix in Managua, perhaps the best know night spot and brothel in the city.

Whitney is a 27-year old mulatta woman from the Caribbean coastal community of Bluefields.  When she was six-months old, her black father murdered her 25-year old white mother with his bare hands.  In a moment of furious violence, she lost both parents; although her father served only five years in prison.

Whitney was raised by her aunt and other members of her extended family.  She was sexually abused by an uncle at 12, raped in the street as a teenager, and suffered a long line of abuses that are all too common for young women in Nicaragua.  At 16, she fell in love with a man who was ten years older, but “his family would not accept her because of my race” she tells me.

Over 86% of Nicaraguans are Indigenous or Mestizo (mixed race) Indians while the remaining minority are of European or African heritage.  Under pressure from his family, the man separated from Whitney and left the community.  This betrayal became a defining moment in her life.  At the age of 18, she decided that she would not have children of her own because she feared for their safety if she were to die young like her mother. “I couldn’t accept the risk that my child would be abandoned and go through what I experienced as a child”, she tells me.

Despite these hardships, Whitney finished her secondary education along with two-years of university.  She underwent analysis to sort through her damaged childhood, worked at a local radio station, then began a career as a tailor.  She was offered a house through a community development program, but soon despaired of being able to pay the mortgage by herself on the low wages she was earning.  Rather than default on the loan, Whitney made another life changing decision to move to Managua and work as a prostitute until her debt is paid and she has a bit of capital saved to start a business back in Bluefields.

Whitney has a passion for reading and doing word puzzles which helps to pass the time at the club while she is waiting for clients.  She works 12 hours a day, five days a week.  She has managed to stay healthy despite the prevalence of STDs in the country, does not use drugs, and rarely drinks.  She leads a very solitary life in Managua but remains closely connected to her family in Bluefields.  She has a quiet confidence about her that is uncommon in a country where women tend to be submissive in their response to strangers, particularly men.  She is intelligent, articulate and beautiful… for the moment, the perfect courtesan.

Whitney has risen above a life that most would find insufferable, and moves through each day with a sense of empowerment and determination.  Would that the country could rise above its dark past with such grace.  Freed from an oppressive dictatorship by ten years of revolution and civil war, pillaged by successive corrupt governments and ravaged by poverty, the nation continues to stumble towards an uncertain future.  What it may need most is a few more people like Whitney Phoenix in the mix to strengthen its resolve.

Karen Salinas

Karen Lilly Salinas Mejia (25) and her husband Jose (24) have a plan.  He is working long days in construction in Costa Rica, while she works up to 18 hours a day often seven days a week, in a Leon café.  Her long hours are contrary to national labour codes, but as an hourly employee she does it willingly to support her family.

The young couple defy the trends of broken marriages and abandoned families.  They are willing to endure the separation from each other, and the time away from their 4-year old son who is being cared for by extended family, so that they can save enough money to build a home of their own. Salinas works up to 18 hours a day often seven days a week to realize her dream of building her own home.

The dream of home ownership evades most Nicaraguans.  Households are often multigenerational with whole family units sharing a single room.  The lack of privacy is a stress factor for family relationships, and as a result, young people often spend most of their days in the street where they are exposed to drugs, prostitution and criminal activity.

The crush of multigenerational homes drives some young couples to the squatter lifestyle.  On the edge of any community in Nicaragua there are neighbourhoods of temporary shelters made of bush materials, plastic and cardboard.  A tin roof in good condition is seen as a substantial investment, and a concrete floor the height of luxury.  Running water is uncommon and sewage treatment is rudementary; grey-water drains into the street and black-water goes into the latrine.

Karen Selinas and her husband are rare among young Nicaraguans in that they are thinking about their future and have a plan to improve their lives.  “We will succeed” she tells me and I believe her. In Nicaragua, personal confidence is an uncommon characteristic among women and those few that have it tend to rise above the life’s hardships and do well.

Sandrine Vezien

As the civil war drew to a close in the late 80s, volunteers from around the world poured into Nicaragua by the thousands to help rebuild the country.  Sandrine Vezien arrived from France in 1993 to help build a school in La Rinconada, a remote village in the hill country of eastern Leon, which had been one of the more active battle zones.  She fell in love with a local rancher named Estaban Garcia and decided to stay.

Eight years later, Vezien and her husband relocated to Las Penitas, 19 kilometres west of Leon, to open the first tourism hotel on the beach owned by a foreigner.  “The place chose me”, she says as she remembers her first trip to Las Penitas with a group of children from La Rinconada who had never had a beach vacation.  They camped out in a derelict hotel and slept on the floor.  “I was hypnotized by the place” she says, “I loved it so much”. Six months later she returned to buy the property with family partners and start La Barca de Oro, which is now a well established family hotel and restaurant.

Vizien says she always had confidence that the business would succeed, but it took a decade of focused attention to get it to the point that she could pass on the management of the hotel to her sister-in-law Xiomara Garcia, build her own home on the beach and final move out of the hotel.  During that time, she ended her marriage, bought out her partners, and expanded the hotel. She also developed other business interests including a property management service for foreign owned houses on the beach, and a partnership in a Canadian owned manufacturing venture in Leon.

I asked Vizien about the challenges of being a woman running a business in a machista culture, and she noted that the most difficult aspect is to “get men to believe you”.  She explains that men do not like women telling them what to do, and that includes contractors, suppliers and even employees. “They tell you blue and do red”, she says with emphasis. “You have to double check everything”.  She also tells me she has had to fire a number of male employees for not respecting her authority.

Vizien is known for her commitment to the community.  She sponsors pet neutering clinics and has assisted many locals in the development of micro-businesses.  She is concerned about increasing foreign ownership of property in the area and believes that locals who sell-out are taking short-term gains that will exclude them from the benefits of future development.

Vizien is also a vocal advocate for environmental protection in the area, but feels she is fighting a losing battle because the community itself is unwilling to manage its harvesting of natural resources.  Over-fishing, over-cutting of mangrove for firewood, and land clearing with wildfires has had a devastating impact on the local ecosystem.

Vizien believes that tourism will continue to grow in Nicaragua, but hopes that small-scale businesses will still dominate development in the Leon area.  She suggests that larger hotel chains may be scared off by land tenure issues with the aboriginal community.  She also points out that a more real concern is that the area will again be devastated by a natural disaster such as the tidal wave that hit the beach in 1993 and swept away all but the strongest structures, and hurricane Mitch that decimated the area in 1998.

Vizien’s 12-year old daughter Marianne is now in the UK learning English. She anticipates that her daughter will stay in Nicaragua, but says, “I hope she doesn’t marry a Nica”. As for her own future, the 48 year-old expatriot says she does not have a plan, “I just try to have a healthy life… that’s my social security”.

I ask her what she would tell Canadian investors about Nicaragua.  She says it is a good place for small-scale investors with sustainable projects and hopes that they will consider the people and the local culture as they develop their businesses.  Then she adds, “be very careful with the legal papers and processes”, and anyone who has spent much time in-country would agree.

To the question, what would you tell Canadian women who may be thinking or retiring or starting a business on their own in Nicaragua, she smiles and says, “do it, and don’t feel afraid… just be careful not to fall in love”.

Marlen Lopez 

Marlen del Socorro Lopez Paz is the owner of Vivero La Esperanza, regarded by many as the best tree nursery in Leon. I bought 700 fruit trees from her four years ago and was impressed with her knowledge and her desire to do things well. As I got to know her better, I was even more impressed with her quiet determination.  Although she thanks God for her considerable success in business and in raising her family as a single mom, clearly she is a self-made woman.

Lopez had a rough start in life.  Abandoned by her parents at the age of seven, she was raised by her grandmother. “Like many young women here, I thought I could solve all my problems by getting married” she tells me.  And like so many others, she became a single mother while still in her teens and joined the work force with only a high school education. “Men here… always the same story, two or three women, and three orfour children… totally machista”, she says with a wave of dismissal. “My children respect me because they know how hard life has been for us”.

“I worked for the city of Leon for fourteen years… that’s where I got my training as a landscape designer”, she tells me.  She dreamed of having her own tree nursery, so she saved her money, which is not a common practice in Nicaragua where only one in eight people have bank accounts.  Then in 1990, she borrowed a small property from her sister and opened Vivero La Esperanza.  She started with three employees and the business grew steadily as she took on large landscaping and garden maintenance clients such as the municipal government and universities in Leon, and later branched out into agricultural development clearing and preparing farmland for cultivation.

Now, 22 years later La Esperansa operates from two locations in Leon and has 10 full time employees.  Lopez, who turned 40 this year, and lives with her family a block from the nursery in a house she built on her own.  “My greatest success is my children”, she tells me.  With two sons of 22 and 24 in university and a 16-year old daughter in a private school, she has reason to feel a sense of accomplishment. She tells me, “my children respect me because they know how hard life has been for us”.  She goes on to tell me that dealing with male workers has been a significant challenge and that she uses lay-offs to curb machista behaviour.  “They don’t like taking orders from women… and they also don’t like losing their pay … they have to choose”, she tells me with a smile.

I ask her about her hopes for the future of the business.  She tells me that she “wants to make the nurseries even more beautiful” and to provide employment for people who are marginalized in the community.  She has hired several workers with drug and theft related backgrounds and tells me not one of them has disappointed her.  “I want the job to make their lives better”, she says.  Then she adds, “If you are positive, good things happen”.  That’s Marlene in a nutshell.

2 Comments

  1. Chad Wemple

    September 27, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    I was reading your Article on women of nicarauga and was moved by one women’s story.
    Ruth de las Angeles, I would like to help her attend the computer school that she desires by giving her the support that she needs to accomplish this.
    How do I get in contact with her?

  2. Bill dies

    January 26, 2016 at 9:40 am

    I have a small tractor with implement in Oklahoma USA that I would like to donate too these ladies,but I don’t have funds for shipping if interested it might help in their endeavor to continue ther work