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On July 17, 1979, my parents and I climbed into a red four-door Toyota bound for Condega, a rural town in northern Nicaragua. We had missed the last commercial flight out of the country after the Sandinista-led revolution, so we made our getaway on the ground.
In Condega, we planned for my grandfather, Ramon Vargas, to help us cross the border into Honduras. But the ride was cut short about halfway when bandits stole the car. "They took our money and our passports too," recalls my mother, Lucia Alvarado. "They left us with nothing, but we kept going on foot."
My parents and I hiked through the dense, rugged terrain of the Nicaraguan sierra. We drank muddy water and prayed we wouldn't run into any rebels. Soon my mother and I contracted malaria, but we continued to trudge onward. Though I was only four years old at the time, I remember that my barefoot father hoisted me onto his shoulders both because I was weak and to protect me from thorny bushes and fire ants.
Finally after a week, we arrived at my grandfather's home. He called a doctor, who treated our malaria, and then paid a Nicaraguan cattle rustler to escort us to the Honduran border, where we picked up a bus to Guatemala City. By fall, we were in Miami, where we were granted political asylum and have lived ever since.
I had never thought of going home until this fall, 26 years later. My mother and my ten-year-old sister, Aaliyah, who was born in Miami, have been making annual pilgrimages since the late Nineties. My father has no interest in going back though. "There is nothing in Nicaragua for me to care about anymore," he told me recently. Until this year, I felt the same way.
Many people face a similar dilemma. I am one of 69,000 Nicas living in Miami-Dade County, the largest concentration in the United States. Between 1979 and 1991, nearly a million of us left home for exile in the United States, Canada, and other Central American countries. Most departed during the Sandinistas' twelve-year rule, when Nicaragua's communist leaders fought a civil war against the U.S.-backed contras.
But since the free elections in 1991, Nicaraguans in exile have been returning to la patria in droves. Some have retired there. Others have returned simply to become reacquainted with family who stayed behind. In fact an entire generation of young Nicaraguans termed themselves "Miami Boys" after making the trek back to Central America. They've found one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere, which was devastated in 1998 by Hurricane Mitch.
For me the decision to go home was not easy. I wasn't interested in meeting relatives whom I had not seen in more than two decades and whom I really didn't know. I didn't think we would have anything in common. Why would I take a rare vacation to a country where almost everybody is dirt poor and where stranded motorists are often robbed, sometimes killed, by armed thieves? I see enough misery and mayhem in Miami.
I love Nicaraguan music and food, but I have those in abundance here.
My maternal grandmother, Nubia Hernández de Pomar, kept bugging me about taking a trip with her to Nicaragua. In 1974 she had been elected a congressional representative of Somoza's National Liberal Party. She was part of the reason we left the country. My parents feared the Sandinistas would execute us on the spot if we stayed.
These days Grandma Nubia loves a good beer as much as teaching her grandchildren about Nicaraguan culture and traditions. She had lived in a residential neighborhood near Managua from 1996 until 2001 the year her second husband and my godfather died in a truck accident on his way to the Nicaraguan capital so she knew where we should go during our visit.
Grandma insisted it would be an adventure the country has a multitude of lakes, mountains, and volcanoes. At first I agreed to go only to avoid disappointing her. But in the days leading up to our trip, my attitude changed. I felt a tinge of excitement.
So on November 30, with my grandma as a personal tour guide, I traveled to the place I was born. Our journey through Managua was like a grainy 35mm film from a bygone era. There were remnants of the Sandinistas' socialist days, such as the statue of an Indian warrior holding a hammer and an AK-47, and the steel mural depicting Che Guevara at the University of Central America.
On the sidewalk just outside the university, dozens of street merchants hawked food and trinkets. At a rickety fruit stand, a chubby woman peeled oranges, which her children peddled to idling motorists. Another family sold fresh plates of churrasco and gallo pinto. At traffic lights, young men offered car mats, seat covers, cell phones, peanuts, cold water, cigarettes, candy, even Christmas decorations. "Don't open your window, and keep the door locked," Grandma Nubia warned me. "These sons of bitches will steal anything."
Not so different from Miami, I thought. But I was humbled by the sheer number of people, entire families, in the dry tropical heat, hustling to make a cordoba the Nicaraguan currency. I might have ended up selling crap on a street corner had I stayed in Nicaragua. I might have ended up sleeping in a villa miseriarather than a three-bedroom townhouse in northwest Miami-Dade.