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After 40 minutes in the car, we arrived in Diriamba, a town south of Managua where my grandmother, my mother, and I were born. Grandma Nubia pointed out her old house, the one the Sandinistas burned down in 1978. Then we arrived at my aunt Daysi Carrillo's house, where we unloaded our luggage.
Aunt Daysi is a matronly woman with prominent features typical of the Miskito, Nicaragua's native Americans. "You don't remember me, do you?" she asked.
My grandmother interjected, "How is he going to remember anything? He was barely four years old when he left."
To which Aunt Daysi replied, "Well, it doesn't matter. My home is your home."
In Diriamba my relatives live close to each other. Aunt Daysi's house is only three blocks from about twenty family members. Contrast that with the United States, where my 25-year-old sister, Ivonne, is the only relative who lives near me. I have to hop on the Palmetto Expressway and travel at least twenty miles to see my parents; other relatives live in Dallas, San Francisco, and Montreal.
My grandmother and I walked to her brother's house. Uncle Julio Hernandez, a short 84-year-old man with large eyeglasses, hugged me hard. "Champito!" he proclaimed. "I used to call you that when you were running around in diapers." Of course, I have no recollection of that. My only vivid memories of Nicaragua are like scenes from a war flick: tanks and armored vehicles rolling through the neighborhood; soldiers banging on our front door demanding to inspect the premises; and bomb sirens wailing in the wee morning hours.
I didn't tell Uncle Julio that. I wasn't there to dredge up our past. I went to Nicaragua to feel his warm embrace and meet the rest of his family: his daughter, my aunt Xiomara; her husband, Julio; and their daughter, Maria Gabriella. Their son, Julio Humberto, wasn't home. At first I was a bit shy around my relatives. But after Aunt Xiomara handed me a beer, we toasted my return and let my grandmother do what she does best: tell stories about her life in Nicaragua.
The stories about her father's switch, her time as an elementary schoolteacher, her days as one of the first women in congress, and marching with thousands in processions for Purisima, the national holiday celebrating the Immaculate Conception all told in a forceful, voluble Spanish transformed my perception of the narrow, rustic living room where we sat.
Within minutes my grandmother's 78-year-old sister, Elba, was at the door. "I heard my sister is here and that she brought Lucy's boy!" Aunt Elba said, standing outside the wrought-iron security door. She saw me and exclaimed, "Wow! But he is a grown man!"
I found myself distracted by Odie, one of Aunt Xiomara's three Shih Tzus, who kept barking at me. Aunt Xiomara apologized: "She is like that with everyone she doesn't know." I barked back at Odie, thinking it odd I was a stranger in my family's home. Aunt Xiomara just laughed. "My dad likes to call her the gang banger," she said of the dog. I suddenly felt at ease.
Later I walked the few blocks to Aunt Daysi's house, and we began planning a cross-country sojourn. We would go to Granada, founded in 1524 by Francisco Fernandez de Crdoba; Len, Granada's political rival for centuries; Masaya, overshadowed by an enormous live volcano; and Juigalpa, perhaps the poorest town in Nicaragua. Then we'd head for the Pacific coast, where the first attempt at a transcontinental canal was hatched.
After we departed, we found everywhere hints of the Sandinista years. My aunt and cousins had survived an Orwellian time, I realized. For example, shortly after the Sandinistas took power, Aunt Daysi recollected, her husband Salvador was accused of being a member of Somoza's "Mano Blanca," secret police who tortured and killed hundreds of Nicas suspected of collaborating with the Sandinistas. "None of us slept the night they came looking for him," Aunt Daysi said. "I told my father to run for his life," my cousin Manolo added. "But my father told me he wouldn't do that because he had nothing to hide."
Luckily Salvador was able to convince authorities the accusations were false. I would have loved to shake his hand, but he died a few years ago from colon cancer.
During one of my sightseeing excursions with Daysi's clan, we spent the day at Montelimar, an oceanside resort reminiscent of Miami Beach's Fontainebleau Resort. Montelimar is the site of the old Somoza family compound, which has been converted into a casino by the Spanish resort chain that now owns it.
On the car ride there, my grandmother and Daysi reminisced about the days when they were invited to La Casona, as the Somoza compound was known. As we made our way into Montelimar's parking lot, my grandma told me she wished she had never gone back to Miami. "I belong here," grandma said. "I want to live in Nicaragua again."
Montelimar offered everything from massages to kayak rentals. A $40-per-person entrance fee bought us access to pools, tennis courts, and beaches. The price also included all the Victoria beer, Flor de Caña rum, piña coladas, and daiquiris we could drink. And there were breakfast, lunch, and dinner buffets. For an extra $21 per person, we could have spent the night in a spacious cabana.