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 miseria rather than a three-bedroom townhouse in northwest Miami-Dade.
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.
Most Nicaraguans get by on less than a dollar a day. Fifty percent of the population lives below the poverty line, one of the highest numbers in the Western Hemisphere.
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The political situation is as corrupt as ever. Convicted ex-President Arnoldo Alemán, who is serving a twenty-year sentence at his private ranch, continues to lord over the Constitutional Liberal Party. Daniel Ortega, who invoked congressional immunity from prosecution when his stepdaughter accused him of sexually abusing her, continues to lead the Sandinistas.
Yet as my trip came to an end, I found myself wishing I would have come home sooner. I had neglected my roots for far too long. I envied my cousins because they had something I was missing in Miami: a profound understanding of and love for Nicaragua's culture and traditions.
Since my return, part of me wants to retire there, die there to leave behind forever the grind of Miami. I have found myself fantasizing about selling my townhouse and using the money to buy an oceanside hacienda in San Juan del Sur and open an English-language school. Sure, it sounds like wishful dreaming. But that's what happens when you visit a magical place like home.
After nearly three decades of being ambivalent about my birthplace, I am more than proud to repeat a line familiar to all Nicas: Soy nicaragüense por la gracia de dios.