San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

My Tico Times Column on Day-to-Day Life in Sandinista Nicaragua Gave Me My Voice

Dery didn’t give up easily. She kept asking me to write a column for The Tico Times from Managua, and I kept saying no.

I actually liked the idea, but I was in Managua as a journalist for Time Magazine. I’d promised them exclusivity.

And I was afraid to ask. But Dery kept asking me, and finally, I got up the courage to ask Time. No problem, I was told.

Managua in the mid-1980s was at the crux of the Cold War. U.S. President Ronald Reagan had warned that Sandinista Nicaragua was only a two-day march from Harlingen, Texas.

The Contra war was at its peak, and the stories were big: a plane downed, Nicaraguan aid to the Salvadoran rebels, Sandinista reactions to important declarations in Washington, an oil embargo, a daily litany of bombs, mines, press conferences.

As a foreign correspondent in Managua, I lived this daily litany. And yet everyday life was something more, something different, than being caught in this somewhat absurd conflict between – in Reagan’s terms – Communism and capitalism, between good and evil.

Sandinista women used makeup and went to beauty parlors, and at least one Army official got the latest cosmetics from her sister who worked with the Contras in Miami. The Sandinistas – and just about everyone else in the country – watched soap operas, and could passionately discuss every episode. Forget about press conferences while the whole nation was watching Derecho de Nacer.

Food was scarce and rationed, but people invented exotic recipes with mangos and local ingredients. Those who had access to the dollar store could trade toilet paper for contraband beef or campesino-raised duck. The dollar store, a sort of glorified grocery store that vacillated between being available to anyone with dollars to being excusively for the foreign diplomatic corps and Sandinista elite, was a story in itself. Who was buying all the Mickey Mouse towels?

As much as I loved my work with Time, observations about daily life had no place in my articles. Dery wanted a column. And I gained a space for my perceptions of life in the midst of Reagan’s Evil Empire.

So I wrote about food and soap operas and makeup and sometimes about Sandinista bungling and sometimes about Contra atrocities.

I wrote about what it felt like to cover stories and I wrote about the stories behind the stories. And as I wrote, I became more and more observant of the ironies and tenderness of daily life in Nicaragua.

There was a war going on, but there was also a joyful life. Contras and Sandinistas were enemies, but the hatred stopped at the dinner table or over the makeup counter. I began to look for these details in every story that I covered, in every step of daily life. I wanted to have fodder for my column at The Tico Times.

I found a voice. It was a voice that looked at daily details and conveyed them in narrative form so that the reader could form his or her own conclusions. Time eventually sent in someone from Mexico to take my place, and I started to work for a succession of other media, this time without exclusivity.

Many of my Tico Times columns became the seeds for stories and op-eds. I found that the stories that emerged from my columns were almost always more commented on than my coverage of the big stories.

And although I left Managua in 1988, just before the Nicaraguan elections, to go to Berlin, I wasn’t that surprised that the Sandinistas lost. It was all there – between the lines – in my columns.

Details, observation of daily life, and narrative expression told the story in a way that press conferences and news stories couldn’t. I intuited that even before I began my column. And today, that’s what I teach my journalism students. The Tico Times gave me the venue for my emerging voice.

Whenever someone asked me who I had worked for in Managua, I replied “Time and then The Miami Herald and some other media.” I figured that was how people would remember my Managua stint.

I might have had second thoughts. I was waiting for my luggage in the Warsaw airport, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I noticed a familiar-looking man with an American passport slightly sticking out of his shirt pocket.

I was pretty sure it was Roy Gutman, then of Newsday, whom I had met once in Managua. He was looking at me too, and walked over, confirming his identity and adding, “You’re the columnist from Managua for The Tico Times.”

 

–June Carolyn Erlick

(June Carolyn Erlick, publications director for Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, is the author of Disappeared: A Journalist Silenced (Seal Press, 2004). She also teaches journalism at Harvard Extension School, and is on leave in Bogotá, Colombia with a Fulbright Fellowship.)