Musician, Activist Puts Fresh Face on Social Justice
It’s better to leave the house mentally prepared for anything. At least, that’s what Mario Sacasa says he’s learned to do since moving back to Nicaragua to devote himself full-time to humanitarian work and his music career.
“The typical day where I have to go to the office and then do a sound check and I’m wearing a T-shirt is the day a minister comes in or you have to meet with the president; and the day you meet with the president or a minister of health is the day you have to unload a truck of wheelchairs or go to a sound check,” he said about never knowing how to dress appropriately for the day ahead.
“Being a fan of jazz music and blues has helped me in a sense that I really appreciate the art of improvisation.”
The music career of this husky-voiced pop singer is parallel to his work running a humanitarian foundation, Future of Nicaragua. In fact, the foundation’s first project involved both of his passions, by bringing together 25 big-name national musicians to record a song called “Volver a Nacer,” or “To be Reborn.”
“In one night here in Managua, in a studio with no air conditioning, one by one the biggest names in Nicaraguan music came in,” Sacasa said, rattling off names like the Mejía Godoy brothers and reggae singer Philip Montalbán.
“I told them it was for children and they didn’t ask for a cent,” he said. “It went against everything people had told me, that everyone is divided. If it’s possible for artists to get together and look beyond differences … then it’s possible to make changes in Nicaragua. It was a nice harbinger to the organization.”
Many of the musicians who came in that night had been popular protest musicians during the final years of the Somoza family dictatorship. That made the night especially poignant for Sacasa, who is a direct descendent of the original dictator, Anastasio Somoza García.
After the 1979 Sandinista Revolution, when he was 5, his family fled to the United States. For many years, Sacasa didn’t think he’d ever be welcomed back into this country he now calls home.
“I’m fortunate every day I wake up in Nicaragua,” he said. “I didn’t feel it in the U.S., but every morning I thank God because it’s been so many years away, so many years that I didn’t think I’d be able to come back.”
Sacasa grew up in Washington, D.C., straddling two cultures. He learned English in school, while speaking Spanglish and eating traditional gallo pinto at home, where his grandparents told him stories of Nicaragua.
During high school, two important events took place: Sacasa started playing guitar, and the Sandinista Front was voted out of office in 1990. This meant that the teenager who dreamed of becoming a professional musician was free to return to Nicaragua.
In the years that followed, he visited several times with his parents, who began making humanitarian medical missions to Nicaragua and Guatemala to repair cleft palates. But it would be more than a decade before Sacasa bought a one-way ticket back to his native country.
He studied intercultural communications and music at the University of Maryland, played in a moderately successful folk rock band called “River,” and worked as a session guitarist for several rising musicians. Then in 2001, he released an acclaimed solo album, “Del Sur” and started making plans to move to Miami to focus on his music career.
But then he began thinking about how to give back “to the country that’s given my family and myself so much, my roots,” he said.
So Sacasa read about other humanitarian organizations working in Nicaragua and started to consider what he could bring to the table. In 2002, Future of Nicaragua, the non-profit organization Sacasa and his parents created, began with the musical project.
Sacasa says his organization, which operates on a yearly budget of about $100,000 in mostly private donations, is not a political vehicle. Its stated goal is to instill hope and implement immediate and efficient programs that enhance the quality of life in local Nicaraguan communities. It does this through his parents’medical missions, drinking water initiatives, supporting education and fostering cultural exchange programs.
The California-based organization Wheels for Humanity recently chose to honor Sacasa with their Freedom of Mobility humanitarian award for his work coordinating the delivery and fitting of hundreds of wheelchairs each year for poor people here.
Some of the organization’s funding has wound up about 12 miles east of Managua, at a dusty and tranquil 10-acre center for abused girls.
“This country is so poor,” says Sister Sirlei Ararat, sitting on a wooden rocker under the shade of a hanging corrugate aluminum roof. The private Catholic center depends on donations, the nun says, and Sacasa’s organization helps provide food, blankets, health care and clean water here.
“Nicaragua needs more people to give it a hand in order to move forward,” she said.
“How great would it be if we had more young people who wanted to help Nicaragua like this?”
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