Wednesday, August 20, 2008

When the political become personal

Way back in the last century while I was still a naive and gullible undergrad at Williams College, I studied Political Science. Specifically the politics of Nicaragua and the politics of Spain. My senior thesis was a comparison of the two political systems. Don't ask me what the outcome of the paper was as I don't remember, but I realize now how little I knew then.

I had a Poli Sci professor from Argentina, Carlos Egan, whose passion was Latin American politics - and North American coeds, but that's a-whole-nother story. Anyway, he got us all interested in and excited about Nicaraguan politics in the early and mid 1980's. Right around the same time the the Iran-Contra Fiasco was making headline news. He wagged his finger at American politicians and their militaristic tendencies, and we all ate it up.

Some of my classmates went to Nicaragua to see the Sandinista Revolution first-hand, but I couldn't. My parents refused to let me go there; if I wanted to study Spanish, it would have to be in Spain. So off I went to Madrid, fell in love with the country and a certain young Spaniard - but that too is a-whole-nother story.

Anyway, Carlos teamed up with the athletic department at Williams, and they invited the Nicaraguan national basketball team to come to Williams for a tournament during the fall of one of my years at Williams. They weren't a very competitive team, but they opened our eyes to the real-life situation in that Central American nation. The coach of the team went home with me for Thanksgiving that year. He had never been to a large city like Brooklyn, New York, so he spent hours each day walking around our neighborhood in awe of it all.

Two or three days before Thanksgiving, as we were beginning the long hard preparatory march to the most gluttonous feast of the year, he opened the fridge and peered in. It was on one of those days when we just wanted to dump all the leftovers to make room for the turkey, veggies, and all the other holiday fixings. He stood there looking at what we were more than willing to throw away and said, "I have never seen this much food in one place in all my life." And he was the coach of the Nicaraguan National Basketball Team.

That was the first time that all the politics I'd been studying at Williams came home to where I lived in Brooklyn.

Going to Nicaragua two and a half weeks ago had the same effect.

Twenty-five years after begging my parents to let me go, I was finally able to take the trip to Nicaragua. To hear the stories of the Sandinistas from the people who lived through them. Truthfully, most of the people I met were too young to have fought the war between the revolutionaries and the US-backed Contras. But their fathers and grandfathers fought. Their mothers and grandmothers fought too. And nowadays, while most Americans know nothing about that war and precious few care about Nicaragua at all, the fallout from the political decisions made by a secretive and powerful few Americans nearly 30 years ago is landing hard on the heads of those beautiful children we met in that beautiful country.

Paradise, the poorer of the two desperately poor communities we visited, is inhabited by Contra fighters and their children and grandchildren. They fought a war financed by this country. They lost that war. The American funding stopped flowing. The winners of the war, the Sandinistas, felt no obligation to take care of Nicaraguans who had fought against them. So for all these years, Charlie and Paisy's families have squatted on land that they were promised as payment for their efforts. They squat and wait, hoping for electricity, for running water, for job opportunities, and for general acceptance at home and in the international community. Someday.

So I stood there in Paradise, thinking about Carlos and Poli Sci 104, my introduction to international relations. I thought about Gloria and Nicole, the Nicaraguan dance teacher and her daughter, who came to Williams while I was an undergrad. Little baby Nicole, who I held in my arms one night in February of 1987 while her mother directed and performed in a dance show in Lasell Gymnasium in Williamstown. Little Nicole whose presence in my arms caught the eye of a certain young man named Steve - who said that he watched me hold and care for that baby that night. Who said that watching me love that baby made him ponder the possibility of loving me.

Years later, Carlos died in a plane crash as he returned from Nicaragua where he had proposed to Gloria; she had said "yes."

This handsome young man was the scorekeeper for the volleyball games we played. Perched high on that pole, he felt quite powerful. And undoubtedly pretty alone. Kinda like his antecedents who fought for the Contras.

So I stood there in Paradise, thinking about Carlos and Poli Sci 404 my senior seminar, thinking about Gloria and Nicole (wondering where they were at that moment), thinking about and watching my own daughter whose middle name is the same as the little baby who attracted her father to me, thinking about how the political can become so painfully and despairingly personal. And I wept.

I wept over the death of Carlos and the family he'd hoped to have with Gloria and Nicole.
I wept over the deaths of all the Contra fighters and Sandinistas years ago.
I wept because the outcome of that war affects them at every level of their existence, but seems to have no effect on ours.

Taking pinatas to hungry children. Fun for a moment.
But that candy does not fill their empty stomachs for long.

I wept over the ongoing conflicts that this nation is involved in around the world.
I wept over how little we know of what those conflicts will do to future generations - and current ones.
I wept over the countless enclaves like Paradise that have sprouted up and will continue to spring up because of the hopelessness and homelessness, poverty and sorrow that war always gives rise to.

And I wept because the political is always personal.


Jena Strong said...

Gail - I'm so moved by this post, and by learning more of your journey.

I have to ask - did you happen to know Ben Potter and/or Kate Forand at Williams? Dear friends of ours.

Shelby said...

very personal..very real. thanks for sharing this. wow.

Amy said...

I read this post a few days ago, and it really affected me, so much apparently, that I dreamt last night you and I talked about ti on the phone and your wound up in tears! What a powerful post, Gail.

jes said...

I am going to go back and read this post, as it seems like one I could really learn from.

I wanted to let you know that I don't have carpal tunnel. It's wrist tendinitis... a small blessing of sorts I am sure. I'm stuck wearing a brace on my right hand (which is the one I use to do everything!) and I'm taking a steroid. At first, my wrist started feeling worse, but I can sense it getting better. And for that reason, I won't complain about the brace ;)

Looking forward to reading this post! Take care :)