Tania picked me up at 8:25 (to prove to me that Nicaraguans can arrive earlier than expected) and we walked to the school where we would be co-teaching for the next two years. I met the principal, who returned my hand shake by sandwiching my hand between two of his. That’s when you know someone really wants you there. I felt very welcome, and was excited to work there, but even more excited to surpass the challenges that would be presented to me. The school was pretty small, and I took a peek at the surrounding student gardens and greenhouse. Students from every direction came and greeted “Profe Tania” with smiles. She’s clearly an adored member of this community, and living right next to the school helps her form these close relationships with her high schoolers.
After visiting the school, we walked to a local non-profit that provides arts & crafts classes, and several other workshops for children and women. I wrote down the names of the women I met there, because I knew that I couldn’t possibly remember them all. I’ll definitely be coming back here to help in which ever way I can, I thought. The thing with being in the Peace Corps is that you can’t just barge into a community and help out immediately without knowing what the community wants and needs. You have to patiently sit back, observe, meet people, and form relationships if you ever want to get anything done. Why would they trust you if you wouldn’t listen to their needs?
We walked down the hill and through the downtown area, chatting about Tania’s students. I immediately felt even more comfortable around her once she mentioned that she didn’t tolerate homophobic bullying in her classroom. “That’s a problem in the school, that the gay students are bullied”, she said. “As a teacher, I have to say something, because everyone deserves to be treated with respect”. I was happy to have been placed with such an open-minded counterpart. She promptly showed me how to get to a feminist organization down the street. We entered, and I was greeted by a rainbow-colored sign that reinforced the idea that there was no discrimination allowed in this space. It had photos of same-sex couples holding hands, and I continued to feel more at ease. After having been in such a heteronormative, machista-dominated environment, this was a breath of fresh air. Forget fresh coffee, Matagalpa was the progressive little nook I had been longing for since my August arrival.
I chatted with one of the women in charge of the organization for a bit, and she told me about the events that take place in this building. The host film screenings, talks, and even concerts. They have to be very particular about who they invite to play music, she added. Apparently one male singer singer began singing “El Rey” which is basically an ode to male alcoholism. They promptly cut him off. People are ridiculous.
On our way out, Tania explained the legislative progresses and setbacks that have affected women. One step forward has been the “Ley 779”, which (if enforced) sentences male physical/sexual abuser to jail. This is if the female is confident enough to report him, or if she is even aware of this law. Many women in the countryside aren’t even aware of this law. Tania then treated me to some fried chicken at 11 AM. I wasn’t too hungry, since my host sister fed me a ton for breakfast, but I accepted anyway. We talked about anything and everything that came to our minds. Tania asked me if I believed in God, and I said that although I was baptized Catholic, I’m more of a spiritual person. When I’m sitting in an airplane during a bout of turbulence, that’s when I’m quick to start praying to God. I usually believe that there is something else out there watching over us, but I disagree with the ways in which so many organized religions feel the need to tell people what they can and cannot do.
Our last stop of the day was a visit to Carlos Fonseca’s house. Fonseca founded the FSLN (The Sandinista Party), which mobilized people of all classes in order to oust the Samoza dictatorship in the 1970s. Fonseca was killed several decades ago, but his memory as a fighter for the common people lives on. His house has been preserved as a small museum, where you can find a statue of himself sitting on a chair, as well as his old type writer and machine gun. I appreciated the section of the museum that dedicated itself to the women of the revolution. The caption “Sin la participación de la mujer, no hay revolución” (“without the participation of women, there is no revolution”), said it all. In June 2014, I had submitted a 10-page research paper to a Mexican online magazine about the role of Nicaraguan women in the war as well as their roles in collectives today. After having lived here, my opinions have definitely become more realistic and informed about the levels of women’s empowerment here. Coming to Matagalpa has given me hope. Yes, machismo still exists in everyday life here, and yes, women are treated as objects. However, the vital role that women played in the revolution, and the dynamic role they play today in the formation of autonomous spaces (like feminist collectives) is a greater testament to their never-ending fight for societal recognition and respect.
By the time dinner rolled around, I met with my roommate and another Peace Corps volunteer for pizza. You have to look really hard if you want pizza that’s made with tomato sauce instead of ketchup. I traded a slice of my jalapeño and chorizo pizza for my roommate’s pineapple and bacon slice. For American standards, this pizza wasn’t so great. The crust was so thin that I ended up folding my slice like a taco, and the chorizo wasn’t as flavorful as I’d hoped. For Peace Corps standards, this was a bougie meal. $5 for a medium pie is a splurge! I’ve definitely been here long enough to think that this is good pizza, I thought. As I walked back to my apartment, my stomach was pretty content, and I kept thinking about how different of an experience it is get grab a slice of pizza here than it is from doing so in the states. Lots of things are different, and that’s why I’m here.