Held Hostage by History

By Sandy M. Fernandez
Sunday, January 29, 2006

Her parents rarely talked about the war that forced her family to leave Nicaragua. She had to track down an old news photo to understand why

I am not exactly sure when my mother first told me about the photo. But I know when I decided to find it: May 2004, after a painful fight with my parents during dinner at a downtown restaurant.

About a month before, I had taken my boyfriend, a straightforward Nebraskan, for his first visit to my family's home country of Nicaragua. I spent the first half of my childhood there--initially in Jinotepe, the highland town where my dad grew up, and then in Managua, the sprawling capital. My family left in 1979, packing just a few suitcases before fleeing Nicaragua's civil war. The country is both where I come from and who I am. I needed Rob, who was becoming important in my life, to experience it with me. So we rented a Toyota Tercel, weaving from gorgeous, volcanic-sand beaches on the Pacific coast to inland cities still pockmarked with bullet holes from the revolution. 

After Rob and I came back, I wrote a travel piece about the trip for the Post. I mentioned my parents in the story, and so, to give the facts an extra vetting, I asked them to read the piece. I knew something was wrong when the three of us got all the way to dessert, and they still had not mentioned it.

Finally, my mother folded her hands on the table and said, "Now, I think we should discuss your article."

What followed wasn't pretty. My parents didn't have an issue with the personal information I'd included. Instead, they honed in on a two-sentence recap of the civil war and its aftermath: My description of how the Marxist Sandinista rebels brought down the corrupt government of President Anastasio Somoza, whose family had ruled Nicaragua for over four decades. A U.S. embargo, economic deprivation, and about a dozen years of fighting with the "contras," or counter-revolutionaries, followed.

I grew up in a strongly anti-Sandinista household, and then as an adult chose to live and work among people who, if they were old enough,sported "U.S. Out of Central America" stickers on their backpacks. In the travel piece, I thought I had successfully avoided pandering to or insulting either side. Apparently, I was wrong.

We had lots of friends in the government, my mother said tensely, so when you say the government was corrupt, you're saying our friends were corrupt. And the thing you wrote about how, post-revolution, the U.S. embargo had been an attempt to oust the Sandinistas -- totally wrong, said my father. "It was cliché," he said. "I stopped reading."

I felt completely blindsided. Suddenly, my parents--people who, if staunchly conservative, were also clear-eyed and logical--seemed to have morphed into Somocista zealots. I knew both of them had worked for the Somoza government--my mother for the Department of the Interior, my father mostly for the Central Bank--and I certainly hadn't missed the "Support the Nicaraguan Freedom Fighters" bumper sticker that decorated our car in the early 80s. But this--the emotion, the antipathy, over a breezy travel article--this felt outsized, crazy. And it felt personal, as though they were fending off an attack that I hadn't known I was making.

At a loss, I tried negotiating. What if I just used the word corrupt to describe the Somoza family, instead of the government? Wasn't that ok? Wasn't Somoza corrupt?

Lots of governments are corrupt, my father snapped back. True, I said, but that's not what I was asking.

"OK, yes, it was corrupt," he spit out dismissively.

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