What I learned in 168 hours in Nicaragua

1000 750 Ellen Ensher
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Hammocks for Social Justice and Cookies as an Act of Rebellion

Ellen Ensher, Ph.D. Professor of Management


Why did Loyola Marymount University (LMU) sponsor 13 faculty/staff on a week-long trip to Nicaragua and why did I go? I was asked these questions several times over the past few months. When I shared with my students that I was going to Nicaragua with a group of faculty/staff, they asked me” So are you doing service? Building a house? Teaching maybe? No, well, what ARE you doing then?  Even more cringe-worthy was the response I received from an acquaintance at the gym who asked me about why I was going to Nicaragua and in reply to me he said, “It sounds like one of those poorism trips. “No, no, I said, it is nothing like that!Our intentions are the opposite of poorism,” I sputtered on feeling both indignant, inarticulate, and also humbled. In these moments, I realized that I needed to figure out for myself why I was going to Nicaragua as part the LMU Faculty/Staff immersion trip AND that I needed to get a lot better about articulating the purpose.

So here it is. My purpose in Nicaragua was to learn. I have spent my career teaching and creating others people learning experiences. This time I was the student along with 12 of my colleagues from various colleges and departments at LMU. We were diverse in many respects like gender, race, discipline, religion, and age, but united in our love for LMU and our mission of social justice and developing men and women in service for others. So, the LMU Nicaragua 2017 immersion trip was a learning pilgrimage. Or if you want a longer answer: The purpose of the LMU Nicaragua immersion trip was to give 13 faculty/administrators a chance to form a community from across different departments at LMU and go to Nicaragua and connect with our counterparts at the University of Central America, which like us is a Jesuit university. The purpose was also to learn about the historical, social, and political realities of the country. We went to learn what life is like for people in Nicaragua and to learn from people who are working to enact change and make life better not only for themselves but also for others, particularly the next generation.

To prepare for the trip we met once a month during the spring semester  and we learned background about Nicaragua and read the book, Faith and Joy by Father Fernando Cardenal (1934-2016). Fr. Cardenal was a Jesuit priest who lived in Nicaragua and out of his deep commitment to social justice became an active member of the Sandinistas. For me, his most notable accomplishment was being in charge of the literacy campaign which took the country in 1978 from “51% illiteracy to 12.9% illiteracy in five months of full-time effort.” Along the way he touched many lives with his spirit and his example. Fr. Cardenal was kicked out of the Jesuits in 1984 by Pope John Paul II and was critiqued for getting too involved politically.  He was later invited back to officially join the Jesuits which he accepted wholeheartedly.

On the trip we walked the path of Father Cardinal and visited the people who mattered to him and the places that would have resonated with him. In many respects this trip was a pilgrimage.

What did we actually do on our trip? Due to busy schedules, the full group never assembled prior to the trip so when we met in the airport that was our first meeting. Our trip leader, Father Bob Caro, sadly could not make the trip with us due to medical issues but we were fortunate to have Dino Entac, Assistant Director of Resident Ministry and Student Leadership, sign on as our group leader. Our schedule for 7 days was jam packed. Our days started with breakfast and then we had a full day of meetings and travel and reflection and group dinners. It was a bit like joining a crazy cult as we were removed from our routines, schedules, family, comfy lives and went from being strangers and acquaintances to becoming a very tight knit and amiable culture. I would say every group has its own personality and culture. Our culture was collegial in the very best sense of the world—humorous, caring, flexible and non-whiny. Any whining about discomfort was done sparingly, privately and quickly as the group morale was high and stayed that way throughout the trip. In the end, one of our colleagues became horribly ill on the flight on the way home and as others also fell victim I was struck by how caring and consistent we were. When we got off the plane with our newly wheelchair-bound stricken colleague, the flight attendant asked three of us if we were our colleague’s family. I said, “Yes, “we are his work family” because that is what we felt like.

Rather than relate every detail of our trip I am sharing a top ten of what I learned and what resonated for me, in no particular order. Here goes!

1) Trees of Life are not what they first appear. First, allow me to discuss the Trees. Or more simply put, the Trees of Life that are colorful, big, fake trees that dot Managua. When we arrived at the airport we first saw these beautiful colorful trees. Being half-Armenian I like to joke that I have an innate attraction to color and so, my initial thought was “ooh, pretty and I immediacy started plotting how I could find small versions to take home as I tend to be a bit acquisitive (yep, I do love shopping!) However my attraction turned to revulsion as the weeks went on as I learned the trees cost $25,000 each and were the first lady’s pet project. This seemed like a sickening use of funds in a country with an extreme poverty rate and unemployment and underemployment rate of approximately 60 percent. However, as I kept meeting people, learning, and listening to people I had to examine my reaction again as I realized how judgmental I was being. After all, in the US., we also have tremendous poverty, Anyone who has strolled down Rose Avenue in Venice can attest to the fact that side-by-side the pretty, shiny civic structures and public art venues are people literally lying and sleeping in the street, and if they are lucky, they might have a tent over their heads. So should art and beauty be sacrificed to feed people? I don’t know what the answer is as I suspect this is all highly nuanced. However, what I do know is that it is good to pause and be aware. One interesting conversation with a colleague, Dr. Dan, made me think. What if the trees could make money like a Tom’s Shoes one for one model? So you could get a photo with a tree or sell tree replicas and all the money goes to a scholarship at the University of Central America. Is there a way to make those pretty trees do some good besides just being pretty?


2) Who do you cast your lot with and who do you draw strength from? This was our opening question posed by Joe, our group’s local leader. This was a question inspired by a poem from Adrienne Rich. So, as our opening exercise, we went around the room and shared. I like to think after 20 years of teaching and training I pretty much have every opening question nailed but this was a new one. People went deep. For me these days, I cast my lot with women and helping other women thrive. So specifically I cast my lot with the women of the CBA, I cast my lot with the women of LMU and women afflicted with breast cancer. In other words, what group do you most vibe with that you feel connected to right now and that perhaps you can be of service to? I think who we cast our lot with changes over the course of our life time. So who do you cast your lot with? What gives you strength?

3) Hammocks are a form of social justice. One of the most impactful speakers for me was the social entrepreneur, Tio Antonio (Antonio Prieto), who is the founder of Cafe de las Sonrisas. As Tio Antonio said, “In a country where 99.3 percent of the disabled are unemployed, I wanted to do something to make this situation better.” Cafe de las Sonrisas employs folks who are deaf/deaf-mute which means meal ordering is done with sign language that is found on the walls and menu. After our meal, we were asked to put in earplugs to experience the world with less sound. The menu is simple but good and for someone like me with lactose intolerance you can even order food with no lactose as well. In addition to making great food, Café de las Sonrisas employs workers with a variety of disabilities who make gorgeous hammocks. Also, Tio Antonio employs single moms who also sew beautiful purses. Basically Tio Antonio gives people with no net a way to weave a life of dignity and purpose.


4) We do the best we can even though we live in a dictatorship. The day we visited the University of Central America was very hot. The AC was noisy and I was a little distracted by my morning tummy challenges. However, when the President of UCA said, “We live in a dictatorship so we do the best we can.” My ears perked up and I thought, “OMG, did he just say that?” The President of UCA is a Jesuit and like most of the Jesuits I admire so much, he is intelligent, warm, direct, and practical. The UCA is funded by the government in large part so does not have complete autonomy however there are 5,000 scholarships given to the rural poor so this university is an agent of change. I think being honest about the situation you are in and doing the best you can is a good take-away, not just politically but also personally.

5) Your judgment about First Lady depends on your lens. We were privileged to hear the stories and testimony of several women who were part of a women’s cooperative in a village near Esteli. The cooperative’s women shared their horrifying past experiences of being kidnapped, raped, and living with fear for six years as their village was under continuous attack by the militants. More importantly for them than the past was the present however. One woman spoke so poignantly and said, “I am happy now. I have food, I have friends and my children have more opportunities. When we asked her about the very controversial First Lady, she said, “my life is better I don’t judge her.”

6) Games are not just fun to facilitate but fun to do. Spending 7 days which were usually about 13 hours in length with a group of 13 can be challenging. However, our lack of friction and high camaraderie was remarkable. One night, my marketing colleague suggested we all do a scavenger hunt as a way to get to know the town. It was so much fun and one of my favorite memories. We walked around the small town and took a photo with a local family, we made a postcard, and had to find a Nicaraguan treat to eat and share. I am usually in the position of making other people participate in these activities so it was a blast to just go along for the ride.


Our Scavenger hunt photo with a local family!

7) Is discomfort a form of solidarity? The hardest thing for me about this trip was not being able to run around, exercise or move. I love to hike and be in nature and Nicaragua was gorgeous. While we visited the volcano and mountains, we did not get to hike or spend too much time in nature. One of my colleagues suggested that perhaps the lack of movement could become a form of solidarity with the people in Nicaragua who are also not physically comfortable or free to explore or move. Hmmm—I admit I found the idea annoying at the time but upon reflection, I see the value—the whole idea after all is to be uncomfortable, and push out of one’s comfort zone.

8) Baking cookies can be an act of rebellion. I loved meeting Josefina and hearing her story about her letting her 11 year old son go into the mountains to teach reading and writing to the villagers as part of the literacy movement. Her story made me reflect about letting go of my own son. I have a hard time letting him just walk down the street to see a friend and yet kids are really way more capable than what we think in many ways. Josefina was born into a life of privilege and wealth but gave it up when she and her husband became friends with Father Cardenal. She and her husband cast their lot with the poor and lost much of their wealth and position, and were ostracized by their family. At one point, because of their dire financial situation, Josefina decided to bake cookies and sell them. As she said, “Can you imagine a country without cookies?” As a woman it was very unusual for her to be the bread-winner and today she is a well know baker and business woman. It is not just about cookies but it is about taking action to improve your life.

9) Conscious consumerism and gratitude are not just buzzwords but can be a way of living differently. We visited an organic farm and met the goats who gave us our cheese and walked around the land. Every morsel we ate someone touched and breathed life into. When we visited the hammock store, we had a choice to buy from this store or another one. Where we buy and what we buy can be an act of solidarity.

10) Are you more afraid of NOT doing something or OF doing something? One of the most impactful speakers was a prominent leader of the opposition party, known as MRS (Sandinista Renovation Movement). This woman was a new mom to a 4 month old and shared about her convictions and what life is like on a watch list. Her life is one of constant surveillance and danger. We asked how she lives with the fear. She said, “I am more afraid of not doing something then doing something so I just live with it.” Words to live by.

I think if I had to boil down my experience to one takeaway it was to let go and listen. I was not there to teach or plan or worry about others experiences but simply to participate and listen with my whole heart, and be fully present. A friend once told me that a sign of a great life is to be happy to go on a trip but then to also be happy to come home. I am grateful I got to go, and grateful to be home again.