New Work

Sifting Through The Memory Banks pt.2...

Day 2…

3/15/10

We started early in the morning leaving the hostel and loading up the bus with all of our bags, after a hearty breakfast of rice and bean and scrambled eggs. 

We headed first to what was apparently the very first fair trade co-op in the world. From the looks of the place I would have imagined it to have been simply another sweat shop, but once we interviewed one of the women as she worked, she told us that at the sweatshop she had in fact worked at previously before working there, that they were treated much more poorly, that they could be fired without any reason given whatsoever.

For five days a week for probably 8-10 hrs, her job is to sew the tags onto the back of the shirts, this is the only task she does. I am still hesitate to call this “fair trade”… Although more of the proceeds go back into the pockets of the women who work here than would those at a corporate sweatshop. 

From the fair trade clothes company we headed to what was supposed to be a ceramics shop but it turned out that it was closed, so we ended up traveling to a Barrio where Debbie had established contacts with some of the local residents and had arranged for us to visit and talk with them. The neighborhood was my first face to face encounters with the extreme poverty of Managua. We spent almost an hour making house visits with some of the locals, it was extremely awkward at first. Simply meandering up to a strangers home with our translator Jorge (who as I will talk about more latter ends up becoming a fantastic friend) and trying to ask questions about their life with little or no provocation. At first it felt very intrusive simply walking in and asking people about their life, which to them I’m sure seemed perfectly normal, but from the appearance of a bunch of wide eyed gringo’s I’m sure it appeared as if most of us though that they’re living in real poverty (But what I knew better was that even these people were far better off then others I would come to meet). 

The first family I visited the boy Obando came to the door first and then his mother Nelly and his father Eddy came out and greeted us and invited us in. Me and Corey went into the house into what was set up like a living room which was probably about a 5 x 7 where we sat and asked them questions about their work, their worries and the members of their family including their children. The father makes cookware at a factory during the day and the mother stays at home and takes care of the two boys. They worry about loans they have taken from the bank and if they will be able to pay them off.

The next family we visited was a few blocks walk from the first house, the woman who took us was living with her entire extended family, which was her husband and around 8 others children. He is the sole breadwinner acting as a school security guard, he plays the guitar and so does one of his sons, they were about to play a song for us but it was time to leave, like most of the places we visited things always felt too rushed. It was painful at times leaving these people so soon after just getting a glimpse into their life, it actually felt to me disrespectful to simply run into a neighborhood, ask questions and leave in a hurry to another location. Like taking something without giving too, it’s simply never sat right with me…

After the barrio we left and went to a market to buy food for a rushed and chaotic lunch on the moving bus. Bouncing about trying to hurriedly eat piping hot tortillas stuffed with cut up avocados, cucumbers and tomatoes can be quite a messy experience… At the market there was a group of women gathered singing out of a PA system some evangelical gospels.

While I was searching for some oranges, I ran into a group of older men who had obviously been high or drinking early in the day, one of the men who looked african american (which I found interesting because I probably saw less than a I could count on a hand the whole time I was there) spoke very good english and asked me about where I was from, we talked for maybe five minutes he told me about the states, which made me think he was not a native too. The group was calling me so I told him I had to go, he said how nice it was to meet me and I thanked him too and jumped on the bus, I can’t for the life of me remember his name now…

We went to the airport looking for the missing donation bags as well as Bree and Loreal which still hadn’t arrived. No luck.

So after lunch we went to the University of Nicaragua. We visited two classrooms, talke to students learning english and then lift again in a scramble as we were trying to catch the sweatshop workers as they were leaving the factory. Between 4 and 5 o’clock is when the shift change occurs.

People come pouring out of the factory. I expected to see lots of children or people who looked disheveled but supsisingly people were well dressed and looked as if they were ready to go out for the night with some exceptions of course. Like this woman who was scrounging for change outside the entrance, the security guards didn’t like me taking pictures either…

We spent the next two hours there interviewing person after person about their lives, their jobs and their feelings surrounding the sweatshop institution. It was incredible to hear their perspectives, each bringing a different reason, idea or concern for why they found themselves working there. It was also very common to hear some of the same scripted answers to questions about how long their shift was, how they were treated etc. 

One of the things I had to get use to over the course of the trip was listening for these scripted responses by workers. One has to understand not only the circumstances under which the questions are being asked but also the historical context of much of the countries history in order to fully understand why people cannot answer as truthfully when posed questions.

Its very common for people to lie about things because of the incredible amount of fear which is used to control them, they are told to not talk to anyone and that if they do the company will fire everyone and will take their business out of nicaragua to another country and everyone, not just them,will be out of a job. So most people choose to stay silent. Nicaragua has been a victim of a culture of silence for the better part of its history, or atleast since western eurocentric interestests have shown interest in the regions labor and resources. From the contra wars , to the oppressive dictatorships and revolutions that have taken place inside and across its boarders(that we have helped fund and train most of the militant forces right in good old Georgia at The School of Americas. Look it up.) it has been deeply wounded. Both it’s land and people.

A culture of silence can never heal,  because it can never name the object of its oppression and therefore cannot retain any power; it is consumed by fear and terror and unable to seize authority or rightful ownership over itself. Here in america we might think something like this preposterous, that it couldn’t exist here but even in america there are places where this is true, there are companies many of whos products we probably use on a regular basis, whos employes (mostly immigrants) are put into similar circumstances… what affect does this have on you and me? are we part of a system that produces cultures of silence? How do we not know things like this exist, is it because we ourselves function within our own culture of silence?

Finally after our very long day we made it back to the hostel exhausted, sweaty and grateful for food and a bed.   

Scott KaplanComment