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NICARAGUA

By TextDennis Volman / November 1, 1983



Sometimes in Managua, everything blurs but the people. Shattered by an earthquake in 1972, the downtown of Nicaragua's capital was never rebuilt. Today Managua is a centerless city - a curious, dusty Latin American L.A. but without freeways, and with few swimming pools.

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Much of what is called Managua is a series of suburbs strung together by roads. The roads seem to be punctuated with shopping centers and progressions of revolutionary billboards. Residential areas, usually tucked away on obscure side roads, are hidden from highway traffic.

Seen through car windows on a blazing hot afternoon, Managua looks like an indistinct mass of written slogans, exhortations, open pickup trucks teeming with people, slightly run-down supermarkets, nondescript restaurants, and stretches of amorphous wooden buildings.

But always, something catches the eye, some moment of human contact takes place that reminds you of how overwhelmingly small-town Managuans are:

The policewoman who calls you ''amorcito'' (little love) as she asks for your papers at a checkpoint. Street children who beg but want to chat even if they are refused money. The innumerable friends who honk their horns as they pass on the road. All these commonplace incidents testify that it takes more than earthquakes, barren landscapes, revolution, and war to overcome Nicaraguans' relentless drive to communicate with one another.

Playful, sometimes skeptical, often affectionate banter is heard wherever Nicaraguans congregate. Their conversations are colored by their history - which includes more than 400 years of war, earthquakes, and social injustice. Nicaraguans express a humor that acknowledges the difficult conditions of life here. They accept difficulty as inevitable, but defiantly show that they are nobody's fools. They know humbug, hypocrisy, and injustice when they see it.

Nicaraguan humor is part jive, part street smarts. It is also expressive ironic shrugs and knowing insinuations. And yet it is essentially tolerant, rarely nasty, not aggressive, more interested in entertaining the listener than in cutting him down to size.

No matter how problematic life becomes, Nicaraguans will not be browbeaten. They will fall back on the small pleasures, like talking and joking with neighbors.

It is a humor of the oppressed, but not of the servile. Class differences are strong in Nicaragua. Social oppression has occurred since the Spanish conquerors enslaved the local Indian population. But compared with El Salvador and Guatemala, Nicaragua's rich have never been as rich, nor its poor as destitute.

In a way, the strong landholding peasant class has set the country's social tone. Even before the revolution that put the Sandinistas in power in 1979, Nicaraguans tended to be relatively direct, down to earth, and egalitarian. Domestic servants in Nicaragua were never as servile or self-abasing, as passively accepting of an employer's injustice as those in most other Central American nations. At the same time, the nation's aristocratic families were likely to affect a saltier humor than the El Salvador's 14 ''first families,'' who showed a haughty sophistication.

But Nicaragua's aristocracy doesn't need elaborate manners. Like most of their countrymen from wealthy oligarch down to migrant worker, they have an innate dignity. And although they are chatty and sociable, they do not match the stereotype of Latin Americans as voluble, wildly gesticulating people.