Two soft-spoken Nicaraguans talked for two hours last week about their experiences as reading and writing teachers in a rural region of their country that is under frequent attack from rebels supported by the United States. When they were done, a basket that had been passed among the four dozen listeners in an elementary-school cafeteria here contained more than $200 for school supplies in the war-torn nation.
It was not a lot of money, especially compared with the tens of thousands of dollars that have flowed from Texans to the contras. The state has a reputation as a hotbed of anti-Sandinista fervor.
Yet for the two teachers, on a two-month tour of the United States under the sponsorship of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), the basket was gratifying evidence that many Americans do not support their government's policy of aiding the contras.
``We are here to gain American support for Nicaragua,'' said Nestor Munoz L'opez, a quiet man with sad dark eyes. ``We want people here to better understand.''
``Yes,'' added Noelia Caceres Escoto, whose sparkling eyes are the antithesis of Mr. Munoz's. ``If the American people can understand, that will make a difference. They can pressure their congressmen to change as well.'' When told that Austin is home to a woman who gave $65,000 to buy the contras a helicopter, the teachers smiled and asked if they might meet her. ``Maybe in a little way,'' Ms. Escoto said, ``we can help bring peace.''
Sending two rural teachers on a speaking tour in the US is an ``experiment'' for the AFSC, according to Sheryl Hirshon, an American acting as the teachers' translator. Rather than inviting bureaucrats from the education ministry in Managua, the Quaker organization decided to invite two practicing teachers whose personal experiences might be better received. The speaking tour is seen by the AFSC as an extension of its longtime program to collect school supplies in this country for Nicaraguan schools.
An AFSC spokesman says the teachers' tour is not part of any organized Sandinista public-relations campaign.
After stops in New York, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, the teachers are touring the Southwest - Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, southern California.
Both Mr. Munoz and Ms. Escoto come from peasant backgrounds and now teach in the mountainous Matagalpa region of their country. Neither has attained a high-school level of education, but both are pursuing their studies. They said that, as teachers, they and the country's health workers are a prime target of the contras. Especially in the rural areas, teachers and health workers are the most visible symbols of the Sandinista regime.
The Nicaraguan government says that some 250 teachers, as well as a number of health workers, have been killed by the contras.
In contrast to a recent appearance in Austin of Mario Calero, a representative of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force and brother of former contra leader Adolfo Calero, the two teachers' public appearance in Austin ran smoothly. Mr. Calero had been greeted by 40 chanting protesters when he arrived to address the Young Conservatives of Texas, and his closed-door speech was interrupted by infiltrators yelling ``murderer'' and ``assassin'' in Spanish.
When the teachers' talk was opened to questions, one young man wanted to know if there are still many Cubans teaching in Nicaragua. Another asked if the two saw any signs of the US humanitarian aid for the contras.
A man rose and identified himself as a Nicaraguan who left his country four years ago after his disenchantment with the Sandinistas. ``I think the USA should not be aiding the contras,'' he said. ``But everyone should know you cannot have a meeting like this today in Nicaragua. It is not free.'' He started to describe what he called ``so much hate in Nicaragua,'' but was interrupted by an American woman who asked if he was ``only here to disrupt this meeting?'' His small stab at free speech squelched, the man sat down.
The next day, two teachers visited an international-studies class at St. Edward's University in Austin. The most passionate questions came from some Central American students.
One young woman from Honduras asked about religious freedom in Nicaragua. Munoz, a lay Roman Catholic worker, says he is free to practice his religion, just as some of his relatives are free to follow their ``evangelistic'' sect.
A young man from Panama asked why a contra leader like Ed'en Pastora, who once supported the Sandinista revolution, now finds it necessary to fight? Munoz said it is because some Nicaraguans like Mr. Pastora could not support land distribution and other Sandinista reforms.
But the Panamanian shook his head in doubt. He said many Nicaraguans are coming into his country. ``Why is that? These people would probably say it's because of the war, and that may be,'' he said. ``But those [entering Panama] will tell you it's because of things like freedom of press and religion.''
After the presentation, a well-dressed student from Mexico engaged Munoz in a short debate. Munoz, who earns $20 month as a teacher, speaks of equality. The young Mexican, a business major, speaks of individual freedom and the merits of a wealthy elite. Listening in, the observer has the feeling the region's strife has not yet played itself out.