Léon, Nicaragua            October 4, 1998

Hello there:

One day last week León celebrated the day of the Virgen de la Merced.  It started out with people decorating the streets in front of their houses.  They’d use pieces of yellow or white flimsy plastic about 10"x12" in size, cut out little designs sort of the way we make paper snowflakes, put them on long strings and hang them yellow-white-yellow-white high across the streets.  Each household makes and hangs its own, but they follow a pattern that blends along the whole street.

It was really bright and pretty, and also amazing, the amount of work they went to, also arranging palm leaves and bouquets of flowers along the streets.  Grimy, grey neighborhoods became festive and pretty.

Vendors walked up and down the street selling souvenirs, food, gaseosas (soda pop – isn’t that a wonderful name for soda?), bags of water, cotton candy, whatever, while the crowds gathered.  There was a band of drums with a few bugles to play in each neighborhood while they waited.

People walk in the procession in a long line, followed by groups of children from the local Catholic schools, young men from the seminaries, the bishop, priests, and, finally, the Virgen de la Merced.

The Virgen is a statue larger than life-sized, holding a baby Jesus who looks like a miniature grown man as so many of the old statues and paintings do.  The statue is on a platform, I’m going to guess, that’s about ten feet by twenty feet.  It is not on a flatbed truck; it is hand-carried through the streets of Léon by men and women, a whole bunch of them, along front, back and sides.  When they came to places along the street where the strings of yellow and white pennants were too low, they bent way down as they carried the Virgen forward.  It must have been back-breaking.  The procession wandered through the streets of the town and people took turns carrying it.

La Virgen de la Merced is the patrona of León, and normally stays in the Church of the Merced, which is now being restored with a grant from the World Bank.  I asked why was she the patrona of León? And was told that maybe 300 years ago when the Cerro Negro volcano had a huge eruption, people prayed to her and she saved them.  That sounded a pretty good reason to me until later when someone else told me no, that was a different Virgen and a different volcano.

I have to check my history, but I believe that the original city of León was on Lake Managua and was destroyed by a volcano in the 1600s.

The day after the procession of La Virgen de la Merced, there was a big religious celebration by the gathering of Protestant churches in the baseball stadium.  Yes, I went to that, too.  They had a parade through town that I didn’t see because we went to the stadium early to be sure to get seats, and it’s a good thing we did.  There were hundreds of people left  standing.

This time the celebration honored the 429th anniversary of the translation of the Bible into Spanish.  Why they chose such an odd anniversary to celebrate I don’t know.  Maybe they do this every year and just tick off the years as they come.

Lee Cruz had a press conference on October 1st, officially announcing his leaving the New Haven-León Sister City Project.  Lee spoke, Harold Chavarria, the new director spoke, and so did a man from the office of the mayor of León.  Lee’s speech was quite touching: when he came to the part where he said, “I have spent one-third of my life in León,” he broke down.  His tears really touched the Nicaraguans (and me).   Lee will be missed here.  Maybe one day he will come back.  He’s only 39.

Brooms here are round and made of something that looks like a thin bamboo that feathers into tiny branches.  The handles are long, inch to inch-and-a-quarter thick branches.  In a word, they are typical witches brooms of our fairy tales.  I think they are beautiful and would love to take a bundle of them home with me for decorations and maybe to ride if I should join a coven.

The brooms get diligent use.  They sweep the floors over and over, even the dirt floors.  They sweep the yards and the streets in front of their houses, and one morning about six o’clock I saw Mirna’s sister Iselda sweeping the duck pen.  When was the last time you swept your duck pen?  How about your street?

I remember well as a child talking to my grandmother Jernberg about when she lived in a sod hut with a dirt floor in South Dakota.  “How did you sweep the floors?” I asked.  “We made brooms,” she replied.  But at that time, we lived in an area of loose sandy soil, and I knew you could sweep clear to China and you’d never get rid of the dirt.

Lolli had told me, after her stay here in Léon, that “Danelia’s kitchen has a dirt floor."  She paused.  "But you could eat off it,” she finished.   And so it is, here, with all the kitchens I’ve experienced.  Hard-packed earth that I don’t think quite qualifies as adobe.  The kitchens are outside, behind the house but they end up with a roof of some kind and usually some side walls.  Here at Mirna’s the kitchen is big, about a 16' x 16' area enclosed on three and a half sides, where we gather to talk when it’s raining, or after dark (which comes at 6:15).  The cooking block is in one corner, and much of the enclosure is open at the top of the walls to let out the smoke from the fire.

Television bring pictures of how Americans live, Yeah.  I try to modify that picture to be more realistic for them.  Some of them believe me, but some have ingrained notions that I think nothing will dislodge and are convinced that all Americans are rich.

One day Mirian had a 5-year-old catalog of bedding from one of those mail-order places in the US.  She pointed to a picture of overstuffed furniture and asked me if I had things like that.  “Yes,” I said, “But if I lived in León, I’d have rocking chairs with cane seats and backs for ventilation, just as you have.”  Then she pointed to a quilted bedspread with matching drapes and some beautiful, thick comforters.  I told her the reason they had those things up north is because they need them for the cold weather, one wouldn’t want them in León.  They all seemed to understand what I was saying: where you live determines much of what you will have.

The mayor of León is now in England, visiting Oxford, among other places.  Oxford has a sister-city relationship with León, as New Haven has.  The mayor wanted to take a 100% Nicaraguan gift to the mayor of Oxford, so he sent his Minister of Commerce to the weaving Coop to find something.  The man chose a white colcha with colored stripes at both ends.  It was woven by Mirna in the madreselva pattern and is lovely.  A wise choice, I think.

The phone system here used to be owned by the government, and the post office and phone company shared the same building.  But the post office was sold to a private company and the post office is now in a small, nondescript building on a side street.  I have found the Nicaraguan postal service to be quite reliable.


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