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The Marianismo Ideal
Nobody needs a man, but there’s always one of them running after you. The only thing women need men for is martyrdom. (Claudia, Guatemalan ladina, in Hooks 1993:81)
With the arrival of Spanish colonizers to the Americas also came Catholicism. It is almost impossible to think about Latin America without Catholicism: because religion, specifically Catholicism, is so ingrained in the culture of Latin America, it cannot be ignored. It is pervasive in every aspect of Latin American life from class conflict to gender construction. The Spanish did more than simply introduce a new religion in Latin America, they created a system of colonial domination through missionization and conversion that still exists today. A key part of this new religion and system of colonial domination, was the construction of gender in Latin America. The colonial economic system implanted a dichotomized sexual division of labor: men became the producers, inhabiting a public sphere of economic and political production, while women became the reproducers, inhabiting a private (or domestic) sphere of household reproduction.
Evelyn Stevens interprets the division of sexual labor further:
Latin American men and women have unequivocal conceptions of their roles and they play them out, if not in harmony, at least in counterpoint. The interpersonal dynamics of the existing social structure affords each sex a complementary sphere of influence that satisfies basic personal and social needs. (1973a:57)
In other words, men and women exist in separate social spheres -- women in the private sphere (the home) and men in the public sphere. In addition to the separate spheres in which men and women operate, there are also separate and complimentary ideals -- marianismo and machismo -- that demand certain behavior from women and men.
Men, inhabiting the public sphere, receive certain privileges and a significant degree of power and control in Latin American society. In addition, it creates an ideal of machismo. According to Evelyn Steven (1273b:90), machismo can be defined as a "cult of virility" which stresses exaggerated aggressiveness, stubbornness, and inflexibility in male-male relations and arrogance and sexual aggressiveness in male-female relations. Spanish Catholicism and the sexual division of labor also introduced an ideal concerning the role of women in society. This ideal -- marianismo -- is modeled after the Virgin Mary and along with machismo can be considered vital to understanding gender in Latin America.
Marianismo creates an ideal by which Latin American women are expected to live, and the Virgin Mary is the epitome of this ideal: Mary and women show a "resigned acceptance of any and all reality as the will of God" (Ana María Bidegain 1989:21). Mary was chosen by God to be the mother of God’s son. By accepting this fate, Mary was giving herself up to God and God’s will. In order to do this, Mary would had to have been pure, for how else could she have been worthy to carry and give birth to the son of God? Mary’s acceptance of God’s will and her purity (meaning her virginity) are the basis of the marianismo ideal. Modeling themselves after Mary, marianismo expects women to accept their fate as mothers and wives. Women are to be virginal and pure like Mary, they are to be humble, they must be willing to endure the suffering that motherhood often requires, they are to live in the shadow of their husbands and children and also support their husbands and children by all means necessary.
In short, women are to expect and tolerate certain behavior from men -- aggressiveness, sexual infidelity, arrogance, stubbornness and callousness. Women are to model their behavior after that of the Virgin Mary. Like Mary, they should accept the fate that is handed to them. Marianismo demands that mothers suffer like Mary suffered and love as Mary did for Jesus. In short, women are expected to be good wives and mothers, which typically includes self-sacrifice and putting one’s family and it’s survival above all else.
Marianismo as Strategy:
Evelyn Stevens and Tracy Ehlers
Stevens holds that the above self-sacrifice is at the heart of marianismo -- this is where Latin American wield their power. Stevens turns marianismo into a strategy where women, in a round about way, actually benefit from the ideal. Marianismo depicts women as semi-divine, morally superior and spiritually stronger than men, and these are the characteristics that allow for and make possible the acceptance of men's behavior by women (Stevens 1973a:62). Stevens believes that women's acceptance of men's wicked behavior puts women in a superior position -- both a moral and spiritual one:
A female cannot hope to attain full spiritual stature until her forbearance and abnegation have been tested by male-inflicted suffering. Men's wickedness is therefore the necessary precondition of woman's superior status. (Stevens 1973a:62).
One would think the suffering not worth the reward, but presumably by tolerating her husband's behavior and wickedness, women receive validation from society, from God. With every action of the husband that lives up to the machismo ideal, the wife is one step closer to sainthood and salvation (Stevens 1973a:62). In addition to this "sainthood," women, more specifically, mothers, have an advantage over men:
To her children, but especially to her male children, she is an object of reverence, a royal personage whose wishes must be gratified, and the ever-loving, always forgiving surrogate Virgin Mary. (Stevens 1973a:60)
The above attitude towards one's mother, and mothers in general, is often called "elevated motherhood."
In order for women to uphold the semi-divine status discussed above, women do not attempt to avoid demands of suffering and self-sacrifice brought on by the actions of men, but instead attempt to make this suffering known (Stevens 1973a:62). For through this display of self-sacrifice and suffering, women gain a certain esteem and admiration from society. Stevens considers the position of women -- held in place by the machismo/marianismo system and the marianismo ideal -- to be a powerful one, one that most Latin American women are not willing to give up.
Stevens’ article presents marianismo as an ideal for Latin American women. Additionally, however, Stevens suggests that Latin American women use marianismo as a strategy. Latin American women, according to Stevens, inhabit a position of power in the domestic sphere which they are not willing to give up. Matthew Gutmann (1996:102), in his study of gender relations and machismo in a Mexico City barrio presents a good example of Stevens’ strategy. According to Angela, Gutmann’s neighbor, parenting is mostly the responsibility of the female. Mothers have a certain amount of authority over their children. If parenting were a more shared responsibility, it could possibly threaten the above authority as well as "one of the mainstays of women’s cultural power."
As a model or ideal, even as a strategy, Stevens does not address. Reality, however, is much more complicated and does not always measure up to the ideal. It has been apparent in my research that there is much more involved in marianismo than what Stevens has to say. Within different spheres of society, marianismo is articulated and understood in a number of different ways. Among other things, the reality of one’s economic situation, or one’s involvement in a particular social movement or political party can affect the ways in which one understands, articulates and uses marianismo.
Tracy Ehlers disagrees with several key points of Stevens' theory in her article "Debunking Marianismo: Economic Vulnerability and Survival Strategies Among Guatemalan Wives." As the title indicates, instead of chalking up the existence of certain behavior patterns among Latin American women to the presumed ideal of marianismo, Ehlers makes a case that Latin America women, more specifically lower and working class Guatemalan women, make certain choices and act a certain way based on the reality of their economic situation.
Ehlers (1991:1) begins her article with a list of four problems she sees with Stevens' article (1973a). The first, which is vital to Stevens' theory, is that marianismo is a companion and a complement to machismo: "without marianismo, machismo could not exist" (Ehlers 1991:1). Second, this complementary relationship between machismo and marianismo assumes that women have access to a "positive and private realm." In other words, women are content with domesticity and the "feminine power" of the home. Third, marianismo ideal blames the victim: "wives accept callousness from men because they benefit from the status of wife/mother" (Ehlers 1991:1). Finally, it sets up a universal model for Latin American women. Based on her research among the highland Maya of Guatemala, Ehlers offers a counter argument to Stevens' article. First, she acknowledges the subordination of women, but claims that it takes many different forms. Second, Ehlers holds that women's behavior is a not strategy that encourages machismo, but rather is a strategy in response to a patriarchal power system which limits the participation of women (1991:2). Finally, Ehlers argues that "gender relations are not a static construction of ideal roles, but evolve and change with the material conditions of women's lives, and over the life span of each woman" (Ehlers 1991:2). Therefore, the conditions of marianismo are very much dependent on the economic situation of individual women.
Instead of subscribing to marianista ideals as a response to machismo and the behavior of men, the Guatemalan women Ehlers interviewed/studied are responding to their economic situation. The sexual division of labor in Guatemala excludes women from many job choices. Meaning, in order for a woman to survive, in order for her children to survive she must depend on her husband for money and therefore put up with his behavior in order to assure his economic support of the family/household (Ehlers 1992:2). Ehlers also responds to the idea that women wield power in the home/private/domestic sphere. The home is supposedly a place where women are free of the male-dominated world and can do as they please. According to the ideal, to work outside the home would be to endanger the power that women possess in/from the home (Ehlers 1992:3). In fact, reality does not always play itself out according to the ideal.
For example, the strategy that Stevens upholds is grounded in the middle class: families who not only encourage women to stay home but can also afford it if women do stay home (Ehlers 1992:4). For lower and working class women, however, work becomes a necessity (Ehlers 1992:4 and Randall 1981:184). Whether the husband has abandoned his wife, lost his job or his income is insufficient or sporadic, the situation often necessitates that the wife find work outside the home in order to ensure her family’s survival. Randall (1981), Ehlers (1992) and Fernandez (1996) all assert that in cases where lower and working class women enter the labor force it is overwhelmingly in the lowest paid sectors. According to Fernandez (1996:52), women make up 60% of Nicaragua’s informal labor sector, while men make up 59.2% of the formal economy. In addition, these jobs in the low paying informal sector tend to be an extension of women’s domestic role (Ehlers 1992:4, Fernandez 1996:53). Meaning, women working in the informal sector are engaged in jobs involving food preparation, child care, and domestic services.
Fernandez points out the ups and downs of women working in the informal sector (1996:53). First, she makes it known that women’s participation in the informal sector is, for the most part, unthreatening to the traditional Nicaraguan image of femininity, as the jobs are most often things women would be doing within the home anyway. There are advantages, however, to working in the informal sector. First of all, the jobs usually do not require any additional training or education, which can often be expensive and time consuming. Second, the informal sector tends to be more flexible: women can often choose when they work and where they work. Moreover, children can often accompany their mothers. So although women may be making less money working in the informal sector, in some ways it can be advantageous.
One of the main reasons the informal sector is feminized is because it allows women to devote the time/energy expected of them by marianismo to their family/household/children -- that is what the flexibility of the informal sector is all about. Women cannot secure the best jobs because they have been excluded from the formal job market, the job market men dominate. In addition they must worry about their children and also accomplish the tasks involved in keeping a household running. The separate public and private spheres created by the colonial sexual division of labor and enforced by the ideals of marianismo and machismo, have imposed severe limitations on women. As a result, women -- especially lower and working class women -- are left with few options, and often must put up with their husbands’ behavior in order to ensure economic survival. Women have taken advantage of the demand for the services to which the informal labor sector caters -- because the formal labor sector does not necessarily welcome women, especially women with family obligations, with open arms, and because the informal sector allows for the flexibility that many women need in order to earn a little money and live up to their household responsibility at the same time.
Marianismo both explains reality and becomes a strategy which women use to deal with reality. Because, in many cases, women have limited options, they choose to react in ways similar to Stevens’ and Ehlers’ examples above. According to Stevens’ women chose not to work outside the home because it may threaten the power they wield there. This is one way a woman, if economically able to forgo working outside the home, could use marianismo as a strategy. Ehlers, who thoroughly critiques Stevens, presents a completely different strategy. Women tolerate men’s behavior not for moral and spiritual abnegation, but for economic survival. Regardless of the ways in which women use or do not use marianismo, it is virtually inescapable for most Latin American women.
In the models that Stevens and Ehlers present, women respond to the economic system with behavior that is dictated by the marianismo ideal. Under the economic conditions in which they live, women begin to realize the limits of marianismo and machismo, and often times challenge or wish to challenge these limitations. Stevens and Ehlers (although they disagree at many key points) discuss marianismo as a strategy, a way in which to cope with a society that machismo, marianismo and a patriarchal structure have created. These strategies are passive, making it seem like the women who employ them are abiding by the expectations of the marianismo ideal and appropriately model their behavior after the Virgin Mary. The strategies are also in reference to the women’s economic situation. One’s realization of the limits of marianismo and machismo, and one’s desire to challenge or reform these limits are not solely dependent on one’s economic situation. This is not to discount or ignore a woman’s economic situation or the socioeconomic class of which she is a member. However, women can also become aware of the limits of marianismo and machismo through their political or social situation. More specifically, women often become aware of the limits they face through their participation in political and social action. In light of women’s participation in social or political action, then, marianismo becomes an active strategy. This is not to say, that by displacing the ideal of passivity through social action, the marianismo ideal no longer exists. In fact, it seems impossible to eliminate or overthrow the ideal, for, in so many ways, it is ingrained in Latin American ideology and everyday life. Roger presents an idea of an active marianismo strategy which still upholds many of the tenants of the marianismo ideal.
Firstly, the women Lancaster worked with and interviewed rejected marianismo on the grounds that it demands "sexual purity" or virginity. According to the working-class women Lancaster interviewed, this is not an important ideal of Nicaraguan womanhood (1992:310). Lancaster questions the marianismo/machismo dichotomy and the belief that masculine must be active, while feminine must be passive. For Nicaraguan women, the traditional ideal is not one of passivity, but rather one of "elevated motherhood" (Lancaster 1992:93). Additionally, the Nicaraguan women interviewed by Lancaster believe:
Traditional feminine practice, then, is conceived as a different mode of doing than male practice: feminine action emphasizes planning over risk, self-abnegation over self-promotion, domesticity over worldliness, action in and through networks rather than interpersonal competition. (Lancaster 1992:93)
Despite their rejection of sexual purity and passivity, Nicaraguan working class women still segregate women and men and value self-sacrifice and putting others before oneself at all times. From this, we may be able to hypothesize that although understood and articulated in a variety of ways (as an ideal, as an active strategy, as a passive strategy), the marianismo ideal is still pervasive and difficult to escape in Latin American society.
Despite the difficulties with its existence and pervasiveness, marianismo often plays an important role in women’s participation in political and social action. Furthermore, this participation in social and political action raises women’s awareness of the limitations imposed by the marianismo ideal, by machismo, by the patriarchal structure. Nicaragua, because of its history of social action, and particularly because women played such a prominent role in this social action, is the perfect location for an examination of marianismo as an active strategy; in which to examine the participation of women in social and political action and the ways in which this action affects Nicaraguan women’s awareness of their situations.
Sandino and Somoza
Nicaragua is a country longed plagued by foreign intervention, particularly concerning United States imperialism. As early as the 1830s, the United States and Britain were interested in Nicaragua as a potential canal site (Booth 1985:15). In 1856 William Walker, a citizen of the United States, had himself elected president of Nicaragua. Additionally, to intervening in Nicaraguan politics, the US influenced the Nicaraguan economy. From 1911-1915 US bankers informed Nicaragua’s economic policy-making. And US investment steadily increased from one million in 1908 to 7.13 million in 1919 to 17.3 million in 1929. It was this history of foreign intervention and US imperialism to which Augusto César Sandino reacted.
Sandino, born in 1895 -- a legendary figure in Nicaraguan history -- felt he had the right and the responsibility as a Nicaraguan citizen to take matters into his own hands regarding the state of Nicaragua: he began to develop a revolutionary consciousness and his main vision was to improve the living conditions of the rural poor and end foreign intervention (namely US intervention) in Nicaragua (Booth 1985:42). His vision, however, extended beyond Nicaragua, as he favored a broad alliance strategy among the oppressed of the world in order that social revolution and national liberation truly succeed (Vanden and Prevost 1993:27,29). Although he was influenced by Marxist ideology, Sandino’s ideology was more populistic and reformist (Booth 1985:42). Sandino mobilized a guerrilla army of peasants, miners, workers, and artisans and waged an anti-intervention war beginning in mid-1927 (in response to US occupation of the entire country as of January 1927). Sandino’s army fought steadily from 1927-1933 having a drastic affect on the sophisticated National Guard and US military, but also causing the Guard to employ terrorism among anyone suspected as a guerrilla or a sympathizer of Sandino’s struggle (Booth 1985:44,45).
Following the 1932 Nicaraguan presidential election (won by Juan Bautista Sacasa), the US withdrew its troops from Nicaragua, created the National Guard and appointed Anastasio Somoza García its director (Booth 1985:46). On 3 February 1933, Sacasa and Sandino agreed to a cease-fire and amnesty for the guerrillas (Booth 1985:48-49). A year later, upon meeting with Sacasa to work out more details of the cease-fire and peace progress, Sandino was confronted by several members of the National Guard and killed. That same night, the National Guard surrounded Sandino’s headquarters and killed 300 of Sandino’s followers, including the women and children that were present (Booth 1985:51-52). This was the beginning of the severe repression in Nicaragua, brought on by the Somoza family and the National Guard. Not only did Somoza and the National Guard murder Sandino and hundreds of his followers, they also attempted to distort his memory. Fully aware that Sandino could become a threatening symbol of popular history, Somoza published slanderous anti-Sandino literature and pamphlets (Vanden and Prevost 1993:30).
With the appointment of Anastasio Somoza García to director of the National Guard and the assassination of Augusto Cesár Sandino that followed, Nicaragua entered into a state of severe repression and violence lasting for the next forty-plus years under the Somoza family dynasty. On 6 June 1936 Somoza’s troops (the National Guard) surrounded the Presidential Palace and forced Sacasa to resign. At that point, Somoza was both the director of the National Guard and the president of Nicaragua: essentially he became Nicaragua’s dictator (Booth 1985:54). Somoza controlled virtually everything in Nicaragua: the radio and telegraph networks, the postal service, immigration service, customs, the police force, national health services, tax collection, the railroad (Booth 1985:55). In addition, he appointed his son Luis the director of the recreated Liberal party -- the Liberal Nationalist Party (PLN) -- which controlled Congress, the court system and the bureaucracy (Booth 1985:62). Somoza and the National Guard had literally taken over the country and in a not-so-nice way:
Anastasio Somoza García had thus institutionalized most of the negative aspects of Nicaragua’s military tradition -- corruption, violence, deceit, and repression -- in a bizarrely effective fashion. The National Guard became both the extension of the tyrant’s own personality and a microcosm of Nicaraguan society -- corrupted and repressed, an accomplice in the crimes of the regime. (Booth 1985:57)
Despite the withdrawal of US military forces, the US had a considerable amount of influence in Nicaragua. Somoza outlawed the Communist Party in Nicaragua to appease the US government. He also helped overthrow Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. Both of these actions increased the amount of support and aid for the Somoza regime coming from the US (Booth 1985:60). In addition to political repression, the Somoza regime also employed economic repression. Simply by being in control of so many institutions (railroad, radio, customs, etc.) in Nicaragua, Somoza was bound to limit the economic opportunities of many Nicaraguans. In addition, Somoza actively worked to increase his wealth. By 1944, Somoza owned fifty-one cattle ranches and forty-six coffee plantations (making him the largest coffee producer in Nicaragua) and by 1945, Somoza was estimated to have between ten and sixty million dollars in income and investments (Booth 1985:67-68).
21 September 1956, at a party celebrating Somoza’s "renomination" to presidential candidacy, poet Rigoberto Lopéz Pérez who was a well-known opponent of the regime shot Somoza García. This, however, was not the end of the Somoza regime. Upon Somoza García’s death, his sons simply took over: Anastasio Somoza Debayle became commander of the National Guard, and Luis Somoza Debayle became president. Under the Somoza Debayle brothers, Nicaragua did not change much. In fact, one could say the living conditions of the majority of the Nicaraguan population worsened with every passing year of the Somoza dynasty. The National Guard retained the power and control they exercised during Somoza García’s presidency and the Somoza family grew even wealthier. The 1972 earthquake in Managua opened up even more investment opportunities for Somoza and by 1974, it is estimated that his personal fortune was somewhere near $400 million (Booth 1985:81). Margaret Randall (1981:v) confirms that the Somoza family controlled forty percent of the Nicaraguan economy which included thirty percent of all arable land, in addition to the fishing industry, milk processing, the construction industry, the national airline and the national shipping line. It is no wonder that the Nicaraguan people suffered greatly -- they were unable to access the vast majority of the economy. In addition to Somoza’s personal fortune, the military and National Guard’s budget was double that of other Central American countries. In 1963, the military budget was $5.60 per capita. It rose to $7.98 in 1973. By 1975, the National Guard used eleven percent of the national budget -- $12.00 per capita (Booth 1985:91).
The control and power of the Somoza family and the National Guard was overwhelming. It is not surprising that the Nicaraguan people resisted and reacted to Somoza’s control. For the most part, Nicaraguans resisted through social action. There were political parties in opposition to Somoza and his regime, among them the National Opposition Union (UNO) and the Independent Liberal Party (PLI). The Nicaraguan press also showed opposition to the regime, particularly La Prensa, which consistently reported the opposition’s opinion of the regime and also supported the opposition. Nicaraguan Christians also played a part in the opposition to the Somoza regime: there was the Nicaraguan Social Christian Party (PSCN), the Popular Christian Democratic Movement (MPDC) -- which organized the Christian Democratic Youth (JDC), the Nicaraguan Autonomous Union Movement (MOSAN, a Christian labor union) (Booth 1985:107) -- the Christian Democratic Front (FDC), the Evangelistic Committee for Agrarian Promotion (CEPA), founded by the Jesuits, and also the Christian Base Communities. There was also opposition coming from the Nicaraguan socialist party (PSN) and organizations like the Association of Rural Workers (ATC) whose members were mostly of the lower class (Booth 1985:115,118). Opposition among university students was consistent and forceful. Once there was serious and constant opposition to the regime, the regime only stepped up repression and control through martial law, state of siege, and the torture and kidnapping of those considered most threatening. This, however, only increased opposition/protest against the regime, which again increased repression from the regime. In short, it created a cycle of violence which many believed would end only by ousting the Somoza family from their position of power.
Women participated in virtually all of the above opposition to the Somoza regime. I would, however, like to focus on two of the above social movements -- the Christian Base Communities and the Sandinista Revolution. These two movements played a vital role in overthrowing the Somoza regime in Nicaragua. In addition, women seemed to participate in great numbers in these two movements. The Christian Base Communities, normally associated with the liberation theology movement of the Catholic Church and the Sandinsta National Liberation Front, at the core, had similar goals. In addition to working to oust the Somoza regime from its forty year stint of power they were both working towards a more humane, more just society.
Christian Base Community: A Brief History
Christian Base Communities (​Comunidades Eclesiales de Base, CEBs) are generally identified with the liberation theology movement of the Latin American Catholic Church. W.E. Hewitt, who studies CEBs in Brazil, gives us three generic features of CEBs (1988:164). First, a CEB is a religious association with a social mission to translate faith into action. Second, they are communities with shared life experience. And third, the members are usually "ordinary lay people" who belong to the "least privileged social classes" (1988:164). The most basic and fundamental definition of a CEB, however, is simply a group of people gathering for a somewhat alternative bible study, where the Scriptures are interpreted and reinterpreted to apply to the lives of those participating.
Although base communities have been in existence for quite some time and many propose that the liberation theology movement actually grew out of the CEBs bible interpretations (Lancaster 1988), it was not until the 1968 Latin American Conference of Bishops in Medellín, Colombia that the CEBs gained legitimacy. The conference in Medellín was motivated by statements made during Vatican II (1962-65) concerning the poor of the world, particularly the poor of Latin American where the majority is of Catholic faith. Vatican II opened the Catholic Church’s eyes to a "preferential option for the poor." In the past, poor Catholics had been virtually ignored and unseen by the eyes of the traditional Catholic Church. Vatican II emphasized the role of the laity in a Church with a severe shortage of priests and also emphasized social responsibility (Mulligan 1991:89). It was this emphasis of Vatican II that launched the liberation theology movement in Latin America among theologists like Gustavo Gutiérrez (Peru) and Leonardo and Clodovis Boff (Brazil). These theologists believed the Catholic Church was obliged to change its structure and its ways and focus on the poor, those who make up the vast majority of the Church’s membership. According to Gutiérrez, liberation theology’s goal is to replace and abolish the status quo of capitalist exploitation and oppression and replace it with a "qualitatively different one" -- to end the domination of the poor and instead foster their liberation (1973:48). Liberation theology and the Medellín conference legitimized the CEBs: "The CEB is the primary and fundamental nucleus of the Church. . . , the initial cell in the Church body, the focus of evangelization, and presently the prime mover in human promotion and development" (pastoral document from the Medellín Conference, quoted in Mulligan 1991:87). According to William Cavanaugh (1994:74), the Medellín Conference’s recognition of base communities, gave them definition and drive to be considered a movement.
Ernesto Cardenal, a Nicaraguan Catholic priest (who also trained for a brief time as a Trappist monk under Thomas Merton) founded the small community of Solentiname on an island in Lake Nicaragua in 1966. Cardenal was one of the first to take Vatican II’s message seriously. In Solentiname he began to restore early Christian values in the community: communal living, spiritual activities, discussion and dialogue between the priest (nun or lay leader) and the community members, which fused the priest’s knowledge of Scriptures with the community members’ life experience (Foroohar 1989:68). The Solentiname community met every Sunday for Catholic mass. However, instead of the traditional Catholic gospel reading followed by the priest’s homily, the members of the Solentiname community discussed a passage from the Bible and interpreted the passage in reference to their own lives.
With Cardenal’s model, "The people develop an ability to think and express themselves, and to find new elements in the Scriptures to relate to their life" (Foroohar 1989:69). This is the common theme in base communities: a reinterpretation and application of the Scriptures, especially the gospels, to the individual’s life and the experience of the community. A perfect example of how this works is the fact that it would not be uncommon during a discussion of Scripture in a Nicaraguan base community to hear members discussing the parallels between Herods of the Bible and the Somoza family in Nicaragua or the parallels between the death of Jesus and the death of Sandino (Foroohar 1989:69).
Other examples of Bible interpretation among Nicaraguan base communities can be found in Cardenal’s The Gospel of Solentiname​, which is a multi-volume work documenting the dialogue and discussion that took place during masses in Solentiname. During the community’s discussion of the Annunciation story, one member states that Jesus was born among the poor because that is who he came to liberate (Cardenal 1978:14). Continuing with the interpretation of the Annunciation, the community members point out that Mary was a poor, humble, woman of the people (1978:18). By receiving and accepting the angel’s message that she is to be the mother of Jesus -- a liberator -- she becomes subversive. To claim to be pregnant with the son of God, a liberator, could be a dangerous claim for Mary to make (Cardenal 1978:15-16). Referring to the Magnificat, Laureano says, "That is the Revolution. The rich person or the mighty is brought down and the poor person, the one who was down, is raised up" (1978:31).
From the above we get the idea of the ways in which one’s life and a community’s life experience can factor into the interpretation of the Bible. At their beginning, CEBs were mainly focused on the realm of religion and spirituality, but they allowed for a space in which people could also discuss everyday problems and life. The base communities caught on among the population of Nicaragua and by the mid 1970’s there was a "loose infrastructure" of established CEBs that took part in Bible studies, worship and self-help projects (Dodson 1986:39). It was not long until these Bible study groups began to formulate a more radical and action-oriented approach to their organization. One of the ways in which this occurred was fostered by the theology of liberation. A vital part of liberation theology is the methodology, which differs radically from most traditional theologies. For most theologies, theory comes before everything and shapes everything. In liberation theology, however, praxis (or action) shapes theory: "people work for liberation first, then theology is formed as a reflection on that praxis" (Smith 1991:28). The theology/theory formed from reflecting on the praxis then goes on to influence further action, which goes on to influence theory again -- this methodology of liberation theology is called a hermenuetical circle (Brown 1984:22,30-31) So in this method, liberation comes before theology, thus calling for an emphasis on radical and action-oriented approach within the CEBs.
Another vital example that led to the transformation of the base communities is the development of the concept of sin. Liberation theology maintains: "To sin is to refuse love, to reject communion, brotherhood, to reject even now the very meaning of human existence" (Gutiérrez 1973:198). Lancaster (1988:75) goes on to tell us "that which most radically divides man from man and estranges humanity from God [is] exploitation" (Lancaster’s italics). As anything that alienates humans from God is considered a sin, exploitation and oppression are considered sins by the liberation theology movement and the base communities. Once CEB members, through concientizacion and life experience, were aware of their position as oppressed and exploited peoples and the sinfulness of the situation, they had an obligation. The system of exploitation and oppression, which lies outside the base communities and the community of the poor (Lancaster 1988:75), had to be attacked. Thus, the liberation theology movement and the CEBs were obligated to act against this sin. To put the above concept of sin into the context of Nicaragua and show how people made the connection between their faith and an obligation to act, here are a few quotes from the members of Solentiname community:
Because to be free from sins means to free people from selfishness, to make people love each other. And if people love each other there’s no more oppression. And so Christ came to give us political freedom too. (Marcelino, quoted in Cardenal 1978:21-22)
If there’s liberation it’s because there’s injustice. If there’s injustice its because there’s sin. Sin or injustice is all the same. (José Espinosa, quoted in Cardenal 1978:22)
The above quotes give us an idea of the ways in which the Nicaraguan lower classes reinterpreted the Bible to make sense to them and their situation, and also shows us how the concept of sin might be used to encourage a radical action-oriented approach, an approach that works to end the conditions that make sin possible.
Another reason many CEBs took a more action-oriented approach was in response to the repression and corruption of the Somoza regime and the National Guard. At the time in which many CEBs were just getting established, the repression of the regime was at its height. It would have been an enormous oversight by the CEBs to allow this repression to go unnoticed. According to Dodson (1982:163), churches were often the only place of refuge from the regime -- they became "safe houses" for many people. However, through their provision of refuge, the churches also came under attack.
John Booth (1985:56) claims that from the beginning the Somoza family’s control of the National Guard and the government was corrupt. In order to stay in power, Somoza García doled out favors, rewards and personal gifts to those who helped him.
His sons, Luis and Anastasio Somoza Debayle, followed in his footsteps.
According to Eric Canin (1997:84) the weekly Bible studies held by CEBs during Somoza’s authoritarian regime "led to the prophetic denunciation of dictatorship and imperialism as ‘structural sins’ and the announcement of a socially just revolution." From the above description of the Somoza regime and the CEBs response to the regime, we can see that according to many base communities, extreme means had to be taken to combat the extreme conditions of Nicaraguan society under the Somoza family’s reign.
Finally, the earthquake in December of 1972 made the corruption of the Somoza regime (now under the control of Anastasio Somoza Debayle) more obvious to the general public. Foroohar goes so far as to suggest that the 1972 earthquake, which nearly destroyed the capital city of Managua, was the catalyst in the radicalization of Christian activists in Managua (1989:124). Following the earthquake, aid, food and supplies flooded into Managua from countries all over the world. People were desperately in need of these donations, particularly the lower class, who did not have the funds to rebuild or replace many things. Somoza’s willingness to take advantage of Managua’s plight kept the majority of Managua’s population from fully being able to recover after the earthquake (see footnote 4).
Barrio Open 3 (now Ciudad Sandino), a very poor neighborhood west of downtown Managua, is illustrative of the linkage between Somoza’s corruption and CEB action. The Maryknoll sisters had established a fairly strong base community there, including a Christian Youth Club which helped distribute relief materials after the earthquake in the barrio (Foroohar 1989:135). In 1973, there was a huge influx of people into Barrio Open 3, people who had been displaced from other Managua barrios by the earthquake. According to Booth (1985:78) it was the petty commercial and manufacturing sectors of the Managuan labor force that were hardest hit by the earthquake: some 10,000 manufacturing jobs were lost. These people who lost their jobs, most likely also lost their homes, and many of them were among those who took refuge in Barrio Open 3. The neighborhood witnessed not only an increase in population after the 1972 earthquake, but also an increase in the participation in CEBs. In addition, due to the earthquake and Somoza Debalye’s actions after the earthquake, many of the Christians involved in the CEBs could no longer ignore the corruption and oppressive nature of the government, and became supporters of the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s (FSLN) revolutionary movement in Nicaragua (Foroohar 1989:137-139). From the above description of CEBs we can see that they constitute a social movement in Nicaragua. They were active in the Sandinista revolution, as well as being active in both rural and urban areas to raise awareness and improve the lives of the Nicaraguan lower classes.
The goals of the Nicaraguan CEBs revolve around collective identity and social action (Canin 1997:85) to make Nicaragua a better place to live, not only for the lower classes, but for everyone. According the theology of liberation, the Kingdom of God is not something that we enter after death, but something that exists now, but something that must be realized on earth. Collective identity and social action are at the core of this realization of the Kingdom of God: a more compassionate world and community free from poverty and alienation from fellow humans and from God.
The Sandinistas and the Revolution
Founding and Ideology
The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) formally began in 1961 at a meeting in Tegucigalpa, Honduras and with that began a struggle enduring for 18 years with the universal goal of overthrowing the Somoza dynasty. The FSLN grew out of Sandino’s struggle for national liberation and appropriated many of Sandino’s beliefs and tactics. While the FSLN’s belief in Sandino’s struggle was completely genuine, it was also very practical. Not only were they able to benefit from the training of Santos Lopéz, a former member of Sandino’s guerrilla army (Booth 1985:139), they also were able to use Sandinismo as an ideological vehicle "through which a popular vision of the national past could be recaptured by the Nicaraguan masses. It [Sandinismo] became a means of empowerment and mobilization" (Vanden and Prevost 1993:23). As I mentioned above, Sandino is a national hero in Nicaragua. Many define Sandinismo as a tradition of struggle -- struggle against foreign intervention and working towards national liberation through a broad alliance strategy also using guerrilla warfare tactics. Vanden and Prevost, however, see Sandinismo as an ideological vehicle, and Margaret Randall (1981:52) defines Sandinismo as "a vital part of the [Nicaraguan] national identity."
Although the FSLN incorporated Sandinismo and was based upon Sandino’s ideas of national liberation, the liberation of the lower class and opposition of Somoza and foreign intervention, they also employed an existing ideology. The founders of the FSLN were mainly Marxist/Socialists who believed in the real possibility of a national revolution (Booth 1985:146). As the struggle against the Somoza dynasty grew, however, the FSLN became a pragmatic organization as well as a social movement. According to Norma Stoltz Chinchilla (1990:387), the Sandinistas are known more for pragmatism and flexibility than a "preconceived set of ideologies or theories." In order to accomplish their goals of national liberation and the overthrow of the Somoza regime, it was necessary to have a broad base of support. Thus, although they began as primarily a Marxist/socialist organization, they evolved into a more ideologically inclusive organization stressing a mixed economy and political pluralism (Booth 1985:146). This move to a more inclusive ideology expanded the FSLN’s membership and support to include virtually all groups oppressed by and opposed to the Somoza regime (Booth 1985:147).
According to Tomás Borge (as summarized in Liss 1991:171), a founding member of the FSLN, the FSLN’s mission included two parts. First, was the national liberation, which included the war and insurrection against Somoza and the National Guard and represented the "historical interests of the working class and unified society." Second was the post military victory, which included a consolidation of Nicaraguan society to confront US imperialism. In Borge’s own words:
Sandinista people’s revolution will establish a revolutionary government that will eliminate the reactionary structure that arose from rigid elections and military coups, and the people’s power will create a Nicaragua that is free of exploitation, oppression, backwardness: a free, progressive, and independent country (Borge, et al. 1982:14).
The Insurrection
The Sandinista was a process that lasted eighteen years. However, the insurrection, the actual war, was a vital part of this process. In fact, it was the straw that broke the Somoza regime’s back. In 1977, opposition to the Somoza regime was at an all time high due to the three year state of siege imposed by Somoza in 1974, and the anti-FSLN units of the National Guard founded in May of 1977 (Booth 1985:157,158). Somoza ended the state of siege in September 1977 (due to negative international press from Amnesty International), which resulted in a release of much hostility by the general Nicaraguan public and an attack on several National Guard posts across Nicaragua by the FSLN in October (Booth 1985:158-9).
Several events led up to the FSLN’s assault on the National Palace in August 1978. First, the assassination of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro in January 1978 led many Nicaraguans who were not already rebelling against the regime to do so. Particularly, many members of the elite and upper classes were convinced by Chamorro’s assassination to speak publicly against the regime (Booth 1985:159-60). Additionally, a demonstration in honor of Chamorro in the indigenous Monimbó community of Masaya (just south of Managua) was disrupted by the National Guard. The people attending the mass and demonstration attacked the Guard with what ever available, and although the Monimbó community kept the National Guard at bay for two weeks, the uprising ended in massive death of civilians at the hand of the Guard (Booth 1985:160-1).
On 23 August 1978, twenty-five armed Sandinistas disguised as Guard members took care of the guards outside and entered the National Palace. Immediately securing the building with additional forces, the Sandinistas took over the National Palace, holding over two thousand people hostage for two and a half days (Booth 1985:164). The Sandinistas, through Dora María Téllez’s phone negotiations with Somoza, were able to secure the publication of a statement encouraging and asking for popular insurrection, the release of key Sandinistas from prison, safety for those involved in the takeover and $500,000 in ransom (Booth 1985:164). The assault on the National Palace was quickly followed up by a huge increase in anti-Somoza protest and activity -- anti-Guard uprisings, strikes and the Guard’s response of increased arrests and repression were widespread. 9 September 1978, Sandinista troops, with the help of civilian volunteers (many of which were in their teens) armed with donated weapons, attacked several National Guard stations (among others, those in León, Managua, Masaya, and Estelí) (Booth 1985:165). Somoza responded by nationally imposing martial law and military censorship of the press (Booth 1985:165-6).
Among all those in opposition to the regime, activity steadily increased. By the summer of 1979, the FSLN had several advantages over the National Guard, despite the Guard’s larger troops, better mobility and air support. The FSLN benefited from high morale, good discipline and high popular support and cooperation, safe bases in both Costa Rica and Northern Nicaragua, little opposition from the general population or its members and an increase in arms and volunteers (Booth 1985:176). By 5 July 1979, the Sandinistas controlled eighty percent of Nicaragua -- twenty-three major cities and towns; by 13 July, they had secured all major roads to Managua, and on 16 July 1979, Somoza submitted his final resignation (Booth 1985:181). The next morning, the Somoza family, several members of the National Guard’s general staff, and the Liberal Nationalist Party (PLN) leaders and congressmen fled to Miami, leaving Dr. Francisco Urcuyo Maliaño as interim president (Booth 1985:181). Dr. Urcuyo Maliaño named a new head of the National Guard and attempted to continue with Somocismo. The FSLN resumed the attack on Managua until Somoza -- at the insistence of US President Carter -- called Urcuyo 18 July to have him cede power to the FSLN junta (Booth 1985:182). After forty three years in power, the Somoza dynasty had finally toppled. The FSLN, after eighteen years of popular struggle and two years of combat, came into power and began rebuilding Nicaragua.
Women’s Participation in Nicaraguan
Christian Base Communities
What was the role of women within the Nicaraguan and Latin American CEBs? It has always been acceptable for women to be active within the traditional Catholic Church. The marianismo ideal is, for the most part, centered around women as the moral and spiritual foundation in Latin American society. Within the CEBs, action applies not only to religious life but encourages and works for improving secular life. According to Rosemary Ruether, however, there has been a tendency to overlook women among liberation theologists: there was no mention of women and women’s involvement in the Church in the Medellín documents (1979:77). There was progress made within the liberation theology movement and the official document from Puebla emphasizes the equality of women from the perspective of the gospel: "Woman is man’s co-equal in the image of God and co-creator with him in continuing the work of creation. Woman is in no way second in the order of creation, but equal partner" (Ruether 1979:78). Finally, the section of the Puebla document focusing on laity in the Church addresses the historical and present oppression of women, women’s political and economic marginalization, and the double burden that many women working outside the home must face (Ruether 1979:78). Women are called upon to help with the evangelization process by the Puebla document-- not to convert people to Catholicism, but instead to help "deepen" the commitment of those already members of the Church (Ruether 1979:79). More specifically, the document speaks of women taking part in the leadership of the base communities.
In the above section on ‘the marianismo ideal’, I quoted Ana María Bidegain’s view of marianismo and the behavior it expects of women: "a resigned acceptance of any and all reality as the will of God," with the Virgin Mary as the model of this behavior (1989:21). Helen Collison (1990:84), in her book on women and the Nicaraguan Revolution suggests that the reinterpretation of the Bible by CEBs helped in "highlighting a positive role for women and replacing the passive models of the traditional church." As an example, Bidegain and Ruether take marianismo ideal and infuse it with liberation theology, turning it around completely and creating a new Mariology, or a Liberation Mariology based on the Magnificat (see footnote 3). Instead of Mary’s "resigned acceptance" of God’s will, Bidegain considers it a "free act of surrender." Mary knows whose will she is accepting and she knows why she is accepting it: to create a humanistic and humanizing culture (1989:35-36). Following on the footsteps of the Puebla document, Bidegain asserts that "Mary, a woman, is the model disciple for Latin American women and men in performing the joint task of giving birth to a new society" (1989:36). Bidegain takes the Puebla statement one step further and instead of emphasizing women’s equality in creation, meaning reproduction, she emphasized women’s equality in the creation of a new society -- a more humanistic and humanizing society. Ruether, along the lines of the interpretation of the Solentiname community’s interpretation of the Magnificat, sees "Mary as [the personification] of the New Israel, the Church, specifically as representing God’s poor, the oppressed and downtrodden of the Earth . . . Through Mary, women, in some special way, personify the oppressed. . ." (1979:79).
The Mariology that Ruether and Bidegain present is radically different from the ways in which the traditional Catholic Church has characterized the Virgin Mary. Instead of being passive and accepting of the status quo, Mary becomes a social actor. She has a choice in the matter and accepts God’s will knowing what will follow and what she is helping to create. According to Bidegain’s statements above, Mary becomes the model for both women and men in Latin America, a model that the base communities and liberation theology, in many ways, emphasize: a community working together to improve the quality of life and to create/recreate a better society and better world through the eradication of sin (oppression, exploitation).
According to Helen Collison (1990:84), the church of the poor has not only often been many working class and peasant women’s first contact with politics, but CEBs often function as spring board for further involvement in politics. Monica Baltoando is the perfect example of this. Interviewed in Randall’s Sandino’s Daughters, Baltodano was a guerrilla commander during the Revolution, but got her start in social activism through the base communities. Baltodano was active in the base communities along with other university students through Father Uriel Molina. Through her involvement with Father Molina and Barrio Riguero, which increased after the 1972 earthquake, Baltodano helped found the Revolutionary Christian Movement along with other active university students and Father Fernando Cardenal (Ernesto’s brother). The Revolutionary Christian Movement began as a response to the repression of the National Guard experienced by residents of Barrio Riguero who, after the earthquake began gathering in the streets to protest, read bible passages and recite poetry (Foroohar 1989:128). Active with the base communities, the Revolutionary Christian Movement, the Student Revolutionary Movement (FER) and joining the FSLN in 1973, Baltodano comments on her social activism (Randall 1981:66):
At an early point women in the Christian movement were more conscious than many in the FER: There were always scores of women in the Christian movement and they participated on the basis of a strong conviction. Later when the FSLN began working in the Christian movement the fact that women involved were really strong and had a high level of consciousness had an effect on the FSLN.
Other women who began their social activism through the base communities and the Catholic Church are Aminta Granera and Vidaluz Meneses. Meneses is now the Dean of Humanities at the Central American University, and during the FSLN’s administration she headed Nicaragua’s library system and also worked for a brief time as the vice-ministry of culture (Randall 1994:146). Meneses, like Baltodano, began her social activism through the Catholic Church and the base communities. She took part in courses on Christian leadership, which addressed the problems of Nicaraguan society: "We were discussing whether our goal was to change the structures so we could live our Christianity better, or to Christianize the structures that existed. . . until we became convinced that it was impossible to Christianize Somoza’s structures. Then we knew we had to destroy them" (Randall 1994:152). Within the revolutionary Christian movement, Meneses talks about the question of the armed struggle. Although at first hesitant to support armed struggle, it was her involvement in the Christian groups and the concept of "social sin" (which she defines as selfishness and injustice) that led Meneses to legitimize the armed struggle against Somoza (Randall 1994:152). Meneses’ social action and participation in the FSLN was legitimized by her faith as a Christian and her desire for a better society: "I wanted a different kind of society, a more humane society" (Randall 1994:159).
Sister Martha is a Catholic nun who teaches at the Santa Teresita School just outside of Matagalpa. According to Randall (1981: 150), Sister Martha and the other nuns at Santa Teresita wholeheartedly supported the struggle against the Somoza regime, and consistently attempt to fuse the teaching and ministry of the Church with every day life. She went to school with and grew up with Doris Maria Tijerino (FSLN member and leader). The following is an excerpt from the brief talk she gave to a group of women before screening for them September 1978 -- a German film about the insurrection:
Today Nicaraguan women hold Mary the Mother of God as their first model for promoting this Revolution. She too carried to the world a message of liberation. . . Mary isn’t the sugar-sweet stupid woman reactionary Christians so often make her out to be. At the age of fifteen -- the same age as Doris Maria Tijerino -- she took an active part in the liberation of her people. She doesn’t speak of individual moralistic changes, but of the reorganization of the social order into one which there are no rich and poor, powerful and humble. And so, faced with this new dawn filled with great hopes and with Christian and revolutionary
responsibilities, Nicaraguan women must follow the path begun by Mary of Nazareth and Doris Maria of Matagalpa. We have but one alternative: To be women of hope working for the consolidation of our revolution. (Randall 1981:162).
Again we see the complexities of the marianismo ideal in comparison with reality and what women are doing, thinking and feeling. Sister Martha takes the image of the Virgin Mary as submissive and complacent and turns her into a revolutionary, comparing her to Doris Tijerino. Like Tijerino, Mary also fought against an oppressive social structure. Sister Martha is emphasizing Mary’s role of mother: by giving birth to the ultimate liberator, Jesus, Mary plays a vital role in the liberation of the people. The above quote is still identifying with marianista values such as motherhood, but it is also rejecting the values of passivity and submissiveness. In this way, Sister Martha is expressing an active strategy of marianismo, one that was often employed by women in the base communities.
Women’s Participation in
the Sandinista Revolution
The massive participation of Nicaraguan women in the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship was unprecedented, not only in the history of Nicaragua but in the Western Hemisphere. (Chinchilla 1990:374)
Combat and Support Work
Nicaraguan women were involved in the Sandinista Revolution and the overthrow of the Somoza regime on virtually every level: from organizational work to commanding troops to guerrilla fighting and combat to support work. Women were in the thick of the revolution, along side men. In the following section, I would like to discuss some of the ways in which Nicaraguan women participated in the Sandinista Revolution, by no means claiming to address every way in which women participated. As far as what women were doing, it can basically be divided into two categories: combat and support work. Neither was more or less important than the other, men as well as women participated in both, and women were encouraged to take part in both by the FSLN and its women’s organization, AMPRONAC (Association of Women Confronting National Problems).
Women, although not in as large numbers as men, actively particpated in the actual insurrection and combat that was vital to Somoza’s demise in Nicaragua. Women fought both in the professional and popular armies. During the revolution, twenty-five percent of FSLN combatants were women (Gorman 1982:123). In an interview with Humberto Ortega appearing in Sandinistas Speak (Borge, et al 1982:83-4), Ortega is sure to mention women’s participation in the Sandinista Revolution:
But it’s important to point out that Sandinismo not only developed the participation of women in the vanguard organization but in all sectors, and not just in support work for key tasks but in key strategic tasks. Such is the case of guerrilla Commander Dora Téllez, better known as Commander 2; guerrilla Commander Mónica Baltodano; and other guerrilla commanders such as Leticia Herrera. These three comrades played a very important role, not just in support work for the revolutionary struggle but as political and military leaders. In the course of the insurrection, they were leaders on the battlefield, as in the case of Dora Téllez, who headed what was called the Rigoberto López Pérez Western Front, one of the most important fronts of the war. . . Women played a very important role in the insurrection. There were columns in which all the officers were women, women who commanded hundreds of men without any problems.
Ortega mentions women’s participation in support work (which I will discuss in more detail shortly), meaning work done to defend the revolution that was behind the scenes. According to Ramírez-Horton (1982:152), when the fighting moved into neighborhoods, women’s participation oftentimes transformed from support work to direct combat. It was particularly young women still without family responsibility who were most often seen in combat. Often as young as thirteen and fourteen girls (and boys) would leave their families and join the guerrilla forces in the mountains where they made bombs, trained for combat and discussed politics and ideology (Ramírez-Horton 1982:152). To give an idea of what life was like for those women serving in the guerrilla forces, a few quotes follow.
All of a sudden you weren’t a lawyer or a professional -- in most cases you weren’t even thought of as a woman or a man -- you were simply one comrade among many. Most of us, particularly the women, had never had that experience before. I think women were accepted and appreciated as comrades by everyone. In training, the same was expected of us as from the men. And yet, in normal everyday tasks -- hauling water, for example -- the men always helped.
--Nora Astorga (in Randall 1981:125)
I was in the mountains for two-and-a-half years. At first I was the only woman. Later on, several more came. But it was never difficult being a woman there, not at all. The things that people gossip about when they think of men and women together in the guerrilla just aren’t true. There was never any lack of respect on the part of our male comrades. On the contrary, there was an incredible solidarity.
--Ana Julia Guido (in Randall 1981:131)
These are of course, only a few examples of women’s reactions to their membership in the armed forces. These examples, however, do portray very equal relationships between all members of the guerrilla forces.
In addition to involvement in combat, women, as mentioned above, participated in support work. The above Humberto Ortega quote very much emphasizes women’s role in combat, almost downplaying support work to which many women and men committed themselves. Without the support work, the behind-the-scenes work of many loyal defenders of the FSLN and the Revolution, the Triumph would have never happened. According to Collison (1990:154),
. . . women were the backbone of the support networks for the guerrillas: they set up safe houses in urban and rural areas; fed, clothed and sheltered fighters and political workers; organized first aid and medical supplies; made bombs; hid arms and ammunition. They also operated as messengers and sent food to the fighters in the mountains.
To further illustrate the encompassing role women played in supporting the Sandinista revolution, I will now discuss a few women’s activities and actions as examples.
In addition to participating in combat, Nora Astorga took part in the student movement. She was the secretary of the Catholic University’s Student Center. In this position, she began working on political prisoner searches, allowed her home to be used as a meeting place for the FSLN, acted as a messenger, and helped transport other comrades (Randall 1981:119). Daisy Zamora, lived and worked with her husband in Chinandenga
at a sugar mill. They organized a support network for the FSLN at the mill: Zamora helped raise money to buy and transport weapons, she helped transport other comrades, took part in messenger activities, and worked to end the corruption of the sugar mill’s management (Randall 1981:102-3). Zamora and her husband moved to Managua where she did translations for a magazine, ran a safehouse and stored weapons in her home, and monitored the National Guard’s radio communications on a smuggled scanner (Randall 1981:104) Later, Zamora’s last job before the Triumph was at Radio Sandino. There, she was in charge of programming for a while, then worked as an announcer. Finally, she helped develop a program called "The Sandinist Woman." According to Zamora, "Our goal was to raise consciousness around women’s participation in our struggle. We talked about women’s involvement in all aspects of the Revolution and about how many women had given their lives for liberation. . ." (Randall 1981:114-5).
Why Did Women Participate?
Association of Women Confronting
National Problems (AMPRONAC)
Depending on their socio-economic class, their religious convictions, their families, their jobs and their positions in society, women participated in the revolutionary movement for many different reasons. After several months of preliminary meetings, AMPRONAC became an actual organization in the fall of 1977 (Randall 1981:5). Women, of course, had been involved in the revolutionary process long before 1977, as the examples in above sections demonstrate (Baltodano, Meneses, Zamora, Astorga). The creation of AMPRONAC, however, was at the suggestion of the FSLN to address "women’s problems and work toward the creation of a broad-based women’s association" (Randall 1981:2). AMPRONAC was founded by mostly well-educated lawyers, journalists and bureaucrats and by March 1978, its membership had grown to over one thousand. Their primary goal was to rally public support for human rights, but members also organized strikes and protest marches against the dictatorship, and called attention to disappearances (Ramírez-Horton 1982:151). Lea Guido, one of the original members and founders of AMPRONAC, strongly believes AMPRONAC’s goal centered around encouraging women to participate in the solution to Nicaragua’s social and economic problems (Randall 1981:4). For this reason:
. . . our policies were aggressive ones. We demonstrated against absolutely everything that was going on in the country. One of the first demonstrations after the state of siege and martial law were lifted was at a journalists’ conference. We were there with our banner even though we were just a handful of people at the time. That’s the way we began to make our presence felt at every event and mass meeting. (Randall 1981:5)
According to Chinchilla (1990:374), the main reason for AMPRONAC’s success was its attention to the general issue of human rights and "[pursuing] it with tactics and organizational forms that came out of women’s particular experiences." Some of these tactics and organizational methods grew out of gender-specific experience, some out of class-specific and some were shared across class lines.
One condition shared across class lines among Nicaraguan women is motherhood. Although not all women are mothers, as I mentioned in the beginning of the paper, the marianismo ideal very much stresses woman’s role as mother. In addition, Randall (1981:184) holds that women are expected to be mothers: "Mothers expect that their daughters, too, will be mothers." Even if women do not have children, they were raised to be mothers. According to Gloria Carrion, "The way this repression centered on our youth, outraged women from all classes" (Randall 1981:13). Chinchilla (1990:375) maintains that many women who responded to AMPRONAC’s mobilization to defend human rights and protest the dictatorship were driven by their identification with the roles of mother, grandmother, and spouse.
Several women Randall interviewed (1981) originally participated in the revolutionary movement due to their identification as mothers. Zulema (Mónica Baltodano’s mother), was always a sympathizer, but she tells the story of her active and public involvement:
After Mónica was arrested I didn’t care if the whole world knew I was a revolutionary. I became fully involved. We formed the committee of Relatives of the Political Prisoners. I worked to defend her with all my might. If they even lifted a finger against her I went to La Prensa or to the radio and made public what was happening. I was no longer afraid, nothing mattered. (Randall 1981:68).
During the Revolution Nora Astorga was an active member of the FSLN and led several squadrons on the Southern Front. Her most legendary and possibly most dangerous action for the FSLN was on March 8, 1978 when she played a central role in the assassination of Pérez Vega -- a general of the National Guard who was well-known for his cruelty and torture (Randall 1981:116). Astorga, in 1978, worked as a lawyer and head of personnel for a large construction company and was also secretly a member of the FSLN. She got to know Pérez Vega through her job. Upon her divorce, Pérez Vega (who was a well-known womanizer) began making advances towards her. The FSLN devised a plan and Astorga was vital to that plan. Because of her connection with Pérez Vega and his interest in her, Astorga was to lure him into her house, where the FSLN planned to kidnap him and exchange him for members of the FSLN in jail (Randall 1981:121-122). Astorga’s job was to lure Pérez Vega into her bedroom, where there were several FSLN comrades hiding, disarm him and give the signal for the comrades to act. This all went accordingly, until Pérez Vega put up more resistance than they expected, which lead to his assassination (Randall 1981:123). Astorga had many reservations in taking part in this action, but ultimately did it for her two young daughters:
It may seem ironic, but part of my decision was precisely because of my children. I believed that by doing my part I would be helping to bring about a better world for them, and other children like them. It was hard for me to think about being separated from my girls, but I made the decision calmly. It was something I felt I had to do -- wanted to do. The decision was a mature one, made without idealism. (Randall 1981:122).
In addition to identifying with their roles as mothers, many women were very much affected by the harsh economic conditions and the repression under the Somoza regime. Discussed above concerning her participation in guerrilla combat, Ana Julia Guido’s mother is a peasant, her father an agricultural worker. She states her reason for joining the FSLN:
I joined the Sandinistas when I was fourteen years old. My involvement grew out of the poverty so many of us suffered. While I was still in grammar school I began to notice the contradictions in all the areas of our lives -- in the countryside, in production, in the economy, in education. (Randall 1981:129).
Guido’s participation in the revolutionary movement, like so many others, was directly related to her socio-economic conditions. Maxine Molyneux illustrates a reason for participation stemming from both to a woman’s identification with motherhood and with her socio-economic conditions. The 1972 Managuan earthquake and poor women’s participation in the relief work that followed was as a very important element in women’s political participation:
The anger that followed Somoza’s misappropriation of the relief funds intensified as the brutal methods used to contain opposition escalated. Many of these women experienced their transition from relief workers to participants in the struggle as a natural extension, albeit in combative form, of their protective role in the family as providers and crucially as mothers. This transition to "combative motherhood" was assisted by the propaganda efforts of the radical clergy, the Sandinistas, and by AMPRONAC, which linked these traditional identities to more general strategic objectives, and celebrated women’s role in the creation of a more just and humanitarian social order (Molyneux 1985:228)
So, according to Molyneux’s example, poor women participating in relief work began to
realize the extremity of their situation and employed "combative motherhood" to challenge and change that situation.
However, for women like Daisy Zamora and Marisol Castillo, it was their membership in the bourgeois class that led them to participate. Zamora, by completely involving herself in the struggle for national liberation, was able to escape her bourgeoisie background and get over her class insecurities (Randall 1981:105). Castillo, similar to Zamora, grew up in a privileged bourgeoisie family, and links her participation in the struggle to her realization of "the contradictions of [her family’s] wealth . . . [living] in a world of riches fully aware of how the ‘other half’ lives" (Randall 1981:209). Additionally, women like Vidaluz Meneses (discussed above in the context of women’s participation in the base movements) joined the revolutionary struggle for national liberation -- to make Nicaragua a better and more humane place for all Nicaraguans.
Regardless of their backgrounds, scores of women participated in the efforts to oust the Somoza regime and achieve national liberation. Each woman has her own personal reason for participating and also her own reward. The above discussion could in no way include all the reasons encompassing women’s engagement in the Nicaraguan revolutionary struggle. In the following section I would like to address some of ways in which women benefited from their involvement in the revolutionary movement and the Christian Base Communities.
What did the Revolution do for Women?
As far as women were concerned it would be difficult to argue that a loss of their gender identities occurred, except perhaps to a limited extent among the front line guerrilleros where a degree of masculinization and a blurring of gender distinctions took place. Rather, representations of women acquired new connotations, one that politicized the social roles with which women are conventionally associated, but it did not dissolve them. (Molyneux 1985:228).
Amanda Luisa Espinosa Association
of Nicaraguan Women (AMNLAE)
Upon the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution and the installment of the FSLN into government office, AMPRONAC switched its name and its objectives. AMPRONAC became a mass organization -- the Amanda Espinosa Association of Nicaraguan Women (AMNLAE). As AMPRONAC, the organization was created to involve women in the revolutionary struggle, specifically through their protest against the Somoza regime’s human rights violations. Upon its transformation to AMNLAE, the organization’s main goals were to defend the revolution; to promote women’s political and ideological awareness and advance their social; political and economic participation in the revolution, to challenge legal and institutional inequalities; to encourage women’s advancement and entry into the job force traditionally occupied by men; to encourage the respect of domestic labor and the organization of child care; and to forge and maintain international links (Molyneux 1985:239-40). Above and beyond all other goals, AMNLAE focused on the defense of the revolution, with slogans like "No revolution without women’s emancipation: no emancipation without revolution" (Molyneux 1985:238). According to Lancaster (1992:99):
Pragmatically and, I think, realistically AMNLAE placed the "defense of the Revolution" above all other concerns because the Sandinista Revolution constituted the only imaginable arena where women’s social and political demands might be realized.
Many authors critique and criticize AMNLAE’s policies and goals. Among the most common critiques: the organization is not ‘feminist’ enough, it is not autonomous enough from the FSLN hierarchy, and it is an "organization of housewives and mothers of combatants and martyrs", instead of one leading the way in the transformation of women’s roles in Nicaraguan society (Chinchilla 1990:377). Regardless of the criticism and critiques directed at AMNLAE, the organization accomplished (and is still accomplishing) a great deal. Just a few years after the triumph, by October 1981, AMNLAE’s membership had reached twenty-five thousand (Chinchilla 1990:376). Around this time, AMNLAE underwent a self-evaluation and a change in strategy. It separated itself from the other mass organizations, hoping to become a "political-ideological social movement" with a broad base of membership and support:
Rather than devoting its energy to building and maintaining its own organizational structures, AMNLAE would encourage, support, and reinforce the efforts of women in each sector and organization and serve as a pressure group on other organizations and governmental bodies to facilitate greater involvement on the part of women and support for women’s issues and campaigns. (Chinchilla 1990:379)
Although taking some time to implement the strategy change, AMNLAE hoped to act as an "umbrella organization incorporating women from all the different sectors" (Collison 1990:137).
In 1982, AMNLAE initiated the Ley de Alimentos​, the Law of Nurturing. According to Lancaster (1992:18), through this legislation, AMNLAE "recognized the Nicaraguan family -- in its diversity and as it really existed -- as an important basis of society and encouraged a more just and stable family structure." The legislation eliminated the distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate children; it lists parents, siblings and grandparents as responsible for the economic, social and cultural well-being of children under age twenty-one; and it states both parents are equally responsible for the household chores and family care (Lancaster 1992:18). In short, AMNLAE, for much of its existence was an extension of the FSLN, maintaining that women’s emancipation and national liberation were one in the same: one could not be achieved with out the other being achieved as well. This both allowed for a certain degree of freedom and a certain degree of confinement. Existing as an organization under the Revolution, like Lancaster states above, can have its advantages. AMNLAE’s voice was heard by the Sandinista government, however, having to pay so much attention to the defense of the Revolution was also limiting for AMNLAE. Chinchilla (1990:393-4) suggests that the Sandinista loss in the elections (in 1989) may allow them to devote more time to grass-roots organizing. Without having to constantly "defend the revolution," AMNLAE may be able to focus more intently on issues directly concerning, affecting and important to Nicaraguan women.
The FSLN in Power:
Sandinista Policies
After the triumph, the Sandinista government immediately began implementing change in Nicaragua through new policies and reforms. Originally written in 1969 and reprinted in 1981 by the Department of Propaganda and Political Education, the Historic Program of the FSLN included a whole section on the emancipation of women: "The Sandinista people’s revolution will abolish the odious discrimination that women have been subjected to compared to men; it will establish economic, political, and cultural equality between women and man" (Borge, et al 1982:19). In 1979, following the triumph, the FSLN junta initiated the Fundamental Statue of Rights and Guarantees, which formally established equality for all -- mandating equal pay for equal work, outlawing sexual discrimination, and allowing for the investigation of children’s paternity (Collision 1990:111). Additionally, the junta made prostitution a crime and established the Provisional Media Law which banned the sexual exploitation of women in media (Collison 1990:111).
The Sandinista Revolution did more than simply establish laws to create equality between men and women. They attempted to reform men’s behavior, and reform the traditional machista values that Nicaraguan men often uphold. The FSLN created the New Revolutionary Man: ". . . steeped in Sandinist and Christian values: solidarity, fraternity, altruism, humility and unconditional commitment to work to improve the condition of the oppressed" (Serra 1982:98). The New Revolutionary man, defined by Lancaster (1992:40), is hard working, devoted, and family oriented. Moreover, many Sandinistas believe that "the ‘new man’ of revolutionary Nicaragua is equally capable of furthering women’s interests as are the women themselves, and that the elimination of the oppression of women is the responsibility of society as a whole" (Collison 1990:189). Therefore, the Sandinistas, in addition to establishing policies and laws, for the most part, fundamentally believe in the equality between women and men -- the responsibility in achieving this equality falls not only on women, as is so often the case, but on men as well.
Has Emancipation Been Realized?
Although women’s conditions and situations have greatly improved under the revolutionary process, women’s emancipation, gender emancipation, has not yet been realized. In most cases, this is a long and arduous process to begin with, so we cannot discount the possibility that it will eventually happen. Nicaraguan women and the revolutionary government made definite progress and have worked hard in the process. However, several things hold back gender emancipation and women’s liberation. I will now address those things that have made the realization of women’s emancipation impossible for the time being.
Firstly, the idea of revolution, or national liberation, before women’s emancipation creates some difficulties. It makes perfect sense that national liberation would incorporate women’s liberation: "As a socialist organization, the FSLN recognized women’s oppression as something that had to be eliminated in the creation of a new society" (Molyneux 1985:238). However, Molyneux (1985:251) points out that if a government holds the above policy, they must not minimize or postpone attention to women’s issues. As mentioned above, the defense of the revolution was given overwhelming attention, especially during the counter-revolution. Given this attitude toward the revolution’s defense, there simply was not enough time to fully address women’s liberation. Additionally, one must question the FSLN’s reasons for devoting so much attention to women’s issues: is the attention to women’s interests about women or is it about the organization’s desire to retain political power? As mentioned earlier, the FSLN is a pragmatic and flexible organization. Chinchilla (1990:387) suggests:
. . . it would not be surprising to learn that the tactical and pragmatic concerns about increasing women’s productivity and keeping women from being co-opted by the right- wing opposition weighed more heavily in convincing some FSLN leaders about the new position on women than did theoretical or practical Marxist arguments about the dialectical relationship between production and reproduction and class and gender.
The FSLN was an organizations made up of individuals, many of these individuals were women, and Chinchilla’s suggestion certainly does not apply to the entire organization. Reinforcing the above, however, Molyneux (1985:245) points out that revolutionary governments -- she is not specifically addressing the FSLN here -- often ". . . fear that unless women are politicized they may not cooperate with the process of social transformation." The above, hopefully, does not suggest that the advancements initiated by the FSLN concerning women were ingenuine. I simply think it important to mention the difficulties involved in assessing women’s emancipation.
Another substantial reason for the incompletion of Nicaraguan women’s emancipation is the fact that men are not changing. Despite the Sandinista effort to forge a New Revolutionary Man, they still "had to contend with deeply entrenched machista attitudes and considerable hostility among much of the population to the idea of women’s emancipation" (Molyneux 1985:244). Moreover, all the campaigns concerning women were directed only at women, and rarely, if ever attempted to make drastic changes in the attitude and behavior of Nicaraguan men (Molyneux 1985:244). According to Vidaluz Meneses, women are still overburdened with responsibility:
We women have always been marginalized. The revolution signaled a great potential for us. But reality itself left us with the overburdened responsibility that we’ve always had . . . So when we talk about women we’re talking about a group that’s historically had to take responsibility for much more than our share of society’s problems . . . the age-old division of labor had placed men in the political sphere, dealing with abstractions; women are right in there where it counts, solving the concrete problems. So maybe this crisis we’re in right now isn’t anything new for women; it’s just a slightly larger version of what we’ve always known. (Randall 1994:164)
The reaction to the Ley de Alimentos (the Nurture Law) in 1982 may shed light on some of the problems I am discussing. Although AMNLAE worked hard in reforming the old laws to create a more just and equal treatment of women with the Nurture Law, and it was passed by the legislative branch (the Council of State), it was never ratified by the executive branch (the junta) (Collison 1990:111). According the Booth (1985:237), the Nurture Law was debated among Nicaraguans: many men did not like the idea of having to contribute to domestic and household labor. People’s reactions to the Nurture Law can illustrate the possibility that cultural attitudes are taking time to change, thus hindering the process of women’s emancipation as well.
The Christian Base Movement, while very much encouraging women’s participation and stressing equality between men and women, falls short on its critique of marianismo and machismo and the limitations they place on Nicaraguan women. According to liberation theology’s definition of sin as anything that alienates humans from one another and from God, oppression and exploitation are a sin. It should follow that gender oppression and exploitation would also be sinful. While the base communities do, in fact, emphasize equality, they never directly attack gender oppression. Moreover, while the base communities recognized machismo as a problem in Nicaraguan society and in the Church and actively attempted to challenge and destroy it, I came across no similar attitude or reference concerning marianismo. I realize that marianismo and machismo must not always be side by side, but they do, in fact, both contribute to the limitations placed on women and the reality in which women must live. Possible in the CEBs reasoning for not considering marianismo ‘sinful’ are two likelihoods. One, many of the values the CEBs uphold are very similar to those upheld by marianismo. Among others are sacrifice, the notion of ‘good works’, and identification with the family. Additionally, the CEBs emphasis on social action is similar to Lancaster’s notion of ‘traditional feminine practice’ (see p. 10). By considering marianismo sinful, the Nicaraguan base communities would be contradicting themselves. The second likelihood is the mere fact that marianismo is based upon the Virgin Mary, and she is not a sinner.
Mention of the Virgin Mary reminds us of the traditional values that are so hard to shake. Both Booth (1985:236) and Molyneux (1985:243) maintain traditional religious and social values played a big part in preventing the realization of women’s liberation. Molyneux goes even further and claims that the traditional, conservative Catholic Church was especially limiting. A perfect example of the difficulty in getting away from the traditional ideals and values of Nicaraguan society is the transformation of the Virgin Mary. Traditionally, the Virgin Mary is the epitome of the marianismo ideal -- passive, submissive, exhibiting a "resigned acceptance" of her fate. This is the pre-revolutionary Virgin Mary. Through the Sandinista Revolution and the high participation of the base communities, the Virgin Mary became active, thus marianismo followed as an active strategy. Mary became a symbol of the poor and the oppressed that were meant be lifted from their lowly positions (see footnote 6), she became a symbol of popular struggle -- she is an active figure and allows marianismo to be carried to a active level as well.
With the 1989 Nicaraguan elections, the Virgin Mary’s image underwent a change. Although the revolutionary Mary was active and played a part in the transformation of society, the traditional image of her was not eliminated. And during Violeta Chamorro’s presidential campaign, she called up this traditional image of the Virgin Mary. Chamorro presented herself as the "the private woman", "the traditional mother", "the mother of her country" (Kampwirth 1996:67). According to Chinchilla (1990:392), Chamorro’s platform in the 1989 elections was virtually silent concerning women’s equality and liberation. Her only specific reference to women concerned programs aimed at strengthening women’s dignity and integration into family, economic, social and political functions. The political party that backed Chamorro -- the National Opposition Union (UNO) specifically planned to "recover" the traditional values of the nuclear family (Kampwirth 1996:70). These traditional values most often support the sexual division of labor and the dichotomized public and private spheres that go along with it. Meaning, women are once again relegated to the private, domestic sphere -- the home and reproduction.
Recently, Arnoldo Alemán was elected president of Nicaragua. According to many, Alemán has alienated women from his government. All of Alemán’s top cabinet positions are filled by men -- in contrast to both Chamorro’s and the Sandinista government (Koop 1997:5). Moreover, Alemán is planning to consolidate the Nicaraguan Institute of Women and the Foundation of Infancy and Childhood into the Ministry of the Family. This is coming under a great deal of criticism from Nicaraguan women, for this action denies the separate needs of women, children and infants. Nicaraguan women claim that Alemán’s "moral values" are unfavorable as well: they reinforce traditional roles of men and women. The man is the protector and the boss of the family, and the woman "lives in service to her spouse and her children" (Puntos de Visto, en La Boletina 1996).
They [women] have taken an active part in the Revolution not only to achieve freedom for the people, but also to achieve their own freedom as women.
Sr. Martha, Catholic nun (Randall 1981:162).
Although there has been something of a "return to traditional values" in Nicaragua since the FSLN lost political power, the return is not complete and supported by all. It also does not mean that women’s causes are no longer being addressed. On the contrary, as shown by the response to Alemán’s consolidation of the Nicaraguan Institute of Women and the Foundation of Infancy and Childhood into one Ministry, women are still very active in Nicaragua.
One of the most important and worthwhile achievements of the revolutionary process was the concientizacion (see footnote 7) of women. Women’s participation in the Christian Base Communities and the Sandinista Revolution was vital to the movements’ success. In addition, it allowed women to become aware of their situation as women: the limitations imposed by machismo, marianismo and the patriarchal structure, not to mention the limitations of the Somoza dynasty, became more apparent through women’s participation in the revolutionary process, and women began to challenge these limitations. According to Chinchilla (1990:375), many of the women who joined the revolutionary struggle as a response to AMPRONAC’s focus on the role of mother, grandmother and spouse are women who normally would not have transgressed the traditional role of women in the home, and thus, not participated if not for their identification with being a mother, grandmother or spouse and the responsibility it entails.
Regardless of whether women’s participation came from their identification as a mother, or their membership to a particular social class, Gloria Carrion (who worked with AMPRONAC from its beginning and after the triumph became General Co-ordinator of AMNLAE) maintains:
it’s important to point out that women’s integration into the revolutionary process wasn’t an isolated thing. It took placed within the context of an entire people readying themselves for battle. At the same time however, Nicaraguan women developed a consciousness of themselves as women and of the important role they could play in the fight against Somoza. (Randall 1981:10).
So, although there seems to be a trend in the present Nicaraguan government towards the reinstatement and reinforcement of traditional values, the "revolution has promoted women’s full participation in all areas of life" (Collison 1990:166), and this is something that women are not forgetting and are not giving up. Vidaluz Meneses believes that there may be one advantage to the Sandinista election loss: in order to keep projects formerly created and under the ultimate control of the FSLN out of the new government’s hands, there was a proliferation of nongovernmental organizations after Chamorro was elected. Meneses tells us that a large number of these NGO’s are run by women and directed towards women’s concerns, which she considers to be vitally important (Randall 1994:164).
The revolution created a space in which women could organize, protest the status quo and work for change. Now that the revolution’s party is out of power and the wars are over, Aminta Granera says: "The letup in the war has given us some space. . . we’re able to think as women, to feel as women, to act and struggle as women and for women" (Randall 1994:204). Despite the step backwards many believe the new Nicaraguan governmental policies have taken, women’s social and political action is still strong in Nicaragua. The revolutionary process gave women the authority to be the women they want to be -- mothers, daughters, agricultural worker, poets, professors, factory workers, the president, organizers, army commanders, police, but women nonetheless. Gender liberation and women’s emancipation may not have been achieved by the revolutionary process, but the steps forward have been irreversible ones for Nicaraguan women.
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