Today we visited the Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs of Esteli. The local memorial museum honors those from Esteli district who died fighting the oppression of the Somoza regime in the 1970s.
We had the opportunity to hear the personal story of Dona Mina, whose only son was gruesomely executed by Somaza’s U.S.-trained special forces. He was 14 years old when he left to fight with the Sandonistas. After he was killed, Dona Mina picked up a gun and fought in his place.
No official records were kept, but it is believed that thousands died in the Esteli area alone. When the Sandonistas took Esteli — the day known as The Triumph, July 19, 1979 — the Somoza family fled the country. (They tried to go to the United States, but President Carter refused them entry. They went to Paraguay, where Somoza was later assassinated.)
After the war, Dona Mina was one of four mothers who began working to create a memorial to the lost loved ones — the heroes and martyrs. Those four mothers knocked on doors and grew to 3,000 mothers, each who shared a photo or memento of their son or daughter who was killed. Today, more than 400 mothers remain active in the association that runs the museum. The center receives no government support and nearly all visitors are foreign tourists.
The center focuses on the insurrection, rather than the contra war period. Dona Mina said a few other communities began similar projects but most did not result in a permanent memorial. She believes preserving the memory of those who died is crucial for several reasons. The most important: Education.
Between 1990 and 2006 Nicaraguan public schools were not allowed to teach or discuss the insurrection, the triumph or the contra wars. When the Sandonista FSLN party was re-elected in 2006 those laws were changed.
It was clear that this conflict touched every family in Nicaragua. Our guide, Aldo, who grew up in Esteli, had an uncle who fought and died in the Sandonista army. We were able to see his picture, too. He was the brother of Aldo’s mother and we were all struck by how much he looks like our friend.
Although each of us is processing what we learned in our own ways, we were all touched by the personal stories shared by Dona Mina and Aldo. It made what we have read and heard feel more real, more important and more heartbreaking.
Nathan immediately saw connections to his studies at Washburn.
“I learned more today than in any history class I’ve ever taken. I’m a history major. I didn’t know any of that stuff,” he said. “I was actually kind of ashamed.”
Many in the group felt a sense of shame or guilt at the role of the United States in supporting the Somoza regime. When presenting Dona Mina with a small Ichabod sun catcher, Meghan told her we would “like to apologize for the role of our government.”
Dona Mina told us all not to feel responsible because what a government does is not the responsibility of individual citizens. She encouraged us to learn and question, but not to carry guilt or shame.
Later, Sam said what many of us were thinking: “It’s strange that the people of the country don’t seem as interested. And it blows my mind that those weren’t even all of the people who were killed.”
Dona Mina said it has been a struggle to get the young people of the community interested in the history of the insurrection and revolution. She works to preserve the memory of what happened and the memory of her son and all the others.
Tonight, as we reflected as a group, we were left with some important questions: What is our role in preventing something like the Somoza dictatorship and decades long civil wars in Nicaragua from happening again? What difference can we make and what responsibility do we have related to our government and its actions? What other injustice is occurring that government — in any country — is trying to hide, downplay or ignore? Would we be willing to sacrifice everything for what we believe in?