Small Steps, Big World
Service-Learning in El Sauce, Nicaragua
Photos by Kris Dreessen
Nicholas, a farmer in Ocotal, laughs as Alfonso Martinez talks following the community's "historic day" at a tourism cooperative meeting and how people "thought we were crazy to think that people would want to come to our mountain. But they came and it's working."
A few days earlier, the residents hosted their first visitors to Ocotal who wanted an intimate look at rural Nicaraguan life. The farmers took them horseback riding, hiked with them to the mountain lookout and gave a tour of their organic coffee farms. The visitors also helped shuck, roast and grind fresh, steaming cups of coffee.
The Ocotal farmers prepared for eight days for the day-long tour; members of a mariachi band left their homes at 3 a.m. on horseback to meet the tourists. They even serenaded the group at the summit.
About 30 farmers came to the post-tour meeting to talk about the tourism project, which SUNY Geneseo is helping the residents establish. Based on the success of the first tour, 13 new residents joined the cooperative at the meeting.
"The first tour was a historic day in Las Minitas," says Alfonso. "For me and the community, it was really a special day. There was a lot of joy."
Perched on the side of the mountain, Alfonso Martinez's coffee plants dot the hillside, planted among trees and brush. The farmers hand pick the beans, dry them in the sun and use very little machinery to process the beans. Alfonso and his family use a hand-cranked shucker and brute strength to strike a hefty branch on the beans to clear excess shell before his wife pan roasts the beans over an open fire.
The secret to tasty success: that artisan way, says Alfonso, and sugar boiled in with the water.
Marcelo Gabriel Pastora, age 3, watches the street in a sliver of early-morning light from his doorway in El Sauce, Nicaragua. SUNY Geneseo and community members are being recognized for their efforts working with leaders and residents of the remote community to rebuild a stable economic base in the village. When he's old enough to work, Marcel should have more options.
Juan Luis carries a sack of freshly cut wheat from a field in Hugo Arevalo, a remote community outside of El Sauce. He and his family are subsistence farmers, who grow enough to eat, store for the rainy season and sell leftovers for a small profit. Many residents earn or grow enough to survive, with few amenities.
Agriculture and cattle are the backbone of the El Sauce economy. Visitors often see residents herding their pigs through town. As many families have indoor plumbing as don't. Ox-drawn carts are still a traditional and popular mode of transport and outnumber cars and cycles. Once in a while, a bull or cow will wander by a front door.
El Sauce's once stable economy fell after the train stopped running during the 1980s civil war. The rails were stolen and the iron sold. Now, the railway is a commuting path for some of the area's poorest residents, who live on land provided by the Nicaraguan government. The area is part of the newest bike tours, led by Karen Figueroa, above, and other teenagers trained by Resident Director Kellan Morgan '06, and who provide personal insight into the town's history.
Karen's uncle, a Sandinistan fighter, died during the war. His sacrifice is marked by his family at this grave in the El Sauce cemetery.
Many graves are decorated with ornate flower arrangements, hand-painted signs and bright colors to personalize tombstones. Affluent families buy tombs in the shape of a house. Others are crosses made of pipe or wood with simple, hand-painted name signs and the date of a loved one's passing.
Karen hopes to become a tour guide and travel. The city, she says, is still recovering from the war.
Adam Davis '09 meets his host mother, Alida Aroztegui, for the first time. A lifelong El Sauce resident, Alida has hosted seven Geneseo students. She runs a small store that sells accessories in the front part of her home.
Alida lived in the United States and has traveled all over Central America. Her six sisters and brothers, who all live nearby or next door, visit often. She likes to share the close-knit Nicaraguan culture with the students, she says, who are always respectful and open-minded.
"Here in Nicaragua and Central America, families are closer," says Alida. "They see each other more often. Everything centers around the family."
Marisol Torrez, a teacher at an El Sauce school, practices her new computer skills several days each week on a computer in the library after classes. She had only seen computers on television and in films before she enrolled in a beginner's course at the New York School of English. Resident Director Kellan Morgan '06 and a Geneseo student taught her how to do word processing, print and conduct Internet searches.
Before the class, she says, she had to pay someone to surf the net and help her daughter conduct research for school projects. She was embarrassed to ask staff at the Internet cafe for help, and often times they were unable to assist her. Her skills, she says, are helping her become a better teacher.
Members of the El Sauce baseball team watch a player at bat during a game against the city of Leon. It costs 50 cents for a ticket into the stadium. Those who can't afford the admission price or just want to take in a few innings line the back fence alongside vendors who roast chicken and sausages to sell to spectators.
Men from several families in the rural community of Hugo Arevalo chop harvested wheat before the heat of the afternoon settles in. Homes in the community are typically made of wood, with dirt floors, an open front and a large front room with a plastic chair or two and space to hang hammocks. Families cook on open fires and collect water from a nearby creek for cooking, drinking and cleaning. Harvest from the wheat, corn and beans that they don't need is sold for extra income -- usually totaling $500 per year.
"I thought, 'Here we go, this is for real. Life gets serious," says Adam Davis '09, who built a brick and cement wall with an El Sauce mason for his mother and family. "We're going to speak their language, eat their food, live under their roofs. It was definitely the most memorable experience I've had and the most 'out there' experience."
Adam Davis '09 laughs as he shows Omar his first attempt at shaping rebar metal into a square.
"It's perfect, yes? More or less?" he laughs. "OK. Less."
Adam Davis '09, second from left, shovels a cement mixture in the living room of Pepe Hernandez Blanco, center, as they build a new wall for his home. Adam raised $500 to pay for supplies for the wall and a new roof through the 4 Walls Project, a grassroots initiative that helps low-income families in El Sauce replace crumbling and dangerous walls and roofs. Pepe says it would take he and his mother, Miriam, six months to save the $500 for the repairs, says Pepe, "but it's very very difficult to save. We spend everything on food and utilities." A local mason, Pepe has volunteered his labor on many 4 Walls projects before accepting materials for his own house.
Working with Adam, he says, "is a totally singular experience. I never thought that I'd work with someone from the United States and I'm surprised he wanted to do this."
After four days of hard work, Noel, left, Adam and Pepe Hernandez Blanco lean against their new wall.
"We became friends," says Adam of the guys. He now considers El Sauce a home and has added "international" to his career options after seeing how he thrived in the Nicaraguan community.
Mauricio Martinez arrives at a meeting of the Ocotal farmers and tourism cooperative after the celebratory first tour on the mountain. It has been his dream to launch a tourism business in Ocotal; he donated his own land at the base of the "mirador," or lookout summit, to build a rustic restaurant and visitor gathering place. It is nearly finished, thanks to a $10,000 grant for supplies provided by the Millennium Development Corporation, a U.S. federal-aid organization.
Mothers wait with their young sons and daughters to see nurse Yuritza Sequiera in the remote community of Huge Arevalo during a monthly wellness visit. Sequeira weighs infants and toddlers up to age 2, and assesses their weight and overall health. Mothers keep a health chart and obtain nutrition and other advice, as well as antibiotics and supplements.
Wellness visits in communities such as Cuaguigicil provide an opportunity for mothers and their children who live in rural areas to gather and visit. When nurse Yurtiza Sequeira arrives, family members start spreading word that the healthcare worker is at Burnia's house. Through the course of the morning, villagers start to trickle in.
Sequeira's visit is the only access to health care that families have, unless they walk an hour to the road and take the bus into town to the health center.
Meredith Cannella '09 helps nurse Yuritza Sequeira give a young girl a vaccine during a wellness visit in Cuaguigicil. The first patient of the day was a young boy who may have had a hernia from lifting, hauling wood or carrying wet clothes in buckets from the river. Yuritza suggested the family go into El Sauce for another look.
Other kids receive vitamins. None of them are happy to receive an injection. Polio and deadly forms of malaria are just teeny drops into their mouths -- the malaria is even sweet. "They like it," says Yuritza -- but the "five in one" vaccine is a sharp jab with a needle. Three boys were the first to arrive but waited in the corner, scared to be the first to sit in the hot seat.
After a while they went and were followed by this little girl. Meredith held the cotton on her leg as she cried. Soon, she forgot all about it as she and Marco waddled around unsteady on their feet, playing with a deodorant stick and a plastic cup.
A boy stands outside the kitchen in a home in Cuaguigicil, a rural and isolated community outside El Sauce. With few resources to perform root canals and fill cavities, most of El Sauce dentist Dr. Denis Garcia Roque's work is limited to pulling teeth. He extracts up to 20 teeth per day and believes a child's best option is prevention.
This summer, Allison Kornblatt '10 is implementing an oral-hygiene program in coordination with Colgate's Nicaraguan division to teach kids good dental care and provide supplies to brush in school, including access to potable water.
Kornblatt's proposal -- which includes evaluation methods and a way to keep future Geneseo students involved -- won $1,000 through a New York consortium of college and university presidents, based on merit and the opportunity it presents for her to learn.
Yadira Castillo pulls deep-red thread around a basket she is making out of pine needles that have fallen from trees near her home in Cerro Colorado.
The Geneseo program has helped market the handicrafts in Nicaraguan tourism markets, and the School of Business has purchased $1,000 worth of baskets to help with marketing in the United States and other venues, where the women can fetch higher prices for their wares.
The School of Business and a Rochester-based grassroots initiative recently donated nearly $1,000 to the Geneseo service-learning program's basket-making initiative to provide additional training to the Cerro Colorado artistans so they can hone their craft and create more uniform, intricate baskets for sale.
The project is one of several economic development efforts SUNY Geneseo is undertaking with El Sauce residents and leaders.
Darling Uriarte Mendoza wraps thread around pine needles as she makes a basket in Cerro Colorado in preparation for El Sauce's Los Fiestas Patronales de El Sauce, or Cristo Negro festival, which brings more than 30,000 visitors and religious pilgrims to the small village every January.
The women sold their handicrafts at a tourism booth outside the mayor's office. It was the first time El Sauce residents also offered guided bike and walking tours of their town, coordinated by local teens and the Geneseo program.
About 10 teens conducted research, interviews and practiced routes to offer the tours for the first time.
Alfonso Martinez and his wife savor the smell of freshly-roasted coffee beans, cooked on a fire, in the open-air kitchen at their home and farm in Ocotal. Alfonso is proud of their simple farm and lifestyle, which features a small organic coffee crop, a close-knit family that helps with chores and self-sufficiency. Sometimes they long for small luxuries like new clothes, but are excited to share their lifestyle with students and tourists.
The Geneseo contingent in January -- Meredith Cannella '09, front right, Adam Davis '09 second from right, and Kellan Morgan '06 and volunteer Yacarely Mareina-Davila, back center, celebrate a day with the Ocotal farmers on top of the "mirador," or lookout.
Mauricio says he grew up hiking to the summit. One of the oldest members of the community, he still relishes the trip and views of the mountains and El Sauce below.
Former El Sauce Mayor Evertz Delgadillo has been a driving force in the collaboration of SUNY Geneseo and El Sauce, offering resources, transportation and town hall as a meeting place for English classes in the hopes of advancement.
"Even with the world economic crisis and the crisis in the United States, the most important currency in the world is the dollar," says Delgadillo. "And the dollars are owned by the people who speak English. If we want to offer our products to them, we need to be able to communicate with them. We need to speak English."
He sparked the Geneseo relationship when he visited campus in 2005 seeking partners for development in his town. Agriculture, cattle raising and tourism are the area's staples for growth, he says. Now, a Web presence is vital to attracting visitors, he says.
There are many nonprofit organizations in El Sauce that help with sanitation and other needs. Geneseo is different, he says, because the school has developed programs based on what the community says it needs most.
Delgadillo's term as mayor ended last January. His successor, Rosa Valle, says she is committed to working with the Geneseo service-learning program and initiatives.
The ability to speak English skyrockets residents' value in the job market, as few people in El Sauce and even larger cities speak it, says Resident Director Kellan Morgan '06, back left. Students -- pictured here with volunteer Yacarely Mareina-Davila, back right, and Meredith Cannella '09 and Adam Davis '09 -- are construction workers, musicians, students, hairdressers, veterinarians, lawyers, staff members of nonprofit groups and restaurant owners, like Ileana Rivera.
When the six Geneseo students came to her restaurant door, Ileana Rivera wanted to help them but didn't know how. They stood outside; she wondered why they didn't come in. When they finally entered they waited in the middle of the room, whispering and talking to each other. She knew they didn't speak Spanish. She didn't know a lick of English.
"They were just standing in the middle and I thought, 'What am I going to tell them?'" Ileana remembers. "Then I approached them and made a lot of hand gestures."
Ileana realized she was in a cultural divide but couldn't communicate to alleviate their stress. It was, as they say, an 'a-ha moment.'
"I knew that at least I needed to start on the basics to communicate," says Ileana. "I have my business and I need to have a good service. I felt really embarrassed because they said later that they were not well attended. That's when I started to think I need to learn English."
Ileana was one of the first residents to enroll in English classes in El Sauce in 2006. Years later, Ileana is in her chair three times a week practicing her present tenses and making presentations about her life, Nicaragua and sometimes, singing songs to perfect pronunciation.
She laughs, along with her daughter, Melba: "My family tells me an old parakeet can never learn to speak."
It's really hard to put the words and sentences together in conversation, says Ileana, but she's come a long way. On day one, she knew "Hello." Walk into Cafetin River's now, and she can talk with basic words "and give you what you need."
With more Geneseo students coming to El Sauce and more volunteers for the 4 Walls Project, Ileana sees English as a vital business investment. If visitors are looking for a place to eat and hang out, and can communicate with her, they will come to Cafetin River's. She's learned several times that you need an advantage to make it in El Sauce, where unemployment hovers at least at 40 percent.
Ileana and her husband, Zidar, were married when she was 16. Her first daughter, Jahoska saw first light, as the El Sauce people say, when she was just 17. They were butchers, killing the cows and selling their meat on the same day in a small "carneceria," or meat shop. At first they had one of only a few meat shops. When more moved in, business slowed. They sold cream and cheese instead. The same thing happened.
"We would have a lot of loss, with cheese that didn't sell going bad," she says.
Ileana experimented with her oven and found a new talent -- baking.
When the cheese went belly up, she opened Cafetin River's. That was eight years ago. The Riveras make it work, supplementing the income with her cake and bread orders. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you can order dinner too. Ileana is famous for her "muy rico" -- or very rich -- food. Ileana has been in the English class since day one and promises to stay with it.
"I don't want to get tired of going to class because I really think I?m going to learn," she says.
Right now, 17-year-old Manuel de Jesus Munguia ferries people to and from their destinations in El Sauce on a bike taxi Monday to Friday. He doesn't have time to go to school when everyone else does, when he's helping his mom pay for home expenses. He attends class on Saturdays and thinks about the day he might hop off his "caponera" for a full-time job. Maybe in construction. Better yet, in an office. Best, working for the town in the mayor's office or as a translator, meeting people from other cultures.
"If he told his friends that, they'd probably laugh at him," says Yacarely Mareina-Davila, "because to be in an office here is like 'Wow."
It would be a much longer way off if Manuel didn't spend three nights a week learning to conjugate present-tense verbs in the New York School of English. Manuel isn't the best English speaker, but he's there every evening and so willing to practice his classmates tease him that he hogs the discussions. In reality, Resident Director Kellan Morgan '06 says, this is Manuel's way out.
With unemployment hovering around 40 percent, there's few jobs to be had in El Sauce. Manuel said he looked for many there wasn't any, so he drives the bike taxi. Without any other skills, options are pretty limited for what Manuel can do, says Kellan. Knowing English automatically boosts his marketability. Not many people speak English in Nicaragua; Manuel will become a commodity if he keeps it up.
When you talk to Manuel he's polite, smiley and entirely shy. He fidgets with his backpack strings, shifts in his seat. Clearly, it's a struggle to overcome his shyness each night in English and sing about seeking words of wisdom with the U.K's Fab Four.
Volunteers in English sing a song in English every night and even though he looks like he's going to high-tail it out the front door before he opens his mouth, Manuel always raises his hand.
"Let it Be" is a favorite and the class is his only chance to practice his skills.
"That's what moves me to get up and stand up and use what I'm learning," says Manuel. "It was unbelievable how lost I was. Sometimes when I used to talk to Kellan I had no idea what he was saying. Now I feel like I can understand."
A member of a mariachi band waits for his turn to play to Honduran religious pilgrims as they arrive in at the church courtyard in El Sauce on the first day of Los Fiestas Patronales de El Sauce, or the Cristo Negro Festival. His band played all night for the pilgrims, who drive ox-drawn carts for weeks loaded with hay, bedding, live chickens and other belongings. Each year more than 30,000 visitors from Nicaragua and Central America crowd into tiny El Sauce for the festival to see the black Christ relic in the church, to pray and ask for miracles.
A family lights candles in the cathedral during Los Fiestas Patronales de El Sauce as other visitors file in to pray and slip charms in the shape of arms, stomachs, heads and other body parts that may be ailing and for which they are seeking a miracle.
A Honduran woman rests as she enters central El Sauce with her ox-drawn cart during the opening-day celebration of Los Fiestas Patronales de El Sauce. The entire community comes out to celebrate their arrival, performing dances, giving speeches and welcoming dozens of families and their carts into vacant lots, where they will live for the week.
This year, El Sauce leaders presented a woman with a special award, as she was born in a cart at the festival and now returns each year with her own family.
Adam Davis '09 leaps off of rocks above Los Peroles, the local swimming hole. The leaps drench swimmers, who cheer and clap, like Meredith Cannella '09 and Resident Director Kellan Morgan '06.