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The Community Of Solentiname

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At a glance, Solentiname is largely irrelevant. It is tucked away in the southwestern corner of Lake Nicaragua and hosts a meager population of less than one thousand people, mostly whom are campesinos and the occasional tourist. Yet among this archipelago of thirty-two islands (of which, only one is inhabited), there was once a community that helped lay down the foundation for revolution. That community has been gone for some time now, as in 1977, it was destroyed by the Somoza regime’s National Guard in retaliation for the communities’ participation in an attack on a National Guard barracks in San Carlos. Despite, it’s destruction and the degradation of its significance following the end of the Nicaraguan Revolution, that community, originally entitled “la comunidad contemplativa de Nuestra Señora de Solentiname,” remains an interesting local case study on how Christianity was used to cultivate revolutionary sentiment in a largely indifferent and uneducated population. Ryne Clos asks the question that everyone was probably asking when the FSLN overthrew the Somoza regime in 1979: “Why were the Christians mobilized at all, after centuries of suffering governance as corrupt, hateful, and murderous as that of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the third installment of the family dictatorship, with relative difference?”

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One of the closest clues scholars have is the community of Solentiname. In 1966, several years before the Sandinista Liberation Front (FSLN) really gained traction in their fight against Somoza, Ernesto Cardenal, who was then a newly minted priest, originally founded the community at Solentiname, built around a chapel on the island Mancarrón in the Solentiname archipelago, as a contemplative community that sought to peacefully demonstrate to the people of Nicaragua what they could achieve. Cardenal’s original vision was a pacifist one, an idea that his utopian community could infect his country by example and pave the way for change. The vision became increasingly radical as the Somoza regime increased its repression and brutality and pacifist means of ending repression became untenable.

In anthropology, religion is often viewed as a cultural system. Clifford Geertz defines religion as follows:

“(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”

Arthur Van Gennup argues that religion operates on a three-phase model of ritual passage: separation, transition, and incorporation. Separation, the first phase of Van Gennup’s model, occurs when the individual (or individuals) is separated from the group. Transition occurs when the individual goes through the ideological transformation. The last phase, incorporation, occurs when the individual returns to their original group. Solentiname provides an interesting case to put Geertz and Van Gennup to the test. Does Solentiname fit into Geertz’ definition of religion? If so, how does the structure of religion, this sort of proto-liberation theology that Cardenal introduced to Solentiname, work as a system? Did it, as Geertz writes, establish conceptions of a general order of existence that not only seemed “right” but realistic and attainable? Lastly, was Solentiname transformed through the three-phase model of ritual passage that Van Gennup argues?

Ernesto Cardenal’s use of religion closely fits this definition. Cardenal blended elements of radical socialism and Christianity in a way that was digestible for an everyday campesino. By doing so, Cardenal established a powerful and long-lasting sentiment that reinvented how the peasants of Solentiname saw their world and ignited a dream for their country, a restructuring of Nicaraguan society that was not only realistic but attainable, just as Geertz argues. Furthermore, the process that the population of Cardenal’s underwent, the ideological transformation from “bystander” to revolutionary sympathizer, socialist, and even guerilla, accurately mirrors the three-phased model that Van Gennup conceived in 1909. Olivia Guevara, one of the first and most prominent campesinos within Cardenal’s community, best describes this transformation in Betty LaDuke’s “The Painter-Peasants of Solentiname, Nicaragua:”

“Before, everyone thought that oppression was natural, ordained by God, that we should live in misery. Before, we accepted poverty and exploitation with resignation. Then we began to learn from Ernesto about human rights…we began to analyze our situation, to discover that God created people to be people with a right to live, to maintain themselves with dignity.”

Putting Geertz to the Test

Examining Solentiname in the context of Geertz’ definition inevitably leads us to Cardenal’s The Gospel in Solentiname. Every week, Cardenal and the members of his community would have round table discussions on passages within the Christian bible. Cardenal served as the mediator for these discussions and all campesinos, men, women, and even children, were encouraged to join. Cardenal recorded nearly all these conversations and compiled them in his book, The Gospel in Solentiname. Interestingly, Cardenal notes in his observations that the campesinos within his community already had a knack for relating passages in the bible to their real life. Cardenal writes, “the dictatorship was always a part of them, along with the hope that liberation would soon come.” As Cardenal injected Marxist elements into his weekly discussions, the peasants of Solentiname gradually wrapped the pathway of liberation around radical socialism and justified it through Christianity. If one is to take Geertz’ definition of religion as truth, that religion creates a conceptual order of existence that is realistic, and test this definition in the context of Solentiname, one has to look no further than the words of the campesinos themselves.

A campesino named Miguel compared the story of Jesus of Nazareth walking on water in the middle of the storm in front his disciples to communism. When Jesus walked on water, he understandably frightened his disciples who thought the messiah was just a ghost. Manuel comments:

“That’s what happened with communism. When it first appeared it frightened people like a ghost, a spook. Now that we’ve seen it close up we see that it’s unity, solidarity among people, the true communion of all with all and also God.”

Another conversation revolved around a biblical passage that read, “then John said to him [Jesus Christ]: ‘Master we have seen one who in your name cast out evil spirits; and we forbade him, because he was not one of us.’ But Jesus said to him: ‘Do not forbid him: for he who is not against us is with us.’”[9] A campesino named Alejo concludes:

“…there are so many people now who aren’t Christians, or don’t call themselves Christians, and they do great social work, make great revolutions, you might say great miracles. And over and over again they’ve told us Christians not have anything to do with them. Here Christ tell us that anyone that works for the cause of others is on the side of Christians.”

A campesino named Laureano reached a similar conclusion: “I believe that there are people like that, and the Christians don’t know those people are disciples of Jesus too.” A campesino then asked Laureano, “Communists? They don’t use Jesus’ name.” Laureano replied, “They use the name of freedom which is the same thing…if they’re not against the poor, they’re not against Jesus. They’re not against us.”

The words of Miguel, Alejo, and Laureano all follow a similar trend as the dozens of other conversations featured in The Gospel in Solentiname, the increasing belief that the natural order of society, the order that God ordains, is grounded in radical socialism. This is the new interpretation of reality that propelled the campesinos of Solentiname, and eventually Christians across Nicaragua, into the arms of revolution.

Putting Van Gennup to the Test

It is important to note that the “separation” phase, in which the individual or group of individuals is separated from the “previous world,” does not occur physically in Solentiname. Rather, the separation that occurred amongst the campesinos of Solentiname was purely ideological. As Olivia Guevara told Betty LaDuke, “everyone thought that oppression was natural, ordained by God, that we should live in misery. Before, we accepted poverty and exploitation with resignation.” According to Guevara, it was only after Cardenal introduced Marxist ideas about human rights and parallels between radical socialism and the word of God, that the campesinos were able to separate themselves from the indifferent brutal oppressive world of the peasant and enter a new conscience.

This second phase of Van Gennup’s model, the transition, which Sarah Cervone describes as when an individual is no longer who they were (attached to their previous world) but also not a convert, is illustrated in David Gullette’s Nicaraguan Peasant Poetry from Solentiname. In addition to the weekly discussions Cardenal held, he also started a cultural program that allowed the campesinos of Solentiname to channel their creativity, thoughts, and frustrations into writing and painting. In the beginning, as Nicaraguan Peasant Poetry from Solentiname shows, the poems curated by the Solentiname campesinos were relatively harmless but as the years went on and Cardenal’s discussions began to manifest themselves in the community, the poems take a dramatic turn. These poems characterize the second phase of Van Gennup’s model operating within a real-life context. Take Felipe Peña’s “From My Window” and “Plagues” for example.

“The moon shines as though it were day

and I remember the time I slept

in that house alone

amid the cold pricking of the mosquitoes

wishing the night were minutes

and you, Lucrecia,

you were probably laughing

or something

who knows?”

“Plagues can be natural or artificial

in Solentiname the plagues include

parrots, mice, agoutis, zanates, mice,

army ants, not to mention moths,

not to mention the merchants who devour the campesinos’ harvest

and of course, the bosses who devour the labor of the farm hands

just as parrots, agoutis, zanates,

mice, and army ants eat up your corn and rice and beans

Well, these human plagues are part of a System of Plagues

Here in Solentiname the Company has managed to

eliminate the parrots, the mice, and agoutis

which are among the plagues that screw the campesinos

so I figure the company will just have to

eliminate the human plague, too

I don’t mean the railroad company

I mean the company of workers.”

“From My Window” was one of the first poems that Felipe Peña wrote. “Plagues” was written shortly before Peña joined the guerillas to attack a Nation Guard garrison at San Carlos. In the context of Van Gennup’s model, Peña’s “Plagues” represents the transitional phase of Peña’s transformation from campesino to guerilla. Another one of his poems, “Saying Goodbye to Father,” written on the eve of the day Peña participated in the skirmish at San Carlos clearly represents the final phase of Van Gennup’s model, reintegration:

“I said goodbye to you

Monday October 10th.

You were sick, downcast.

You just sat there looking at me

You squinted suspiciously

As though to say: You won’t be back.

Your face sad

And you sitting on the old stool

You threw an arm around me and without speaking

Resigned yourself to our farewell.

Embracing you for the last time I smiled

But my heart wept.

Only I knew where I was going and why I was leaving you.”

Peña was captured during the attack against the National Guard in San Carlos. He was imprisoned at a prison called La Bartolina and tortured nearly every day until 1978 when he was released as part of a prisoner exchange between the Somoza government and the FLSN. Peña would later die in combat.

Contemporary Challenges

Thirty-five Sandinista guerillas participated in the attack against the National Guard in San Carlos. Many of them were young volunteers from Solentiname. Their attack was a disaster and several guerillas were killed and captured. As retaliation for the communities’ partial participation, the National Guard razed Solentiname to the ground. Nearly every trace of Cardenal’s influence, including the hut where his weekly discussions were held, was destroyed. The original inhabitants, those that were not killed outright when the National Guard attacked, were scattered across Nicaragua. Many of them, like Felipe Peña, Bosco Centeno, and Gloria Guevara, became guerillas. Others, like Olivia Guevara, Ivan Guevara, and Esperanza Guevara, became prominent painters and poets, skills that they learned in Cardenal’s community. Ernesto Cardenal, who formally joined the FLSN in 1976, would become Nicaragua’s Minister of Culture after the Somoza regime was defeated. Cardenal would become the brainchild of a nationwide cultural program that promoted indigenous art and poetry workshops.This program was directly inspired from his time in Solentiname.

Geertz writes, “religious concepts spread beyond their metaphysical contexts to provide a framework of general ideas in which terms of which a wide range of experience – intellectual, emotional, moral – can be given meaningful form…beliefs are also a template. They do not merely interpret social and psychological processes in cosmic terms…but they shape them.” While it is still up for debate, as most scholarly subjects are, Geertz provides an accurate and convincing description on what religion is and how it operates as a cultural system. His definition is not only accurate but applicable as well. The same goes for Van Gennup’s three phase model of ritual passage. When placed in the context of Solentiname, one can see how Cardenal, a young priest full of ideas, changed the hearts and minds of a few hundred campesinos in such a way that they were willing to risk life and limb to free their country from oppression. Today, Nicaragua is on the brink of another revolution. Daniel Ortega, the current leader of the FSLN, has become a dictator and across the country the same pattern of repression and violence as the Somoza has emerged. This presents a unique contemporary challenge for post-Somoza Nicaraguans. Are the efforts of Ernesto Cardenal and so many other pastoral workers all for naught? If religion is a cultural system, one that establishes long lasting changes in the way people see the world, as Geertz suggests, what part will it play amongst ordinary Nicaraguans again? Only time will tell.

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