Tag Archives: Leon

Four Tales of Folklore – Leon, Nicaragua

Leon folk - first

D: What the hell is that?

L: What?

D: What d’you mean what? That!

L: That what?

D: That 30 foot tall woman with the huge chest and the top hat!

L: Where?

D: Now you’re just being annoying.

L: Oh. OK. She’s called La Gigantona. The Giantess.

Leon folk - GigantonaThey are crossing Leon’s central plaza, where the figure, in her rainbow striped dress, stands the full height of the two storey municipal building running along one side of the square.

L: Where’s her little friend?

D: What little friend?

L: Usually she has a tiny fellow with her, with a really big head. He’s called Pepe Cabezon.

D: No sign of him. Anyway, who are they?

L: She’s the tall, white, rich Spanish woman who arrived with the conquistadors in the 16th century. He’s the Nicaraguan – short, dark, poor but very intelligent – hence the enormous head. It’s about class struggles and Spanish oppression of indigenous Nicaraguans, and about making fun of the Spanish colonialists. They have a drummer with them. And they dance.

D: Don’t be ridiculous – she’s no dancer. Have you seen the size of her?

L: Maybe not her. But other versions of her. Normally she’d be smaller – about 3 metres high. And he’d be less than half that. So the drummer drums, and they dance and whirl. The drummer controls the dance, making La Gigantona start and stop as he plays, showing that although the Spanish might appear to be bigger and taller, they’re not the ones in charge.

D: Right.

L: Also, I think poor Pepe Cabezon might have a massive crush on La Gigantona but she doesn’t love him back.

D: Didn’t we see them dancing in the street in Granada?

L: Yes! Pepe Cabezon was tiny – he was being danced by a child. There’re street performances of La Gigantona all over the country. Nicaragua loves its folklore and legends.

They sit on the cathedral steps, from where they can see her in all her glory, six times life-sized, peering down at them over her formidable bosom.

D: Right – it should be open now.

Behind them is a doorway, in which sits a man in uniform.

D: Buenas dias, señor. Two tickets for the cathedral roof please.

He shakes his head. They are in the wrong place. He explains and gives directions. They thank him. They walk the full length of the cathedral’s outside wall, to the rear, where there is a hobbit sized door. It’s locked. They walk all the way back to the man in the doorway. He tells them it should be open now, but to come back if it’s not. They walk all the way back to the hobbit door. It’s open. They buy two tickets, and look for the onward route.

D: Disculpe, how do we actually get on to the roof?

They are directed all the way back round the building, to the man in the doorway.

Man: Ah, there you are. This way.

He asks for their tickets, tears them in half and points them up a stairway in the alcove behind him.

L: We’ve walked so far already, I might be too tired to get up the stairs.

At the top, a second man takes the other half of their tickets. It is not clear what could happen between the bottom and the top of the stairs, to warrant ticket checks at both ends. They are in a bell tower with views over the plaza. A small side door displays a sign. “Remove your shoes”.

L: Really? Curiouser and curiouser. What with the giant woman and the hobbit door and the ticket men, today’s beginning to feel a bit Alice in Wonderland.

The man looks sternly at their feet. The sign is serious. They remove their shoes and step outside.

L: Oh my goodness. It’s so beautiful! It’s just SO beautiful. Isn’t it beautiful? Look how beautiful it is.

D: Yes. It’s beautiful.Leon folk - roof and Momotombo

The roof is beautiful. They are in a pristine white world, walking barefoot on a smooth whitewashed surface, under a perfectly cloudless blue sky. They have access to the whole of the top of the building, with its white domes and balustrades and pinnacles and views on all sides.

L: It’s just so beautiful.

D: I think you’ve said that already.

L: Look, come and look at this. It’s beautiful.

D: Yes. It is.

The whole of the city is visible, from edge to edge, and silhouetted on the western horizon are the outlines of several volcanoes.

D: You know Leon started out somewhere different.

L: What d’you mean?

D: Leon was Nicaragua’s first capital city, built by the Spanish over there by Lake Managua, near the volcanoes. But in the late 1500s it was shaken up by several earthquakes, and then in 1610, Volcan Momotombo, which is the pointy one on the right, blew up big time and buried the entire town under ash.

L: Blimey. Like Pompeii.

D: Yup. So the Spanish moved a safe distance and built another town here instead. Now this is Leon, and that’s Leon Viejo – Old Leon.

L: What’s it like now?

D: They lost it, completely, for 300 years. It was only found again in 1967, and they’ve been excavating it ever since.

L: Wow. We should visit. But not today. It’s so beautiful up here, I could stay all day.

D: Actually you couldn’t. You’re burning. Your nose is pink.

L: Damn – quick, let’s find some shade. Where next? Can it be something completely different? otherwise it’ll be disappointing after this. Oh, and it’d better be indoors.

D: There’s a folklore museum. In a prison. It sounds a bit eccentric. The woman who founded it made a collection of weird papier-maché figures of various Nicaraguan legends.

L: Sounds perfect. Very Wonderland-esque. Maybe we’ll meet a White Rabbit. Or a Cheshire Cat. Vamonos!

They take a hot walk south down the Avenue Central. Vendors sit in shaded doorways selling melons and limes from baskets on the pavement. They find the Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones in a fortress turned prison turned museum, opposite a bombed-out church – a victim and reminder of the revolution in 1979.

A walkway runs along the top of tall stone walls, and there are murals depicting horrendous tortures inflicted on the prisoners by Somoza’s National Guard in the ‘70s. In startling contrast, in the courtyards and cells, the splendid Señora Toruña has arranged an eclectic collection of home-made life-sized figures of Nicaraguan legend, and around the walls of a pretty enclosed garden are a series of mosaics illustrating the country’s myths and folklore. The combination is disturbing. And eccentric. And fantastic. Alice would be quite at home.  Leon folk - Pepe Cabezon

L: I’ve found him!

D: Who? Oh yes – La Gigantona’s sidekick, Pepe Cabezon.

L: There’s a man throwing a hand grenade at him.

D: He’s a revolutionary. I think he’s just throwing the grenade generally.

L: Oh. That’s all right then.

They recognise the two figures again, in mosaic form on the wall, The Giantess with long blonde hair and her tiny companion wearing revolutionary khaki uniform.

They explore the cells.

L: Who’s this fine fellow on a dear little pony?

Leon folk - ArrachevalaD: Let me check. Oh – he’s not a fine fellow. He’s called Arrechavala and he was vile. Now he’s a ghost. You should be looking a bit more terrified.

L: OK. It’s difficult though – his horse has such a sweet face. Look at its lovely eyelashes. Anyway, tell me the story.

D: Right – let’s see. Arrechavala was an extremely unpleasant Spanish Colonel who hated Nicaraguans and used to beat them as he galloped around through town. He was also seriously corrupt, and made a deal with the devil, who made him exceedingly rich in return for being given the souls of virgins and unbaptised children.

L: Nice.

D: Now Arrechavala’s ghost can’t rest until he finds one of his descendants, so he can pass on where he’s hidden his fortune. But Nicaraguans have decided he doesn’t deserve to rest in peace. They’ve vowed never to tell him where to find his relatives, so he‘s likely to haunt the city for ever.

L: Seems a bit unfair on the adorable horse – condemned to ghost-hood for eternity just because his owner was so beastly.

She pats the pony on the nose, and they continue.

Leon folk - cart of deathL: Yikes – is this the Grim Reaper? This one does look terrifying – quite nightmarish. What’s going on?

D: It’s La Carreta Nagua – The Cart of Death. It dates back to when Spanish caravans used to ride through the country capturing Nicaraguans for slaves.

L: Have you noticed that all the legends we’ve come across are connected to the Spanish conquistadors?

D: It makes sense, I suppose. If you think about it, folklore is a sort of cultural reaction to the important stuff. Once the Spanish turned up here, things would have been pretty traumatic.

L: Yes, and for a very long time. Carry on.

D: What was I saying?

L: The Cart of Death.

D: Right. So here it’s being driven by Death and pulled by two dead oxen.  Apparently if you’re ill or dying, you can hear the wooden boards of the cart banging as it makes its way through the streets at night, collecting the souls of the dead.

L: Don’t worry – we’ve got no chance of hearing the cart over the din of our air-conditioning. We’ll be fine.

D: Hold on, there’s more. Curiously the cart can’t cross intersections – it just disappears before it reaches a junction.

L: Oh. That’s handy to know I suppose. So junctions are safe zones. From the Cart of Death.

They leave the cells and return to sit in the walled garden, watching the shadows lengthen.

L: It’s so peaceful. It’s hard to imagine all the unpleasantness that must have gone on while it was a prison and during the revolution.

D: Except for the murals.

L: Yes.

D: And the tank over there.

L: Yes.

D: And the fellow with the grenade.

L: Yes. Shut up.

D: Right.

They inspect the colourful mosaic panels on the opposite wall.

L: Who’s the fellow with no head?

D: Errr….just a minute….He’s El Padre Sin Cabeza – The Headless Priest.

L: I can see that. But what happened to him?Leon folk - headless priest

D: I’m getting to it. He was a much loved archbishop in Old Leon – the original Leon by the lake. One day some men came into his church, chopped off his head at the altar, and walked around the city, chucking his head around between them until they somehow lost it. This made God so cross that He made the Momotombo Volcano erupt and wipe out the city.

L: So that’s why it happened!

D: Apparently so. Anyway, the headless priest is still seen over there, praying and looking for his head.

L: Poor man.

D: On Thursdays and Fridays.

L: What?

D: Those are the days when he looks for his head.

L: Oh. Right. Well hopefully they’ll find it for him in the excavations.

Leon folk - last

Viva La Revolución! – Nicaragua

Leon rev - first

L: Good graffiti. Look – about the revolution.

They are walking through the Nicaraguan city of Leon, after supper.   They have crossed the central plaza, past the wide white façade of the cathedral, and the Christmas tree all lit up in January, and the strollers and the step-sitters and the snack-sellers, and the bar spraying mist at its entrance to keep its well-heeled patrons cool, and the group of dreadlocked dudes and jewellery makers sitting in that spray on the curb.

They look up at the huge figure painted on the wall.

Leon rev - graffitiL: D’you know what it all means?

D: Some. But there’s a hundred years of history in that picture.

L: Oh. Sounds rather indigestible. Can’t you just tell me a little bit?

D: Which little bit?

L: How about…..his leg. Just one leg. There – why does it say “US Out Now” on his shin? What were the US doing in Nicaragua?

D: They were worried about the canal.

L: What canal?

D: The Panama Canal.

L: Which is in Panama, not Nicaragua. So what crazy shit are you talking, man?

D: How much wine did you have at supper?

L: One wine. Carry on.

D: What does one wine even mean? Never mind. Are you listening? Once upon a time, over 100 years ago, a Nicaraguan general from the Partido Liberal deposed the country’s president. Which America wouldn’t have cared about, except that once he’d become Nicaragua’s dictator, the general started talking about building a cross-country canal.

L: So what?

D: America were busy building the Panama Canal at the time. They absolutely didn’t want another canal just up the road. So they encouraged Nicaragua’s other main party, the Partido Conservador, to rebel, which would incidentally put a stop to the general’s fiendish canal scheming.

L: Did it work?

D: Yes, but the Liberals killed a couple of US mercenaries that were helping out the Conservatives. Which made America quite cross. So they sent in 2,500 marines.

L: Blimey. Then what?

D: The US stayed in Nicaragua for the next two decades, supporting presidents that it liked and getting rid of ones it didn’t.

L:   Oh. That can’t have been very popular.

D: No, it wasn’t.

L: Tell me a bit more.

D: OK. Which bit?

L: His tummy. Who’s Sandino? It says “Sandino Vive” across his belly.

D: Right. As you said, some people, specifically the Liberals, didn’t much like all the US involvement and the Conservative regime. Augusto Sandino was the leader of a Liberal rebel group that grew up as a result.

L: But you said the Americans left after two decades. Wasn’t everything OK after that?

D: No – they left in the 1930s, but only after training up a Conservative National Guard – a military force led by a fellow called Somoza – to put down Sandino and his rebels.

L: And did they?

D: Yes. In 1934 Somoza invited Sandino to some peace talks and then had him assassinated. Shortly after which Somoza became Nicaragua’s new dictator.

L: Oh. So if Somoza killed Sandino, why does it say he lives – Sandino Vive?

D: Ah. It’s his revolutionary spirit that lives.

The following day….

Leon rev - streetLeon’s streets are alive. There are bursts of colour wherever they look. Long vistas down cable-crossed streets, to crumbling churches with Baroque pillars and portals, glowing cream and golden and pink, and the dark peaks of volcanoes against the sharp blue sky.   Dazzling bougainvillea overflows walls, and ripe fruit, for sale on the street, overflows baskets and crates: pineapples, persimmon, plums, apples, bananas, melons and limes.

There is movement and noise wherever they turn, from cars and vans and open back trucks, from canvas-clad lorries carrying goods and people, from motorbikes, bicycles, bike-carts and hand-carts.

Leon rev - bougainvilleaIn a quiet, sleepy side street, an ivy-walled courtyard hosts a medical clinic. And, humbly, in one corner, is the understated Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs. Here are displayed 300 small portraits, photographs of earnest-faced teenagers killed in 1978 and 79, resistance fighters for the revolution. The museum is free, and was set up their mothers. On the wall is a quote:

“The Sandinista has the hands to work alongside others on the land, the wide eyes to see the horizon, and the ready courage to be a martyr.”

L: They were so young. Just boys. Why did the revolution happen?

D: After Augusto Sandino was killed, the Somoza family were in power here for over 40 years. By the 1960s, a lot of people had had enough – the Somozas were running the country into the ground and building themselves a vast personal fortune in the process. A rebel guerrilla force known as the Sandinistas, named after Sandino, started steadily gaining support. But what really pushed things over the edge was the earthquake.

L: What earthquake?

D: In 1972, a massive earthquake flattened Nicaragua’s capital, Managua. Something like 6,000 people died and 300,000 were left homeless. As you might expect, international aid poured in, but it was promptly embezzled by the Somozas.

L: No wonder people were ready for a revolution.

D: Yes. Anyway, things escalated through the 70s with kidnaps, assassinations, strikes, street violence, uprisings in towns all over the country, guerrilla warfare, and shelling by Somoza’s National Guard. It was a real mess.

L: From the dates here, it looks as though it all came to a head in 1978-79, when these poor boys died.

D: Yes, in 1979 the Sandinistas launched a final push, taking city after city through Nicaragua, supported by thousands of civilians. Leon had a tough time of it – there was a lot of fighting here. You can still spot bullet holes in some of the buildings around town. Somoza even had the air force bomb the city.

L: But the Sandinistas won?

D: Yes, and Somoza fled the country. That was the end of the dictatorship.

L: Viva la revolución!

D: It wasn’t much of a fairy-tale ending.   The Sandinistas inherited a country struggling with terrible poverty, homelessness, illiteracy and inadequate healthcare. 150,000 people had lost their homes during the revolution, and 50,000 had died.

L: And presumably the new government had no money.

D: No. But America helped out – providing them with aid to help rebuild the country. That was Jimmy Carter.

Later that day….

They have spent the afternoon in the remarkable Ortiz-Guardian Art Museum, which is lauded as the finest contemporary art museum in Central America. The art is spread between two rambling single storey colonial buildings, with creaking wood floors and beautiful enclosed courtyards. There are some European big names on display, but it is the extensive Latin American collection which captivates. They leave as the day begins to finally cool.

L: I loved that, but I’ve got art fatigue.

D: I’ve got museum back.

L: Let’s go back to our room and lie down.

D: Just one more.

L: Just one more what? Picture? Museum?

D: Yes.

L: You’ve got to be joking. No way!

D: Yes way. Just one picture.   It’s interesting. I promise.

L: How interesting can it be? My feet hurt.

D: it’s not far. Follow me.

10 minutes later….

L: How bizarre! Come and look at this. It’s a picture of….

D: That’s the one.

Leon rev - ReaganL: ….. Ronald Reagan sitting on someone’s head. What’s going on?

D: You’re right. It is Ronald Reagan. Squashing the downtrodden Nicaraguan.

L: Why? What did he do?

D: He took over from Jimmy Carter as US President in 1981. By then the Sandinista government was getting a lot of help from the Soviets and Cubans, which made Reagan nervous, so he stopped the US aid to Nicaragua.

L: That was mean.

D: Remember this was the 80s. The Soviet Union was still threatening to take over the world and turn everybody Communist. Everyone had nuclear weapons pointed at everyone else to stop it happening. It was all a bit fraught.

L: OK.

D: Anyway, Reagan was so worried about the involvement of communist countries in Nicaragua that he started funding counter-revolutionary groups known as Contras, to destabilize the Sandinista government. Many of the Contra leaders had been in Somoza’s Guardia Nacional, which had been Conservative and US-friendly.

L: What did the Sandinistas do?

D: They built a massive army, and got lots more military and economic help from Russia and Cuba.

L: So what did Reagan do?

D: Imposed trade embargoes on Nicaragua, and encouraged other countries to do the same.

L: This is going nowhere good.

D: In the mid-80s, US Congress decided to stop interfering and stopped military aid to the Contras.

L: So did the Contras fizzle out?

D: No, because Reagan’s administration just kept on going – only in secret. They were a bit embarrassed when the US media found a Contras training manual written by the CIA, encouraging Sandinista assassinations.

L: They must have been.

D: And then they had their wrists slapped when a CIA scheme to mine Nicaragua’s harbours was deemed to be against international law.

L: I should think so.

D: But their most uncomfortable moment was probably when it was discovered they were still funding the Contras through the CIA by illegally selling arms to Iran and diverting the proceeds to the Contras.

L: Are you sure you’re not making this up now?

D: Truly not. It was known as the Iran-Contra affair. You can look it up. I just did.

L: I will. So then what?

D: In the late 80s it all settled down and peace agreements were put in place. But although the Sandinistas had dramatically improved literacy and healthcare since the revolution, Nicaragua still had huge economic problems, and they lost the election in 1989 to Violetta Chamorro, who was supported by the US.

L: She’s the one who sold the trains. And the sharks.

D: Yes. And once she was in charge, the trade embargo was lifted and international aid poured in. Things have been improving since then.

L: And now?

D: The Sandinista’s Daniel Ortega has been back in power since 2006. He’s managed not to fall out with the US, and continues to rebuild the country’s economy, healthcare and education. The country is on the way up.

L: Good.

D: Good.

L: Now can we go back and lie down?

D: Yes. I think we need to.

Leon rev - last