Searching for Gold: Rescuing Memories in Rural Nicaragua

Lauren Schenkman, 2015-2016, Nicaragua

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Alex Mercado, an English teacher, interviewed his grandfather, Rodolfo Aguilar, about fighting in the Nicaraguan civil war.

As a child growing up in California, I loved hearing my mother talk about Siuna, the small town in Nicaragua where she grew up. Chickens ran around in her family’s yard, and they drank milk fresh from the cow. And when it rained, she said, the streets glittered with gold pebbles.

Almost twenty years later, I found myself on a run-down porch in Siuna with an 82-year-old man. As a rooster crowed, he told me the same story.

I was on my Fulbright year, doing research for a novel about Siuna. Not only was it the fairy-tale place of my mother’s stories; from about 1900 until 1979, it was home to an important gold mine owned by Americans and Canadians—hence the legend about gold in the streets. Siuna was essentially a company town; the North American staff lived in a luxurious, fenced-in zone on a hill, and most of the locals were miners, mechanics, and office workers. Today, all that remains are a few ruins, the green-and-white company bungalows, and a polluted lagoon—the former open-pit mine—where prospectors still pan for gold.

From town elders I heard happy recollections of bygone days—a well-stocked commissary, company parties—as well as tragic stories of mining accidents and economic depression after the company left. In order to share my findings, I worked with Professor Luis Gonzalo Herrera Siles at the local university, URACCAN, on a course combining history, narrative, and English learning. Each student—nine English teachers, ranging from age 20 to 38, and two college students—was to research and produce a podcast in Spanish, then translate into English. One pair talked to former miners about life underground; another student interviewed his father, a farmer who’d been caught in the 1980s Contra war. Another spoke with his wheelchair-bound friend about the incident that had paralyzed him.

We hit many setbacks. Most of my students work full or part time; others have children. Learning how to edit sound on a computer was a huge challenge, more so for the students who had never owned a computer. When it was time to do the English voice-overs, even the English teachers needed multiple takes. Despite the challenges, my students pressed on and the project came together.  I would say it was a miracle, but it wasn’t; their dedication and perseverance won the day. Their outstanding stories can be heard in English at http://soundcloud.com/siunastories.

In the end, my students said they found the class inspiring. But they were the ones who inspired me. With a tiny fraction of the privileges I take for granted, they were able to accomplish much more than I expected. And when we hit setbacks, they were far more cheerful and resilient.

To anyone considering a Fulbright grant: You’re there to share your enthusiasm, knowledge, and experience with a new community. But keep your mind and heart open, and don’t be surprised if you’re the one who is most changed.

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