Sarah Hyde, Guest Writer
Riding to our hotel in what we named “The Gringo Van,” I saw women in aprons selling ice, selling mangos, selling sunglasses in between the lanes of traffic. I saw Sherman William billboards, horses’ ribs sticking out like the spokes on the wheels of the carts they drew, and shirtless men on street curbs drinking Coca Cola. It all mixed into the haze of the heat, the exhaust of the cars. Every face was different; every earthquake crack was different, until we passed the Tent City. Every tent was the same: wrist sized sticks tied to form walls and roof trusses, and wrapping around it all were black trash bags that made your eyes focus.
A few days later when we pulled over at the Tent City, people disappeared as our van door rolled open; disappeared back into their tents. It was Rios who first walked out, kissed both sides of our cheeks, and gave us her benches and chairs of her dirt-floored tent to rest on. Even for such primitive living conditions Rios was dressed in, what my sister would call, interview pants and a peach dress shirt. Even for such struggle, Rios’ face was still dressed in a smile.
Although they just moved to Managua a year ago for higher visibility, Rios and a group of ex- sugar plantation workers from San Antonio, male and female, have been organized since 1998. Every day they protest the plantations of the Pelas, the most powerful political family in Nicaragua. The sugar cane is primarily used for creating Flor de Cana, a brand of rum that is exported all over the world. The death of two to three people a day was the motivation to start the tent city and the lives of their children is what keeps them protesting.
The fourteen letters they have sent to Carlos Pelas have been ignored, the weekly marches have been postponed for concern of further angering the Pelas family, and their spiritual support has been blocked from a wall being built to separate the cathedral from their tents, but the protester’s spirits are still high. “Maybe next week,” Rios says in hopes of finally being able to sit down and talk with Carlos Pelas. The Tent City will stay erected until the Pelas’ stop using pesticides, clean up the areas they have contaminated, and pay a monetary compensation for the harm they have caused to their ex-workers.
In 1999, a group at the University of Leon first discovered that it was the leeching of pesticides in the water that was causing the illnesses the workers had been experiencing; problems that Carlos Pelas had known about in his business for years. New research is showing, however, that the products produced from the sugar are also contaminated; Flor de Cana tested positive for chemicals.
Exposure to the pesticides primarily affects the kidneys, but can also contribute to other organ failure. Limb loss, mutations, and cancer can also happen.
Rios grabs a white binder that bulges from its filling and sets it on the table near the opening of the tent. We all crowd around. She begins flipping through photo after photo, all which have been carefully placed in plastic binder sleeves. The photos show shirtless men standing against concrete walls; their skin revealing the bridges of their ribs for the first time. The photos show ex-plantation workers at diagnosis, at deathbed, at gravesite. “This man is an invalid in his house,” she says. “This man is dead. In August this man died. This man is thirty two years old…This one is very sick. He is very sick as well. He died. He is dead…Came here to protest, went home to die.”
In ten years, 3,728 San Antonio sugarcane workers have died and over 5,000 are battling pathological or chronic illness from work. Every six months new cases arise, and every six months new bodies are treated at the clinic the protestors have set up in a Christian community. Every day they cry.
As I sit next to Rios, I study her face, her hand gestures, her small curls that fall from her bun and stick to the sweat on her neck. The pictures I have just seen are the faces to the words I have been reading over the past four months. The stories have come to life here.