Tag Archives: Nicaragua

Girls + Graffiti = Ladies Destroying Crew

Kyd outlining

A group of graffiti artists known as the Ladies Destroying Crew bombs the streets of Managua, cans of bright spray paint as their arsenal.  I met the graffiteras Kyd and Sak when they came to Matagalpa to teach other women the art and activism of graffiti.

There were about 20 of us in the workshop, ranging in age from 10 to 40.  Kyd and Sak (their street names) started with a polished PowerPoint of the history of graffiti and a comprehensive glossary (also on a handout).  Some of the English terms—tag, crew, highlight—were pronounced with a Spanish accent (and a bit of swagger), and in other cases, Latinized—“bomb” became bomba.

Both Kyd and Sak are young and passionately dedicated to graffiti.  Kyd is slender and soft-spoken, yet has a certain bad-ass presence—she knows her history and the Ladies Destroying Facebook page is full of stunning photos of her work.

Sak speaks a mile a minute and has a quick and enthusiastic smile framed by braces.  She gushes about the graffiteras she admires and her desire to open the art form to more women.

Their comadres in the Ladies Destroying Crew are four other women, who all meet up once a month to paint together.  Two members from Costa Rica meet less frequently, but Kyd said they hoped to travel there to do some painting.

Sak at work

Kyd and Sak tag-teamed their presentation, showing works from famous international street artists  and their own creations from abandoned and not-so-abandoned spaces in Managua—colorful piezas with three or more colors, or quick bombs meant to be done on the run.

After the intro we were given our assignments: to develop our own tags, or signatures, using one color and a quick style, then to create a more detailed bomba,  and finally a complex pieza.  None of this was on the wall—yet.  We used thick magic markers and paper to experiment with bubble letters, block letters, and (my favorite) Arabic-inspired calligraphy.

While we worked Kyd and Sak circulated to give us feedback.  Sak said my tag needed to be simpler, and I first confused the bomba with a colorful pieza, and had to scale it back.  “You need to be able to do it quickly,” she said, “if you’re doing it as vandalism.” (Which, in this group of feminist activists, was a definite goal.)

Finally we got to use the espray and play with paint on the wall— Kyd and Sak outlined the letters for the fierce message, “mujeres libres, lindas, locas” or “liberated, beautiful, crazy women” and we started to fill them in.

“Libres” takes shape

The painting was satisfying, and addictive—with just a light press on the cap the color flowed on the wall, quick strokes filling the surface.

It felt like power, holding this tool, with the potential to radically alter a space.  It felt like rebellion, wielding what, the world over, is considered synonymous with destruction or anarchy.

The women at the workshop agreed: one told me, “I like to be rebellious, and the graffiti feeds my desire to do something rebellious in the streets.”  My friend Itzel explained, “Graffiti for us, as feminists, will be a political action, but it will also be clandestine.”

Once we filled in the background, the graffiteras took over.  It was amazing to watch Kyd and Sak paint, their fluid movements transforming flat letter-like shapes into bright, 3-D words, quickly blending colors and highlighting with flashes of white.

I wondered how it ever occurred to them to begin painting, with just a tiny handful of women graffiti artists in the whole country.  Kyd, who’s 20, has been painting for about two years.  She founded the crew in 2010 with two of her friends to start a movement of graffiteras

Sak’s been painting for less than a year, and joined Ladies Destroying just a few months ago.  For both, the initial inspiration to paint came from seeing graffiti around Managua and wanting to try it.

As they’ve gotten better, they’ve looked to male graffiti artists in Nicaragua and women abroad for inspiration.

Sak told me, “The graffitera who’s considered the best in the world is Mad C.  I’m super, super inspired by her because she makes awesome piezas.”

Intrigued, I did some research: Mad C is a young German graffiti artist who creates incredibly detailed murals, often with fantastical or sci-fi features like a giant squid sinking ships.  She’s done projects in three dozen countries, including a recent mural in León, Mexico.

Yet Sak and Kyd are no slouches themselves, and with this, their second workshop, they continue to spark the creativity of more women.

The cover photo on their Facebook page is of a freestanding concrete wall, with bright red and yellow 3-D letters rising from a blue background.  It reads, “Soy mujer y soy artista”: I’m a woman and I’m an artist.

As Kyd said, “My message to other women is, if you’re passionate about graffiti, express yourself, and leave your legacy on the streets.”

The finished wall! Libres, lindas, locas….


Filed under Nicaragua, travel

Sisterhood is Blockade-Defying!

Our caravan left Matagalpa for Managua at 6:30 a.m., four sunny orange school buses filled with women from northern Nicaragua.  The marcha nacional for International Women’s Day was set to begin at 9 a.m.

But after an hour traffic came to standstill and riot police in shiny black armor lined the roadside—veterans of the revolution had blockaded the entire Panamerican Highway in protest, and were letting vehicles through only every six hours.

But we had a plan: talk to the dissident leaders and convince them we were united in struggle—they were demanding medical attention and remuneration, and we were demanding justice for women.  Our buses continued past the police barricades, purple banners flying.

But the veterans were unpersuaded, basically saying “f—off,” then firing a loud firework into the sky in warning.  (While they do have legitimate demands, the war veterans are unpredictable, and armed.  When I started to approach the barricade to take photos, my bus driver told me it was dangerous, so I kept my distance).

So, Plan B: a police escort led us down dusty back roads, through a river, and finally past the roadblock.

We arrived in Managua at 10 a.m. and joined the march mid-route.  Hundreds of women were already marching. The feminist drum corps, a.k.a. Batucada Feminista, rolled out in carnaval-themed garb.

I interviewed some women (and a couple men) for the radio program I’m working on here.  I asked them what they thought was the most important challenge facing Nicaraguan women today.  Several women said access to abortion—Nicaragua is one of three Latin American countries with a total abortion ban.

There is no legal abortion in Nicaragua, even in cases of rape, incest, or if a woman’s health is endangered.  This despite several high-profile stories in the last couple years: last November a 12 year-old indigenous girl who was raped was forced to carry the pregnancy to term, and in 2010 a 27 year-old woman was denied cancer treatment because she was pregnant.

Other women I interviewed said domestic violence was the most critical issue facing women—while Nicaragua has a low overall crime rate, domestic violence is extremely prevalent.  And that includes the murder of women by their partners and ex-partners: in 2011 76 women were killed, a crime that has recently been codified as “femicide” in Nicaragua to distinguish it from so-called “crimes of passion” and to impose longer prison sentences.  This year 18 women have been murdered, seven of them just last week.

Commemorating murdered women

The organization I’m working with, Grupo Venancia, is just one of many addressing violence against women.  They have an amazing array of projects and services, from therapeutic groups for abused girls to campaigns for self-empowerment for young women to accompaniment for women to press charges against abusers.

Yet despite the alarming statistics, the spirit of the march was positive.  There were many young women with creative slogans and style.

Her sign reads: This body--you can't touch it, you can't rape it, you can't murder it.

And at the end of the march, the feminist drummers and marchers and neighborhood kids all threw around giant painted beach balls that read “freedom” and “equality.” And everyone smiled.


Filed under Nicaragua, volunteering


A baker in Leon.

When I’m on the bus, in the street, in a café, I find myself observing the movements of the people around me, thinking about how much everyday gestures reveal.  Here they’re filled with grace, a simplicity and ease of movement.

Bicycles, taxis, and pedestrians navigate the streets of the cities in fluid motion, sometimes beeping but rarely moving to anger or aggression, seeking ways around each other.

Even the cows by the side of the road move with a certain grace, unhurried by cars, trucks or bicycles, pacing across the pavement in slow motion, pausing to low only if surprised, their faces relaxed, and then returning to their cud.

On the bus the ayudante, the person who collects the money and loads cargo, fluidly moves in and out of the open door, sometimes running to reach the door as the driver is pulling away, sometimes climbing to the roof to attach a bike or tarp, pulling himself up the ladder, then climbing down and dropping lightly to his feet.

On a crowded bus in León, I sat next to my friend Claudia as more and more people boarded and stood in the aisle.  A woman and her 2 year-old son held on to the pole in front of us, and Claudia reached down to the child and gently pulled him to her lap, his mother smiling in acknowledgement even though they didn’t know each other.  The boy rode contentedly for 15 minutes. Another day, on an even more packed bus, a mother and son squeezed onto the steps of the bus, and a man in the front seat offered his lap to the boy.

Enjoying the afternoon on the front porch in Miraflor.

There’s grace in the greetings people offer each other—a handshake between men or new acquaintances and a kiss on the cheek for women.  In the campo, the countryside, people make eye contact when they pass and offer an, “¡Adios!”

Within families the greetings are more intimate.  Maykal, the 15 year-old in my host family, clasps his hands as if in prayer when he sees his grandfather and says, “Abuelito.”  15 month-old Esteffany, the newest member of the family, clasps her hands together when she greets someone, and even “salutes” me.  The parents in the family are now elders themselves, yet they still greet their parents with clasped hands.

Children are taught to give the saludo to elders—I’ve seen parents move the hands of young babies when their grandparents enter the room, imprinting the pattern.  It’s a gesture that strikes me for its simplicity and sincerity.


Filed under Nicaragua, travel, volunteering


Sunday morning game in Miraflor

Nicaragua rivals the US in its passion for the pastime of baseball—I’ve watched games everywhere from dusty villages to lonely beaches to city alleys.  The country is in the last week of the national league season, and the Chinandega Tigers and “El Boer” from Managua are facing off in a seven-game series for the championship.  Nicaragua’s favorite righthander, Vicente Padilla, fresh from being signed to the Boston red Sox, is expected to pitch for Chinandega in tonight’s game, to break the tie of two games to two.

Meanwhile, local leagues provide grassroots games—Miraflor’s villages host partidos every Sunday during the season.  The baseball field in La Pita features a dirt patch for home base and a cow-cropped outfield.  Players hitch their horses to the barbed-wire fence when they arrive and local women sell enchiladas and soda to the spectators.  Sometimes there’s an inspired (and often drunk) heckler to liven things up.  The La Pita team meets once a week to practice, straight from the fields in rubber boots and jeans.

One day on the beach near León I stumbled onto a family game above the high-tide line, the big-bellied aunt pitching to her nephews, outfielders diving in the soft sand.  She later invited me to join them the next day—unfortunately I was leaving and couldn’t take her up on it (not to mention my pitching arm is out of shape…)

Meanwhile kids improvise their equipment with sticks and balls made from rubber bands.  The girls often play as fiercely as the boys—one year the best pitcher in the primary school in La Pita, Miraflor was a fifth grader who everyone clamored for.

In a community of coffee pickers in the mountains near Matagalpa the kids played in a narrow, pitted lane next to their school, hitting a hollow plastic ball with their hand.  The bases were a broken-down toy car, the edge of a wooden building, and a cleft in the mud.  Ten year-old Marlyne called the game, terms in English chanted in a Spanish accent, per tradition: “Tres out!… Foul!” then “¡A home! ¡A home!”

Six year-old Hector "batting" in La Hermandad, Matagalpa

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Filed under Nicaragua, travel, volunteering

“Cutting Coffee”

Yosselin, Naomi, and my basket of berries

December and January are cool and lush after the winter rains, and the months of the coffee harvest in northern Nicaragua.  In Matagalpa, the commercial center of coffee production, gray-beaned café en pergamino is spread out on black tarps by the side of the road to dry in the sun.

Nicaragua has many small family producers organized into cooperatives, conducive to growing high-quality Arabica beans for the Fair Trade, organic, and shade-grown markets.  The farmers in Miraflor are organized into several cooperatives, one with a cupping lab.

Yancy "cortando cafe"

In Miraflor during the season nearly everyone of working age spends some time cortando café, literally “cutting coffee,” making about 40 córdobas a ten-pound bucket, or $2.  My friend Alex has a few acres of coffee plants growing in the shade of oak and jocote trees and I hiked up the hill from the house one morning to pick coffee with him.  I wove through rows of glossy, dark-leaved bushes dotted with lime-green, yellow, and reddish-pink berries to find him.

Portrait of a newbie harvester (taken by 12 year-old Yosselin)

Alex gave me a big woven basket that I wore in front with two thin leather straps looped around my shoulders.  Almairie and her daughters Yosselin, 12 and Yancy, 9 (aunt and cousins of “my” family) showed me how to pull down the meter-tall bushes to get to the ripe red or yellow berries on top once I’d stripped the lower branches.  The technique for picking the berries, Alex explained, was to pull without yanking, leaving the stem on the plant.  If the stem is removed, no new growth is possible.

Soon I got the hang of it, a twisting pull, then dropping the firm berries in my basket, fingers sticky and stained brown.  Yosselin complimented me on my technique, “¡Cortás bien bonito Sara!”  “You cut well!” as she deftly harvested berries into a halved plastic jug tied around her waist.

Unable to resist the bright red berry, I popped one into my mouth, sucking the thin layer of pulp off the beans.  It tasted, well, vegetable-like, but sweet.

Time passed quickly as Almairie’s 2 ½ year-old daughter Naomi kept us cracking up with comments about her “snot-nosed” sisters and Yosselin peppered me with questions about travel (How high do the planes fly?  What do the clouds look like from the plane?)

At intervals we stopped to dump the berries into bags at the end of the rows.  Almairie worked from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. that day, when Alex loaded the bags onto his horse and carried them up to the mill.  Then they were de-pulped and laid out to dry, eventually to be de-husked, roasted, and ground into the lifeblood of the north, café.

The de-pulping machine



Filed under Nicaragua, travel