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Memories of the Olympia to Nicaragua Construction Brigade, 25 years later

In 1979 the Frente Sandinista para la Liberación Nacional (FSLN) was victorious in their protracted revolution against the US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza. Under the guise of the red scare, the US funded a counterrevolution (contra war) that cost tens of thousands of Nicaraguan lives and prevented the country from flourishing in its newfound democracy.

During the contra war, an estimated 100,000 people from the US visited Nicaragua. Many of us traveled and volunteered with purpose—delegations of elected officials organized by progressive organizations, ecumenical study tour groups, long-term volunteers with Witness for Peace, caravans with Pastors for Peace, medical teams, coffee and cotton harvest brigades, and journalists. Construction brigades self-organized to build in Nicaragua while our government financed undeclared wars of “low-intensity conflict” across Central America (low on US military deaths, but “high-intensity” with incalculable death and terror on everyone else).

I participated in a construction brigade from Seattle to Nicaragua in 1985-86, which profoundly changed my life. My host family was attacked by contra forces one month after our group finished building a two-room grade school in a rural community outside of Santo Tomás, Chontales. Don Gregorio Ruíz Borge was stabbed repeatedly and left for dead, but miraculously survived. The history of that brigade, the war and two families we knew that were attacked, is documented in the film “Vamos a Hacer un Pais” by Moving Images.

Two years later, with the tremendous support of many people from Thurston County and beyond, we launched a 14-person construction brigade from Olympia to Santo Tomás. We marched in the Lakefair Parade to make clear that we stood with Nicaragua and not with the US position. We raised $30,000, and carried it in cash to Nicaragua to finance construction of a two-story building for a humble, yet powerful group of women who created a sewing cooperative and sewing school. Thank you if you helped us then and thank you if you’ve supported our on-going projects since! We ask now for your support to replace the roof and make other needed repairs on the 25-year old building.
Georgina Warmoth and I traveled to Nicaragua in January 1988 to prepare for the arrival of the construction brigade in February; it was three months after a contra attack on the town. On the day we landed in Santo Tomás, Georgina and I met the women of the sewing coop in a very small room next to the Comedor Infantil (Children’s Free Lunch Program). The space was packed with treadle machines; women’s feet rocked back and forth as their hands pushed fabric through the needles pumping up and down.

After introductions, conversation quickly went to the war and first hand accounts of their terror. Each costurera recounted where they were when the attack began and how they scrambled to get their children to safety. They told of brave townspeople, young and old, who fought back the 300 contra, street by street, until free of the attackers. The costureras named the men who died defending the town; one died right in front of the building site where we would soon be working. Soon enough, we were all crying together, in the helpless horror of it all.

Later that windy night at the Ruiz home, mangoes rained down on the sheet metal roof over our heads, falling like bombs. Georgina didn’t sleep; she became deeply distressed about being in a war zone and putting her children at risk of losing their mother. It dawned on me, over time, that the two parents on the construction brigade felt the danger in a different way than did the rest of our childless group of brigadistas. It was Georgina’s first and last night in Santo Tomás.

Upon arrival, Jeff, Bob, Shoshana, Peter, Kari, Steve, Ted, Carolyn, Donn and I met with the FSLN political secretary of Santo Tomás, who laid out possible risks. He could not guarantee our safety, but promised to notify us if the contra came close to town again, in hopes of helping us evacuate should we decide to leave. We were told to stay away from the edge of town at night and certainly never to travel on the highway after dark. “Understood.”

We scattered across town to live with the costureras and their families, me to my original host family who had moved to town for its relative safety.  We shared meals of thick hand made tortillas de maiz, eaten with boiled frijoles, with boiled green bananas or yuca or quequisque.

The US-imposed trade embargo as well as Nicaragua’s hyper-inflation and prioritization on defending the country against military aggression manifested in shortages of cooking oil (and soap and car parts and medical exam gloves and syringes and toilet paper and school pencils and many other things we take for granted). Some tomasinos and tomasinas complained of having to eat boiled beans, without frying them. Beans, rice, corn, cooking oil, sugar and coffee were rationed and there didn’t seem to be enough to last until the next ration date. The refrain in stores, when searching for goods to buy was “no hay” over and over. “There isn’t any.” I remember seeing used latex gloves washed and hung to dry on laundry lines outside the mini-hospital. There just weren’t any more. No hay.

All men between the ages of 15 and 40 in town were organized by the local FSLN Committees for Community Defense.  They took shifts to pick-axe down through three feet of rock, creating an extensive system of defense trenches on the periphery of Santo Tomás. Vigilancia (armed night duty, to listen and look for contra movement) was done by the same volunteers, ready to jump into those trenches with their AK47s and wake the town in the event of another attack.

The masons we worked with daily would come to the sewing coop building site without having slept for one or two nights each week. We found an exhausted people, a country full of post-traumatic stress survivors, and saw wasted energy that could have/should have been going into producing a viable economy. We were acutely aware of the US government’s role.

Over the next decade, that war cost an estimated 50,000 people’s lives (1 in 80 people), and destroyed countless schools, clinics, bridges, passenger buses, grain silos, houses, etc. Our mandate, part of a huge movement back home in the states and around the world, was to stop this madness financed by our government and orchestrated by the CIA.
The sewing school and cooperative provided women with the opportunity to learn a trade and support their families. Rosaura Robleto, one of the hard working costureras, lived with her three children in a bamboo walled home. She was proud of her own piece of land (parcels were given by the FSLN Mayor of Santo Tomás to landless people) and looked forward to making improvements on her house as her finances improved. Rosaura had a clay domed, wood-fired oven that she used every weekend to produce traditional Nicaraguan baked goods: rosquillas, empanadas and viejitas.  She also attended high school as a non-traditional age student, along with many other adults struggling to get out of poverty. Years later, she would leave for Costa Rica to find steady work.
Kari Bown remembers becoming accustomed to hearing machine gun and mortar fire at unpredictable times of day and night. When George, Jodi and Sheryl arrived several weeks later as the final members of our brigade, Kari remembers them ducking for cover when shots rang out near our job site. The rest of us kept working; we knew from our Nicaraguan co-workers that we were OK because they didn’t miss a beat of what they were doing at the moment. Together we dug the trenches, laid piedra cantera (solid rock blocks), cut and tied steel rebar, formed the columns and mixed concrete on the ground to haul by buckets to the right place. Day in and day out, we worked with several of the costureras and albañiles (masons) to complete the foundation and enclose the first floor walls. There were no such things as concrete delivery trucks 25 years ago, at least not where we were. On days when we ran out of materials, we shifted our labor to the farm project, which produced food for the comedor infantil (and still does).

One night the contra came in and used plastic explosives to blew up a light post, cutting off power to the town for a long day or two, and making the nights much more tense. No one died from the blast, but someone in their home had been specifically targeted. Our group had an emergency meeting to decide if we would stay or leave. It was obvious the contra were too close for anyone’s comfort. I stewed on the choice we’d made to walk into a war zone and wondered if we would leave unscathed. If we were able to get out of this intact, what did it mean that our friends in Santo Tomás did not have that option? We chose to stay.

During our brigade’s six-week stint we were able to get the walls of the 3,000+ square foot building up to chest height. Because of the war and material shortages, it would take the albañiles another year and a half to complete the building. Daniel Ortega, the President of Nicaragua, joined the costureras for the inauguration of the Casa de Costura Etelvina Vigil, named after a local woman who was killed in the fight against the local military forces of the Somoza family dictatorship.

In these last 25 years, after the formation of the Thurston-Santo Tomás Sister County Association, many delegations have come north to visit and volunteer in Olympia and many delegations have traveled south to visit and volunteer in our sister town. Every group that has been to Santo Tomás visited the Casa de Costura and many of us have bought hand-made clothing there.  Hundreds of women from near and far have graduated from the year-long sewing program at the Casa de Costura. The sewing cooperative still makes school and sports uniforms and does custom sewing for quinceañeras and weddings. Their vision now is to grow the project to include more support services for women such as capacity-building workshops, hiring a psychologist to be available to any woman seeking support, and possibly a pro-bono legal service too. Let’s join with these women working towards their vision of expanding the Casa de Costura into the Casa de La Mujer, starting with replacing the leaking roof!

Editorial note: “After Jean Eberhardt returned from  the Seattle-to-Nicaragua Construction Brigade project, she started organizing an Olympia-to-Nicaragua Construction Brigade. The relationship grew, and in 1988 the Thurston Santo Tomás Sister County Association was created as a non-profit organization.” Glen Anderson, “TSTSCA sustains a strong relationship with Nicaragua,” WIP,  July 2011

A new roof to keep the women dry!   
Grace Cox
Olympia’s sister city organization in Santo Tomas, Chontales, Nicaragua has requested our support to raise funds to make critical repairs to the Women’s Sewing Co-op building  in order to continue to provide this safe space for women.  We need to raise $8,000 to pay for the building repairs. Repairs include electrical, plumbing, windows and casings, and a new roof. We need your enthusiastic financial support to keep this important project going strong.

This building has a long-standing connection with our two communities. For many women, the Sewing Co-op and School was the first place where they could gather, talk and find commonalities in their lives, while learning a marketable skill.

In 2013 our sister organization, the Committee for Community Development, acquired the title to the property and has elected to broaden the scope of services being offered to create a community center for women in addition to the Sewing School. Original members of the Sewing Cooperative are helping to make this transition.

Student Delegate to Santo Tomas Patty Otero spent spring quarter working at the Sewing Co-op. “The Sewing School provides the opportunity to learn a skill that could bring in extra income and a community that supports women and understands the challenges they face.”

Safety for the women working in the building is of primary importance. Sewing Co-ops are one way to make the garment industry fair. Most clothing is made in sweatshops worldwide, and twice this year buildings that house these sweatshops have collapsed or burned, each incident killing hundreds of workers, mostly women and children. Supporting this project is one way to improve the working conditions for a small group of garment makers.

In the decades prior to the Nicaraguan revolution, opportunities for women were virtually non-existent. Lack of opportunities for education or to develop job skills combined with domestic violence drove many women to the streets to support themselves and their families. The Sewing Co-op and School provided the first real gathering place where women shared their stories and learned they were not alone. This support helps women find the strength to take action on behalf of themselves and their children.

Will you help us do right by the women of our sister town in Nicaragua by contributing generously towards repairs on their building? Twenty-five years ago the people of Olympia raised over $30,000 to support the vision of a place for women to come together and learn skills. Please help us continue the vision by starting with these critical repairs.
Grace is a member of TSTCA and an early member of Olympia Food Co-op.

Editorial note: Donations may be sent to TSTSCA, PO Box 56, Olympia, WA 98507-0561 or through the online Indiegogo page Repair the Casa de Costura.


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