By: Ashley Rerrie, Country Director
The beginning of February marks six months since I’ve been living at the Casa in Managua and working with our partner communities and visiting school delegations. I’ve been reflecting a lot lately and thought I’d share some of those thoughts. One of the most important parts of having the opportunity to live and work in Nicaragua is the opportunity to share my experiences and challenge the mainstream narratives of Nicaragua as a ‘developing’ country that are so prevalent in the news.
I moved to Nicaragua as Casa – Pueblito’s Global Education Coordinator a month after I finished my Master’s degree; my graduation actually happened in October while I was here. It took me some time to learn how to adjust to a 9-5 job (although not a conventional 9-5 by any means) and to not be such an academic. These past six months have been a huge learning curve and really taught me what a lot of the theories I learned in grad school look like in practice.
One of the people who has taught me a lot about what development, community organizing, and empowerment look like in practice is Yamileth Perez.
Yamileth lives in a marginalized and historically stigmatized neighbourhood in Managua, and has been volunteering and organizing there since she was 11 years old. Even though she didn’t have the chance to finish school and spent years working in the local dump looking for scrap materials to recycle and sell to support her family, Yamileth went on to teach adult education classes for five years. Adults who hadn’t finished school as children because they had to work came to her house from 6-8pm and studied to graduate high school. Yamileth’s neighbourhood was also infamously violent. She met with gang members and community members to find ways to mitigate the violence – not by assigning blame, but by listening. She asked youth what they needed from the community, and their answer was recreation. Without education, jobs, or opportunity, youth in her community wanted to find ways to have fun. So Yamileth started a soccer league in the community, offering her organizational skills in exchange for soccer lessons. Yamileth runs a fair trade organization called Esperanza en Accion (a former Casa – Pueblito partner organization), which works directly with artisans all over Nicaragua, is on the board of directors of Podcasts for Peace (a current Casa – Pueblito partner), and continues to organize in her community. Her house is a community health center, where people can come and get tested for malaria, dengue, and zika, take their blood pressure, and access a nebulizer – all of these services are offered for free.
Yamileth always stresses in her talks with our Global Education delegations about how her neighbourhood isn’t poor, but rather impoverished; impoverished by global systems of capitalism, consumerism, imperialism, and oppression.
She reminds me that poverty is created and maintained by those in power. But she also reminds me of the resilience of Nicaraguans, and how sometimes, even the act of surviving and thriving in spite of systems that oppress you is an act of resistance.
Of course, survival is not enough – providing opportunity and access to resources is crucial to combat poverty. Yamileth constantly reminds me that empowerment happens not in acts of charity and giving people material goods (houses, clothes, food), but in creating meaningful employment and finding dignified ways for people to provide for themselves. Podcasts for Peace is one such example: children are able to access tutoring, sewing classes, and various recreational activities – concrete educational resources to support their childhood development.
Once, when speaking with visiting Canadian students, Yamileth said: “Something I want you all to know is that Nicaraguans are magic. My people are magic. We have to be, to survive here. A Nicaraguan woman can make one bar of soap stretch to wash clothes, wash dishes, bathe children, and wash hair. We’re resilient. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.”
I think about this often. I am living among people that make magic happen every single day.
People often ask me if I’m homesick, or whether I miss Canada. I miss my parents; they’re some of my best friends. But being here and having the chance every day to listen, show up, and be present, to really being human with people… That makes it worth it. The relationships and friendships that I have the opportunity to build are the best part of this job, every single day.
From learning to make tortillas to getting my truck stuck in the middle of a river at 2 in the morning on my way to a Purísima in Jiñocuao, to throwing surprise parties for friends or sitting on a front porch and chatting, I’ve had the privilege of meeting incredible people and sharing deep connections with people. I’m deeply grateful for the opportunities to continue learning, sharing, and building with people.