Meet 4 Nicaraguan Community Organizers Fighting for a Free Nicaragua

In April of last year, Nicaraguan civilians grew frustrated that President Daniel Ortega's administration did nothing to put out the fire that ravaged the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve. When Ortega denied assistance from the Costa Rican government, civilians took to the streets and began protesting. Soon after, Ortega’s administration announced regressive reform plans to INSS, which was intended to increase employee pension and social security contributions. Civilians continued to oppose the government's actions and took to the streets to peacefully protest. The Ortega administration responded to the protests and marches with state-funded and paramilitary violence. Since then, hundreds have died, many wrongfully imprisoned, countless men and women have experienced gendered violence, and thousands have left the country seeking refuge.

When news broke out last year of the atrocities Nicaraguans faced, many of us immediately jumped into action and began connecting with members of the diaspora to find intentional ways to show our solidarity and provide tangible resources to those directly affected. As a Nicaraguan-Salvadoran-American organizing in San Francisco, the city with one of the largest population of Nicaraguans in the U.S., getting plugged in was not difficult. What did become a challenge was discovering how quickly the voices and experiences of women, Afro-Nicaraguans, campesino, indigenous, working class, and LGBTQ folks were often marginalized in protests, dialogues, and the news. It dawned on me that despite experiencing an ongoing crisis, the Nicaraguan diaspora is not immune to the -ism’s that plague all societies. What provided hope and allowed me to continue organizing was connecting with intersectional feminists dedicated to ensuring the country’s most marginalized are equally valued as we collectively fight for a free Nicaragua.

Recently, I connected with four Nicaraguan, feminist, comrades in order to share their journeys as organizers, the communities their working with, and their calls to action. Here are their stories:

Valeska Castañeda-Puerto

Valeska Casteñeda-Puerto is a queer, Nicaraguan immigrant who as a child, came to the U.S. seeking refuge. She is a single mother, former gang member, and a first-generation college graduate who works in immigration policy and is an active community organizer in California's East Bay.

“The inequalities happening in Nicaragua weren’t something new to me during my last visit in 2016. The impact of corruption was visible. So, of course as the news poured in of the first waves of the violent repression happening as a result of el Indio Maíz and the INSS social security reforms, I felt this knot form in my throat.” says Casteñeda-Puerto. “As the week unfolded seeing media outlets, electricity, water, and wifi being shut down to cities resisting, the knot got bigger...seeing no food supplies available, the government controlled hospitals refusing to treat protesters, and the Catholic priests standing as a shield for the community moved me to take a stand.”

Organizing for her Nicaraguan community was never a question; it was just a matter of how she can organize intentionally, an ongoing process for her as she learns about the evolving needs of her community. Although born in Nicaragua, and now living in the U.S., she feels her role is a supportive one. In the past year, being a supportive ally has meant acknowledging her privileges and holding members of the international Nicaraguan community accountable. Specifically, community members who have positioned themselves as “experts”, and as a result, have overshadowed the voices of Nicaraguans who have been laying the groundwork for over a decade, as well as those directly affected by the ongoing crisis.  

“To me organizing outside of my country has meant a conscious call to action by honoring the work of all those who have been resisting and centralizing the indigenous, Afro-Nicaraguan, campesinos, womxn, and the queer community. It also has meant me turning down panels, actions, and interviews, where I felt the voices of the most vulnerable Nicaraguans were not a priority.”

As someone who came to the U.S. as a refugee herself, Valeska Casteñeda Puerto understands first hand what it is like to not have the resources, let alone, the supportive Nicaraguan community that now exists in the Bay Area. That is why Casteñeda’s primary focus at the moment is providing Nicaraguan and Central American refugees at the U.S. and Mexico border with aid and attorneys to further their chances of being granted asylum.

Valeska Casteñeda-Puerto’s Call to Action:

Donate to UC Berkeley CAFÉ ( Central American for Empowerment). The organization has been on the the ground providing support for Nicaraguans and Central Americans seeking asylum at the U.S. border. To donate, please Venmo: CAFÉ-UCB. If you are in the Bay Area, please consider volunteering for the East Bay Sanctuary Center. The organization provides refugees with “Know Your Rights Activities” and offers LGBTQ Asylum programs and services. Donations can be made to donations@eastbaysanctuary.org

MADELAINE CARACAS

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Madelaine Caracas is a Nicaraguan contemporary artist who studied Communications at the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) in Managua, Nicaragua. She has always used her art as an avenue to denounce human rights violations, femicides, and well before the crisis broke out, intersectional feminism (which has always been at the core of Caracas’ community work when advocating for the most marginalized). Before the country’s sociopolitical crisis, she was working with “El Observatorio Contra el Acoso Callejero,” an organization working to eradicate street harassment. She is also dedicated to raising the consciousness of the lived experiences of women.

When the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve was set on fire in April of last year, and seeing the government’s inaction, Caracas organized protests with a collective of young people and students. young people and students. After the INSS social security reform plans were later announced by the Ortega government, she and her friends joined their elders in protesting; helping to organize the now infamous April 18th student protest that resulted in state funded police officers and paramilitary groups attacking peaceful protestors. At the protest, Caracas and her fellow organizers took refuge at Universidad Centroamericana (UCA where they were then attacked with glass, bottles, and firearms that resulted in the destruction of their university.

Later, she co-founded the “Coordinadora Universitaria por la Democracia y la Justicia,” a coalition of young people from more than 11 universities (both public and private) in order to ensure student voices were included in the country’s national dialogues that followed the protests weeks later. She made her voice heard on May 16th, 2018 at the first national dialogue.

“I wasn't assigned to speak that day but when Ortega denied civilians and students had died at protests, something came over me and I grabbed the microphone and read the sixty names of the people, who up until that moment, we knew died at the hands of the government.”

That moment, along with another where she publicly challenged a government official, were captured on video and went viral. She was soon harassed with death threats and the government official she denounced called for her expulsion, and that of other students. The police began harassing her and even attempted to arrest her at school. She wasn't even able to return to her home, and for over a month, she was subjected to living in various safe houses to ensure her wellbeing.

Soon after the protests the Articulation of Social Movements and Organizations of Civil Society selected her to be one of the student representatives to denounce the Nicaraguan government and request the country be sanctioned in countries around the world. After visiting various European countries to bring attention to the repression Nicaraguan’s were living, Caracas was set on going home, but learned the police had announced a warrant for her arrest. She has been living in exile in Costa Rica ever since.

She decided to continue her work in Costa Rica where she knew over that over 50,000 Nicaraguans shared her story; living in exile and now facing a humanitarian crisis. The Coordinadora Universitaria por la Democracia y la Justicia created a chapter in Costa Rica where she has been able to coordinate with organizers still in Nicaragua, which has enabled her to help provide resources, humanitarian aid, and information sessions for exiled refugees.

“As someone living outside the country, what I can do is to continue demanding justice and ensuring the reality of Nicaraguans remains visible to the international community.” says Caracas. “With so much information coming out of the country, it’s also important to remember the government is producing fake news and in turn, it's important to verify information and news stories so the community doesn't reproduce false information meant to take away from the reality Nicaraguans are living.”

Since relocating to Costa Rica, Caracas has also served on the advisory committee of  the Derechos Humanos de la ONU where they drafted a resolution that was recently approved allowing Nicaragua to be on the agenda of the United Nations for a year. As a result, Nicaragua will be monitored and human rights violations will be recorded. She is also part of the ““Iniciativa Mesoamericana de Derechos Humanos,” a feminist organization that defends human rights and organizes transnationally to empower women in their local communities.

Caracas also emphasized the importance to support and learn from independent news and media outlets like La Prensa, Niú, Managua Furiosa, Medio Confidencial, Nicaragua Investiga, Articulo 66,  and Nicaragua Actual as a way to stay informed and to learn from those with direct contact with the reality of Nicaraguans affected by the crisis.

“Nicaragua is not normal. Despite there being a national dialogue, nothing is normal. The reality is there is a lot of repression, intimidation and we [Nicaraguan organizers] ask the international community to keep pressuring the Nicaraguan government.” says Caracas. “For Nicaraguans, don’t let the flame that was turned on in April, turn off until Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo leave office.”

Madelaine Caraca’s Call to Action:

- Support the Union de Presos Politicos de Nicaragua (UPPN), an organization supporting those still imprisoned and those who were recently released. Their work aims to support their struggle to rejoin society, many who can not find jobs because they have now been given criminal records, and providing physiological support for prisoners who were tortured and experienced physical and sexual abuse. “Let’s break with indifference. The current political happenings is a reflection of the reality of Latin America. This is a call for empathy, not just for Nicaraguans but for the international community as well. If folks [Nicarguans] keep going out to protest and organize despite knowing they'll be greeted with bullets, the least we can do is continue to uplift their stories.”

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GEMA SOTOMAYOR

Gema Sotomayor is a Nicaraguan-American born in Los Angeles, California to immigrant parents. As one of three kids, she grew up experiencing food and housing instability. In order to provide for herself and one of her older brothers with a better quality of life, her parents sent them to live in Nicaragua with family. Living in Nicaragua allowed her to live a life she never knew in the U.S.: stable housing, food every day, and a comfortable life. After living for some time in the country, she came back to the U.S. But, as soon as she was able, moved back to Nicaragua permanently where she maintained a corporate job and used her resources to sponsor Nicaraguan kids living in poverty.

Following the April 2018 protests and seeing the injustices committed by the Ortega government, Sotomayor and her friends began organizing ways to provide protestors with food and water.

“How could I not help out?!” says Sotomayor. “It was difficult with police, neighbors, and people keeping a lookout to see who and how food and water were being collected and distributed. We were followed by men on motorcycles and at one of the rallies an unconscious body was thrown into the trunk of my car. It was chaos.”

Sotomayor organized her friends and coordinated with taxi drivers to maximize the delivery of supplies they could provide protestors and students. They changed the drop off locations, the vehicles and the organizers making deliveries every hour to ensure everyone's safety and to throw off police looking to confiscate materials. As police became more aggressive with car searches at designated check points as an attempt to arrest protest supporters, Sotomayor and her fellow organizers began repurposing old tires by putting food, water, and first aid inside them and then dropping them off at their coordinated drop offs.

As it became more evident that the Ortega government had no intention of stopping the infringement of the human rights of citizens, protestors, and those providing humanitarian aid, Sotomayor quit her job and relocated to her native California in order to ensure her safety.

Despite leaving Nicaragua, she is committed to continue organizing and building community. She now works in finance and is the Board President of Chavalos de Aquí y Alla, a San Francisco nonprofit that organizes transationally, provides humanitarian aid to Nicaraguans throughout the diaspora and connects Nicaraguans and Central Americans with social services. The organization’s folklore dance collective, Chavalos Danzas por Nicaragua, also uses proceeds from performances to support the organization Refugee Relief Fund.

“Regardless of your political stance, it doesn't matter. We’re talking about human lives. The crisis in Nicaragua doesn't give anyone the right to infringe on anyone's liberty or rights. Don't be a bystander, even if you don't agree with them. We all have a right to a quality life.”

Gema Sotomayor’s Call to Action:

Talk to a diversity of voices regarding the current crisis, and connect with your local community to see what tangible actions you can take to directly benefit those currently affected. With many Nicaraguans seeking asylum in San Francisco, consider donating to CARECEN SF , a nonprofit that provides legal services to immigrants, unaccompanied minors and is working to ensure TPS is extended for Nicaraguans and Central Americans.

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ASTRID CAROLINA

Astrid Carolina is a Nicaraguan-American human rights lawyer. She was born in the U.S. following the Nicaraguan civil war to Nicaraguan refugees and grew up honoring her roots.

In 2008, Carolina returned to Nicaragua and worked as a Program Manager for various non-profit organizations. She later became a judiciary advocate for victims of Domestic Violence. Working in close proximity to the government's judicial system, Carolina was able to see first hand how the Ortega administration was eroding all facets of the government.

In 2016, Carolina was repeatedly ordered by her direct supervisor to participate in the Sandinista National Liberation Front party meetings during work hours. Her supervisor’s unconstitutional request prompted her to resign shortly after and she returned to California state.

“During my six years in Nicaragua, I noticed that Nicaraguans were left with little choice but to ‘go along’ with the ruling government, particularly if they wanted to keep their jobs.”

That same year, Carolina opened the Facebook page, Viva Nicaragua Libre, in order to provide an accessible platform for citizens to post and document human rights abuses committed by the Ortega government. During the April 2018 protests, it was through this platform that she was able to keep the 30,000 members informed about the human rights abuses continuing to consume her country.

Despite no longer living in Nicaragua, Carolina isstill committed to uplifting her community. “[Community organizing] is a struggle that requires commitment, courage, and patience. It means reaching out to brothers and sisters all over the world to join our cause.” says Carolina. “It means trusting people you have never met and wearing your heart on your sleeve. It means sacrificing the tropical comfort of vacationing for the promise of a democratic country we can all enjoy. It is literally giving up the country I have grown to love for the dream of a country we deserve.”

Carolina is currently an attorney and the Community Relations Director for Amigos de Nicaragua Azul y Blanco, a non-profit dedicated to providing Nicaraguan political prisoners with legal council, and refugees forced into exile with social services and humanitarian aid. She is also a founding member of the Nicaraguan American Human Rights Alliance, a group of organizers committed to protecting the rights of those who have been forced into exile, especially those who are detained by ICE here in the United States.

“We are an example of hope and courage for the entire world to take notice and follow. Even when faced with tear gas, bullets, torture, imprisonment and death, we raise our voices not arms.”

Astrid Carolina’s Call to Action:

To raise awareness about the TPS/moratorium on deportations of Nicaraguans. This is crucial to help prevent the re-victimization of people who are fleeing for their safety. You can act by calling your state representatives. To find your State Senator please click here. To find your State Representative please click here.

Written by Gabriela Alemán


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About the Writer:

Gabriela Alemán is a Salvadoran-Nicaraguan artist, community organizer, writer and proud product of San Francisco’s Mission District. Gabriela’s writing has been featured in Remezcla and El Tecolote Bilingual Newspaper where she is a contributing writer and columnist. She writes and illustrates about the Latinx and Central American experience.

Follow Gabriela on Instagram here: @gabrielaaleman.sf