Managua, NicaraguaNovember 11, 2016
In your city, how can we tell that we are in the year 2016?
Bicycles. Managua has a fantastic topography for bike riding, but traffic is horrendous. Drivers are abusive, there are no bike lanes…really, there’s no bike culture or infrastructure for them. In the midst of these adverse conditions, people have emerged who want to change this: a group of citizens organizes the Bicicletada Managua, offering urban rides with open registration, where they bring together more than 50 people to cycle through the city. The routes bring visibility to the solution for problems like pollution, sedentary lifestyle, and dependence on public transportation, which is suffocating. Plus, it reclaims the right to enjoy the streets of Managua, this city that we so love to hate. A group ride says NO to the status quo, with joy, and that’s a powerfully beautiful action.
The people who promote this, such as the artist Darling López, are people who became activists after making changes in their own lives. Even though the initiative started some years ago, in 2016 it’s really made its presence felt.
What in your city reminds you of the past?
Street addresses. The streets don’t have names, and addresses are created based on points of reference, which in many cases no longer exist. An address might be “where Cine Salinas was, two blocks from the lake,” for example. Many of the reference points disappeared in the 1972 earthquake, when the city center was destroyed beyond hope of reconstruction, first due to the corruption of Anastasio Somoza, and afterwards because the revolution began, the blockade, and Managua wound up last on the list of priorities. So the streets are forever unnamed, the lots empty, and the addresses have missing references. The phrase “where something was”—such as the Cine Salinas—becomes the proper name of a place. Its past becomes present, in perpetuity. “The stoplight where they killed the cop” is the name of an intersection near my house.
Which building or intersection in the city would make us think that we are in the future?
La Planta de Tratamiento de Aguas Servidas (the sewage treatment plant). Managua isn’t distinguished by its architecture, and less for its conscious urban design, but there are outstanding constructions. Among them, the sewage treatment plant is the one that most affects our lives, since we see and smell its effects in Managua’s lake.
After eight decades of having sewage dumped into it, Xolotlán was truly the stink spirit from Spirited Away. Now, after only seven years of treatment, it no longer smells like waste and you can get close to it. You still can’t have any contact with the water, but you can be on the bank without feeling disgust, and that’s more than I hoped for in my youth. That’s a kind expression of the future from my past.
Where in your city would be the best place to lose track of time, freeze time, or gain time?
In the markets. You can eat, shop, listen to the news as it’s spread by word of mouth, hear what’s happening in people’s lives, and take the political temperature. The markets of Managua, above all El Oriental, are teeming, living organisms. Visiting them is an anthropological experience.
The experience of “ropa USAda” is especially intense. Clothing that was used in the United States is imported in bulk to be resold. The markets have stores that sell it in huge piles: “20 pieces for ten córdobas” means the practical activity of buying clothes becomes a treasure hunt.
Which museum or cultural space is generally omitted from a typical cultural excursion, but is definitely worth visiting?
EspIRA! The organization I work with, which is a contemporary art school with thirty student artists, from children and adolescents to adults. The only one in the country. There you can see works and processes.
In which bookstore can you find new or second-hand publications on art history, exhibition catalogs, or artist monographs?
The Instituto de Historia de Nicaragua y Centroamérica (IHNCA, Institute of Nicaraguan and Central American History) has a serious editorial project, and they sell their publications there, including one or two on national art or artisan crafts.
What dish most embodies your city, and where would you find it?
Vaho is one of my favorites. It’s a steamed dish with cecina (salted beef), yuca, green and mature plantains, served with cabbage salad. The Vaho Tradicional del Hospital Bautista, which has been around for over 50 years, is a good place to try it.
I must mention all the delicious fruits, some of which are so luxuriant, like zapote and loquat, that are sold in carts and baskets in the streets. Papaya, mango, watermelon, and pineapple are sold already peeled and cut, and put in plastic bags so you can eat them while you walk, which is a very local way to do it.
Outdoor or public artwork worth visiting:
The Hugo Chávez Monument-Rotunda is a guilty pleasure. It’s in the rotunda named for him, and the rotunda is like a giant kitschy installation. It has three trees of life, these little plastic trees that light up, along with with thousands of small bulbs on the surface of the portrait. Everything is flat, the tree-façades, the portrait-façade.
Many people in Managua hate the rotunda for its lack of elegance, especially intellectuals, but I have to disagree: The monument synthesizes the idealogical and aesthetic contradictions that reign in this country. The paradox of constructing the image of the left with the visual resources of Disneyland is priceless.
I have another less cynical argument: The rotunda responds to an articulated design, which was quite a feat when they made it, and at that time the Disney rhetoric was still incipient; these two facts positioned it against the pedantic protocol for statues. I remember a sensation of relief and joy. It’s a shame that later there was an avalanche of “more of the same” with multicolored trees of life on all the boulevards, and Managua became an endless landscape of the artificially bucolic, a joke with no point.
Where would be the best place to view the sunset in your city?
You can see the sunset from almost any intersection because Managua is a flat city with one story buildings. The sun is everywhere, although the electric cables are also everywhere.
The Puerto Salvador Allende, which is a result of the recuperation of Xolotlán, is an excellent option to enjoy a sunset because you get an immaculate sky, the view of the lake, beer, and conversation with friends.
Next Sunday, let’s meet at:
At my house! Two kilometers from the Pista Suburbana, far from the city’s noise, where you can hear silence right beside you...and just a little farther away, the wind and the grackles.
Which book transports me to your city?
There are many cities in Managua, overlapping and alongside each other. Some books transport you to one city and others to another. Two books with the city in their titles are Un sol sobre Managua, by Erick Aguirre, and Managua Salsa City, by Franz Galich; both stories develop in decadent nocturnal scenes, but while the first portrays the Managua of bohemian intellectuals, the second is the Managua of robberies, bars, and prostitution. You can also be taken to Managua by other books that don’t speak of the city, like Las ciudades invisibles [Invisible Cities] by Italo Calvino; I think of Sofronia, which is a paradox in that what is light and fragile persists, while what is hard, the cement of institutions, ministries, and monuments, is built and destroyed periodically. This is my clearest experience of Managua: everything is vulnerable, except the tarps of the market and the temporary stalls.
What aspect of your city most inspires you, and where would one probably get lost: geographically, emotionally or historically speaking?
At La Loma de Tiscapa. It’s a historic park in the middle of Managua. It’s also the border of the crater of an extinct volcano, where there’s a lagoon and a scenic overlook with a view of three-quarters of the city. From there you can see nearly the whole thing, la ciudá. The lake, Tiscapa itself, the southern mountains, the cathedrals. There’s also a zipline over the lake.
But you can also touch history: at La Loma you’ll find the ruins of the Palacio Presidencial that was there during the time before the first Somoza, until the triumph of the revolution. That’s where César Sandino had his last supper, the night before they executed him. Many opponents were tortured in those jail cells. And later it became a museum of the revolution.
At La Loma there’s also the paradigmatic silhouette of Sandino by Ernesto Cardenal, next to a tank that Benito Mussolini gave Somoza, and (obviously) there’s also a tree of life. You can see kids practicing jumping style, and couples in love. And, in addition to all this, it’s now a Pokemón gym. How’s that for an inspiring reason to visit?
If you were to be commissioned today to create an artwork “about” this city, briefly describe your proposal.
I don’t know what the work would be, but it would focus on the consequences of the lack of a city for my generation. I would interview people who lived through the 1972 earthquake as children or adolescents. We are those who grew up with a consciousness of an emptiness that became the norm for the following generations, and which much later was filled with another city: the chaotic swarm of today.
To grow without a city center, without parks, without discos, cafés, without all the spaces where you live with or watch other people, because everything has fallen…What does that do to identity? To subjectivity? What is the personal notion of the collective when it’s configured upon emptiness and unconfined irregularities, with great patches of nothing scattered everywhere?