I don’t know exactly when I came to this sad realization.
It might have been while I was methodically deconstructing my own cigarette butts a few weeks ago, searching for the few flakes of unsmoked tobacco that often hide near the filter. I hadn’t done this in years – reconstituting cigarettes out of the ashes of the old in desperate times to sate my addiction – but this time I had a family sharing scarce resources with me. Prioritizing what precious few cordobas we had for cigarettes while nobody in our house was eating was unconscionable to me. Digging through last week’s trash was far less so. So I did.
Of course, it might have been when our rescue dog and rescue kitten met me in the morning, clamoring for the food we didn’t have. There’s something decidedly fucked about looking at the street dog you took from a successful life begging and saying, “I thought we’d do better out here in the country, but maybe you’re actually better off without us back in the city?”
It might have been when we were pleading at the local pulperia for yet another line of credit to just see us through one more weekend. It might have been when we were sitting slouched and defeated in front of our landlord, yet again, making desperate promises that the wire transfer was just a few days away. It might have been when I made dinner out of empanizador and grape jelly. It doesn’t really matter when I realized it. We were fucked.
I’d been fucked before. As a high school dropout and on-again-off-again bartender, waiter, delivery boy or whatever-service-job-I-can-clean-myself-up-to-get worker, I’m always building cardboard castles on the tremulous sand of “fucked-adjacent” property. What was new – and what was newly devastating to me this time – was that I’d never been part of a “we” before. Now, we were fucked. And it wasn’t supposed to happen again – not to me – and definitely not to the newly-constituted “we.”
It wasn’t supposed to happen, not because I had failed to live up to patriarchal duties to “provide for my family,” but instead because we had a plan. My partner Marcela and I are in this together. And we had secured the promise of a rare, personal loan from a rarer-still family member who thought they could afford to help make that plan happen.
I’ve wandered around lost for most of my life, usually from couch to couch and often without any discernible purpose. I grew up in a very affluent community just outside DC, with a world of possibilities presented to me, but my rejection of that life came very early (and, I might add, very recklessly). I dropped out of one of the best public high schools in the country, choosing instead to spend my time at a local coffee shop embarrassingly agonizing over French Existentialist and communist writers.
Dropping out of school isn’t what many might think it is. You don’t formally renounce school. You just kind of slip away. One day you’re reading Sartre in a Greek diner instead of attending French II class and the next thing you know all your friends are away at prestigious universities and you’re shrink-wrapping DVDs at the local Blockbuster Video. At least, that’s how it was for me.
I continued wandering – in fits and starts in my life always orbiting around anarchism (from the punk scene in DC to Occupy in Los Angeles) – for a long time before I finally made it to Nicaragua, a country I had always held in special regard. I had read all my life about the people here overthrowing their US-backed oppressor in the same year I was born – 1979 – and their resistance was something I had always wanted to see firsthand. Three years later, it’s something I only admire more now. It definitely isn’t anarchism, but there is here a living memory of a kind of resistance that goes a lot deeper than buying a Keurig coffeemaker.
In Granada, I somehow became a bar manager, but I tried to be the kind of manager who was in the trenches every night bartending the same as anyone else. Over two years, we turned a tourist bar that thrived on the free labor of backpackers and catered almost exclusively to them in a different direction. With a Nicaraguan staff, we became the busiest bar in town by reaching a more mixed clientele – becoming a place where Nicaraguans and tourists came together as strangers and left as friends. This was done with purpose – and it worked!
Somehow, despite all of this, I was still miserable. One night, I broke my hand punching a wall in frustration after a busy night. I had checked the manager’s log and – despite all our hard work and corresponding success – the owner of the bar had left yet another passive-aggressive and disgustingly racist note in our manager’s log. I was simmering.
When I met Marce, I immediately ran out and bought two books so I could learn more about her home, El Salvador. After our very first conversation, I knew I wanted to know more about her and her country and I dedicated myself to that. We talked often of a solidarity that once existed between El Salvador and Nicaragua and dreamed of doing something together where she could actively make that real again.
Marce quickly opened my eyes to a lot of other things, too. The owners of the bar we worked at together were horrible – I knew that already. From the first day, they always told me they wanted to use their bar in Granada as a stepping stone to get to Ecuador – to beautiful beaches they fantasized about there for their impending retirement. They wanted to build an empire around Nicaragua, an empire around Central America and an empire around Latin America. They had no particular love for Nicaragua, Nicaraguans or Granada at all. And they regularly demonstrated that with abuse directed at my coworkers. Thinking I was some bulwark between them and the staff, as I had been doing, was only sapping me of any happiness I might ever know and was actually helping them achieve their extractive, gringo empire at the same time. Marce helped me realize this. So we quit. Together.
When she told me should would leave me if I ever asked her to go with me to the United States, I knew I was in love. I happily promised I never would. When Marce had the same “Sabocat” tattoo I had emblazoned on her own left shoulder, although she protested it wasn’t “anarchist” because she added “Marcelismo” underneath it, I only loved her more. I proposed to her with a cheap plastic ring that our young friend Miguelito, a homeless kid we loved and cared for over our boss’ objections, had given us outside of the bar we were now also banned from entering.
I said we had a plan. We did. And it was a good one, I thought. It is a good one.
We weren’t going to work for someone else, particularly not an extractive, racist employer bent on taking their profit and running elsewhere. That’s not who we are. So we brainstormed. Marce found a property – a failed hostel that we could rent and still rent out rooms on AirBnB to sustain us. But that wasn’t adequate for our politics – or our lives – either. We wanted to do something more reflective of our politics and we needed to do more in order to get legal residency here.
In Nicaragua, the best way – perhaps the only way – for someone who isn’t retired and on a demonstrable pension (or with similarly demonstrable finances) is to become “an investor.” What that means – practically speaking – is that you need to have a registered association and invest a certain amount of money. in Nicaragua to get residency. As an anarchist and anticapitalist, I’m not excited about the prospect of starting a business – but it is a necessary evil if we want to stay in Nicaragua. This is one obvious contradiction we struggle with, but there are many more.
So, settling our uneasiness, we raised a few hundred dollars on the Internet to get out of Granada and make it to Ometepe, a beautiful island formed by two volcanoes in Central America’s largest lake. Like many “entrepreneurs” before us, we reached out to one of Marce’s family members who runs a small construction company in El Salvador for a loan to get started on our idea, and he committed to helping us. We were dependent upon his help, but his situation in El Salvador changed and that help quickly dried up. That’s when we realized we we’re fucked and needed help.
Marce has run hotels and was educated in San Salvador in hospitality and tourism. Our plan, and we still think it is a good one, is to try our best every day to marry our politics with a business that can sustain our family. We’re committed to doing something that isn’t destructive to our new community or at least can help mitigate the harm capitalism does to communities everywhere. We’re committed to using our access, particularly mine, to redistribute resources to those who don’t have that same access. I have 11k followers on Twitter, so I’m pleading for their help to spread the word. I’m white and from North America, so I’m asking people I know to contribute. It’s difficult terrain to navigate and we don’t always succeed, but we’re trying. Ours is a small project, but we hope to be able to do a lot of good.
We’re up against a lot. A well-financed hostel chain is sweeping across Latin America, backed by a real estate development firm with millions of dollars and flying an Israeli flag. They have a plan to open 90 hostels in the next four years and just opened their first two in Nicaragua. They’re gobbling up elite properties from Mexico to Peru, destroying locally-owned-and-controlled businesses by bringing everything in-house and carving out an empire that will extract every tourist dollar from Latin America rather than keep that money in local communities. We want to be on the frontline of that fight. It’s everything we know. And yes, it fits our very real, material needs, too. But we also know we can make it work. We can show people another way, reach our clients and spark conversations without preaching at them and help other, local businesses remain locally-controlled at the same time. Is it perfect? No. Is it “The Revolution.” Hardly.
I’m 38 now. Honestly, I don’t have much time left to be behind a bar anymore. At some point soon, it’s just going to be creepy. And I don’t have any savings to show or the education to do much else. Having only held precarious service jobs, I haven’t seen a dentist since I was 18 and the only time I have ever seen a doctor was when I broke my hand in Granada ($20 for an ex-ray and a cast!) punching a wall because of my former boss. I’m getting older. I’m going to need to see doctors and dentists someday. To do that, I need to find something stable, something that will help me enjoy my newfound family far into the future. And I want to do that here in Nicaragua.
When I was growing up, it wasn’t a question of supporting the local record shop when Tower Records exploded on the scene. You just did it. Tourist dollars are flooding Latin America and we have particular access to those dollars that we might be able to redirect locally rather than extract in their tired, imperial formula. This will also help us to survive and to do more politically and personally ourselves.
We also need to find a way to get ourselves unfucked and to do so in a way that doesn’t fuck anyone else. We think this is the best way to do exactly that.
I hope you’ll consider helping us. We have 17 days left on our IndieGogo campaign and need all the help we can get.