The Mission and the revolution, as lived and told by Roberto Vargas
When the enormous earthquake of 1972 left Nicaragua's capital, Managua, in ruins, Nicaraguan refugees flocked to SF's Mission District. Soon, San Francisco was home to more Nicaraguans than any place on Earth outside of Nicaragua. The family of Anastasio Somoza had controlled Nicaragua with brutal repression for generations. Somoza's embezzling of relief funds for earthquake victims led to increased revolutionary activity against his rule. Taking their name from Augusto Sandino, a Nicaraguan revolutionary who led resistance against U.S. occupation of Nicaragua in the 1930s, La Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) — or the Sandinistas, as they were popularly known — began guerrilla activities in late 1974 by taking government officials and Somoza relatives hostage in a raid on the house of the minister of agriculture. They received a $2 million ransom and had their communiqué printed in the national newspaper. Thus was born the Sandinista revolution.
In the Mission, Vargas, Murguía, and others were in touch with La Frente, and began organizing Sandinista solidarity rallies to coordinate with La Frente's actions in Nicaragua. Out of offices in the Mission Cultural Center, along with El Tin Tan, the poets published a newspaper called La Gaceta about the situation in Nicaragua. The paper had a circulation of 5000 copies and was available for free all over the district. The sight of pro-Sandinista rallies at 24th and BART Plaza became so common that the plaza was popularly nicknamed Plaza Sandino.
Vargas organized takeovers of the Nicaraguan consulate in San Francisco and traveled the US, speaking about Nicaragua. Yet, soon, this kind of support didn't seem like enough. In Cardenal's poetry, victory was inevitable. Cardenal had written that Indian time was circular, that "history became prophecy," and that therefore the "empire will always fall." He had also written, "The hero is reborn when he dies. And the green grass is reborn from the ashes." In poetry, Vargas and Murguia found inspiration to go to war.
In 1976 and 1977, Mission District residents, in solidarity with the FSLN, began quietly leaving San Francisco to join up with La Frente and pick up the gun in the Sandinista Revolution. Among them were Roberto Vargas and Alejandro Murguía.
"It was very romantic," says Murguía. "If you grew up in the time after Che's death, when you had Che's figure calling for "1,2,3, many Vietnams" and a lot of different armed struggles going on all over Latin America, then it would seem logical, I think, if you were kind of young and crazy, that you would want to participate in some of these situations besides just doing solidarity work or organizing rallies. Also, the coup in Chile crushed our generation's hope for electoral change in Latin America."
Today, Murguía tries to situate the poets' embrace of armed struggle within the spirit of those long ago times, but one senses that Vargas would not hesitate to join a guerrilla war tomorrow morning. When I ask him how the young poets made the leap from verse to bullets, he is incredulous at the question.
"We had to fight! There was no other way!" Vargas says. "We had the historical perspective and as a people we were worthless if we let that situation stand. We had our own books out. But are we really revolutionary poets if we just sit back and collect our laurels?"
Murguía compares the Sandinista war with the Spanish Civil War, when there were many international brigades in which writers had been involved. He suggests the poets went to war because they were poets. "If you knew the situation intimately in Nicaragua and you were reading Cardenal's poems," he says, "it was easy to see the connection between poets and political necessity."