LÉON, Nicaragua — El Caballero swigs from his one-litre bottle of Victoria cerveza and smiles warmly, eyes drifting off to a time when all of his dreams seemed possible. A thick red candle on the table makes his face glow orange like a compassionate jack-o-lantern. Shifting black eyes contain a spectrum of sentiments between pain of unexpected loss and euphoria of hard-fought victory. Youthful Orlando directs his arm toward the gentleman as if to re-introduce him in his proper light:
“This man is very tough. His name is El Caballero.”
Orlando turns to El Caballero and directs his arm toward me as he recounts the
story of how he met the gringo that afternoon. El Caballero eyes me as cold gulps
from a one-litre bottle of Victoria cerveza quench a full day’s thirst.
I enter a building with the message Bush Genosida Enemigo de la Humanidad spray-painted in white, bold letters on its front. Inside, two dimly lit rooms reveal frayed newspaper clippings and fading photographs of the Nicaraguan civil war.
Both the rifle slung over her right shoulder and the baby milking from her left breast accentuate an infectious smile and suggest a purity of belief. The image of this young Nicaraguan transcends the black and white 1984 photograph.
Out of what I learned was the FSLN museum and onward east along Calle Cent ral Rubén Darío, I reach an inclining cement footpath that leads to a mirador. To the west, La Catedral de Léon steeple juts into the sky and beyond drifts a mirage of ocean mist, rising and evaporat ing off Playa Santo Domingo 18 kilometres away. Out of the sun glare, a well-groomed man speaks.
“Hey friend,” he says. “Do you like the view?”
“Yes, very beautiful,” I respond.
He quickly displays his ID card that reads Orlando Jose Mosea Soto. The act intends to prove his trustworthiness.
“Do you want to see a better view?”
“Why not,” I offer.
He motions to his black and red bicycle and moves forward to give me the seat. While Orlando steers, I pedal hard to move us to, indeed, a slightly better view. We glide into the final burst of sunlight. Orlando praises Playa Santo Domingo, where he glides downhill on Saturdays.
“We have a whole arm of the Pacific Ocean,” he says. “The waves are very big.”
Tempting, but he seems eager to guide. I direct the conversation to the Nicaraguan B aseball Championship the following day. I plan on attending the game at Estadio Roberto Clemente, named after the Puerto Rican major leaguer, who died New Year’s Eve 1972 in an airplane crash while delivering aid to Nicaraguan earthquake victims. Located in San Fernando de Masaya, Orlando says the stadium is dangerous and points to my watch to indicate that I will lose it. I will leave early if Chinadega, the visiting team, is winning, I say. He suggests spending more time in León, but offers to act as my guide if I decide to go. Orlando motions toward his bicycle. We climb and descend pothole streets. Neighbourhoods blur. Earthquake-ridden, the city stands on land of varying elevation. Volcanic lava scorched the original city of León when Momotombo erupted in 1610. The current version of the city, 32 kilometres removed from its former one, flashes by. We fly through intersections, dodging pick-up trucks full of compacted families,
slowing down for a candlelight procession of Catholics that raise effigies as part of Holy
“Let’s go to El Caballero’s house,” Orlando urges.
Why not? The bicycle tour required only the curiousity to follow where he led.Previous stops provided majestic Pacific sunset views fronted by Central America’s largest cathedral. Orlando soon acts as emissary to an aging revolutionary.
His Father awol, Orlando and his mother have little money like so many Leónese families. El Caballero gave him the bicycle now resting in the corner of the high-ceilinged colonial room in which we stand.
“This man is very tough,” he says. “His name is El Caballero.”
El Caballero, tested hard by pride, conviction and the Sandinista-led revolution,
lost a leg to the Contras and an Uncle Sam machine gun. The quality of bullet and
smooth effectiveness with which it sped around and damaged his leg was his personal
education in Imperialism. We walk at the pace of his crutches.
We pass through an iron gate, then a pitch-black corridor leading to Barberia al Condor. Four men playing a game of cards pause on our account. El Caballero speaks to the group in low tones, combining his words. I don’t understand a single one.
Orlando introduces the men, who curtly nod. Marco A. Zapata, owner of barbershop and vocero of local Sandinista chapter, drinks Flor de Caña rum with both gruff and jolly burps. Tension hangs with the humidity. A black and red flag hangs on a far wall. A silver-haired player, neatly-dressed in white shirt and pants, addresses El Caballero in a familiar way. His pupils grow.
“Guillermo Centeno Caballero– this is the bravest, craziest soldier I’ve ever seen. He is the gentleman and crazy horse. A horse and crazy gentleman,” he playfully mixes the words caballero, loco and caballo. His eyes turn glassy, as he speaks. “It was a beautiful revolution.”
In the wake of the successful insurrection against the (40-year-old) Somoza dictatorsh ip, formation of the governing junta and during the rise and decline of the Sandinista government, El Caballero ran a charity to assist war amputees find employment. The project became under-funded like so many things Nicaraguan. He has little work but many ideas such as a program to give children, who can’t walk, the opportunity to ride horses in the outlying mountain ranges of León, where he owns farmland. But the horses were sold.
Leaving the old platoon at the barbershop, El Caballero leads across the court
yard, in front of the grand cathedral, guided by the moon and church lights that illumi
nate two lion statues guarding the front door.
When I tell him that I am Canadian, he lightens; recalling that while Los Yankees supplied arms to Contras, Sandinistas received medicine from Canadians.
The Reagan administration funded counter-revolutionaries and used economic coercion against the fledgling government, which it believed posed a threat to the American way of life. But after the Sandinista National Liberation Front unexpectedly lost the national election in 1990, El Presidente Daniel Ortega Saavedra ceded control of government without violence.
The revolution was put on pause, but the struggle for self-determination, equality
and basic necessities continues. We enter their local haunt, sit down and order the first
round. Youthful Orlando directs his arm toward the gentleman as if to re-introduce him in his proper light:
“This man is very tough. His name is El Caballero.”
Orlando turns to El Caballero and directs his arm toward me as he recounts the story of how he met the Canadian that afternoon.