We piled into the Jeep that winter morning in 2006 and drove in to Diriamba, the birthplace of El Güegüense, where a traditional drama reenacted each January during the feast of San Sebastián, the city’s patron saint, took place. We would end up at the beautiful Basilica of San Sebastian of course, but first we had to change some money. Diriamba had a bank, or maybe two, I suppose. I never went into them. Why in the world would you buy córdobas at a bank? The best rate to be had was at the gas station on the Carretera Panamericana. One “negotiated” the exchange rate with the Coyotes, scary-looking dudes who stood between the gas pumps, wearing crisscrossing ammunition belts, a wad of bills in one hand and an automatic weapon in the other. Equal parts Malcolm Lowry (there are literally a dozen active volcanoes in Nicaragua at and given time) and Jim Lehrer (of the Viva Max, not the PBS NewsHour vein), I loved the unhinged madness of my mother-in-law’s birthplace—where gun-toting lunatics fired off shots next to fuel pumps; people bought baggies of pastel-colored mystery booze from street vendors straddling the median strip; we slept with a machete in the bedside table; and the sunrises, every one of them, broke your damned Yanqui heart. I felt intense, crazy pride, as I watched my fearless mother-in-law intimidate the Coyotes into giving her a better rate.
I love the family I've been blessed to have married into, every member of it, with the fierce, wild appreciation and gratitude of a man who never thought he could ever be anyone’s son or brother or husband again. Even after a stroke, Gilda’s father Bernie can still handle himself and quote Shakespeare at length. His wife Gilda was born to the respected Alemán family; they operated Diriamba’s department store, co-owned several small Cinema Paradiso-like movie theaters—and, as I learned the very first time I was shown the town, built the municipal Clock Tower—in nearby Diriamba. Bernie and Gilda met in Upstate New York, where they attended Woodstock, among other things, and earned their teaching certificates. Bernie taught English and Gilda taught Art to emotionally unstable children from troubled backgrounds at Pope Pius XII High School, in Rhinecliff, New York. They retired a few years before Gilda Marie and I married.
Latin America is a bloody clot of Life and Death, Good and Evil, Wealth and Extreme Poverty, Man and God. For me, as it does for many folks, this inspires a heightened awareness of possibility, an intensification of experience that renders emotions more vivid, the appreciation of the fragility of life more sanguine.
We enjoyed a horse-drawn coach ride around the colonial city of Granada—a town dressed for wealthy travelers—and boated on the fresh water of Lake Nicaragua, prying monkeys off our shoulders—a lake so large that you could drop Puerto Rico into it. We trekked up the paths surrounding the active cone of the Masaya Volcano, made our way through the bustling markets of Masaya and Jinotepe, and spent our last morning in La Boquita on a ten mile walk on the beach to the shore’s point (which revealed another point beyond that) at dawn. All the while, we were treated to incredibly lavish and sumptuous meals prepared by our Tia Leyla as well as delicious foods in fine Nicaraguan restaurants.
Either it was a discarded bone needle of the sort used by fishermen to repair their nets, or it a stingray’s barb, a rusty nail—whatever, the four-inch-long espina passed through my Gilda’s foot like a red-hot knitting needle through butter when she stepped on it in the Pacific surf.
The patriarch of the family there, Ricardo Gutiérrez (Tio), was one of the preeminent horse trainers in Latin America. (In the Spanish style, each dictator, once they become an eminence, keeps horses.) The horse in Nicaraguan society served not just a beast of burden, but also as a mark of culture and prestige. One day we attended the Ipica—a huge equestrian festival—in Diriamba where $100 workhorses were ridden proudly next to $150,000 show horses. Because of his personal charisma, character, and his talent as a horseman, Ricardo seemed to know and be respected by everyone—from the peasant driving his burrow down the street to the President of the country, Enrique Bolaños, to whom we were introduced at one of the house parties to which Tio and Tia brought us during the festival.
The President had served as vice president under his predecessor, Arnoldo Alemán and just begun his term, which ended when Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas came back to power in 2007. He has since retired from politics and runs a non-profit educational foundation. Casually dressed men loosely ringed him with automatic rifles propped against their hips, and came to surround us as well as he—to our surprise—chatted with us for nearly twenty minutes.
Gilda turned chalky, one foot out of the water, the other in. “Don’t move” I said. “I don’t know what it is,” she said. The pain moved across her face like a shadow. I bent down in the waves and felt for her foot as, reflexively, she lifted it.
The festival of San Sebastian celebrated the meeting of the patron saints of Diriamba (San Sebastian), Jinotepe (Santiago), and San Marcos (San Marco). Evidently, statues of San Sebastian and Santiago were en route from Spain when the boat carrying them capsized. Fishermen found the statues floating in the ocean, dry and safe in sealed boxes, as close to each of their intended destinations as they could have been. The folklore surrounding them is that, with this history, they must be traveling companions, and very close friends. Each year San Sebastian invites both Santiago and San Marcos, as he is from another nearby town, to celebrate with him in Diriamba.
Blood poured out of both the top and the bottom of her foot and into the water, on my hands, all over her suit. I quickly checked the entry and exit wounds. Clean. Tore my shirt off and bound her foot. It stanched nothing. “I’ve got to get you to the house. Don’t look at the blood,” I said, trying to tie the shirt tighter.
Faithful from each town carried the statues from Diriamba, Jinotepe, and San Marcos to Dolores, a town in the middle of all three Saints’ homes, where the three met and then parade back to Diriamba. A huge Mass was celebrated in the basilica there and everyone processed, carrying the saints’ statues, accompanied by extravagant, beautiful dances and music. Children as young as four years old—dressed up in elaborate costumes—threw themselves into the moment. Faithful of all ages walked on their knees to fulfill promises to the saints. The incredible smells of fresh—and delicious—festival foods like picadillo, chicharrón, yuka, and nacatameles as well as of horses, people and the spent gunpowder of fireworks—all overwhelmed.
“I’m okay,” she protested. “I can walk.” Putting weight on the foot, she nearly passed out. I looked back at the house, across a finger of water and far up the beach. There was no one for three hundred yards in any direction. “I’m going to ferry you, baby,” I said.
We attended Mass in the choir loft above the front door of the basilica with several priests, and five or six members of the family, leaning over the rail and looking down towards the altar. People were packed tightly in as the choir sang. At the customary moments in the Mass, probably three thousand voices inside the basilica, another several thousand outside in the square, sang.
“Sit down, brother,” commanded Christopher gently, as I placed her in a chair on the porch of the little bungalow. He took over. The blood had by that time soaked everything we had on. ‘You look like you’re going to pass out,” he said, seizing my arm. “You should sit down.” My tailbone connected with the ground as I nearly fainted from the sprint up the beach.
The cardinal finished, the procession began. The statues of the saints, covered in ribbons and silver Milagros were carried down the central aisle, preceded by dancers, huge waving flags, drummers, and flute players. The basilica trembled and I felt what it is like when sound itself moves. Deafening fireworks exploded outside, thousands sang, and—a few feet away from us in the belfries—the bells began to peal. It was as beyond the pale as New Year’s Eve in Venice in the Piazza San Marco, but even more intense, with a more fervent undercurrent of religion and danger.
Now that Gilda was safe, my mind began to fly off like a busted kite. “Like stigmata…” I shuddered, trying to steady myself by looking out to sea. The fist around my heart tightened. Blood still pulsed from the wound, but her color was returning. “Kierkegaard called it—what was it—a barb of sorrow?” I was going into shock. “If it is pulled out, I shall die,” I half-remembered.
Every hair on my goose-bumped arms stood on end in the heat as the procession passed out of the church through the doors below. I was guided to a rope like a blind person and directed to help toll the bells. Flying a dozen feet up and down, drowning in the sound of the singing, of the bells, of the blood pounding in my head, I looked first one way to see waves of people reaching up to touch the saints as they pass in the plaza, then another to see the Christ hanging above the altar, hands and feet nailed with barbs of sorrow to the Holy Rood. I looked another way and saw the huge clappers inside the bells, then another and saw the bullet holes pocking the belfry’s inner walls, and then another to see Gilda’s ecstatic face in song.
“In this country,” Chickie remarked as he wound gauze around his sister’s foot, “Death sits right next to you at the bar without asking, claps you on the back, looks you in the eye, and buys you a Toña.”
This essay first appeared in an earlier iteration in the Huffington Post. You can read it there by clicking here.