Over just a few months, a lot has happened with our friends in Terrabona. Mercedes and Reynaldo will soon become grandparents, twice even.
In December we attended the high school graduation party for the oldest son, Angel. A few later after he moved in together with his girlfriend and schoolmate, Veronica. They couldn´t hide it any more, she was pregnant. Obviously, she had to leave school. Now they live together in a room in the house of Angel’s parents, Mercedes and Reynaldo.
It is clear that the two young people are very much in love, but I don´t think that they planned to start a family this soon.
When we were visiting the family over Easter, we learned that the daughter, Alba Luz, who moved away from home to live with her boy friend in San Pedro (a neighbouring village) when she was seventeen years old, is pregnant, too. Most of the time, her fiancé lives and works in Costa Rica, like half of population in Terrabona…
Alba’s twin brother Reynaldito, is following in his sister´s and brother´s footsteps. His girl friend (14 years old) has moved into his room in his parents’ house. Reynaldito, though, had to promise his parents that there will be no babies until his girlfriend is at least 16. We can only guess how long this will last…. (Picture: the happy couple at the beach at Salinas Grande during our Easter excursion.)
In Terrabona it is called “stealing”, when two young people become sweethearts without asking permission of the parents. It is the costum that the parents of the “stolen” daughter become angry, but after a while, when the marriage can be considered consummated, they generally soften up, forgive the daughter and welcome the boy to the family.
My impression, though, is that Mercedes and Reynaldo do not take the “becoming angry” business all that seriously. They visit San Pedro often, and Reynaldo has offered to build a house for the young couple next to his, on his farm. That way they could live in their own house, and not in the house of the boy’s parents. Also, there a plans are to build a High School in Montaña Grande, a close by village, and Reynaldo is very set on having Alba finish her high school degree. She would be able to do that, without missing out on her duties at home, if she lived close by. Furthermore, Reynaldo’s daughters are the apples of his eye. He enjoys having them close by.
A generation ago, “bride stealing” was something very different. Another friend, Rosalpina, who today is a woman in her forties, was literally robbed by an older man when she was a teenager. She succeeded in escaping from him, but her parents would not accept her back in their home. She had become another man’s woman and was no longer a virgin. This must have been in the early 1980s. Today Rosalpina is one of the leaders in the farmers’ movement in Jinotega, and is a woman for whom the words “to fight for Women’s Liberation” has a very literal meaning.
At that time the accepted way for young people to meet (in reality to get married) was different from to day. When my old friend, Juan Segundo Sanches, (he passed away some years ago) in the 1970s decided that he wanted to marry Maria Santos, a girl from his village of Pueblo Vielo, he had only seen his future wife by the well a couple of times. He thought she looked nice, but did not talk to her until he was allowed to do so by the father. After a couple of months with supervised walks, and when everybody agreed it was a good idea, the two young people moved together. This was how it was done then, in the villages of Matagalpa.
But ten years ago when I first visited Terrabona, “stealing” had become the way of life for young people. Most couples we met had not asked permission to move together. Typically, a man was 30 or 35 years old when he got married, this was an age when he would have inherited land and and needed to start a family in order to run the farm. Of course, he would find a young, strong girl of 14 or 15 years, with many years ahead of her. So when our Danish solidarity brigade was in Terrabona in 1994, only one or two unmarried teenage girls were to be found in the whole village. But you could find lots of 15 to 20 year old single young men – no wonder the brigade was so popular …. 8 of us were girls around 20.
I am sure that the “theft”, like in Rosalpina´s story, did not alway happen with the acceptance of the girl. But in most cases it probably did. A Nicaraguan anthropology from those years describes how 15 year old girls dreamed of escaping the life of slave work for their mother, and of starting their own home with a good man. Many did not take in to account the recurrent shortage of farm land after 1990, which meant that they often had to slave for the mother in law instead. Nicaragua´s high divorce rates tells us how difficult it must have been for the girls to make their dreams come true.
Nowadays Reynaldo’s children, boys and girls alike, seem to find their sweethearts when they are still in their teens. We see a change from one generation to the next: The young men no longer wait till they are 30.
Probably the war (and the military service) started that. Maybe television and rap-music, that came to Terrabona in the 1990’s, also were to blame, giving a budding autonomous youth culture ideals and images to act on. But partly, it also has to do with the added freedom that young people enjoy nowadays, especially the girls. A fruit of revolution, democracy and the womens´rights struggle. And, another side of the same coin, with more years of schooling, creating more unsupervised hours with the opposite sex. Increased mobility, with coffee picking jobs in Costa Rica, and maquila jobs in textile factories in Sebaco and Managua, also make it economically possible for the young generation to start early. Globalisation’s contribution to love… (?)
Alba, Reynaldito, and Angel are examples of how quickly and how extensively the “stagnant” farmer’s life can change in a country like Nicaragua. But some things have not changed: it is the girls (not the boys) that leave school; the girls still move to the mother in law and work for her (if they do not move to Managua); and it still requires both a man and a wife, and their children, in order to run a farm. So marriage is still also a material, not only an emotional, condition for survival in Nicaragua´s countryside.
Also, the first love between a boy and a girl is still binding in a way which is unheard of in a country like Denmark: for the girl it means moving away from home, and (very soon) becoming a mother. For the boy it means, not only wanting to, but also having to earn a living. The marriage does not necessarily last forever, but it does often have permanent consequences: the children. How and by whom these children are treated constitutes one of the main battle fronts of the day day gender struggle in Nicaragua today, from Daniel Ortegas alleged rape of his stepdaughter to the thousands of children being raised by grandmothers when new husbands refuse to take care of other men´s children.
In Nicaragua, even a good Catholic can get divorced, his or her reputation is not spoiled by that – it is one of many areas of everyday life where the opinion of the Church simply does not seem to be sought, and where the Church knows better then to meddle. Like in Denmark, it is often not until the second or third time that a marriage works. And sometimes it does work. Both Reynaldo and Mercedes had failed marriages before they met. Together they have created a wonderful home for the children from their earlier marriages, despite former mistakes. They are both considered leaders in their community.
There are many people like Reynaldo and Mercedes, but for each of them you can find a teenage boy who is not equal to the task of being a grown-up and a teenage mother whose parents do not acknowledge her. You will find a stepfather who thinks that the daughter has grown more attractive than the mother. Or a stepfather who refuses to let another man’s children live in his house, forcing the children to be brought up by a grandmother or aunt, often in total poverty, or even worse, sending them to the street.
Teenagers live a dangerous life in Nicaragua.