Essay from Lorena Caputo


15 January 1994 / Estelí, Nicaragua

            We gather in front of a blue bullet-pocked building near the central park.  Women of the Madres de los Héroes y Mártires sell home-made plastic flowers.   A late-afternoon summer wind blows.

            Soon we are a procession, honoring the memory of Leonel Rugama.  That seminarian, teacher, poet.  The guerrillero who helped finance the Revolution by robbing banks.  He and two compañeros were trapped in a safehouse.  Surrounded by tanks, by hundreds of troops.  For three hours the shooting went on.  The planes bombed.  That was 15 January 1970.

            His petite and spry mother leads us to the cemetery.  In song and conversation we go.

            After a simple commemoration at his grave, we wander around the yard alone, in groups.  The Mothers visit their heroes’, their martyrs’ tombs.

            A professor from the States says to me, “Stop and listen.  It is time to listen.”

            His students find a series of turquoise crosses.  The people all died about the same date.  We are told they were victims of a Contra attack.

            I feel chilled, hollow.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – 

            Almost four and a half years later, I return to face those graves that have haunted me.

            Do they really exist?  Was it a dream? No.  I have the journal entry. What were the dates?  Fourth to sixth of June 1987?  Or ’86?  I don’t remember.

            It is a scorching late-dry-season day.  For several hours I wander, trying to find those sea-blue markers.

            I encounter Combatiente Juana Elena Mendoza’s site.  She fell on the day of Liberation, 19 July 1979.

                               You walked without resting

                                               the long road of liberation

                                               with the recompense

                                               of seeing your people

                                                                                  In Freedom

And I come across that simple white marbeline cross surrounded by a white wrought iron gate: Leonel Rugama R.

            My memory remembers that sea to be to the right.  But it is now crowded with newer tombs.  I cannot find what I’m looking for.

            I ask a grave digger, standing chest-deep in a fresh hole.  He shrugs, “Go ask the pantonero.”

             “Ah, yes.  It is over there, to the right.”

            Again, I do not find those 30, 40 turquoise crosses.  I give up.  For today.

“No, he’ll show you there,” the caretaker says, nodding to an assistant.

I am lead to a section of simple concrete crosses, and of tiled ones.  Of blues, yellows, greens.  Of combatientes, subtenientes, tenientes, sargentes.

            I spend several hours more, copying the names and dates of these 57 heroes.  They fell in battle against the US-Contras between 16 October 1983 and 8 January 1985.  The majority in those two Octobers, Novembers, Decembers.  Four in July 1984—the time of Congressional budget hearings, no?

            First Sergeant Sixto A. Moreno did not see 1984 arrive.  Subteniente José Angel Calderón Ordónez fell on Nochebuena—the Good Night—Christmas Eve.  Ramón Arier Rizo Castillo died a week after his 19th birthday.

            But I know this isn’t what I witnessed four years earlier.

            The doubts, the uncertainty gnaw at my mind.  After several weeks, I go back to Estelí and ask several Mothers.

            I went to look for it, but I can’t find it.  The workers showed me to the Armed Forces section.  But it isn’t what I remember.

            “Do you know of such a place?”

            “It must be that common grave,” one says leaning in her chair.

            “Yes.  They were all victims of a Contra attack,” the other says, running her hand over the counter.

            “There’s a common grave?”


            “There’s another one, too, in Cemeterio El Carmen.  A mass burial of combatants of the April Uprising,” the second informs me.

            “During the Insurrection,” the first clarifies.

            I ask myself out loud, “Could that common grave have been disappeared by those newer ones?”

            The Mothers look at one another and shrug.

            But still, my memory remembers not one marker.  It still sees so freshly a wash of 30 or 40 turquoise crosses.

            I return to that part of the cemetery and widen the circle.  More groupings of dates I’d missed before, among the newer sites of this decade.

            There’s a tall, blue-brick pedestal with a black iron cross:

                      MARIO RANDEZ CASTILLO

                                      4 February 1988

                      The bullets of the Contra assassins

                                      may have killed you

                      But they did not kill your faith

            The rain drizzles.  The dripping weeds are slick.  The earth is soft.

            Still I cannot find them.

            I ask Rugama’s cousin, who works here.  “Ask the pantonero.”

            The caretaker does not know.  He swears there is no common grave.  He asks the Rugama.

            “Look, we’ve both been here only a few years,” the cousin apologizes.

            The pantonero points to the western part of the yard, the opposite direction from the others.  “Over there are burials from the same era.  Perhaps it’s there.”

            In the petering rain I enter the sea of crosses.  Into 1985.  Soon their dates group.  Scattered here and there are combatientes, first lieutenants.

            There are so many dozens from May 1985.  How many just between 17th and 19th?  One, two, three, six.

            I weave back and forth through.

            Another group: 2 to 7 August.  One, two, four—again, six.

            I climb between the closely packed graves.

            Silvio A. Chavarría Méndez—fell in defense of the fatherland in Miraflores, Estelí, 20 May 1986.  And entombed next to him are more people killed on that same day.  Three from the Talavera family.

            Oh, god.

            I continue wading through these mostly blue crosses, scanning them for dates.

            28 July 1985—so many, it seems.  One, three, six, eight—nine.

            I begin to swoon, ready to vomit.  My solar plexus is hollow.  I almost sink to my knees.

            This is it.  I remember this feeling.  The same I had four years ago.

            I want to stop.  But I continue strolling through this jumble of graves.

            How many died 7 September 1985?  In May ’86?

            I want to scream, “How could you do this?”

            How many hundreds of graves are there?  I dare not count.

            How could we do this?

            And those velvet storm clouds rumble overhead.  A chill wind blows.  The sprinkled rain has stopped—for a while.

Lorraine Caputo is a wandering troubadour whose poetry appear in over 200 journals on six continents, and 14 chapbooks – including Caribbean Nights (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014), Notes from the Patagonia (dancing girl press, 2017) and On Galápagos Shores (dancing girl press, 2019). She also authors travel narratives, with works in the anthologies Drive: Women’s True Stories from the Open Road (Seal Press, 2002) and V!VA List Latin America (Viva Travel Guides, 2007),  articles and guidebooks. In 2011, the Parliamentary Poet Laureate of Canada honored her verse. Caputo has done literary readings from Alaska to the Patagonia. She journeys through Latin America with her faithful knapsack Rocinante, listening to the voices of the pueblos and Earth. Follow her adventures at or