Story and Photo by Lindsay Sterling
If it weren’t for heartbreaking turmoil in Nicaragua, I never would have met Jenny Sanchez or learned how to make her favorite dish from home, gallo pinto. She’s a seventy-five-year-old grandmother. She’s short, has wavy dark hair, black eyes. She leans over slightly, even when she’s standing upright and has a stiff, belabored walk. She lives alone in a neighborhood of single-floor apartments in a small town in Maine. I met her at a food pantry where she gets coffee. After working as an nurse to support herself and her daughter, she is now retired, and her social security check doesn’t quite cover everything.
We’re in her dark, small kitchen, the curtains closed. Her apartment is simple, decorated with photos of her life as a young woman in Nicaragua and of her fully American daughter and granddaughters who now live in a house a couple towns over. As she squeezes lime juice over shaved cabbage, she tells me they don’t have lemons in Nicaragua because it’s too dry. And as she’s sauteeing bananas, she tells me she would use plantains in Nicaragua. “After the revolution, Sandinista destroy everything in my town. We have no good land for banana [anymore].”
Throughout our cooking session and talk over lunch, there is a lot of comparing here to there. “In Central America we don’t have cheese processed, we have from the cow.” At the market in Nicaragua, “everything is no pesticides. Naturelle.” In Nicaragua, grandparents live in the same house with their children and grandchildren. I ask if she’s upset she doesn’t live with her daughter and granddaughter. “I’m not upset,” she clarifies, “I’m here. I live the U.S. way. In Nicaragua, it wouldn’t be that way.”
But while she longs for Nicaraguan pesticide-free mamón (a small, red hairy fruit known elsewhere as rambutan), jocotes (they’re like plums), mango, and multi-generational households, Nicaragua wasn’t all love and organic-goes-without-saying. She left on a plane to California in 1968 because she feared that she would be killed by the Sandinistas, a revolutionary group. She worked as a military nurse for their enemy. She tried to get her parents to come to the United States with her. “Better leave before revolution beginning,” she explains. They stayed.
During the revolution, a helicopter landed on the roof of her parents’ house. She says, “He [my father] protecting my mother. Sandinistas in the house. They killing my parents. ‘We have to get our of here.’ They running no shoes on. My father inserted a big nail and got infection in feet because no hospitals, no doctors, no alcohol.” Her father lost his leg. Jenny sent blood from the United States. “He no die immediately. He die after that. Gangrene.” Eventually, she explains. “They [the Sandinistas] took the money, they took the house. My three nieces, no shoes, no clothes...The new President, Ortega, was trying to finish the revolution with a big party. But they have no house, all burning, no food. Every two weeks they give my mother one chicken to feed four people. They were starving.” She sent money. She sent shoes.
It seems strange to me that I could happen upon such a beautiful Nicaraguan dish as a result of war. Jenny's particular method of pre-cooking rice and beans and then sauteeing them with oil, peppers and onions, and shaving the cabbage so that it looks lacy, persisted through the utter devastation of a country, through the burning of banana fields and houses, through 41 years of life in the U.S., through an alcoholic husband, through divorce, through being a working, single mother making something like eighteen dollars and hour, through living alone. I guess that’s part of the beauty of beautiful things. They find a way.