Grupo de Hombres de Managua Contra Violencia October 1999.
Puntos De Encuentros
Participants: Oswaldo Montoya, Carlos Avalos, Edgar Amador, Xavier Munoz, and Ruben Reyes.
Interview conducted by Dean Peacock. Men Overcoming Violence, San Francisco.
- PERSONAL TESTIMONIES
- EDGAR AMADOR: TRANSFORMING ABUSE INTO AFFECTION:
- OSWALDO MONTOYA: INCORPORATING EQUALITY BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN INTO OUR VISION OF JUSTICE:
- RUBEN REYES: WITNESSING EXTREME ABUSE
- XAVIER MUNOZ: A 12 YEAR OLD REVOLUTIONARY
- CARLOS AVALOS: A MAN IN THE PROCESS OF CHANGING…FEELING MORE HUMAN, FEELING MORE COMPLETE.
- TRAINING AND THE FIRST NATIONAL GATHERINGS
- BUILDING AUTHENTIC DEMOCRACY
I like to begin by recognizing that the group’s history is tied to the history of women’s struggle and work in Nicaragua. The truth is that the first men who took interest in this were folks who were working with organized women or who belonged to NGO’s working in issues of gender and who were sharing in the struggle for women in Nicaragua. Out of this arose the necessity that the other half of Nicaragua’s population also do something in favor of the rights that these women were advocating. It was obvious that women wouldn’t be able to transform the world on their own, but that we had a responsibility also, and we started seeing that there was something we could do. We decided to bring a group of men together for a brainstorm on how to organize this work. We put a lot of thought into it and some incipient forms of organization started coming out of these reflections, always with the support of the women.
We initially sought out learning and training, and took advantage of our connections with existing institutions to receive trainings on gender – we sought to deepen our awareness on issues revolving around masculinity. In the process, bonds were being established amongst us and this enabled us to start envisioning what a different world would look like.
There was satisfaction all around as we started, amongst the small group, defeating obstacles and taking off masks that had caused us so much grief and pain. We learned, for example, how to love each other in a different way without the stereotypes of a sexist society, where greetings and affection are expressed through violence amongst men, or alcohol must be consumed in order to be able express emotions. We were able to do this in the first meetings, where our focus was primarily testimonial – where we shared personal experiences and stories. We felt a strong solidarity despite our differences, because the commonality in principles and faith in change united us.
Our beginning was also characterized by a lack of obstacles, we developed with the constant support of women who were with us the whole time despite the very normal and natural distrust that they had. Other men obviously had a lot of doubts about what we were trying to achieve. At some moments they would question whether we knew what we were getting into, and whether we knew how this would affect our lives in terms of losing privileges and power. But there were no major obstacles, no active opposition. They simply saw us with suspicion or indifference, but never attacked us.
As our restlessness and ideas multiplied themselves, we came to see that men of all types need change, not only because women have been mistreated by us, but because we have mistreated ourselves, just like childhood. So one of the engines of our work was transforming this abuse into affection and positive interactions. We saw the necessity of expressing what we were discovering and learning to other men, and we also saw the need to draw out some guidelines for our work.
Being a man and recognizing you were sexist, were the only requirements needed to join the group. As well as believing you could change. There were people of all sorts in the group: working people, professionals, and students, without political or religious distinctions. There are also comrades who are independent when it comes to sexual preference. This has also been a motive for satisfaction for us, knowing that we have confronted these differences in a very positive way. We have not had confrontations, or any of the real painful or intense discrimination you find in other environments. We have learned how to admire, and even love our brothers who have different sexual preferences and options. We saw the need to internalize and understand all this, but we also wanted to project our learning and objectives to society at large. We couldn’t stay to inwardly focused. There was a need to express ourselves publicly against situations of violence, and abuse. So we started using some media. We also had the need to study and synthesize our own experience thus far, so we made an effort to write the memoir of our first year as a group.
The Sandinista revolution triumphed when I was 13, just as I was entering adolescence and strongly grappling with my feelings around society’s injustices, and the class inequality I saw around me. This experience left a strong mark on my life, and being part of this revolutionary process facilitated what came to be my eventual understanding that our vision or analysis of injustice was incomplete if we did not incorporate the issue of inequality between men and women.
When the revolution triumphed and I completely immersed myself in revolutionary work. I worked on the literacy and educational campaigns, coffee brigades, other productive work, and participated in the Sandinista youth. In all of this work, issues of sexism were touched upon, albeit in timid ways. I am from a neighborhood in Managua called Centroamerica and I remember it as a very activist and conscious neighborhood. At one point AMNLAE, the women’s organization initiated by the revolution, honored a group of men in the neighborhood as ‘fraternal friends’ of AMNLAE. I became a fraternal friend of AMNLAE because it so happened that most of the neighborhood activists during the revolution were women. They were the ones that organized around issues of access to food, electricity and other necessities. I think this was tied to the traditional role of providers, both to the household and the greater neighborhood family that women are assigned to. So there was a rapprochement right there.
At the university we also touched upon these topics. Psychology, which is what I studied, is traditionally populated by more women than men, and I remember being afraid of studying it precisely because I would be surrounded by so many women. I acknowledge what was a rejection of women as equals, my devalued vision of the female world, which coexisted with my attraction to women. All this was a strong experience because I come from a very traditional and conservative family. The male figures in my family are very strong and religious. The religious influence was deep – on one side, I have an uncle who is a priest, on the other a grandfather who was an evangelical minister. My father has very progressive ideas, but he had a very traditional and conservative upbringing that wore off on me. Therein lies my internal struggle: a very attractive vision of equality facing off with the learned models of being which are very ingrained.
I have also been strongly influenced by my romantic partnerships. These have been a source of conflict, pleasure…but it is all tied to the issue of power, of how to feel good in relationship. I have been in the same relationship for eight years and I started exploring many of these issues with my partner. I first came in contact with feminist literature when I came upon the writings of Marcela Lagarde, a well-known Mexican anthropologist here in Nicaragua. The first thing I did when I read them was to pass them on to my girlfriend. And I showed them to her hesitantly, because Lagarde proposals were attractive, but also scary. What if my partner took these propositions seriously and became more independent?
Anyway, this was another element that played an important role in my formation.
Well, lets speak of the things in my past that influenced my choice to work in this arena. The first element was witnessing my father’s abuse of my mother. Extreme physical abuse. I was conscious of all of this when I was 10 or 11 years old. This all had quite an effect, it produced quite a clash in me. And this is an experience that has, in certain ways, marked me for the rest of my life. At that moment in time, I obviously wasn’t very conscious of the impact it would have on me, I only avoided speaking about throughout my teenage years. As a result, I wasn’t very conscious of too many things. The revolution was something that made me very happy – the fact that Somoza had left. I was 11 or 12. I was excited by the idea that we were beginning a better world. Thinking, “these are good people, with good ideas, poverty is going to end,” and so on. The other thing that popped up intuitively around that time had to do with my relationships with girls, how I related as a teenager to girls. I had sort of a dual relationship. At the same time that I was attracted to them, I also was very shy and did not know how to approach them. So I knew I was different from the other boys who were aggressive and could approach them and say things to them – I did not have the confidence to get close and strike up a conversation. But at the same time I felt – I don’t know if it was a need – the desire to get closer and I would try to approach them like the other guys did, and sometimes I would touch them or say things to them. So then I would experience their rejection, you know. They would say, “look, I thought you were different…”. I wasn’t very conscious but I knew that this type of approach brought about rejection.
Later on, like Oswaldo, I spent a lot of time around women because I started out studying nursing in college. Nursing is typically a female profession, although many men were entering this field at the time in order to avoid the military draft. At least in terms of avoiding direct battle because in the end we all ended up taking care of the wounded in military hospitals. (Chuckles) So everyone knew that more men were entering the field to avoid the draft, but they didn’t care because they knew they could still take advantage of the situation. So we were not challenged, they wanted more people in nursing. I think this had an impact on me, made me more sensitive to pain, to injustice, to all of that. I eventually moved to psychology and met Oswaldo.
Like the rest of the guys, my revolutionary experience began when I was 12 years old, which is when I began working with the Sandinista Front. I did a lot of revolutionary work on the grassroots level and became a familiar face in my neighborhood. I live in Repartos Chicos which was one of the constantly marginalized neighborhoods during the Somoza years and which today is one of the most violent neighborhoods. So I start working with the party on the neighborhood level. I was a restless boy because it was suggested that I become a formal member of the party at the age of 12, even though the party’s statutes strictly stated that no one under 16 was to be admitted in the party. Yet I was allowed in. I had a certain sensitivity as a child and I think it was because my childhood was somewhat thwarted – it was somewhat different because I was a child who never met his father. My dad left my mom right when I was about to be born and I never got to know what a paternal figure is like. My dad came around a few times once was bigger, but I always had a certain resentment in me because I would hear other children talking about their dads, and how their dads would scold them and hit them. I probably didn’t really want that, but since I didn’t have it, I knew something was missing.
That’s when I started noticing my mother’s efforts. My family was not the typical mom and dad and sons and daughters kind of family, and the only paternal figure I had was my older brother. He had to work at a very early age because we were extremely poor. My mom was always working outside of the house and, since birth, my grand mother assumed the mother role in my life. I grew up at her side and I think this experience influenced and sparked my process of awareness towards the work that women do, particularly the work of mothers who have to raise kids alone when the fathers bail out on their responsibilities. And once the revolution succeeded, my family strongly identified itself with the Frente. My family had very progressive ideas, and so I began my participation in the revolution.
I entered it in 1978 . You see, I’ve always had female figures in my life. My immediate superior during the Sandinista struggle prior to the triumph was a young woman. And I saw when the National Guard captured her and almost killed her. After the triumph, once the Frente started organizing itself as a party, I was involved in everything. I was in the Sandinista Youth, and I worked in the party. I identified strongly with AMNLAE. Like Oswaldo, I was a fraternal friend of AMNLAE. Back then I didn’t know what that meant but I was given the title simply because I worked for what I thought was fair, and that was that women deserved the positions that corresponded to them. As time passed however, I increasingly faced difficulties because I kept insisting that women participate in the decision-making process. I had my female comrades as peers and yet I was the one receiving promotions. I even became a candidate for Congress and these sisters around me who had been in the struggle with me from the beginning were not moving up at all. They were always my subordinates.
I also saw abuse perpetrated against them. Other men who were in positions of power within the party would obligate them to have sexual relations with them. The women participated in the revolution because they believed in the struggle and the men, when doling out responsibilities or leadership positions – and back then having leadership positions meant a lot – would inevitably invite them to the movies, or something along those lines. Today, that constitutes abuse for me. In the past I may not have seen it as such, but I never liked it. I always criticized it. My male comrades saw that as a deviation.
I remember back in 1988 when hurricane Juana struck. There was a house in our neighborhood that was occupied by the voluntary police. The voluntary police was very abusive against the people, there was a lot of repression and harm done against the community. So I fought to get the house returned to the neighborhood. And I remember being contacted by the comrade Doris Tijerino who was responsible for the police at the time. She wanted to have a meeting to know why we wanted to remove the police. I told her that the police were doing more harm than good in the neighborhood and that we wanted the house to be turned over to a women’s organization because that would truly benefit our community. To speak of that in ’88 was practically a crime. I was called to a party assembly, a regional meeting, and I recall that one of my female comrades who was a leader of the Frente asked me to outline my proposal. I told them that there was a woman’s group that was organizing itself and wanted a space to set-up an office and start servicing the people. So my comrade responded by stating that that was absurd, that it would create internal divisions within the party, because AMNLAE cannot be split up. As a result of this I received a sanction. I was placed on officer’s duties for the entire end of the year, including Christmas Eve, Christmas day, New Year’s eve, and New Year’s day. I had to keep guard. I was a watchman outside of the house, guarding party offices. It was punishment.
I kept on insisting and we fought, and were able to obtain the house. I handed it over to a sister who worked with AMNLAE and told her that she could work there with the women. Commander Tijerino had put it in my hands because I had the full support of the whole community and that meant a lot. It wasn’t so much the authority of the person as much as the support they had from their community. So we won that one and I felt very satisfied. Yet back then I didn’t know if what I was doing was part of the struggle for women’s liberation, or if I was doing it simply because I enjoyed it. After that I kept on observing and learning, and meeting women who influenced me. These different sources pushed me, and I came to see a change of male attitudes as a necessity. At that time, however, I didn’t lump myself into that category of men. I felt different to them, and did not see that I was also part of them.
After this experience, once we lost the elections, I decided to retire from political and party oriented work and decided to dedicate myself to social and community work, organizing myself alongside my community. We organized a brigade of youth who in their majority were women. We organized 300 people, of which there were 298 women, and 2 men. Yup, we were only 2 men.
Since I had studied medicine, I aspired to do health care work in the community. So we started working with the brigade members and began providing trainings on health and a variety of other things. [As part of this work I attended a forum on medicine where I met Oswaldo, even though I had seen him in the Sandinista Youth before. My interest was particularly sparked by the issue of intrafamily violence, and men’s role in all of this. Oswaldo conducted a presentation and spoke about the work being done at Puntos De Encuentro around issues of masculinity. And he mentioned that there was this idea of forming a group, that a group of men had already gathered once and was trying to address the issue of intrafamily violence.
After about a year in the group – learning and reflecting – the mother who reared me died, my grandmother. She died and I found myself in a very difficult place because the full burden of her death fell on my shoulders. Once our mother started agonizing, my brother left the country and went to Honduras. We were two boys in the family. We fortunately had a brother from my father’s side who had moved there and helped us a lot. Nevertheless, our sisters and mom – our real mother – would be crying all the time. They suffered a lot because my mother spent almost a year in agony and I was the one who had to watch over her, had to go see her in the hospital and coordinate her treatment and all, and the whole time I couldn’t cry. That’s what others told me, “If you cry your whole family will come tumbling down.”
So I was the pillar holding up the people around my dying mother, insuring that they did not feel any worse. I was in bad shape the whole time and when she died, I felt like I was also going to die. I had a cardiac problem that same day and afterwards they said it was due to the incredible tension, so much pent-up emotion. I was in bad, bad shape. They drugged me and did a thousand other things to help overcome the situation. I wanted to die and was looking for a way to kill myself. Oswaldo always would send me the notes of previous meetings and Gustavo brought me the ones of the meeting I had just missed. And with these came a little note from Oswaldo which said, “Javier, don’t forget you have friends, we are here for you.” And he did not know that I was sick.
So I sent a note back with the same guy telling Oswaldo that I had not been coming because my mother had just died, and that I wasn’t well, that I was in bad shape. Oswaldo then wrote me a letter, which I still have and he said – I’ll never forget these words because I was in such bad shape – he said, “Javier you are not alone. You have brothers here. Count on us.” This made me think that there were in fact people there for me and I started overcoming the situation. I also had the permanent support from the women who worked with me in San Lucas – they never left my side. They were permanently with me up until my mother’s death. They constantly gave me strength, which changed the roles because theoretically it is men who are the stronger ones and at that moment the women were being so kind, giving me support and strength. Even my mom adopted a different attitude.
Later on I noticed that, well, Oswaldo was leaving and Ruben was taking his place as coordinator and he kept on sending me the meeting notes. And I thought to myself, “Yeah, there are still people who are thinking of me.” So I went to the group’s anniversary which Ruben had invited me to. At that gathering I decided to rejoin the group and decided not to give it up because I felt it was a space which gave me strength. It helped me recognize that as a man I had the opportunity to share with other men, that I wasn’t alone in living my experience, that I am not the only one carrying this heavy burden. That’s why this group is so valuable to me – Oswaldo, Ruben, and all the comrades who started this group mean a lot because they were there for me when I needed them. For me this has been…what has influenced…I feel I went through a process, even before the revolution with my father’s absence, and with the group this process has become much quicker. I certainly don’t lose sight of that. It has meant so much to me. Most of the guys know that because I have told them as much.
We have also learned a lot on the personal level. Take for example my relationship with my son. I have a 10 year old son with whom I was able to…what I first did was end all violence directed at him. I work to communicate with him…there are always difficulties and it has helped me a lot in my relationship with my son. It’s helped me so much that you can also see the influence in my family. Initially, they criticized me for not mistreating my child. Through time, they also started cutting out abuse against their children. That’s an achievement that came out of the group, they helped me make it happen. Through the group I learned new forms of relationships, which can be…there, is a pretty phrase that says, “We must learn to teach with tenderness.” I’ve been learning that in the group.
The truth is that, like the other guys who have spoken, many of us had the opportunity to contemplate over all the we saw and lived for the last decade. When I was small, I was at times labeled a little lady because I used to hang out with girls, playing kitchen. I didn’t feel it was wrong but it got to the point where it was said to me so much that I came to think, “that’s bad, that’s not for me.” So I started playing other things, like climbing trees. I still remember falling when I was 10, I have a scar right here. Time passed and my father died when I was 10. I am from San Juan River and, being from a rural area, well, myths are still stronger there than in the city. There is less of an opening for one to get to know oneself as a person – there is a set of very set and pre-figured values of how one must act and proceed, as a man and as a woman. With the revolution’s triumph, however, things changed somewhat for me. We moved to Granada where life was more tranquil. At nights I would leave my house on the sly to do vigilance, which was a duty normally assigned to women in our sector. So I would hang out with them and here them talking about how so-and-so had hit his wife, and so on. And I always asked myself, “why?” “Why?” Why was the question. Time passed and, on one occasion I saw my brother hitting his girlfriend. I felt impotent because he was stronger than me, he still is stronger than me. I wanted to stop him. Well I was able to stop him, at least some of the force with which he was coming at her, but the woman was already bleeding in her face. When he would come visit with his girlfriend and start drinking, it became habitual for him to strike her. I felt terrible. On one occasion my ex-brother-in-law hit my sister and that was the only time I actually reacted by striking somebody back. Because, well, it was all intense. When he went to hit her, I remained calm. But right afterwards I lunged myself violently at him. I didn’t understand why it had to be that way, why people had to mistreat each other that way. Or when my mom would hit me I would ask her, “Why are you hitting me mom if it isn’t necessary?” “Discipline” and who know what else, would be her response. And that happened continually. So I came to understand that violence was needed in order to get rid of violence. This was told to me for so many years…the few years I had lived.
Time kept on passing and ten years of revolution passed in which we had many different experiences during the war. I had an extremely intense experience during the war. I was injured. I was on the front line during the war. I was at Rio San Juan. It was 1985 and the dividing line was the river itself. That side was Costa Rican territory, this side was Nicaraguan territory. There were contras, counter-revolutionary forces, on the other side, and Sandinista forces on this side. It was a 4th of July. It started raining real early and you could hear thunder and lightning falling. But we also started hearing detonations that were not thunder and lightning. At around 11:30 a very violent combat began. We began responding, they were and shooting and, well….there came the first wounded comrades. There we were when at around 2:30 pm one of the comrades next to me received a shot right here, on his arm. We ran to him and gave him first aid and started joking with him a little, “relax, now you get to go home, we’ll get you out of here,” in order to avoid his freaking out or getting to scared. He retorted by telling us that the battle was too intense and that we’d risk more deaths by trying to get him out. “It’s better to leave me here so that I be the only casualty,” he said. As soon as he finished saying that we heard a shrill sound. It sounded like a big cannon shot to me and fell some three meters from us. It was a grenade and the shrapnel entered my knee and this part of my body (pointing to his face); it destroyed this other part (pointing to scars on his jaw), and caused a fracture right here. It was a heavy hit. At that moment I thought, “I’m dead. If I open my eyes it’s going to be too scary. I’d rather fade away not knowing that I’m dead.” I felt like something was leaving my body and I felt my body just staying down there. Just sitting. And I was saying to myself, “Why do I have to die right now? I shouldn’t die yet.” The thing is that I decided to open eyes, so I started squinting and all I saw were sparks. I saw these sparks and figured, “I’m in hell.” I had heard so much said about it that my first thought was exactly that, “I’ve gone directly to hell.” I opened my eyes a little more and saw Norman, the comrade who had been injured. His faced was completely covered in blood. He had received medical training to be a nurse and I could see him drinking water. He knew he wasn’t supposed to be drinking water in those conditions and I figured, “Shit, he’s ready to go, he knows he’s not getting out of here.” We spent four days stuck there before they could get us out. We were finally brought here to Managua and I received treatment…and I ended up surviving. In bad shape, but alive. I was quite conscious.
Then came a well-behaved period in my life. I went to church and did things the right way but this was followed by a tough, tough period. I drank a lot, did drugs, a bunch of stuff. This was particularly acute during the 1990 elections. I was very involved in the Sandinista party and we had to stay awake all the time. We had to find ways to be stimulated and at times, got out of line. This all was wearing me down – my body, my soul – and when we lost the elections I hit a low point. I thought to myself, “How many people died believing that we would obtain a just society?” To see it all end up with the power in the hands of those who caused all this death. So I thought, “Death? That’s no solution.” At the time, though, I didn’t make all the associations with violence. I didn’t have a clue about sexism, violence and all that – it was all the same the way I’d learned it. 1990 was the beginning of a new phase in the lives of many of us.
In 1994, I believe, I started working with a Franciscan mission here in Managua. I supported and accompanied the women in the mission in their work with the people, because they were lay sister, not nuns. On one occasion I started talking to them about my past experiences, both good and bad. So they told me about this group of men in Managua who do work to end violence. I wondered what it was all about and went to a meeting. I remember it being a tough experience. Anibal was sitting on one side of me, and Joel was on the other. This is for locas. And I thought, “This is not for me.” I mean, I was feeling really uncomfortable – this was not the space I was looking for. Anibal is, well, when you meet Anibal its hard to believe…one feels like – Anibal is a joker, really sticks out, and is very affectionate – he will hug you and you don’t even need to know him…. It all has to be a process, you know? And the first day, it…Anibal is effeminate…and he is a lot younger than us…the truth is that I have don’t discriminate and have never discriminated against homosexuality, or being effeminate or whatever…I simply felt…, I thought, “This isn’t for me.” I mean, that was my first experience with the group. I left 10 or 15 minutes into it. I thanked them and made up some excuse and left.
The next time I arrived and started talking to Braulio, Jairo and another guy and asked a little bit about themselves. They obviously caught on to what had happened to me. The second try – Oswaldo was not there that time – was a little different. I was more confident and I felt that they opened up and gave me the opportunity and space. I said to myself, “Calm down and take it real easy.” Time passed and that feeling wore off and I entered the process of understanding myself and others better. We started talking about violence, machismo, homophobia, and the readings, conversations, and sharing allowed me to enter into this process of change. We have obviously shared a lot in the group too. Sometimes, when I had difficult experiences, I would come to the group meetings and would hear another experience, an experience…I joined the group because I was looking for a space where I could truly express myself and where I could, above all else, be accepted, not just express myself. It’s hard here in Nicaragua because if you approach a religious group they tell you that you are a sinner and they isolate you. Instead of helping you, the do you damage. I am very happy that in the group we go to extremes in order to avoid throwing someone out. Quite to the contrary, we work real hard to understand each other. Even within the misunderstandings that exist. One of the most recent themes we have discussed is complicity and I felt that each of us experienced something very personal when we did this. We dug out stuff that really helps us see why we are accomplices. It is natural to be an accomplice, it is something that is in me, or that I learned. All the reflections we have embarked on in the group have given me direction – I use it all in life. I don’t feel a changed man, I feel a man in the process of changing. I strive to find a place that with more justice, spiritually richer. That is my hope. Even if the group is facing a difficult time right now, I believe we will continue moving forward.
Before being in the group, the whole conception I had of what it meant to be a man… I just went along with it, I mean, everybody does. But there was some voice somewhere in me telling me that it all wasn’t as I assumed it was. It even remained this way last decade, when supposedly spaces opened up to work on consciousness-raising and gaining sensitivity,. Not much happened for me. There were some indications that change would come but it wasn’t until I started working with the group that my awareness really grew in big leaps. I noticed that there are many lies about what it means to be a man. I learned that it was perfectly fine to hug with Ruben, and that there is nothing wrong with this act. Or that I can put on a pink shirt and that isn’t wrong either. And I can use this…the whole construction of what being a man means – how you are to walk – you know, all these myths and traditions. Being in the group made me aware and sensitized me to these things. All of their experiences. I feel more human – since I have been part of the movement of the men’s group I feel more human – I feel more complete. Even in the process of change. As I said earlier, I am not changed but in the process of changing.
Voice: Lets talk about the trainings we did the peasants…
Xavier: During the first years we spent a lot of time on reflection and looking at our own lives. Oswaldo previously mentioned Orlando Nunyez, who directed an organization called CIPRES. Exactly two years after we started, Orlando supported a peasant’s movement who had come to Managua to demand that Dona Violeta’s government grant them legal deeds to their land because without them they couldn’t get any financing and loans. There was a lot of misery and hunger in rural areas and up until then, the government had refused to grant them their deeds. The peasants arrived in the city and set-up camp next to the Universidad Centro Americana (UCA). 2,000 families from all over the country – Leon, Chinandega, Matagalpa, Jinotega, San Juan de Rio Coco, Rio San Juan – from every state that CIPRES works in. Everything was full – part of the UCA, and CIPRES. I was coordinating the group at the time, and Orlando had this idea. He called me and told me that there was a huge quantity of men and women waiting to be trained, that they (CIPRES) were already providing them with technical training. That’s what CIPRES does in rural areas. So he said, “Why don’t we take advantage of the fact that all these people are here and do some workshops on gender issues. We can contact a women’s organization to train the women and you can train the men.”
Orlando had thought that we would put out a general invitation and since it was such a new topic that not many people would be interested. We knew the women would turn out because this kind of work had already been done in the communities. So I took the proposal to the men’s group – we happened to meet at the CIPRES building. The group turned the proposal down arguing that we had never run trainings before and that our work up to this point had been focused inwardly. We had, however, been spending a fair amount time talking about how to have an impact on the rest of the population. So this opportunity really captured my attention. I really liked the idea, but was also scared by it. I spoke to Edgar and another comrade who worked with us, Ivan. I told them what it was about and they agreed that we should do it. We had this idea that talking to peasants about this stuff, peasants who had machetes and sticks (laughs)…we thought they might hit us or kill us.
When we arrived there, we looked for the coordinator to tell him that we were not going to give the workshop. As soon as he saw us he got all excited and ran towards us to let us know eagerly that a bunch of people had already gathered early and were waiting for us. In other words, we arrived early to cancel the whole thing but instead found ourselves one-upped by the participants, who had gotten there even earlier! As the starting time approached the question between the three of us (laughing hard) became which of us would enter the meeting hall first – we were all really scared. “You go in first,” I said to Edgar. “Naah, you go first, you’re the coordinator,” he replied. That was my disadvantage, as I was the coordinator, so I was forced to go in first! We entered and found about 30 men, both older and young. So we started the workshop and, without going into too much detail, by the next day our numbers increased to 40, 50, or 60 men. Everyday it grew and grew and the other guys from the men’s group who were not initially part of the training all joined in. Everybody had to get involved because there were too many people demanding the workshops.
It was a very special experience, because it really strengthened the group. We spoke a lot about it in our next meetings and it gave us new meaning – we talked about what we were doing, what we were learning. Someone mentioned that it gave the group a real breath of fresh air. We had only been studying alone – always the same group and the same faces – and suddenly to see all these new men… The worse thing was that a lot of peasant women came to these workshops and completely altered our initial outlines for the training. Our whole approach was geared towards the training of men, based on our experience within the group setting. Suddenly we encountered women, and angry women, who said, “We aren’t leaving this workshop, if you want us to leave you’ll have to remove us – if you can.” Peasant women who were accompanying their partners. So one woman challenged Edgar. Said to him, “If you think you can throw me out, go for it.” And Edgar replied, “No, no, we have no intention of getting to that.” We quickly scrambled to modify the format and methodology of the training. All that said, the women really served as a catalyst to open up the men – their participation was vital.
The women spoke a lot, possibly because the men did not want to acknowledge that they felt bad about something, so some woman would say, “I don’t feel good about the fact that I’m being mistreated and hit.” This got the men thinking. We ended up training about 500 plus men, according to CIPRES statistics.
The demand from the peasant population was strong after that. “We’ve never spoken about this stuff, and now that you’ve shown us we can, we want to organize around this issue,” was some of what they said. The Peasants’ Network Against Violence came out of all this. Each group chose a coordinator who was to be the link with us and so each farm had a coordinator. That became the organizational structure of the network. By the next year we, in coordination with CIPRES, started giving workshops in their communities.
That was a very positive experience for us. During that period the group had the opportunity to have its first national gathering, where over men participated. We also invited representatives from the woman’s movement – it was a really, really interesting gathering. Many agreements were reached there. Organizational skills, unfortunately, have been our weak spot as Edgar mentioned previously. The majority of us who have jobs are also fully involved in pushing the issue at the institutions where we work, and this takes a lot of our time. The time we do have for the group, which is not much, we provide voluntarily. And most of the men in the group are unemployed so there are no resources to run workshops, or to get around. This is quite a limiting factor. We have a minimal amount to finance some activities but, effectively speaking, we don’t have a budget to afford the most important things – to pay for the time it takes actual people to get some of the hardest work done. We are a volunteer group, everybody gives their time freely
It isn’t heard with the strength and scope that we would like it to, but it is a presence. Carlos pointed out that the phone calls are constant – women’s groups, national organizations, and international delegations are always calling to find out whet the Nicaraguan men’s group is doing. It’s been an important contribution to speak out and say that this is an issue that matters to us and affects us, and that we have a responsibility to change it. It is also interesting that the group has been a starting block for other organizations. Out of the men’s group, members have been hired to work with other organizations into paid positions, and that is an invisible impact that is nevertheless there. For those of us who were already working with NGO’s, the group has been a space for personal formation. I, for example, have…each of us has to run workshops with the other men…in the group we do the work. The work is done on a peer-to-peer basis, as comrades. We don’t assume leadership roles and this has been crucial for our work with NGO’s and other organizations.
Edgar: It so happens that the majority of men who have passed through the group and who are in it right now are…I mean, you are not going to find a cabinet minister, or a big businessman – it isn’t a coincidence that the majority of the men in the group are men who feel dissatisfied in some form or fashion. We feel that the existing model for manhood is exaggerated and unrealistic, and that we can’t live up to it. That’s why you see many youth in the group because you can’t be a full man…you need access to the power of an adult to become a man. You’ll also find unemployed men, like Javier pointed out. You’ll find gay men whose personal experience, and definition of manhood runs totally contrary to the existing notion of manhood. We are men who in a variety of forms, have not felt affirmed for who we are. We have not lived up to that requirement of being fighters, players, having lots of women, being powerful. That is a defining characteristic of the men this has brought together. We personally feel that that notion of manhood oppresses us. That’s an interesting element of what we have been through and…this also points us the challenge of us doing this work because we aren’t the men with power in this society. We are, from certain vantage points, the most disempowered men for some reason or other. I think this is a challenge we face as a group.
I also think that we’ve been building authentic democracy in the group. Because around here everybody’s throat gets dry talking about being democratic and doing the right and just thing. But I think that the group, while not yet being democratic, is building an authentic democracy. I believe we have been able to modify some power relations that tend to exist. Oswaldo can speak of his life experience, so can a comrade who only got through high school. Those differences don’t come out between us. Age is a similar example. We’ve been talking about the issue of adultism, and have considered that it is damaging to the democracy that we are trying to build.
We are trying to create new types of relations, where nobody feels superior or inferior, where we all participate in decision making. That’s a novelty for me because even in the Frente, which I was part of for a long time and where I struggled internally for that democracy that thousands died for, we didn’t achieve it. The group provides me a joy that I did not get in the party. That is why this struggle is such a just one for me – we’ve got to keep struggling so that this become not only a space for a small group of men, but one that’s accessible to all the men that may want to participate.
Ruben: Perhaps the, what is…the challenge that Oswaldo mentioned, which is also an aspiration for me. We are a group that has been working hard on personal stuff, working on personal demons, trying to grow, change, and be different men. Men building new relationships. But we are also conscious of the need to make of this a way of life for each of us and to make this social change viable for all men. Especially for men but also connecting to our relationships with all people – with women. So we subscribe to the feminist maxim, “The personal is political,” as a source of inspiration. Always trying to make it so. Our difficulty it seems to me though, is that most of us are men who have traditionally been excluded from the traditional spheres of political power. So far we have a difficult time articulating ourselves in such a way that we can have a major impact on society. Generally speaking, I am insecure with the whole question of the forces of change, of having a stronger social impact. I think this is a common experience amongst us. I think we have a general fear – I’m generalizing here (mumbles of agreement from others) – there’s a fear of assuming a more aggressive posture….I mean aggressive in a positive way in this case. (Chuckles, and others chuckle with him.) In terms of having a social impact. In this sense we are, in relation to the women’s movement, still taking baby steps. In their case they’re better organized, there are more women, and they can therefore have a more belligerent social impact.
Oswaldo: It’s a lack of..what Ruben was saying initially, the lack of resources peoplewise, and lack of access to power. None of us, for example, is used to being the big spokesperson. As a group, we don’t have all those formal tools power, a voice, that kind of thing. It’s also a lack of time because there’s just a few of us. We still have big organizational weaknesses. All this has an impact because…we do things…but we also have to compete to matter, to be taken seriously by media outlets. One thing is for them to look at us momentarily as a curiosity, the exotic nature of “men meeting”, but there is a big gap between that and obtaining constant attention from a press that decides that these issues are worthy of continual coverage. It is very easy to dismiss us. Whenever we speak out and question sexism, or advocate better relationships with women, we are immediately labeled as a bunch of homosexuals. “All those guys are gay, that’s why they are doing what they are doing, saying those things, because they are dissatisfied being real men….”
Xavier: I also think the system excludes us because it’s not in its interest to include us. A politician isn’t going to accept attitude changes if he has been in power at all times. He isn’t going to let it go easily. He may see the changes we advocate as a threat. Setting aside privileges we have enjoyed our whole lives…
D: Sharing power.
Xavier: To share power. It will never be acceptable to them because they have enjoyed that power. In some way or other, we have also enjoyed this power but at a much, much lower level than them. The difference amongst us, besides the fact that they have all the economic power in their hands, is that we are renouncing these privileges because we recognize that they are harming us. That is our big advantage. We have recognized that as men, having a bunch of money or power, doesn’t really benefit us. As long they don’t notice this, they won’t see it. There is the example of this congressman who made a public statement calling for the formation of a men’s group. He didn’t realize we had been around for 3 years. When he said that some women – he made these remarks at a public event – invited him to join our organization. He never showed any interest, he didn’t ask about us, and he never brought up the subject publicly again, never said that men need a space to change. Why? Because these were just words. So we try to be not only words, but also deeds. That is the toughest part for us.