EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a three-part series about the 20-year Norwalk-Nagarote Sister City Project, founded and run by Fairfield County residents. Staff Photographer Kathleen O’Rourke and Staff Writer Alexandra Fenwick recently spent seven days in Nagarote, Nicaragua to observe life in one of the poorest communities in one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere. A translator assisted them.
By Alexandra Fenwick
NAGAROTE, Nicaragua – Five years ago, Barrio Jeronimo Lopez was considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Nagarote.
Streets were covered in litter and teenage gang members loitered on corners.
Now, the litter is gone and so are the gangs. It was the gangs that helped pick it up.
The metamorphosis started in 2001, when volunteers from Darien United Methodist Church visited Jeronimo Lopez and erected a small outdoor classroom building on the property of a playground and preschool previously built by the Norwalk-Nagarote Sister City Project.
“When they were doing that, some boys in the neighborhood asked to help. These were real toughs and gang members, but they wanted to help and they did a good job,” said sister city project Co-President Tish Gibbs. “This was an example that these kids just needed something to do and that’s what gave us the idea for the Youth Project.”
The after-school Youth Project supplements the short, three-hour school day in Nicaragua that leaves many students with too much time on their hands. By popular demand, the program offers classes in English, computers, dressmaking, tailoring, baking, painting, photography, hairstyling and sports. It also provides health workshops and gives students an opportunity to do community service, often in their own back yard.
“There used to be a group of kids in this barrio just hanging out, not doing anything,” said Virginia Castillo, an original member of the Sister City Project’s Directiva, or board of directors, in Nagarote. “Because of the Youth Project these kids see another path. Before, they were really rebellious, but now they’re coming around.”
The Silva Guido family, who live across from the Youth Project property in Barrio Jeronimo Lopez, has witnessed the transformation firsthand.
Each member of the household is involved with the Youth Project.
Francisco Silva works as the caretaker and night watchman of the property. His wife Maria Guido, a former dressmaking student at the Youth Project, now teaches the class.
Their eldest son, Evaristo, 14, takes computer, photography and painting classes and is hoping to join the group’s popular soccer team. And though their younger son, Javier, 9, is too young to sign up for classes, he can often be found in the safe haven of the playground across the street.
One of the next steps for the Sister City Project, which primarily serves teens and pre-schoolers, is to add a Youth Project for elementary school students like Javier.
“Economically, it’s been very good for us and good for the kids because they’re learning a trade,” Francisco said.
From his vantage point as a neighbor of the Youth Project, Silva, 32, said he has seen a great change in the neighborhood over the years.
“The sad thing is before the project, kids were smoking marijuana and drinking. Now a lot of them work or take classes here,” Silva said. “It has made this place a much safer place.”
The Youth Project celebrates its fifth anniversary in October and an impact study performed in July 2006 found that 75 percent of households in the barrio had participated in a Norwalk-Nagarote Sister City Project program through the Youth Project and that 15 percent of households have found employment because of their participation.
The Sister City Project is in the middle of a search for a new office large enough to house all of its classes, which they hope to expand into other barrios.
The history of Barrio Jeronimo Lopez doesn’t go back much further than the history of the Norwalk-Nagarote Sister City Project.
The barrio was established about 25 years ago when flooding forced people inland from nearby Lake Managua, Castillo said.
“There was lots of poverty in the streets and people needed a place to stay. They were living in plastic shelters,” she said.
The barrio, named after a neighborhood youth who was killed in the Contra war, kept growing.
“As the economy fell apart, people in the farming areas couldn’t make a living and would move closer to Nagarote to find work, which most didn’t,” Gibbs said. “They threw up shacks with whatever they could get their hands on.”
They built those shacks on land donated by Nagarote native Miguel Lopez, who is not related to Jeronimo. His mother took care of the land while he lived and worked in Managua but after she died, he left the land to the people.
Of about 200 households in Jeronimo Lopez today, 25 percent are headed by single mothers.
The barrio’s residents are very young, reflecting the skewed median age of Nicaragua’s general population, decimated by several generations of civil war. Sixty percent are under 20 years old and 40 percent are 10 to 20 years old, which is the Youth Project’s target age range.
Silva described his duties while giving a tour of the property recently.
“At night, I make sure there are no drunks. Also, the kids from the barrio try to hit birds with slingshots and sometimes the rocks damage the property,” he said.
He then unlocked the storage room of the outdoor classroom and gestured toward a cluster of old Singer sewing machines with foot pedals.
“This is what I really have to take care of to make sure nobody breaks or steals,” he said.
They are the same machines that helped give his family a steady income and that his wife uses to teach her students in three classes each week
Her goal is to create a successful dressmaking collective. When she is not teaching, she makes clothing on commission. Recently, she showed off detailed hand-embroidery work on a blue skirt she made for one customer’s high school graduation.
Guido, also 32, said she was always optimistic the project would succeed in improving the neighborhood.
“There were never any doubts it would succeed,” she said. “We always trusted Norwalk.”
Jeronimo Lopez is not quite a sea of calm, but the Youth Project has given it an anchor.
“It’s still reasonably dangerous because some of the adults are drug dealers but for the kids and their families it’s a godsend, because I think most of them would be in trouble with the law by adulthood,” Gibbs said. “It’s a very difficult life . . ., but they’ve learned to cope and they’re a lot less unhappy than some of the kids who consider themselves poor ” in the greater Norwalk area.
Evaristo, a scholarship student, goes to school every day despite the taunts of some boys who don’t. Sometimes they urge him and his friends to “skip class” and “get out of school,” he said.
“I just ignore them,” Evaristo said.
As a Youth Project member, he signed a contract pledging not to use drugs, alcohol or join a gang.
So far, 150 current and former students have stayed true to that pledge, Gibbs said.
“The project in Jeronimo Lopez was a huge change. There aren’t any more delinquents there,” she said.
Gibbs hopes to start an entrepreneurship class at the Youth Project and is seeking the help of business experts.
Sister City Project members have sparked business growth in Nagarote through lending company SosteNica, which has loaned $189,730 to 72 individuals running established businesses, including a bakery, upholstery shop and a backpack-making company that hired 15 new workers thanks to the loan. The micro lender has since opened an office in Nagarote.
The currency exchange rate – one American dollar is equivalent to about 18 cordobas in Nicaragua – is a large reason why the Youth Project is able to exist, Gibbs said.
“That kind of money is what creates jobs and we’re hoping to create jobs for our students,” Gibbs said.
Day 2 continued
Snapshot of a dedicated worker: Byron Robleto, 17
By Alexandra Fenwick
NAGAROTE, Nicaragua – Byron Robleto wakes up every day at 5 a.m., unfastens the barbed wire fence across the dirt lane from his home and walks a short distance to the brickyard where he works five days a week.
Byron, 17, has been helping there since he was 10. Now, he works there full time to support his mother, stepfather and three brothers. His father left when he was an infant.
To make a batch of bricks, Byron helps mix clay by treading it with his feet. The bricks are formed in molds and left to dry. To bake the bricks, Byron must clean the ashes and residue left in the fire pit. He then loads the deep hole with wood. When the fires are lit, the heat rises into the humid Nicaraguan air.
One brick sells for two cordobas, or about 11 cents.
“It’s definitely hard work, especially for a young teen,” said Virginia Castillo, a founding member of the Norwalk-Nagarote Sister City Project’s Directiva, or board of directors, in Nagarote.
Castillo said she found it difficult to watch Byron perform his backbreaking work.
“He’s practically a child, and he’s been working here a long time,” she said.
Many children in Nicaragua don’t attend school.
“When the parents can’t provide or give an education, he has no choice but to work,” Castillo said. “A lot of the young children start working, see money and put education to the side – sometimes forever.”
But Byron seems to balance the two. He is a scholarship student of the sister city project and spends his free time dedicated to the Youth Project, where he helps teach photography.
On a recent day, Byron showed up to volunteer for a Youth Project tree-planting event after a grueling shift at the brickyard.
With dark circles under his eyes, he helped organize different types of shade and fruit trees for residents of Nagarote’s Jairo Perez barrio to plant in their yards. The trees will provide shade, food and even a small income if they sell the fruit.
“Even though I’m tired, I still wanted to come because I’m dedicated to it,” Byron said. “The energy – I have no idea where I get it from – but I always have the motivation.”
Not long ago, Byron was forced to leave school to work full time.
“There was not enough money to pay for school. He couldn’t afford exams,” Castillo said. “He was depressed and left school completely.”
With the sister city project’s help, Byron is back in school with a scholarship. He works during the week and takes classes Saturdays.
“Byron was not lacking motivation. He’s always wanting to move forward. There’s a lack of money,” Castillo said. “Now that he has the scholarship money, he does both. He always goes to work and always goes to school.”
His future would be different without the classes – even for just one day a week, Byron said.
It might look something like the life of Byron’s boss and neighbor, Ramon Rose, 56, who has been making bricks for 20 years, while his wife, Leticia Maria, 38, works alongside him.
During one of the photography classes he teaches every other week, Byron presented a lesson on Lewis Hine, an American photographer who exposed child labor violations in mines, textile factories, glassworks and canning factories near the turn of the 19th century.
“In this picture, at this time, the children were basically garbage,” Byron said, showing a slide of a small girl in a mill. “When the women would take a break, the children would have to crawl inside the loom to clean it and sometimes get hurt or get their fingers chopped off.”
He then gave his class their assignment.
“Today, I hope all of these pictures get you to realize how bad it was and still is. And I want you to go out there and take pictures of kids who work in the sweatshops here.”
Byron said he admires Hine’s photographs and what he accomplished with them. In 1916, Congress passed legislation that restricted the employment of children under 14, due in part to Hine’s public campaign against child labor.
“I picked this photographer because there are no child labor laws in Nicaragua,” Byron said. “Everyone uses children because they have a lot of energy and you can pay them less. It angers me a lot because children are exploited and nobody cares.”
The photography class was established nearly two years ago when professional photographer Ronnie Maher traveled from her home in Norwalk to Nagarote with five digital cameras and a printer.
Since then, students have exchanged work with Maher’s photo class at Walter C. Briggs High School in Norwalk. They also have been hired to photograph official city events and ceremonies, create portraits of the sister city project’s scholarship students and document its tree project. The sister city project has even created a Web site where the Nicaraguan photography students sell black-and-white prints of their work.
A group of the photo students, including Byron, also has created a cooperative that sells artistic impressions of the tree project’s leaves burned onto fabric using cyanotype, one of the earliest photographic processes.
Byron said he loves photography for its ability to say what words cannot.
“A good photo is one that captures a moment,” he said. “I think it’s the only way people can express all their thoughts and ideas without words.”
The sister city project is searching for a headquarters large enough to house all of its classes, where Maher thinks Byron could someday teach.
“You can teach most people to photograph, but he has a natural ability, a good eye,” Maher said. “There’s a certain depth of spirit to Byron. He sees things differently than other people do and is able to articulate that.”
For now, Byron makes about 19 dollars a week at his brickyard job. A fair wage, he said, would be double that, but he has no choice in the matter.
The real damage of child labor isn’t the strain it takes on the body, but the toll it takes on a child’s spirit, Byron said.
“They grow up very quickly and don’t have a chance to be young and enjoy things that all children do,” he said.
Byron’s tired eyes and stoic demeanor give him the air of an adult. Even when he’s not carrying the 5-pound bricks he lugs all day, there is a visible weight in his shoulders.
Still, Byron holds onto three dreams.
“I would love to be a doctor, to help my family and my friends and other people. I would like that, but unfortunately, I don’t think that will happen,” he said. “Another dream is to be a great professional soccer player. I’ve had the chance to pursue this but, because of work, I have not been able to make my dream come true.”
His third dream is to help his mother maintain her home.
“Helping my family is my drive,” he said. “In the short term, it is difficult to say everything will be all right — but in the long term it will be good.”