The International Writers Magazine:Continuing Roger Smiths
essay on Nicaragua
the Big Idea?
Roger Smith on Dr Buitrago and Rubén
Edgardo Buitragos home in León, a bustling university
town of Spanish colonial buildings forty kilometers south of Chinandega,
is elegant and bookish. In the central courtyard is a garden,
lush with broad-leaf native plants, from among which squat statues
peer out, grotesque troll-like figures from folklore.
Under the veranda
is bookcase after bookcase, all stuffed, and through the door to his
office more bookshelves can be seen, as well as portraits of writers
and depictions of Indian lore. The white stucco of the walls scatters
sunlight through the courtyard, softening the mid-day glare so the atmosphere
is intimate and cool, the colors muted, the effect restful: dark wood
furniture, brown tile floors, vibrant greenery. It is the nest of a
scholar. In fact Dr. Buitrago is Nicaraguas most illustrious literary
scholar, an expert on the national poet, Rubén Darío,
who was raised three blocks away.
The secretary seats me in one of four cane rocking chairs around a glass-top
coffee table in one corner of the veranda. With me is Marla, my Spanish
instructor from Escuela Leónese. Upon learning I am a writer
and interested in Rubén Darío, the school arranged the
interview as a surprise for me, a field trip of sorts. Marla is in her
late twenties, a dark, pretty, tidy, reserved woman whose formative
years passed during the Sandinista era. Darío is a passion of
hers, so although she is along to help should my Spanish fail me, she
really wants to hear the great scholar discourse and ask some questions
of her own. She speaks almost no English.
The secretary leads Dr. Buitrago to us from his office, and I am in
for a shock. He is eighty years old, without English, and blind, his
eyes permanently rolled up and fixed to the left as if he is trying
very hard to recall something. After a brief greeting, he asks if I
speak Spanish. The reply disappoints him. He sighs. To break the silence
I read him my first question (which Marla has helped me write): What
is the unifying theme of Rubén Daríos writing?
Dr. Buitrago sighs again and wonders aloud how he can possibly answer
in words simple enough for me. At first he speaks slowly, deliberately,
but that does not last long. Hes dealing with ideas that he has
spent his whole intellectual life with. They animate him. Soon he is
speaking in rapid, oratorical sentences, and the words are not simple.
Marla takes notes. I point my tape recorder at him and strain to follow,
because the answer is of utmost importance to Dr. Buitrago. That much
is unmistakable. To him the question touches upon a precious new entity
in the world, a novel form of culture that Darío labored to bring
to life in Latin America, and Dr. Buitrago, a true disciple, is eager
to nurture. When he gestures, he looks a little like Charlton Heston
parting the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments.
Rubén Darío has been called the first modernist Hispanic
poet. Born in 1867 into the family of a military officer, he had established
a literary reputation by age fifteen, an enfant terrible with a taste
for grand ideas and lush poetry. His was a turbulent life in a turbulent
era for Central American politics, and years of ambassadorships in Argentina
and Spain, separated by long periods of self-exile in Paris, kept him
away from his native land for many years. Nonetheless, his creative
spirit remained there. He outgrew a youthful period during which he
treated local themes with the vocabulary of classical literaturesatyrs
in the rain forest, lost loves à la Ovidand matured his
style and ideas with political poetry. It remained lyrical and spoke
of the reawakening of a latent indigenous power:
Penachos verdes de palmeras. Lejos,
ruda de antigüedad, grave de mito,
la tribu en roca de volcanes viejos,
que, como todo, aguarda su instante de infinito.
from "Intermezzo Tropicale"
(Green plumes of the palm trees. Far off,
Rough with antiquity, solemn with myth,
Stands the stone tribe of old volcanoes
Which, like all else, await their instant of infinity.
translated by Lysander Kemp)
The instant of infinity, if grandiosely phrased, was not just a trope
to Darío. As Dr. Buitrago explains it, Darío believed
that the waiting should be over, that the instant of infinity (read
that as "destiny") was at hand. That is, like the towering
volcano Mombotombo on Lake Managuas north shore, Latin American
culture could erupt to change the landscape at any moment. To state
it baldly, the New World gave the Spanish language and Western culture,
which Darío judged to be stagnant, a unique opportunity. Merged
with the native traditions of the Americas (he included the English-speaking
north; Walt Whitman was among his favorite poets), the rationalism of
the West would enjoy a reviving tonic of intuitiveness, spiritualism,
and natural vigor.
Ancient Nicaragua has its own folk, its own lore, and its own land,
which provide the substance that the grammar of Western culture can
blend in a fresh synthesis: something immediate, emotive, and life-guiding.
As much as he railed in his writings against what he perceived as political
evils and oppression (including the exploitative manipulations of President
Theodore Roosevelt), he did not stray from this basic premise, that
the New World was a chance to outgrow the mistakes of the Old World.
By the time Darío died in León in 1916, he had profoundly
influenced the next generation of literati, including Federico García
Lorca and Pablo Neruda.
His grand ideas did not die with himfar from itbut there
were obstacles that no one could bypass. First of all the Western portion
of the proposed blending involved a white politico-economic elite, many
of whom in fact prided themselves on their descent from the noble classes.
They were more interested in power than synthesis. The indigenous portion
included Indians of many tribes, mestizos, and poor ex-slaves, groups
of diverse and sometimes mutually hostile heritages. Daríos
idealist sentiments accorded with some liberal economic and politic
policies but effected no deep change; the big idea at their core, the
synthesis, was seen largely as intellectual window-dressingbeautiful
and moving and a nationalistic, but still window-dressingwhich
conservatives could admire as readily as liberals.
Dr. Buitrago does not say this in his answers to my questions; in fact,
the claim would offend him. Yet he is no dismissible academic enthusiast.
His thesis about Daríos freshening influence on Spanish
literature is incontestable, for instance, and Darío still has
an iconic place in Nicaraguan culture.
Impressed by Dr. Buitragos vehemence, I hesitate to ask a central
question, but Marla saves me from risking his wrath: She asks it. How
do Daríos ideas influence young people today? The answer
is "superficially," and Dr. Buitrago admits it wearily. Everyone
knows Daríos name, many read his poems and stories, at
least in school, some (like Marla) may even love them enough to memorize
long passages, but few feel the hopeful spirit of a new synthesis that
moved him to write.
That same evening the actual influences on contemporary life show up
in stark contrast to Daríos vision. The American and Nicaraguan
doctors get together for a party at a brand new discotheque, Delictus.
It has an immense floor crowded with café tables, and its center
is a sunken dance area. One end of the building is dominated by a wide
stage that looms over the tables, but when we arrive it is empty. On
the wall next to the stage hangs a large video screen showing trailers
from The Matrix, music videos, and old television clips while music
blares from the PA system. The music is a random mixture of Latin hiphop,
salsa, rock, and pop tunes in Spanish or English, and none of it matches
the video images. As we walk to our table, the screen shows the Beatles
playing on stage for the Ed Sullivan Show in 1963, but it is "Take
My Breath Away" from Top Gun that we hear.
We sit in a wide booth to one side of the main room, which gradually
fills up. At one point in the evening, the music stops, and an announcement
comes over the PA system. It names my wife and her fellow doctors and
describes their work in Chinandega and León hospitals. Throughout
the house, people clap in response, and as the applause dies away, a
mariachi band climbed onto the stage, a special treat for the medical
team. They are dressed in the black outfits of the Mexican vaquero tradition,
with silver studs, fancy cowboy boots, and broad, ornate sombreros,
but the songs they sing are traditional Nicaraguan, including the unofficial
anthem, "Nicaragua, Nicaragüita," which tells of wild
natural beauty of the land and its bloody history. It is an unusual
departure for discothèque, but the patrons join in the spirit
automatically. One bar into each song, and everyone in the audience
is singing along: songs about the distinctive characters of cities in
the area, about the civil war between the Sandinistas and Contras, about
destitute women forced into prostitution, about aspirations and calamities.
The dance floor fills, the evening really gets going. Yet when the mariachis
leave and the PA system resumes its farrago of pop, nobody misses a
Neither the great intellectual tradition of Europe nor the primal lore
and locale of Nicaragua dominates. Instead, it is the global mass-culture,
which here largely arrives by cargo boat or over the airwaves or via
tourist operators from the United States, England, Mexico, and Japan.
And global mass-culture does not offer a place-based ethos; it offers
© Roger Smith Feb 2005
Dr Buitrago and Ruben Dario
Destinations here here
all rights reserved