Written By Paul C. Kelly Campos / Pictures by Shaylyn Martos
A blue-clad dancer gently steps into the center circle, displaying the regal skirts of her traditional Nicaraguan dress. The dancer delicately folds and unfolds the sunshine laden hems of her dress as a group of equally resplendent dancers waits for their own time to enter.
This dance event, titled “For Us By Us,” was the first public event held by the non-profit Chavalos de Aquí y Allá since the onset of the pandemic. The Nicaraguan cultural group Danzas Por Nicaragua, the cultural dance branch of Chavalos, and the Mission Meals coalition held the event at Hummingbird Farm in the Excelsior District.
Joshua Bermudez, Secretary of Chavalos, who addressed the crowd and introduced the event, touched on the subject of their collaboration with Mission Meals.
“Siempre estamos comunicando el hecho de estar presente en la cultura Nicaragüense y también estamos tratando que a través de nuestras presentaciones concientizar a las personas el importancia también de cuidarnos y mantener la distancia y que como comunidad podemos, pues juntos, afrontar todo las situaciones sociales en que estamos viviendo en el momento,” Bermudez dijo. “Tal es el caso con la alianza con Mission Meals, verdad, para que las personas tengan un poquito más de consciencia de lo que está pasando en la comunidad y cómo podemos ayudar.”
“We are always communicating our presence in Nicaraguan culture and we are also trying, through our presentations, to make people conscious of the importance of taking care of themselves and keeping our distance and that as a community we can, together, face all social situations we are living in, ” Bermudez said. “Such is the case with the alliance with Mission Meals, right, so that people have a little more awareness of what is happening in the community and how we can help.”
A group of Bay Area organizers founded the mutual aid Mission Meals Coalition in the midst of the pandemic; their goal is to, according to their website, “ensure that community members have access to food no matter their zip code, housing, or immigration status during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Gabriela Ramírez founded the group with her two daughters Gabriela and Xiomara Alemán along with family friend María Castro Noboa in March 2020. Their work helps those in the San Francisco Bay Area and they also conduct a monthly distribution of food to farm workers in Napa County.
Co-founder Gabriela Alemán, who is of Salvadoran and Nicaraguan descent, doubles as Chavalos’ Community Engagement and Resources Manager as well as being a dancer and described the close relationship between the two organizations — such as Chavalos becoming the fiscal sponsor of Mission Meals a few months into their work and the people of Chavalos helping with food distributions.
“Since my sister [Xiomara Alemán], one of the co-founders, is also half Nicaraguan and half Salvadoran, it was really important to us to be anchored with a Central American group,” Gabriela Alemán said. “A large demographic of our folks are Nicaraguan and Central American, and so that’s kind of how we solidified a stronger foundation together. But Chavalos has been integral before we were fiscally sponsored and now.”
After the performance, as winds began to chill the warm and sunny day, Mission Meals distributed several boxes of Nacatamales and 60 packs with Café Presto instant coffee, Rosquillas (shortbread cookies with unrefined cane sugar) and powdered Cacao, free for all those in attendance.
According to Chavalos Vice President and board member Maritza Arguello, Mission Meals is a sister organization. As Arguello wrapped and prepared nacatamales and packs with Alemán she described the transnational efforts of Chavalos in Nicaragua to provide aid for those affected by hurricanes ETA and Iota in November 2020.
“Yo tengo muy poco de residir en los Estado Unidos y yo trabajaba con ellos [Chavalos] desde Nicaragua. Y entonces cuando viene acá lo que siguió fue trabajando con ellos,” Arguello dijo. “Entonces tengo las dos perspectivas, del trabajo que hacen en Nicaragua y el trabajo que están haciendo aquí en los Estado Unidos.”
“I have not resided in the United States for too long and so I worked with them [Chavalos] from Nicaragua. And then when I came here, what came next was to keep working with them,” Arguello said. “So I have two perspectives, of the work that they do in Nicaragua and the work they are doing here in the United States.”
Since the pandemic’s onset and the two back-to-back hurricanes that hit the Atlantic coast of the country, Chavalos works in Nicaragua in collaboration with other in-country groups like AMICA, Asociación de Mujeres Indígenas de la Costa Atlántica (Indigenous Women Association of the Atlantic Coast). Some of the campaigns, according to Arguello, include “Aliento para Nicaragua” and the “Hurricane ETA and Iota Relief Fund,” the latter in collaboration with AMICA.
The Afro-Indigenous Garífuna population on the Atlantic coast were hit especially hard by the two hurricanes. This being one of the chief reasons Chavalos chose to include the Walagallo — a Garífuna dance from the often overlooked Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua. According to the Revista Envío article “Walagallo: corazón del mundo Garífuna,” the Afro-Indigenous Garífuna population on the Atlantic coast performs the Walagallo as religious ceremonial dance during times of illness. It states “in this ritual experience, the Garífuna show that the intercession of the ancestors and the alliance with God are the keys to face the enigma of disease that can lead to death.” According to Bermudez, Chavalos Secretary, the choice to incorporate this dance was of a dual purpose; to bring awareness to the effects of the pandemic on the Latinx community and to uplift the culture of the Nicaraguan Garífunas.
“Siempre ha sido como la parte más olvida de Nicaragua, por lo gobierno inclusive a la comunidad [general],” Bermudez dijo. “Creo que aquí vinimos a unir dos cosas: el tratar de resaltar esa cultura que es Nicaragüense también, son parte nuestra, y al mismo tiempo específicamente con el Walagallo pues es una manera también de nosotros pedir sanidad al Dios supremo por todo de que estamos viviendo. Entonces creo que era una pieza apropiada para iniciar nuestros eventos culturales.”
“[The Atlantic Coast] has always been the most forgotten part of Nicaragua, in part because of the government and the [general] community,” Bermudez said. “I believe we came here today to achieve two things: to highlight their culture, which is Nicaraguan as they are a part of us, and at the same time, specifically with the Walagallo, it is a way for us to ask God the supreme for healing for all. So I think it was an appropriate piece to start our cultural events.”
Chavalos Treasurer and Cultural Manager, Maria Auxiliadora Ruiz Hernandez, stated the group hopes to hold similar events in the coming future, if COVID-19 restrictions continue to loosen. According to Auxiliadora Ruiz Hernandez, the group also hopes to continue hosting events in collaboration with other local organizations from the Latinx community as well as “cualquier otra comunidad que nos quiera unir” (“with any other group that wishes to unite”).And to continue expanding the field of their work beyond the SF Bay Area to other states and places where Nicaraguan culture is not as well known.
“Lo expone a algo nuevo, algo diferente, algo adonde que le da conocimiento de parte de su cultura o otras culturas, porque tenemos niños que no son Nicaragüenses, y eso lo abra su mente un poco más,” Auxiliadora Ruiz Hernandez dijo. “Eso le abre a la comunidad un espacio donde ellos pueden ser activos físicamente y mentalmente, aprendiendo nuevas cosas, nuevos bailes, nuevas culturas, nuevas ideologías también y que todos podemos coexistir…eso creo es importante en la comunidad latina.”
“It exposes young people to something new, something different, something that gives them knowledge about their culture or other cultures, because we have children who are not Nicaraguan, and that opens the mind up a little more,” Auxiliadora Ruiz Hernandez said. “It opens up a space for the community where they can be physically and mentally active, learning new things, new dances, new cultures, new ideologies as well and as teaching them that we can all coexist … I think that is important in the Latina community.”
Chavalos Danzas Por Nicaragua Artistic director and choreographer, Diana Aburto Vega, spoke in a similar vein after the event’s conclusion. She stated she felt glad the group was able to hold the event successfully and in the Excelsior district, which she described as being “the last neighborhood” of San Francisco. She also noted that the effort of several months of practice, support and preparation is finished in a 30 minute dance presentation—with feelings of cathartic release and pride following its successful completion. Aburto Vega also touched on the significance of performing the Walagallo in the midst of a pandemic.
“Nosotros quisimos, por supuesto con mucho respeto y con mucha investigación de por medio… representar lo que este ritual significa,” Aburto Vega dijo. “Queremos mostrar de que nosotros, como comunidad en tiempos de pandemia, nos ayudamos a nosotros mismos. ‘Por nosotros, para nosotros.’ Y es parte de la razón por la cual nosotros decidimos llamar el evento ‘For Us By Us,’ porque sentimos y sabemos de que es por medio de la comunidad que nosotros nos salvamos a nosotros mismos…Entonces todo va de la mano, todo va de alguna manera ligado y pues es el pueblo salva al pueblo.”
“We wanted, with a lot of respect and with a lot of research… to represent what this ritual dance means,” Aburto Vega said. “We wantedto show that we, as a community in the midst of a pandemic, can help ourselves. ‘Por nosotros, para nosotros.’ And that’s part of the reason why we decided to call the event ‘For Us By Us,’ because we feel that it is through the community that we can save ourselves. Everything goes hand in hand, everything is somehow linked and, well, the people save the people.”
Erik Leiva, the Executive Director of Chavalos de Aquí y Allá, said he was especially pleased that they were able to highlight Mission Meals and the work they have been doing throughout the pandemic.
“That’s the way that Chavalos was able to give back to the community and help other organizations that were helping directly those affected by COVID,” Leiva said, “The chance presented itself, through the city, to be able to present our folklore. And so we wanted to highlight what our community partners are doing as well as have the group perform live for people in a safe and outside manner, and we couldn’t have picked a better day for weather.”