Carlos Salinas Maldonado
4 de marzo 2019
The singer says he is “stuck” artistically because of the “suffering” caused by the crisis in Nicaragua.
The Nicaraguan singer-songwriter lives in Mexico, but he always has Nicaragua in his heart. Photo by Carlos Herrera
Hernaldo Zuniga knows every detail of the horror that has torn Nicaragua apart since April 2018 and knows that during demonstrations against the dictatorship thousands chanted in the streets of Managua “Se van, se van, se van para siempre… Se van, se van, se van ¡a la mierda ya!”, (They’re going, , they’re going to hell forever….), it is his most political composition, that now is seen as prophetic.
This song emerged from the horrors that he himself witnessed throughout his life, from his childhood in Somoza’s Nicaragua, when he saw how a national guard soldier killed a child with a gunshot while the little one was climbing the National Stadium’s fence, in Managua, to watch a baseball game. That day Hernaldo had attended with his father. The scene was never erased from his mind.
But the song is also inspired by the terror inflicted by the dictatorships of Chile and Argentina – countries where he lived – and by the regime of Alberto Fujimori in Peru, a sinister figure who, to Zuniga, inaugurated the non-military dictatorships in Latin America. A string of dictatorships which Ortega is a part of in Nicaragua.
“I do not have an ownership feeling of my work,” he replies when asked what he felt when he saw “Se Van” used as a protest anthem against Ortega. “I’ve always had the feeling that it’s someone else who makes those songs. It sounds a bit demagogic what I’m going to say, but I ask you to give me the license to believe me: I have the feeling that my songs are for those who sing them and they belong to the people.
The ‘there is no more revenge than peace’ – a verse of Se Van–, is one of those findings that when you find them it throws you kisses from the mirror, but at the same time you say: “It’s just that I did not do it, it just came to me, I’m just an instrument.” But yes, I felt the satisfaction of the beautiful utility of a musical work, where there is an identification, that has been used as a flag of the desire for freedom and democracy of a country. Honor the song and for what it can touch me, it honors me, of course. For me it is one of the most accomplished songs in my work. ”
We met on Monday – after agreeing the appointment with his representative, Tulio, from Chile – at Café O in Lomas de Chapultepec, a neighborhood in Mexico City where the most fortunate live, to whom the president of this country, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, calls the fifí, the rich, whom he distrusts as much as they distrust him.
In the entrance garden of the cafe – a spacious and fine place where the waiters are ready at the slightest movement of their customers to come and ask if they need anything – he waits with a cappuccino on the table. He smiles at the apologies for the delay. He agrees that in Mexico – if you’re not used to the dizzying pace of the city – it’s always difficult to calculate the time needed to get to an appointment.
The conversation will last two hours, in which we will talk about his music, the Masaya of his childhood and the crisis in Nicaragua, a country that – he says – hurts him so much that keeps him “stuck” in his artistic production. Nicaragua torments him. Opinions on this country range from pessimism about its history of blood and dead to emotion for its culture and people.
He throws out phrases like “Nicaragua is the anatomy of a failure” or praise full of affection like “Masaya is a kind of Florence in America”, referring to the folklore of that rebellious city, punished by the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega. The dictator, although less, is also present in the talk; Zuniga avoids talking directly about him or at least refuses to issue harsher opinions, like other Nicaraguan intellectuals.
Also present are mothers who lost their children by repression. When mentioning them, Zuniga gets emotional. He will have to compose, he says, the song that is the ode of the rebellion that put Nicaragua back on the front page of the world’s newspapers.
Unlike other Nicaraguan artists, whose musical production is mostly committed to social changes, Zuniga is committed to feelings. And his music sneaks through his veins, sometimes like a rush of adrenaline when he finds love – like when he sings that “finding you was a joy, my map changed” – or a cry that exposes the suffering, the sorrows of A lost love – “and the night comes and again I understand that I need you” -.
Singing towards feelings, the sweet caress of his lyrics, does not distance him, however, from politics. Following the events closely. He has seen the videos of Ortega’s repression. He says he is in favor of the people who legitimately ask for freedom. That is in favor of the disappeared, political prisoners, exiles, the defense of human rights and a negotiated solution to the crisis that bleeds Nicaragua and threatens to throw its fragile economy over the cliff.
How has what has happened in Nicaragua affected you since April?
Very much. Very much. Every dead person has hurt me like a brother of mine. And every wounded and every political prisoner too. It is a mixture of disappointment, frustrations. I have lived it with a very particular intensity. It has caused me many emotional and creative problems, in my work I am very affected. In addition to feeling that one can do little. Once again, life has put me as a witness protagonist of that tragedy, of that complex, complicated crisis. Nicaragua hurts me. Very much. Nicaragua in the background is a pain that has always been there.
What do you think of Daniel Ortega?
I have known him very superficially. I do not have an opinion, because I have not had much access to him. Also, he has never been a person that interested me. Other people who were protagonists of that project (the Sandinista Revolution) seemed much more interesting to me. I understand that Daniel has been a very sagacious politician, who has always operated in the second row of the action, but who since 1979 has been in power. Forty years!
It is more than obvious that I am far away from being a politician with those results. Nicaragua is the anatomy of a failure. It is a social failure, it is a political failure, where Daniel Ortega isn’t the only one responsible. There is a historical co-responsibility so that after so many years we are like this, with a country as rich as ours, with a truly enviable geopolitical situation. It is a country full of virtues, in which the great capital of Nicaragua is Nicaraguans. But I believe that those responsible for the failed project of ours are the same Nicaraguans.
How do you explain that Nicaragua relives the horror for which it has lived through before?
I had never valued the prominence of the name and surname so much as now, when they have access to high politics or power. I saw or read of these characters in politics as anecdotes. There are the opprobrious and famous names, there is Marco Aurelio and there is Somoza or now Ortega, so many people that we can put in that recount of horrors or prodigies that is history. But I have noticed that the name and surname of a person who has the possibility of a change in any country is very important.
Masaya has been one of the cities that has suffered the most repression by Ortega. What did you feel when you saw what happened in the city of your childhood?
For me Masaya is a kind of Florence on our continent, although it sounds like a hyperbole. It is a city that was full of poets, musicians, stuck in popular ecumenical events in which society participates transversally. The Spanish spoken in Masaya is very good, there is a very interesting fluency in the language. And it was also full of exotic characters, crazy people, fantastic vagabonds. It was a very flowery world, very poetic, with a geography that does not exist today, because Masaya was surrounded by forests. My best weekend plan was to go with my gang to make trips to those forests, go down those prehispanic trails to the lagoon to go swimming.
Trails that served to escape repression. There are those who say that many people were murdered there. How did you live this news of the violence against your city?
That is still an open wound. I lived it with a lot of pain, and above all with a lot of anger, of what happened there. There were dead people that I knew, they were my friends, some of those deaths were people that I knew as much in my childhood as in my successive trips. It is very difficult to capture in words the region of feelings. That’s why I’m an artist who composes songs and I overturn a lot of what I feel. When [the rebellion against] Somoza happened, I did not have the human tools I have today. And today this has affected me more than anything else that I remember from my childhood and my adolescence.
You said that this crisis has affected your artistic production.
I’m stuck. I have tried everything. I said to myself: I have to make the song that gathers everything I’m thinking about it. But not only am I stuck because that song does not come out, but because it is a very manipulable subject and that has always made me careful about not writing a superficial song.
I admire very much the people who have done it, like the case of my Cuban colleagues or Carlos Mejia himself, the soundtrack of the Sandinista Revolution and who has given artistic pieces so valuable to the world. I have a lot of modesty about that. Se Van is a song that I composed eight or ten years ago and it ends up anticipating something. Now I look at the text and I cannot believe I did it ten years ago, but it seems urgent. Because I have been inspired by love, which also has a lot of revolutionary, of activism, despite the corny data that has the treatment of love in music or poetry.
What role do you think artists, intellectuals, should play in the face of a crisis like that of Nicaragua? Do you think they should have a political position or be on the sidelines?
Involvement is inevitable. In this case, we are talking about human rights. It seems to me of a brutal impudence that they are still talking about the rights, about Sandinismo, as if wanting it to lead to an ideological conflict. It is unlikely that at this time of our history there are ideological conflicts anywhere.
Here we talk about human rights. Make no mistake, please! You have to be serious about this: we are talking about more than 300 deaths, more than 500 political prisoners, many crippled, wounded, many broken homes at this moment between pain and hatred and rage; a divided country, a fanatical component: there are people who, because of a patronige issue, have been manipulated diabolically, as at the time millions of people in Nazi Germany were manipulated.
History, as Mark Twain says, does not repeat itself, but rhymes. It is the demonization of the other, who does not think like you. There is a human order that appears in certain cycles of history and you have to be very alert against that.
So, when you ask me if an artist or an intellectual has to get involved, I answer that of course he does: he has to be on the side of the people, on the side of ??freedom, on the side of the idea of ??respect, of tolerance, on the side of mothers who have lost their children by a shot in the throat.
When I see these hooded young people, poor people too, shooting a bullet at another poor person, who is unarmed, asking for a change for his/her country with all legitimacy, I cannot help but have an opinion and above all to be on the side of figuring a way out.
How should that exit be?
A negotiated solution that ends the horror of political prisoners, with the horror of political persecution, with the horror of political repression, to prevent journalists from living in exile. And at the same time create the State that Nicaragua deserves, with which it has dreamed and bled throughout its history: A democratic, orderly, clean, well-managed country, in which the huge pockets of poverty and injustice are addressed of a nation of six million people. I would say that this is like the last pain of a great birth.
I wonder if all the contradictions of so many years have exploded so that from now on, Nicaraguans have the country they deserve. It’s time to do politics in Nicaragua, to negotiate, to sit down to dialogue to reach an agreement that allows the country to get out of this hive, in which the same protagonists, the repressors, have already seen themselves in a dead end and know that this cannot last forever. They know it perfectly well. And less in a country that is against the perpetuity of President Ortega’s regime. Because you can fail in everything to a country, but never fail in human rights, because at that moment the mythological anger that devours everything is released.