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“Beloved Enemies”: Race and Official Mestizo Nationalism in Nicaragua

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 October 2022

Juliet Hooker*
The University of Texas, Austin
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This article analyzes the persistence of an official discourse of mestizo nationalism in Nicaragua in spite of the adoption of multicultural citizenship rights for black and indigenous costeños in 1986. These reforms appeared to directly contradict key premises of previously dominant nationalist ideologies, particularly the idea that Nicaragua was a uniformly mestizo nation. Instead of a radical break with the past, however, what we find in contemporary Nicaragua is a continuous process of negotiation and contestation among three variants of official mestizo nationalism: vanguardismo, Sandinismo, and “mestizo multiculturalism” that emerged in the 1930s, 1960s, and 1990s respectively. This article traces the continuities among these disparate but intimately related accounts of national history and identity and the way they all operate to limit the political inclusion of black and indigenous costeños as such.



Este artículo analiza la persistencia de un nacionalismo oficial mestizo en Nicaragua a pesar de la adopción de derechos ciudadanos multiculturales para costeños afro-descendientes e indígenas en 1986. Estas reformas constitucionales aparentan contradecir directamente premisas claves de ideologías nacionalistas previamente dominantes, en particular la idea de Nicaragua como una nación uniformemente mestiza. Pero en vez de una radical ruptura con el pasado, este artículo argumenta que lo que se divisa actualmente en Nicaragua es un proceso constante de negociación y contienda entre tres modalidades del nacionalismo oficial mestizo: el vanguardismo, Sandinismo, y lo que yo llamo “multiculturalismo mestizo” que surgieron en las décadas de 1930, 1960, y 1990 respectivamente. Este artículo traza las continuidades entre estos divergentes pero íntimamente relacionados relatos sobre la identidad e historia nicaragüenses, y la manera en la cual todos funcionan para limitar la plena inclusión política de costeños afro-descendientes e indígenas como tales.

Research Article
Copyright © 2005 by the University of Texas Press


1. I would like to thank four anonymous LARR reviewers, Ken Greene, Wendy Hunter, Raúl Madrid, Kurt Weyland, and especially Edmund T. Gordon and Charles R. Hale for their valuable comments and suggestions. An initial version of this article was presented as part of the Diaspora Talk series of the Center for African and African American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. All translations from texts originally in Spanish are my own.

2. Since then a large number of Latin American countries have enacted similar reforms. According to Donna Lee Van Cott, a “multicultural model” of constitutionalism is emerging in the region composed of five elements: formal recognition of the multicultural nature of national societies and of specific ethnic/racial sub-groups, recognition of indigenous customary law as official public law, collective property rights (especially to land), official status for minority languages in predominantly minority regions, and guarantees of bilingual education. See Van Cott, “Constitutional Reform and Ethnic Rights in Latin America,” Parliamentary Affairs 53 (1):41–54 (2000).

3. See Edmund T. Gordon, Disparate Diasporas: Identity and Politics in an African Nicaraguan Community (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998); Jeffrey Gould, To Die in This Way: Nicaraguan Indians and the Myth of Mestizaje, 1880–1965 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998); and Charles R. Hale, Resistance and Contradiction: Miskitu Indians and the Nicaraguan State, 1894–1987 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994).

4. See Consuelo Sánchez, La conformación étnico-nacional en Nicaragua (México: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 1994) and Miguel González Pérez, Gobiernos pluriétnicos: La constitución de regiones autónomas en Nicaragua. (México: Editorial Plaza y Valdés, & URACCAN, 1997).

5. See Charles R. Hale, “Does Multiculturalism Menace? Governance, Cultural Rights and the Politics of Identity in Guatemala,” Journal of Latin American Studies 34 (3):485–524 (2002).

6. During the colonial era, the central and Atlantic regions of what was to become Nicaragua were not really under Spain's effective control, as Spanish settlers resided mainly on the Pacific Coast. The central region was populated mostly by indigenous groups organized in their own communities with few Spaniards or mestizos, while the Mosquito Coast, which was populated by black and indigenous groups, enjoyed relative autonomy from Spain. The Mosquito, the largest indigenous group in the region, forged an alliance with the British to resist Spain's colonizing efforts, and the British established a protectorate over the “Mosquito Kingdom” in the seventeenth century. In 1860 Nicaragua and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Managua, which recognized Nicaraguan sovereignty over the Mosquito Coast, but also created a Mosquito Reserve, whose inhabitants enjoyed self-government rights. It is partly due to this historical background that costeños have been perceived as potential agents of foreign powers by Nicaraguan elites at the same time that the territory they inhabit has been claimed as an integral part of the nation.

7. See Dora María Téllez, ¡Muera la gobierna!: Colonización en Matagalpa y Jinotega, 1820–1890. (Managua: URACCAN, 1999).

8. I argue elsewhere that the dispute over the Mosquito Coast played a central role in shaping official discourses about the content of Nicaraguan-ness in the post-independence era. See Juliet Hooker, “The Myth of Inclusion: Mestizo Nationalism, Identity Politics, and Citizenship in Nicaragua.” PhD diss., Cornell University, 2001.

9. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 1991), 101.

10. During the era of conservative rule from 1857 to 1893, for example, the Nicaraguan state engaged in classic nation-building activities such as commissioning the creation of an official national anthem, flag, and history textbook that could be taught in schools. See Miguel Angel Herrera, “Nacionalismo e historiografía sobre la guerra del 56: Nicaragua, 1850–1889,” Revista de Historia 2: 27–39 (1992-1993).

11. Pablo Antonio Cuadra, “Un nicaragüense llamado Rubén Darío,” in El nicaragüense, 13th ed. (Managua: Hispamer, 1997), 79; and José Coronel Urtecho, “Oda a Rubén Darío” [1927], reprinted in El Pez y la Serpiente 22–23 (Winter 1978/Summer 1979): 24.

12. Leonel Delgado Aburto, “Textualidades de la nación en el proceso cultural vanguardista,” Revista de Historia 10:19 (1997). Benedict Anderson has famously defined the nation as an “imagined community” because “the members of even the smallest nations will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. It is imagined as a community because ”regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.“ Anderson, Imagined Communities, 6, 7.

13. As a literary movement, vanguardismo was a reaction against Ibero-American modernism, of which Rubén Darío (1867-1916) was the foremost exponent. In the 1920s, vanguard movements, rebelling against what they viewed as the sterile literary context of modernism, arose in Spanish America and Brazil (where they are known as modernists). Nicaragua is the only Central American country where a cohesive vanguard group with collective political and literary goals emerged. The poetry of the Nicaraguan Vanguardia used conversational and colloquial language, free verse, dialogue, and humor. It cultivated new “modern” imagery, including urban and mechanical themes, and utilized innovative linguistic music drawn from popular and traditional sources. See Jorge Eduardo Arellano, Entre la tradición y la modernidad: El movimiento nicaragüense de vanguardia (San José, Costa Rica: Libro Libre, 1992).

14. Arellano, Entre la tradición, 193. Pablo Antonio Cuadra, for instance, edited the literary supplement of La Prensa, La Prensa Literaria from 1954 to 2000, and he and other vanguardistas edited the journals, El pez y la serpiente and Revista conservadora, both founded in 1960. They also taught at the leading universities and were editorial board members of the major academic and literary presses.

15. Take for example Pablo Antonio Cuadra's best-selling essay collection, El nicaragüense, of which thirteen editions have been printed since it was first published in 1968. It is viewed as the definitive account of Nicaraguan-ness, to the point of being repeatedly cited in a section on national identity in a fifth grade civics textbook in use in 2004, which also suggests that the book be brought to class by the teacher for additional reading. See Azucena Armijo de Quintanilla and Auralina Salazar Oviedo, El nuevo ciudadano: Texto de moral, cívica y urbanidad, quinto grado (Managua: Hispamer, 1999), 102–05, 108–09.

16. Between the arrival of the marines in 1912 and their departure in 1925, U.S. officials administered almost all state functions in Nicaragua. The marines returned again in 1927 after civil war erupted between Conservatives and Liberals, and remained until 1933, when they were withdrawn after Sandino's successful guerrilla war. Control of the National Guard (organized in 1927) was given to Nicaraguan officers trained by the United States.

17. It is worth noting, however, that while a positive depiction of racial mixing challenged some of the tenets of scientific racism, national ideologies that advocated mestizaje as a form of “whitening” left intact the basic racist evaluations of European science that non-whites were inferior. See Nancy Leys Stepan, “The Hour of Eugenics”: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991).

18. See Augusto C. Sandino, “Manifiesto [1 de Julio de 1927],” and “Carta a Froylán Turcios [10 de Junio de 1928],” in El Pensamiento vivo, rev. ed., ed. Sergio Ramírez (Managua, Nicaragua: Editorial Nueva Nicaragua, 1984), 117, 270–279.

19. Pablo Antonio Cuadra, “Los hijos de Septiembre,” in El nicaragüense, 15.

20. Idem, “Carta del joven mosquito a su novia [1930],” and “El negro [1930-1933],” collected in Poesía I, ed. Pedro Xavier Solís (Managua: Colección Cultural de Centro América, 2003), 57, 130–132; and Luis Alberto Cabrales, “Canto a los sombríos ancestros [1932],” reprinted in El pez y la serpiente 22/23 (Winter 1978/Summer 1979): 127.

21. Pablo Antonio Cuadra, “El Robinsón,” and “Población y tiempos,” in El nicaragüense, 65–66, 177–178.

22. Carlos Cuadra Pasos, “Los Cuadra: Una hebra en el tejido de la historia de Nicaragua,” in Obras, vol. 1 (Managua: Fondo de Promoción Cultural BANIC, 1976), 53.

23. Idem, “El plebiscito de los pueblos hispanos,” in Obras, vol. 2, 693.

24. Idem, “Los Cuadra,” 52–3.

25. Idem, “El plebiscito de los pueblos hispanos,” 691, 693.

26. José Coronel Urtecho, “Política y literatura [1929],” quoted in Jorge Eduardo Arellano, El movimiento de Vanguardia de Nicaragua (Managua: Imprenta Novedades, 1969), 10.

27. Pablo Antonio Cuadra, “Introducción a la literatura nicaragüense,” in El pez y la serpiente 4 (January 1963), 9.

28. Ibid., 10.

29. See Anne McClintock, “No Longer in a Future Heaven: Gender, Race and Nationalism,” in Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation, & Postcolonial Perspectives, eds. Anne McClintock, Aamir Mufti & Ella Shohat (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 89–112.

30. José Coronel Urtecho, De Gainza a Somoza, Tomo I, Reflexiones sobre la historia de Nicaragua (León: Editorial Hospicio, 1962), 11–13.

31. Urtecho, “Contestación de Coronel Urtecho,” quoted in Arellano Entre la tradición, 110.

32. Urtecho, “La propaganda moscovita,” quoted in Arellano, Entre la tradición, 187.

33. In 1938 three reactionaries ran as candidates of a dissident faction of the Conservative Party, the Partido Conservador Nacionalista, in elections for a Constituent Assembly convened by Somoza and his supporters. The reactionary deputies (including Pablo Antonio Cuadra and Coronel Urtecho) supported constitutional reforms to make Somoza president for life. By 1941, however, Somoza controlled a wing of the Liberal Party and no longer needed the support of the reactionaries. Moreover, their outspoken antidemocratic stance was becoming a liability for him with the United States. In 1940 they were tried for espousing propaganda contrary to the fundamental institutions of the state. When Nicaragua entered World War II in 1941 the expression of fascist ideas was prohibited. By then the reactionaries had outlived their usefulness to Somoza and had ceased political activity. See Knut Walter, The Regime of Anastasio Somoza, 1936–1956 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993), 100.

34. Urtecho, “Tres conferencias a la empresa privada,” quoted in Arellano, Entre la tradición, 152.

35. In fact, the vanguardistas initially portrayed the Sandinista revolution as a continuation of their own cultural and political struggles. In a special 1979 journal issue that was dedicated to the fifty-year anniversary of the vanguardia movement, for instance, Pablo Antonio Cuadra noted that the anniversary “coincided with the triumph of our Sandinista Revolution, liberator of our patria.” See “50 años del movimiento de vanguardia de Nicaragua,” El pez y la serpiente 22/23.

36. The FSLN was founded in 1961 by a collection of Marxist student groups disenchanted with the Nicaraguan Socialist Party. Carlos Fonseca Amador, a founder of the movement who indelibly shaped Sandinismo, believed that for a socialist revolution to be successful it had to be portrayed as arising from national history. The FSLN sought to do this by linking the Marxist cause to Sandino's anti-imperialist struggle in the 1920s and 1930s, but the neo-Sandinismo of the 1960s is quite distinct from Sandino's own ideology. The FSLN's selective reinvention of Sandino, for instance, emphasized his class analysis and downplayed his references to “la raza indo-Hispana.” See Matilde Zimmerman, Sandinista: Carlos Fonseca and the Nicaraguan Revolution (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000).

37. They were the guerra popular prolongada faction, the tendencia proletaria, and the insurrecionalistas or terceristas. Carlos Fonseca, one of the FSLN's founders, initially argued that a socialist revolution would resolve the fundamental antagonism between the bourgeoisie on the one hand, and exploited workers and peasants, on the other hand. But Ricardo Morales Avilés argued that because there were cleavages within both the bourgeoisie and the popular forces, the objective conditions for revolution were not present, and a prolonged people's war was necessary. Jaime Wheelock, in contrast, argued that the strategy of a prolonged people's war in the countryside was irrelevant to the fundamental confrontation between a growing industrial proletariat and the dependent bourgeoisie of the major urban centers. The insurrecionalistas, led by Humberto Ortega, argued that there were contradictions within both the bourgeoisie, and between the bourgeoisie as a class and workers and peasants; the strategy should therefore be to lead a nationwide general insurrection that combined a prolonged people's war in the countryside, guerrilla warfare in the cities, and the mobilization of middle class opposition to Somoza. The differences between the three tendencias were resolved in 1977, when the terceristas gained control of the FSLN.

38. My analysis here follows the work of scholars such as Edmund T. Gordon, Jeffrey Gould, and Charles R. Hale, all of whom established the similarities between Sandinismo and the nationalist discourses that preceded it with respect to the erasure of black and indigenous Nicaraguans as contemporary political agents (see n. 3 above).

39. “Programa histórico del FSLN,” in Humberto Ortega Saavedra, 50 años de lucha Sandinista (Havana, Cuba: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1980), 199.

40. Gordon, Disparate Diasporas, 142–147. Costeños identified with Britain and later the United States, for both historical/cultural and economic/employment reasons. Following the departure of the British, the United States' economic presence in the region became increasingly important, especially in the early twentieth century, with the arrival of lumber and, later, mining and banana companies. Additionally, Moravian missionaries, who during the first half of the twentieth century hailed mainly from the United States, provided many of the basic services (such as education and health) that the Nicaraguan state neglected. See also, Hale, Resistance and Contradiction.

41. Although Wheelock belonged to the tendencia proletaria, the claim that Indians became mestizo peasants during the nineteenth century is shared by Fonseca and other Sandinistas, as is the view that Nicaraguan identity owed more to indigenous antecedents than Spanish heritage.

42. Jaime Wheelock Román, Raíces indígenas de la lucha anticolonialista en Nicaragua (Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1974), 1.

43. Ibid., 2.

44. In Fanon's terms it is the identification of the native with the settler. See Frantz Fanon, “Concerning Violence,” in The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 35–106.

45. Wheelock, Raíces indígenas, 4.

46. Ibid., 51.

47. Ibid., 8–9.

48. A good example of this is Gioconda Belli's work of historical fiction, La mujer habitada (Managua: Editorial Vanguardia, 1988).

49. Daniel Ortega, “La revolución es creatividad, imaginación,” in Hacia una política cultural de la revolución popular Sandinista, Bayardo Arce et al. (Managua: Ministerio de Cultura, 1982), 88.

50. Wheelock, Raíces indígenas, 89, 107. During the struggle for independence Indians allied themselves with the oppressed classes of the colonial system, Wheelock argues, and after it “they continued fighting motivated by then by an instinctive class consciousness, making common cause with the advanced sectors of society whenever these confronted the fundamentally exploitative classes,” 89.

51. Hale, Resistance and Contradiction, 89–94; Gould, To Die in This Way, 273–79.

52. Carlos Fonseca Amador, “Viva Sandino,” in Obras, vol. 2, Viva Sandino, ed. Instituto de Estudios del Sandinismo (Managua, Nicaragua: Editorial Nueva Nicaragua, 1985), 34.

53. Wheelock, 89.

54. Ibid., 113.

55. Six distinct ethno-racial groups inhabit the Atlantic Coast today: the Miskitu, Mayagna (or Sumo), Rama, Creoles, Garifuna, and mestizos. The Miskitu, Mayagna, and Rama are indigenous peoples, while Creoles and Garifuna are of African descent.

56. This article is primarily about mestizo self-making practices. I do not discuss costeño attempts to contest mestizo discourses in detail here. While this is certainly an important topic, I focus on mestizo discourses because they by and large determine the way that national actors interpret costeño struggles for rights.

57. Despite its name MISURASATA's ability to represent the interests of all costeños was debatable, as it was an almost exclusively Miskitu organization.

58. When MISURASATA was dissolved in 1981, two indigenous armed organizations were formed. One, MISURA, was openly allied with the United States-financed contras, the other, which kept the name MISURASATA, took a more moderate position. MISURA developed a much more clearly anticommunist stance than MISURASATA, and accused the Sandinistas of being undemocratic.

59. Manuel Ortega Hegg, interview by the author, Managua, Nicaragua, 13 January 1999.

60. Constitución política de Nicaragua (Managua: Editorial el Amanecer, 1987), 30, 56–57.

61. The land demarcation law is an excellent case in point. It was only approved by the National Assembly in 2003, sixteen years after costeño communal land rights were recognized in the constitution, in order to comply with a 2001 ruling by the Inter-American Human Rights Court against the Nicaraguan state in a case brought by the Mayagna community of Awas Tingni. The court ruled in favor of Awas Tingni, requiring that the government demarcate and title the communal lands of all costeño communities making land claims.

62. Asamblea Nacional, Sesión Constituyente, Diario de Debates 2, no. 3 (1986), 9.

63. Ibid., 365.

64. Ibid., 371.

65. Ibid., 368.

66. Asamblea Nacional, Sesión Constituyente, Diario de Debates 6, no. 7 (1986), 55.

67. Ibid., 60.

68. Ibid., 719.

69. Ibid., 64.

70. Ibid., 64–65.

71. Ibid., 67–69.

72. Ibid., 70.

73. Asamblea Nacional, Sesión Constituyente, Diario de Debates 2, no. 3, 376–77.

74. See for example, the editorial “Democracia y autonomías,” in La Prensa, 30 de Octubre del 2003.