This article is the second part in a series of articles titled Nicaragua Proud. To read Part I, click here.
Nicaraguans’ demonstrated against the Ortega/Murillo regime on 18 April 2018. Immediately after the demonstrations began, the government violently repressed those demonstrations by pitting their people against paramilitary and national police. As a result, many Nicaraguans had to flee their country in exile. The Organization of American States reported in Late 2019 that up to 70,000 Nicaraguans are now in exile as a result of the government’s violent repression. As Ebén Díaz told us in Nicaragua Proud Part I, up to thousands of those in exile are LGBT+. As was also shown in Part I, many LGBT+ demonstrators have been targeted not only for their political protest, but also for their sexuality and LGBT+ identity.
On June 25, Latina Republic had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Eli (pron. Eh-LEE) Narvaez. Eli is 28 years old, Nicaraguan, and identifies with the LGBT+ community. He has and continues to be a social activist not only in Nicaragua but also in San José, Costa Rica, where he currently lives. Eli has been in exile from Nicaragua for almost two years now.
Eli was born and raised in Diriamba, Carazo, Nicaragua. Diriamba lies approximately 3 kilometers (2 miles) west of Carazo’s capital at Jinotepe, and about halfway between the national capital at Managua and the western Pacific coast.
Diriamba is known as the birthplace of football in the country, of horse raising and racing, and of El Güegüense also known as Macho Ratón, a satirical drama dating back to colonial Nicaragua. The drama was added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritages in 2005.
“It’s a city that I love a lot,” Eli says about her hometown of Diriamba.
Eli is a hard worker. He is an architect by trade and worked as an interior designer in Nicaragua. He also ran an event plan and design business as well as a clothes store. “In Nicaragua I had economic and emotional stability. I was with my family and friends,” he said.
In talking about his sexual identity, Eli said that being gay was something he knew about since he could reason. “In the story of my life, there isn’t a before and after,” in reference to his sexual identity. It was with him since birth, and as he puts it, “El gay nace, y no se hace.” “I didn’t have to sit down and have the talk with my family,” Eli said. He said that his family knew and accepted him for who he was and raised him to have strong self-esteem.
Nonetheless, Eli said that, “It’s hard being young in Nicaragua, much more being gay in a culture that is machista, strict, and critical of what it deems to be ‘abnormal.’” Aside from teasing and questioning about Eli being “strange,” he did not suffer much homophobia in his life. All in all, Eli describes himself as sociable and positive, believing in the values of love, respect, and compassion.
Eli’s life came to a halt, however, when nationwide protests against the Ortega/Murillo government began on April 18, 2018. What began as protests by youth turned deadly when the government began to violently repress the demonstrations.
On day one, Eli decided to fight: “I can’t look at injustice and be indifferent. I didn’t think about the consequences, about what I would lose… I only thought about what I would defend and win. I decided to fight”
“I’m a natural leader.” says Eli. Before the social outburst occurred in April, Eli had already devoted his time to being a social activist and devoted community member. For example, when a severe flooding left many areas of their home department of Carazo devastated, Eli, friends, and family dropped everything and went to help affected areas in any way they could. Eli’s initiative in helping his fellow Nicaraguans after flooding shows that, when the social outburst occurred in April, the feeling of needing to help others was already present. In fact, on day one of the social outburst Eli and company began to get involved in protests. A feeling of commitment to the welfare of the community and a need to act on that feeling spread throughout the country and reached any and everybody fighting against injustice.
Tranques, or human-made roadblocks, were raised all across the country. They were lifted not only as a form of protest against the government, but also as a form of protection against the government’s violent repression of citizen protest at the hands of paramilitary and police.
Tranques presented a problem, however: Their establishment left many innocent truck drivers stranded on Nicaraguan highways for days, weeks, and even months. In response, Eli and Company fed truck drivers. As days went on, truck drivers’ needs increased and the Nicaraguan community responded by offering them a place to sleep, shower, and relieve oneself.
Eli’s activism took a turn in the early hours of 8 July 2018 when President Ortega, his wife and Vice President Murillo, and their government initiated Operación Limpieza en Carazo, Operation Cleanup in Carazo. Despacho 505, a Nicaraguan news site, described the Operation as follows: “A contingent of at least 2,000 armed men broke into Jinotepe, Diriamba and Dolores in the early hours of July 8, 2018 to execute “Operation Cleanup” with a license to kill. They carried PKM, RPG-7 weapons and even grenades. They cut the telephone signal and they took over the hospitals.” One of the main goals of paramilitary and national police was to “clean up” the tranques. The fact that they had license to kill, however, shows that the Ortega/Murillo regime would stop at nothing to silence the valid grievances that the Nicaraguan people had towards the regime.
Soon after Operation Cleanup began, Eli and company immediately mobilized. Eli described that one of their main goals was to find a place to safely house and treat the wounded. Since hospitals were inaccessible, Eli and company began looking to churches to house a medical base, as he reasoned that an important religious site would be untouchable by the paramilitary and police. One medical base was ultimately established at the Basilica of Saint Sebastian, pictured above.
Throughout the day, many Diriambans were helpful. People went on runs to pharmacies, whose employees supported the cause by sending supplies in advance and as needed. Doctors volunteered their services. Local Diriambans found refuge and solidarity inside the Basilica.
The day passed, and Eli and his friends and family knew they couldn’t stay in Diriamba for long. In the early morning hours of the day after Operación Limpieza began, Eli fled the city via car.
Eli stayed with some people who housed him until July 25, when he was reunited for the last time with family and friends before he would cross the Nicaragua/Costa Rica border with friends into San José.
Eli has now lived in San José, Costa Rica for the past two years. Eli represents one of the thousands of LGBT+ folk who have been forced into exile from their home country of Nicaragua. Despite the serious circumstances for their exile, LGBT+ Nicaraguans continue to fight for themselves and for others.
Since being in Nicaragua, Eli has been in charge of the nonprofit organization Tranqueritos en el Exilio.
According to their FaceBook page, “We are a group of people who have joined in this social work for Nicaraguan children refuged in Costa Rica. Our main objective is rooted in education, health, and social welfare hand in hand with God’s relationship with everyone.”
When Eli is not continuing his social justice work with Tranqueritos en el Exilio, he works at a call center. Eli says that he finds it hard to manage his activism because he has to worry about sustaining himself financially. Nonetheless, Eli reinforces the idea that part of his vocation is to be an activist. Eli maintains contact with his friends and family. Additionally, Eli finds community in San José with other LGBT+ Costa Ricans and Nicaraguans.
Finding balance in life is difficult. Eli had to find that balance in the midst of serious societal and political threats. Despite the hardship, Eli has found a balance between work, community, and activism in San José. When asked for final thoughts, Eli said, “I want to send a hug to all Nicaraguans in the world who have been forced into displacement. Don’t lose hope and have faith that everything will be better. Soon enough we will see the sun shine. I dream of a just, democratic, equal Nicaragua full of love and tolerance for all human beings. I think of all those young students whose lives were put on pause, and those families who have been separated. I dream for a Nicaragua that is Blue and White without splotches of blood.” In an effort to record his story, Eli is currently working on a book and is trying to earn money for a laptop to bring his story to life.
As the Nicaragua Proud series comes to a close, I want to thank everyone who was involved and help this series come to fruition. I know that for both of my interviewees, it is of utmost importance to them that I and other United Statians alike are aware of what’s happening in the world. We should continue to fight for everyone’s right to exist in a space where they can thrive and to resist when those rights are being taken from them.
Alfredo Eladio Moreno | Pomona College
Alfredo is a second year student at Pomona College studying Latin American Studies. Although he has a profound background in medicine and chemistry, Alfredo hopes to nurture his knowledge of Latin America and the Caribbean, and possibly mix both disciplines. He seeks to combine his passion for history and advocacy by drawing on his natural talents of storytelling and helping people realize their full potential. As a Latin American Correspondent, Alfredo is not only excited to write compelling narratives and forge long-lasting friendships, but also inspired to create actionable change through non-profit work.