Historical Museum of Southern Florida

Folklife of Miami’s Nicaraguan Communities

By Katherine Borland

The Nicaraguan community in Miami is comprised of three distinct culture groups: the Creole peoples of the southern Atlantic coast, the Miskito population of the Rio Coco and Puerto Cabezas area, and the Mestizos of the Pacific Coast. These communities do not have much contact across cultural lines. No overall Nicaraguan cultural organization unites them, and, though they share some foodways, their cultural heritages are quite distinct.

The Creole population is perhaps the oldest Nicaraguan population in Miami. Most are professionals—nurses, teachers, accountants—and many came to study in the United States as early as the 1950s. Others have worked on ships that have taken them around the world. Like other Caribbean rim populations, they are a mixed race people. Their sense of independence and separateness from the Pacific coast Nicaraguans is well described in A. Sambola (1984).

English-speaking Creoles find it relatively easy to adjust to North American culture, as historically, American influence through trade and missionary work has been long standing. Institutions like baseball, Boy Scouts and Girl Guides constituted an established part of Atlantic Coast town life by the 1930s.

In Miami, the population is concentrated around the Moravian Prince of Peace Church in Carol City, and scattered through the Jamaican and Spanish Nicaraguan neighborhoods of the west and southwest. For churchgoers, the Moravian church provides a strong unifying influence. Non-churchgoers gather to drink and socialize at the ball fields around the Carol City neighborhood on Sundays. Yet, Bluefieldians, regardless of their religion, know each other and keep in touch in Miami.

The Miskito population is estimated to be from 3,000 to 5,000. Some are professionals, but most have found work as janitors, cleaning women and guards in Miami hotels. Miskito families are concentrated in particular apartment complexes throughout Miami Beach and Miami Shores. Although an indigenous people of Nicaragua, they are typically of mixed blood and quite westernized in their living habits. Many of their traditional cultural practices were supplanted decades ago by Moravian and other missionary church traditions. As Mary Helms points out (1971), ever since their first contact with Europeans, Miskitos have engaged with cultural outsiders, trading their labor for foreign goods or wages in a variety of commercial ventures. Their most binding cultural traits are a common language and the Moravian religion.

While Miskito people expressed no strong political views, they are generally bitter about the Sandinista and Somoza “Spanish” exploitation and destruction of their Atlantic Coast communities. The Contra War severely affected the Miskito community and forms an important reference for many of the young men who fought in it. Jorge Jenkins Molieri (1986) gives an excellent history from the Sandinista point of view of the “Spanish” and other foreign incursions in the life of Miskito communities.

Enerio Danny tells an unfortunately typical story. In the late 1970s he worked with the Sandinista indigenous movement, Misurasata, and served in the Literacy Crusade in Miskito. Increasingly suspicious of Sandinista policies, he eventually joined a Contra military band. He now expresses disillusionment with the Miskito leaders, who drew a peace-loving people into armed conflict but subsequently failed to honor promises to promote community improvements.

The Pacific Coast population, the largest in Miami, has been reported as high as 400,000 (Estrella de Nicaragua, Nov. 30, 1991). It is concentrated in the middle and upper class neighborhood of Sweetwater and in the more working class areas of Little Havana and Hialeah. Most cultural organizations are run by professionals and business owners, as working class people generally complain that the demanding American work schedule prevents them from participating in cultural activities. Married women voice particular frustration at being isolated in their homes by husbands who resist their attempts to establish new contacts or join outside activities. Most Pacific Coast Nicaraguans arrived in the years after the revolution of 1979. Nevertheless, they have already made a definite mark on the city.

Primary genres of Nicaraguan folklife in Miami include music, patronal festivals, Moravian church celebrations and foodways. Material culture traditions outside the festival context have generally become latent as craftspeople enter new lines of work.

Patronal Festivals

Nicaragua is a predominantly Catholic country. Patronal festivals for each town constitute the major folk expression of this religiousness and provide a context for artistic practices of all kinds, as well as for the expression of local identity. In Nicaragua, these festivals are organized by traditional mayordomias and cofradias, which are charged with shouldering the expense of festival celebrations. Members have usually made a promise to the saint to join a mayordomia after having been granted a favor (a family member’s or farm animal’s miraculous recovery from a serious illness, for instance).

Patronal festivals are processional in nature. After a mass, the saint is paraded through the streets of his town accompanied by brass bands called chicheros, dancers, fireworks and devoted followers. After the processions mayordomos host public feasts or give away food and drink to festival participants. Individual families who own their own image of the Saint may host a private procession and feast as well. Often the festivities will include carnivals, big social dances, crafts fairs and traditional games such as a corrido de toros or the palo lucio. Moreover, in recent years, elite groups have introduced horse shows at these festivals. Thus, the patronal festival involves a series of activities that span from eight days to, in the case of Masaya’s San Jeronimo, over three months. (For more information see Enrique Perez Estrada, 1986.)

Although the baile de la marimba has become the national folk dance and is performed at most patrons’ festivals throughout Nicaragua, each town typically has its own set of traditional festival dances as well. Dancing is an important expressive form for Nicaraguans, as dancing for a saint is a primary form of devotion. The original significance of costume, dramatic miming and dance step, however, has been lost over time.

The degree to which dancers are organized into formal groups varies in the different towns. Normally, though, a patron will organize the dance and sponsor a series of rehearsals in order to prepare for a street performance. Traditional festival dance groups should not be confused, however, with the more recent folk ballet groups that arose in the 1950s. These folk ballets combine traditional and modern classical dance forms to provide interpretations of the folk tradition for large stage or televised environments.

The Miami Nicaraguans continue to celebrate many of their patronal festivals, but with some differences. Small businesses and professional organizations have taken an important role in fostering and organizing the festivals in the absence of mayordomias. Given the more rigid North American work schedule, festivals are held on the Sunday closest to the actual saint’s day, and all festival activities occur in a single day.

As recently arrived immigrants, Nicaraguans are intimidated by Miami laws requiring parade permits for street activities. Additionally, the former residents of any one town tend not to be concentrated in a single area. Therefore, celebrations are located in rented park areas or halls, and their processional character has been modified to fit these new spaces.

Finally, the prohibition against fireworks in Miami has fostered some creative adaptations. At the Fiesta de San Sebastian and at many home Purisimas multitudes of balloons are strung overhead. At a certain moment in the festival when firecrackers would be set off, a signal is given, and adults and children furiously pop the balloons, simulating this important festival sound.

Cultural activities are also reduced in the Miami celebrations. While a mass and modified procession are usually performed, the variety of dancing and masking traditions that adorn any Nicaraguan town festival are represented by just one or two symbolic enactments. Some festivals have included horse shows, but the palo lucio and corridos de toros games appear impracticable in Miami.

San Sebastian

Diriamba’s festival of San Sebastian is known throughout Nicaragua, especially for its street dance-theatre performances: El Gueguense, El Toro Huaco, and El Gigante (David and Goliath). In 1990 Pedro Facundo Pomar and Horacio Gonzalez, both former mayordomos, got together to organize a patronal celebration in Miami, complete with the traditional tope that marks the formal beginning of the festival. In Nicaragua San Sebastian is taken to the village of Dolores, where he is met by the patron saints of the nearby towns of San Marcos and Jinotepe. This tope constitutes a ritual invitation to Diriamba’s neighbors. When Santiago’s (Jinotepe) and San Marcos’ festivals approach, their mayordomias also stage a tope, inviting San Sebastian (and Diriambans) to attend. (See the work of Leopoldo Serrano Gutierrez, 1960 for a fuller description.)

In Miami each of these patron’s festivals is celebrated with a symbolic tope staged at the festival site. San Sebastian occurs on the closest Sunday to January 21st, Santiago is in July, and San Marcos, only recently organized, is in April. Each group of townsmen parades with their saint’s image from a given corner of the grounds. When they all meet in the center, the saints are made to bob a greeting to one another.

At the San Sebastian festival, the Silva family presents the Toro Huaco, the dance that traditionally “breaks” or leads the procession. Dance director Jose Silva says that this dance constitutes a family as well as a town tradition. His wife makes the colorful costumes, while the wooden masks of Spanish colonial soldiers and the chichiles (tin rattles) are imported from Nicaragua. The dancers, mostly children, form two lines facing one another. Between them twirls a man sporting a cow’s mask attached to a kite-like structure he holds over his back. The dancers alternately charge and retreat from this cow, employing a methodical stamping step.

The Toro Huaco is the only large-group traditional Nicaraguan dance performed in Miami. It employs the ancient indigenous music of flute and drum. While the slow, repetitive, ritualized steps of the dance make it somewhat monotonous, the elaborate masks, peacock plumed hats, and costumes provide a feast for the eyes.

Santa Ana

Santa Ana of Nandaime has been celebrated occasionally in Miami on the Sunday closest to July 26th. The festivities were organized by a family, Maria Teresa Chavarria and her son, Ismael Lopez, who own a painting of the saint. Some years many Nandaimenos prefer to return to Nicaragua for their hometown festivities, so there are only occasional celebrations in Miami.

Unlike the Diriambans, Nandaimenos have no organized dance performance groups. Their traditional festival dance, Los Diablitos, is a simple hopping step that anyone who has made a promise to the saint must learn. On July 24th, hundreds of these promesantes, dressed in brightly colored silk capes and wearing wire mesh masks, go to the valley where Santa Ana is said to have first appeared. On procession day the dancers escort their patroness the several kilometers back to town, accompanied by the music of chicheros. Auxiliadora Acevedo explains that in Miami, participants reenact this form of devotion and express their local identity by dancing Los Diablitos in their street clothes on the festival grounds.

Santo Domingo de Guzman

Reportedly the first Nicaraguan patronal festival organized in Miami, Santo Domingo of Managua draws on participation from all Spanish speaking Nicaraguans. The festival is held in August and was originally hosted in 1987 by a group of professionals who were looking for a way to unite the community. Unfortunately, as in Managua, the Miami festival has fractured into two celebrations, one among the elites, and one among more working class Nicaraguans.

The elite celebration generally constitutes a party with a horse show and represents an opportunity for socializing. The other festival, which takes place in the Nicaraguan part of Little Havana, is a rowdy affair. Young men paint themselves with black and red grease and then dash through the crowds smearing this noxious substance on unwitting members of the public.

Managua has its traditional dances as well. Chony Gutierrez has organized a performance of Las Vacas for the Santo Domingo festival since 1988. In this dance women wearing hoops around their waists designed to represent cows, mimic a bullfight with companions holding colored scarves.

San Jeronimo

Masaya’s festival of San Jeronimo is known as the longest of Nicaragua’s patronal festivals. Beginning the 30th of September, festival activities continue every Sunday to the beginning of December. Two major traditional events are the Torovenados, carnival-like processions in which masked participants mock local and national personalities, and the Bailes de la Marimba. The most elaborate of the Masaya marimba dances is Las Negras, an all-male masked dance in which half the men masquerade as women. In Miami, natives of Masaya have recently begun honoring San Jeronimo with a one-day celebration at the end of September. After an outdoor mass and short procession at the festival site, marimbero Alonso Montalvan provides the music for participants, who are invited to dance on a raised stage, either in costume or in their street clothes. Additionally, a group of friends, organized by Alma Vega and Chester Carrion, have formed a dance troupe that performs Las Negras, La Mama Ramona (a humorous marimba dance), as well as the more standard Baile de la Marimba. The other great Masaya festival tradition, the Torovenado, has not taken root in Miami, perhaps because emigrees are embarrassed by this boisterous, somewhat bawdy display.

La Purisima and La Griteria

Of all the patronal festivals, that of the Virgen de la Asuncion, patroness of Nicaragua, is the most widely and most traditionally celebrated here in Miami. Purisimas are private parties, to which guests are invited to recite the rosary and sing villancicos to the virgin. They are then thanked for their participation by being given traditional foods and presents: el paquete. Most are held in the early evening on the host’s lawn during purisima season, which lasts from 26th of November, the first day of the novenario of the virgin, through January. The public Griteria is held on the final day of the novenario. In Miami the Purisimas are usually hosted weekend nights, and the Griteria falls on the Sunday closest to December 7th.

On this night, altars are set up outside homes, churches and stores throughout Little Havana and Sweetwater. People, especially children, roam from one to the other singing snatches of villancicos, “shouting” the traditional phrase: “Quien causa tanta alegria? La concepcion de Maria!,” and receiving their “paquete” in return. (For a description of these festival events in Nicaragua, see Edgardo Buitrago, 1959.)

Dona Elvia Vega, an ardent celebrator of the Griteria, claims she hosted the first family-sponsored Griteria in Miami in 1982. After being disappointed that friends, busy with work, didn’t attend her Purisima, she decided to move her altar onto the street and reward passersby who would sing. From that time on, more and more of her neighbors on 103rd Avenue began setting up altars, until this street became a major focus of Griteria activity.

Another cluster of Griterias are held in the residential neighborhood around 95th Place. One hostess, Gloria Ortiz, emphasized that she held a party every year por promesa after the virgen helped cure her son of a serious illness. Dona Socorro Castro de Sevilla, on the other hand, who hosts a yearly Griteria in Little Havana, said she does so because she enjoys the custom. Centro Comercial Managua and the Holiday and Laguna Plazas in Sweetwater provide a concentration of Griterias, as shop and restaurant owners host their own festivities. Moreover, San Juan Bosco Church and the Church of the Divina Providencia erect large platforms on their grounds with altars for an outside mass and group singing. At some of these locations the crowds of carolers number in the hundreds. Listings of at least some of the addresses for Griteria altars are published in both La Estrella de Nicaragua and La Prensa Centroamericana newspapers.

Griteria altars in Miami are relatively simple compared to those erected in Nicaragua. For instance, Chony Gutierrez remembers designing a model of an active volcano for one particularly elaborate altar in Managua. Churches in Nicaragua often contract professional altar decorators to paint telones or backdrops with scenes of Jerusalem or Nicaragua. In Miami, private home altars often display the virgin surrounded by potted plants and flowers or cleverly nestled in an existing tree or shrub on the host family’s lawn. Christmas lights and balloons provide additional decorative elements.

Storefront and church altars are somewhat more elaborate. For instance, in 1991 Fritanga Monimbo on North 12th Avenue displayed the virgin in a skyscape of blue and white tissue paper. Rincon Nica and Nicaraguan Grocery in Little Havana contracted Douglas Barrios, a specialist in altars and religious floats, to construct altars in which the virgin stood on a tin foil-wrapped crescent moon among painted styrofoam clouds.

Fine artists have also been inspired by the purisima theme. In 1991, Donald Estrada, a noted primitivist painter, depicted the virgin against the Miami skyline with a logo thanking the United States for its hospitality to Nicaraguans. Like much of his other work, this painting reflects a unique blending of the traditional and the new that strikes a chord with the Nicaraguan community in Miami. (For an illustration of this work, see La Prensa Centroamericana, 11/29/91, p. 7.) Petronio Caldera, a painter and world renowned caricaturist, painted the virgin surrounded by angels, each of whom wears the face of one of Caldera’s nine grandchildren. This very personal work was intended for his daughter’s purisima party.

Atlantic Coast Festivals

Unlike the Mestizo Pacific Coast Catholics, Creole Moravians celebrate most of their religious holidays within the church. A special mass and beautiful Moravian hymn singing are the standard festive practices. At Christmas, for instance, a candlelit mass is held. At Advent, many Moravians still make or purchase a many-pointed paper Moravian star to hang over their porch lights. The old Watch Night custom, in which church members gather and sing hymns together all night to herald in the new year, is also still observed. Yet other social events related to new years—a dory race and games of kitlaly, or outdoor bowling—are impracticable in Miami. As will be described later, Harvest, the Moravian version of Thanksgiving, is perhaps the most distinctive and beautiful of all Moravian church celebrations.

One non-Moravian festival of the larger Atlantic coast towns, May Pole, represents a local Creole version of the English May Day rites. Discouraged by Moravian missionaries because of the erotic dancing and heavy drinking associated with them, May Pole parties were avoided by Moravian Creoles. Nevertheless, Maggie Harrison fondly remembers slipping out secretly to watch the dancers as a child. She describes make-shift bands of banjo, guitar, and home-made drums accompanying dancers who executed a subtle dipping step similar to a limbo.

Miss Maggie complains that with the popularization of May Pole music and dancing throughout Nicaragua in the late 1970s the dance has become exaggeratedly eroticized and has strayed from its original local form. In Miami, Creoles still tend to have parties during May, and they may even play records and dance May Pole, but the event as festival is not ennacted.

Moravian Miskitos celebrate the same traditional church festivals as the Moravian Creoles, but they hold their services in Miskito, and sing the old Moravian hymns in translation. Their church band includes some traditional Miskito instruments like the grater, shake shake, and a homemade bass, constructed of a piece of string, a broom handle and an overturned wash pan. George Dixon and Mary Bushy, who organize both the choir and band, also sponsor a youth fellowship, which presents a nativity play for Christmas.

Ironically, while the Moravian church provides an important outlet for artistic expression, it has worked to obliterate other forms of native artistry. Mary Bushy speaks of the sukias, old women who acted as midwives, shamans and storytellers in the more remote villages. Their kisi, or animal tales, are no longer a part of living Miskito folklife, and Mary cannot tell these stories herself. Yet she collected and wrote down some of these stories while she was working for the Ministry of Culture in the early 1980s. Thus, adult Miskitos, while devoutly religious, remain interested in exploring and preserving lore from a more remote past.

Part 2
Foodways, material culture, folklife in the Miami community, and bibliography