Blood On The Border: A Memoir of the Contra Years
Roxanne-Dunbar-Ortiz has defined the term engaged intellectual through a life spent on the frontlines of the past four decades of social struggles. Born to a rural working-class white family in Oklahoma, she has never abandoned her roots through the process of becoming one of the most respected Left academics in the United States. At different times in her life, she has been involved with the armed revolutionary underground (detailed in her book Outlaw Woman), an early radical feminist, and active in civil society through the United Nations. Throughout these changes, she has actually remained quite consistent as a working-class voice that has connected the class struggle to anti-white supremacy, feminist, and indigenous work.
Her latest book Blood On The Border: A Memoir of the Contra Years
(South End Press), details her involvement with the efforts to defend
Sandinista revolution from the US-funded “Contra” War. Many
of the same neo-conservatives who planned this war from the comfort of
the United States are central in the planning of the invasion and occupation
of Iraq; making her book essential for today’s activists. Dr. Ortiz
is a professor of Ethnic Studies at California State University East
RDO: What I liked about it, was that they were people just like us. I knew so many of them here in San Francisco. At the time it had the second largest Nicaraguan population outside of Managua. After Augusto Cesar Sandino was assassinated in 1934 and the Somoza dictatorship was put in, they really wanted to export Sandinistas, get them out of the country. That was a really large part of the population, since it was quite a popular movement. The United States set up a very different system for Nicaraguan workers to immigrate here. Remember, there were only two million people there, even if 100,000 or 500,000 people came, the U.S. figured it wouldn’t be a stress on immigration. They had so much experience working for U.S. corporations, in mining and fruit; there were no restrictions put on them, unlike workers from most other countries. They could come as they wished. The main place they settled was San Francisco, the Noe Valley neighborhood was almost all Nicaraguan and our Mission is still largely so. I knew a lot of them. I knew the poets Roberto Vargas and Alejandro Murgia, who is Chicano, but married to a Nicaraguan. They went down to fight in the revolution., they also founded the Mission Cultural Center here.
The Sandinistas in Nicaragua were disorganized! Just like any leftists here, it seemed! It was like the youth revolution here had won. They were kind of bumbling in some ways, but they were sincere, they were so sincere. I fell in love with that even before I went there, but more so when I went there. But I fell in love with what they were doing there, they produced a huge literacy campaign, they were so idealistic in what they were doing. They went out into the countryside and taught people how to write poetry, this got everyone wanting to be a poet. It is the only country in the world where being a poet is the highest thing you can be. So the aspiration was to know the language so you could write poetry. All over there were poetry workshops, it was the most amazing thing.
Then there was this damn contra war, eating away at that. Seeing that deteriorate, it was just heartbreaking.
LT: Yes, it seemed as if the Contras really target the best parts of the Sandinista revolution.
RDO: Especially in those really poor rural areas. Any kind of development workers trying to bring electricity in, any little thing like that they attacked. Most of these people were people form the communities themselves. My favorite story was in 1980, the Sandinista government needed a helicopter, a civilian helicopter, they needed to drop supplies in flooded areas. Somoza's National Guard had destroyed all of the military equipment. A Nicaraguan living in San Antonio said, “I can buy one for you from Bell Helicopter.” The Sandinistas checked on how much it would cost to ship it, and the cost would have been more than the helicopter. So they sent two people who could fly airplanes, never a helicopter, up to Texas to get it! This is the crazy scheme you and I might think of! They got up in the air and they were intercepted by US military jets. As far as I know the pilots are still in prison. They lost the money, the helicopter was confiscated.
They had no experience in constructing a government, and Somoza left nothing to work from. Most of the Sandinistas were poets, journalists, and teachers. There was a lot of guerilla activity, but it was symbolic as many guerrilla movements are in Latin America. It really was a mass revolutionary movement, the Sandinistas would have never have won militarily without the people!
LT: It seems to me that two struggles you were involved with, the South African anti-apartheid one, mentioned in your last book, and the Nicaraguan solidarity efforts were really the most significant solidarity undertakings of the US Left since the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Why do you think these struggles just caught people’s imaginations?
RDO: South Africa didn’t at first. The African National Conference (ANC) was not really well known here until the 1970s with the formation of the Black Identity Movement. I got involved with the ANC in 1964, and I think our solidarity group at UCLA was the first one in solidarity with the ANC in this country. Others started in the 1960s, but it was really a low-point for the ANC, after so many were arrested like Mandela or in exile. I went to London in 1967, where ANC headquarters. It was really Steven Biko's death that brought the anti-apartheid movement to the US, then the students here became active, building shanty towns on campuses.
There were young people who came to study here, these
were the same people who recruited me to solidarity work, those in
exile studying here.
They worked tirelessly to inform people but it was an uphill battle,
so many things to compete for people’s attention. Vietnam number
one, and there was Angola, and Mozambique, Guinea Bissau. In our movement
here Students for a Democratic Society supported all those liberation