Misa Campesina1 Nicaragüense
The Nicaraguan Campesino Mass
In the Nicaragua of the seventies, there began a social crisis in the countryside and the city, motivated by the indiscriminate movement of campesinos from their own land by corrupt landowners, which led to a vast army of people displaced and impoverished. Some migrated to cities in search of a better horizon, but ended up as cheap labor and plunged into extreme poverty. The same thing happened to those who were working as day laborers in agricultural plantations. They were reduced to simple labor, had no benefits, and were displaced and subjected to a condition of dependence on a miserable salary; therefore they ended up living in poverty as well. On the other hand, the landowners became even richer because of the exploitation in the countryside and the city. The campesinos felt hopeless and abandoned by God. Through these experiences in their daily lives — exploitation and poverty — arises a message of hope, of faith in a God who accompanies and encourages them in their living conditions, to fight together for a fairer and more humane world; to restore natural harmony with creation and humanity through music.
Carlos Mejía Godoy y los de Palacagüina, were songwriters and interpreters of the Misa Campesina Nicaragüense — the Nicaraguan Campesino Mass. They used liberation theology, Nicaraguan folk music, and popular language to create the liturgy songs of the Campesino Mass. This mass was and continues to be loved by the social class of the working poor, especially campesinos. Its popularity was rooted in the manifestation of the reality of the impoverished worker. Despite the ownership and affection of this mass by campesinos, the Catholic Church and the Nicaraguan government prohibited it. Although it was banned, this liturgy had already taught campesinos and their religious leaders how to fight for their human rights and to protest against the destruction of nature. Many religious leaders were excommunicated by the Catholic Church for using this liturgy, but they continued to accompany campesinos using the Nicaraguan Campesino Mass.
Today, throughout Latin America the Nicaraguan Campesino Mass is used in liturgical celebrations. Its songs give hope and faith to many people that Christ is in solidarity with the poor; that Christ walks with them in their daily life and experiences. The opening song of the Campesino Mass, illustrates this solidarity where God is found in the ordinary:
Vos sos el Dios de los pobres,
el Dios humano y sencillo,
el Dios que suda en la calle,
el Dios de rostro curtido;
por eso es que te hablo yo,
así como habla mi pueblo,
porque eres el Dios obrero,
el Cristo trabajador.
Vos vas de la mano con mi gente,
luchas en el campo y la ciudad,
haces fila allá en el campamento
para que te paguen tu jornal.
Vos comes raspado allá en el parque
con Eusebio, Pancho y Juan José
y hasta protestas por el sirope
cuando no te le echan mucha miel.
Yo te he visto en una pulpería
instalado en un caramanchel,
y hasta vendiendo lotería
sin que te avergüence ese papel.
Yo te he visto en las gasolineras
chequeando las llantas de un camión
y hasta patroleando carreteras
con guantes de cuero y overol.
You are the God of the poor,
the human and simple God,
the God who sweats on street,
the God with a weather beaten face;
that’s why I speak to you,
just like my people speak to you,
because you are the worker God,
the worker Christ.
You go hand-in-hand with my people,
you struggle in the field and in the city,
you line up at the camp
to get paid your salary.
You eat a snow cone down at the park
with Eusebio, Pancho, and Juan José
and you even complain about the syrup
when they don’t put enough of it.
I have seen you in the corner store
settled inside a kiosk,
I have seen you selling lottery tickets
without being ashamed of this role.
I have seen you in the gas stations
checking the tires of a truck
and even working on the roads
with leather gloves and overalls.
Despite the assurance of Christ’s presence in their daily lives, almost 40 years after the initial conflict, campesinos are still struggling for their rights and protection of their natural resources.
Solidaridad con la Comunidad Campesina
Solidarity with the Campesino Community
In our experience as pastors in the banana plantations of Costa Rica, we have seen campesinos as they struggle for their human rights to be recognized and for ecological justice for their lands. The conditions of campesinos include dangerous working environments, hard labor, pesticide usage, little to no education, and immigration issues, as most campesinos in Costa Rica are Nicaraguan immigrants. We want to share some of the stories that we have experienced to educate others on the struggles of campesinos in Latin America:
Chilamate: In this tiny community, campesinos work in the nearby banana and pineapple plantations. Zenaida,2 one of the church elders, and her husband, Alberto, have worked their entire lives in the banana plantations. Both are willing to share their stories when visitors come from sister churches in other countries. They want to educate others, but also their sharing is therapeutic — a way to cry out to God about the injustices they have experienced.
When Zenaida was a young mother, she was moving a canister with chemical pesticides at the banana shipping plant. The canister fell over and spilled on her chest. Throughout the day, the pesticides ate through her breast, leaving a large gaping wound for months. She was unable to work for almost a year and was not given any type of compensation for her accident. Her husband, Alberto’s job was strapping a similar canister of pesticides on his back to spray weeds near the banana trees. After more then 30 years of being exposed to these pesticides, Alberto developed asthma. Despite his illness, he continued to work, needing to provide for his family. One day after he strapped on the pesticide canister, he tried to jump over an irrigation ditch in the banana plantation. He fell on his back, his injury far worse due to the heavy canister that fell on top of him. Since Alberto is no longer able to work, he is consulting a lawyer about the possibility of suing the plantation for lost wages. His oldest son has now dropped out of high school to work in the banana plantations. Since his father is unable to work, he has to provide for his family.
Alberto, with his wife, continues to regularly speak with groups to share these experiences. He has time now that that he is unable to work. Alberto recently brought a neighbor, Javier, with him to share with these groups. Javier began a new job in the banana packing plant, hoping it would be less labor intensive then the fields. After his second week on the job, while being trained in on new machinery, his hand got too close and his arm was cut off just below the elbow. Javier now joins Zenaida and Alberto to share their experiences with others, hoping for solidarity.
Los Lirios: To enter into this community, you must first travel the rocky paths (called roads) that wind through the banana plantations. When you are approaching a community along the way, you will notice that large shrubbery, often hibiscus, are planted directly in between the banana plantation and the road. Crop dusting planes often spray the bananas overhead with pesticides. We have been told that when it rains, these chemicals run off the banana trees in the rainwater and into the road. By government order, within a certain distance of living communities, shrubbery must be planted to help catch the run off. This is meant to reduce the danger posed to children riding their bikes through and playing in contaminated puddles.
Maybe the bushes help, but in this community we have seen a disproportionate number of children who have birth defects. Some of these defects are physical, like a sixth finger or one leg shorter then another. Most seem to be mental disabilities. There are a large number of high school aged youth that are in first grade. Youth seem to be engaged in play that is for small children, like dressing dolls and using crayons in coloring books. There seems to be a direct correlation between so many young people with problems and the surrounding banana plantation.
Organic Banana Plantation
Many of these children can never ask for solidarity because they are physically isolated in the middle of a banana plantation, where their existence is rarely known to the outside world. They also lack the education and the words to ask for help to overcome their difficulties. These children are unaware that anything is wrong with them because every family has someone with a physical defect or mental disability.
San Julian: This community is called Nicaraguita or “little Nicaragua,” for its many, often undocumented Nicaraguan immigrants and for the shack-like home structures that remind many Costa Ricans of Nicaraguan poverty. Many times after a short period of working (around 30 days) in the banana or pineapple plantations, undocumented Nicaraguan immigrants are fired. This is done by the big fruit corporations to avoid making the campesinos permanent employees, which would involve having to pay insurance or any other benefits. After a few days, they are hired again, only to be fired later in the month. An undocumented immigrant can’t report such abuses without risking being deported. How can you ask for solidarity when you are afraid to use your voice for fear of deportation?
When groups from sister congregations in the United States, Sweden, and Germany visit these communities, they often have a strong response to what they have seen, heard, and tasted (you can taste the chemicals on your tongue after a crop dusting plane passes by, even in a car with the windows closed). The most common response is, “I am never going to eat bananas again,” which centers on the repulsion of how plantation workers are treated and the usage of pesticides. Most North Americans and Europeans assume that if they stop buying a product, it will put pressure on big companies to change their practices.
This is not an effective approach. In fact, this response negates solidarity with campesinos. If we all stopped buying bananas, what would happen to the thousands of jobs held by these campesinos in banana plantations? Without buyers, campesinos would be more desolate and impoverished due to cut backs of jobs. We need to continue to buy bananas, because they are a fruit that was intensely labored over by our brother and sister campesinos. We need to continue to buy bananas, while advocating for better international laws regarding pesticide usage, organic farming, and fair practice for campesino workers. We need to continue to buy bananas, but also help campesinos start their own small farms and businesses, lending funds with low or zero interest. We need to continue to buy bananas, while supporting campesinos to be self-sustainable in their agricultural work. This is solidarity. This is a Christ-like response taught to us in the Campesino Mass. We are called to walk with our campesino brothers and sisters in the fields, in the plantations, in the cities, in the mechanic shops, and even eating snow cones together in the park. When there is a mutual accompaniment, walking side by side to improve our human condition and our natural resources, this is solidarity.
Acompañando la Comunidad Campesina
Accompanying the Campesino Community
There are many non-profit organizations and religious communities that stand in solidarity with campesinos. They accompany campesinos to help them through their vulnerability, teach them their human rights, and help them to develop their skills in sustainable agriculture. We have had the experience of working side by side with some of these groups and have seen the deep impact they have made on the life of campesinos in both Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
Centro Manu: Manu is an educational and recreational center located in the Costa Rican rainforest. It is a beautiful place for reflection, training, rest, and play. Many North American and European groups love to visit Manu, due to its natural surroundings.
Main ranch at Centro Manu
Manu was built by ILCO — the Lutheran Church in Costa Rica, CEDECO, and SEFCA. CEDECO is an educational corporation focused on organic agriculture. SEFCA is an ecumenical organization that provides Christian formation throughout Central America. When these three groups come together at Cento Manu, they provide incredible training opportunities for varying groups of people, including pastors, youth, and campesinos.
One of the most impactful workshops that we have seen at Centro Manu was for campesinos. CEDECO taught campesinos how to use animal waste, from cows or pigs, to create natural gas. Making your own gas can help dramatically cut living costs for impoverished families, since in many rural communities gas is very expensive. This can also create small business opportunities by building these gas systems in neighboring farms and homes.
Chinantlan: Located in Chinandega, Nicaragua, Chinantlan is a non-profit organization that works to support the most vulnerable groups in society by providing agricultural, educational, and health training opportunities. One of their most interesting projects is the opening of a farm that grows Rosa de Jamaica, a flower. This farm is entirely run by campesina women, many who are the head of their household. After the Jamaica flower is harvested, they use it to produce a wine that is now sold to an international market. These women have not only been taught how to plant, harvest, and make wine, but they now run their own small business.
The women of Chinantlan have also embarked in a new endeavor. They have begun an iguana farm! In Nicaragua iguana meat is a delicacy. Iguanas are an endangered species and law prevents removal of these animals from nature to sell, but their numbers are dwindling due to increased consumer demand for iguana meat. Due to the decreasing population of iguanas in their natural habitats, many iguana farms are functioning in the countryside for commercial sales. The women of Chinantlan’s iguana farm have a different focus. They are mating iguanas to help return them to their natural population. These campesina women are working together to repopulate the iguana, an important animal in nature’s ecosystem.
Harvesting Rosa de Jamaica
San Martin: In one of our Costa Rican congregations, we tried an agriculture program with the children and youth of the community. Our church had very little resources, as most families have limited incomes. We thought we could raise animals and sell their meat to help support our church activities. Most children came from campesino backgrounds, so there seemed to be a natural attraction to animals. We first were given two mountain pigs. They were fairly easy and inexpensive to raise, as a local diner gave us their scraps. We were able to butcher the pigs for Christmas, saving us the expense of buying meat for our celebration.
We later bought chicks to raise and later sell. They were much more complicated than the pigs. They couldn’t eat scraps, but needed feed. They also developed an intestinal worm, which required medication. This dramatically increased our costs. We finally had to butcher them to sell because we couldn’t maintain the cost of their upkeep as they grew. After plucking their feathers, they were all incredibly skinny! We lost money on the project, but it was a good learning experience. When trying to develop sustainable agriculture, it is important to have a person who is experienced in formation and farming! That is why Chinantlan and Centro Manu are so important — they have wonderful, experienced people working with them!
Children of San Martin with their chicks
To be in solidarity with our campesino brothers and sisters, we need to support non-profit organizations like Centro Manu and Chinantlan. These groups help accompany campesinos and provide assistance in human rights education, organic agriculture, and running small business, which help campesinos rise up out of poverty and be self-sustaining in their work and protection of their natural resources. This work is not easy, but we are called to be a part of it. The Nicaraguan Campesino Mass tells us that we have a worker God and a worker Christ. We are called to be worker Christians — working alongside, accompanying, and living in solidarity with our campesino brothers and sisters in Christ.
Sobre los Autores
About the Authors
Jorge Luis Espinoza Pérez is from Nicaragua. Jorge Luis was in a Franciscan religious order in Central America for 13 years, while studying to be a Catholic priest. In 2008, he left the order to serve as a pastor in the Iglesia Luterana Costarricense (ILCO) — the Lutheran Church in Costa Rica. While serving in ILCO, Jorge Luis met his wife, Rev. Stephanie Quick-Espinoza, who was an ELCA missionary pastor. Together they served five rural, mostly campesino congregations in the Lutheran Church in Costa Rica. Jorge Luis Espinoza Pérez has been approved by the Metropolitan Chicago Synod as a TEEM candidate for ordained ministry.
Rev. Stephanie Quick-Espinoza is currently the Senior Pastor at a multi-cultural, bilingual congregation in North Aurora, IL, called New Hope Lutheran Church/Iglesia Luterana Nueva Esperanza.
The term “campesina or campesino,” in Spanish means a farmer or farm worker in a Latin-American country. Many times a campesina or campesino is a person living in extreme poverty, as is the case in this essay.
All names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals