Fresh from the Sandinista parade up the street from my hotel, I stop at a store for some much needed water. It’s Sunday, so not much open. The “stores” are tiny neighborhood shops with iron security windows and basic everyday supplies, likely housing the proprietor in the back room. Even when they’re open, the proprietor and familia may be watching TV or sweeping up, not inclined to sell anything.
Three teenagers idle in front, and one sneers, “What’s ha-a-apening?” His idea of American slang. His friends smile. Actually…not a sneer. A sarcastic attempt at a cultural joke.
I pick up my waters, fumbling with my cordoba notes, and walk by him with a hearty, “Happy William Walker Day!” His eyes widen and he says nothing.
“It is William Walker Day, isn’t it?” I ask. I had just been to the parade and my airbnb hotelier Aldo told me, yup, today’s the day.
“Yeah,” he says. “Thanks a lot.”
The story of William Walker sums up much of the history between Nicaragua and the United States. Specifically, the way narratives diverge, depending on whether you are in the country harboring the outlaws, mercenaries, conquistadors, visionaries, ne’er-do-wells and entrepreneurs, or in the countries whose towns are laid waste by them.
William Walker, born May 8, 1824 in Nashville, Tennessee. Death by firing squad on September 12, 1860. Ah, to be alive during the days of Manifest Destiny and slavery, when the world is your oyster.
“They are but drivellers, who speak of establishing fixed relations between the pure white American race, as it exists in the United States, and the mixed, Indo-Hispanic race, as it exists in Mexico and Central America, without the employment of force. The history of the world presents no such Utopian vision as that of an inferior race yielding meekly and peacefully to the controlling influence of a superior people. Whenever barbarism and civilization, or two distinct forms of civilization, meet face to face, the result must be war.” — William Walker
Divergent narratives. Walk down a Granada Street and you’ll see a historical plaque celebrating the patriot who stood up to Walker. Walk down a Nashville street and you’ll see a plaque paying tribute to one of Tennessee’s finest, the “Grey Eyed Man of Destiny.”
Calling himself an instrument of divine justice, Walker sailed from San Francisco with gold rushers who didn’t find much gold in the rush. They made south for greener pastures. After a disastrous run at northern Mexico, Walker found the Conservative and Liberal parties in Nicaragua at odds, and offered his services to the Liberals. Mayhem ensued, the chief executive and commanding general of the Liberals died, and Walker took charge. After coming to terms with the senior General of the Conservatives, Walker accused the poor fellow of treason and had him shot in the parque central, where I enjoyed fresh mango on a park bench this afternoon. Walker soon declared an election, rigging the vote process (glad that can never happen in the U.S.!) becoming president of Nicaragua. Like Sean Connery and Michael Caine in “The Man Who Would Be King”, he began to think of himself as destined to lord it over the locals. Bring them Christian civilization (yes, the conquistadors wiped out the indigenous people and brought Catholicism and European governance, but this time it would be real American-style Protestantism and democracy). And after Nicaragua? Carve out an empire up and down the Central America isthmus.
There’s an Ed Harris movie on the subject called “Walker” but here’s John Huston and Rudyard Kipling telling a very similar story.
You may have been a Reagan/contra enthusiast, or alternatively a Sandinista sympathizer after their overthrow of the last in the line of Somoza family dictators. What is not in question is the relentless history of American intervention in Nicaragua since its independence from Spain.
The occupation of the country by U.S. Marines from 1912-1933.
The installation of the National Guard and the first of the Somozas in 1935, followed soon by Somoza’s assassination of General Augusto Cesar Sandino, after Sandino successfully ousted the Marines from his country. Followed by the murder of hundreds of men, women and children from Sandino’s agricultural colony.
Decades of active political, economic and military support for three generations of the iron fisted Somozas. As FDR was rumored to say, “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son a bitch.”
Walker was finally routed right here in Granada by a coalition of Central American armies that did not share his visions of empire. As he retreated, he ordered his men to burn the city to the ground. One of them left a roughly constructed sign with three words.
Aqui fue Granada. Here was Granada.
The British Navy caught up with him and handed him over to the Honduran authorities. They executed him. And now, every year, Nicaraguans, especially Granadans, celebrate that day.
You’d think that many Nicaraguans, Guatemalans would hate Americans. In my travels thus far, the number of people I have met who resented my nationality? Zero. I ask American expats here: anyone ever give you trouble for being an American? Never. I asked rural middle school kids, children of sugar cane farmers, in Guatemala. They had some tough questions for me, but they love the United States.
Even the kid who sarcastically, but pretty cleverly, thanked me for William Walker in front of the store this morning. I sat with him and his friends for a while. Joked about how I was REALLY sorry about Walker. Asked their names. I suspect they are more concerned about Kobe Bryant’s upcoming season with the Lakers than historical slights against their country, real or imagined.
I loved watching the parade this morning. It was like a well orchestrated, serious high school marching band, with Latin rhythms and periodic shouts of VIVA NICARAGUA, red Sandinista kerchiefs waving. A troupe of young women were practicing on my street last night. They were delightful to watch.
I walked in the rain to a local watering hole that has good wifi and well positioned electrical outlets. It was dark, and it had been raining all day. The streets were wet and mostly empty. Suddenly, I looked to my right and saw a plaque. I don’t know what it says–I’ll have it translated tomorrow–but it celebrates the demise of William Walker in some way.
Maybe what it really says is, after all the invasions, public executions, military governments, civil wars and earthquakes, Granada is still here.