My grandmother turned 75 this weekend. I wished her a happy birthday over the phone as she sat in her kitchen in Miami, the rest of my family scream-talking in the background. As is the case with grandmothers, the conversation turned back to me very quickly. She had heard I’d been going to protests over the past few years and asked if I was still doing so. I told her yes, bracing myself for the speech I’d heard my mother deliver with increasing frequency lately about safety and precautionary measures.
Instead, I got a chuckle and an unexpected glimpse into a shared history I didn’t know existed. “You’re going to be a marcher too, then,” she said, more an acknowledgment than a question.
I have never heard my grandmother utter the word politics, but that day she told the story of the first time she marched. She was a student at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Nicaragua (la UNAN), the country’s first university to gain autonomy from the government which, up until that point, had total jurisdiction over professors, curriculum, and budget. The university gained this independence in 1958, 22 years into the Somoza regime that saw a dictator profiting at the expense of the rest of the country. After the clearly rigged elections in 1947, and with the nearby Cuban revolution paving the way, the political tide began to turn. La UNAN became the epicenter of dissent and the beginning of organized student protest. Less than a year in, however, a protest in 1959 drew the attention of the national guard who promptly entered the campus, opening fire on four students. My grandmother recalls how she stood next to one of them, still remembers how she fell under the weight of him. Over the phone though, she mentions this only in passing, a casual memory. You have to understand, my mother explained later, that this was only the first of many bodies. The spark was lit that day but the Somoza regime wouldn’t be overthrown until 1979, after 43 years in power.