ALTERNATE NAMES: Nicas
POPULATION: 4.4 million
LANGUAGE: Spanish; English; indigenous dialects
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism; Protestantism (Moravian church)
Nicaraguans inhabit Nicaragua, a country in central America. Nicaragua was originally occupied by Indians, who were conquered by the Spanish explorers and colonists in the 1520s. As a result, as of the late 1990s, over two-thirds of Nicaraguans were Mestizo—of mixed Indian and Spanish descent. In 1821, Nicaragua was one of the five Central American provinces that declared independence from Spain, but many people of Spanish descent had made their home in the country and decided to stay. Until the early 1900s, Nicas (as Nicaraguans call themselves) enjoyed peace and relative prosperity. Many coffee and banana plantations were established during this time.
Since 1909, the governments of the United States, the former Soviet Union, Cuba, and others have involved themselves in Nicaraguan affairs, primarily to protect their respective country's business interests. Since the 1970s, a group known as the Sandinistas have been believed to have connections with the former Soviet Union (and its successor, Russia) and Cuba. The United States prohibited trade with Nicaragua and supported anti-Sandinista groups called Contras. Some 30,000 people died in over ten years of fighting. In 1989, a cease-fire (truce) was followed by elections. The Sandinistas were defeated and surrendered political power to the UNO opposition coalition (groups working together) led by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.
Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America, about the size of the state of New York. It is bounded on the north by Honduras, on the south by Costa Rica, on the east by the Caribbean Sea, and on the west by the Pacific Ocean. The country includes the central highlands (including a belt of mountains that has twenty-five volcanoes), as well as lowlands on both coasts.
More than half of Nicaragua's population live in the Pacific lowlands. Over two-thirds of Nicaraguans are Mestizo—of mixed indigenous Indian and ethnic Spanish descent. About 17 percent are of European descent, about 9 percent are black, and 5 percent are native Indian.
Spanish is the official language and the one spoken by most Nicaraguans. However, English is the most common language in the Caribbean half of the country, as well as in the capital city of Managua. It is the native tongue of the Creoles, blacks who came from Jamaica and other islands colonized by the British. The Miskito, Nicaragua's main indigenous group, live in this Caribbean region. Their ancestry is mixed Indian, African, and European. They speak Miskito, an Amerindian language.
Nicaraguans have two family names: the mother's family name, which acts as a surname (last name), followed by the father's family name. For example, Mario Garcia Sanchez would be addressed as Señor Garcia. Garcia is Mario's mother's family name, and Sanchez is his father's.
Indian folklore attributes the creation of the world to magic. Spanish folk practices survived in Nicaragua in combination with Indian folklore. A lively interest in witchcraft developed from these roots. For example, people with love potions to sell can always find customers. The cuadro , a picture of a saint found in most households, is often credited with magical powers derived from native cult idols. Feasts for local patron saints are often held at the times of planting and harvesting. They reflect folk beliefs that divine intervention will result in bountiful crops
Nicaragua's original Indian inhabitants worshiped the Corn Goddess ( Cinteotl ) as an aspect of the Mother Goddess ( Chicomecoatl ). An annual feast called Xóchitl was held in honor of Cinteotl.
Nicaraguan folk literature abounds in tall tales and fantastic heroes. In fables, Uncle Coyote is constantly outwitted by the jokester and trickster Uncle Rabbit.
Approximately 90 percent of Nicaraguans are Roman Catholic. City dwellers and those from the middle and upper classes are most likely to attend Mass (church service) and receive the sacraments (baptism and communion, for example). The lower classes tend to be less religious. There is a shortage of priests, and the Catholic Church's ability to reach people in rural areas is limited. During the civil war, the bishops were hostile to the ruling Sandinistas. However, some priests and nuns have been activists in support of the Sandinistas, combining religious faith with the support for the struggle for freedom. Their beliefs are sometimes referred to as "liberation theology."
The 10 percent of the population that are Protestant chiefly live in the Caribbean part of the nation. The Moravian Church, a Protestant Christian denomination, is the most common in this region.
La Purísima is the most important holiday in Nicaragua. This is a week-long celebration of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception held around December 8. Elaborate altars to the Virgin Mary are built and decorated in homes and workplaces. People, especially children, go from altar to altar singing songs and reciting prayers.
The posadas are held on nine consecutive nights, ending on Christmas Eve (December 24). They are celebrated with nightly caroling processions commemorating the Holy Family's wanderings in search of shelter in Bethlehem. Holy Week (Easter) processions are common as well. The capital city, Managua, holds a fiesta (celebration) in honor of St. Dominic, the city's patron saint, in early August. Masaya has a feast to St. Jerome on September 30, complete with Indian dancers in costume. It also has a religious pilgrimage (journey) on March 16 to bless the waters of Lake Masaya.
Secular (nonreligious) holidays include Independence Day, September 15, commemorating the 1821 Central American declaration of independence from Spain; and Liberation Day, July 19, marking the 1979 overthrow of the government.
The baptism ceremony for the newly born is important. Godparents, chosen at that time, are expected to concern themselves with the welfare of the child and to provide aid in times of hardship. A child receiving first communion, usually at the age of nine, is given many gifts. A girl's fifteenth birthday is a time of special celebration, denoting that she has come of age. Among the middle and upper classes, dating does not begin until later. Among adults, birthdays have little importance, but a person's saint's day may be marked.
The style of greeting practiced by Spanish-speaking peoples is generally more demonstrative than in the United States. This is especially true of Nicaraguans. Friends almost always shake hands when greeting and parting, and often embrace. Women often kiss on one or both cheeks as well as embracing. People often stand closer to one another in conversation than is usual in the United States. A common casual greeting, especially among teenagers, is Hola! (Hi).
Visitors may drop in on friends without notice. People of social standing are greeted with respectful titles such as Señor, Señora, and Señorita (Mr., Mrs., and Miss, respectively). Older people are often addressed by the respectful titles of don or doña.
The concept of honor is important in Nicaragua. Personal criticism is considered to be in poor taste. Urban residents often adopt modern values, while people in rural areas tend to be more traditional. The concept of machismo , in which men are seen as more important than women, is still common in rural areas.
The civil war of the 1980s left Nicaragua struggling to keep its economy going. In the mid-1990s, 75 percent of Nicaraguans were living below the poverty line. Health care declined after the Sandinistas lost power in 1989. Most people suffer from malnutrition and do not have access to adequate health care. Most are also poorly sheltered. In rural areas, the most basic dwelling is a dirt-floor straw or palm-frond hut supported by poles and sticks. Its counterpart in towns and cities is a low adobe structure with a tile roof. Squatter settlements (people living without owning or paying rent for their dwelling) are found on the outskirts of the cities. The more substantial homes of the middle and upper classes are of Spanish or Mediterranean style.
Nicaraguans rely on their families for support, since community and church ties tend to be weak. Individuals are judged on the basis of their families, and careers are advanced through family ties. The nuclear family of father, mother, and children is often joined by a grandparent, aunt or uncle, or orphaned children. Newly married couples may take up residence with one or the other set of parents. Godparents, although unrelated by blood or marriage, are also important to the family structure.
Except for the middle and upper classes, marriage is not often formalized. (The man and woman live together as a couple without going through a wedding ceremony.) The average woman has five or six children. Abortion is illegal except to save the woman's life. However, illegal abortions are not uncommon. Women have major representation in the government, labor unions, and social organizations, but not in business. Many women are heads of households and, in addition to their domestic duties, have joined the labor force.
Typically women wear simple cotton dresses, while many men wear work shirts, jeans, sneakers or sandals, and straw hats. Even businessmen will often wear sport shirts, or leave off their jackets in hot weather in favor of the guayabera —a long cotton shirt.
Traditional dress for women varies. It may consist of a long, loose cotton skirt and short-sleeved cotton blouse, both brightly colored and embroidered. A shawl, jewelry, and flowers in the hair complete the outfit. (Women go barefoot.) For men, the native costume is blue cotton trousers, a long-sleeved collarless white cotton shirt, a sheathed machete (large knife) strapped to the waist, a straw hat, and sandals.
Beans and corn tortillas are the basics of the Nicaraguan diet. The local form of the tamale is the nacatamal , wrapped in a banana-like leaf rather than a corn husk. In addition to cornmeal, the nacatamal may contain rice, tomatoes, potatoes, chili, cassava root, and a small piece of meat. The Christmas Eve meal consists of nacatamales with a special filling, along with sopa borracha (drunken soup)—slices of caramel or rice-flour cake covered with a rum-flavored syrup.
Meals usually last longer than they do in the United States, accompanied by pleasant conversation. The main meal is eaten at midday, often followed by a siesta , or afternoon rest during the hottest time of the day, when work is difficult.
School is required and free between the ages of six and thirteen. In the mid-1990s, over three-fourths of primary-school-age children were in school. However, a much smaller percentage of older children were attending secondary school. Nicaragua has six universities.
The marimba, a kind of xylophone, is popular in Nicaragua. In Masaya, the traditional capital of Nicaragua, the marimba is sometimes accompanied by the oboe, "ass's jaw," and a single-string bow with gourd resonator. In the east the music is typically Afro-Caribbean, played with banjos, accordions, guitars, and drums.
Traditional dance is more popular in Nicaragua than anywhere else in Central America. Dances often include masked characters, some pink and large-nosed, meant to mock the Spanish.
Foremost of Nicaragua's writers was the poet Rubén Darío (1867–1916).
Nicaragua's economy is in a terrible state. In the mid-1990s unemployment and under-employment (having more qualifications than the job requires) were estimated at 60 percent of the work force. Social class is based on whether or not one works with one's hands. Those who work with their hands represent 80 percent of the people and are classified as lower class. Nearly 50 percent of the work force lives by farming. Most farmers use hand tools and oxen-drawn plows on small subsistence plots—land whose crops fill their own basic needs with no excess for profit. Most industrial workers are employed in food-processing plants.
In most of Central America, soccer ( futbol ) reigns supreme. However, in Nicaragua (and Panama) baseball is the most popular sport. Nicaraguans were playing in organized leagues in the 1890s. By the early 1960s even the isolated Miskito Indians were playing regularly. Nicaragua's most famous player is major-league star pitcher Dennis Martínez, who retired in the late 1990s. Also popular are boxing, basketball, volleyball, and water sports. Children's games abound; one authority has put their number at over one hundred.
Fiestas (festivals) are an important part of public life. They include such events as cockfighting, bull-riding, and bull-baiting. Dancing in clubs is popular. Lobo Jack's in Managua is the largest disco in Central America. Most films shown in Nicaragua's theaters are in English, with Spanish subtitles. Even though the family is the most important unit of society, youth clubs for socializing are becoming more popular.
Locally made earthenware (clay pottery) is decorated much as it was before the Spanish conquest. Other handicraft items include hammocks, baskets, mats, embroidery, leatherwork, coral jewelry, and carved and painted gourds and dolls.
In spite of the fact that the civil war had ended, at least 270 people died in political violence between 1990 and 1994. Police, army, and Sandinistas killed former Contras, and northern Contra bands committed similar acts, often because of land disputes. Previously undeveloped tracts of rain forest are being cut down at an alarming pace to grow crops and gather fuel wood. Health care is suffering from shortages of food, medicine, and basic medical supplies. Malnutrition and tropical diseases, such as yellow fever and malaria, are serious problems.
Note: Do not use small yellow bananas, use only plantains, which must always be cooked prior to eating. They are called platanos verdes when green and platanos maduros when ripe.
Courtesy of Embassy of Nicaragua.
Glassman, Paul. Nicaragua Guide. Champlain, N.Y.: Travel Line, 1996.
Haverstock, Nathan A. Nicaragua in Pictures. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1987.
Merrill, Tim, ed. Nicaragua: A Country Study. 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994.
Green Arrow Advertising. Nicaragua. [Online] Available http://www.greenarrow.com.nicaragu/nicaragu.htm , 1998.
World Travel Guide. Nicaragua. [Online] Available http://travelguide.attistel.co.uk/country/ni/gen.html , 1998.