News of the College Feb. 2001
 

The Reedie Jalapeño
Cultural Exchange
by Tai Young Taft ’02

 

 

Forty minutes from the center of Managua, we turned off onto a dirt road that lost itself in a jumble of tiny houses, pieces of particleboard pinned together with black plastic,and tin roofing. Children streaked with soil played in their underwear. The car stopped, and 14 Reedies, at the end of the first Reedie Jalapeño Cultural Exchange (RJCE), were confronted by the neighborhood called “New Life.”

Our guide, Doña Carmeen, told us about the people who lived in the tiny houses and said many were starving. She explained that the economic strategy of Nicaragua’s new government had produced 70 percent unemployment and a two-dollar-a-day wage. Residents formed a broken circle around us and interjected personal anecdotes to emphasize Carmeen’s story. Children smiled at us and hugged our legs. We had arrived on Mother’s Day, a huge holiday in Nicaragua. Everyone had the day off from work to celebrate.

 

 

 

Community organizer Don Enrique Peralta with members of the first Reedie Jalapeño Cultural Exchange

 

 
 

But for Sylvia, a grandmother of seven, the day was met with bitterness. Without that day’s two dollars, her family would not eat. She invited us to her home, which consisted of a tiny kitchen and a bed and an outhouse in back. “When the rainy season comes, the [old] outhouses sometimes surface, and without drainage, my grandchildren get sick. In order to buy medicine we have to go without food.” (It costs about $5 to cure dysentery.)

Many times in our travels in Nicaragua, two questions had been posed: “If your malady has a remedy, why does it afflict you? And if it does not, why do you cry?” Don Enrique, our contact in the community of El Trapeche, lives his life asking these questions, and his village of 800 residents in the Jalapa Valley is a community bent on creating solutions.

Enrique is 55 years old and is the most bad-ass person I have ever met. He can neither read nor write. However, in his spare time, he organized construction of a gravity-fed water project that brought clean drinking water to everyone in El Trapeche. When denied government funding for a health clinic, he secured other funding and organized the community to build its own.

His success as an organizer is mostly due to the people in the community who demonstrate determinism and optimism, despite material deprivation. Arthur Glasfeld, Reed chemistry professor and master stove builder, said, “Don Enrique is the ideal grandfather and has the most committed family I’ve ever seen. I’ve learned a lot from his family that I will hopefully remember when I next see mine.”

Observing the communal patterns in El Trapeche encouraged the 14 Reedies on the RCJE to come together and function more effectively. Our nightly meetings, which initially had begun as an argument rather than a meeting, evolved to a talking-stick regulated forum and finally became a well-working community forum. Reed College is a place of refining ideas. As liberal thinkers, we hope to apply these ideas to the world to create solutions to its significant problems. In my opinion, the RJCE not only has helped us see the scope of these problems, but also to realize the effect that an educated community can have on the world at large.

Note: The 14 Reedies who participated in the RJCE last May were 12 students, Arthur Glasfeld and Susan Mikota. The trip was funded in part by the president’s discretionary fund, the student body, and the students themselves. Plans are currently under way for a second trip this spring.

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