New Haven’s South American Sibling

By Eleanor Marshall

Just past the university, heading south out of León, Nicaragua, the road ends. A couple feet over, a dirt path cut through the thick, dry brush starts up and runs straight through to Nueva Vida, a village of just over 350 residents that is situated in Goyena, a settlement of five independent rural communities. The pick-up I’m in is the only car in sight, kicking up dust next to kids riding their bikes and wives peeking from under their kitchens’ tin roofs at midday. We stop at a large shelter in the center of town, and the painted sign reads “NEW HAVEN” in bold painted letters.
Some have never made the trip as far as León, the city for which the León province is named, though it is just 12 kilometers away by truck. But they know New Haven. The teenagers waiting by the shelter and, later, the primary students in the schoolyard ask shyly, “Did you come from New Haven?” It is eerie to hear the familiar name in the long vowels of Nicaraguan Spanish, and stranger still to think of how much from New Haven has come to this remote village – a school and reinforcement for teachers, nutritional programs for infants, domestic violence counseling for women – though New Haven residents are largely unaware of its existence.

The New Haven/León Sister City Project (NHLSCP) began in 1984, one of many international partnerships – from Gettysburg to Hamburg – that sprung up in Nicaragua. The aim was to express solidarity with the left-wing Sandinista revolutionary government in its struggle against the contras, conservative rebel groups that received significant funding and military support from the Reagan administration. There is a mural in the center of León that depicts the nation’s storied history going back to the era of the Spanish conquistadors, using swords, guns, and broken fences. The Sandinistas enter the picture in the 1930s, when Augusto César Sandino led the first insurgency against the U.S. military occupation of Nicaragua. In 1979, Sandinista forces would overthrow the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan dictator, Anastosio Somoza Debaile. These revolutionaries ultimately succeeded in fending off the contras, and are in power today under President Daniel Ortega. But Nicaragua’s battle wounds are still healing. Sister cities from around the world continue to provide support to a nation that remains the poorest in Central America.

Sister city programs differ from other international non-profits in their emphasis on creating long-term relationships. These partnerships attempt an alternative style of engagement to the “third-world-victim” and “first-world-savior” dynamic that service work often falls into abroad. Many emphasize cultural exchange programs between cities and financial support for on-the-ground development. According to NHLSCP Director Chris Schweitzer, New Haven’s program is one of the only sister city projects that does not import foreign staff members, hiring exclusively Nicaraguans to identify community needs and implement projects.

Some of the students from Goyena play with kites made from recycled paper after an activity with the youth ecological brigade.(Marshall/TYG)
Some of the students from Goyena play with kites made from recycled paper after an activity with the youth ecological brigade.(Marshall/TYG)

NHLSCP has partnered with Nueva Vida for the entirety of the village’s short existence. In October 1998, Hurricane Mitch, the second worst Atlantic storm on record, wreaked havoc on Parcela, one of the villages of Goyena. Maria Eugenia Muñoz, now the President of Nueva Vida’s Board of Directors, a position akin to mayor, remembers rushing to the town’s highest point, holding her 40-day-old baby in her arms, and watching as the possessions floated from her collapsing home. “In that moment, I saw all that we had lost, and saw the power of organizing to keep moving forward,” she recalled.

Muñoz, the mother of nine children, had never thought of working outside her home. But after the hurricane struck, she felt that it was the only way forward. She spearheaded efforts to procure land, food and housing – building Nueva Vida from a barren six acre plot granted by local land cooperative Aristida Sanchez.

Now, children from all of the villages of Goyena attend a school built by NHLSCP, which also runs a pre-school and an afterschool program that provides extra academic help. NHLSCP recently secured funding for Nueva Vida’s first library, as donated books trickle in from New Haven. Meanwhile, the organization facilitates the ecological brigade, a youth group of about ten teens that focuses on sustainability projects, teaching the community to recycle and compost to reduce the amount of trash that gets burned in open fires. Program director Erendira Vanegas runs English language classes every week. Last year, she started a program called No Violencia to teach women about domestic violence and provide support for its victims. According to Vanegas, women who denied suffering domestic violence – saying things like “my husband beats me, but no more than normal” — have started to recognize their rights.

Nubia Luz Quiroz is one of those women. She was married at 19 and endured beatings from her husband for seven years until he left her for another woman in a neighboring community. She thought that her experience was normal before Vanegas began her workshops. “Women don’t realize what they are suffering,” she said. Now Quieroz helps Vanegas lead No Violencia; she explained that, “today, I can defend myself and I can defend women in this community.” Each of these programs is directed and maintained by the permanent staff, and fueled by a steady stream of interns and volunteers. NHSCLP facilitates service trips by two or three group delegations each year, like the Yale Reach Out Trip that visited León last March. It also provides the office with individual interns, like me, who run their own research or aid projects with support from the staff. In the month I spent there, I rode the pick-up with the three staffers and a crew of volunteer teachers out to Nueva Vida every afternoon. It was there that I taught English to Emerson, who brought me sour aguacuate fruits from his trees and practiced new vocabulary for the animals he keeps. Teaching recycling through art projects with the brigade, I worked almost daily with Yaranesi, a gregarious 21-year-old who was the first in her family to attend college in León.

After exploring the rivers and fields of her hometown through the ecological brigade, Yaranesi became interested in studying biology. Now, she wants to use her university degree to teach science at the same school she attended in Nueva Vida and eventually take on leadership of the brigade. The majority of the youth in this group are in their late teens, and will get married in a few years. The men often begin to work in the sugar cane fields and the women often start to have children. But Yaranesi wants to stay – she likes living in the countryside among her parents and grandparents, working the land that bears her food. For her, opportunities are expanding right in Nueva Vida.

In some ways, it is people like Yaranesi that benefit most from NHLSCP’s programs. To her, the small New Haven office and few annual fundraisers have provided her with tutors that supported her through her first year at the University of León. But in other ways it is the people like me, who get to meet her, who are the beneficiaries. Focused on illustrating the effects of U.S. interventions in Nicaragua and the historical roots of the nation’s poverty, Schweitzer encourages volunteers not to travel to León with too many ideas, but to arrive ready to meet people like Yaranesi, and to listen.

Working as an intern out of the office on Whitney Avenue for a year before I set foot in León, I spent much of my time attaching multicolored butterflies made from recycled milk jugs and old magazines to cars, bikes and street corners around New Haven. This display for the NHLSCP Walk Bike Transit campaign focused on reducing car emissions that contribute to climate change’s disproportionate impacts on rural communities like Nueva Vida. Once, our office received a package of brightly painted butterflies cut from plastic bottles, signed by the distant “brigada” – a group that wasn’t quite real to me until I met them at the end of the dirt road.

My year with NHLSCP brought me closer to both sister cities – New Haven and León. It is through this organization that I met not only Yaranesi, but other Yale students and New Haven community activists. Maybe it is these small connections and this steady progress against the backdrop of large and powerful divides – challenges like climate change and cultural barriers and global inequality – that can ultimately, imperfectly, make two cities sisters.

Eleanor Marshall ’16 is in Saybrook College. She can be reached at