It was a humanitarian response to a 1972 earthquake that inadvertently led to a Mission-based solidarity movement that impacted revolutions in Central America, turned the 24th and 16th Street BART stations into gathering points for demonstrators and sent some Mission men to the battlefront.
“The mayor, Dianne Feinstein, used to call me,” added poet Roberto Vargas. “She’d ask, ‘What’s going on? Why don’t you let the streets go?’ ‘Just 15 more minutes,’ I’d say.”
The writers and artists who participated in that movement will reunite tonight at the Mission Cultural Center to celebrate their work and Vargas’s 70th birthday.
It was Vargas who led the Mission’s response to the quake that destroyed Managua, the capital of Nicaragua.
With help from other Nicaraguans living in the Mission, Vargas, then a San Francisco Neighborhood Arts Program organizer, set up donation centers in the Mission. “We’d be unloading trucks at midnight, because we all had day jobs,” said Vargas, who was born in Managua and raised in the Mission.
Eventually, word got back to the volunteers that the money they raised and the goods they donated never reached the earthquake victims. “Their dictator was keeping it,” said Vargas.
That dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, was part of a family that had ruled Nicaragua since 1936.
“Ten thousand people died in that earthquake,” said Vargas. “And this guy, all he tried to do was enrich himself over that tragedy.
“We realized that Somoza had to go.”
That realization began a solidarity movement that would use art, political influence and for some, their bare hands, to fight against oppression in Central America. The movement started with Nicaragua and expanded to support revolutions in El Salvador, Chile and Guatemala.
Vargas formed the Nicaraguense Comité Cívico, or the Nicaraguan Civic Committee, around 1974. “We started working together to help liberate Nicaragua,” he said. Some of the members would eventually leave the U.S. to fight in the civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
In the Mission, there was power in numbers. A thousand exiles from Nicaragua were already settled here, according to Vargas. They lived among others who fled crises in Central America. San Francisco’s liberal political climate was a draw.
“Some went to Miami, but a lot of them came to San Francisco,” said Vargas. “Miami wasn’t very friendly to revolutionaries.”
When the committee took to the streets, “We would provide music and poetry, so it wasn’t just a political rally.” Many of the committee members he recruited were artists. “There were some pretty nice posters that were developed in the Mission, by Juan Fuentes.”
“Art mediated between politics and the mass audience,” said Osorio. “Some of the images became iconic, appearing on TV in Nicaragua. It’s worth a book, an illustrated book. The caliber of the artists, writers and musicians that went through.”
“Poets like Ernesto Cardenal came from Nicaragua,” said Alejandro Murguía, a poet and creative writer who teaches at San Francisco State University. Cardenal’s book of poems from that time is called “Flights of Victory,” or “Vuelos de Victoria.”
Although it received no local funding, the Mission Cultural Center’s gallery gained attention. “By six months, we were being reviewed by the best critics of San Francisco, because the quality of the work prevailed,” said Osorio. “Alfred Frankenstein came, from the Chronicle.”
Militant activities were organized through the center, as well. “We organized from the Mission Cultural Center the militant takeovers of first the Nicaraguan consulate and then the Salvadorian consulate,” said Osorio, who founded the center’s gallery. “Because the media was ignoring the whole situation and wars were developing. Those takeovers brought the attention of the news media.”
Some of the writers and artists were happy to remain in the Mission and use their work to spread information about the poverty and oppression in Central America. But a small group of the activists decided — like other American artists and writers had during the Spanish Civil War — that they would fight in the wars.
Vargas, Osorio and Murguía decided to fight. But first they had to train in San Francisco.
“We had to learn martial arts, how to defend ourselves,” said Vargas. “No drinking, no smoking. We were in great shape.”
“The Pacifica area had some rifle ranges,” he said. “We rented airplanes by the hour to learn to fly them.”
“We would run around Bernal Hill five times, counter-clockwise,” said Murguía. “I don’t think you can do that anymore.”
Vargas fought in Nicaragua for about a year, frequently returning to the United States to do political organizing. “It was awful because I’d see my family again and they’d know I’d have to go back again, and see people getting killed,” he said. “I think what saved me was the clarity of the mission.”
Murguía also fought in Nicaragua, and his time there inspired his book, “Southern Front.”
In 1980, Osorio returned to El Salvador to fight in that country’s 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992 with the signing of the peace accords and the assimilation of the rebel forces into the political process.
One of Osorio’s friends, Walter Huracán Gomez, a poet who came from Nicaragua just after the earthquake, declined to fight. “They asked me to go fight in Nicaragua, by Costa Rica, but I refused,” said Gomez. “I said to them, ‘In this war, a bullet may kill one, but a good poem may give to a thousand.’ I didn’t go because I used poems to help people understand the revolution. I used poems like a weapon against the dictatorship.”
For all the men, their best memories of the solidarity movement took place while organizing from the Mission.
Before his untimely death, Mayor George Moscone “was very helpful,” said Vargas. “He invited us, a group of about 20 Nicaraguans, to the mayor’s office. ‘Mayor, there’s a demonstration outside,’ someone said. ‘No, it’s in support,’ I said. ‘They want to say hello to you.’
“So, [Moscone] stepped out on the balcony, and there were hundreds of Nicaraguans waving red and black flags. And he was very taken by that.”
From 1978 to 1979, before the war ended, Vargas’s committee would organize marches from 16th Street to the 24th Street plaza.
A year later, after Somoza’s defeat, Vargas asked Mayor Feinstein if they could have the key to the city. “She said yes. Samuel Santos [López], the first mayor of Managua, came to accept the key. We had the ceremony at Mission High School, my alma mater!”
Osorio remembers the time fondly. “We won!” he said. “The movement was a success…. It prevails up to this point. The longevity is important.”
A Night to Celebrate San Francisco’s Nicaraguan Solidarity Movement starts at 6:45 p.m. tonight at the Mission Cultural Center.