Mothers are the Backbone of the Revolution

Hundreds of Nicaraguan mothers seek justice for their murdered children, birthing a movement.

Alice Driver | Longreads | May 2019 | 7 minutes (1957 words)

She will tell the story of her child’s murder as many times as needed. She will tell it until her voice breaks, until her eyes no longer fill with tears, until her demands for justice are met. She could be the mother of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, or Alyssa Alhdeff in Parkland, Florida, or Álvaro Manuel Conrado Dávila in Managua, Nicaragua. The history of mothers as activists in the Americas is firmly rooted in the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, a group of hundreds of mothers who marched weekly in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aires to protest the murder and disappearance of their children under the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983. These mothers, bound together by the private pain of witnessing a child’s murder or disappearance, turn their anguish and rage outward into public movements to demand justice, often at great risk to themselves.

I witnessed the birth of one such movement in Nicaragua in 2018 — the Mothers of April, a group of more than 400 mothers whose children have been murdered or disappeared by pro-government paramilitary forces. Álvaro, known affectionately as Álvarito, 15, was the first child murdered by pro-government paramilitary forces in Managua on April 30, 2018. I met his mother, Lizeth Dávila, 39, at the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH). To get there I had to pass through military checkpoints and by streets blocked off by walls of sandbags. Dávila sat at a desk with Álvaro’s framed school photo gripped in her hands, as she recounted how shortly after turning 15, he decided to use his birthday money to buy water for students protesting President Daniel Ortega’s social security reforms. Ortega, who was elected in 2006 with 38 percent of the vote, plans to stay in office until 2021 despite increasing protests over his government’s human rights violations. Dávila’s 5-year-old son, who played on the floor during the interview, sang out repeatedly his brother’s last words after being shot in the throat by a pro-government sniper: I can’t breathe. It hurts. Álvaro is one of more than 300 students, including 18 minors, who have been murdered by pro-Ortega paramilitary forces since last April. As Gonzalo Carrión, the legal director at CENIDH described the situation, “The people of Nicaragua are suffering from what we would call a despotic dictatorship that has expressed itself and become increasingly violent since April 18 — the dictatorship has taken out its hidden claws.” Of her murdered son, Dávila said, “I imagine that he never thought that the police would respond with bullets.” Given the accuracy of the shot, which clearly aimed to kill, Dávila believed a sniper had taken out her son. When police came to her house and tried to blame her son’s murder on other protesters, she told them that no mere civilian had the aim of a professional sniper.

When police came to her house and tried to blame her son’s murder on other protesters, she told them that no mere civilian had the aim of a professional sniper.

Álvaro was still alive after getting shot, but when protesters helped get him to the nearest hospital, the hospital denied him entry. By the time he was taken to another hospital, he had almost bled to death, and after four hours and 15 minutes in the operating room, he died. Dávila explained, “State hospitals had closed their doors — they were not allowed to treat protesters. They were only allowed to treat government people.” The hospital paperwork listing the reason for his death cited “natural causes.”

First: Josefa Esterlina Meza holds a photo of her murdered son Jonathan, 21, in her hands. Second: at a march organized by the Mothers of April in Managua, in September 2018, pro-Ortega forces fired two shots into the air and marchers, including this woman, feared the worst and dove to the ground. Nobody was hurt and afterwards fellow protestors helped people get up. Third: Jaqueline del Socorro Valdivia Aguilar, the mother of Christopher Nahiroby, 19, a student illegally detained by President Daniel Ortega’s forces.

As Carrión saw it, young people were exercising their constitutional right to protest and they should be able to take to the streets without fear of being oppressed. However, the reality he described was that “hundreds of government forces have assaulted citizens, journalists. Many journalists have been robbed, have been assaulted, including one of our colleagues, a photographer.” When I asked him about the state of press freedom, he looked me in the eyes and said, “You have the freedom to say what you want at the risk of losing your life.” Adelaida Sánchez Mercado, who had worked at the CENIDH for 12 years as a media liaison described a situation in which “young men and young women have been killed, basically kids. The repression has no limits. It has been ruthless; it has been bloody.” In December, Nicaragua’s National Assembly canceled the legal registration for the CENIDH, thus ensuring less oversight of human rights violations.

The hospital paperwork listing the reason for his death cited ‘natural causes.’

Sánchez Mercado had witnessed the Mothers of April play a crucial role in demanding freedom and justice for murdered and detained youth. “The mothers are the ones who are showing up and demanding respect for life, respect for integrity and that the government free their children.” she said. “As women, we are defending our lives, those of our children, the lives of our partners.” Sánchez Mercado introduced me to Jaqueline del Socorro Valdivia Aguilar, the mother of one of hundreds (the exact number is unknown) who have been illegally detained for protesting. Her son Christopher Nahiroby, a 19-year-old student who studied English and wrote poetry, was detained for his role in protests on August 25, 2018. His mother explained, “Seven young people were arrested, including Nahiroby, on August 25. … What the government wants is to quiet those voices demanding liberty and democracy.” Valdivia Aguilar has not been allowed to visit her son in detention and she worried that he has been tortured.

When I asked him about the state of press freedom, he looked me in the eyes and said, ‘You have the freedom to say what you want at the risk of losing your life.’

Eight days after the death of her son, two women arrived at Dávila’s house — their sons had also been murdered while protesting Ortega government policies. They asked her if she wanted to form part of a group of mothers in a similar situation, and they shared stories of their dead children. “If they lay a hand on our sons, they lay a hand on us,” said Dávila, describing how the mothers felt about the violence perpetrated by pro-Ortega forces. When Dávila protests, she carries a large photo of Álvaro, and mothers come up to her and say that his death moved them to take to the streets because they saw their own son in him. The protests in Nicaragua began on April 18 as youth took to the streets to protest social security reforms that they saw would hurt their parents and grandparents. When pro-government forces, who often dressed as civilians, started killing protesters in the following days, latent anger over the stranglehold of the Ortega government on things like a free press and freedom of speech made citizens, especially youth, fearless, and marches occurred almost daily. As Dávila described, “They are killing our young people, our sons, but we are the women who are organizing a movement.” The Ortega government accused the mothers of being paid by foreign agents to sow disorder and said that they had been manipulated, deceived. As Dávila and I sat side by side, a photo of Álvaro in front of us on the table, Dávila apologized to me that she couldn’t take me to visit her son’s grave. She was afraid we would be followed by people who “want to dig up the bodies” of youth like her son, youth who had been murdered while protesting Ortega.

A protestor at the march organized by the Mothers of April in September 2018 wears a mask made from the Nicaraguan flag. His shirt reads: “Here are all your plebs, but united together to liberate my Nicaragua.”

In September 2018, when several of the members of the Mothers of April invited me to accompany them during a march in Managua to honor their children, they led the thousands of citizens gathered in the hopes that their bodies would protect students, who are the clear target of government violence. Marching with the joyous, angry, pulsating mass of humanity, I saw costumed women on stilts, a group of trans women dressed in sequins and dancing, mothers holding life-size photos of their murdered children, teens with bandanas tied around their mouths spray-painting stenciled slogans on the sidewalks, mothers marching hand in hand with daughters. “We aren’t animals. We aren’t cattle,” said Josefa Esterlina Meza, 55. “We are thinking people. We are human beings, and we have the right to have an opinion.” Meza and the other mothers were met by heavily armed police and military forces who blocked the protest route, shouting insults and beating those within their reach with batons. The women were prepared for such resistance and rerouted their supporters, only to be met at the end of the march again with police forces who fired two shots, causing marchers to dive for cover, the memory of recent murders fresh in their minds.

On May 30, Meza had taken her two sons to a march to support mothers whose children had been murdered. “It was the mother of all marches,” said Meza, “and there were almost a million people there.” She said she never imagined that at that march, pro-government forces would murder her son Jonathan Morazán Meza, 21. He was shot in the head and, though he did make it to the hospital, he died there. As Meza explained, those who perpetrated acts of violence against her son and other youth “are snipers. They shoot at the head, at lethal areas — the heart, the head, the chest, the liver.” On the day that Jonathan was murdered, eight other protesters were also killed, students who Meza described as being 15 to 18 years old and unarmed. After Jonathan was killed, she, like so many of the mothers, had to flee her home due to constant threats. As Meza described, in April 2018, “The paramilitaries started to commit crimes against poor kids: They disappeared them, they threw them in jail, they killed them. That was the birth of the Mothers of April.”

Meza, who I met at twilight in a home in Managua where she sometimes stays, showed me photos of Jonathan on her phone. Her stoic face bathed in the electronic light of the device, she spoke of his love of school and the danger of being a student in a country where independent thinking is not allowed and a free press hardly exists. She said, “It’s dangerous to be young. It’s a crime to be young because they chase you and try to make you out to be terrorists.” She described how at marches, paramilitaries would disguise themselves as civilians then incite riots, burn cars, or kill other protesters. Meza petitioned for government officials to investigate her son’s death, but she says her requests were ignored and she was put under surveillance. Of government officials, she said, “They’re not going to harass us, the mothers, because you can’t put a price on our kids and we prefer to die of hunger [than remain silent]. I’m not going to say that my son wasn’t murdered; he was murdered.” Since the government wouldn’t offer her justice, she told her story to what she described as “the few independent media outlets” in the country.

The paramilitaries started to commit crimes against poor kids: They disappeared them, they threw them in jail, they killed them. That was the birth of the Mothers of April.

After Jonathan’s death, Meza sent her remaining 18-year-old son to Costa Rica where he would join some of the 50,000 Nicaraguans who have fled the violence in the country. When I asked if she wanted to flee with her son to Costa Rica, she said she felt that it was her duty to stay and fight, to bear as much as she could in the quest for justice for Jonathan and other murdered youth. “I am here enduring what I must to ensure that my son didn’t die in vain,” she said.

A marcher raises his hands, and in the background one of the metal sculptures known as a “tree of life” is visible. The sculptures were installed at the orders of the Vice President of Nicaragua, Rosario Murillo, who is the President’s wife. Student protestors have cut down some of the sculptures as a form of protest against the Ortega government.

Meza said that she feels happiest when she is at marches, that she and the other Mothers of April will keep the memory of their children alive by putting their bodies in the streets, by making the pain and glory of motherhood into a show of strength and persistence for which corrupt governments, agencies, and organizations are no match. Justice, more often than history books admit, is kept in balance by the public display of anguish and rage of mothers, whose resolve is both underestimated and unmatched.

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Alice Driver is a longform journalist and translator based in Mexico City. She covers borders and migration, and she is the author of More or Less Dead. You can find her work at National Geographic, California Sunday, Time, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and CNN.

Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel
Copy editor: Jacob Gross