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Week 13 Oppenheimer

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Final Paper


Victoria Kline
Anthropology 582: Mesoamerican Cultures
September 29, 2004
Dr. Ramona Perez

Rascally Signs in Sacred Places: Part III

The antiquities of Nicaragua became items of national desire in the late nineteenth century. Unfortunate for Nicaragua, museum collectors from England, the United States, and Sweden pretty much came into the country and took what they desired to have in their own collections. And it seems that at that time the country was literally stripped of its ancient heritage. And now that the country wishes to get back some of these precious ethnographical artifacts and remnants of the ancient civilization that once occupied Nicaragua, there seems to be resistance to compliance. The museums question the ownership of the objects and the rights of the modern Nicaraguans to claim the artifacts as those of their own descendants. They question the ability of Nicaragua to properly house and display the items in the most advantageous way. Compliance to demands of repatriation rests on the individual museums in which the artifacts ended up. Who knew that museums were so competitive? I certainly never thought of museums as opponents. Museums end up being the stewards of culture, and are responsible for what gets displayed and in what light it is represented.

That’s pretty powerful and in that light worthy of contest. Museums shape national identity. 
Ruben Dario was a famous poet who was born in Nicaragua and lived his early life in poverty. At a young age Dario left Nicaragua to make his way in the world. He essentially made himself into a new person by studying the manners and customs of the wealthy class, and then becoming the image of a successful person. Dario’s is a true rags-to-riches story if I ever heard one. His writings eventually brought him fame and the recognition he desired and also the ability to afford some of the finer things. Even though most of his life and writing career was spent in other countries, the Nicaraguan people came to embrace him as one of their core cultural figures, as a hero of the people. The writings of Ruben Dario were used to strengthen both sides of opposing political views in the eyes of the people. For the Somozas Dario was written and spoken of as a progressive liberal and anti-revolutionary. From the Sandinistas, Dario was projected as “Nicaragua’s national poet,” who embodied the ideals of the cultural identity of the Nicaraguan people, was for liberation from oppression of western influence and occupation, and essentially a socialist. Both personalities were derived from his writings, which were ambiguous enough to allow disparate interpretations. In truth Dario wanted to distance himself from his roots, and did not wish to be representative of it. He wanted fame and fortune and prestige, and did not want to be aligned with poverty, classlessness, or indigenousness. His legend is a cultural construct. Ruben Dario as a cultural icon was used to shape national identity.

Following the story of Ruben Dario is an account of the life of Augusto Sandino, leader of a small rebel army that fought with US Marines early in the Somoza regime. He was eventually captured and assassinated in 1934, an established hero to the people and eventually a legend. Unlike Dario, Sandino was the real thing. He actually did love his country and fought for its freedom from the tyranny of the Somoza regime and US military control. His was the ideology behind the later revolutionary group, the Sandinistas. The legend encompassing Sandino is thoroughly embedded in Nicaraguan culture, through stories, songs, and poetry.

He was the product of a Spanish father and an Indian mother. He experienced the poverty of living first with his Indian mother, then later went to live with his Spanish father. He remained proud of his Indian blood although he married an almost pure Spaniard. Early denouncing of Spanish colonialism led to later admiration of the Spanish influence. 

After the death of Sandino, Somoza elder wrote a book in order to discredit him and the army he led. In response to the Sandino bashing, the vanguardistas were writing stories and songs to honor him, and these became circulated among the people. Continuing into the 1960s “Anti-Somoza poets, singers, journalists” kept the heroic version of Sandino alive (358). In the 1960s and 1970s Carlos Fonseca led the Anti-Somoza student movement using Sandino as its cultural icon. General Augusto Ceasar Sandino’s ideology was used to shape national identity.

The last chapter of our book is a “case study” on the new women of Nicaragua. They are screwed, literally. Whisnant explores power relations and tells some riveting stories, to show how difficult change in women’s favor is going to be in the face of tradition, and examine the conflicts and change having to do with gender. The pattern of male dominance is strong in Nicaragua. Men and women live by rules of culturally defined order, practice the rules through the routines of daily life, and pass on the rules of behavior to their children. The pattern of male dominance is thus embedded into the family life and values of the people. Thus it is something very difficult to resist, or to make serious headway against. The Catholic Church did its part in maintaining the subservient role of women in the gender order.

In the 1970s when the Sandinista army was short on soldiers, women began entering into military service in order to fight oppression for all the people. However, after the Sandinistas succeeded in overthrowing the Somoza government, control of those jobs was returned to men. Whatever gains women made during the Sandanista government were eliminated by the ensuing government’s policies.

Question: Isn’t some of the anger towards the United States a little misplaced? The Spanish occupation should have left some Nicaraguans unhappy because of the brutal nature of the period, but no, they decide to be angry with the soldiers of the United States. The US soldiers were not occupying the country, but there by invitation of their (Nicaragua’s) own government, and were following orders.

Question: The way that cultural patterns are passed on seems to be a universal among human groups. We are not completely free of machismo here in the US but it certainly is frowned upon, and talked about as something that is detrimental to the family. Men who physically abuse their spouses can be arrested here, but will be held and tried for a crime only if the wife presses charges. Often she will not. So in reality, it is within the power of the woman to stop abuse against her. If she falters and does not fight against it, the violence against her becomes a self-perpetuated crime.

Since the woman has control of the upbringing of her children, her attitudes towards the status quo will be transferred to the children. If she is complacent about her place in the scheme of the family, then tradition will prevail. Ultimately, women are a powerful force in change, but only if they choose to be so. How might positive change for women be instigated in Nicaragua given the futility of the present attempts at change (for the better) against the powerful machismo tradition? (Or in the United States for that matter?) It is especially problematic since women seem to be part of the equation in maintaining the stability of the present gender order paradigm.

Question: It just seems like the Latin American model for raising boys could create a wild, and self-centered person. The age at which boys are allowed to run around without restriction is exactly the age that they get into the most trouble and are the most destructive. Not allowing the less testosterone driven girls to run around unchaperoned in adolescence does protect them from physical harm (a real possibility it sounds like) but more importantly stresses the need for females to practice restraint and precludes the possibility of pre-marital pregnancy. What other reasons could there be for the dimorphic rearing of the children? And are the underlying mechanisms at work important in maintaining cultural stability?  Are the incidences of violence against women peripheral outliers to the main stable cultural body? Or are they indicators of malfunction within the system? Personally, I could not live in a society where the young men had all of the power!

Here is a quote that seems to say it all. When women are faced with a choice of following a path to liberation or maintaining the status quo “the seductive possibility of easy collaboration highlights the arduousness of emancipatory struggle” (401). It is easier and more comfortable to live out your life under rules that are in place than to go against the grain working for change. 

To sum up, I would like to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the style and flow of this reading on Nicaraguan history and culture. More than once I was surprised by the events in the narration. The book is full of vivid sketches and descriptions of culture. It contains so much quality information that it certainly deserves a reread. It is written in a style that I admire and desire to emulate.


Whisnant, David E.
1995    Rascally Signs in Sacred Places: The Politics of Culture in Nicaragua. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press.

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