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From Nicaragua to Miami

While Cubans make up the most significant Latin community in Miami, Nicaraguans don’t fall far behind. Reports from the 2010 Census counted more than 120,000 Nicaraguans in Miami-Dade County—but the real number is probably higher, as the Census doesn’t account for children, those who did not participate, or undocumented immigrants. Despite being one of the largest Latin populations in Miami, the history, culture, and spirit of Miami’s Nicaraguan community gets less attention than they deserve.

The Land of Lakes and Volcanoes

With more than 50 volcanoes, countless lakes and lagoons, Nicaragua’s natural beauty has earned the country its nickname as “Land of Lakes and Volcanoes.” However, it’s been a tumultuous place as well, with instability dating back to 1522, when Spaniards took control.

While it is the largest country in Central America by geography, the majority of the population is concentrated in the western part of the country. Other than the main city of Bluefields, the eastern section is covered in dense jungle. The concentrated population is very closely tied to its migration patterns. Play “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” there and you’ll be surprised. Everyone knows each other or they know someone that knows someone. And the Miami connection had existed for decades. It’s a mere 2-hour flight away, climates are similar, and the Cuban community had already created a strong Latin outpost for them to work from. For wealthy Nicaraguans, periodic shopping trips to Miami were the norm, and remain so to this day. So it was to Miami they fled when the situation in Nicaragua became increasingly precarious.

The Somoza family came into power in the 1930s, and with it followed decades of instability and corruption. Real trouble began in 1967 when West Point graduate Anastasio Somoza assumed presidency. He had a militant background and was known to be ruthless with the National Guard.

On December 23, 1972, a massive earthquake destroyed much of the country’s capital, Managua. In the aftermath, as the country rebuilt, the Somoza family embezzled millions of relief dollars. This launched the beginnings of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (commonly known as FSLN), a group of revolutionaries against the dictator and named after Augusto César Sandino, who led the Nicaraguan resistance against the United States in the 1930s. In 1979, the group succeeded in ousting the Somoza dynasty, and in 1984, Daniel Ortega, one of the leaders of the FSLN, was elected as president.

Shortly after taking power, the Sandinistas didn’t turn out much better. With the country’s morale and economy in shambles, Ortega further crippled it by nationalizing hundreds of businesses and passing the Agrarian Reform Law, which nationalized non-productive lands larger than 500 blocks. He shut down the press and forged close relationships with the Soviet Union and Cuba. Another revolutionary group, the Contras, rose up during this period. This time, the United States decided to get involved, funding and training the group, which further inflamed the situation and, infamously, led to the Iran-Contra scandal.

The civil war mainly took place in the mountainous northern regions of the country and lasted until 1989. The 1990 election of Violeta Chamorro brought the end of the war and the Sandinistas. But by that time, most Nicaraguans had already set up firm roots elsewhere.

Overburdened, but persevering

Historically, there are two common immigration stories for Nicaraguans in Miami. There are those who already had resources and established roots in the community even before they moved to the city, and those who came alone and with nothing. But for both groups, those first years of sacrifice and assimilation were difficult.

A New York Times article from January 1989, “Miami, Saying It’s Overburdened, Tells Nicaraguans to Stay Away,” paints a picture of a Miami filled to the gills with immigrants, a large percentage of them being Nicaraguans: “When they arrive here, the Nicaraguans, most of whom do not speak English, seem bewildered. There are no government or social services representatives to meet them at the bus station. The lucky ones have friends they can call. But many have no idea what to do. They head for the stadium, only to find it closed to them. Dozens of Nicaraguans set up camp today on the streets outside the stadium, where mattresses dotted the sidewalk.”

There was a concern for thousands of Nicaraguans that were coming in without support and Miami did not have the resources to house them or give them jobs. “I want to help people fleeing a system perhaps as oppressive as Cuba’s,” then Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez, himself a Cuban immigrant, told The New York Times. “But I don’t think it would be fair or smart on my part to say that we have infinite capacity to absorb, because we do not.”

However, the Nicaraguan immigrants persevered. Thousands and thousands came and created their own community within an already bustling Latin enclave. Many Nicaraguans settled into the areas of Little Havana, and later, Sweetwater, but many others moved to parts of Kendall, Brownsville, and Little Haiti, with some traveling even further abroad to build communities in Houston and Los Angeles.

Little Nicaragua

One area they’ve influenced quite dramatically is Sweetwater, which was founded in the 1940s. These days, it’s commonly referred to as Little Managua or Little Nicaragua. The area was specifically attractive to early immigrants due to its extremely affordable rent. And as they persevered, they contributed to the community they’d created. An economic analysis in 1997 showed the Nicaraguan community contributing $1 billion annually to the county’s economy. Without them, one politician said in a court filing, “Sweetwater would cease to exist,” reported The Economist.

In July 2015, Sweetwater renamed the section of SW 104th Court and Flagler Street in front of the Centro Comercial Managua as Nicaragua Avenue. Its residents include Nicaraguan doctors like the retired Uberne Valerio, who served as the pediatrician to the majority of Miami’s Nicaraguan refugees in the 90s, and the popular pastries, pulperias, and fritangas that remind foreigners of home. Walk down the street with a raspado (Nicaraguan snow cone) from Raspados Loly’s and you will even catch a few Nicaragua-isms, like ideay chavalo, along the way. The city is home to the first American outpost of Los Ranchos, one of the Managua’s most famous steakhouses, as well as Rubén Darío Park, named after the Nicaraguan poet who introduced modernism to Spanish literature.

Courtesy of Reyna HurtadoFor the older set, purisimas and griterias are still very much an important part of the Nicaraguan tradition, a largely religious culture. These celebrations centered on the Virgin Mary occur during the “Purisima season” which runs from the end of November through January. Purisimas are private parties, while griterias are public. People gather on the streets, singing or shouting small hymns or the popular “Quien causa tanta alegria? La concepción de Maria!” It is a time to celebrate, and to eat. It is common to find long tables of traditional foods at these gatherings, items like fresco de cacao (a refreshing drink made with rice and cacao), vigorón (cabbage salad), cajetas (caramel cookies), rosquillas (sweet cornmeal cookies), and much more. Nicaraguan cuisine is full of iconic dishes, some of which have become ubiquitous, while others remain more obscure, including nacatamal, queso frito, gallo pinto, yuca, repocheta, churrasco, tres leches, and Pío V. They’re popular at cafeteria-style restaurants called fritangas, and restaurants like El Madroño, Cerro Negro, and La Pulperia.

Decades after the first waves of Nicaraguans moved to Miami en masse, generations have grown up here, and they’ve put down roots. Fleeing instability, like so many of the other immigrant communities Miami is built on, Nicaraguans have carved out a new home for themselves, with old traditions harkening back to the mother country. And their cuisines, traditions, and slang have become just another part of Miami’s diverse landscape. So we leave you with some common words and phrases to speak like a Nicaraguan, in Miami.

Borracho: Drunk
Chapas: Earring
Chele(a): Literally means blonde, but it is used as a description for an American
Chereque: Stuff
Chinela: Slippers; flip-flops
Deacachimba: Extra awesome
Maje: Dude (like “Dude, Where’s My Car?”)
Pajilla: Drinking straw
Púchica: Damn
Pulperia: Five and dime store
¿Que Honda?: What’s up?
Queque: Cake

By Mandy Baca
Mandy Baca is a Miami native and freelance writer, who is obsessed with her city. She is also the author of The Sizzling History of Miami Cuisine: Cortaditos, Stone Crabs and Empanadas, Discovering Vintage Miami, and the upcoming Cuban Cuisine from South Florida.