For Lee Cruz, the most important lesson in León came in a loaf of bread.
Cruz lived in León, Nicaragua in the 1980s, working for the New Haven-León Sister City Project. He told the story Saturday night, as the project celebrated its 25th anniversary at the First Presbyterian Church on Whitney Avenue.
Cruz said that when he arrived in León in 1986 as the project staffer, he began buying bread at a small grocery store where foreigners shopped, but it was stale and tasted awful. His friends told him that in each neighborhood was a woman who made and sold bread from her home.
From a block away, he smelled the delicious aroma of Doña Mina’s bread. But one day her daughter left out the salt and the bread tasted flat. She apologized and assumed no one would want to buy it. Yet one by one, her regular customers bought her bread, saving her family from hunger. Click here for his emotional delivery.
“That’s the story that’s the representation of true community,” Cruz said, “and it’s what’s compelled me to do the work I do now, with people in a dozen different neighborhoods, and I hope it’s that spirit of community that compels you to continue the work that you do today.”
Cruz worked with the project in León for 12 years before returning to New Haven. He works now as the director of community outreach for the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven.
His work in León paved the way for people like David Elkin-Ginetti to have experiences of their own. David, who’s 13, took a recent trip to León with his mom and members of his temple in Orange. (He’s pictured with a poster seeking sponsors for León orphanage.)
In his travels, David said it was surprising how much people could communicate who didn’t speak each other’s language. And he said one of the most important things he learned was, “You need to be content with what you have. Because the Nicaraguans, even though they don’t have much money, they have things that go beyond just objects. They have really strong relations, and they just sit outside on the porches and talk. And that’s really nice.”
The project was co-founded by Alan Wright (pictured) and his wife, Paula Kline. They also lived in Nicaragua for a few years; now they divide their time between their home in Pennsylvania and a community in Veracruz, Mexico. Wright said even though the project was founded during the U.S.-backed contra war against Nicaragua, it was not an anti-war organization but a people-to-people effort that basically ignored U.S. restrictions on travel and trade and set up its own alternative economic and educational development programs in León. León remained a Sandinista stronghold even during the years the Sandinistas (whom the Reagan administration opposed) were out of power nationally (from 1990 through 2006).
Kline said they continued because, “It was really meant to be a relationship between these two communities. It wasn’t a vacation. It wasn’t a tourist spot to go to.” And in those 25 years, almost 1,100 residents of greater New Haven have made the trek to Le√≥n, participating in delegations focusing on health (including mental health, treating victims of the contra war), education, construction, art and more. A thousand bicycles were shipped to health workers and teachers, to make getting to their jobs easier, or even possible, given that few have access to cars.
Director of Development Patty Nuelsen has been with the project 24 of its 25 years, first as a volunteer and as staff for more than 20 years. “Part of the founding vision was that even though there’s great economic inequality between Nicaragua and the U.S., it is still imperative that we treat each other with respect and dignity,” she said. “We still have to look at ourselves to make sure we’re not patronizing. We control the purse strings, and it’s very difficult to do justice in a setting where there is such economic disparity.”
Young and old attended the celebration. Amanda (pictured), who’s 3, is the daughter of Dana Holahan, who volunteered with the project as a teenager, then went to live in Chile, married a Chilean and recently moved back to New Haven.
Probably the eldest Sister City Project supporter in the room was Marion Eisnor (pictured), who volunteered in the office for years before retiring at 84. She’s now almost 98.