Revolutionary means I want to change the world (Ernesto Cardenal, in Elisabeth Malkin)
The passing of Nicaraguan poet, priest, artist, and activist Ernesto Cardenal on March 1, after I celebrated the news that the University had granted me tenure, led to a swirl of reflection and gratitude about how I got to this place in my life, how a first-generation college graduate from a place in Indiana where Amish buggies are more common than BMWs, became an expert in Latin American history. My journey, and Cardenal's influence on its trajectory, reminds me of how important it is to pay attention to what speaks to us and to look for connections between our personal interests and professional goals. Cardenal’s influence as an artist, priest, and political figure is vast in Nicaragua, Latin America, and across the world, but his life is also an example of how to live according to our principles and our passions.
Ernesto Cardenal’s poetry transported me from my Indiana college similar to the University of New Haven to Sandinista Nicaragua of the 1960s-80s. After organizing in 1961, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN, Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional) led a popular revolution against the Somoza family dictatorship and rose to power in 1979. Like most revolutions, the Sandinista Revolution brought together people with diverse interests and ideologies to remake Nicaragua. Many identified as Marxist-Leninists and planned to redistribute the nation’s wealth and raise literacy across the country. The threat of expropriation, their rhetoric, and the support of Fidel Castro in Cuba led to stark US opposition, orchestrated through legal then illegal means in what is now known as the Iran-Contra scandal by US President Ronald Reagan through the 1980s.
Cardenal’s poetry woke me to the struggles and dreams of regular people in Nicaragua while the way his willingness to ponder the religious implications of injustice reminded me of I had learned about Jesus’s politics and his call for radical love. For Cardenal, love was the basis of a good society and what united people to rebuild society or to protect a town from the dictator’s soldiers, as in the poem “Barricade.” Building the barricade, a symbol of protection and hope, Cardenal said: “It was everybody’s task. It was the people united. / And we all did it.”
While the Sandinistas compromised their ideals in responding to the Contras and to return to the presidency in the 2000s, Cardenal’s commitment to the cause of revolution—to change the world for the better—endured through his work as a poet, artist, and activist for the rest of his ninety-five years. His ability to combine the mystic and scientific, the religious and material, into a representation of the world, real and imagined, spoke to the historian budding in me before I knew she existed. Today, in a world very different from 2001 when I first read Cardenal, I am struck by the unity he saw between humans and nature in his excitement over revolution’s promise to transform not just society but the world. The poem “Ecology” illustrates:
Not only humans longed for liberation.
All ecology groaned for it also. The revolution
is also one of lakes, rivers, trees, animals.
Although Cardenal identified as a Marxist in the 1960s-80s, his assertion to the New York Times in 2015 that “I am a revolutionary […] Revolutionary means I want to change the world” can serve as a call to any of us, humans with the capacity—and responsibility—to remake the world.
Cardenal, Ernesto. “Barricada / Barricade.” In Flights of Victory / Vuelos de Victoria, bilingual edition, edited and translated by Marc Zimmerman, 26–27. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985.
Cardenal, Ernesto. “Ecología / Ecology.” In Flights of Victory / Vuelos de Victoria, bilingual edition, edited and translated by Marc Zimmerman, 68–71. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1985.
Malkin, Elisabeth. “Science Fuels the Writing, and Faith, of a Nicaraguan Poet.” New York Times, Jan. 2, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/03/world/americas/science-fuels-writing-and-faith-of-a-nicaraguan-poet-.html.