A seafood restaurant in Pilsen: two glasses of white wine have loosened up Orlando Perez--born-again Christian, quadriplegic, proud Sandinista from Los Madrigales, Nicaragua--enough for him to tell his camel joke.
"There was this man who was traveling across the desert on a camel. After a few days he began to get an urge."
Perez's interpreter is a young, fresh-faced folksinger type. No makeup or nylons; a soft, innocent, shy voice. She was sent by the local Nicaragua Solidarity Committee. She says "urge" and blushes slightly, perhaps fearing what she will have to repeat.
"So he takes down his pants, stands on a tree stump. But the camel moves away. A little while later he gets the urge again. So he takes down his pants and stands on a tree stump. But the camel moves away again. Soon he comes to an oasis. There is a beautiful woman there. She is wearing a sheer dress with nothing on underneath. She says, 'Can I do anything for you?' He says, 'Oh yes! Could you please hold the camel?'"
The interpreter survives and even laughs along. With his bloodhound eyes and husky build, Perez looks like Diego Rivera sitting in a wheelchair. He eats pulpo (octopus), and says his nickname used to be el pulpo because he was all hands. He reaches over and nudges Berta, his attractive young wife--he still has the ability to move his arms, though he has trouble moving his fingers. After two weeks in the States and a week in Chicago, she's had to borrow clothes. They didn't pack enough clothing, but they packed plenty of Flor de Cana, the official rum of Nicaragua. It's a popular use of leisure time where they come from to down Flor de Cana and tell jokes.
How about some anticommunist jokes? "It's OK for a communist to tell anticommunist jokes," he says.
"Fidel Castro goes to a restaurant in Managua. He tells the waiter, 'I want a communist chicken.' A little later Fidel sees the waiter coming with a chicken. But he passes him right by. And then another waiter comes with a chicken and passes him by. Fidel signals the maitre d' and says, 'Where is my communist chicken?' the maitre d' says, 'One moment, comandante.' He returns with a chicken and says, There you are, comandante. There's your communist chicken.' And Fidel says, 'How do you know this is a communist chicken?' And the maitre d' says, 'Because I picked this one out myself. I went to the butcher shop and saw all these chickens, and this one was eating shit. So I said to myself, 'That's a communist chicken.'"
The communist train: "There are communists on a train, and it breaks down. Lenin asks what's wrong, and they tell him the train broke down. So he says, 'I will get all the workers together, and we will push the train.' Stalin says, 'Who is the mechanic? I will have him shot.' And Gorbachev says, 'I don't understand how this train could have broken down. It's a brand-new engine. I bought it from Japan.'"
Orlando Perez became a quadriplegic on 1976, when he jumped off a dam into shallow water. He was 16. "We were having a meeting up there, and some people came by and surprised us--so we had to jump off." Perhaps it was some sort of covert political gathering. He won't say. He doesn't want to talk about it any more than that. Today he's the head of CEPRI, an organization he helped form in 1986 to serve the needs of Nicaraguans with disabilities.
Oddly enough, he was never very politically active until after he became disabled. He got involved with a roving band of artists and musicians who tried to drum up popular support for the revolution with song, poetry, and political satire. But when things got hot in 1979, even telling jokes could be fatal. "Many of the members of the group put down their guitars and picked up guns," Perez says. He left Managua for the valley about 20 kilometers from where he lives today.
His favorite joke from those days: "Anastasio Somoza and his brother Luis were flying in a plane over Nicaragua. Anastasio Somoza says, 'I think I will throw a one-thousand cordoba bill overboard and make one Nicaraguan citizen very happy.' And Luis says, 'I think I will throw two five-hundred cordoba bills overboard and make two Nicaraguan citizens very happy.' So Anastasio Somoza says, 'Well then, I think I will throw ten one-hundred cordoba bills overboard and make ten Nicaraguan citizens very happy.' And the pilot says, 'Why don't you both jump out and make the whole country happy?'"
So maybe this won't be a gloomy affair after all. We're headed to Saint Pius church, where Perez will address about 50 folks. He's billed as the first Sandinista companero to visit Chicago since the February election. The local Sandinista supporters I know were in the depths of depression when Ortega lost, much more so than the Sandinistas themselves. Maybe Perez can explain this. After all, the Sandinistas still have control of the national assembly and plenty of Flor de Cana. Life goes on and so does the revolution, as evidenced by its sense of humor.
As the crowd trickles in, Berta Perez shows us a newspaper entitled Semana comica (Comic Weekly). There's a cartoon of Violeta de Chamorro leaning on one crutch, holding a book labeled "the Nicaragua constitution" upside down and saying, "What is this? A cookbook?" Inside there's a story about a farting contest sponsored by the ministry of culture. And a piece about a toilet with a black hole deep within it that's swallowing people whole. On the first page of the "scandal" section is a photo of a woman naked from the waist down posing luridly on a desk. Chamorro fired this woman for wearing a miniskirt, Berta explains, so she took it off.
The paper is published in the same place as Barricada, the official Sandinista newspaper. Orlando says they lampoon Ortega's bunch too. He closed them down once, Berta says, because women's groups protested the paper's penchant for running photos of naked women every week. Publication was resumed two weeks later, after the paper agreed to run a picture of a naked man every week too. Orlando begins his talk by saying not only is Christianity alive and well in Nicaragua but Christians play an important role in the revolution. Or at least some do. "In Nicaragua, just like in the USA, the progressive evangelists align themselves with the poor. The fundamentalists want to save everybody's soul--as if they didn't have a body to save."
He tells us about CEPRI. "In the years of Somoza there was no organization of disabled people. Every now and then somebody would organize some old ladies to fix a luncheon. That was the highest expression of support."
He points at the black-and-white photos he brought with him: a young man in a wheelchair popping a wheelie down some steps; kids in makeshift carts and wheelchairs, blindfolded and swinging a stick at a pinata; a teenage girl strapping on a crude false leg made of knotty wood. 'These photos show the effects of the war of aggression," he says. And it's not just guns and land mines that cause the disabilities. He says 5,000 cases of polio developed in an area of Nicaragua where they couldn't get vaccine because it was embargoed.
"But in one way or another the pain has lessened," he says, and then smiles slyly. "And now we have a new government. UNO was not founded to govern. It was founded thinking the Sandinistas would win and to discredit the election. We were very sad to lose the election. It took a couple days to awaken from the bad dream. But we were able to feel joy. We had a party. Violeta ruined the election, so we had a party. A lot of UNO people didn't know what to do with electoral triumph."
Witness the general strike that followed Chamorro's inauguration. CEPRI people joined in by going on a hunger strike. 'We still have the will," says Perez. "We will always be able to laugh."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James M. Cahillane.