In June, I spent some time in Nicaragua and made a few friends. Nahara was one of them. She was actually born in Nicaragua but immigrated to the United States when she was seven with her family. She just graduated college and plans to become a doctor. However rather than jump right into medical school, she decided to spend a year back in the country she was born in. She is currently working with an organization in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. Her extended family lives several hours away and she visits them every so often.
Name: Nahara Saballos
Location: Matagalpa, Nicaragua; grew up in Brooklyn, New York
So you are spending a year in Nicaragua doing volunteer work. What made you decide to do that?
Well I studied abroad in Botswana when I was in college and after that experience, I definitely knew that I wanted to do global health. I am in the pre-med track, so health really does matter, but international health is really important too. One of my passions is to travel the world and see new things, and learn about different lifestyles and people. So I decided that I wanted to take a year off from school and do something that I wouldn’t get a chance to do later on in my life. So before starting medical school, I decided to take a year off. I didn’t know where to go. I was considering other countries but then I decided on Nicaragua because I left when I was seven and I’ve only been back twice before this trip. It’s usually been like family vacations and seeing family but not really appreciating it or understanding a lot of the culture. I wanted to come back and get a full understanding of where I’m from, where my family is from and where I grew up.
So what was that like? Do you have memories of your first seven years here?
I have very few and they’re more like snapshots, photographs and stories that I heard as I was growing up. I have like very few memories when I was a kid but I do know that I liked it and I liked it mostly because most of my family is here. I think it’s something that’s so valuable that people in the states might not think about or take for granted because their family is there. Growing up in New York and only having my parents and my older sister makes me appreciate having other relatives. It’s something that I really appreciate being here, reconnecting with family, getting to know younger generations of my family and also all of my aunts and uncles.
What was that like when you were seven and first arriving in the United States?
I think a lot of those memories are blurry because of a little bit of trauma. It is a traumatizing experience entering into a new environment that you’re not familiar with at all and that you don’t understand. It’s a completely different language anda completely different way of growing up. I do have some memories of being in bilingual classes and loving the first half of the school day when it was all in Spanish, and then getting to the second half when it’s in English and not understanding anything and just crying. I’m a crier. I remember that. It’s not usually positive memories.
You were probably like what happened? Why are we here?
Well I understood why we were there. My dad had left when I was one. He left for the states in 1994. He got a visa and overstayed his visa. Then eventually got all his legal papers worked out. Once he became a resident of the US, he was able to ask for my mom, my sister and I to come to the states. So I like understood we were in New York because we were there to reconnect with my dad, and live with my dad and be a family. I also knew .. since you’re a kid, it’s ingrained in your brain that the United States is better, so I knew that we were going to have a better life. But it was still hard on me.
So do you remember a time when it sort of clicked or you had your first time where you were like “I kind of like it here!”?
I mean I think it’s like getting used to anywhere else. I don’t remember there being a time. I just remember it being like well, this is life and this where I’m living. After awhile, it didn’t seem so foreign to me. I assimilated pretty quickly. As you can tell, I don’t have an accent at all. Also culturally, I’ve attended boarding school and I’ve attended a private US college. I’m pretty f-ing privileged. A lot of it has been because I’ve been involved in organizations that have helped me academically. That has been really supportive because it’s not easy being Latino and it’s not easy being a woman of color trying to get through school. Especially in New York. But I’ve had a lot of support along the way.
It’s a little bit strange because in the states I feel like I’m neither of these things. I’m not fully Nicaraguan and I’m not fully American. Then when I’m here, I feel like I am both of those things especially when I’m with other American volunteers who aren’t Nicaraguan. I feel like well I am American because I have a lot of these customs and traditions, or just habits that I really enjoy about the states. But I’m also Nicaraguan because I have family here and I have a support basis here. I really do enjoy eating gallo pinto because it’s so delicious and it reminds me of my mom’s cooking. So it’s been interesting that in the states I felt like I had nothing and here I feel like I’m a combination of both worlds. I’m trying to get those worlds to meet in a peaceful way. I feel like as I was growing up, it was easier to just reject being Nicaraguan. Not fully reject it, but focus more on my life in the sates. But now that I’m here and I’ve had this experience, I feel like I might go back and try to integrate being Nicaraguan more with my life in the states.
How do you see that looking like when you get back?
I’m not really sure. I haven’t really worked on that yet because I’m not there yet. I feel like I would definitely be more open about my experience as an immigrant and my experience as a Nicaraguan to my friends and other people that I know. Also just being more willing to share my culture with others because I think that for a large part of my life, I was just trying to get by and just be like anybody else. But now I’m like this really does make me unique and interesting. It’s something that add’s to another’s experience. It doesn’t take away from who I am.
So you’re down here working for a public health organization. What has that work been like? You mostly work with women, right?
Yeah so I’m working with Fundacion Somos Asi Por La Paz y La Vida. It’s a brand new foundation. It was established about three years ago through the Skills to Save Lives project founded by Dorothy Grenada. Our main focus is training health promoters in the rural communities on skills that reduce violence such as domestic violence and also child abuse. Any type of violence you can think of in rural communities. Also health-wise, we focus on women’s health. We did a workshop on dental health that I was leading and my housemate led a workshop on the prevention of cervical cancer through visual inspection of the cervix. So we’ve been focusing on that lately. Recently we’ve gone to Rio Blanco and Weslala for these workshops, and we’ve collaborated with Pronica which is a quaker organization. My work has been attending these workshops and then writing up reports on why these workshops are important to have, why they benefit our health promoters and the impact they’re having on these rural health communities, and then translating them into English for our American financial sponsors.
What sparked your interest in becoming a doctor and global health too?
I’ve always wanted to become a doctor. I have an aunt who is a nurse and as a kid here, I used to play with her. We’d play house or hospital. My interest has always been there. As I was growing up, my parents really supported me. They bought me books about anatomy, and anything I was interested in. Then as I was growing up and in high school, I ended up being a blood drive coordinator and continued that in college. I think what interests me the most is the combination of science and the human connection you have with others. So my interest for global health stems from my interest in anthropology, and studying other cultures and populations. I would like to combine anthropology and medicine into my future work. I think also having that experience from study abroad. I know that there is a large need for doctors in under-served, rural areas.
So study abroad. You went to Botswana. What was that experience like?
It was amazing, oh my gosh! It was definitely one of the best five months of my life. I was living in Gaborne, which is the capital of Botswana. Through CIE, we were able to really get to know the country and the culture. We took six weeks of Setswana (the language). We traveled. We spent a week in a rural village as a part of the community health program that I was in. We also traveled to the North where there are the best safaris in the world. During vacations I was also able to travel around to South Africa and Namibia and Swaziland. It’s just such a beautiful part of the world that is under-appreciated. Definitely not understood. There’s a lot of preconceived notions about Africa. It’s been good to call those people out and be able to explain it from my perspective. Like no actually Botswana is pretty well off. They have more BMWs than I’ve ever seen in my life, and they have diamonds. They have a really good industry.
Yeah theres misconception that all of Africa is really poor. What are some other misconceptions you get to call out?
Mostly the whole starving and poor idea. But the other one is AIDS. Everyone thinks that everyone in Africa has AIDS. Or when I say I studied abroad in Botswana, they don’t really know where that is. When I say Africa they’re like oh, you know Africa is a continent, not a country. So that was one. But going back to the AIDS thing, yeah Botswana does have a huge rate of HIV AIDS in the country, about a quarter of all adults are infected with HIV, and I’ve been able to explain to them that the government actually has really good funding for providing people with antiretroviral treatment. People are actually migrating from other countries into Botswana because they can get cheaper medication there.
So within global health, do you have any interest in working with HIV/AIDS?
I find HIV/AIDs to be very interesting, but I think my main focus would be women’s health. In the future I could totally see myself as and obstrician/gynocologist. But I really think talking about human sexuality in an open manner where we’re not stigmatizing women for having sex, where we can talk about contraception and understanding what it really means. It’s not an abortion. It’s actually preventing ovulation. I could see myself working more in women’s health but also sexual health education. That also has a lot to do with HIV and other STI’s.
How have you seen people in Nicaragua think and react to the idea of sexual health?
Well that’s complicated. Nicaragua is a really religious country. Most people are Catholic and therefore it’s not very accepting of the use of contraception. I think also you have to talk a little bit about machismo culture which affects contraception. Most of my work has been focusing in the campesino life and I did talk to one of my friends. She’s also working in the campo and she’s noticed that women don’t really have a right. If men want to have sex when they want to have sex … they don’t even think about women’s desires at all. So from that side of the story, women don’t really have any say in their sexual lives. Which can affect, for example, cervical cancer rates because they’re not using condoms and men are having sex with more than one woman. In Matagalpa, from what I’ve noticed, there’s a lot of cheating stemming kind of from the machismo culture.
So how do you feel when you see all this stuff?
It doesn’t make me super happy. It can be really frustrating to be here, to be a woman and to be catcalled all the time. To think about what I’m wearing and how that’s going to affect whatever goes on in the streets, to not feel safe. So I think about my own personal safety. It’s also frustrating to be in a country where women are so under-valued. It’s something I’m still trying to wrap my mind around. How can we fix this if it’s so intertwined into a culture?
What does being a woman mean to you?
I think I’ve learned from my mom that being a woman means that you have to be strong. Even though people don’t see us as very strong physically, I think women in Nicaragua and in the world have to endure a lot of things just to survive and get by. I think that being a woman to me means being resilient. Definitely a survivor. We are the backbone of community organizing. Any type of progress is usually carried out by women, even if they’re not noted as such. I’m really grateful to be a woman because there’s so much I can learn from other women here and from my mom.
Yeah, so what sorts of things has your mom taught you?
I think she’s defintely been a big influence in my life because my dad left when we were young, so she raised us for the first couple of years of our lives as a single parent. She’s always given us everything that she can. She’s definitely a hard worker. She’s just shown us that you have to be independent.
What’s been your proudest moment in life?
I think my proudest moment must be graduating college. College was really tough on me. I went through a lot of ups and downs in college. I’m so proud of myself for being able to say that I graduated and that I did well. I did the best that I could.
I think another proud moment is just being here. It’s really hard to be on your own and it does get lonely. To be working for a foundation where a lot of people are older than me. It’s been a really tough four months but by the end of it, I’m going to be super proud that I could do it. That I could get myself involved with a different environment, different culture and different work than what I’m used to.
What have you found most challenging about being in Nicaragua?
Well since I’m Nicaraguan, I feel like the culture hasn’t been super challenging to get used to. But I think something very challenging is being lonely and not having my mom around. Not having my college friends, high school friends or home friends around. It’s just loneliness.
So why did you choose the dresses you chose?
I chose the white lace, which is what I wore to graduation, and I chose the black one that I wore to my senior party. They’re both very simple dresses but I also think they can represent intelligent women, powerful women and not having to cover up. Standing up for yourself showing that you can graudate from college or wearing this little black dress. Whatver you wear you’re still going to be an intelligent, respected and confident woman. I feel like the dresses represent a woman who can do it all.