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‘The Kids Grow Up So Fast There’ : 14 Teen-Agers Sample Life in Nicaragua

Times Staff Writer

When 15-year-old Euphronia Knill told her parents she was planning to take a trip to Nicaragua, they flipped.

“I said, are you out of your mind? There’s a war going on,” Euphronia’s mother, Planaria Price, said. “Her father was livid.”

But they eventually came around, and Euphronia joined 13 other Westside teen-agers on an 8-day visit last month to the Central American country.

For many teen-agers from relatively well-to-do Westside families, childhood is a generally carefree time; the biggest problems may involve what college to go to and how to get money for the newest compact disc.

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Transplant these kids to war-weary Nicaragua, and what they see surprises them: children their own age--sometimes younger--are carrying guns, fighting wars, caring for orphaned or abandoned siblings.

Lost Childhood

“The kids grow up so fast there,” Euphronia, a student at the private Oakwood School in North Hollywood, said.

“I saw this little girl who was carrying her younger sister or brother, and they were both so close to the floor; it just seemed like the baby was half as big as she was, and she was carrying it. It just made me feel so bad, because she had all this responsibility, and I think childhood should be a really important time, I mean, we’re enjoying ours. . . “

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“They don’t have much of a childhood,” added Marcel Menard, 15, a student at the Center for Enriched Studies, who also went on the trip.

“I’d see girls . . . carrying their baby sisters, probably feeding them while the mother is at work. So it’s almost like they became a mother while they’re still a child.”

The trip was arranged by the Office of the Americas, a Santa Monica-based peace organization that opposes U.S. policy in Central America. Office of the Americas leads about 10 delegations a year to Nicaragua, but this was only the second time it organized a group so young.

Executive Director Theresa Bonpane, who has made numerous trips to Central America, led the group along with Phyllis Menard, Marcel’s mother.

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Met Young Soldiers

At one point, on the shore at Lake Xiloa, a popular resort outside Managua, the kids met a group of Sandinista soldiers.

“The youngest one there was 15. Incredible,” said Robby Chambliss, 17, of Hamilton High School. “We played with them, built a human pyramid. . . . It was one of the greatest things on the trip.”

On the same beach a few minutes later, they ran into a group of U.S. Marines, taking a break from their duty at the U.S. Embassy.

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Meeting the young Sandinista soldiers left a lasting impression on Euphronia. She thought back to them a few days later when some of her friends were having a pillow fight.

“I was just thinking how the soldiers who were the same age, maybe even a little younger and older, and they’re in the mountains fighting and they should be having pillow fights, too. But they’re not. They’re fighting for their lives. It made me angry, and that really got to me.”

The visitors to Nicaragua also said they were impressed by the value their counterparts placed on education. They visited a high school in Matagalpa, a town north of Managua, to talk to the students. The contrast between the Nicaraguan school--no electricity, doors or supplies--and any of the schools the Southern Californians attend was dramatic.

Attitudes on Education

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“The thing that probably impressed me the most was the determination that the students have at the high schools,” said Neile Rissmiller, 17, who attends Santa Monica College.

“I mean, regardless of everything that was going on in their country, they had so much will to get their education and survive, you know. It really struck me.”

“Here, people think it’s like punishment to have to go to school, and there, they just go to school because they want to and (they) keep on going and keep on going,” added Justin Horner, 15.

In addition to schools, the group visited a shoe factory in the town of Masaya, the National Assembly, a coffee cooperative near Matagalpa, a child-care center and a peasant Mass.

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The visit also put a face of cold reality on what is often a distant war.

“It scared me a little bit because at the lake (meeting the soldiers) we were playing and sitting there, and we all lined up and were introducing ourselves,” said Justin, who attends Santa Monica High School.

“And I was looking over, and just the fact that in two weeks, you know that only three of these people might be alive. You even know that when you’re up here (in the U.S.), but it’s just the fact that you’re down there, and you can look at a group of people, and you’re not just saying that.”

Unflagging Spirit

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Blase Bonpane Jr., the son of Theresa Bonpane and her husband Blase, director of Office of the Americas, admired the spirit of the people that seemed to persevere.

“It seemed everyone had been affected by the war in some way, and just as soon as we get there, there’s 5- and 6-year-old children on the streets trying to make money for their families by selling food and gum or something like that,” said Blase, a 16-year-old who studies at Santa Monica High.

“The children don’t usually ask for money on the streets; they ask for pencils or something like that.”

Several of the youths who took the trip said they wanted to see with their own eyes what is happening in the country that has been a focal point of American foreign policy for most of the decade.

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American organizations from both the left and right ends of the political spectrum frequently send delegations of students, congressmen, religious workers and others to Nicaragua.

And depending on the politics of the organizers, the agenda is often one-sided, dominated either by pro-Sandinista groups or by the opposition, which in some cases supports the Contra rebels.

Series of Meetings

In this case, the teen-agers met with Sandinista youths, Sandinista union members and a Sandinista legislator. They visited offices of the Sandinista newspaper, Barricada.

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They met with only one opposition group, from the Social Democratic Party. A meeting with another opposition group fell through, and a visit to the opposition newspaper, La Prensa, failed because its offices were closed, Bonpane said.

Few of the youngsters speak Spanish. Translations were provided by Bonpane and interpreters from the Sandinista Cultural Workers Assn., who were also their guides and arranged most of their schedule.

In a group interview a few days after their return, the youths recounted stories of alleged Contra atrocities they had heard from a pro-Sandinista organization of soldiers’ mothers, called Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs. But they made no mention of a rival organization of mothers of political prisoners held in Sandinista jails.

A Learning Experience

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Bonpane defended the trip as educational, saying that members of the tour were able to talk to both Sandinista and non-Sandinista Nicaraguans and to plenty of people randomly, on the streets and in the markets.

“In all of these places (factories and schools) we went to, not all of the people are Sandinistas,” Bonpane said. “We really were meeting with as many people who don’t really identify themselves (politically) as anything. We really don’t get just a one-sided view of things.”

Phyllis Menard, the other chaperon, added: “In eight days you can’t do it all. I think if the kids were there long enough, and asked the right questions, they would find people who are not content with the revolution.

“This was the first visit for them, the first time many of them had been out of the country. Fifteen is wonderful in terms of impressions but maybe not in terms of constructive (analysis).”

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Office of the Americas also sponsors lectures for school classrooms and shows a film, “Teen-agers Tour Nicaragua,” Theresa Bonpane said. She said she hoped that the teen-agers who went on this trip will join in talks to area schools to “continue the word” about their experiences in Nicaragua.


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