Férias, Tertulias, and Kermes

This article was originally intended to post on August 30, but was unable to due to storage restrictions on my old site.

Férias, tertulias, and kermes are all slightly related terms here in Nicaragua. I translate férias as “fair,” but its meaning can be a bit more broad since a day of feriado means holiday (as in a national day off from work and school). I suppose it could also be ‘festival.’

A tertulia is a bit more of a party or gathering, but here in León the city has co-opted the word and now uses it to refer to its every-other-Saturday local products fair during the day and cultural events in the evenings.

A kermes to me seems to be a food féria, often as a fundraiser. People sell plates of food, often traditional Nicaraguan dishes. Kermeses are often held at schools and churches, hence the fundraising aspect.

The reason I bring up these words is because this weekend was chock-full-o’ férias, tertulias, and kermes. And two of my friends, who are members of a four-person dance troupe, performed at each one of the events.

Saturday was the tertulia. I did not attend, however, my tourism group from Telica was advertising their tours at the tertulia two weeks ago, and on Saturday, September 26 a number of my student groups will have the opportunity to sell at the tertulia as well. The tertulias are sponsored by city hall, and I think they are a great event. Participation is free and each participating business is provided with a tent. The only rule is that the company needs to produce the goods that they are selling. ETCA is also thinking about participating in a tertulia soon. It seems like a really great way for the city to promote local businesses.


And if you are interested in a good article on the agricultural work that is being done with the communities in Telica, check out this article. This agricultural stuff fascinates me. 

The tertulia cultural events usually involve an MC/orator from city hall/the Sandinista party booming León pride over powerful speaker systems, interspersed with dancing, music, poetry, and trivia. I also saw them once make a 40 feet long quesillo, courtesy of Nagarote. This particular week, my friends’ dance troupe was part of the entertainment. I meant to go see them, but I didn’t make it over. We did have a night out though and I got to hang out with them.

On Sunday morning there was a little racket coming from the church down the street from me, and I actually assumed it was a kermes. However, Doña Evelyn let me know that it was actually a Féria de Maiz, or Corn Festival/Fair. Many municipalities around Nicaragua have Férias de Maiz around this time of year. However, the most noteworthy ones are in the northern highlands where a lot more maize is grown. Nicaraguans everywhere call themselves Children of the Corn (no, I don’t believe they’ve heard of the movie), and a colloquial term for a Nicaraguan is Pinolero, just like someone from New Zealand is a Kiwi. And you guessed right: pinol is a corn-derived drink made out of toasted corn. And nothing cracks up a Nicaraguan more than hearing a gringo like us Peace Corps Volunteers saying that we are “Puro Pinolero!”

Campo Eric and Elijah with their chicha

Campo Eric and Elijah with their chicha

However, I was surprised that León has a corn festival. From what I’ve noticed the north of the country consumes a lot more corn-based products than the south. Sure, down here people love their tortillas and we are famous for our enchiladitas leonesas, but we eat plenty of bread, pasta, and juice drinks; whereas up north it is tortillas, corn drinks, more tortillas, corn crackers, corn pudding, and more, day in and day out. I’m a particular fan of a certain type of chicha: corn liquor. Remember Carlos Mejía Godoy? He even has a whole song about corn-based foods:

Bonus points to anyone who can remember what trip I tried chicha on. It was nearly a year ago now.

So, despite the hubbub down at the Corn Festival by the local church, I decided not to attend. I assumed that it would be underwhelming, and I didn’t have a hankering for anything corny.

Instead, I went to the Kermes Artistica at Xuchialt, an arts center in Sutiaba. My friends/mentors/former fellow Volunteers, Carlos and Yessica, through the Gettysburg-León Sister Cities project that they now direct, work with Xuchialt. Plus, my dancing friends told me the night before while we were out that they would be performing. So I decided to head over. Unfortunately I missed Daniel and Moises (the dancers) again since they went on early, but there were some other nice performances, artwork, and food.

The paintings on the ground are known as alfombras, or ‘carpets.’ Very popular during Semana Santa, they are actually art made out of colored sawdust. During Semana Santa artists make religious alfombras and then during the nightly processions down the streets they are swept away as a sort of offering.

Xuchialt is in a section of León called Sutiaba (At first I assumed it was Sutiava due to Nicaraguans’ propensity to use b’s in place of v’s, but apparently some historical detective work has revealed that Sutiaba is the most appropriate spelling and pronunciation). León is the oldest continuously occupied European city in the Western Hemisphere (founded in 1524, just a few months before Granada – and isn’t that awesome? I live there!), but it is certainly not the oldest city in the Western Hemisphere. Mexico City, Quito, and Cuzco all immediately come to mind. Sutiaba too was here long before León.

In fact, from 1524 until 1610 León was a few miles to the east, on the shores of Lake Managua underneath Momotombo. However, due to the realized potential for cataclysmic natural disasters, they decided to look elsewhere for a permanent location for their city.

Cacique Adiact, still standing guard at the 'Tope Indio'

Cacique Adiact, still standing guard at the ‘Tope Indio’

The Leones settled down on the banks of the Chiquito River (I’ve been meaning to snap a pic of the Roarin’ Chiquito lately), just to the east of the Sutiaba indigenous community (Sutiaba is apparently how the Spanish eventually wound up pronouncing the settlement. It’s indian name is Xuchialt). And in good ole’ colonial Spanish fashion, they stole riches from the natives, enslaved them, and hanged their chief, Cacique Adiact, from a giant tamarind tree, which remained a rallying-point for Sutiaba until the tree died just a few years ago.

The oldest church and neighborhood in the colonial section of the city is Laborio, where I live (and the location of the Féria de Maiz). They have even identified the oldest house in the city. It is currently Cocinarte Vegetarian restaurant. Good food, slow service, IMO.

Sutiaba remained independent of León proper until the early 20th century when it was consolidated into the León municipality. Sutiaba has roughly 50,000 inhabitants, which is larger than most cities and towns in Nicaragua. Its inhabitants still have a flare for independence, which has led to Sutiaba retaining a bit of a distinct civil society. It has its own representative governing councils, plus a cultural center, churches, market, and its own myths and traditions. I’ve heard many people say that there are still indigenous people living out in the outskirts of Sutiaba, but I’m not truly that keen on looking for them. The one time I accidentally got on the wrong city bus and wound up deep in Sutiaba I did not like what I saw and immediately caught another bus back towards the center of town.

And this may surprise many people, I actually used to live in Sutiaba. Although it only lasted three nights. When Volunteers head to site the Peace Corps has already found them a house to live in. For me, they found me a family in Sutiaba. And on my site-visit, that’s where I stayed. However, some issues with the housing situation became immediately apparent to me, despite the friendliness of the family, and I asked the Peace Corps permission for an immediate switch, which they granted. When I headed back to León at the end of last May, that time permanently, I went right to my new house and family, where I find myself at this very moment (typically, Volunteers have to stay with a family for two months before they are allowed to move to another approved house/family). Sometimes when I am over in Sutiaba, I wonder if I am really a Sutiaban and I should move back.

One of Xuchialt’s first projects was a big mural on the wall in front of the largest school in Sutiaba. I think it is excellent and actually does a nice job capturing the essence of Sutiaba. Here are some glimpses of the long mural:

Back at my house after a few hours at the Kermes, Moises let me know that the dance troupe was going on again, this time at the Féria de Maiz (I thought it was already over, but I was wrong). I ran down the road and was there in time for their performance. It was very nice and I am glad that I finally got to see them perform.

As a closing note, I believe that these civic and social events are a strength of Nicaraguan culture. In fact, it may be a strength of Latino plaza culture in general. On any given night of the week you can find families hanging out in the central plaza or in other public areas. Back in high school when I was on the debate team one of the other members used to always base arguments on a sociological theory called social capital. The theory appealed to me, but I never read the associated book, Bowling Alone, by Robert Putnam. If I paraphrase it correctly, it says that social interactions engender common understanding, a respect for diversity, respect for opinion, and communal decision making. These are the elements of a healthy democracy (elements which the author believes the United States is losing). I would not say that Nicaragua is a healthy democracy (nor would I say that the United States is), but I would say that many of these communal aspects of Nicaragua culture are positive elements of society; ones which I hope Nicaragua will not lose. For my part, I have Bowling Alone downloaded and it will be one of the next books that I read. Unfortunately, Capital in the 21st Century is a bear of a book and it is taking me months to get through, plus I am having some trouble with my Nexus 7. It is stuck in Safe Mode and my Kindle app won’t open!

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2 Responses to Férias, Tertulias, and Kermes

  1. Pingback: A Tertulia of Our Own | Incidents of Travel

  2. Pingback: Competition Season 2015, Part 1 | Incidents of Travel

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