Mario Borrel grew up wanting to become a professor, but the chaos of civil unrest in his native Nicaragua led the 19-year-old man in a different direction.
Same thing with Deyvel Cortez, who turned 20 years old on Friday (Aug. 23).
“Every day, we just focused on surviving,” remembers Cortez, who wants to become a doctor.
What helped his friends forget about gangs, a federal government intent on rooting out dissidents and a lumbering economy with few job opportunities, said Cortez, was drugs.
“I started hanging out with a friend and doing what he did. I partied and drank for a long time,” said Cortez, who shared his story with about 100 members of the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church last Wednesday.
“But, nothing changed in my life. That’s when I decided to get away from that,” he said. “I made a big change in my life.”
They are the lucky ones.
Other young countrymen have been followed and harassed by paramilitary members working for President Manuel Ortega. Some have lost family members. Some are orphaned.
That is why Jed Brien, an Australian who worked briefly as a teacher in México, started the U.S.-based non-profit Nicavangelists in 2011. Seeing the suffering of street youths trying to survive among drugs, gangs, prostitution and violence, Brien sought a way to help.
Nicavangelists has a compound in Managua where about 50 youth ages 8 to 26 live.
The former street kids get food, housing, clothing, an education and an opportunity for a better future.
“We want to give them a future,” Brien told the Los Ángeles Times in a 2018 interview. “There are several reasons they may be in poverty. We try to end that cycle by giving them a home, an education and teaching them a performance discipline.”
In Reedley, Brien spoke about the dangers many youth experience today in Nicaragua.
One boy’s family was burned alive as they slept.
One youngster was followed by paramilitary members to the compound, and then fired several shots at the houses.
Another boy, 14 years of age, was rejected by his mother. “I don’t want you here anymore. Go!” is what he was told.
Another experienced an ugly breakup among his parents, and then witnessed hooded men working on behalf of his father scare his mother and siblings out of their house. One brother sold everything he had and combined it with money he earned working to hire a lawyer for his mother.
“We are here to say that what is going on in Nicaragua is real,” said Brien, whose group next visits Los Ángeles. The group had previously been in Reno.
Brien, who grew up in a monastery, has taken the Nicavangelists throughout the United States, Europe and Central América to share their views on Nicaragua’s dictatorship, genocide and government repression.
The group combines traditional Miskito folk dances with tricking (a form of Afro-Caribbean dance) and breakdancing to get their message across. They also put on plays, like they did in Reedley where they performed ‘Jonas.’
The play focuses on the current socio-political crisis in Nicaragua in the context of the biblical story of Jonah.
“Our message is there’s no difference between Nineveh, Nicaragaua, New York, etc.,” said Brien. “We are all like Jonah in the sense that our lives can be a vessel to positively affect the lives of others
“We are like the people of Nenevah and can choose to turn away from our destructive behaviors that negatively impact both ourselves and others.”
The Nicavangelists do their own singing, dancing and monologue. Brien helps with the music.
“They want a sense of nation. They want to be able to say ‘I am Nicaragua,’” said Brien.
Borrel and Cortez admit they do want to return to Nicaragua and help their country. They speak often of missing family and friends.
“I miss my family and the Olmeca culture,” said Borrel, who hasn’t seen his family in a 1½ years.
Cortez, who lived with his grandparents in Nicaragua, misses the food and drink of his country.
“Work there costs a lot because you have to constantly be getting money to eat, which makes education more difficult,” said Cortez, who reached the third year of high school.
Until he met the Nicavangelists, Cortez never thought about what came next in his life.
“I was told to continue my studies, and I was busy with just trying to survive day by day,” said Cortez.
He would like people to realize that there is more to Nicaragua than just the civil unrest.
“There are beautiful beaches,” he said.