By Fabian Medina (La Prensa)
HAVANA TIMES – What is he doing now, and how does Nicaragua’s most celebrated living singer spend his days in the times of coronavirus? Carlos Mejia Godoy, age 76, will have been in exile for two years this coming August.
He fled Nicaragua to avoid the eventual reprisals that Daniel Ortega could take against him, given the open and public way the singer has denounced Ortega. Since then, he has been seen in concert tours, welcomed in each country by Nicaraguans who see him as a national symbol, and then sometimes he disappears from the public scene.
In this interview, carried out long distance with all the related complications that come with this plague, Mejia Godoy recounts his days spent quarantined in a California city, the vicissitudes of his most recent musical production, and, of course, the situation in Nicaragua and his participation in the Sandinista revolution.
He still identifies as a Sandinista although he recognizes he should have resigned from the Sandinista Front when it fell into “all kinds of vices” in the last few years of the revolution (1979-1990). “I committed the sin of omission,” he confesses.
Where is Carlos Mejía Godoy now?
I’m in California, in a city about two hours outside San Francisco. My wife, Xochitl and I were planning to fly to Costa Rica at the beginning of April, but this pandemic kept us here at the home of my sister, Conchita, and her Russian husband. They have been true angels for us. The house is spacious. It has a big garden where we can take in the sunshine in the morning, giving us some freedom to move about. I feel blessed, because there is a good piano here which allows me to exercise my limited piano playing talents, and most importantly, compose a few new songs and play both popular and classical pieces.
How is your health?
Without exaggerating, I will say that, at 76, I’m still full of life and optimism. Certainly, this prolonged exile is both spiritually and physically exhausting. When I think of the dramatic situation faced by our (Nicaraguan) brothers and sisters within and outside of the country: imprisoned, hounded, and now stricken by this global coronavirus, I do feel privileged. During my last stay in Costa Rica, I did have a check-up, and given my advanced age, I’m in pretty good shape.
How are you living through the coronavirus pandemic?
Fortunately, it happened while we were here and not in Costa Rica. Our apartment there in San Jose is comfortable, but it has less space. Here, around my sister’s family, we’re able to follow all the rules, complying with the recommendations set forth by the WHO (World Health Organization). And from here, we always encourage our friends and family from Nicaragua to remain at home, despite the crazy and criminal attitude of the Ortega-Murillo government.
Are you working on any new creative projects?
Having been impressed by the heroism of doctors and health care workers all around the world, I wrote a new song entitled “Pandemic of Love”. Recording this song proved to be a true odyssey, since everyone is spread out in different countries. I will tell you: in order to sing this tune, we needed some basic technical resources. Here in California the only option we had was a friend’s studio about 6 miles from here, but his wife turned us down because of the pandemic.
Then I asked my brother Luis Enrique – who’s in Costa Rica – if he might find a nearby studio, but my sister-in-law wouldn’t even let him go down to the street corner. I then spoke with Hugo Castilla who has a studio in Nicaragua, but there was no one to sing the song, and so I told him: you sing it. This was followed by a rather pointless conversation, and after two days, almost against his will, Hugo Castilla took on the job.
The female voices are Alma Rodríguez and María Alejandra. They recorded the song in Costa Rica using a little Nokia phone, and then in Nicaragua they gave it their all. This complex task that should have cost fifteen hundred dollars was done with only 450 dollars that I raised by selling some drawings. Same for the video. There are no resources; we are locked down. An excellent producer, whose name will not be mentioned in order to protect him from the dictatorship, did a fine job.
So, you sold drawings? You draw?
My three brothers, Chico Luis, Armando and Luis Enrique, have all achieved professional-level skills with drawings and paintings. In order to keep up during the exile, I tried my hand at drawing and created a few modest pieces, inspired by the civil strife and the bountiful natural features of Nicaragua—volcanoes, flowers and birds. I even dared to create several unpretentious profiles of the dearly beloved and recently departed poet, Ernesto Cardenal. One, a very scenic acrylic, depicts the poet in a hammock on the island of Mancarron, the largest of the Archipelago of Solentiname where the former Trappist monk established a small community of artists, painters, poets and warriors.
You published a column in La Prensa’s Magazine that tells the story of the places you’ve lived and your songs. Have you considered publishing a complete memoir?
I am not disciplined enough to keep a diary, in the strictest sense of the word, but at any point I could be talking with my friends from around the world, and spontaneous prose emerges. I collect these as inputs for my eventual book of memoirs that will for now be called “Un Somoteño llamado Carluchin” (A guy from Somoto named Carluchin). “Carluchin” was my ‘nom de guerre’ in the streets of my community—spinning tops, stomping in puddles or flying kites. I stay in touch with Jesus de Santiago from Hispamer as we work on a different book, “And the Word Became Song” (Y el verbo se hizo canto), based on the material we published in the La Prensa Magazine.
You’ve sung your way through two wars, a revolution, a civic insurrection and now a global pandemic. I imagine there’s been an accumulation of painful moments in all this.
Undoubtedly, the departure of my parents impacted me the most, and the next would be the death of two key people in my life who influenced my development as a singer: Ernesto Cardenal and my dear brother Chale Mantica. But if you want to speak of the most searing moment, starting with the events in April 2018, I would describe one very Kafkaesque night. On television, you saw Daniel Ortega, speaking cynically about peace and reconciliation, invoking God, while at that very moment, they [the Ortega-allied police and paramilitary] were massacring the university students who had taken shelter in the Divine Mercy Church.
I got up and I said to my wife, “I can’t take this anymore! I have to call this dictator and tell him to stop killing our people.” I actually thought that Xochitl, who wept with me in indignation, would be able to restrain me, given the danger we faced. In the end, I gained her support. More than one person responded to that letter [I wrote to Ortega] by calling me “impassioned”, for directly challenging the despot and recalling for him an anecdote involving his father.
I responded, “I didn’t become impassioned, I’m always passionate.” It’s true. If you don’t do things “with passion” they turn out impersonal because they don’t come from the heart. I say without reservation: I am passionate in all aspects of my life, as a singer and as an ordinary human being.
Is Carlos Mejía Godoy still a Sandinista?
Of course I am. My Sandinismo doesn’t come from wearing a button or carrying a card. I was never recognized as a militant in a ceremony. My militancy has its roots in my convictions going back many years before becoming a member of the FSLN. Furthermore, I don’t regret having given the best years of my life, as an artist and a human being, to a cause I embraced from the heart. I am absolutely certain this was the correct path. However, even before the  electoral defeat, I began to see many vices that contradicted the “revolutionary mystique” of our teachings. So, for the first time, I will categorically affirm: My duty then was to resign!
¿Why didn’t you do it?
For the blessed reason that I didn’t want to play the Rightists’ and the Empire’s game. My rationale: I had to keep fighting from the inside. Serious error. Now I confess before my people with all sincerity: my silence was complicity. From my point of view as a Christian, I committed the sin of omission.
Some might also say you didn’t want to lose the privileges you had as a singer for the revolution.
I wasn’t ever privileged, thank God, and I never made money in the shadow of power. I returned the house where I was living to its rightful owners, and I went out and rented a place like any other common citizen. I can say with pride: I joined the FSLN poor and came out even poorer. The legacy I leave my children is a handful of songs about dignity and honesty, dedicated to one singular idea, almost obsessional, to tell the world that Nicaragua is a beautiful country, filled with intelligent and hard-working people, that has been betrayed by their governments.
How do you see Nicaragua now, from exile, two years after the events of April 2018?
I am stressed by everything going on in Nicaragua. The Ortega-Murillo regime is worse than the pandemic; they haven’t responded to it and even joke about the WHO. It’s criminal. I believe this genocidal attitude will progressively lead to the demise of the regime.
Do you foresee another violent outcome?
I maintain that sustained civil protest is the only way. I have faith and an unshakable optimism. Despite all the misinformation and a few discordant voices that brandish disparagement and slander as their weapons, I believe that at the end of the day, the light will shine through.
Have you thought of returning anytime soon?
I am anxious but not desperate to go home to my beloved little Nicaragua. I have asked different friends if they believe it prudent to return at this time, and they all say it would be a mistake. I sincerely feel less secure than under Somoza. Anecdotally, after winning the top prize at the OTI singing and song competition [in 1977], they asked the dictator if Carlos Mejía could return home. Somoza immediately responded: “Mejía Godoy is a citizen with the full right to stay in this country.” Is that how Daniel Ortega would respond? I return the question to you.
- Carlos Arturo Mejía Godoy was born in Somoto, Madriz, on June 27, 1943. He has been married three times and has eight children. He is currently married to Xochitl Acatl Jiménez Guevara.
- In the general election of 2006, he was the vice presidential candidate for the Sandinista Renewal Movement. His running mate was Edmundo Jarquín.
- As a child, he sold chewing gum and shined shoes to help his family.
- He studied journalism and was classmates with Bayardo Arce.
- He studied law and shared classes with the former president Arnoldo Alemán.
- He has a fear of flying. The first time he boarded a flight, it was a trip to Guatemala, and he does not like taking flights in the Caribbean.
- He loves food, especially gallo pinto, fried cheese, cream and Nicaraguan tamales on Sundays. He’s a soda pop addict. He doesn’t know how to cook, and he claims he can “burn water.”
- Regarding the use of his songs by the Ortega regime, he stated during the interview last Sunday: “I continue to demand that the Government cease using my songs as a chorus for crime, terror and genocide.”
- While in exile, Mejía Godoy yearns for his library that houses a collection of Nicaraguan literature: Rubén Darío, Salomón de la Selva, Alfonso Cortés, José Coronel Urtecho, Pablo Antonio Cuadra and Joaquín Pasos, among others.
- Memories of Adriano, by Margueritte Yourcenar, a Belgian-American novelist is one of his bedside reference books. “It had a permanent influence on me, ever since I discovered it in the year 2000,” he says.