“The guys were lying down behind the barricades and a woman started shouting at us,” says Francisco Roiz. “She was cursing us and asking us if we were waiting for everyone to be killed."
Francisco is a guide at León’s Asociacion de Combatientes Historicos Heroes de Veracruz, a museum of the 1972–1979 Revolution. He is telling me about his experience in this revolutionary stronghold as government forces attacked. “She picked up a .22 rifle and started shooting at the National Guard,” he says. “That made us all get up and fight. She saved our lives.”
The building is a crumbling wreck, still bearing bullet scars from the fighting, with a precarious rusty iron roof that offers a great view. Across the rooftops, I can see many of the 16 churches León is home to. Down below, people are relaxing in the picturesque central plaza with its 18th-century cathedral, Central America’s largest. The peaceful scene seems a long way from the sights Francisco witnessed on these same streets in the 1970s.
As we carefully pick our way back onto solid footing, he tells me of another incident in the mountains. “We were ambushed and one of my friends was captured. The counter-revolutionaries started to torture him with knives. When you are in the firing line and have to listen to your friend screaming for someone to kill him – a friend you were talking to ten minutes earlier – it is something you can never get over.”
Francisco tells me that he was a 19-year-old student, in his last year of high school in León, when he joined the Revolution in 1975. “My friends were talking about political and social change but I did not pay much attention at first,” he says. “Then I started to go to meetings at the university and saw how bad things were with my people and my country. The problem was the suppression, torture, rape and elimination of Samoza’s political opponents. You had no rights. So I joined the FSLN in 1977 and went to the mountains to do military training.”
After the darkness, both literal and metaphorical, of the old building it is a mild shock to come blinking into the bright sunlight outside. León is a beautiful, quiet city, home to around 200,000 people and a number of colleges, universities and language schools that mean a majority of its population is young. The plaza is busy with student groups visiting the cathedral, while ice cream vendors sell their wares to courting couples.
At night, the center comes alive with clubs and bars that start late and throb with salsa, cumbia and reggaeton. Its youthful profile no doubt helped it win its proudly-worn title of “Cradle of the Revolution”, one it still lives up to with many murals of the struggle. It is equally proud of 19th-century writer Rubén Darío, considered the father of Modernism in Spanish poetry, who is buried next to the altar in the cathedral.
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