From Machista to New Man?:

 Omar Cabezas Negotiates Manhood from the Mountain in Nicaragua

Brianne Orr
University of Arkansas at Little Rock


Three years after the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution in 1979, Nicaraguan revolutionary, author, and current human rights activist Omar Cabezas published his political Bildüngsroman, La montaña es algo más que una inmensa estepa verde (1982).(1)  Cabezas wrote this text primarily to promote revolutionary consciousness, to endorse the romantic ideals of the Sandinista movement and to highlight several factors that contributed to his personal process of transformation during the revolution.  In what follows, I trace Cabezas’ self-construction as a masculine revolutionary rebel during the three distinct phases of his life that he outlines in this work: his time as a student and clandestine revolutionary in León, Nicaragua; his actions during the guerrilla phase of the revolution from the mountain; and a third stage in which he describes his first attempts to implement the practices and ideologies learned on “la estepa verde” in an urban setting right after his descent from this space.  Cabezas’ return to the city suggests that his “triumph” on the mountain is ephemeral, for the changes he undergoes there seem unable to stand up against the “stable” bourgeois male code that remains prevalent in León.  Yet in the closing chapter of his work, Cabezas alludes to an imminent partial success in revising the limiting bourgeois mandate when he points to (but does not describe) a promising fourth stage of his life that would begin after the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution and continue on for the remainder of his life.  During such a phase, Cabezas would consciously work to build a new identity and way of life that incorporates his origins, as well as his personal experiences as a rebel, his needs and his desires. 

In La montaña, it becomes clear that despite his working class origin, Cabezas initially constructs his identity as a man and revolutionary according to the pristine image of the bourgeois male promoted by the Somoza Regime, an image that defines men in clear-cut opposition to women, emphasizes the competitive nature of the relationships between men, and requires that men demonstrate extreme physical and emotional vigor in front of others (Izenberg 6-8).(2)  Yet, one observes that upon his arrival to the mountain and after he is exposed to several aspects of the revolution that are commonly unmentionable for man in an urban setting – bodily needs and functions, the scatological, insecurities, and the true origin of his purported sexual desires – Cabezas begins to act, although unconsciously at first, according to a new male code in Nicaragua embodied in the Sandinista.  This new masculine model disputes traditional machista praxis and discourse and emphasizes instead the guerrilla rebel’s capacity to survive and change in relation to the mountain, to the other rebels living there, and to the historical needs and demands of the Sandinista revolutionary project.  Cabezas’ wavering between the bourgeois and revolutionary codes of manhood not only suggests that in order to reinvent society in a revolutionary context, one had to reinvent man, as Karl Marx, Aníbal Ponce and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara had previously argued, but it also confirms, as Judith Butler asserts, that gender is “transformable” and therefore, its meaning is negotiated and is contingent upon shifting socio-historical and political contexts (Undoing Gender 27).

The City: From Bourgeois Space to Revolutionary Inferno

Cabezas consciously frames his work between two years that represent distinct moments in Nicaraguan history: 1968 and 1979.  The first year was defined by much mistrust in the Somoza Regime and the counterrevolutionary activity that would culminate in the early 1980s with President Reagan’s support of the U.S. trained anti-communist Nicaraguan Contras, while the latter was the year in which the Sandinistas declared their triumph in Nicaragua. The success of such a movement would signify the end of the over forty-year reign of the United States backed Somoza family. (3

Cabezas’ formation as a student and the shaping of his revolutionary identity in relation to such significant historical moments prompts him to define his male identity according to two of the prevalent models of masculinity in Nicaragua at the time: the bourgeois male embodied in the members of the National Guard (the Somocistas) and the revolutionary code of manhood implemented by the Sandinistas on the mountain.  At the onset, Cabezas acts according to the bourgeois male code.  However, his subconscious desire to rebel against his Somocista father and to participate in the formation of a clandestine revolutionary base in the city, an action that would eventually lead him to the mountain, a political space central to revolutionary discourse, results in his gradual detachment from such an ideal and later embrace of a new way of being a man through Sandinismo (Duchesne 145). (4)

In the opening chapters of his narrative, Cabezas presents himself as an emblematic macho college student who drinks, smokes, philanders with women and gambles to pass the time, activities that suggest a form of competition with other males and thus reinforce long-established masculine patterns. (5)  One of his favorite diversions is to provoke the bourgeois girls – the burguesitas – that he spots during routine cruises around town in a car by sticking his tongue out at them and following them around: “A nosotros nos gustaba verles el cutis, la forma de mover los labios, les mirábamos las uñas cuando hacían los cambios, las manos eran bien bonitas, dan ganas como de que te acaricien unas manos así; y cuando las ventanas iban abiertas y el viento soplaba se les agitaba el pelo y quedaban sus cabelleras frente a nosotros, sobre el espaldar del asiento” (30).

Cabezas’ detailed description of the coveted lips, nails, hair, and hands and ensuing desire to be touched by bourgeois girls suggests that a key aspect in his identity as a man at this point centers on the sexist (heterosexual) nature of the relations between men and women, the type of relationship that, according to Judith Butler, operates as a regulatory gender norm in patriarchal societies (Gender Trouble 136).  Such a scene also reveals Cabezas’ class consciousness – one was either bourgeois or not and he was of the working class – an awareness that will contribute to his eventual decision to participate in the revolution, as becomes clear in what follows.

Despite Cabezas’ outright display of these and other rebellious tendencies, during Holy Week, all of his local hangouts are closed and due to a combination of boredom and peer pressure from friends, he finds other more productive pastimes related to the Sandinista Movement.  At the time, though Cabezas begins to “hear and hear” of the revolution and even helps to promote it by handing out pamphlets, participating in manifestations and speaking to other revolutionaries from the city, he continues to see it as a mere diversion (Cabezas 10).  Cabezas’ body-centered anxieties, inexperience in revolutionary praxis and wavering opinion of Marxism force him to adopt a passive attitude towards the cause (34, 16, 11).  Yet, one of his primary concerns, if not the main one, lies in the fact that his father supported the dictatorship; he was a Somocista: “yo sabía que a mi papá le ganaba la Guardia […] [m]i padre era de familia opositora, militaba en el Partido Conservador” (8).  Cabezas’ participation in the Sandinista cause would force him to openly contest his father’s political beliefs and the very ideological structures – including those related to gender – he supported as a leading member of the United States-backed Conservative Party (Ward 305).

Implicit in Cabezas’ description of his father as a member of the National Guard, Somoza’s Army, is his perception of a powerful man, a quality that he both fears and in which he takes pride.  Such contradictory feelings become evident when he watches his father direct a secret meeting of other Somocistas in León.  At that moment, Cabezas relates “tuve la sensación de ser hijo de una persona muy importante” (Cabezas 8).  On the other hand, Cabezas had always associated Somoza’s Army with unnecessary violence, blood, and injustice done to people for simply drinking or brawling outside of the bar (7).

Another contrastive component of his father’s power that Cabezas silences in his narrative but mentions in a 1984 interview with Margaret Randall was his race, and more importantly, what this aspect meant for the gender identity of a self-described physically weak boy of mestizo origin: “[w]hen I was small, I was a runt of a kid, a skinny child, and the ugly duckling of the family.  All of my brothers were fair […] [m]y father was fair, too.  But my mother wasn’t.  My mama is Indian, mestiza.  And my father was white.  I came out like my mama.  I was skinny, physically weak.  Physical weakness gives you a certain sense of fragility, on the outside” (124).  If, as Roger Lancaster contends, the question of race in Nicaragua is not necessarily related to an established racial hierarchy, but rather is reflective of “discursive gestures that are contingent and contextual and whose terms are eminently logical and self-interested,” then one could assume that Cabezas consciously uses the terms “mestizo” and “fair” to distinguish his racial and ethnic background from his father’s (225).  It also indicates that he inscribes himself and his family into an understood, but not an established, racial structure in which distinctive features such as fair/masculine and mestizo/feminine are viewed side by side.

Apart from his awareness of these connected physical and ideological weaknesses and his racial and ethnic background – all qualities that, in Cabezas’ mind, categorize him as a subaltern when compared to his “fair/powerful” Somocista father – he is conscious of his social class.  This implies, but does not necessarily concretize, his alignment with the Proletarios: “yo estaba muy consciente de que era de familia proletaria y, entonces, cuando se hablaba en la universidad de la injusticia, de la pobreza, yo me acordaba de mi barrio que era un barrio pobre” (Cabezas 10). (6)  

Up to this point, Cabezas has reflexively defined himself according to and thus aspired to his father’s individualistic and militaristic model of manhood and accordingly adopts – with the abovementioned fractures – a machista lifestyle.  One could assume, for instance, that Cabezas’ vision of the revolution as a way to prove himself to others (especially his father) and to surpass barriers of race, class, and gender in moving from machista to Sandinista are all related to a seemingly inherent vision of himself in relation to a traditional male code.  Cabezas’ participation in the revolution would definitively dissociate him from his father’s political affiliation (to whom leftists were traitors, cowards and wimps) as well as from the teachings of a predominantly masculine University where the message was clear: “los del Frente […] eran comunistas y venían de Rusia y de Cuba y que sólo mandaban a la gente a morir como pendeja a la montaña” (12).

As a first step towards his embrace of Sandinismo, Cabezas agrees to take theoretical courses on the revolution and to attend local meetings of several different student revolutionary organizations.  He eventually participates in the formation of clandestine cadres in the city.  Such actions, at least on the surface, demonstrate a growing interest in the revolution, but Cabezas admits that his hombría or masculine pride is what drives him to commit completely to the movement: “Me imaginé tantas cosas… y entre más cosas me imaginaba el miedo era mayor pero, por supuesto, yo estaba de lo más serio y sereno delante de Juan José [Quezada], porque delante de él yo no podía aparentar ser un miedoso […] porque ahí había una cuestión de hombría” (13).  Cabezas covers up his anxieties by appearing “manly” in front of his ostensibly more qualified comrades.  His instinct to perform his masculinity in a new environment, to “flout the codes of behavior expected of [him]” confirms his ostensible internalization of a bourgeois code of masculinity that judges men on their capacity to appear strong and unwavering in front of others (Shepard 248).  It also suggests that Cabezas eventually participates in Sandinismo not necessarily because of his beliefs or ideals, but as a means to surpass the insecurities related to his “fragile” male identity in contrast to his father’s.

Cabezas’ interaction with Quezada and subtle participation in the movement inspire an incipient and superficial shift from the egotistical machista living according to the rules established by the Conservative Party and his Somocista father to a future Sandinista.  Yet his reencounter with longtime friend and revolutionary Leonel Rugama, a self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist aligned with the Prolonged Popular War (GPP), forces the impressionable college student to pursue a new way of being a man in Nicaragua that perturbs the perpetual machista ideal promoted by the current hegemony: “Leonel te planteaba la cuestión de ser hombre, pero no ya en el caso del macho, sino del hombre que adquiere responsabilidad histórica, un compromiso para con los demás, de quien lo da todo para felicidad de los demás” (21-22).  Cabezas later explains that the new male code that his fellow comrade persuades him to live by is akin to the model of humanity that pervades former Argentine revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s writings on the guerrilla rebel and the new man, the practical and ideological products of the Cuban Revolution, respectively. (7)

In Nicaragua to be a Sandinista is to be like Che

In Nicaragua, the rebel’s impulse not only to agree with Che’s ideological views on man and revolution, but to strive to be like Che was most readily embraced by the Sandinista, a model of man that according to Carlos Fonseca, co-founder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), eschews the defining characteristics of the bourgeois male and highlights instead man’s historical responsibility, self-sacrificial nature, and capacity to demonstrate the complementary nature of words and actions in a revolutionary context through respect, sincerity, and fraternity (Fonseca 9).

At this point, Cabezas, more concerned with preserving his male pride in front of others than with his deep embracing of the Sandinista code, hesitates to purge himself completely of his old machista ways while dedicating himself fully to the revolution: “No estaba muy seguro – y más que seguro tenía cierto temor o duda, o qué sé yo lo que sentía – de llevar un compromiso hasta las últimas consecuencias” (Cabezas 13).  He does fantasize, however – from an almost epic-macho perspective – about personally meeting the brave bearded men from the mountain that rebels from the city associate with revolutionary and manly excellence and seems eager to reach the “heart of the Sandinista Front”:  “[i]ba a conocer personalmente a esos famosos hombres, a los guerrilleros, a la gente como el Che.  Cómo serían sus barbas, cómo hacían la comida […] iba a estar en el corazón del Frente Sandinista, en lo más oculto, en lo más virgen del Frente, en lo más delicado” (89). 

In providing Cabezas with a vivid picture of both the space and role model that represent the authority on the revolution – the mountain and the guerrilla rebel formed there – Cabezas’ comrades reveal what Renata Salecl calls the “trick” of a successful political discourse (33).  In addition to supplying him with heroic images with which to identify, they construct the symbolic space from which Cabezas could feasibly move beyond his identity as a traditional man from the city and convert himself into a noteworthy revolutionary – a Sandinista, despite his self-perceived deficiencies and inherent machista tendencies.  With such a shift, Cabezas advances from a student whose peer-pressured participation in the revolution consisted of the simple (non-political) act of passing out pamphlets to a view of himself as a future guerrilla rebel, a committed political man who could be like Che (Cabezas 22).

The combination of Cabezas’ abovementioned identity issues, self-seeking impulse to be like Che and heroic vision of the mountain and the guerrilla rebels formed there drives him to this space (89).  Yet it will not be long before he realizes that his quest to be like Che and prior admiration for the bearded rebels on the mountain becomes a mere mission for survival that will urge him to test his vision of himself as a man according to a bourgeois mandate that from the outside privileges heroism over pragmatism.  Cabezas’ experiences on “la estepa verde” force him to deconstruct his previous fantasy construction of revolution and to construct his masculinity according to a different code of manhood specific to the isolation so characteristic of such a space.  As Cabezas works towards surviving in this geography, he continues to act at first according to a machista ideal that defines men in relation to women and the competition between men and promotes an individualistic approach to revolution.  However, his mission to become a Sandinista will ultimately allow gender-related aspects of the revolution that appeared unmentionable in an urban setting to surface.

From Machista to New Man?: Masculinity on the Mountain

During his college days, Cabezas’ body was the vehicle through which he conventionally acted on his rebellious and sexual desires.  On the mountain, it becomes an instrument essential for the completion of basic tasks such as carrying his heavy backpack during routine climbs, an action Cabezas is hardly capable of doing with ease at the outset.  Aware of the fragile state of his body, when faced with duties like these and others that require him to rely on his physical competence in the presence of other revolutionaries and peasants, Cabezas hides his flaws. Instead, he strives to perform his role as a guerrilla fighter with an unwavering confidence in order to show off in front of his fellow comrades as well as to trick himself into believing that he possesses a capacity to survive on the mountain.

In his first description of the guerrilla phase of the revolution, Cabezas compares such a process to a series of golpes or hits: “Ese camino de ser un solo hombre es la composición de un montón de pequeños golpecitos […] me daba horror pensar que me podían estar viendo, entonces, yo le hacía huevo para que ese golpe fuera un golpe elegante […] un golpe guerrillero, un golpe valiente, un golpe dominante […] aunque no me estuvieran viendo” (92).  Cabezas’ recognition of his efforts in front of others suggests that he continues to identify with a conventional male model that, as Roger Horrocks asserts, requires men to always be on guard, to be vigilant about their own and other’s masculine image, even in moments of weakness (98).  As a result, Cabezas demonstrates a false sense of confidence in order to maintain his façade of competent guerrilla rebel.  This anxiety to continue to conceal his debilities in the presence of others has resonances of Slavoj Zizek’s definition of the cynical subject; one that though aware of the distance between the ideological mask – for Cabezas, a vision of himself as a competent rebel – and the social reality – his incapacity to live up to such an impossible standard – still insists upon the mask (29).

Cabezas’ exacerbated impulse to pose as a veritable rebel or to prove that “[he] could ‘take it’” is further evidenced when, in facing the perils of life in such an indomitable space, he summons images of Claudia, his love interest from the city as well as images of the family he desires to build with her as incentives to perform at his utmost capacity (Seidler 60).  Claudia “era motor, era seguridad, era confianza, era balas, era ver por sobre la oscuridad de la noche, era más aire en los pulmones, más fortaleza en las piernas, era sentido de orientación, era fuego, nuestro amor era ropa seca y calientita, nuestro amor era champa, Victoria, tranquilidad, era todo … futuro… hijos …era todo lo computable para mi cerebro” (Cabezas 257).

In using the family, its space and its symbols (i.e. fire, clothing, comfort, and future through reproduction), bourgeois loci based on a “naturalized heterosexuality that requires and regulates gender as a binary relation” to comfort and motivate him to act heroically on the mountain, Cabezas further demonstrates his almost unconscious identification with a patriarchal mandate that defines man in relation to and as the “head” of such an institution (Butler, Gender Trouble 22-23).  Despite the centrality of the family and the home to his bourgeois discourse, the fissures of Cabezas’ representation are rapidly exposed when the reader learns that during his absence, Claudia leaves him for one of his revolutionary comrades even though she is pregnant with their first child, news she relates to Cabezas in a letter.  In the closing of her letter, Claudia discloses her feelings: “[D]ejame decirte que siempre te querré, o que siempre te respetaré y te admiraré, fraterna” (Cabezas 257).  This event, without a doubt, has negative repercussions for Cabezas’ self-perception as a “man.”  Ironically, Claudia’s now “brotherly” bond with Cabezas will eventually force him to embrace a different type of masculinity, one that is defined by a fraternal bond with fellow comrades in arms rather than by its roots in the family unit, core of a bourgeois society.

 Initially sheltered by a successful capacity to perform (or lie) in front of others, Cabezas soon realizes that in order to subsist on the mountain he must depend on the other guerrillas, even at the risk of revealing the falsehood of his masculine pride.  Despite his initial struggles, Cabezas has to adapt quickly to the dampness, hunger, and dirt of the mountain.  Nevertheless, the astonishing feeling of loneliness that overcomes him during his time here erodes his sense of self.  

 All these things first become evident when, after three straight days of marching, Cabezas feels the sudden urge to go to the bathroom.  In noting the novice guerrilla’s difficulty in carrying out such a basic bodily function, a fellow compañero guides Cabezas through the process and instructs him to first dig a hole, then grab some leaves, and finally, clean himself off with them (102).  Cabezas complies, but the end result is quite unsettling; he fills his entire hand with his own feces and in a hurried effort to “sterilize” himself; he almost instinctively sticks his fingers in the dirt: “Me voy con todos mis chimones, el pobrecito, abrí el hueco, cago, y entonces agarro unas cuantas hojas, la cosa es que me llené toda la mano limpiándome […] todo me lleno allí, las uñas, entonces hundo la uña en la tierra, así, para limpiarme, entonces me limpio con más hojas” (102).  Cabezas’ desperate attempt to sanitize his hand with the very dirt and mud of the mountain and thus to rid himself of the pure, a “defect” of his past, is not only symbolic of his unconscious impulse to peel away layers of his previous urban and bourgeois self, but is also indicative of his subsequent desire, though unconscious at this point, to construct his identity according to a different male standard more suitable to the mountain (Kristeva 77). 

This scene also highlights Cabezas’ decision to ask a fellow comrade for help, an act that symbolizes the beginning of a shift from a competitive (traditional-masculine) to a cooperative relationship among men that Cabezas calls “fraternidad […] un amor de hermanos, un amor fraterno” (Cabezas 118). (8)  Therefore, while he initially describes his relationship to other men in a competitive light, now Cabezas relates: “Entre nosotros, no había egoísmo.  Como que la montaña y el lodo, el lodo y la lluvia también, la soledad, como que nos fueron lavando un montón de taras de la sociedad burguesa.  Nos fueron lavando una serie de vicios […] allí, aprendimos a ser humildes” (119). 

If initially Cabezas had fooled himself into believing that he could be like Che, “Tello,” a peasant that serves as his direct leader and primary (male) role model on the mountain until members of Somoza’s National Guard assassinate him, quickly points to the city students’ weaknesses when he realizes their difficulty in carrying out what he views as even the most basic tasks: “Hijueputas, aprendan a cargar la comida que se hartan […] son unas mujercitas… son unos maricas, estudiantes de mierda que para nada sirven…” (126). (9)  Here Tello, a man that Cabezas describes as physically and mentally tough but capable of crying when faced with deception and disappointment, feminizes the men to force them to act by appealing to their inner machista (126).

Yet Cabezas’ shifting perspective also significantly affects the way in which he interprets Tello’s earlier feminization of him and the others.  Whereas before Cabezas related  Tello’s ostensible discursive violence on the rebels to his promotion of yet another unreachable military-type masculine ideal, he now understands it as just a perlocutive strategy that his superior used to urge the guerrilla rebels to build themselves up in relation to the mountain and the other men there: “Tello parece que el jodido sólo nos había querido hacer de piedra físicamente y luego también a nivel psíquico, a nivel de voluntad, de la conciencia, hacernos indestructibles la voluntad y la conciencia” (130).

The changes in Cabezas’ view of the dirt, the community of “comrades in arms,” Tello’s teachings and the guerrilla phase of the revolution on the mountain also allow him to see that his experience is not any different from that of his fellow guerrilla rebels, a realization that will eventually condition him to employ the collective and cooperative “we” rather than the individual and competitive “I” dominant in the first part of his narrative.  Such a shift, according to Ileana Rodríguez, represents an attempt to break away from the individualism so typical of a bourgeois male (“Conservadurismo y disensión” 773). 

Progressively, Cabezas actively works to rid himself of the socio-political and materialistic baggage of patriarchal society and begins to act consciously in accordance with the standard of the new man promoted on the mountain.  For Cabezas and the other Sandinistas, the new man is the guerrilla rebel who, in training on the mountain, suffers, learns, breaks from the “old man,” and gradually reconstructs his identity according to the new male mandate born out of the conditions of life in such a geography: “Para ser el hombre nuevo tenemos que pasar un montón de penalidades, para matar al hombre viejo y que vaya naciendo el hombre nuevo […] [e]l hombre que da más a los hombres que lo que el hombre normal puede dar a los hombres, pero a costa de sacrificios, a costa de destrucción de sus taras, de sus vicios […] ser como el Che, ser como el Che” (Cabezas 128-129).

At this point, different from the romanticized version that Cabezas coined back in the city, to be like Che means to adapt to the mountain, to show emotions, to ask for help, to cooperate instead of competing, to form part of a brotherhood of men, and to demonstrate a keen self-awareness.  In addition, Cabezas’ physical challenges, emotional needs and continual “cleansing” himself of his “old” machista ways – either consciously or not – combine and consequently enable him to encounter a tender side of his male identity that he did not even realize existed prior to living in the harshness of the mountain. Such changes confirm that the mountain is, as one of the Sandinistas calls it “una gran escuela” (185).  

 This awareness affects Cabezas’ view of the revolution and his role in the process.  Instead of interpreting his clandestine revolutionary experience as a series of golpes or a manly competition as he did in the beginning, he ends up describing it as a quest for change through collaborative survival in “la estepa verde.”  This means that rather than define man according to his relationships with women, this typically male-dominated “school” (185) foments what Diana Sorensen recognizes as the “imagined community of men,” one that “espouses the grammar of fraternity […] while fostering the conditions for utopian growth” (A Turbulent Decade 27).  Through his experiences during the guerrilla phase of the revolution, Cabezas learns to view the relationships between men as a vital component in both his personal process of transformation and in his working towards the superior form of humanity of the Sandinista.  Accordingly, he strives to grow in unison with both the mountain and his fellow compañeros in their fight for a common socio-political goal.

Cabezas’ experiences as a rebel not only urge him to revise his view of homosocial bonds, but they expose the origin of his alleged sexual desires as well.  If he initially describes himself as a man with a powerful sexual drive and an irrepressible lust for women, a self-perception that is particularly evident in the games he played with the burguesitas from the city, after spending months living in solitude, he realizes that what he previously perceives as an innate need to be with a woman was not just related to a sexual impulse, but emerged more as an effect of his initial incapacity to perform even the most basic duties of the guerrilla (i.e. carrying his backpack, marching up the mountain, and tending to his bodily functions) and his loneliness (Cabezas 114).  When such anxieties creep up, Cabezas reactively alleviates them through masturbation: “Un principio así de ideas eróticas, sexuales, me empezó la idea y la cabeza se me sexualizó también, cuando me di cuenta es que ya había terminado de masturbarme y me sentí tranquilo, suave, reposado” (138).  Despite the sexual undertones in Cabezas’ description of how man “relieves” the pressures of quotidian life on the mountain, such an action is not representative of his desire to be with a woman or to restore his position within a heterosexual episteme.  It reveals instead that when this very structure that Butler calls a regulatory gender norm based on the illusive differences between the “male” and “female” genders is displaced or located outside of its original constrictive site – in this case the city – it surfaces in response to other concerns unrelated to sex (Gender Trouble 22-23). 

Finally, the shift is also clearly evident in Cabezas’ fraternal reunion with longtime friend from the city El Gato (Ventura), a meeting that is not void of anxieties for Cabezas.  Prior to going to the mountain, Cabezas recalls that Ventura was the “ultimate” machista for his large collections of shirts, pants, shoes, and girlfriends (Cabezas 181).  He also suspects that this revolutionary, who had already been in Cuba, served as a student leader and spent the last two years on the mountain in preparation for the revolution, is already a Sandinista leader in this space.  Cabezas’ vision of Ventura as the quintessential male – in both bourgeois and revolutionary settings – causes him to worry about how his old and ostensibly more “masculine” and qualified friend will receive him after months without seeing one another.  In spite of Cabezas’ doubts, the reunion is relaxed and joyful, and thus highlights the mutual respect and love that these two continue to have for one another, even if they now meet under different circumstances: “[El Gato] me abraza y entonces yo lo abrazo y El Gato se cae de la hamaca y caemos los dos abrazados en el suelo.  Y entonces […] nos quedamos así un rato medio caídos los dos en el suelo, y abrazados y entonces nos levantamos, y El Gato se sienta en su hamaca y yo me siento frente a él y eran tantas cosas que decir, y no sabíamos qué decir” (183).

Cabezas’ changing view of his male identity, as evidenced in his desire to seek the nonhierarchical company and fraternal embrace of his old friend Ventura, suggests that key to his impulse to construct his identity according to a new way of being a man in Nicaragua is the mountain.  In this space, Cabezas reaches the limits of his former role as a machista college student and accordingly, uncharacteristically allows aspects of the revolution that are typically repressed in an urban context to reach the page.  Thus, Cabezas’ (unsuccessful) attempts to act according to a bourgeois ideal on the mountain pry open the possibilities that lie beneath what one now realizes is an unstable gender code.  This, in turn, allows for such a norm to be “insistently constituted, contested, and negotiated” (Butler, Bodies that Matter 76).

Clashing Codes of Manhood: The New Man Confronts his Machista Past

The abovementioned examples illustrate how Cabezas distanced himself from a limiting paradigm that defines man in relation to his capacity to perform in front of others and his role within the family unit, a distancing seen when certain aspects of life on the mountain not typically addressed by men in an urban setting seep through the cracks of Cabezas’ presumably unwavering machista identity. Yet, when Cabezas falls ill first with leprosy and later with appendicitis and is forced by Sandinista officials to return to the city sooner than expected, he faces the difficult task of reinserting himself into a context defined by the admonitory machista code.  Cabezas’ return to León is his reencounter with the “old,” what he knew before, though a space somehow different now since his experiences on the mountain have changed him, at least on the surface.  Out from under the shelter of the mountain, Cabezas, now a new man in formation, struggles to reacquaint himself with the city in his new role as a Sandinista and educator of future rebels.

Almost one year later, he realizes that his house, his family and his friends have all remained unaltered (Cabezas 200-201).  This suggests that while the mountain represents change and a moving towards the future, the traditional symbols that define Cabezas’ past stay the same.  Images of the city, the University and even the people as stagnant, unmoving, fixed in place are not only significant for the obvious symbolism of the purportedly “stable” nature of the bourgeois social code.  They also beg the question of how Cabezas, who learned to purge himself of the traces of his former machista identity on the mountain, will face the task of reinserting himself in an urban setting as changed, but “normal” at the same time.

Soon enough, his friends actively seek to thrust him back into the sexist relations Cabezas covered up with the protective layer of dirt he acquired on “la estepa verde”.  They do this by convincing his nurse to touch him in what Cabezas deems a “sexual way” while he awaits his emergency appendectomy (206).  When Cabezas struggles to resist such a temptation, he calls upon the dirt, mud, feces and hardships characteristic of the mountain as a means to neutralize his sexual impulses: “Sentía su piel, sobre mi carne, sobre mi pene, sobándolo, restregándolo, moviéndolo y entonces, volvía rápido a pensar en la montaña, acordarme cuando iba caminando en el barro y me caía, cuando andaba buscando leña, cuando andaba cansado y tenía que subir la cuesta […] pero la mujer me agarraba […] con la mano delicada” (206).  Regardless of his conscious efforts, Cabezas eventually gives in as his (subconscious) desire to come together with a woman and to prove his manhood in front of his peers takes over.

Cabezas’ difficulty in acting as a new man in an “old” urban context is further evidenced when shortly after his surgery, still struggling to walk on his own, he gets the sudden urge to have his first post-operative bowel movement during the march of rebels he leads through one of the peasant villages surrounding León.  Unable to find a restroom or even a latrine, Cabezas returns to the skills he learned on the mountain to deal with similar situations and proceeds to dig a hole, cover up the evidence with dirt, and clean himself with some leaves he finds on the ground nearby.  Different from his days on the mountain where “filth” was taken as a “boundary” between his machista identity and his emerging Sandinista side (Kristeva 69), now in a “pristine” context, Cabezas views such an action as vulgar and inhumane: “[T]uve que cagar de pie.  Era una cuestión de lo más incómoda y engorrosa… te sentías animal o vegetal, pero no te podés sentir gente en esas condiciones” (Cabezas 211).  Cabezas’ affirmation that one could not possibly feel human in this situation, a clear indication of the resurfacing of a bourgeois view of “dirt” as impure and repulsive, breaks from the code of manhood from the mountain.  Cabezas’ shifting perspective implies that the scrupulous machista standard that teaches men to censure their thoughts, words, and actions continues to prevail in the city.  Cabezas’ setbacks, which also divulge his apparent reversion back to the limiting vision of man he sought to refute through his participation in the revolution, suggest, as Zizek affirms, that his internalization of ideology – either bourgeois or revolutionary – never fully succeeds, at least on a subconscious level (Zizek 43).

In this study, I traced Omar Cabezas’ self-construction as a man and revolutionary in three distinct phases of his participation in the Sandinista Revolution: his role as a university student in León, Nicaragua, his quest to participate in Sandinismo from the mountain, and a third stage in which he tried to apply lessons learned in such a geography to what he described as a stagnant urban setting.  Cabezas’ trajectory confirms that regardless of the changes he undergoes in each specific stage of the revolutionary process, his reencounter with the bourgeois norm that defined his past upon his coming down from the mountain prompts him to revert to the “old” machista mandate.  Cabezas’ shift or moving backwards highlights his difficulty performing according to the standard for the new man established on “la estepa verde” in an unchanged urban context.  

However, in the final chapter when Cabezas meets Don Leandro, a peasant and former rebel who participated in the fight alongside former rebel leader Augusto Sandino decades prior, he realizes that to be a Sandinista in Nicaragua is not to aspire to be like Che from either an epic-romantic or a revolutionary standpoint, but it is to construct his identity in relation to his personal experiences, needs, desires and mestizo origin: “[y]o voy a hacer una vida […] y voy a pintar la historia de mi vida del color que más me guste” (271).  With this, Cabezas seems to allude to an impending partial success in breaking from a bourgeois mandate, for he vows to consciously build a new life for himself in the city that would incorporate the dirt, feces, and hardships of the mountain and his physical, emotional and sentimental needs that emerged as survival mechanisms in such a space.



(1). Nydia Palacios Vivas defines the Bildüngsroman as a bourgeois narrative that highlights significant experiences in the protagonist’s life – typically a male protagonist – as a means to demonstrate his personal process of transformation: “the teleology of an individual, from one period of his life to another” (191).   I call Cabezas’ work a “political Bildüngsroman” because in it, he traces the remarkable experiences of his individual process of politicization during a time of revolution in Nicaragua.


(2). In Cabezas’ writing, there is no doubt that the patriarchal standard for man is “the” bourgeois model of man embodied in the Somocista.  Argentine rebel author Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s vision of the bourgeois man, the guerrilla rebel and the new man outlined in his campaign diaries Pasajes de la guerra revolucionaria (1963) and El diario del Che en Bolivia (1968) and theoretical works Guerra de guerrillas (1961), El socialismo y el hombre nuevo (1965) and his programmatic 1965 text El hombre nuevo serve as precursors to Omar Cabezas’ perception of masculinity as a class-based difference in a Nicaraguan context.  It is important to note as well that Che bases his view of the same on Argentine Marxist Aníbal Ponce’s ideas on the bourgeois man and the new man outlined in Humanismo burgués y humanismo proletario (1935) and Karl Marx’s definition of the city, the family, education, and the future as bourgeois loci as outlined in “On the Jewish Question” (1844) and The Communist Manifesto (1848).


(3). The Somoza Dynasty came to power in 1937 with the rule of Anastasio Somoza García, who three years prior to his assumption of power had ordered the assassination of peasant, guerrilla rebel and rebel leader Augusto Sandino for his anti-imperialist activity, and ended with his son, dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle’s, fleeing from Nicargua in 1979 and eventual assassination in Paraguay one year later (Booth 50).


(4). Omar Cabezas would not be the first rebel author to center his guerrilla narrative on the mountain.  Previously, in Che Guevara’s works, the mountain appeared as a foundational geography upon which men, by dint of their demonstration of self-control, rigidity, austerity and intransigency, advance from the status of “normal” men to guerrillero, a political agent that occupies a fundamental space in revolutionary discourse as the driving force for change that assures a necessary transition to socialism (Rodríguez, “Montañas con aroma de mujer” 145).


(5). As my analysis of Cabezas’ work will suggest, despite the revolutionary context, machismo still prevailed in Nicaragua.  Machismo, Roger Lancaster contends, similar to capitalism, is a structure that is not only held in place by hegemonic or dominant ideological structures, but it is reinforced through what he calls a “field of productive relations” among men, women, and children in a seemingly stable and standard way: “Machismo, no less than capitalism, is a system.  Like racism, homophobia, and other forms of arbitrary power, arbitrary stigma, machismo is resilient because it constitutes not simply a form of “consciousness,” not “ideology” in the classical understanding of the concept, but a field of productive relations” (19).


(6). Cabezas does not explicitly name the different factions that emerged within the FSLN – the Proletarians (Proletarios) led by Jaime Wheelock Román, the Prolonged Popular War (GPP – Guerra Popular Prolongada) under Henry Ruiz (“Modesto”) and Tomás Borge’s leadership after the assassination of Carlos Fonseca, and the Insurrectionals (Terceristas), a group that was primarily led by Daniel and Humberto Ortega that practiced “ideological pluralism” as it sought the involvement of members of the bourgeois and proletariat classes in the fight (Bras).  He does, however, allude to them in his discussion of his wavering between the ideologies of the Proletarians and the Prolonged Popular War as he moves from the city to the mountain.


(7). Different from the guerrilla rebel that is formed on the mountain, Che describes the new man as a self-aware and socially conscious actor that undergoes a constant process of change that begins during the revolution and continues through his implementation of socialism after the triumph of the same (El hombre nuevo 12).


(8). For further analyses on the fraternal bond that guerrilla rebels develop on the mountain during revolution in Latin America see Ileana Rodríguez’s Women, Guerrillas & Love: Understanding War in Central America (1996), “Conservadurismo y disensión: el sujeto social (mujer/pueblo/etnia) en las narrativas revolucionarias” (1996) and “Montañas con aroma de mujer: reflexiones postinsurgentes sobre el feminismo revolucionario” (2003).  Also consult Diana Sorensen’s “Masculinidades ansiosas y la construcción del héroe revolucionario” (2004).


(9). Ileana Rodríguez evaluates such a process from a feminist point of view and within the paradigm of patriarchal masculinity: “To keep pushing oneself, to be resilient and strong, giving more than the body’s physical strength and endurance allow, always giving a little bit more” (Women, Guerrillas & Love 45).


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