This story isn’t about me, but is one I promised to tell when José Alí Rueda asked it of me in Managua, Nicaragua.
The heat seems to bake us inside the concrete-box of a building that a small neighborhood of bananeros uses for their gatherings. Four of the people living there agree to meet with a group of students from a far off university, although we’re not the first. I strain to understand the Nicaraguan accent of José Alí as Dr. Patrick Van Inwegen, another student, and I inquire of his story. It goes like this:
José Alí began working for Dole Food Company, examining the quality of bananas, when he was sixteen. He inspected the size and overall appearance of the bananas to make sure they were up to par for this international company. Then began the use of the product Nemagon, whose main ingredient, dibromochloropropane, is known to cause sterility in some male mammals and has hideous effects on humans. Due to these side effects the chemical was banned in the United States in 1979, but was used afterwards in countries such as Nicaragua and the Philippines.
He recounted that the chemical was first put into the irrigation water and the order was given to spray it only when there was no wind and the workers weren’t present. The poison was spread over the banana fields at night, when supposedly it was less windy. José Alí was unaware of the new chemical’s effects on human health, and was completely unaware that when he drank the “clear and fresh” water he was ingesting a toxin that would later cause him to have chronic urinary infections, cancerous boils on his skin, and gastric complications. He stated that the companies knew, but decided not to tell the workers of Nemagon’s hazardous nature.
At first the workers didn’t feel any different, but over time headaches and unexplained vomiting became frequent. In addition, boils from within the body began to show themselves on the exterior of their leathery skin. Nemagon was literally eating José Alí and his compañeros alive.
Upon realizing the destruction that simultaneously affected multiple banana fields in Nicaragua, between 3,000 and 7,000 (7,000 was the number given to me by José Alí, while Dole claims 3,000) bananeros had to make a choice: Do we continue to work and possibly get compensation or do we leave our jobs and fight for reparation? Many chose the latter. He recalled the intense 342 kilometer march from his home in Chinandega to Managua. This journey took eleven days, said José Alí, but people along the road took pity on the banana workers and let them stay in their homes overnight.
Upon arrival in Managua the workers sought political help from the powers that were in place, but received little and were forced to settle in champas, clusters of tents used for temporary housing. It was not until Daniel Ortega quite recently took office that the people received concrete houses, potable water, and electricity. These people are not economically poor, they claimed, but have been incapacitated due to continual health conditions and believe they’ve been wronged.
In order to further their cause, the bananeros hired attorneys from the U.S. to fight Dole in the United States. However, they felt as if their lawyers, charging around $300 per hour, did very little to further their case. This could be due to greed or busyness, but after trying several lawyers and many years the workers found their pockets empty and their problems persisting. The justice system seemed futile.
A similar story can be found of the faith the workers had in film crews bent on making emotion-igniting documentaries of injustice. However, after interviews and chilling stories, these film-makers were not heard from again. Perhaps they struggled to break even or made off with the profit. The remorse felt by the workers continues.
I forget about the heat and a chill runs down my spine as José Alí discusses the afterlife. It’s apparent that his faith is the only thing carrying him through this one. Counting himself as a dead man, his wrinkled face brightens as he speaks of death, when he’ll leave his terrestrial body and join his Father in Heaven.
His mood changes alarmingly, though, as he considers out loud the consequences of his death. He looks away from me as he speaks of his wife and daughter he would leave behind. He has fought for his children ever since the Nemagon crisis, so that they might have a better life and receive some sort of solitude from Dole Food Company. Our eyes meet again. They remain fixed as I focus in order to correctly translate what he’s telling me. After feeling cheated by so many for so long, the thought of dying and leaving his daughter causes his eyes to fill and his lip to quiver. As a tear rolls down his cheek I’m unsure—Is it his tear? Is it my tear?—maybe we share it.
I ask him what a few chele students from the U.S. could possibly do to help their situation. The response brings me abrupt frustration: they already see themselves as dead men and women, and all I can do is relay this story and make their afflictions heard. Here I pass it on to you all, as promised; so that you know someone suffered and continues suffering because of corporate greed and unrealistic customer demands, many of which came from the United States. The story of José Alí is not one of violence or bullets, but he has fought and his scars remain. In a globalizing world it can seem like some actions have no consequences. However, this man opened my eyes to the fact that even if the consequences are nonexistent or hidden within the U.S. they are felt by another. We’ve inherited a world that is every day more interconnected, but with this comes responsibility to educate ourselves and own our actions.
I would like to say thank you to José Alí Rueda for his openness on this subject despite the personal and collective pain he lives with.
-Austin Vander Wel