Roadtrips, Music, and Art: The Albertan/Nicaraguan Experience by Sophie Watson

Frank Bessai playing fiddle on the ice in frozen Alberta.
Photo by Lorrraine Swift

“What we don’t want is an engine-blowout on the frozen prairies with a bunch of frozen muchachos…but it won’t happen this time—because this time we have a 1980 van,” Frank said confidently, emphasizing the 80 and laughing. Frank Bessai is the co-ordinator of the Voices from the South tour—a group of six actors and dancers from Nicaragua who toured Western Canada from February 28 until April 12, 2000. The previous tour he’d managed involved carting around 10 Nicaraguan teenagers in a 1977 Bluebird schoolbus in the cold January weeks of 1998. El Bus, though cherished for its yellow charm, broke down on some pretty cold prairie highways. In the world of job creation, Edmonton fiddle-player Frank Bessai has carved out an unusual vocation for himself. When people ask, “What do you do?”, he answers, “Oh, well, I host delegations of Nicaraguans.” With a background in theatre, rock ‘n roll, and development work, Frank has managed to fuse his three passions into one gig. His contacts come in handy; having done children’s French theatre in schools throughout the west and played music in most venues around the province, when it’s time to have a fundraiser he has easily galvanized his musician buddies like Bill Bourne, Luann Kowalek, Lester Quitzau, Mike McDonald, Jason Kodie and many others to come out and play gigs at the Arden theatre, the Arts Barns, community centres, church basements, and local restaurants in support of the Albertan/Nicaraguan cross-cultural exchanges that have been going on for several years.

Part of the value of this emerging scene is that it has triggered a desire in the participating Canadian kids to learn how to get active in their communities, from chili bakeoffs to selling chocolates and administrative tasks.

Frank works for Edmonton’s Centre for International Alternatives and for Change for Children, which are both non-profit organizations geared towards raising awareness of global justice issues. Both Change for Children and the Centre have developed a strong bond with a sister organization in Nicaragua called the Institute for Human Promotion. The Institute is dedicated to improving the quality of life for the huge population of child street workers in Nicaragua. In a country of over 4 million people, 50% are under the age of 18. With a 60% unemployment rate and crushing international debt, the country’s already desperate situation was made worse by 1998’s Hurricane Mitch. Kids, often the only breadwinners in the family, take to the streets, selling Chiclets, washing windows, even selling themselves to get by—many children turn to glue-sniffing and crime.

The Institute’s program for the promotion of the family and the community has been in existence for 8 years and offers young Nicaraguans the opportunity to participate in classes and workshops in everything from personal hygiene and cooking to music and culture. The six kids (aged 13-20) that Frank toured around the prairies in Voices from the South : Juan Domingo (Johnny Sunday), Alfredo Traña (Chele), Yajaira Chavez, Denis Traña, Ana Cristhian Betanco, and Jeaneth Zuniga Perez all trained through the Institute’s cultural program for youth and children.

INPRHU students dancing.
Photo by Lorraine Swift

Albertans have a history with Nicaraguans in both development and cultural contexts. In February 1998 Change for Children sponsored The Lights of the Future , a band of Nicaraguan streetkids-turned-musicians who toured Albert for six weeks. From 1998 to the present, Change for Children has sent three interns down to Nicaragua to work at the Institute’s projects. In 1998, Frank—on a Change for Children internship—spent seven months in Managua teaching theatre and violin to streetkids. For the last few summers Change for Children has brought groups of young Albertans on three-week educational trips to Nicaragua. From building bricks, to painting murals, the Canadians get a close-up look at development work in the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Part of the value of this emerging scene is that it has triggered a desire in the participating Canadian kids to learn how to get active in their communities, from chili bakeoffs to selling chocolates and administrative tasks. Jania Teare, a 1999 Change for Children youth tour participant said, “I feel like before I was just out of it. Last year at University I was into studying and partying. This year I’m doing things that I’m excited about, volunteering and getting involved.” Frank’s all-volunteer steering committee for the planning of the Voices from the South was largely made up of Change for Children youth tour participants.

Frank and the Voices were billeted with families and friends across the western provinces. From one gig to three a day from February 28 until April 12, the tour went to churches, schools, theatres and rec centres from Saskatchewan to Vancouver. Frank made room in the Voices’ high-speed jam-packed tour for a little fun and Canadiana, including tobogganing, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, hockey, wiener roasting, igloo building, a day at the West Edmonton Mall Waterpark and the inevitable full-on Canadian roadtrip from deep prairie to big ocean.

The Voices showed up for work on snowy March 6 at Ed Carson’s elementary school, St. Angela’s in Edmonton, bruised and a little sore from the day before’s tobogganing. Their winter wounds though did not stop them from beaming when they saw Ed or Super Chele (Super Pale One) as they call him in Nicaragua. It is largely thanks to this Edmonton teacher that Change for Children, the Centre, and the Institute were brought together. Ed did social work in Nicaragua during the Sandinista years and in Canada he has continued to fundraise extensively for Nicaraguan kids. Most of the schools visited on the Voices from the South tour were High Schools, so the show had to be a little tamed down for the younger audience at St. Angela’s. The scene when the albino Nicaraguan, Alfredo, walks on stage pretending to snort glue out of a bottle, showing how glue can make kids hostile, was omitted for the grade 1 – 6 ers, and the gyrating sexy Palo de Mayo dance was toned down.

The Voices from the South presentation included a series of dances, a clowning skit, and the short play Our Lives, Our Streets.. Much of the theme of Our Lives, Our Streets deals with the hardships of living poor and working the streets. In this kind of life, the danger factor can be very high—from gang violence and drugs to sexual abuse. With minimal props and limited English, the three Nica girls and three boys reenacted their lives in a poignant vignette of what it is like to actually wash windows at intersections, sell Chiclets and cold water. The scene opens with the improvised sound of screeching car tires and the ten-second window of a mock intersection’s red light. Actor Denis Traña anxiously squeegees the imaginary windshield only to be shooed away by the angered driver. Meanwhile, the actors bombard other drivers with Chiclets, pirated Backstreet Boys cassettes, and bags of cold water. Having nothing to sell, Ana walks around begging for money: “Hey” she urgently yells to the audience with her heavy Spanish accent, “You got a dollar? One dollar?—I’m HUNGRY!”

INPRHU students in street theatre, acting as water sellers.
Photo by Frank Bessai

Knowing that these youth actors come directly from this experience makes this hard-hitting theatre—a raw look at what it is like to be a child working to survive. The presentation also included some genuine comedic relief with the folkloric dances and literal clowning around. One dance entitled The Old Man and the Old Woman is a traditional Nicaraguan dance that features two men, one dressed as a woman. The story behind the dance the Nicas tells us is that because often men are drunk and smelly, women do not want to dance with them so the men have to dance together. Dressed in elaborate drag including cartoonesque hips, Denis Traña tries to spark his dance partner’s interest by shaking his/her hips wildly. When this fails to pique his interest, she goes off to the audience and sits on random men’s laps. As well as making her man jealous, this gets a lot of laughs from the students, especially when it’s Mr. Principal’s lap she’s wiggling on.

In English and Spanish with translation, a discussion period followed each gig. “It is in this phase that the project is most effective, because when students actually have the chance to put a face behind the issues it always encourages them to think about the world in new ways,” Frank explains. One student said, “It made so many things you read about in the news, not just in Nicaragua, all over the world, so much more real.” The presentation also included video clips from Alberta film company Reel World Productions’ documentary Rhythm of the Street  which features the youth of Nicaragua; highlighting how many of them are using art and culture to speak up for their rights as street workers. The film was produced by Bill Moore-Kilgannon, the current executive director of Alberta’s Parkland Institute and the Centre for International Alternatives.

The day at St. Angela’s was a big success. After the show in the bright gymnasium, the elementary students charged the stage, sneakers squeaking on the rubbery floor. Eager to shake the Nicas’ hands, they ran to touch the orange and purple costumes, and show off some of their own dance moves. One little Edmonton student proudly showed the Nicas how to do the breakdancing worm. Using art as a language, kids bond and teach other about the societies in which they live. “This has been an experience of a lifetime—I have an amplified vision of the world. We’re not dirty little kids, we’re going international and bringing pride to our communities,” proudly said one of the Nicaraguans. A thoroughly worthwhile exchange, the Nicas went home knowing what snow feels and tastes like, carrying with them their new Albertan friends in their memories and the Albertans in turn remember the day six Nicaraguan kids in fancy costumes came to their school and told them about their lives in a country much different from theirs.

This summer Change for Children has organized another youth tour; for five weeks young Albertans will be travelling in El Salvador and Nicaragua, painting a portion of a mural in each place they go with their southern friends. The mural will then be pieced together and mounted in Edmonton as a cultural testament of art and solidarity between Central America and Canada. This portable canvass will tour Alberta in autumn 2000. With the youth tours and internships that Change for Children organizes and the Nicaraguan delegations that have come to Alberta, these back and forth projects have created a legacy of solidarity and friendship between Albertans and Nicaraguans. For donations or for more information on continuing projects, please contact Lorraine Swift at Change for Children at (780) 488-1505, http://www.changeforchildren.org/.

(2012 update: Frank works at Catholic Social Services in Edmonton helping new immigrants and refugees adjust to life in the great north. He still goes to Nicaragua on CFC projects.)

This project was produced with the support of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). It was published in Legacy Magazine in the summer 2000 edition.

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