The Island of Solentiname
Primitivist painting by Yelba Ubau.

For a brief period in Nicaraguan history, the island of Solentiname provided a communal space for artistic experimentation and spiritual discovery. From 1965 to 1966, Ernesto Cardenal, a Nicaraguan priest and now-famous poet established a religious community on Solentiname. This project was based on Christian liberation theology and principles of social justice and community sharing. Cardenal also developed his vision for Solentiname during conversations with North American priest, Thomas Merton.

Roger Perez de la Rocha, a respected painter from Managua, was invited to Solentiname to teach painting techniques, while encouraging individual style and thought. This gave rise to a widespread fascination with art. Entire families started painting in a style that has now known as "primitivist." This art drew upon popular Central American imagery such as Chorotega and Nahuatl Indian weavings and painted gourds.

One thousand Nicaraguan campesinos (peasants) participated in dialogues about social equality, analyzeing their present living conditions. The book, the Gospel According to Solentiname, evolved from a series of conversations in which campesinos reflected on the life of Jesus Christ and how their Savior would have acted in contemporary Nicaragua.

The Gospel According to Solentiname
by Ernesto Cardenal


Every Sunday, on the Island of Solentiname, a withdrawn oasis on Nicaragua Lake, we hold a discussion with campesinos instead of a sermon on the Gospel. The campesinos' comments are usually more incisive than those of many theologians, but as guileless as the Gospel itself. This is not odd: the Gospel, or "good news" was written for and by people similar to them.

Some friends advised me not to let these commentaries fade away, but to collect and publish them in a book. This is that book. I first began collecting them by memory and went back as far as possible. Then, in a more pragmatic sense, we used a tape recorder.

Many of these interpretations were offered at church, at Sunday mass - also, in the straw hut, where we held our meetings and our community lunch after mass. We often held our mass and discussion of the Gospel here under the open sky, at other islands, or at a small hamlet by a beautiful river with lush, tropical vegetation.

Every Sunday, we give each attendee a copy of the Gospel. That is, those who can read. We have a few who cannot read - mainly the elders. That's because they come from islands far from the school. Someone who reads better, usually a younger boy or girl, reads us the chapter that is to be studied. Then, we offer our commentaries line by line.

Thirty-eight islands make up the Solentiname archipielago - some are quite small and only the larger islands are inhabited. There are about a thousand people living there. That makes around ninety families. Homes are typically straw huts that are scattered, one far from the other, on these islands' beaches. Our community or laity monastery, Our Lady of Solentiname, is situated on the tip of the biggest island. The Colombian poet, William Agudelo, his wife, Teresita, and their two small children, Irene and Juan are part of this community. Also, three youngsters were born on these islands, Alejandro, Elbis and Laureano. Communication with the outside world is not frequent and our meditation is not disturbed in this place. It's not easy to reach and lies, thank God, far from business and tourism routes.

Not all of the inhabitants on these islands come to mass. Many don't because they don't have a boat. Some don't because they have lost their devotion to the saints. Others don't because of the influence of the anticommunist propaganda and perhaps because of fear. Not all of those who come, take part in these commentaries. There are some who speak often.

Marcelino is mystical. Olivia is more theological. Rebecca, Marcelino's wife, always dwells on love. Laureano relates everything to the revolution. Elbis is concerned with tomorrow's perfect society. Felipe, another youngster, always has the struggle of the proletariat in mind. Tomás Peña, his dad, cannot read but speaks with great wisdom. Alejandro, Olivia's son, is a young leader and his comments are usually words of counsel for everybody, but particularly for the young. Pancho is a conservative. Julio Mairena constantly defends equality. Oscar, his brother, always speaks of unity. They and everybody else who speaks often and says important things, and those who seldomly speak but also say important things, and those compañeros like William and Teresita that have participated in these discussiones, they are the authors of this book.

It's more accurately said that the true author of this book is the Holy Spirit that has inspired these commentaries. The campesinos in Solentiname very well know that He is the one who makes them speak. He is the same who inspired the Gospel. The Holy Spirit is God's spirit living among his people - He is who Oscar would call the spirit of community cohesion, and who Alejandro the spirit of serving others, and Elbis the spirit of the future society, and Felipe the spirit of the struggle of the proletariat, and Julio the spirit of equality and common goods, and Laureano the spirit of the revolution, and Rebeca the spirit of love.

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