36/19 - Commentary

Whether or not they know it, all Americans are characters in the story of July 19, 1979—and of what happened in Nicaragua in the decade that followed.

Unfortunately, in this particular story we feature more as villains than heroes, which is probably why this narrative has managed to stay on the margins of our consciousness. I wasn't even born yet in 1979, and I had never heard this story until I signed up to volunteer as an English teacher in a rural Nicaraguan village for two years. So it was a bit embarrassing when my new Nicaraguan friends had to fill me in on our historic national relationship—how my country had played such a major role in tearing their country apart in a bloody civil war. Amazingly, no one I met blamed me in any way for my government's actions; they all seemed to grasp the profound distinction between personal belief and government policy.

But I remained astounded at my own ignorance: how could I not have been aware of a historic tragedy for which, on some level, as a citizen of the United States, I was responsible? Nicaragua is the impoverished, developing country it is today partly because of US actions. As Americans, we need to own up to that culpability so that in the future we can strive to build up, rather than tear down, our international neighbors. But first we need to learn our stories. This was why I chose to write this graphic vignette—to share this story with friends and family, and to shed light on how U.S. policy personally impacted the lives of my Nicaraguan friends.

A few years earlier, I had taken a graphic novel course at Goshen College with Jessica Baldanzi, and there was something about the combination of images and words that struck upon the most creative shades of my mind. It was partly because of this experience and partly because Nicaragua is such an image-oriented culture that the graphic novel format seemed like the perfect medium for this story. Reading is not a typical Nicaraguan pastime (very few people have books in their houses), but bright murals decorate every blank wall in town and schools are plastered with artistic bulletin boards that unite words with pictures.

The graphic novel also felt like an appropriate vehicle for this story because it was an easy way to draw people in and give a quick historical synopsis that might otherwise feel dry and lecturey. The images lend a relatability to the serious content of the text, and somehow the graphic format manages to trick its readers into learning things for fun.

When images accompany a written text, they are able to convey an energy that is felt rather than told, and this was a story that needed visuals to resonate with the reader on that more emotional level. If a story like this that wants the reader to feel certain things—guilt, astonishment, compassion—if it had been spelled out in a couple of paragraphs of prose, it would have felt heavy-handed and have lost much of its power. Readers never want to feel that they are being manipulated.

When images accompany those words, on the other hand, the narrative more readily mimics how we naturally observe and absorb everyday life—a combination of information told to us and things that we just see and come to understand on our own. Having to piece together the narrative from what we see and what we are told exercises our imaginations and our intellect, giving us the same sense of satisfaction we get when solving a puzzle. When I see the images of the revolution crowds, for instance, and from the images sense the energy of a movement comprised of so many people, I have absorbed something that no one had to tell me—something that I understand because I am almost experiencing it myself. Ultimately, when we are able to extrapolate from and interact with the narrative in that way, it becomes part of ourselves.


Around July 19, the Sandinistas paint “36/19” (or however many years it has been since 1979/19) on every rock and every available wall in the country—thus, the title. Red and black are the Sandinista colors, so I wanted to splash them intermittently throughout the graphic novel, especially on images that directly relate to the revolution. This was another advantage to writing this story in graphic format: these very stark colors convey the themes of blood, fire, and death that permeate this narrative. I think colors have a unique ability to affect us emotionally in a way that a non-graphic story might miss.

Panel 1

I was first inspired to create this short graphic history when I was watching TV at our friend Idalia's house around July 19 and saw this huge image of Daniel Ortega in his military garb, waving, which was being broadcast on almost every single channel during commercial breaks. The propaganda that the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) party puts out is unlike anything I've ever seen in the U.S., and it is all centered around Ortega. In this first panel, I wanted to capture him as the emblem of Nicaraguan patriotism by showing this big close-up of him in front of the FSLN flag, waving as though he is the hope of the nation. Ortega was a peasant leader in the initial 1979 revolution, and though he has since become much more moderate, he still represents for many people the hope of a better, more equal society, which brought Nicaraguans together in 1979. Ortega needed to dominate the first panel; he is one of the most consistent strands running through this story.

Panels 2, 6, and 8

In these panels, I use stick-figure images to give the reader a sense of the plurality of the revolutionary ideals. I think of the revolution as a huge, faceless crowd—a movement of many, many people, working as a unit towards a single goal. The crowd mentality is a big part of Nicaraguan nationalistic culture. In panels 2 and 6, I wanted the faceless stick figures to give the reader an idea of the strength in numbers that the revolution brought out—an idea of the roiling energy of being in a crowd in which your face and your particular identity are irrelevant. Panel 8 sobers this idea, showing the tragedy of so many people dead, and suggesting that when they die, suddenly their faces and identities become relevant again.

Panel 5

Conversely, in this panel I wanted to give the reader a closer look at an individual character who was a member of this great, faceless crowd of revolutionaries—someone who was profoundly affected by the Contra War. The image of Doña Victoria squished in between my husband David and me, belting out revolution hymns as we gaze on at her, somehow captures our awakening to this proud, Nicaraguan moment. A simple image grants the reader the permission to project themselves onto a character in the story, and here I wanted the reader to become David and me, realizing for the first time how important this period in history is to Nicaraguans.

Panel 8

There is no narrative device that could portray the chaos of violence and the overwhelming grief of meaningless death like an image can. Images allow you to create scenes like this, where guns symbolically dominate the frame, strewing bodies every which way on a field of red. There are some things that words just can't describe; readers will each absorb something different from an image like this.

Panel 9

This was a scene that our friend Doña Victoria described to us—staying up late to bring coffee to the men who guarded the village during the war. It was such a vivid image that I knew I had to include it. I wanted the coffee to draw the reader's eye and serve as a symbol of the collaboration that the war, however negative, brought out in people, drawing communities together.

Because creating community is really what this story is all about. When I shared this graphic history with my own community in the U.S., their response was overwhelmingly positive. My hope is that learning about their tragic historic relationship with Nicaraguans can serve as a catalyst for Americans, helping them transform this horrible past into a more hopeful future. Recognizing how our national histories are intertwined makes it much easier to sense our interdependence as a global community, and I would argue that the graphic novel is the perfect medium for fostering that community. When we are able to extrapolate from and interact with the narrative in the way that the graphic format allows, we become part of the narrative and the narrative becomes part of us.

About the Author

Sarah  Rich

Sarah Rich graduated from Goshen College in 2011 with an English major and a Journalism minor. From 2013 to 2015, she served with Volunteer Missionary Movement in Nicaragua, teaching English and working on an organic farm in the mountains. This mini-graphic novel was originally written for the blog she kept chronicling life in the town of San Nicolas, Nicaragua. Since returning to the U.S., Sarah and her husband, David Wiegner, have self-published a Nicaraguan cookbook, Nicaraguan Campo Cooking, compiling many of the stories and recipes they learned from Nicaraguan friends. Sarah now lives in Philadelphia, where she works at the Drexel University Libraries and is pursuing a Masters in Library and Information Science.