The death of poet Ernesto Cardenal on March 1st has disrupted the world of Nicaraguan culture. The parting of the Trappist priest and key figure of Liberation Theology has moved writers and artists, especially singer-songwriters who set his poems to music.
Carlos Mejia Godoy learned about the death of Cardenal in exile. He cried deeply because he lost a friend, who inspired partially the creation of the “Misa Campesina” (Peasants’ Mass), a musical work that incorporated Liberation Theology, a Christian current of which Cardenal was in the vanguard.
“Not only does a friend, a priest, leave us, but also a guide, a pilot of that ship which is the dignity of a country that continues suffering and struggling. Ernesto was not able to leave knowing that his Nicaragua will be free again. That would have been the best sacrament, the best occurrence before his leaving, to have told him that his country was free. But he will know it sooner or later; that news will reach him,” said Mejia Godoy from the United States.
Mejia Godoy related that it was in Solentiname, the archipelago in which Cardenal founded a community dedicated to the gospel and art, where he found the inspiration for the “Misa Campesina” seeing the work of the poet with the peasants.
“That work of Ernesto Cardenal was the starting point to write the mass, a mass that broke all the schemes of the traditional mass, although it maintained the liturgical structure,” recalled Mejia Godoy, who also set to music Cardenal’s famous poem “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe.”
Luis Enrique Mejia Godoy, Carlos’s brother, also regretted not being able to say goodbye to Cardenal himself, because he is in exile. The poet was the boss of Luis Enrique for ten years in the Ministry of Culture during the Sandinista Revolution. During that decade, the singer-songwriter was able to know Cardenal beyond his verses.
“We were very influenced by his poetry. By his Psalms, by his “Hora Cero” (Zero Hour), by his epigrams of love and politics. Ernesto was persecuted in recent years by the current government. I feel a great affection for him,” says Luis Enrique.
The singer-songwriter described as “cynicism” that the Government of Ortega and Murillo issued a statement declaring national mourning for the death of the poet. According to Luis Enrique, there is evidence and witnesses that Murillo persecuted Cardenal from the eighties to the present, to the point of imposing a huge fine on him in 2017.
“Cynicism on the part of a government that has persecuted him. Ernesto always was a very coherent man, who did not mince his words. Ernesto spoke for many years that there is a dictatorship in Nicaragua; not just since April 18. He was an obstruction in the eye of this repressive regime,” criticized the musician.
“Before he died, a few weeks ago, Ernesto Cardenal gave very strong statements again that reaffirmed his unfailing position against injustice. And it is not an independent personal thing that Rosario Murillo was almost a personal enemy of Ernesto in the eighties, because she was jealous of the whole issue of cultural leadership,” said Luis Enrique.
From Mexico, composer Hernaldo Zuniga told Confidencial that he was feeling sadden by the death of Cardenal. Zuniga also referred to the government statement.
“I have mixed feelings on this issue. On the one hand, beyond a purely tactical issue, of political opportunism, I would like to think that there is an honest gesture behind it,” said Zuniga. “That is, I think that regardless of the brutal disagreements that Ernesto had with the regime of President Ortega, the truth is that his imprint is so great in our history, that it ended up overcoming the immediate meanness, the impudence with which the priest was treated in recent times. I would like to believe that that recognition from the State institutions is honest,” he added.
The three singer-songwriters agreed that Cardenal was a decisive influence on their artistic and poetic training, in general for his political and social poems, such as “Hora Cero” (Zero Hour).
“I am part of a generation in which the imprint of Cardenal was very important,” pointed out Zuniga. “In my teens I had a poster of a recital he gave in the UCA in the seventies. He was a kind of icon; an inspiring icon for souls still in the process of formation. He gave that to us the kids of those times. First with the testimony of the man, of the religious man. He made a cocktail of apparent contradictions, but in the end, he had an immense coherence.”
While Luis Enrique Mejia Godoy confessed that from the poem “Hora Cero” he pulled out “the words” about the deeds of Augusto Sandino against the US intervention to write his song: “there were 30 with him.”
“Ernesto was a poet and a prophet in his land. We knew his work in Solentiname. I know a lot of the Ernesto that influenced me as a young man, as well as many young people from Latin America,” said the singer-songwriter.
Carlos Mejia Godoy, still choking with tears, said that Cardenal’s poetry is so immense that it is difficult to select favorite poems. But “Hora Cero” marked him as a young man beginning his revolutionary life.
“‘Hora Cero’ and the Epigrams were a mixture of mundane love, with the love of God and love for the homeland. The only thing I regret is not to be able to board a plane, land in Solentiname and sing to him our peasants’ mass. From exile I will pay tribute to the living poet, until a few days ago, the most important in Nicaragua. He is one of the references of lyricism and dignity,” concluded Mejia Godoy.