Everyone needs some sort of meaning in their lives. Humanity's search for guiding principles around which to structure and make sense of our existence on earth is perhaps our oldest intellectual pursuit. For some, this meaning is found in adherence to religious beliefs. The notion that a higher spiritual order exists is a powerful one. To think that our earth and all its inhabitants were created by a supreme being provides many people with the universally sought after sense of being a part of things, of having some understanding of the true meaning of life.
For the revolutionary social movement, religion may play a part in providing a pre-existing framework around which to organize recognition of and resistance to whatever injustices the movement is battling. It is likely, however, that during the course of the struggle, alternative conceptions of life's meaning will also need to be formulated. There are many reasons why people might need additional, more temporal motivations beyond religious ones in order to engage in revolutionary activity, if only because not everyone believes in religion!
Religion is also a contradictory social force; on one hand, most religions are theoretically forthright in condemning injustice, but in everyday practice tend to be conservative and status quo-affirming. Some faiths go as far as to proclaim that if injustice exists, it must be God's will, and in any event, things will be better for true believers once they reach the afterlife. In this respect, religion offers little hope as a motivating force for earthbound social revolution.
As revealed in the pages of Omar Cabezas' Fire From The Mountain, the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua found inspiration and motivation from a variety of sources. Their revolution was not anti-clerical in nature; indeed, like many Latin American social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, it drew particular strength from the emerging doctrines of liberation theology, which harkened back to early Christianity's emphasis on confrontation with earthly injustice. But the revolution was also a very temporal one, drawing on a nationalist, patriotic tradition of resistance to outside occupiers and internal tyrannies, and hopes for socialist-oriented redistributive economic measures (although not all Sandinistas were Marxist-Leninists).
The nature of the Nicaraguan revolution thus almost mandated that its participants maintain a very down to earth, temporal focus on the revolutionary struggle. This is not to say that the Sandinistas came to see the revolution as an end in of itself, but that they had to remain tightly focused on their daily functioning as guerrillas if they were ever to realize the revolution's broader goals. It was a reality of the struggle made even clearer by the overwhelming nature of the odds they faced, as evidenced by Cabezas' bravado-tinged but truthful admissions that "to decide to join the Frente in those days...was a very extraordinary thing to do, I really believe that" (p 14), since "the Frente was just a few people and probably didn't exist outside of Managua, Leon, and Esteli where a few, bold heroic people had taken up the challenge of history and started to work" (p 15).
Thus, there had to be some primal, temporal motivating force that the revolutionaries could bring to bear on themselves and their recruits in order to maintain a disciplined focus on the struggle, in the true spirit of the Sandinista slogan "Free Homeland or Death." For Cabezas and many of his guerrilla counterparts, this motivating force came from the myth of the mountain.
"When I left for the mountain I went with the idea that the mountain was a tremendous power. We had this myth of the companeros in the mountains, the mysterious, the unknown...and in the city both the people in the underground and those of us working legally always talked about the mountain as a sort of mythical force. It was where our power was, and our arms and our best men; it was our indestructability, our guarantee of a future, the ballast that would keep us from going under in the dictatorship; it was our determination to fight to the end, the certainty that life must change." (p 17)
But the mountain was more than just a source of hope to the Sandinistas. Cabeza came to realize this by coming to grips with his disillusionment when he finally ascended to the main guerrilla camp, and discovered there were no more than fifteen or twenty other Sandinistas in the mountains at that time (p 80-81). Ultimately, the mountain's strength sprang from its transformative powers.
By going into the mountains and undergoing rigorous, unrelenting physical and mental guerrilla training, the first Sandinistas were able to transform themselves into a true revolutionary vanguard, disciplined and totally committed to the struggle. The mountain's power was not merely symbolic, but rather, sprang from the concrete changes it affected in the men who sought refuge in its folds. It was this unswerving focus on the revolution, and the simultaneous rejection of the Sandinistas' past lives that it demanded, that rested at the core of the mountain's power to be a revolutionary motivating force.
The process of transformation began for Cabezas when he first set foot on his physical trek into the mountains.
"And there my Calvary began...a new phase began in my physical life, in my beliefs, in the development of my personality, in everything, in maturity, in everything, everything" (p 53).
It would ultimately involve the endurance of great physical and mental hardships, leading to a toughening of Cabezas' physical strength, agility and stamina, a hardening of his mental resolve and convictions, and ultimately, a wholesale rejection of his former life, replaced by an unswerving focus on the revolutionary struggle.
The physical hardships were many. Marching through the brush and jungles of the mountain provided an abrupt introduction to the rigors of guerrilla life for Cabezas. By dawn of his first night in the mountains, marching with a pack weighing twenty-five pounds, "I was half covered with mud, soaked to the skin, my hands were totally screwed, and wewere starved" (p 57). The guerrillas had to obey many time-consuming and physically debilitating rules in order to escape detection by National Guard patrols, such as not breaking branches (p 58-59), or leaving only one set of footsteps while marching, "over rugged topography...sometimes for half a day" (p 62). All trace of fires had to be hidden (p 71), and to take a shit meant digging a hole and wiping yourself with leaves (p 73-74). Sometimes they would march on the slopes of ridges, rather than the highest ground, "of course the hardest possible place to march" (p 129). Cabezas develops lesymaniasias, or mountain leprosy, which further adds to his sense of physical trial (p 106-109).
Hunger was also a constant companion of the guerrillas. At first a disgusting proposition, eating monkey meat eventually became an everyday fact of life (p 66-70). The guerrillas were lucky, in fact, to eat meat. Usually, rations on marches were more along the lines of "three pathetic tortillas and a few beans for the lot of us, a little bite for everybody" (p 73). "When the meat was gone, we started in on the powdered milk. At first the ration was three little spoonfuls, which we ate as it was, as powder" (p 131).
As unbearable as they were, these hardships physically transformed the Sandinistas who struggled to survive in the mountains. They became physically hardened, and better able to endure the hardships that would lie ahead of them. "Gradually you are mastering the environment, learning to march. Your legs are getting stronger. You learn how to swing a machete...this, in a way, was what helped to forge in each of us the steel that was needed to overthrow the dictatorship" (p 84-85).
The mental transformation that the mountain made possible was just as important. Paradoxically, while the rigors of guerrilla life toughened and hardened the Sandinistas both physically and mentally, it also heightened their sensitivity and capacity for empathy. As Cabezas poetically claims, it was as if "the lack of sugar had created a great inner sweetness, which made it possible for us to be touched to the quick, to make our hearts bleed for the injustices we saw" (p 85). Again and again, Cabezas explains how the guerrillas became like animals in the wilderness, "a few more creatures of the mountain" (p 84), "like animals, prowling in our natural habitat" (p 90).
In the process, their senses were sharpened.
"Day by day you make out the sounds of nature with more clarity and precision, all kinds of sounds...the same thing happens with your eyesight...the same with your sense of smell" (p 101-102).
As happened with their senses, the guerrillas' sense of revolutionary purpose and motivation was similarly heightened. When inspired to find the strength within himself to go further by his superior Tello's exhortations about the "new man," Cabeza realizes that "sometimes not being clear about things makes you give up at the first sign of tiredness, or back down before the first obstacles. It's not true; a man can always give more" (p 94). "And so a spirit was forged that enabled us to endure all the mental and physical hardship. We were developing granite wills in the face of the environment" (p 85).
The physical and mental transformations the mountain effected in the guerrillas were what made the final transformation possible, allowing them to shed their past lives completely and focus solely on the revolutionary struggle. This process began with the casting away of habits and behaviors necessary for survival in the city, but hindrances in the mountains. Cabezas learns no longer to clean his bag when it gets dirty (p 59), his hair gets longer, he "belches right in front of everybody" (p 84). Slowly but surely, the sights and sounds of city life fade from his memory (p 83).
He realizes that in order to become the "new man," fully committed to the revolution, he must kill the old man within himself (p 94). But this will come at a cost, at the cost of "the destruction of his faults, of his vices" (p 94). Cabezas reflects on the nature of his previous life, doing aboveground work for the revolution but falling short of total commitment. "Don't forget where I was coming from - drinking, staying up late, smoking, eating junk, never exercising, then all of a sudden, bam! I was right in the middle of something that called for men" (p 64). And finally, it is his experiences in the mountains that allow him to make this total commitment to the struggle.
"The mountain and the mud, the mud, and also the rain and the loneliness...all these things were cleansing us of a bunch of bourgeois defects, a whole series of vices; we learned to be humble, because you alone are not worth shit up there. You learn to be simple; you learn to value principles. You learn to appreciate the strictly human values that of necessity emerge in that environment. And little by little all our faults faded out"(p 86).
Even before he left for the mountain, Cabezas had felt committed to the revolution. "Once you join (the struggle), and as your work and responsibilities multiply, it's like entering a whirlwind...and you're in to the hilt - you're totally screwed! - and glad of it" (p 13). Yet after his experiences there, Cabezas' commitment would become all consuming.
"That present, though it existed here, did not belong to me. It was the past...and it was too late to recover it, since I wasn't going back. I wasn't going to be able to see my mother or my brothers. I would have to see them on down the line, in the future" (p 215-216).
The mountain became Cabezas' ultimate revolutionary motivation; not as symbol but through the mental and physical transformative struggle it forced him to endure.
Source: Fire From The Mountain: The Making of a Sandinista (1986) by Omar Cabezas