A report by Tim Neville for the New York Times.
Once you know him, you see him everywhere. He’s in the airport and in the park. He’s by the hotel entrance and inside the theater. I even caught a glimpse of him on the side of an armored bank truck in Managua. Now this poet, diplomat and hero of Nicaragua lay at my feet, very much alive at 101 years dead.
Almost any Spanish speaker will know the name Rubén Darío. He wasn’t just a writer. He was the father of Spanish Modernism, the one who gave them their language back. For that they are grateful. Madrid has a Rubén Darío metro station. You’ll find Calle Rubén Darío in Mexico City, Panama City, San Salvador and Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Rubén Darío Middle School sits next to Rubén Darío Park in Miami. But Darío was born in, raised in and died in Nicaragua, and to them he’s 100 percent theirs.
“He’s everything to us!” said a night clerk in Granada.
“He’s the identity of our culture!” said the musician in Managua.
“Want to hear a joke about Darío?” asked the waitress. “It’s naughty.”
I’d come to Nicaragua last January not to surf or hike or do yoga on the beach, but to explore the profound love that Nicaraguans hold for a poet on what would have been his 150th birthday. Politicians would give speeches. There’d be parades and symposiums and recitals. For the moment I was in León, the intellectual hub of Nicaragua, where Darío’s ghost looms largest.
It was not yet 9 a.m. when I set out to find his tomb in the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary on a large, main square. Even at this hour shade was precious and the sun punished the pavement so cruelly it seemed to exhale a hopeless vapor under my feet. I slipped through the cathedral doors into the cool and merciful air.
Darío’s tomb lay near the altar under a life-size sculpture of a lion with a face frozen in anguish. The seal of Nicaragua with its volcanoes and two oceans sat nearby. Ministers had come to lay wreaths. I sat in a pew, alone, watching how no one seemed to come inside for the saints.
This is how his story ends, and yet something timeless still lives. To understand who people are, you can flip back through their pages to see where they were.
My Darío journey began in earnest a few years ago when I got in contact with a German immigrant who moved to Nicaragua in the 1990s. Immanuel Zerger looks something like a 19th-century writer himself, with graying hair and lugubrious eyes. There he had met his wife to be, Nubia, when she was a widow with five children running a small hotel on the Solentiname Islands in Lake Nicaragua. Immanuel started helping her out and things went from there.
Back then, as Immanuel tells it, the islands were losing their culture and wildlife as the modern world pressed in. Fisherman were letting their boats fall apart. Handicraft traditions were all but gone. Children shot and killed exotic birds with slingshots “just for something to do,” he said.
In 1999 Immanuel started a company called Solentiname Tours that tried to create a market for what the islanders already had — great landscapes, colorful traditions, awesome birds. The company slowly grew beyond the archipelago. Eventually he was retracing the steps of his adopted country’s writers.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens wasn’t Nicaraguan, of course, but in the early days of his career, in 1866, the man we know as Mark Twain spent three days crossing Nicaragua en route from San Francisco to New York, a trip recounted in “Travels With Mr. Brown.” Immanuel recreated Twain’s journey on the occasion of its 150th anniversary, in 2016, a moment that caught my attention but that I ultimately missed. “There’s another anniversary for another writer you should know,” Immanuel told me. “This one is Nicaraguan, a poet, very famous.”
I bought a book of poems and booked a flight.
HEAVY CLOUDS hung over Managua when I arrived. At the time, Immanuel didn’t offer a “Rubén Darío tour” — he does now — but I hired him to help me track down experts and get me to the places where Darío would have been and where his spirit lives on. The Rubén Darío National Theater in Managua came first.
Immanuel fetched me from the Los Robles hotel, a relaxed posada with a tropical courtyard in the heart of the capital. Immediately the legacy of the United States’ involvement in Nicaragua stood out. A statue of Augusto César Sandino, the guerrilla leader murdered in 1934 and perhaps the only figure more revered than Darío, loomed in the distance.
Darío himself was weary of the United States’ role in Nicaraguan affairs, particularly during the banana wars from 1898 to 1934. In 1905 he wrote a poem called “To Roosevelt.” “You think that life is a fire, / that progress is an irruption?, / that the future is wherever / your bullet strikes,” Darío wrote. “No.”
Low-slung buildings painted in pinks, yellows and greens slid past the windows of Immanuel’s truck. Greater Managua, with a population of about 2.6 million people, felt less like a metropolis than a loose bag of a suburb. In 1972, an earthquake reduced all but 10 percent of the city to rubble and left Managua with an ill-defined city center and a strange vernacular for navigating. North becomes al lago, meaning toward Lake Managua; east is arriba, as in up. Send a postcard to Managua and the address will read like clues to pirate treasure: “Arriba from the little tree, last house al lago.”
The theater has bold Bauhaus-style lines and sits near the lake across from a plaza where Pope John Paul II delivered a fiery sermon in 1983 when the country was deep in a civil war. The theater survived the earthquake with only cosmetic damage and escaped the war unharmed. “Every side claims Darío as their own,” Immanuel said. “He is untouchable.”
Ramón Rodríguez Sobalvarro, the general director and an accomplished oboe player, welcomed me in his office. He had been rehearsing for a coming performance that would put Darío’s poetry to music. A keyboard stood in the corner, and above his desk hung a picture of Darío with broad shoulders and a thinker’s stare.
“For me Darío is a Nicaraguan artist in the maximum sense,” Mr. Rodríguez said as we walked around the theater. “He gave us our cultural identity, something that was ours that we could then project out into the world instead of copying what had already been done.”
In the theater’s early days — it was built in 1969 — nearly all of the shows were foreign productions: Duke Ellington, Mexican folk ballets, Marcel Marceau. Now 90 percent are Nicaraguan. Today some 40,000 children come for workshops; subsidies help keep most ticket prices in the $5 to $8 range.
Mr. Rodríguez asked if I’d be back for the Cantana, the Darío celebration, in a few days. I said I’d like that.
“The theater, Darío, art, it doesn’t just happen inside these walls, you know,” Mr. Rodríguez said as led me outside. “It lives out there.”
DARÍO MAY BE THE ONLY NICARAGUAN to have earned worldwide acclaim as a poet, but others like Azarías Pallais, Salomón de la Selva and Alfonso Cortés (who lived, wrote and went insane in Darío’s childhood home) come close. All of these men hailed from León where Darío grew up.
I visited Darío’s tomb in León on that furnace of a morning at the end of a two-day stay in the city, but I got there thanks to a budding architect and translator named Gabriel Galeano, whom Immanuel asked to accompany me. Gabe, as he told me to call him, had a love for banter, and he picked me up in Managua for the 60-mile journey northwest. Soon we were whipping down a highway lined with jicaro. Old American school buses trundled by sporting new green bumpers, chrome horns, blue piping and loud checker wraps. It was if all those Blue Birds were finally free to ditch the school uniform and become their fabulous selves.
León immediately felt more manageable than Managua, with sidewalks and plazas and people wandering about. Long the left-leaning fulcrum of the country, León, the country’s second largest city with about 210,000 people, was among the first to rebel against Anastasio “Tachito” Somoza DeBayle whose father, Anastasio “Tacho” Somoza, had been gunned down here in 1956 by Rigoberto López Pérez. López, a national hero with his own statue in Managua, was a poet from León.
Gabe led me to the José de la Cruz Mena Theater in the southwest side of the city. The lobby buzzed with TV crews. Girls dressed in Greco-style costumes with winged hats and fanfare trumpets lined up nervously along the wall. The 15th Rubén Darío Symposium was underway and the who’s who of the Nicaraguan literary scene had come to see performances, recite poetry and absorb lectures like “The Metaphysical Sensitivity in the Lyrics of Rubén Darío.”
“You know Darío said this city was like his Rome or Paris,” said Eddy Kühl, an author of numerous books on history and Darío, who also runs Selva Negra, an ecolodge in the coffee highlands. Mr. Kühl, who could pass for a senior Indiana Jones, took me through Darío’s rise to prominence.
Darío taught himself to read at age 3 and wrote poetry not long after. He left Nicaragua for El Salvador at 15. At 19 he moved to Chile where, at age 21, he published “Azul,” a collection of poems and prose that came to define the Spanish Modernist movement and catapulted him into literary stardom. The book, which built on the work of other poets like José Martí, shattered the stodgy literary norms of the day and breathed new life into the language.
“Everything written in Spanish afterward has been affected in one way or another by that great renascence,” wrote the Mexican poet and Nobel laureate Octavio Paz in the prologue to “Selected Poems of Rubén Darío,” translated by Lysander Kemp. As Francisco Arellano Oviedo, the director of the Nicaraguan Language Academy, told me: “After so many centuries, Darío sent Columbus’s caravan back and freed Spanish literature from Spain.”
After a lunch of fried plantains, chicken and repollo salad at a place called Tan Rico, we headed to the house where Darío had moved in with his aunt when he was just 40 days old. Rosa Sarmiento, his mother, fleeing an abusive marriage, would later end up in Honduras and have no relationship with her son. The house of his aunt, Bernarda Sarmiento de Ramierez, sits on Rubén Darío Street, though back then it was Calle Real.
Half of the house is now a museum. A sofa given to Darío from Manuel Estrada Cabrera, the Guatemalan dictator, sat in a main room, along with Darío’s diplomatic suits from missions to Argentina and Spain. Two large doors opened to the city outside.
I lingered in the doorway and looked out at the street. A woman shredded cabbage into a red bowl. Her mobile phone rang. She looked up and caught me staring at her through the door. “Darío,” she mouthed, and took the call.
DARÍO ONLY RETURNED to Nicaragua five times over the course of his career. He spent the bulk of his time traveling on other people’s córdobas as a journalist, envoy and diplomat. He edited some of the day’s most esteemed literary journals while in Europe and wrote for newspapers in Spain and South America, and The New York Times. All in all he crossed the Atlantic 12 times and explored some 30 countries on three continents.
Perhaps Darío’s most famous trip was on Nov. 23, 1907, when, now famous, he returned to Nicaragua aboard a steamer that called at the Pacific port of Corinto where a crowd greeted him. More people — tens of thousands — lined the railroad tracks across the countryside to see him as he toured. Darío’s return still stands sure in the Nicaraguan consciousness today — there are books and plays about it — though I got the feeling the moment carries some wistfulness. “If one’s homeland is small, you dream it big,” Darío wrote in a poem about his trip, “Retorno,” and the refrain today still hangs over the Plaza de la Revolución in Managua.
I said goodbye to Gabe and Immanuel fetched me in León. We drove northward toward Chinandega, a sweltering town not far from Honduras, and on to Corinto. The 4,255-foot Momotombo volcano rose behind us, “lyrical and sovereign,” as Darío described it. “The return to the native land has been so / sentimental, and so mental, and so divine / that even the crystalline dawn drops are / in the jasmine of dream, of fragrance and song,” he wrote.
Corinto isn’t so sublime. It felt like what it is: Nicaragua’s deepest port town, with container yards and cranes and a gray beach lined with tin-roofed shacks. The United States has landed marines here numerous times and in 1983 President Ronald Reagan, fearing Nicaragua’s Communist rise, had the port mined, illegally. After that the president turned to more clandestine counterrevolutionary measures, and the Iran-contra affair was born.
We grabbed a lunch of fish and rice at a beachside shack called Rancho del Cordon that’s run by Rafaela Picado, whom everyone calls La Payita. Her daughter, Christina Hernandez, clasped her hands to her chest when I mentioned Darío, and dove into a bawdy joke about Darío ordering a fruit salad. She threw her head back and cackled and then segued into a story about the time she went to see flamingos on the salt flats in the distance, how their long slender legs moved in the water and how the fish jumped and flickered in the sunshine.
Erick Aguirre, the 2009 winner of the Rubén Darío prize for poetry, had told me earlier to be on the lookout for stories like these. “I think Darío lives on in how people tell them,” he said.
Immanuel and I returned to Managua to catch the Cantana, an 18-skit performance, at the grand National Theater before Gabe met me once again, this time for a trip to the village where Darío was born about 60 miles north of Managua. We drove al lago along the Pan American Highway until the land cocked skyward.
Darío was born in 1867 near San Pedro de Metapa, which has since been renamed Ciudad Darío. The village sits in the mountains, just across a bridge called the Darío Bridge. We walked down the paver stones of the main thoroughfare behind a man in a large hat. The sun felt kind; the mood, relaxed. “It’s not a small village, but it’s very quiet here,” Gabe said. “It is also more cowboyish.”
At a park across from a mobile phone shop off Poets Boulevard where neem trees reached over the hardened soil, we found sculptures of Darío and the house where he spent the first month of his life: a 200-year-old structure with earthen walls. The kitchen stood outside along with a comal for making tortillas.
OVER THE NEXT FEW DAYS, I’d do more touristy things. I’d meet Immanuel again to visit the beach town of San Juan del Sur. I’d peer into the molten, gurgling belly of the Masaya volcano and I’d stand in the warm Pacific in San Juan del Sur, where Immanuel helped get a statue installed of Darío sitting on a bench with Mark Twain near a lemon tree. Darío had come to San Juan del Sur on a diplomatic mission in the mid-1880s. Twain had passed through here 20 days before Darío’s birth. “The two never met,” Immanuel said, “but the Nicaraguan muses kissed them both.”
But for the moment, before leaving Ciudad Darío, Gabe and I worked our way to the main cathedral. St. Peter’s had a tired off-white facade with sea-foam green accents and a Spanish colonial bell tower. Inside, paddle fans beat ripples down banners hanging from the trusses. Townspeople filled the pews. They’d come to bury one of their own, a craftsman who’d died in his 80s.
“I am an agèd tree that, when I was growing, / uttered a vague, sweet sound when the / breeze caressed me,” Darío wrote in his 1907 poem “In Autumn.” “The time for youthful smiles has now / passed by: / now, let the hurricane swirl my heart to / song!”
At 10:18 p.m. on Feb. 6, 1916, Félix Rubén García Sarmiento, the man the world knew as Rubén Darío, died in León. Gravely ill, he had returned to Nicaragua for his fifth and final time. When the “ruler of kings” came for him he was lying on his left shoulder, mouth agape, his body hollowed out by a failing liver. A photographer took a picture of him. A doctor removed his brain. Forty-nine years old, and that was that.
The funeral lasted a week. Attendants wrapped his body in a double-breasted frock coat and slipped black gloves over his lifeless hands. Men with flat brimmed hats and women in long dresses lined the Avenida Central as a carriage ferried his corpse to the cathedral. They lowered him into a tomb carved out of the floor near the altar.
“What will you put on my grave, master?” Darío had asked the sculptor Jorge Bernabé Navas Cordonero, a friend from Granada, who’d visited him on his deathbed. “A suffering lion,” the sculptor replied. “It is your beloved people, your León, that will forever cry for you.”
More than 10,000 people showed up for his procession, but the immense love that Nicaraguans have for this man would only grow like the modernist movement he helped define.
One night near the end of my trip, Immanuel and I drove through Managua to an area packed with food stands, looking for a dish called vigorón: yucca, chicharron and shredded cabbage served on a plantain leaf. The tables along the sidewalk were taken, mostly by talkative men. I couldn’t understand a word but they waved their arms wildly and spoke expressively. “I think everyone here is a poet in some way,” Immanuel laughed, only half joking. “Did you know that if you ask a couple expecting a child, ‘Will it be a boy or a girl?’, do you know what they might say?”
“What?” I asked.