In wake of brutal murder, a nonprofit is born
Liona Lovings, now 52, grew up in the town of Pearl Lagoon, on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua near Bluefields. Nicaragua is currently the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and the Caribbean coast is a particularly difficult part of the country to live in — it’s largely jungle, and is even poorer than the rest of the country. Growing up, neither of Liona’s parents had a job: Her mother took care of the kids, and her father went out fishing to try to find a meal for his family. In 1989, a shocking event changed Liona’s life forever.
As told to Leila Kalmbach
Although I was the fourth of nine children, I was the apple of my daddy’s eye. I was very spoiled. Whatever happened, if I didn’t get my way I would cry and cry. My dad never put his hand on us, never spanked us, which is very rare in Nicaragua. After he finished eating, I would go and pick on his plate, and he would leave little bits for me because he knew I was coming. We never had enough to eat, though; many days we didn’t eat anything at all.
I got pregnant with my first child when I was 14, by a man seven years older. Eventually we had two more children, and got married and lived in a little house together.
After I had my third child, when I was 23, I got a tumor on my back. I had to get it taken out because it was starting to grow, and they did the surgery there in Pearl Lagoon. I was allergic to the tape they used, but didn’t know it. I started breaking out until my whole back was one big sore. My daddy came and said, “Baby, you’re going home from here.”
I said, “But I’m getting worse!” and he said, “That’s why you’re going home. I’m going to take care of you.” And my dad took me home and lay out a sheet on the floor and lay me there. He sat beside me and brushed away the flies so they wouldn’t touch my back. He made his own medicine from a plant and took care of me day and night until the wound healed up.
My husband was not like my daddy. I always wanted to help children, and I had a friend just a couple of years younger than I was whose family was friends with my family. It was the wartime, and she had to walk a mile through the jungle to get to school in Pearl Lagoon, so I invited her to stay with me and my husband one week. Her parents brought her on Monday, and my husband took her home on Friday.
That was like sending a deer with a bucket of corn, and after that we got divorced.
That was 1989. Around the same time, there was an American who moved to town and built a shrimp business. He needed someone to watch his place overnight, so a friend asked my dad if he could be the night watchman. My dad had never had a job before; he was always going fishing or planting something for food. But he agreed.
The business was on a little island I could see from my house. He went to work one night, and on the second night he was murdered. Thieves came and tied him up. They really brutalized him. They stuck a five-pound plastic bag down his throat, his collarbone was broken, they hit his forehead and his chest, they tied his hands behind him and his feet behind him to his hands. It was just so bad.
I was sleeping in my little house around one in the morning when a lady, a friend of mine, came screaming, “Liona, get up! They killed your papa!” and I lost my mind. I got lost in my own house. I couldn’t find the door, couldn’t figure out how to get outside. Maybe this was a blessing in disguise, because maybe I would’ve drowned myself trying to swim out to the island where he was.
It killed me that I could’ve seen the island from my house, and every time I looked out there, I imagined I could see my daddy looking at my house and the light and needing help, but I wasn’t there to help him because I was sleeping.
I didn’t get back to sleep that night; I was awake screaming all night. They said they could’ve heard me from far away just screaming because I couldn’t figure out how to get out of my house. I couldn’t even go to his funeral because I couldn’t stand up. When I tried to stand, my knees couldn’t hold me. I just fell to the floor.
The whole town went out with machetes that night, with sticks, with clubs, with anything they could find, from the littlest of babies, anyone who could. They went out to look for the people who did it. If they had just shot him with one shot and killed him it would not be so bad, but the torture was really bad. We know it was a military man because of the torture, though we can’t prove it. Whenever I think about it, it’s like it just happened yesterday.
I was a single mother with three children, and my father was gone. The shock was so bad. They took everything away from me; my father was two-thirds of my life and I couldn’t live with just one-third left.
My aunt and my sister were living in Tennessee, and they invited me to come for a vacation. I had to get out of Nicaragua. I didn’t have much, but I sold everything I had. Someone from the Pacific coast loaned me money. My kids were 14, 9 and 8 at the time, and I put the oldest in a private Seven-Day Adventist boarding school, and the two little ones lived with a pastor because they were still too young for that school. Then I went to Tennessee.
After the murder happened and I came to the United States, I was mad at the world. Once I saw that I could change my life in the United States, I decided never to go back to Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, I could barely buy one pair of shoes for my three kids, without food or anything. In the United States, I worked three jobs, and I could take care of my kids, even if not to the fullest. Even here sometimes I didn’t have food. They told me I could get food stamps, and I said, “If I’m going to come to the U.S. and beg for food stamps, I need to just go back home.” Eventually, I became a U.S. citizen and I managed to bring my kids here.
One day, my brother called me up and said, “Sis, there is a problem here where people are coming in from the Pacific and taking the land. That place where our grandparents worked a long time ago, we have to protect it. None of us want it.”
I told him no. I didn’t want it either.
He called again one day and said, “Sis, are you sure you don’t want it?” I said, “What am I going to do with it?”
He called a third time and said, “Sis, this is your last chance. If you don’t want it, I will give it up and forget about it.” This time I told him, “Okay. Go ahead and trim it up. I’m coming.” That was 14 years after I left Nicaragua.
I went home and saw that nothing had changed. There were big houses, but the people were still poor and had nothing to eat. Children were wandering around alone, and the government doesn’t even know how many children there are in that area. I was taken right back to when I was little. Many of the kids are abandoned because their parents are on drugs, and most of the dads aren’t around.
So I started a nonprofit to help the orphans in my hometown. I’m building an orphanage on my grandparents’ land — 100 manzanas, or 174 acres, from donations and from my own money that I was saving to pay off my house. I know those kids have lots of potential, but they don’t know what their potential is. I’m going to find it and make them be somebody.
So far, we’ve built a road into the land from the main road between Pearl Lagoon and the small town of Kukra Hill. We built the foundation for the first building. We’re going to have 90 children living there when it’s done, and we’re planting coconuts, bananas, plantains and pineapples, and raising cattle, goats and chickens for food and to sell.
If my father hadn’t been murdered, I would never have left Nicaragua. Now, I go back every few months to work on the orphanage. Growing up, I know that if my family had had just a little help, we could have done so much. These children are going to do so much.
To learn more about Liona’s orphanage or to make a donation, go to childrenshomesweethome.org. A donor is currently matching donations up to $10,000.