I came to Nicaragua and cried for El Salvador. That was the surprising thought gripping me as I stood, holding back tears, on a nameless dirt road in barrio Augusto César Sandino in the capital of Managua. There was no car traffic on that warm December night, and a couple of families, all wearing shorts, were enjoying the breeze while sitting in plastic white lawn chairs in front of the tin walls (lamina) of their homes.
Their conversations about family and money, and their laughter, were loud—a necessity, given the Christian rock band booming from behind the painted pink lamina of the shack housing a standing-room-only Pentecostal church. On the other side of the street, children popping pre-Christmas firecrackers scared skinny dogs and neighbors in front of a shack where someone was burning garbage. I was standing next to a group of 20-something homies gathered with a few veteranos of the barrio who were smoking pot and celebrating a newborn.
“To the cops, any one of us standing here is a delincuente,” complained Natanael Huxson Herrera, a 21-year-old born and raised in a lamina shack on a part of the road where the smell of sewage was overwhelming.
“I mean, I could just be standing here with a jaiña, doing nothing but talking, and they’ll come down here and beat the shit out of us, arrest us and then take us to jail,” Herrera said.
“Jaiña?” I asked, thinking the “ñ” in this unusual word marked it as one of the countless indigenous terms still peppering the Nicaraguan language.
“Jaiña, dude. You know. Mujer,” he said, before further schooling his US journalist interlocutor with some Nica English: “Gwoman.”
“You mean jaina, no?” I asked, trying to clarify whether the term he used was the word for “woman” or “girlfriend” in calo, a once secret, in-group lingo first developed by Roma peoples, especially those involved in criminal activity, in the ghettos of 16th-century Spain. Following the Conquista, youth and gangs in what would become the countries of the New World developed their own calo variants, including the Mexican Spanglish many of us used back home in early 1980s California.
Herrera and most of the young homies I talked to were clueless as to the etymology, as well as the history that brought jaina—and calo—from California prisons in the 1970s to young people in LA, San Jose, San Francisco, and other cities in the 1980s. That was before young deportees, including gang members, introduced the term to the tens of thousands of young Central American men who then went on to make calo the lingua franca of extremely violent gangs throughout the northern part of the region following the end of the bloody wars of those years.
“No. It’s jaiña,” he protested. Orale pues, homie. You guys have adopted and adjusted the lingo to your language. So be it, I thought.