Laura Hobson Herlihy (1990 MAST H&SS) is a big fish in a small pond. A lecturer in Latin American & Caribbean Studies at the University of Kansas (KU), Herlihy is one of a small number of North Americans who speak, and an even smaller number who teach, the language of the indigenous Central American Miskitu people. Through her work with the Miskitu in Nicaragua, Herlihy has become the star of a thrice-weekly radio show in the region and the writer and impresario of a Miskitu operetta that drew 5,000 people to a performance on the beach in Puerto Cabezas over Easter weekend.
The operetta, Green Man, Blue Woman involves themes of politics, romance, and voodoo. It’s a fictionalized version of Herlihy’s real-life working relationship with Brooklyn Rivera, political leader of Nicaragua’s Miskitu. It all started as an exercise in learning and teaching the Miskitu language.
Herlihy first learned Miskitu in the 1990s, while accompanying her husband, KU Professor of Geography and Atmospheric Science Peter Herlihy, as he did field work in Honduras. There are about 200,000 Miskitu in Honduras and Nicaragua. “It was necessary for me to learn, because I was staying behind in the villages, working with women who didn’t speak Spanish,” Herlihy said.
Herlihy lived in Nicaragua in 2004 and taught at a university for indigenous students there, meeting their political leader, Brooklyn Rivera. She says the Miskitu tend to have anti-Spanish-colonial feelings and are thus pro-Anglophone. That was partly why they, including Rivera, joined the U.S.-led anti-Sandinista Contra movement in the 1980s. With the end of armed conflict in 1987, Rivera became leader of YATAMA, an acronym for Yapti Tasba Masraka Nanih Aslatakanka – literally "Sons of Mother Earth.” YATAMA later became a political party. In 2006, Rivera was elected to Nicaragua’s National Assembly, where he remains today. “I really tapped into something when I wrote about their leader. They are obsessed with him,” Herlihy said. “He’s like a god; like Elvis Presley. I interviewed him, and so we were texting back and forth about his schedule. ... The play started because I wanted to save my text messages, and our words back and forth turned into poems.
“The story line is like a cross between The King and I and Harry Potter,” Herlihy said. “There is an Indian leader and an anthropologist. He puts a potion on her and makes her a blind follower of the Miskitu people. Rivera is their gatekeeper. He represents the green party, so he’s the Green Man.
“Then another faction doesn’t like the support she’s giving him, so they kidnap her and take her to a shaman to cut the spell Rivera’s put on her . . . The shaman bathes her in a counter-remedy potion, and it’s the color blue, making her the Blue Woman. That’s how it sets up the rest of the story.”
The project has taken on a life of its own, spawning first a radio show on YATAMA’s station and then the pop-operetta. Herlihy said she arranged with top local musicians to set her writings to music. She calls in to the radio station to participate with local hosts. “It became really popular,” she said. “They’d never had this genre that tells a story before. We play a song, and I explain it. They love that a gringa speaks their language.”
Turning the staged reading into a full-blown musical play would be the next logical step, Herlihy said.