On a Sunday morning on the Nicaraguan island of Rama Cay, Becky McCray visits with her family in her parents’ home over a breakfast of beans, coconut rice, coconut bread, and thick coffee, with the grounds still swimming in the bottom of the cup. The food was prepared over an open fire in a wall-less kitchen building; the aroma of coffee mingles with the wood smoke and the salty sea breeze.
Like other traditional homes built by the Rama, Nicaragua’s smallest indigenous group, McCray’s parents’ wooden home sits on stilts. The planks of the floor and walls are fitted together loosely, so you can see chickens scratching underneath from inside. The roof is made of thatched palm leaves and the windows are square holes, with solid wood shutters to close out violent evening winds.
Ten of McCray’s 11 adult siblings still live on Rama Cay, a 22-hectare island that rises from the water like a set of oversized goggles about a kilometer and a half off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast. The island is home to roughly half of the Rama’s 2,000 or so community members; McCray and another sister traveled from Bluefields, the closest city, 20 minutes by motorboat up the coast. Some of their children, aged two through 11, race through the house. The family members joke with one another in Rama English (also known as Rama Cay Kriol), the native language for most members of the Rama community. This English creole is incomprehensible to speakers of standard English.
One brother talks about his upcoming fishing trip—he’ll fish from a traditional wooden dory on the open ocean and sell his catch on the mainland. Fishing is his primary source of income, as is common for Rama men. Elsewhere on the island, both men and women are preparing their canoes for a trip inland to plant corn, beans, and breadfruit in their farmland.
Unlike most Rama, Becky McCray has a college degree and speaks fluent Spanish. In between laughing with her siblings and nephews, she discusses her work as a legal defender for indigenous communities in Nicaragua’s Caribbean region. Recently, most of her personal and professional energy has been focused on protecting the Rama’s territory from being bisected by an interoceanic canal.
“Where they are going to put the canal is where our people go to fish. They survive by that,” she says.
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