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Nica's parents weren't there. His father, Juan Cuadra, was a soldier in the Guardia Nacional, Somoza's army. While trying to flee the country after the Sandinistas took over, Juan Cuadra stepped on a land mine, mangling his leg. He was forced to go into hiding in Nicaragua, along with Nica's mother. For five years Nica never saw either parent, but he was used to that. Even before the insurrection, his father was rarely home, and when he was, he was hard and distant, Nica says. All the men in Nica's family were soldados, tough men who lived for war.
In 1985, at age ten, Nica fled with his grandparents to Honduras, where he was reunited with his parents, who'd finally escaped Nicaragua themselves. His father quickly joined forces with the U.S.-funded Contras, who were dominated by ex-guardias and were hell-bent on retaking Nicaragua. Several of his uncles -- the ones who weren't killed during the Sandinista takeover -- were also Contras.
Now Nica would find out what it was like to live with the Contras.
Nica moved into a farmhouse outside Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, with his uncle, a Contra comandante whose own nom de guerre was particularly apt. They called him Atila.
In the darkness of early mornings, long before school started, Nica would be roused from sleep by his uncle's barking: Get up! Stand up straight! Feed the dog! Clean the house!
"It was like I was a soldier or something," Nica says. "It was command shit all the time. The Contras are like that. Even when they aren't in the war, they're still in the war. When they're drunk you don't even want to be around them. They still dream about it."
When Atila went on Contra missions, he took Nica to the military base in the Honduran mountains, where the boy stayed for a couple weeks at a time in the makeshift camp, made up primarily of strips of carpet and plastic tarp. While the Contras exercised and trained with their U.S.-supplied munitions, he watched.
Nica sometimes visited his father, who worked at Radio 15 de Septiembre, outside Tegucigalpa. The station was the voice of the Contras as well as the distribution center for the arms brought in by the U.S. He never lived with his parents, though. Something always seemed to be in the way of it. The war, work, whatever.
Instead Nica was reared, in some sense, by the war itself. He grew up immersed in his family's war stories. He heard, on countless occasions, the story of the time Sandinistas ambushed Atila's unit, attacking the comandante from all sides, shooting him six times in the belly. Atila survived the ambush, but Nica saw the nasty scars left behind. He also heard horror stories about the Sandinistas. "If they catch you, they tie you up on a cross and cut you up," Nica says. "They say, 'Tell us what is going on,' and if you don't, they would throw gas on you and burn you up."
Somoza was no better, Nica notes. He created an upper class of rich people while keeping down the lower classes. And the Contras were no heroes, either. "I'm not going to lie. Contras used to rape girls in the war, and so did the Sandinistas," he observes. "The Contras and the Sandinistas were animals. It was kill or be killed." His own uncle, Atila, made headlines in the U.S. when he was accused of summarily executing eight captured Sandinistas during a Contra mission. (Atila was exonerated by his Contra higher-ups in an investigation criticized by some human rights groups as a sham.)
Nica spent a couple years in Atila's custody. When the comandante was given political asylum in Miami, Nica moved to a one-room apartment in the Honduran capital with his aunt. On Tegucigalpa's streets he got his first taste of alcohol, of sex, and of his own penchant for violence. He began running around with street kids, committing robberies, picking fights. School fell by the wayside.
Back in Nicaragua a semblance of peace was reached. The Contras began disbanding, and many of them, including Nica's parents, sought political asylum in the United States. "When you come here, you think you are coming to heaven," Nica says. "On TV and in the newspapers, you hear about America. It was supposed to be so wonderful, so nice. But when you get here, everything turns out different."
In Miami Nica moved in with his aunt and uncle. His parents, he says, were working and couldn't take him in. Nica enrolled in Miami Springs Middle School. The memory that stands out most to him is the day his younger cousin was jumped by a group of black kids. Fourteen-year-old Wilbert, soon to be dubbed Nica in honor of his native country, began planning retaliation. "I looked around, and I saw that all Cubans were together," he says. "All the blacks were together. All the whites were together. Everybody had their own groups, so I decided to get all the Nicaraguans together and show them what was up."