University of Pittsburgh Hillman Library houses Thomas Walker Collection: A lifetime of scholarly work in Latin America

November 8, 2017

Caridad was a woman of great endurance. Rising at 4am and retiring at midnight, she spent her long days cooking and selling mondongo, or tripe soup, to the men returning from the brothels in a small town in Colombia. With her sparse earnings, she supported her six children and was able to send her eldest, a son, to school. He went on to become a university professor and in turn provided education for his younger siblings. Not unlike mothers around the world, Caridad fought for her children’s survival with resilience and strength. National borders and nationalities don’t circumscribe the will to provide for one’s children. Dr. Tom Walker’s friendship with Caridad, born from a bowl of mondongo, cemented that truth in his consciousness and propelled him to a lifetime of advocacy for the working people of Central America.

Last Monday, the Center for Latin American Studies hosted a lecture by Dr. Thomas Walker, “One Scholar’s Half Century Affair with Nicaragua.”  During the lecture, he discussed his career-long relationship with Nicaragua. As a pioneer in scholarly investigation, Dr. Walker brought a narrative counter to the prevailing ideology that fueled the hostile policies enacted by the U.S. against the revolutionary movements in Central America  during the 70s, 80s, and into the 90s.

The Thomas Walker Collection of materials on Nicaraguan politics now resides in the Archives and Special Collections of the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillman Library. A team of dedicated graduate students, supervised by the University’s Latin Americanist librarian, Martha Mantilla, oversees the collection.  It documents the sociopolitical conditions of Nicaragua before, during, and after the Nicaraguan Revolution with emphasis on the February 25, 1990  general elections. The collection consists of correspondence, newspaper clippings, documents related to the literacy and post literacy campaigns, human rights reports, posters from the 1990 election, and other ephemera.  

Upon graduating from Brown University with a BA in the 1960s, and disillusioned with political science, Dr. Thomas Walker promptly burned all his text books.  He applied to serve with the Peace Corps in Africa, but instead was assigned to a small town in Colombia. This  modification in location set his course as a renowned Latin Americanist. After leaving Colombia, Dr. Walker enrolled in the University of New Mexico to pursue a Ph.D. in Political Science. Upon completing his dissertation based on fieldwork in Brazil, Walker traveled to Nicaragua in the summer of 1968 to investigate Christian Democracy, a political ideology  that had taken hold in much of Latin America. At the time, Nicaragua had a growing party of Christian Democrats, and the rumblings of political unrest had alerted the U.S. to the perceived threat of communism. On this first trip to Nicaragua, Walker met with and interviewed members of the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (Sandinista National Liberation Front), a then-guerilla organization which would come to lead the revolution that overthrew the dictator, Anastasio Somoza. 

While conducting the interviews and research, Walker was challenged by a Nicaraguan he met in the northern city of Leon to move beyond the prevalent North American analysis and to investigate the unrest in Nicaragua more fully. The country was still ten years away from a violent revolution and subsequent U.S. backed Contra War, but events were taking place in the country that would be formative in shaping the revolution. After returning from this first trip Dr. Walker remained deeply interested in Nicaragua and the struggles of its people. He continued to conduct research in the area to inform U.S. policies towards the region. The U.S., however, was not receptive to Walker’s opinions, work, research nor findings, immersed instead in an anti-communist narrative that attempted to protect its control in the region.

The Sandinista Revolution in July of 1979 presented the United States with an opportunity to support the men and women of Nicaragua. The new Sandinista government, formed from a wide ideological spectrum including social democrats, socialists, Marxist-Leninists, and liberation theology, had made substantial efforts to address inequalities ranging from education to land ownership. It also applied to have the U.S. equip the Nicaraguan military and thereby standardize the equipment .

Walker recognized an opportunity, and wrote a powerful letter to President Jimmy Carter, imploring him to accept the new regime in Nicaragua. Though Carter never responded, Walker’s letter was sent to La Prensa, the left leaning Nicaraguan newspaper. It was published with a front-page lead in and next day it received strong support in an editorial and became a point of discussion for the Sandinistas.             


A month after the Sandinistas came to power, Dr. Walker was invited to speak at a CIA seminar on current Central American alignments affected by the presence of the new government in Nicaragua. Walker presented a frank appraisal of his view on U.S.-Latin American relations. When Admiral Stanfield Turner, the then director of the CIA, finally made an appearance at the seminar, he clarified the US position:  “There can be no more Nicaraguas”, alluding to the growing number of Latin American countries potentially choosing socialist governments as an answer to the social unrest in the region.

Undeterred by the CIA and the U.S.’s portrayal of the new Sandinista government as a repeat of the Cuban Revolution, Dr. Walker saw the opportunity to conduct vigorous, scholarly investigation into the new Nicaragua, and leverage that work to illuminate the realities of the Revolution. He created a strategy which quickly engaged scholars, activists, specialists, and students to perform research in and on Nicaragua. Walker organized panels at conferences, and the papers that were produced by the panelists were published in several books in the years following the Revolution. Dr. Walker personally led groups of students and scholars to Nicaragua during those years, and frequently these groups visited the warzones and interviewed top level Sandinistas as well as members of the opposition.

Electoral observations:

Until the 1980s, electoral observations were rarely conducted, and those that were faulted for lacking validity and credibility. In 1984, the Sandinista government decided to hold elections. In the constant struggle for truth based policies and relations, Walker suggested to the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) that they send a delegation to Nicaragua to observe the elections to insure that the credibility of the elections could not be dismissed by the Reagan administration. Walker was joined by others in encouraging LASA to do so and they, among many other delegations, found the election to be fair and democratic. In the U.S. however, the election was discredited and again the truth of events in Nicaragua did not make its way into the halls of U.S. policy and power.

Dr. Walker advocated for and campaigned to realign US policy on Nicaragua during a time of covert operations, illegal funding of a contra-revolutionary war and an administration that was determined to keep Nicaragua deeply within its sphere of influence.  Dr. Walker cites his friendship with Caridad, the Colombian mondongo vendor, and her good heartedness, intelligence, and determination in the face of monumental obstacles as the nourishment that sustained him during the years he documented the Nicaraguan story. The University of Pittsburgh is fortunate to house the repository of that life’s work.



About Author(s)

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Rosa De Ferrari
Rosa De Ferrari is a second year dual degree student, pursuing her Masters in International Development and Public Health. She has spent significant time in Latin America working and conducting research. Her focus is on violence again women and girls and maternal health.