HATTIESBURG - As
millions of Americans head to the polls to vote in Tuesday's election,
Melvyn Barquero returns to his native Nicaragua to witness the same
democratic function, one he considered improbable in this Central
American country not many years ago.
Earlier last month, Barquero, who works as a food
services manager for Aramark at The University of Southern Mississippi,
was asked by the Nicaraguan election council to be an international
observer for elections to be held Nov. 7 for mayors and provincial
"To be asked to participate (as an international
observer) is an honor," said Barquero, a familiar face to many
Southern Miss faculty, staff and students for the last 25 years.
During that time, Barquero has managed food service operations in
the plaza between Cook and McCain libraries and now at the Liberal
Arts Building. "My job as an observer will be to make sure
that the election is clean and there are no irregularities,"
His long absence from Nicaragua likely helped him
qualify as an impartial election observer, Barquero said.
"At first I was in shock (when asked to be an
election observer), because I never expected to be asked,"
he said. "I remember not knowing what to say, except that I
needed to talk to my boss to see if I could get permission to go."
Barquero's visit to his homeland will be the first
in 42 years, after he left at age 18 in 1962 to study law in Spain.
He will take a few days while in Nicaragua to become re-acquainted
with some cousins and uncles whom he hasn't seen in decades. "I
expect it to be a very different country," he said.
"I think it's a great idea," said Southern
Miss Dining Services director Bob Lowe of Barquero's selection by
the Nicaraguan government. "I think he's a great choice. He's
just a great guy, someone who's very dependable."
Barquero came to Southern Miss in 1978 with his family
to study English at the Southern Miss English Language Institute
and intended to pursue a master's degree in library science at the
University of Michigan after completing his studies at Southern
In 1979 the Somoza family dictatorship, which ruled
Nicaragua for the better part of the 20th century, was deposed.
Following five years of coalition government, Daniel Ortega, backed
by the Sandinista rebel group that for years was the main opposition
to the Somozas, was elected president in a disputed election in
1984. His rule was opposed by the U.S. government, which accused
Ortega and the Sandinistas of corruption and influence by communists
and instead backed the opposition Contra rebels.
Barquero's career goal was to work as a librarian
at Nicaragua's Central Bank after finishing his master's degree
at Michigan. The Central Bank library, he said, was noted for having
an extensive collection of material and considered an invaluable
source for research.
"I was supposed to be in Hattiesburg for six
months, and then go to Michigan," he said. "I was in my
second course of English, and then the political situation (in Nicaragua)
He considered the environment in Nicaragua following
the 1979 overthrow too unstable and dangerous for him and his family,
so he decided to settle in Hattiesburg and go to work full time
for the university.
"I decided that the most important thing was
the education of my children," said Barquero. He solicited
assistance from his ELI professors to help him find a job at the
university, which would allow him to receive the benefit of reduced
tuition for children of university employees. "It was no personal
sacrifice. It was my obligation to my family. They come first in
Southern Miss history professor Dr. Douglas Chambers
praised Barquero's commitment to his family and willingness to give
his time to his native country for the upcoming election. "Mr.
Barquero has spent much of his adult life at (Southern Miss), working
for Dining Services," Chambers said. "His story should
be an inspiration to all."
Barquero considers his fellow food service employees
and the entire university community as an extended family--a feeling
that was cemented when his son Julio was killed in a car accident
three years ago. Barquero said the outpouring of support during
the tragedy was "something I will never forget."
The Sandinistas lost power in Nicaragua after the
1990 election, and multiparty elections have been held since then,
although the Sandinistas continue to have strong political influence.
"Barquero's return to Nicaragua as an election
observer is a testament to the great strides that his native country
is making toward full democracy, and he is to be commended for his
part in helping push the process forward" said Southern Miss
assistant professor of history and international studies director
Dr. Brian O'Neil. "The decades-long Somoza dictatorship, followed
by the 10-year civil war between the Sandinista government and the
Contras during the 1980s left Nicaragua a shattered, broken land.
While the country's economy is slowly recovering, its relatively
peaceful transition to a democratic system has been nothing short
Barquero hopes his involvement will help support that
transition so his native country will continue to have the same
freedoms he enjoys as an American. "I've prayed for this (democracy
in Nicaragua) a long time," he said.