I don't particularly want to generalize, but in the vast majority of Latin American countries where there are no newspapers worthy of that title, no congresses that are truly representative--or, for that matter, no real political parties or trade unions--and where, too, cinema, television and radio are all in the hands of the most corrupt pedlars that can you possibly imagine, it's finally left up to the Latin American writer to say what history is afraid to say, what the mass media refuses to say. In Latin America, then the writer is confronted by a permanent challenge to explain the essential truth of the continent.1

Carlos Fuentes


Although the Central American political and economic situation is what makes headlines here [in the USA], there is no better way to understand the region than by turning to its writers. In their best works, the unresolved contradictions of the area can be seen without simplification and in their full tragic implications.2

This social concern of writers can be traced to the period even before the independence of their countries from Spain. Later it became stronger when voices of dissent emerged against absolutist and dictatorial governments, which in most cases turned out to be more oppressive that the Spanish rulers. This political involvement has become a tradition in Latin America. Writers quite often assume a leading role in guiding their people on different political and ideological issues and have become some of the most important opinion molders. They verbalize this social and political awareness in newspapers and on talk shows, in which they treat such issues as dictatorship, human rights, social injustice, health, education, poverty and militarism.

In these interviews such strong statements can be heard as that by the Mexican Carlos Fuentes referring to the Nicaraguan situation: "What can we say about a country that comes out of 45 years of dictatorship. . . . My attitude is to let these countries resolve their problems. I would like to ask Reagan `What right do you have to meddle in things you don't understand?'"3

It is not surprising then that, in accepting Nobel Prizes, without exception all the Latin American writers have not talked much about literature itself, but--aware of the vast audience they are reaching--have adopted a political tone to inform the world about the Latin American social and political reality. Thus in Pablo Neruda's Nobel lecture, "Toward the Splendid City," we read:

In the mist of the arena of America's struggles I saw that my human task was none other than to join the extensive forces of the organized masses of the people, to join with life and soul, with suffering and hope, because it is only from this great popular stream that the necessary changes can arise for writers and for nations. And even if my attitude gave, and still gives, rise to bitter or friendly objections, the truth is that I can find no other way for writers in our far-flung and cruel countries, if we want the darkness to blossom, if we are concerned that the millions of people, who have learned neither to read us nor to read at all, who still cannot write or write to us, feel at home in the dignity without which it is impossible for them to be complete human beings.4

Eleven years later, another Latin American writer, Gabriel García Márquez, who calls himself an emergency politician, took up Neruda's stand in Stockholm and gave an account of the what had happened in Latin America since the Chilean poet's speech: "There have been 5 wars and 17 military coups; there emerged a diabolic dictator who is carrying out, in Gods name the first latin American ethnocide of our time. In the meantime, 20 million Latin American children died before the age of one." Turning to Central America in this account, he adds the following facts: Because they tried to change this state of things [human right violations] nearly 200,000 men and women have died throughout the continent, and over 100,000 have lost their lives in three small and ill-fated countries of Central America: Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. If this had happened in the United States, the corresponding figure would be that of 1,600,000 violent deaths in four years. . . . Since 1979, the civil war in El Salvador has produced almost one refugee every twenty minutes. The country that could be formed of all the exiles and forced emigrants of Latin America would have a population larger than that of Norway.5

Because of this political commitment and involvement, it is hard to find in any Latin American nation a writer who has not joined the struggle for human rights, especially against censorship which deprives them of the means to express their ideas. Many of them have been victims of different kinds of censorship and repression, but have found a way to defy and resist repression; others have paid for their beliefs, after being tortured, by becoming one more in the long list of `desaparecidos'. Many names come to mind, when we think of committed writers from Central America.6 Here we will concentrate on only four writers of liberation whose prophetic voices of denunciation and hope are seen as an inextricable part of the Latin American struggle for social justice and human rights: the Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias, the Nicaraguans Ernesto Cardenal and Pablo Antonio Cuadra, and the Nicaraguan-Salvadorian Claribel Alegría.


The multinationals claim that they come in order to bring new technologies, a stable currency, and many new jobs. In practice, there is economic growth for a minuscule minority of rich natives who form a natural alliance with the incoming multinational. For the nonwhite peoples as a whole there is an increase in foreign and a minimum of new jobs, because modern technologies reduce to a minimum the number of workers needed and because such workers as are required need a technical training that is too advanced for the nonwhite indigenes.

Destruction of native cultures? Enslavement? Yes. Not openly and officially, however, but indirectly and subtly.7

(Dom Helder Camara) Born in 1899, Asturias received his law degree in 1923 with a thesis on Indian problems.8 Soon after the completion of his university studies he left for Europe where he lived for ten years. He first stayed for some time in London where he frequently visited the Mayan collection in the British Museum, but soon moved to Paris to enroll at the Sorbonne to study under the direction of George Raymond, a scholar of Central American anthropology and mythology. Professor Raymond had translated the Popol Vuh into French, and Asturias subsequently rendered it into Spanish.

In 1930 Asturias returned to Guatemala while the country was under the dictatorship of Jorge Ubico. In 1946 he published El Señor Presidente, a novel which at first went unnoticed, but later became his best known work. In 1954 Asturias was deprived of his passport and citizenship, and forced into exile, first in Chile and then in Argentina. In 1966 the new president of Guatemala appointed him ambassador to France. The next year he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Because at that time the government of Guatemala, with the assistance of the U.S.A., was crushing revolutionary guerrillas, many of his leftist friends thought he was under the service of a repressive regime--particularly the Cuban cultural establishment did not join the celebration of this award. In these years, Asturias had published other works, including Men of Maize (1949), which is considered by many critics to be his best novel.

For Asturias the Latin American writer has one essential function: "to reflect in his work the reality of his country." But, he points out, "[We Latin American writers] do not restrict ourselves to determining the facts, but try to modify the facts, to improve them, to submit them to justice. Latin American literature is committed to life . . . [but the committed author] is also committed to demonstrating greater mastery, greater artistic talent."9 For Asturias the role of the writer is clear. He must be a guide of the people and assume a prophetic voice, and he must do all this without neglecting the excellence of his art.

The main literary preoccupation of Asturias was to recreate the kind of language conceived by the ancient Mayans for whom words were sacred, dedicated to the gods. For the Mayan--as for most primitive cultures--language has a magical power: to pronounce a word is to create what it names or to possess mastery over it. Many of the events of Asturia's novels are presented subjectively from the point of view of his characters. This literary choice endows his novels with a magical atmosphere. The Indians' interpretation is not of a concrete reality but one which arises from a definite magical imagination. This is a world, explains Asturias, where "there are no boundaries between reality and dream, between reality and fiction, between what is seen and what is imagined. The magic of our climate and light gives our stories a double aspect--from one side they seem dreams, from the other, they are realities."10 With these words and without being fully aware of it, Asturias was establishing a new poetic formula which would give form to a literary tendency known as "magical realism" that has become one of the salient features of contemporary Latin American narrative. To this school belong such novels as Alejo Carpentier's The Lost Steps, Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo, Carlos Fuentes' Aura, Gabriel García Márquez's One hundred Years of Solitude, José María Arguedas's Deep Rivers, and recently Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits--to name but the most successful.11

In his last collection of novels, the so-called "banana trilogy": Viento fuerte, El papa verde, and Los ojos enterrados--as well as in Weekend in Guatemala--Asturias strongly condemns the United States' presence in Central America. He denounces the massive geological destruction that big corporations, among them The United Fruit Company, are causing especially to Guatemala where Indian peasants are losing not only their land, but their system of values and precious traditions.

Paradoxically, while the influence of Asturias has been very powerful outside12--and has inspired novels such as García Marquez's El otoño del patriarca (The Autumn of the Patriarch), Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversación en la catedral, and Alejo Carpetier's El recurso del método (Reasons of State),13 to name a few--this has not been the case in his own country, Guatemala. Nevertheless, recently, some influence can be seen upon four novels by Guatemalans, though for obvious reasons these have gone almost unnoticed in their country. With one exception, they were published in Mexico with small printings and have been banned by the Guatemalan government. These novels are variations on the theme of El señor Presidente or on guerrilla movements organized against the dictator Ubico and other Guatemalan dictators since 1954. (These novels are Los compañeros (1976) by Marco Antonio Flores, Los demonios salvajes (1978) by Mario Roberto Morales, Después de las bombas (1979) by Arturo Arias, and El pueblo y los atentados (1979) by Edwin Cifuentes.14

Asturias initiated a new movement in Latin American literature, especially in the narrative genre. Writers began a more profound exploration of the Latin American situation and its roots, looking for the underlying forces that shape the traditions they want to preserve as their only form of survival against colonialism. Through works that are anthropologically oriented they probe the hidden mechanism that beats in the Latin American heart and propose social and economic changes which are appropriate, rather than imposed and alien to its inhabitants, especially to the native Indians. But what most affects and worries them as writers is what the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano calls "structural censorship" which cuts off access to books for the majority of people. "If only 5 percent of the population in Latin America can buy a refrigerator, what percentage can buy books"? asks Galeano. He continues:

Structural censorship is being applied day by day to an immense multitude, prohibiting access to books and journals, even though these may circulate freely. There is another problem: how can this multitude read if they do not know how? The rate of illiteracy in Latin America and in the Third World, as you know, is quite high.

This kind of "structural censorship"15 is what Ernesto Cardenal first in Solentiname and then as a Minister of Culture of the Sandinista Government has tried to eradicate.


At the root of the theology of liberation we find a spirituality, a mysticism: the encounter of the poor with the Lord. Today the poor are a whole class of marginalized and exploited persons in our society, marked as that society is by an exclusive partnership with a dependent capitalism. A theology--any theology--not based on spiritual experience is mere panting religious breathlessness.16

(Leonardo Boff)

The first of Cardenal's collections of poems was written from 1943 to 1945 in a poetry workshop in Nicaragua. This collection, Carmen and other Poems, which was never published, are poems of love showing the influence from Darío, Neruda and Vallejo. They were written in traditional forms of free verse with a high degree of lyricism and subjectivity.

The harp on your breast resounds in the darkness: the melody of your hair is like a pine grove in the wind,

and the moon springs from the sky as a clear shining skin, a body most radiant weeping in my hands.

The turning point of Cardenals' poetic development took place in New York during his years at Columbia University from 1947 to late 1949, where his professors included Carl Van Doren and Lionel Trilling. At Columbia he assimilated the best American poetry and was deeply influenced by the poetry of Ezra Pound, whom he considers to be his "main teacher." In the manner of Pound, but using his creative style, Cardenal began the development of a poetic form, which he named later "exteriorism." He defines it as follow:

Exteriorismo is a poetry created with images of the exterior world, the world we see and sense, and that is, in general, the specific world of poetry. Exteriorismo is objective poetry: narrative and anecdotic, made with elements of real life and with concrete things, with proper names and precise details and exact data, statistics, facts, and quotations. . . . In contrast, interiorist poetry is a subjective poetry made only with abstract or symbolic words: rose, skin, ash, lips, absence, bitterness, dreams, touch, foam, desire, shade, time blood, stone, tears, night. . . . I think that the only poetry that can express Latin American reality and reach the people and be revolutionary is exteriorism. . . . Poetry can serve a function: to construct a country and create a new humanity, change society, make the future Nicaragua a part of the future great country that is Latin America.18

He developed his poetics in a collection of poems which Pablo Antonio Cuadra--another important poetic voice in Nicaragua-characterizes as "the vision of America from a foreign eye." Indeed, Cardenal, adopting the perspective of explorers, travellers, and adventurers especially of the 19th century, rediscovers the beauty of Central America, and especially that of his native land. To these series of narrative poems belong "Raleigh" and "With Walker in Nicaragua" in which Cardenal, under the inspiration of Pound, uses documentary sources and the montage technique as compositional devices.19

In "Raleigh," the beauty and majesty of the American forest is perceived through the enchanted eyes of Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618) who came to America to look for the fictitious "ciudad del dorado." Through Raleigh, Cardenal rediscovers America and sees it in biblical terms as a land of hope, the promised land. In this poem it is possible to trace the presence of those prophetic images which will be one of the distinctive features of his poetry and will become more powerful and effective after his ordination to the priesthood.

(. . .)

And on the banks, flowers and ripe green fruits.

And some green birds

we amused ourselves a good while watching them [pass]

And breadfruits and monkeys and the Campana bird and the sweet fragrance and balsam and soapberry

and the wax that the Karamana tree secretes

and the moisture in those jungles of sandalwood and [camphor:]

the trees were abounding in milk and honey,

they were abounding in amber and fragrant gums

and some fruit that would burst with a bang

from afar we'd hear it at night exploding.

And we saw the Crystal mountain, we saw it afar off, standing on the horizon like a silver church

and the river fell from its tip with a terrible noise

[like a thousand bells.]

And the daughters of the Orinoco laughing amid the


And cascades that shoe from afar like cities,

like a smoke rising over some great town

and the rumble and thunder and rebounding of the [waters.]

I never saw a more beautiful country:

the virgin green valleys,

the birds towards the evening singing on every tree,

the stags that came tamely to the water as to master's whistle

and the fresh air from the east

and the glisten of gold stones in the sunlight.

. . .20

In "With Walker in Nicaragua," Cardenal turns to an historical event that took place in Nicaragua in the nineteenth century. Walker was an American adventurer who invaded Nicaragua with an army of mercenaries and freebooters and declared himself President, legalizing slavery and imposing English as the official language of the country. After some time, Walker is forced out of Nicaragua and executed later in Honduras. The poem is narrated from the point of view of an old man who was one of the Walker's comrades-in-arms. Again through a vision of a foreigner, Cardenal describes Nicaraguan landscape as a wonderland and his affection for his culture and people, especially peasants and Indians, is growing stronger.21

During the years of 1952-1957, motivated by Pound's translations of epigrams from the classics, Cardenal began his own collection of epigrams, first of love but later, as Cardenal became more involved with revolutionary politics, impregnated with distinctive political tone. Here are examples of both:

"Epigram 5"

When I lost you we both lost:

I lost because you were what I loved most

and you lost because I was the one who loved you


But between the two of us you lose more than I do:

for I can love others the way I loved you but

you'll never be loved the way you were loved by me.

"Epigram 18"

Suddenly in the night the sirens

sound their long, long, long alarm

the siren's miserable howl

of fire, or death's white ambulance

like a ghost wailing in the night,

coming closer and closer above the streets

and the houses, it rises, rises, and falls,

and it grows, grows, falls and goes away

growing and dying. It's neither a fire nor a death:

Just the Dictator flashing by.22

The second poem was written at a time when Cardenal was involved in political activities which ended in 1954 in an unsuccessful assault upon the Presidential Palace. This attack was directed by Adolfo Baez Bone and Pablo Leal who, along with several close friends of Cardenal, were killed. In this poem Cardenal chooses the figure of the dictator of Nicaragua to symbolize the social and political situation of the country. Although there is no reference to the social situation, it is sufficient to mention the name of the dictator. In his epigrams, Cardenal has reached the perfection of one of the Pound's techniques, the assimilation and convergence of multiple associations into a single image.23

Shocked by the events, Cardenal left the country and in May, 1957, entered the Trappist monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky. Here as a novice he was under the spiritual guidance of the poet-priest Thomas Merton. Strongly influenced by Merton, Cardenal found the way to expand his love from his native land to humanity as a whole, and ultimately to God. After two years with Merton he was advised, for reasons of health, to leave the monastery. He continued his studies in Mexico and Colombia, and finally was ordained a priest in 1965.

During these years he wrote Gethsemani, Ky in 1960 and Salmos (Psalms) in 1964. In Salmos, which made him internationally known, Cardenal fully integrated poetry, religion and politics. The image of God depicted in Salmos is the God of the Old Testament: the God of justice, the liberator from economic and political oppression. The Portrait of Jesus is not the Sacred Heart, but one on the side of the poor who is constantly contending with contemporary evils. It is a God that suffers, but in confrontation. The God of the Salmos is "el dios pobre": God is with the poor and does not accept without strength the injustice inflicted upon his people (The Lord does not abandon his people/does not forget the exploited/"Psalm 93"). Cardenal is asking God to enter into a fearless confrontation with the twentieth century evils: concentration camps (Hear me O God because I call upon you in my innocence/You will free me from the concentration camp/"Psalm 4"); political prisoners (Defend me Lord from false trials!/Defend the exiled and the deported/those accused of espionage/those condemned to forced labor/"Psalm 7"); dictatorships, gangsters, corrupt politicians (Do not let me be lost among bloodthirsty politicians/Their attache cases filled with crimes/and their bank accounts stuffed with bribes/"Psalm 25"); the army and secret police (Lord break their secret agents/and their War Councils/And let their military forces disappear from earth/"Psalm 9"); political propaganda and commercials (We do not subscribe to their newspapers/we are not members of their political parties/we do not speak their slogans/nor use their jargon/We do not listen to their programs or believe their commercials/"Psalm 15"); and the economic oppressors (Snatch me from the claws of the Banks/by your hand Lord deliver me from the businessman/and from the member of the exclusive clubs/from those who have lived for too long/ "Psalm 16"). He invokes the liberating spirit of God to give his people the courage and the power to resist any form of dehumanization or oppression.24

After his ordination, Cardenal was able to realize his life's ambition to found a kind of monastic community in lake Nicaragua. Following Merton's advise, this would not be a place of retreat from the world, but a community open to the rest of the society. He named it "Nuestra Señora de Solentiname" (Our Lady of Solentiname). In this privileged site he was able fully to harmonize the artistic, political and religious dimensions of his life's work. For about ten years Cardenal lived at Solentiname in relative tranquility, writing poetry and providing spiritual direction to the families that made Solentiname their home. Every Sunday, the community of peasants commented on the Gospel as they interpreted the Bible in relation to their own geographical, social, and political context. Some of these commentaries have been published as The Gospel of Solentiname.25

During this period, Cardenal wrote also Homage to the American Indians. His close reading of the sacred writings of the Maya helped him to find his mission in relation to his people: he was meant to be not just a Catholic priest, but above all a prophet, a continuation of the Mayan chilan (a soothsayer).26 From then on Cardenal begin to exercise the double role that has been assumed by many Latin American and Third World priests: the initiator of social changes for justice and peace, and also the soothsayer or prophet. Impelled by the political situation of Nicaragua under the Somoza dictatorship and convinced that there was no way to harmonize this with the tranquility of Solentiname, Cardenal concentrated his efforts on openly fighting oppression. This political commitment had begun to grow after Cardenal's visit to Cuba.27 In 1972 he wrote "Nicaraguan Canto," dedicated to the FSLA.28 In 1977, Solentiname turned Sandinista and the community was destroyed by the National Guard. Some of the Solentiname people died in this confrontation. This was the end of Cardenal's nonviolent stance and he proclamed himself a member of the Sandinista movement. He refers to his experience in Solentiname and his decision to join the Sandinista movement when he says in his epilogue of The Gospel in Solentiname:

Twelve years ago I arrived at Solentiname with two companions to found a small, contemplative community. Contemplation means union with God. We soon became aware that this union with God brought us before all else into union with the peasants, very poor and very abandoned, who lived dispersed along the shores of the archipelago. Contemplation also brought us to revolution. It had to be that way. If not, it would have been fake contemplation. My old master, Thomas Merton, the inspirer and spiritual director of our foundation, told me that in Latin America I could not separate myself from political strife. In the beginning we would have preferred a revolution with nonviolent methods. But we soon began to realize that at this time in Nicaragua a non violent struggle is not feasible. Even Gandhi would agree with us. The truth is that all authentic revolutionaries prefer nonviolence to violence; but they are not always free to choose.

The Gospel was what most radicalized us politically. Every Sunday in Mass we discussed the Gospel in a dialogue with the peasants. With admirable simplicity and profound theology they began to understand the core of the Gospel message: the announcement of the kingdom of God, that is, the establishment on this earth of a just society, without exploiters or exploited, with all goods in common, just like the society in which the first Christians lived. But above all else the Gospel taught us that the word of God is not only to be heard, but also to be put into practice.29

This political commitment became manifest soon after his visit to Cuba in 1970. His experience there, recorded in his book In Cuba, developed in him a sympathy toward Marxism.30 When asked about the incompatibility between Christianity and Marxism, he was emphatic in establishing a clear distinction between the two:

Christianity and medical science, for example, aren't the same thing, but they're not incompatible. Marxism is a scientific method for studying society and changing it. What Christ did was to present us with the goals of social change, the goals of perfect humanity, which we are to co-create with him. These goals are a community of brothers and sisters, and love. But he did not tell us which scientific methods to use in order to arrive at the goals. Science has to tell us this--in our case, the social sciences. Some take one science, others another. But if anyone substitutes Marxism for Christianity, that person has made a mistake, just as if he or she were to take any other social science and substitute it for Christianity. Correctly understood, Marxism and Christianity are not incompatible.31

Between 1972 and 1973 he wrote "Canto General" and "Oraculo sobre Managua" ("Oracle over Managua"). The latter relates the life of Leonel Rugama and the desolation of Managua left by the earthquake of 1971, especially the shanty-towns or slums which suffered the most. The life of Rugama and the earthquake are pretexts used by Cardenal to express his inclination toward Marxism. The section of the poem which relates the story of Rugama--a Sandinista poet, priest, and Marxist--echoes the story of Cardenal himself. The life and death of Rugama helped Cardenal reflect on the history of humanity and the dynamic integration of the universe, the constant change of which will bring new life:

The seminary students used to take a walk to Acahualinca

to see the foot prints

And so you went underground

and died in the urban guerrilla fighting

All life unites

unites and does not divide

(it integrates)

For that you gave your life, you

on the fifth planet of the medium-sized star of the

[Milky Way.]

Great feelings of love

at the risk of looking ridiculous--Che had said.

Every living substance unites.

What is fecundation really?

Every living substance: fusion with what is different

unification with opposite.32

In "Oracle," we find a clear resonance of Christologic Teilhard de Chardin's ideas of the universe and of its evolution. "Just as Jesus exists all for God, so man exists all for Christ, and the whole universe evolves and converges in order to realize the plenitude of the stature of Christ in Man."33 For the cosmos to be Christocentric, evolution must be anthropocentric. Cardenal's poetry after his conversion to Marxism becomes more testimonial, structurally simpler and its language direct. Here is segment of his poem "Amanecer/Dawn"

. . .

Now the roosters are singing.

Natalia, your rooster's already sung, sister,

Justo, your's has already sung, brother.

Get up off your cots, your bed mats.

I seem to hear the congos awake on the other coast.

We can already blow on the kindling--throw out the


Bring an oil lamp so we can see the faces.

A dog in a hut yelped

and a dog from another has answered.

Juana, it's time to light the stove, sister.

The dark is even darker because day is coming.

Get up Chico, get up Pancho

There's a horse to mount,

we have to paddle a canoe.

Our dreams had us separated, in folding

cots and bed mats (each of us dreaming our own dream)

but our awakening reunites us.34

. . .

On 18 July 1979, Cardenal and other members of the revolutionary government flew from San Jose Costa Rica to Nicaragua where the poet was given the post of Minister of Culture. In this position, Cardenal is more involved than ever in integrating political ideas and poetry. The vision he once dreamt of for Solentiname has now become one for Nicaragua. He explains his mission:

My job is to promote everything cultural in Nicaragua. I have a ministry of poetry, music, painting, crafts, theater, folklore and tradition, and scholarly research, which includes libraries, magazines, films and recreation. I think of my ministry this way: just as Christ put his apostle in charge of distributing the loaves and fishes, he has put me in charge of spreading culture. The people do not consume culture, they create it. This is what I did in Solentiname, only now I do it country-wide.35

Cardenal has set up workshops where ordinary people--workers, soldiers, children, peasants--can learn to write poems about their families, their workplace, communities and country. The main goal of these workshops is the decentralization and disalienation of cultural production: "We want a culture that is not the culture of elite but rather of an entire people . . . . Our people have expropriated their culture, which is now their own, as they are owners of their land and their historical reality."33

When Cardenal was asked about the controversy created by his being a Minister of the Sandinista Party and thus engaged in party politics against Church regulations, he responded:

This is a revolution that has been carried out in the service of the people and is still serving the people. In serving the revolution, we're serving the people. . . . In some poems I've managed to write recently, I've recorded the very deep experiences I've had in this office. I consider that my divine vocation is the vocation of service, of servant, of `minister.' And I must offer this service wherever God asks me to offer it. The will of God is expressed in the concrete circumstances of one's life--and in my case this is the way it has been expressed to me. I'd be betraying my vocation if I refused to make these sacrifices.37


My name is Rigoberta Menchú. I am twenty three years old. This is my testimony. I didn't learn it from a book, and I didn't learn it alone. I'd like to stress that it's not only my life, it's also the testimony of my people. It's hard for me to remember everything that's happened to me in my life since there have been very bad times but, yes, moments of joy as well. The important thing is that what has happened to me has happened to my people too: my story is the story of all the poor Guatemalans. My personal experience is the reality of a whole people.38

The kind of liberation that women look for depends naturally on their social, cultural context and educational background. In the third world, women--in contrast to developed countries--have to join men and equally direct their effort to the struggle against hunger, repression and human dignity before fighting for women's rights per se. This is the orientation of women's movements in Central America: the liberation of their societies. Claribel Alegría is one of the poets who best represent this social commitment; she has become the voice of the voiceless in Central America.

Born in Estelí, Nicaragua, Claribel Alegría experienced political exile at the early age of nine when her father was forced to leave the country and live in El Salvador. She is regarded as one of the most powerful voices of contemporary poetry in Central America. Her commitment to the cause of women is clearly manifest in her novel, El detén, published in 1977, in which she depicts the difficult and painful life of a young female adolescent in a society whose social and moral norms are fiercely applied to women, but usually disregarded for men. This is a novel in which she deals with problems women have to face in any contemporary society, but which in Latin American are usually experienced only by families of the upper middle class. Motivated by the historical events that took place in Nicaragua, she realized that her concern should be with poor and especially peasant women who have to fight daily against oppression, exploitation and persecution. Alegria herself explains this change:

[Some time ago], I had no other commitment towards my work than to try to express the instant or flash of an emotion and to immobilize it in a poem. . . . For many years I never even thought of any degree of commitment to my country. It was history and the bloody and shameful events what shook me and compelled me to move from lyric subjectivity towards the literature of denounciation and testimony.39

This social commitment is shown in the novel, Cenizas del Izalco (Ashes of Izalco); in her collections of poetry, Sobrevivo, Poesía viva, and Flowers from the volcano; and other poems in such collections with other Central American authors as Poesía Rebelde. Besides her own writing, she is the editor of several books of testimonial literature, such as No me agarran viva: la mujer salvadoreña en la lucha, Para romper el silencio: resistencia y lucha en las cárceles salvadoreñas, and Nicaragua: la revolucion sandinista. In all these testimonial works, events are told by those who officially have no right to speak, and whose views would not otherwise be expressed. These books relate actions of real people: agents of liberation and frequently victims of persecution, torture and death.40

In No me agarran viva the main character, a women from the upper middle class confronted with the tragic situation of her country, joins the struggle of the poor for a more dignified life. She identifies herself with the suffering poor: peasants, workers, slum dwellers and guerrillas, and fights for their cause. After reaching a post of high responsibility in clandestine actions she falls victim of her own ideals. Alegria's testimonial writing is described by George Yúdice in the following terms:

Claribel Alegría develops a new narrative technique--at least one that is new for her--to serve as recipient and to express the voices of the people which constitute the emergent subject of her writing. Her testimonial narrative coming from the tradition of the reading of the Gospels as a form of `concientization' is a collective testimony in which the people are embodied in the figure of a woman who gives up her life in a quasi Christ-like death.

It is precisely through `death' that this subject enters history. In other words the narration of Eugenia's death reproduces the history of the people. The narration then is like a gravestone in which the history of the people is inscribed.41

In "La mujer del río Sumpul" ("The Woman of Sumpul River"), a narrative poem, Alegría tells the story of a wounded woman, whose husband and older sons have lost their lives in battle. Hiding with her two young children by the waters of the river Sumpul, she is attempting to escape from the guards.

. . .

The woman beside the river

awaited for her death

but the guards didn't see her

and carried on

the children didn't cry

it was the Blessed Virgin

she says to herself

a buzzard

slowly circles above them

she looks at it

so do the children

the buzzard drops

and doesn't see them

it is the Blessed Virgin

the woman repeats

the buzzard flies

right in front of them

loaded with rockets

and the children see it

and smile

it circles twice

three times

and starts to climb

the Virgin has saved me

the woman exclaims

and covers her wound

with more leaves

she has become transparent

her body is merged

with the earth

it is earth

it is water

it is the planet

mother earth


oozing forth tenderness

the wounded mother earth

sees the deep gash

which has opened

the wound is bleeding

the volcano throws forth lava

a furious lava

mixed with blood

our history

has become lava

the incandescent people

merging with the earth

. . .42

The woman, who is bleeding with her babies, holds their cry. Despite their tender age they have already learned how to survive: any cry, they know well, will mean their death. The danger is also in the air: up there in circles the ominous bomber carefully searches the ground, its rockets targeting any moving soul. But the Virgin protects them and the sinister vulture (the Hawk-hunter) does not see them. In this way another vivid poem in the history of resistance is written. The woman's blood merges with nature to become transfigured and reborn into an incandescent and invincible collective force, that of the people.

Alegría's poems constantly recreate mesoamerican myths as in "Flowers from the volcano." There the Salvadorian volcanoes evoke both the terror of the present era and of the violent Latin American history, in which the blood and terror that began with the ancient gods has increased in the present day. The poet prophesies that this cyclic rite of blood will end. At the conclusion of the poem, neither lava nor blood descends from the volcano, but a group of children who carry flowers grown by the peasant families.

. . .

Farther up, in the crater

within the crater's walls

live peasant families

who cultivate flowers

their children sell.

The cycle is closing,

Cuscatlecan flowers

thrive in volcanic ash

they grow strong, tall, brilliant.

The volcano's children

flow down like lava

with flowers,

like roots they meander

like rivers the cycle is closing.

The owner of two-story houses

protected from the thieves by walls

peer from their balconies

and they see the red waves descending

and they drown their fears in whiskey.

They are only children in rags

with flowers from the volcano,

with Jacintos and Pascuas and Mulatas

but the wave is swelling,

today's Chacmol still wants blood,

Tlaloc is not dead.43


Real liberation from our most basic limitations and conceptions comes only with a conscious effort to take into account the horizons of those who differ notably, whether as another nation, or as a distinct culture intermingled with our own, or--still more definitively--as living on the margin of all societies and integrated into none.44

(George F. McLean)

Poet and journalist, Pablo Antonio Cuadra (1912)--along with Jose Coronel Urtecho, and Ernesto Cardenal--is considered one of the leading voices in contemporary Nicaraguan poetry.45 His most important collections of poems are Canto temporal (Temporal Song), El jaguar y la luna (The jaguar and the moon), and Cantos de Cifar (Songs of Cifar).46 In the 20's and 30's Cuadra and Utrecho worked closely with the avant-garde movement which revitalized Nicaraguan poetry after Ruben Darío. Early in his life, Cuadra also became involved in political movements opposing the Somoza dictatorship. Like many other young writers, he was arrested in 1937 and forced into exile in Mexico. He remained there until 1950, when he was allowed to return to Nicaragua. In 1953 he became editor of the most important daily newspaper in Nicaragua, La Prensa, in collaboration with publisher Pedro Joaquin Chamorro. Because of the defiant opposition of La Prensa to the dictatorship, but mostly as a reprisal for the murder of Somoza Garcia, Cuadra was arrested once again. After being freed he returned to his post as editor of La Prensa to continue his fight against Somoza Debayle, the last of the Somoza dynasty, whose government ended in 1979 when the FSLN took control of the country. During the last years of the Somoza dictatorship, La Prensa became the "national conscience" of the Nicaraguan people. It was subjected to constant harassment culminating in the murder of its publisher, Chamorro, and the destruction of the La Prensa headquarters, set afire one month before the Sandinista victory.44 This attack on La Prensa is considered a decisive factor in the Sandinistas' rise to power.

Just after the Sandinista victory a writers' symposium, organized by Ernesto Cardenal and the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar, was held in Managua in November 1978. The topic of the meeting was "The Writer and Revolution." Cuadra's enthusiastic response to this event was recorded in the editorial of La Prensa:

Cortázar set forth the terms for the discussion: A double commitment, he said, commitment to the people (true being) and commitment to the work (authentic doing). But Javier Arguello, the youngest and last to speak, closed the opening debate by saying `There is no commitment--we are freedom; we are the people.' Like the saying of Saint Augustine 'Love and do what you will.' It seemed to me then as if a beautiful rainbow was rising in the sky, from my generation, from before, from the time of Darío, to the present--this proclamation of liberty as the essence of commitment.47

Cuadra soon became deeply disappointed by a revolution that had turned--in his own words--into a "falsified revolution," into an "ideological dictatorship" moving away from the "Estatuto Fundamental" which had been supposed to establish the foundations for a democratic and pluralistic society.48 La Prensa immediately denounced this deviation and began its resistance to the dictatorial ideology. The newspaper was accused of "diversionism" and "selling out" the country. It was subjected to constant threat and censorship, and what was supposed to be a public dialogue ended in a tense confrontation. This situation is commented upon by Cuadra as follows:

I must tell you that, from the onset, they, the commanders of the Sandinista Front looked upon criticism with displeasure. They did not want any criticism made. In other words, Freedom bothered them! It really did. In defeating Somoza, did we not also defeat the sort of government which `commands' and `dictates' so that we might replace it with a government which negotiates. This a mentality contradictory to the root and essence of the revolution in which they themselves embarked and which was launched against the dictatorship and for the sake of freedom. Only within a democracy, which elects its own officials, keeps them in check and criticizes them, and which respects plurality and freedom of expression, can the government recognize its reality and not be deceiving. Only then can the goverment become aware of the reactions of its peoples, and thus create original answers.49

Although Cuadra recognizes the cultural achievements of the Sandinista Government, he is in complete disagreement with the "official doctrine on culture" imposed by the government, and against the ideological orientation of the poetry workshops directed by the Ministry of Culture. In reaction to Bayardo Arce, one of the Sandinista comandantes, who claims that "art is worth nothing if the workers and peasants do not understand it,"50 Cuadra comments:

Wouldn't it be more favorable to the culture, we have asked, to educate the people to understand art and not to lower art to the level of those that do not understand it? Would we have asked Rubén Darío to get down to the mentality of a farm worker when he accomplished the great revolution in the Spanish language and in the Hispanic American Literature?

True socialization of poetry, argues Cuadra, consists in using all the educational means to bring together the people and the poem. Instead, to cheapen literature, to lower its level, is a sad homage to the people. "An odious paternalism' as Cortázar said."51

Cuadra considers the poetry produced in the People's Poetry Workshops to be highly politicized and militant. He laments the fact that many talented young people who participate in these worshops believe that a poem is worth nothing without a political message. An example of this confusion is that of the young poet, who in a television program declared: "It was wrong to write love poetry; in the workshop I learned why my poetry was bad. It was that it did not have a message." 52 Cuadra's unhappiness for this negation of creative spontaneity is perceived in the following poem:


I live in a country made sad

by the cultivators of rifles.

Everything can be figured out

with the testicles. Standing,

foreheads yesterday crowned with laurels

or imaginations, now empty

with eyes fixed on gunsights.

Homotextuals consult Marx

What would someone say

looking at this surplus-value of corpses?

In this scheme a good Lord does not fit

But there is room for happiness

and also for weeping

and the grinding of teeth. Invent

paradises and your hell will burn you.

My country is inhabited by soldiers, My country

which bursts with poems

repeating slogans. My country

with its gush of children

condemned to death.

What hope do we feel

on our knees? We are calling

in the emptiness: Manuel!

Ramon! Felix! Federico!

But our sons

are gone!53

La Prensa, which was published under the motto "Without freedom of the press there is no freedom at all," has been silenced intermittantly by the Sandinista government, and Cuadra has become exiled in his own country. The "worst aspect of censorship--Cuadra has said--is that it kills criticism which is the essential ingredient of culture . . . , the only resource that makes possible human perfection and culture"54 and can free revolution from stagnation. He certainly will continue his struggle to resist any form of censorship or any imposed official style in order to liberate the word in such a way that language instead of a medium of domination and social control will be a medium of emancipation.

Only sincere and cooperative dialogue can make it possible for human beings freely and creatively to express themselves and to construct a democratic and pluralistic society. As G. McLean expresses in his illuminating introductory essay to this volume, "to be aware of our own horizon and to adjust it in dialogue with others is to make it work for us in freeing ourselves to live more fully the rich implications or our tradition required for our times."55 Neither cersorship, nor national or international coercion, nor military intervention or any other form of human rights violation will bring peace to Central America.

Only an open dialogue ("the mutual and cooperative search for truth"56) among people and nations will help to find the right path for real liberation and peace. In his "Dialogue, Democracy, and Peace in Central America," the eminent Mexican poet, Octavio Paz, concludes that "democracy is dialogue, and dialogue paves the way for peace. We will be in a position to preserve peace only if we defend democracy."57 The poet continues:

Violence exacerbates differences and keeps both parties from speaking and hearing; monologue denies the existence of the other; dialogue allows differences to remain yet at the same time creates an area in which the voices of otherness coexist and interweave. Since dialogue excludes the ultimate [ultimatum], it is a denial of absolutes and their despotic pretensions to totality: we are relative, and what we say and hear is relative. But this relativism is not a surrender: in order for there to be a dialogue, we must affirm what we are and at the same time recognize the other in all his irreducible difference. Dialogue keeps us from denying ourselves and from denying the humanity of our adversary. . . . Dialogue is but one of the forms, perhaps the highest, of universal sympathy.58 (Emphasis mine.)

The Catholic University of America

Washington, D.C.


1. A Fist and the Letter: Revolutionary Poems of Latin America, eds. and trans. Roger Prentice, and John M. Kirk (Vancouver, Canada: Pulp Press, 1979), p. 11.

2. Emir Rodriguez Monegal, "Central America: Four Writers in the Labyrinth" (La prensa, January 28, 1984), p. 96.

3. Alan Riding, "Revolution and the Intellectual in Latin America," The New York Time Magazine, March 13, 1983, p. 40.

4. Pablo Neruda, Toward the Splendid City (Nobel Lecture), (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974), pp. 29-31.

5. Gabriel Garcia Ma rquez, "The Solitude of Latin America" (Nobel Lecture; The Nobel Foundation, 1982).

6. For more on repression of writers in general see The Writer and Human Rights, edited by the Toronto Arts Group for Human Rights (New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1983).

7. Dom Helder Camara, Hoping Against the Hope, trans. Matthew J. O'Connell (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1984), pp. 35-37.

8. See Richard J. Callan, Miguel Angel Asturias (New York: Twayne, 1970), pp. 11-17.

9. "An interview with Asturias," Review (Fall, 1975), pp. 6-7.

10. Rodriguez Monegal, p. 97.

11. A new realm of magic realism can be found also in contemporary Latin American films. See Fredric Jameson, "On Magic Realism in Film," Critical Inquiry, 12 (1986), 303-325.

13. A comprehensive examination of novels depicting the figure of the Latin American dictator is found in Julio Calvin o Iglesias, La novela del dictador en Hispanoamerica (Madrid: Ediciones Cultura Hispa nica, 1985).

14. See Seymour Menton, "Los sen ores presidentes y los guerrilleros: The New and the Old Guatemalan Novel," Latin American Research Review, 2 (1984), 93-117.

15. Eduardo Galeano, "For Haroldo Conti," in The Writers and Human Rights, p. 14. (Conti is an Argentine writer whose name is in the list of `desaparecidos' in his country).

16. Leonard and Clodovis Boff, Salvation and Liberation, trans. Robert R. Barr (New York: Orbis Books, 1984), p. 2.

17. Translated by Rei Berroa.

18. E. Cardenal, Flights of Victory/Vuelos de Victoria, ed., and trans. Marc Zimmerman (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1985), p. x.

19. See Jonathan Cohen, "Introduction," in E. Cardenal, With Walker in Nicaragua, and Other Poems, ed. and trans. Jonathan Cohen (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1979).

20. E. Cardenal, With Walker, pp. 28-29. In the composition of this poem, Cardenal followed closely Walter Raleigh's The Discouery of Guiana (1596). An intertextual analysis of the two works can be found in Eduardo Urdanivia Bertarelli, La Poesia de Ernesto cardenal: Cristianismo y revolucio n (Lima: Latinoamericana Editores, 1984), pp. 29-41.

21. To write "With Walker in Nicaragua," Cardenal used Clinton Rollons, Filibustering in Nicaragua, published in The San Francisco Chronicle between October 1909 and January 1910. The poet also followed closely the book by William Walker, The War in Nicaragua (Tucson: Univ. of Arizona Press, l985).

22. Cardenal, Apocalypse and other poems, ed. Robert Pring-Mill and Donald D. Walsh, trans. Thomas Merton, et al. (New York: New Directions, 1977).

23. See Jonathan Cohen, "Introduction," pp. 11-12.

24. E. Cardenal, The Psalms of Struggle and Liberation, trans. Amile G. McAnany (New York: Herder & Herder, 1971).

25. E. Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname, trans. Donald D. Walsh (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books), (four vols., 1976-1980). See also a selection of commentaries on the Gospel illustrated with painting by peasants in The Gospel in Art by the Peasants of Solentiname, ed. Philip and Sally Scharper (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1984).

26. E. Cardenal, Homage to the American Indians (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975).

27. E. Cardenal, In Cuba (New York: New Directions, 1974). 28. "Nicaraguan Canto" in Cardenal, Zero Hour and other documentary Poems, ed. Donald D. Walsh, trans. Paul W. Borgeson, et al. (New York: New Directions, 1980).

29. The Gospel in Solentiname, v. 4, pp. 271-72.

30. In 1976, Cardenal clarifies that his trip to Cuba was not the decisive factor that lead him toward Marxism: "I became politicized by the contemplative life. Meditation is what brought me to political radicalization. I came to the revolution by way of the Gospel. It was not by reading Marx but Christ. It can be said that the Gospels made me a Marxist." Flights of Victory, p. xv.

31. Teofilo Cabestrero, Ministers of God, Ministers of the People: Testimonies of Faith from Nicaragua, trans. Robert R. Barr (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1983), pp. 31-32.

32. "Oracle over Managua." in Zero Hour, pp. 43-62.

33. "The Christology of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin," in Evolution, Marxim and Christianity (London: Garnstone Press, 1967), p. 91.

34. In Flights of Victory, p. 5.

35. Quoted in Jonathan Culler, "Introduction" in With Walker, p. 16.

36. "Sandinista Poetics," in The Minnesota Review, 20 (1983), 133.

37. Cabestrero, p. 31.

38. Rigoberta Menchú, I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, edited and introduced by Elizabeth Burgos-Cebray, trans. Ann Wright (London: Verso, 1984).

39. Speech read at the Latin American Book Fair, Washington, D.C., University of the District of Columbia, April 27, 1986.

40. The most important books by Alegria are: Via única (Montevideo: Alfa, 1965); Sobrevivo (La Habana: Casa de las Américas, 1978); El detén (Barcelona: Lumen, 1977); Album familiar (San Jose : EDUCA, 1982); Flowers from the Volcano, trans. Carolyn Forche (Pittsburgh: University of Pitsburgh Press, 1982); Poesia viva (London: El Salvador Solidary Campaign, 1982); C. Alegría and Darwin J. Flakoll, Cenizas de Izalco (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1966); Nicaragua: la revolución sandinista (México: Era, 1982); No me agarran viva. La mujer salvadoreña en la lucha (Me xico: Era, 1983).

41. George Yúdice, "Letras de emergencia: Claribel Alegria," in Revista Iberoamericana, 132-33 (1985), p. 957.

42. "The woman of Sumpul River," in Poesia Rebelde/Poems of Rebellion, trans. N. Caistor, et al. (London: El Salvador Solidary Campaign, 1982), pp. 16-19.

43. Flowers from the Volcano, pp. 44-51.

44. G. McLean, "Cultural Heritage, Social Critique and Future Construction," Ch. I above, p. 11.

45. Jose Coronel Urtecho showed some sympathy to the Somocista regime and, in contrast to Cuadra, is working with the Sandinistas. In an interview with Jose Miguel Oviedo he clarifies his position as follows: "I'd been an early follower of Somoza . . . but then came the mess, the corruption, the obscenity of the political system. . . . I left the Somoza movement in disgust. . . . I believe now that the Sandinista movement is the only way to be Christian in Nicaragua . . . ," "Nicaragua: Voices in Conflict, in Review, 31, p. 21.

46. The works of Cuadra translated into English are: The Jaguar and the Moon (New York: Unicorn Press, 1971), Songs of Cifar and the Sweet Sea (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979).

47. Cuadra, "In Defiance of Censorship: Culture and Ideology in Today's Nicaragua," in Journal of Contemporary Studies, 3 (Summer/Fall, 1985), pp. 119-20.

48. "Entre Poesia y Politica: Pablo Antonio Cuadra entrevistado por Steven F. White," Vuelta, 102 (Mayo, 1985), p. 32.

49. Ibid.

50. "In Defiance", p. 121.

51. Ibid., 122.

52. Ibid., 123.

53. "1984" in Journal of Contemporary Studies, 1 (Winter/Spring, 1985), p. 87.

54. "In Defiance," 125.

55. G. McLean, p. 10.

56. G. McLean, p. 11.

57. Octavio Paz, "Dialogue, Democracy, and Peace in Central America" in Journal of Contemporary Studies, 1 (Winter/Spring, 1985), p. 82-83

58. Ibid., p. 83. Some speech-act theorists have determined the conditions for a communication to be successful. See: John L. Austin, How to do Things with Words (London: Oxford University Press, 1962); John Searle, Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (Cambridge: CUP, 1979); and H.P. Grice, "Logic and Conversation" in Peter Cole, and Jerry L. Morgan, Syntax and Semantics. 3. "Speech Acts" (New York: Acadenic Press, 1975), pp. 41-58. The most important (`felicity', Austin) condition for the success of a speech act is "sincerity": the speaker must mean what he says, that is, believe it to be true. This means, for example, that a speaker genuinely wants the information he requests, that he is really grateful for that for which he extends thanks, that he truly believes that his advice is for the authentic benefit of the listener, that he would not say what he knows to be false, that he does not say that for which he lacks evidence, and that he will avoid ambiguity. If this "sincerity condition" is met, dialogical efforts, such as that which the "Contadora Group" is attempting to establish in order to solve the Central American problem, can produce successful results, otherwise this effort will terminate, as would any speech act which abuses this basic condition, in failure.