Their written words speak for them--and for the people of Central America whose lives have been torn apart by years of war and revolution.
Listen to Claribel Alegria, the noted Salvadoran poet, writing of her homeland and of her childhood in the village of Santa Ana, a place now stripped of hope:
. . . The garden once filled with birds is empty. Poison finished Santa Ana's birds and the flowers don't grow as before in the garden of my house. My mother tended the carnations, she watered the grass and nurtured the jasmin. Now that she has gone everything has died. The dead eat their dead. The wood decomposes. The vultures, because they have vanished, rot piles upon rot . . . .
Echoes of Misery
Listen, too, to Salvadoran poet and novelist Manlio Argueta, writing in "One Day of Life," a novel depicting the human misery of El Salvador's peasants under that country's military regime. The voice created by Argueta is that of Lupe Guardado, a woman who has seen her son beheaded with one stroke of a machete:
I foresee the worst. When death comes, it alerts you before; it does not come all of a sudden. It always makes a loud noise as if it were riding a horse galloping on a path of stone, its hooves clattering on the stones, miserable death. It makes fun of us because it knows we cannot restrain its runaway horses. It looks for us and finds us always poor. There are problems in life. A child is sick, the beans have burned. A son wounded or dead. We are always losing in this game . . . . We should not allow ourselves to get tired. For our children and for the children of our children. Someday the land will be ours and then we will begin to win . . . we are in water up to our necks but we will not drown.
Argueta, a reformer in blue jeans, remembers how it was for him as a writer in El Salvador before he was expelled from the country for the first time in 1960, taken from his home by the military police and put on a plane to Guatemala:
"They said I was writing naughty poetry. Why didn't I deal with birds and butterflies and flowers? Why didn't I just forget the whole thing and become a lawyer (as he had studied to do)? When they were telling me this, they had a pistol to my head."
At that time, Argueta said, "The poets were the central focus of opposition so the dictatorship had its eye on us."
But, he said, to be a writer in El Salvador, a country where a dictatorship has ruled for 50 years, "it was necessary to pursue other objectives besides beauty, to relate the art to the struggle of our people." He added, "This might sound nice" but the reality, for writers, has been persecution, expulsion and exile.
A number of young writers, among them Guatemalan Otto Rene Castillo and Salvadoran Roque Dalton, both Argueta's university classmates, died in that struggle. "Some have died in combat," he said. "Others have been assassinated by the death squads."
'It was necessary to pursue other objectives besides beauty, to relate the art to the struggle of our people,' says Salvadoran poet and novelist Manlio Argueta.
Despite the threats, Argueta kept returning to El Salvador--from Guatemala in 1961, from Honduras in 1962, from Nicaragua in 1963. Like many others, "I always came back clandestinely," he said, "through the hills or by sea, what we call the roads of the people."
Finally, in 1972, the Catholic university in San Salvador, where Argueta was teaching, his "island of safety" where he was editor of the widely circulated alternative newspaper and director of the university publishing house, was closed down, taken over by the army. "I was wiped out," Argueta said, and he made the decision to move with his family to San Jose, Costa Rica, where today he works with other Salvadoran refugees.
On Saturday, before about 200 people at a meeting sponsored by the Westside Committee of Solidarity With the People of El Salvador, Argueta stood at a microphone in the darkened auditorium of St. Augustine by the Sea Episcopal Church in Santa Monica and, through an interpreter, said, "We should know each other a lot better."
That is a primary purpose of the national tour that will take Argueta and Alegria to Gettysburg, Pa., to Washington and, finally, to New York where, in May, they will participate in a Dialogue of All the Americas, an international cultural conference.
Their visit is billed as a national literary tour, sponsored by the Cultural Front of El Salvador, a new organization of Salvadoran writers and artists, but, the writers acknowledged, it is as much political as literary.
"We would like to make known what is going on right now, to show the North American people the truth," said Alegria, who was born in Nicaragua, grew up in El Salvador and, after many years abroad, returned to Managua to live.
She is here, she said, to tell people "that we love and we suffer," to eradicate what she termed the "Ronald Reagan stereotype of ( contras as) freedom fighters and Sandinistas as totalitarian roughnecks."