On a day this week, the 10 May 1975, the Salvadoran poet and revolutionary-communist Roque Antonio Dalton García, otherwise known as Roque Dalton, “one of the patron saints of the Latin American left” was shot dead in San Salvador after over two decades of revolutionary struggle. He was four days short of his 40th birthday. His assassins were members of the same leftist guerilla group he had taken up arms with – in order to free El Salvador from its regime of “authoritarian rulers, persistent socioeconomic inequality and civil unrest” – Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (People’s Revolutionary Army) – ERP. In his ‘The Warrior’s Resting Place’ he wrote:
The dead are getting more restless each day.
They used to be easy
we’d put on stiff collars flowers
praised their names on long lists
shrines of the homeland
The corpses signed away for posterity
returned to formation
and marched to the beat of our old music.
But not anymore
They get all ironic
they ask questions.
It seems to me they’ve started to realise
they’re becoming the majority!
Roque Dalton was born on May 14, 1935, in Quezaltepeque, a municipality in the La
Libertad department of San Salvador, in El Salvador (“the smallest and the most densely populated country in Central America”) reputedly, (though not necessarily truly), to a famous American bank robbing father (Winnall Dalton, “of the outlaw Dalton brothers”) and a mother who worked as a nurse to pay the bills of raising his illegitimate son. He was brought up in a working-class neighbourhood by his mother, who also ran a store “where young Roque learned the popular, slang-laden language that later found its way into his writing.” Thanks to his father’s money he attended a day school for the well-off, the Jesuit-run Externado San José. The years between 1935 and 1992 (17 years after his death) when the El Salvador peace accords were signed ending a civil war that had claimed an estimated 70,000 lives, were years of darkness, oppression and social struggle in Central America. In his biography of Miguel Mármol (published in 1972), a prominent communist leader of the 1932 Salvadoran peasant uprising and massacre (“In 1932, Martinez oversaw La Matanza, the systematic massacre of 40,000 indigenous people and leftist organizers. Anyone who was indigenous or suspected of even being on a list as having voted for the Communist Party was executed.”), he describes the growth and development of the workers’ movement and the Communist Party in El Salvador and Guatemala. “This Latin American classic goes on to capture in vivid detail the brutality of the Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez military dictatorship (1931-1944).” The years from 1944 to 1975 were not to be any better.
Poema de Amor
Los que ampliaron el Canal de Panamá
(y fueron clasificados como “silver roll” y no como “golden roll”),
los que repararon la flota del Pacífico en las bases de California,
los que se pudrieron en las cárceles de Guatemala, México, Honduras, Nicaragua por ladrones, por contrabandistas, por estafadores, por hambrientos
los siempre sospechosos de todo( “me permito remitirle al interfecto por esquinero sospecho soy con el agravante de ser salvadoreño”),
las que llenaron los bares y los burdeles de todos los puertos y las capitales de la zona (“La gruta azul”, “El Calzoncito”, “Happyland”),
los sembradores de maíz en plena selva extranjera,
los reyes de la página roja,
los que nunca sabe nadie de dónde son,
los mejores artesanos del mundo,
los que fueron cosidos a balazos al cruzar la frontera,
los que murieron de paludismo de las picadas del escorpión o la barba amarilla en el infierno de las bananeras,
los que lloraran borrachos por el himno nacional bajo el ciclón del Pacífico o la nieve del norte,
los arrimados, los mendigos, los marihuaneros,
los guanacos hijos de la gran puta,
los que apenitas pudieron regresar,
los que tuvieron un poco más de suerte,
los eternos indocumentados,
los hacelotodo, los vendelotodo, los comelotodo,
los primeros en sacar el cuchillo,
los tristes más tristes del mundo,
Poem of Love
Those who widened the Canal of Panama
(and were classified as “silver roll,” not “golden roll,”)
those who repaired the Pacific fleet
in the bases of California,
who rotted in the prisons of Guatemala,
Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua
As thieves, smugglers, and blackmailers
As starving people
Those suspected of everything
(permit me to turn over the accused
as a suspicious beggar
with the aggravation of being Salvadorean),
those who filled the nightclubs and bars
in all the ports and capitals of the region
the farmers of corn in the middle of a foreign forest
the kings of the red page
those whom no one knows where they are
the best artisans in the world
those who were cooked with gunshots while crossing the border,
those who died of malaria
or the stings of scorpions or the yellow barb
in the furnace of banana plantations,
those who cried out drunk the national anthem
beneath the cyclone of the Pacific or the snow of the North
the crowd, the beggars, the addicts,
Salvadoreans cursed and damned
Those who could just barely come back,
Those who had a bit more luck,
The eternal undocumented,
The do-anything, sell-anything, eat-anything,
The first to take out a knife
The saddest sad people in the world,
After his education with the Jesuits, who he later criticised for their hypocrisy when it came to the poor, in 1953 at the age of 18, his family sent him to Santiago, Chile, to study law in the Universidad de Chile. There he met and attended lectures with the Mexican artist Diego Rivera and began his close relationship with socialism and the leftist movement that would last his short life. He continued his law studies in 1955 at the Law School of the Universidad de El Salvador where he also began to develop his literary work, helping to found the University Literary Circle “just before the Salvadoran military set fire to the building.”
In 1957 he joined the Communist Party founded by Farabundo Martí, who was executed in 1932 for his part in the peasant uprising. That same year he travelled to the Soviet Union to participate in the International Youth Festival. There he met Carlos Fonseca, the founder of the Sandinista Army for National Liberation, the Argentinian poet, Juan Gelman and the exiled Turkish poet and communist Nazim Hikmet. By now his political consciousness was well developed and served as the foundation of his life-long commitment to revolutionary struggle. Following this he was arrested in 1959 and again in October 1960; Claribel Alegría, the Nicaraguan (and Salvadoran) poet, records part of the charges against him as:
“He has formed red cells among workers, students and peasants, inciting these last particularly to protest and to employ violence against the landowners ….”
Looking for Trouble (Translated by Luis Gonzalez Serrano)
The night of my first political cell meeting it rained
my way of dripping was celebrated by four
or five characters straight out of a Goya painting
everyone in the room looked slightly bored
maybe of the persecution and even of the torture they
dreamed of daily.
Founders of confederations and strikers had
a certain huskiness and said that I had
to choose a pseudonym
that I had to pay five bucks a month
that we agreed to meet every Wednesday
and how was I going with my studies
and that today we were going to read a Lenin pamphlet
and that we didn’t need to say comrade all the time.
It had stopped raining when we finished
mum told me off for getting home late.
1959: On the 1 January 1959, Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba to the Dominican Republic and the following day guerrillas led by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos entered Havana. Fidel Castro would arrive in Havana on the 8 January. The Cuban Revolution had succeeded. “Roque was already a militant revolutionary when the Cuban revolution (January 1959) produced seismic aftershocks in the social conscience of all Latin Americans. It must have been an extraordinary experience for a twenty-four-year-old poet to see his revolutionary convictions vindicated, and even more so for Roque, who, because he not only voiced his convictions but acted in accord with them, had already been sentenced to death for the first time.” (Claribel Alegría)
As on the other occasion of his arrest in 1965, on this occasion he was sentenced to death by firing squad. However, on the 26 October 1960, the dictatorship of Colonel José María Lemus was overthrown by a coup d’état and Roque’s life was saved. Released from prison he travelled to Mexico where he worked on a number of his books of poetry. His first important book, La ventana en el rostro (The Window on the Face), was published in Mexico in 1961, “a slim volume of melancholy love poems and hymns written under the influence of Neruda. His work took a harder edge with his next book, El turno del ofendido (The Offended Party’s Turn), which, in an example of Dalton’s provocative wit, was dedicated to the police chief responsible for his detention for illicit political activities in 1960″: “To General Manuel Alemán Manzanares, who by securing severe punishment for me paid me the greatest compliment of my life, although to tell the truth it was a bit exaggerated.”
“My actual works were so insignificant that they weren’t even mentioned in the police charges: General Manzanares acted to rectify a real vacuum in my life. I took a solemn oath that, from then on, I myself would undertake to provide the proofs against me to the judge. For this reason I chose my actual profession.”
“Obviously, when he wrote that dedication, Roque considered himself a professional revolutionary. And — of course — a poet.”
He then moved on to Cuba, where most of his poetry would be published. In Cuba, he began his military training as a guerrilla following the Bay of Pigs Invasion there. Dalton returned clandestinely to El Salvador in 1965 but was soon caught and taken prisoner. He awaited execution in Cojutepeque, but he was “miraculously saved”. There was an earthquake and the wall of his prison cell was undermined. He took advantage of this and escaped, slipping in among a passing religious procession after which he was helped escape to Cuba again. Soon after he travelled to Czechoslovakia, working for the Spanish-language edition of World Marxist Review and where he also researched his biography of Miguel Mármol, the prominent Salvadoran communist who participated in the 1932 Salvadoran peasant uprising and was in Prague at the same time. While there, he also wrote his internationally acclaimed Taberna y Otros Lugares (Tavern and other places), which was to win the Casa de Las Américas literary award. He was to leave Prague just weeks before Soviet tanks rolled in…
“Dalton fled to Mexico City, and then to Prague, where he met the leaders of the various guerrilla movements that were beginning to form all over Latin America, inspired by the Cuban Revolution and the desire to destroy the US-funded military dictatorships spanning the continent: the Tupamaros from Uruguay, the Sandinistas from Nicaragua, the Guatemalan Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias. By 1966, he was convinced that change would come to El Salvador only through armed struggle, which put him at odds with the increasingly staid and highly bureaucratic Salvadoran Communist Party. Two years later, Dalton had quit the Party and returned to Havana.”
From 1968-1973 he lived in Cuba working at the Prensa Latina news agency and for Radio Habana; his writing exploded: he began publishing poetry, essays, fiction and biography as well as winning the 1969 Casa de las Américas poetry prize…
“Yet Dalton’s time in Cuba soon took a dark turn. He had a bitter falling out with the leadership of Casa de las Americas that stemmed in part from his excessive drinking. He saw several close friends lose their jobs or official favour during the revolution’s early 1970s hardening. Friends in Havana said they lost all trace of him. They learned later he was completing an intensive guerrilla training course in preparation for his return to El Salvador…Many people seem to have had reservations about whether Dalton, inveterate drinker and bohemian now in his late thirties, was suited to guerrilla life. But he insisted and so he went.”
“This was the most productive phase of Dalton’s life as a writer. He wrote about love and longing, death and dying, prison and revolution. He wasn’t interested in Neruda’s elegiac humanism (‘I deny ecstasy and exalt the bitter serenities,’ he wrote in one early poem) or the bureaucratic solemnities of socialist realism (‘It smells bad.’) His poetry was hard-edged and playful, sensuous and caustic. In less than five years, he prepared seven books of poetry, edited the oral history Miguel Mármol, and wrote a novel and a book-length critical essay on Régis Debray’s Revolution in the Revolution?, as well as scripts for Cuban television, film and theatre. But he was increasingly anxious to return home to take up arms. When in a 1969 essay he wrote in contemptuous italics of ‘the critic of society who eats three times a day’, his scorn was at least in part an index of his frustration with the limits of his own role as court intellectual in Castro’s Havana.”
“On the international scene the 1960’s were a period of reflux for Latin American revolutionaries. From Prague, Roque contemplated the failure of guerrilla movements in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia and Peru and heard of the death of Che Guevara in Bolivia. The foquista theory that sprang from the success of the Cuban revolution was totally discredited by this chain of disasters, and Latin leftists composed self-criticisms and engaged in bitter, divisive debates about a new point of departure for the revolution in each country. During this period Roque never wavered in his conviction that the revolution in El Salvador could only come about through armed struggle.”
1973: on the 11 September 1973, Augusto Pinochet, the army commander, ordered the attack on the presidential palace in the heart of Santiago establishing the military junta that ended democracy in Chile.
Late in 1973, Roque Dalton reentered El Salvador “in disguise”. Having applied for membership in the Marxist-Leninist, political-military organization FPL (Fuerzas Populares de Liberación “Farabundo Marti – Popular Liberation Forces “Farabundo Marti”) and being refused (“…the organization’s leader, Commander “Marcial” (whose real name was Salvador Cayetano Carpio), rejected his application, arguing that Roque’s role in the revolution was as a poet, and not as a foot-soldier…”) he applied to and subsequently joined the ERP in December 1973 (“At the end of 1972, Rivas Mira met Dalton in Havana and invited him to join the ERP.” Ehrenreich). During the next eighteen months he wrote Clandestine Poems as well as working to establish links between the guerrillas and civil society, which would, apparently, be one of the grounds of the move against him within the organisation:
“Hard-liners were in ascendancy. Some in their late teens and twenties, they knew or cared little about Dalton’s career as a poet and saw him instead as an undisciplined drag, a charge strengthened by the fact that he had an affair with a commander’s girlfriend. He turned out one more book, a volume of poems written under five different pseudonyms entitled Poemas clandestinos, an act that seems to have alienated him further from the group’s leadership. There were whispers that he might be an American spy after all, that his 1964 escape was no escape at all but a reward for collaborating, though one wonders whether this absurd charge was simply an excuse.”
It’s great being a communist
although it gives you many headaches.
Because communists’ headaches
are historical, that is
they won’t go away with painkillers
only with the realisation of Paradise on Earth.
That’s how it is.
Under capitalism our heads hurt
and our heads are ripped off.
In the struggle for Revolution the head is a delayed-action bomb.
In the construction of socialism
we plan for the headache
which doesn’t alleviate it – quite the contrary.
Communism will be, among other things,
an aspirin the size of the sun.
The reasons for his murder by his fellow revolutionaries however, is perceived as being more complex and still being researched.
“Some see the conflict that began soon afterwards as a power struggle between Dalton and Rivas Mira: in the ERP’s official version, there was a ‘struggle for internal hegemony’ because of the petit bourgeois and ‘individualist deviations’ of the two leaders. Some have claimed that Ramírez had been Rivas Mira’s mistress, and that he couldn’t forgive Dalton for stealing her away. Some attribute the falling out to Dalton’s lack of discipline, contending that he drank, disregarded orders and was unwilling to conform to the rigid hierarchies and rules designed to protect the militants from infiltration. The conflict’s roots, though, lay in a deeper ideological division that would continue to split the Salvadoran left long after the war had ended. Rivas Mira’s vision of the revolution, which was shared by Villalobos’s and Rogel’s factions, was short-term and militaristic. A few spectacular actions, they maintained, timed to coincide with an uprising staged by their allies in the Salvadoran army, would be enough to spark a mass insurrection. The emphasis was on taking power, and doing it quickly. Dalton became the spokesman for the dissident view that the ERP’s priority should be a long-term effort to build a mass movement: they would gain power as a result of a complete social transformation. To that end, Sancho and Ramírez’s faction created a shadow structure within the ERP, the National Resistance, or RN. Though the disagreement about strategy began before Dalton’s arrival in El Salvador, Rivas Mira’s group considered him, in the words of one former militant, Roberto Cañas, to be ‘the brain’ behind all dissent.”
El Salvador Will Be (Translated by Zoë Anglesey)
El Salvador will be a beautiful
and without exception, a dignified country
when the working class and the people of the countryside
enrich it, bathe, powder and groom it,
when they cure the historical hangover
and add enough to it by a hundred fold
to reconstitute it
and start it moving along.
The problem is that today El Salvador
has a thousand incentives and a hundred thousand inequalities,
cancers, castoffs, dandruff, filth,
sores, fractures, weak knees and offensive breath.
A few machetes will be given it
also restored self esteem, turpentine, penicillin,
bathrooms with toilets and toilets with seats,
kisses and gunpowder.
“Things came to a head early in 1975. Rivas Mira began to centralise the ERP’s command structure, converting the National Directorate into a militarised General Staff, and concentrating the group’s resources in his own hands. On 13 April, according to a communiqué released by the RN a year later, the General Staff ordered Dalton’s arrest and that of another militant called Armando Arteaga, charging them with insubordination. ‘It was a coup d’état,’ Sancho told me when I spoke to him last summer. The next day, a hastily organised ‘war council’ recommended that Dalton and Arteaga be executed. But not everyone was convinced, and a few days later the leadership added that Dalton was a Cuban spy. (Rivas Mira was repositioning himself as a Maoist, and hence as anti-Soviet and anti-Castro.) When that failed to work, they added one last charge: that Dalton was an agent of the CIA. On 1 May, the RN withdrew from the ERP. The war council assigned cadres to find and kill them. Most of these attempted assassinations failed, but hostilities between the groups continued for weeks until Carpio’s group, the FPL, demanded that they cease. By then, Dalton and Arteaga were dead. Their bodies have never been found.”
In this week, on this day, May 10, 1975, Roque Dalton, “the immaterial materialist”, was shot to death in a house in the Santa Anita neighbourhood in San Salvador city. His body has never been found.
“Ironically enough, this monstrous act did precipitate the division of the ERP, The Resistencia Nacional (RN) split off to create still another politico-military organization. And not only that, Roque’s policy of forging links between the clandestine politico-military organizations and the open mass organizations came to be the accepted line for all the principal revolutionary movements.” (Claribel Alegría)
Third Poem of Love
Whoever tells you our love is extraordinary
because it was born of extraordinary circumstances
tell him we’re struggling now
so that a love like ours
(a love among comrades in battle)
the most ordinary and flowing,
love in El Salvador.
Of his short 40 years alive he had spent all of his adult life working towards synthesising a culture and a society where human beings would be liberated from the oppression that is pervasive all around us and where alienation and profit are the norm rather than the exception…
20 years after the poet’s death, Claribel Alegría wrote:
“His prolific artistic production, cut off at the age of forty, remains a monumental artifact: testimony to his tortuous journey through the twentieth century, revealing his contradictory, dialectical, love-hate relationship with the country of his birth — El Salvador — both in and out of exile, and illustrating his profound conviction that the poet can and must, in his life as well as in his work, serve as the finely-honed scalpel of change, both in word and deed, when he lives in a profoundly unjust, stagnant society.”
So there is much to be learnt from the life and work of this poet, communist and revolutionary. Not least that our poetry is in need of real people, of flesh and blood, sweat and tears and our revolution is always in need of its soul, its longing, its love, its respect for Life, if it is to open all the doors to an era of human freedom. “The poet – above all the communist poet – will have to articulate all of life: the proletarian struggle, the beauty of the cathedrals left us by the Spanish Colony, the wonder of the sexual act, the prophecies of the fruitful future that the great signs of the day proclaim to us.” (Roque Dalton, Poetry & Militancy in Latin America)
Like You (Translated by Jack Hirschman)
Like you I
love love, life, the sweet smell
of things, the sky-
blue landscape of January days.
And my blood boils up
and I laugh through eyes
that have known the buds of tears.
I believe the world is beautiful
and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.
And that my veins don’t end in me
but in the unanimous blood
of those who struggle for life,
landscape and bread,
the poetry of everyone.
REFERENCES, SOURCES & Links (thanks to)
Albtho at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL
(http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0
(http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Sources & References:
Poems quoted are from:
Translated by Luis Gonzalez Serrano:
Read – Essays:
Gringo Iracundo – Roque Dalton and His Father, Roger Atwood
Walking to the Edge – Essays of Resistance, Margaret Randall
Diary, (Death of Roque Dalton) Ben Ehrenreich, London Review of Books (2010)
Memories of Roque Dalton, by Nina Serrano, Counterpunch (2007)
Roque Dalton: Poet and Revolutionary, by Claribel Alegría
Poetry & Militancy in Latin America, Roque Dalton, Art On The Line/Curbstone, 1981
Poema De Amor (Roque Dalton 1935-1975) El Salvador Compatriotas
In the Name of the People : El Salvador’s Civil War
(1985 Documentary – A Film by Frank Christopher & Alex Drehsler
Narrated by: Martin Sheen)