The year Franco died, I spent several months on Mallorca translating the poetry of Claribel Alegria, a Salvadoran in voluntary exile. During those months the almond trees bloomed and lost flower, the olives and lemons ripened, and we hauled baskets of apricots from Claribel’s small finca. There was bathing in the calla, fresh squid under the palm thatch, drunk Australian sailors to dance with at night. It was my first time in Europe and there was no better place at that time than Spain. I was there when Franco’s anniversary passed for the first time in forty years without notice – and the lack of public celebration was a collective hush of relief. I travelled with Claribel’s daughter, Maya Flakoll, for ten days through Andalusia by train, visiting poetry shrines. The gitanos had finally pounded a cross into the earth to mark the grave of Federico Garcia Lorca, not where it had been presumed to be all this time, not beneath an olive tree, but in a bowl of land rimmed by pines. We hiked the eleven kilometres through the Sierra Nevada foothills to La Fuente Grande and held a book of poems open over the silenced poet.
On Mallorca I lost interest in the calla sunbathing, the parties that carried on into the morning, the staggering home wine-drunk up the goat paths. I did not hike to the peak of the Teix with baskets of entremesas nor, despite well-intentioned urgings, could I surrender myself to the island’s diversionary summer mystique.
I was busy with Claribel’s poems, and with the horrific accounts of the survivors of repressive Latin American régimes. Claribel’s home was frequented by these wounded: writers who had been tortured and imprisoned, who had lost husbands, wives, and closest friends. In the afternoon, more than once I joined Claribel in her silent vigil near the window until the mail came, her ‘difficult time of day’, alone in a chair in the perfect light of thick-walled Mallorquin windows. These were her afternoons of despair, and they haunted me. In those hours I first learned of El Salvador, not from the springs of her nostalgia for ‘the fraternity of dipping a tortilla into a common pot of beans and meat’, but from the source of its pervasive brutality. My understanding of Latin American realities was confined then to the romantic devotion to Vietnam-era revolutionary pieties, the sainthood of Ernesto Che rather than the debilitating effects of the cult of personality that arose in the collective memory of Guevara. I worked into the late hours on my poems and on translations, drinking ‘101’ brandy and chain-smoking Un-X-Dos. When Cuban writer Mario Benedetti visited, I questioned him about what ‘an American’ could do in the struggle against repression.