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.
‘As a North American, you might try working to influence a profound change in your country’s foreign policy.’
Over coffee in the mornings I studied reports from Amnesty International, London, and learned of a plague on Latin exiles who had sought refuge in Spain following Franco’s death: a right-wing death squad known as the ‘AAA’ – Anti-Communista Apostólica, founded in Argentina and exported to assassinate influential exiles from the southern cone.
I returned to the United States and in the autumn of 1977 was invited to El Salvador by people who knew Claribel. ‘How much do you know about Latin America?’ I was asked. Then: ‘Good. At least you know that you know nothing.’ A young writer, politically unaffiliated, ideologically vague, I was to be blessed with the rarity of a moral and political education – what, at times, would seem an unbearable immersion; what eventually would become a focused obsession. It would change my life and work, propel me towards engagement, test my endurance and find it wanting, and prevent me from ever viewing myself or my country again through precisely the same fog of unwitting connivance.
I was sent for a briefing to Dr Thomas P. Anderson, author of Matanza, the definitive scholarly history of Salvador’s revolution of 1932, and to Ignacio Lozano, a Californian newspaper editor and former ambassador (under Gerald Ford) to El Salvador. It was suggested that I visit Salvador as a journalist, a role that would of necessity become real.
In January 1978 I landed at Ilopango, the dingy centre-city airport which is now Salvador’s largest military base. Arriving before me were the members of a human rights investigation team, headed by then Congressman John Drinan, S.J. (Democrat of Massachusetts). I had been told that a black North American, Ronald James Richardson, had been killed while in the custody of the Salvadoran government and that a North American organization known as the American Institute for Free Labour Development (AIFLD, an organ of the AFL-CIO and an intelligence front) was manipulating the Salvadoran agricultural workers. Investigation of the ‘Richardson Case’ exposed me to the sub rosa activities of the Salvadoran military, whose highest-ranking officers and government officials were engaged in cocaine smuggling, kidnapping, extortion, and terrorism; through studying AIFLD’s work, I would learn of the spurious intentions of an organization destined to become the architect of the present agrarian reform. I was delivered the promised exposure to the stratified life of Salvador, and was welcomed to ‘Vietnam, circa 1959’. The ‘Golden Triangle’ had moved to the isthmus of the Americas, ‘rural pacification’ was in embryo, the seeds of rebellion had taken root in destitution and hunger.
Later my companion and guide, ‘Ricardo’, changed his description from ‘Vietnam’ to ‘a Nazi forced labour camp’.
‘It is not hyperbole,’ he said quietly. ‘You will come to see that.’
In those first twenty days I was taken to clinics and hospitals, to villages, farms, prisons, coffee mansions and processing plants, to cane mills and the elegant homes of American foreign service bureaucrats, nudged into the hillsides overlooking the capital, where I was offered cocktails and platters of ocean shrimps; it was not yet known what I would write of my impressions or where I would print them. Fortuitously, I had published nationally in my own country, and in Salvador ‘only poetry’ did not carry the pejorative connotation I might have ascribed to it then. I knew nothing of political journalism but was willing to learn – it seemed, at the time, an acceptable way for a poet to make a living.
I lay on my belly in the campo and was handed a pair of field glasses. The lenses sharpened on a plastic tarpaulin tacked to four maize stalks several hundred yards away, beneath which a woman sat on the ground. She was gazing through the plastic roof of her ‘house’ and hugging three naked, emaciated children. There was an aqua plastic dog-food bowl at her feet.
‘She’s watching for the plane,’ my friend said. ‘We have to get out of here now or we’re going to get it, too.’
I trained the lenses on the woman’s eyes, gelled with disease and open to a swarm of gnats. We climbed back in the truck and rolled the windows up just as the duster plane swept back across the field, dumping a yellow cloud of pesticide over the woman and her children, to protect the cotton crop around them.
At the time I was unaware of the pedagogical theories of Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed), but found myself learning in situ the politics of cultural immersion. It was by Ricardo’s later admission ‘risky business’, but it was thought important that a few North Americans, particularly writers, be sensitized to Salvador prior to any military conflict. The lessons were simple and critical, the methods somewhat more difficult to detect.
I was given a white lab jacket and, posing as a North American physician, was asked to work in a rural hospital at the side of a Salvadoran doctor who was paid two hundred dollars a month by her government to care for 100,000 campesinos. She had no lab, no X-ray, no whole blood plasma, or antibiotics, no anaesthetics or medicines, no autoclave for sterilizing surgical equipment. Her forceps were rusted, the walls of her operating room were studded with flies; beside her hospital, a coffee-processing plant’s refuse heaps incubated the maggots, and she paid a campesina to swish the flies away with a newspaper while she delivered the newborn. She was forced to do Caesarean sections at times without enough local anaesthetic. Without supplies, she worked with only her hands and a cheap ophthalmoscope. In her clinic I held children in my arms who died hours later for want of a manual suction device to remove the fluid from their lungs. Their peculiar skin rashes spread to my hands, arms, and belly. I dug maggots from a child’s open wound with a teaspoon. I contracted four strains of dysentery and was treated by stomach antiseptics, effective yet damaging enough to be banned by our own Food and Drug Administration. This doctor had worked in the campo for years, a lifetime of delivering the offspring of thirteen-year-old mothers who thought the navel marked the birth-canal opening. She had worked long enough to feel that it was acceptable to ignore her own cervical cancer, and hard enough, in Salvador, to view her inevitable death as the least of her concerns.
I was taken to the homes of landowners, with their pools set like aquamarines in the clipped grass, to the afternoon games of canasta over quaint local pupusas and tea, where parrots hung by their feet among the bougainvillea and nearly everything was imported, if only from Miami or New Orleans. One evening I dined with a military officer who toasted America, private enterprise, Las Vegas, and the ‘fatherland’, until his wife excused herself, and in a drape of cigar smoke the events of ‘The Colonel’ were told, almost a poème trouvé. I had only to pare down the memory and render it whole, unlined, and as precise as recollection would have it. I did not wish to endanger myself by the act of poeticizing such a necessary reportage. It became, when I wrote it, the second insistence of El Salvador to infiltrate what I so ridiculously preserved as my work’s allegiance to Art. No more than in any earlier poems did I choose my subject.
The following day I was let into Ahuachapán prison (now an army cuartet). We had been driving back from a meeting with Salvadoran feminists when Ricardo swung the truck into a climb through a tube of dust towards the run-down fortification. I was thirsty, infested with intestinal parasites, fatigued from twenty days of ricocheting between extremes of poverty and wealth. I was horrified, impatient, suspicious of almost everyone, paralyzed by sympathy and revulsion. I kept thinking of the kindly, silver-haired American political officer who informed me that in Salvador, ‘there were always five versions of the truth.’ From this, I was presumably to conclude that the truth could not therefore be known. Ricardo seemed by turns the Braggioni of Porter’s ‘Flowering Judas’ and a pedagogical genius of considerable vision and patience. As we walked towards the gate, he palmed the air to slow our pace.
‘This is a criminal penitentiary. You will have thirty minutes inside. Realize, please, at all times where you are, and whatever you see here, understand that for political prisoners it is always much worse. OK?’
We shook hands with the chief guard and a few subordinates, clean-shaven youths armed with G-3s. There was first the stench: rotting blood, excrement, buckets of urine, and corn slop. A man in his thirties came towards us, dragging a swollen green leg, his pants ripped to the thigh to accommodate the swelling. He was introduced as ‘Miguel’ and I as a ‘friend’. The two men shook hands a long time, standing together in the filth, a firm knot of warmth between them. Miguel was asked to give me a ‘tour’, and he agreed, first taking a coin from his pocket and slipping it into the guard station soda machine. He handed me an orange Nehi, urging me somewhat insistently to take it, and we began a slow walk into the first hall. The prison was four-square with an open court in the centre. There were bunk rooms where the cots were stacked three deep and some were hung with newsprint ‘for privacy’. The men squatted on the ground or along the walls, some stirring small coal fires, others ducking under urine-soaked tents of newspaper. It was suppertime, and they were cooking their dry tortillas. I used the soda as a relief from the stench, like a hose of oxygen. There were maybe four hundred men packed into Ahuachapán, and it was an odd sight, an American woman, but there was no heckling.
‘Did you hear the shots when we first pulled up?’ Ricardo asked. ‘Those were warnings. A visitor – behave.’
Miguel showed me through the workrooms and latrines, finishing his sentences with his eyes: a necessary skill under repressive régimes, highly developed in Salvador. With the guards’ attention diverted, he gestured towards a black open doorway and suggested that I might wander through it, stay a few moments, and come back out ‘as if I had seen nothing.’
I did as he asked, my eyes adjusting to the darkness of that shit-smeared room with its single chink of light in the concrete. There were wooden boxes stacked against one wall, each a metre by a metre, with barred openings the size of a book, and within them there was breathing, raspy and half-conscious. It was a few moments before I realized that men were kept in those cages, their movement so cramped that they could neither sit, stand, nor lie down. I recall only magnified fragments of my few minutes in that room. I was rooted to the clay floor, unable to move either towards or away from the cages. I turned from the room towards Miguel, who pivoted on his crutch and with his eyes on the ground said in a low voice, ‘La oscura’, the dark place. ‘Sometimes a man is kept in there a year, and cannot move when he comes out.’
We caught up with Ricardo, who leaned towards me and whispered, ‘Tie your sweater sleeves around your neck. You are covered with hives.’
In the cab of the truck I braced my feet against the dashboard and through the half-cracked window shook hands with the young soldiers, smiling and nodding. A hundred metres from the prison I lifted Ricardo’s spare shirt in my hands and vomited. We were late for yet another meeting, the sun had dropped behind the volcanoes, my eyes ached. When I was empty the dry heaves began, and, after the sobbing, a convulsive shudder. Miguel was serving his third consecutive sentence, this time for organizing a hunger strike against prison conditions. In that moment I saw him turn back to his supper, his crutch stamping circles of piss and mud beside him as he walked. I heard the screams of a woman giving birth by Caesarean without anaesthetic in Ana’s hospital. I saw the flies fastened to the walls in the operating room, the gnats on the eyes of the starving woman, the reflection of flies on Ana’s eyes in the hospital kitchen window. The shit, I imagined, was inside my nostrils and I would smell it the rest of my life, as it is for a man who in battle tastes a piece of flesh or gets the blood under his fingernails. The smell never comes out; it was something Ricardo explained once as he was falling asleep.
‘Feel this,’ he said, manoeuvring the truck down the hill road. ‘This is what oppression feels like. Now you have begun to learn something. When you get back to the States, what you do with this is up to you.’
Between 1978 and 1981 I travelled between the United States and Salvador, writing reports on the war waiting to happen, drawing blueprints of prisons from memory, naming the dead. I filled soup bowls with cigarette butts, grocery boxes with files on American involvement in the rural labour movement, and each week I took a stool sample to the parasite clinic. A priest I knew was gang-raped by soldiers; another was hauled off and beaten nearly to death. On one trip a woman friend and I were chased by the death squad for five minutes on the narrow back roads that circle the city; her evasive driving and considerable luck saved us. One night a year ago I was interviewing a defecting member of the Christian Democratic Party. As we started out of the drive to go back to my hotel, we encountered three plainclothesmen hunched over the roof of a taxicab, their machine guns pointed at our windshield. We escaped through a grove of avocado trees. The bodies of friends have turned up disembowelled and decapitated, their teeth punched into broken points, their faces sliced off with machetes. On the final trip to the airport we swerved to avoid a corpse, a man spread-eagled, his stomach hacked open, his entrails stretched from one side of the road to the other. We drove over them like a garden hose. My friend looked at me. Just another dead man, he said. And by then it had become true for me as well: the unthinkable, the sense of death within life before death.
‘Isee an injustice,’ wrote Czesław Miłosz in Native Realm. ‘A Parisian does not have to bring his city out of nothingness every time he wants to describe it.’ So it was with Wilno, that Lithuanian/Polish/Byelorussian city of the poet’s childhood, and so it has been with the task of writing about Salvador in the United States. The country called by Gabriela Mistral ‘the Tom Thumb of the Americas’ would necessarily be described to North Americans as ‘about the size of Massachusetts’. As writers we could begin with its location on the Pacific south of Guatemala and west of Honduras and with Ariadne’s thread of statistics: 4.5 million people, 400 per square kilometre (a country without silence or privacy), a population growth rate of 3.5 percent (such a population would double in two decades). But what does ‘ninety percent malnutrition’ mean? Or that ‘eighty per cent of the population has no running water, electricity, or sanitary services?’ I watched women push faeces aside with a stick, lower their pails to the water, and carry it home to wash their clothes, their spoons and plates, themselves, their infant children.