Poems for Remembrance Day: El Salvador’s Civil War

Families looking for quote unquote Disappeared relatives in The Book of the Missing at the Human Rights Commission Office in San Salvador_early 1980s_photograph copyright Eli ReedFamilies looking for “Disappeared” relatives in The Book of the Missing at the Human Rights Commission Office in San Salvador_early 1980s_photograph © Eli Reed


Carolyn Forché (born 1950, Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A.)

The Colonel”


What you have heard is true. I was in his house. His wife carried
a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went
out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the
cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over
the house. On the television was a cop show. It was in English.
Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to
scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace. On
the windows there were gratings like those in liquor stores. We had
dinner, rack of lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for
calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes, salt, a type of
bread. I was asked how I enjoyed the country. There was a brief
commercial in Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was
some talk then of how difficult it had become to govern. The parrot
said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed
himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves. There is no other way to say this. He took one
of them in his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a water
glass. It came alive there. I am tired of fooling around he said. As
for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck them-
selves. He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last
of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some
of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the
ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.

May 1978

.     .     .

Carolyn Forché (nacida en 1950, Detroit, Michigan, EE.UU.)

El Coronel”


Lo que has oído es verdad. Estuve en su casa. Su mujer llevaba
una bandeja con café y azúcar. Su hija se limaba las uñas, su
hijo salió esa noche. Había periódicos, perritos, una pistola
sobre el cojín a su lado. La luna se mecía desnuda con su
cuerda negra encima de la casa. En la televisión daban un
programa policíaco. Era en inglés. Había botellas rotas
empotradas en la cerca que rodeaba la casa para arrancar las
rodilleras de un hombre o cortar sus manos en pedazos. En
las ventanas, rejas como las de las tiendas de licores. Cenamos
cordero a la parrilla, un buen vino; una campanilla de oro estaba
sobre la mesa para llamar a la criada. Ella nos trajo mangos
verdes, sal, un pan especial. Me preguntaron si me gustaba el
país. Hubo un breve anuncio en español. Su mejor se lo llevó
todo. Luego se habló sobre lo difícil que ahora resultaba
gobernar. El loro dijo “hola” en la terraza. El coronel le dijo
que se callara, y se levantó pesadamente de la mesa. Mi amigo
me dijo con sus ojos: no digas nada. El coronel volvió con
una bolsa de las que se usan para traer comestibles a casa.
Esparció muchas orejas humanas sobre la mesa. Eran como
orejones dulces partidos en dos. No hay otra manera de decirlo.
Cogió una en sus manos, la sacudió en nuestra presencia, y la
dejó caer en un vaso de agua. Allí revivió. Estoy hasta las
narices de tonterías, dijo. En cuanto a los derechos humanos,
dile a tu gente que se joda. Con su brazo tiró todas las orejas
al suelo y levantó en el aire el resto de su vino. Algo para tu
poesía, ¿no?, me dijo. Algunas orejas del suelo recogieron este
retazo de su voz. Algunas orejas del suelo fueron aplastadas
contra la tierra.

Mayo de 1978


Traducción del inglés: Noël Valis

.     .     .

Jaime Suárez Quemain (Salvadorean poet and journalist, 1949-1980)

A Collective Shot”


In my country, sir,

men carry a padlock

on their mouths,

only when alone do they meditate,

shout and protest

because fear, sir,

is the gag

and the subtle padlock you control.

In my country, sir,

(I say mine because I want it to be mine)

even on the fence posts

you can see the longing

…they divide it, they rent it, they mortgage it,

they torture it, they kill it, they imprison it,

the newspapers declare there is total freedom, but

it’s only in the saying, sir, you know what I mean.

And it’s my country,

with its streets, its shadows, its volcanos,

its high-rises – dens of thieves –

whose children succeeded in escaping Malthus,

it’s my country, with its poets, its dreams and its roses.

And my country, sir,

is nearly a cadaver, a solitary phantom of the night,

and it agonizes,

and you, sire,

so impassive.


Translation from Spanish: Wilfredo Castaño


National Policemen using an ice-cream vendor as a shield during a skirmish with demonstrators_San Salvador_early 1980s_photograph copyright Etienne MontesNational Policemen using an ice-cream vendor as a shield during a skirmish with demonstrators_San Salvador_early 1980s_photograph © Etienne Montes

Arrest of an autorepair mechanic for failure to carry an ID card_San Salvador_early 1980s_photograph copyright John HoaglandArrest of an autorepair mechanic for failure to carry an ID card_San Salvador_early 1980s_photograph copyright John Hoagland


Jaime Suárez Quemain (poeta y periodista salvadoreño, 1949-1980)

Un Disparo Colectivo”


En mi país, señor,

los hombres llevan un candado

en la boca,

sólo a solas

meditan, vociferan y protestan,

porque el miedo, señor,

es la mordaza

y el candado sutil que usted maneja.

En mi país, señor,

digo mío porque lo quiero mío –

hasta en los postes

se mira la nostalgia,

lo parcelan, lo alquilan, lo hipotecan,

lo torturan, lo matan, lo encarcelan;

la prensa dice

que hay libertad completa,

es un decir, señor, usted lo sabe.

Y es así mi país,

con sus calles, sus sombras, sus volcanes,

sus grandes edificios – albergues de tahures –

sus niños que lograron

escapársele a Malthus,

sus poetas, sus sueños y sus rosas.

Y mi país, señor,

casi cadáver,

solitario fantasma de la noche,

agoniza…  y usted:

tan impasible.

.     .     .

Alfonso Quijada Urías (Salvadorean poet, born 1940)



The dead man’s mother is buying flowers,

the village is lovely, yellow flowers bloom on the hills;

the day seems happy, though it’s really very sad,

nothing moves without God’s will.

And the police are buying flowers, which they’ll send

to the dead man’s mother,

and a humble righteous man sends a note of condolence

for the death of the man they killed.

The sun keeps shining on the hills,

then a man playing the saddest music feels sorry to be there

among those men much deader than the dead man himself

who is swallowing with his open eyes the flowering hills,

the village and the walls, where once he wrote:  long lib liberti.




Translation from Spanish:   Barbara Paschke

.     .     .

Alfonso Quijada Urías (poeta salvadoreño, nacido 1940)



La madre del muerto compra flores,

el pueble es bello, en los cerros crecen las flores amarillas;

parece un día alegre aunque realmente es muy triste,

nada se mueve sin la voluntad de Dios.

También los policías compran flores que mandaran a

la madre del muerto,

también un hombre bajito de conciencia manda

una nota en la que se conduele

por la muerte del muerto que mataron.

El sol sigue brillando sobre los cerros.

Entonces un hombre que toca la música mas triste

se conduele de estar allí

entre esos hombres mucho más muertos que el mismo muerto

que va tragando con sus ojos abiertos los cerros florecidos,

el pueblo y sus paredes, donde escribió una tarde:   biva la libertá.



A Salvadorean government soldier with his automatic rifle and a sleeping toddler_after an anti guerrilla manoeuvre in Cabañas province_El Salvador_May 1984A Salvadorean government soldier with his automatic rifle and a sleeping toddler, after an anti-guerrilla manoeuvre in Cabañas province, El Salvador_May 1984


El Salvador, at the advent of the 20th century, was governed by presidents drawn from its oligarchical families; these had a cozy yet volatile relationship with the nation’s military. In the last decades of the 19th century, mass production at fincas (plantations) of coffee beans for export as the main cash crop was already being emphasized through forced elimination of communal land ownings belonging to campesinos (peasant farmers). In fact, a rural police force was created in 1912 to keep displaced campesinos in line. Social activist Farabundo Martí (1893-1932), one of the founders of the Communist Party of Central America, spearheaded a peasant uprising in 1932 which resulted in 30,000 deaths by the military – La Matanza (“The Slaughter”), as it came to be known. Decades of repression followed, then a coup d’état in1979 plus the 1980 assassination of human-rights advocate, Salvadorean Archbishop Oscar Romero, triggered a brutal civil war that lasted more than a decade. In the U.S.A., the newly elected President, Ronald Reagan, was determined to limit what he perceived as Communist and/or Leftist influence in Central America following the popular insurrection that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in neighbouring Nicaragua, so the U.S. administration supported the Salvadorean junta with military and economic aid throughout the 1980s. During this time, death squads associated with the military terrorized civilians, sometimes massacring hundreds of people at a time, as at El Mozote * in December of 1981. All told, the war cost the lives of 75,000 civilian noncombatants – this, in a country of a mere 5.5 million people (1992 estimate.).

In the U.S.A. the general population was divided about Washington’s deepening engagement in El Salvador. University student committees and humanitarian church groups coalesced around the issue. While there were major demonstrations in U.S. cities protesting its government’s policies in the tiny Central American country – 1981 saw rallies in several U.S.cities, and one that grouped in front of the Pentagon in May that year had 20,000 participants calling for Solidarity with the People of El Salvador – the continued violence against el pueblo salvadoreño and the U.S. foreign policies that enabled it – made the unfolding “story” of the Salvadorean civil war of the 1980s one of the central parables of the Cold War era. Then, unexpectedly, in 1989, it was a crime truly capturing international attention – the murder by Salvadorean government forces of six Jesuit priests, along with their housekeeper and her daughter – that began to set in motion the wheels of peace. A United Nations Truth Commission investigated and this gradually led to a UN-brokered peace agreement, signed at Chapultepec Castle in México City in 1992. Today, there are free elections in El Salvador, and both sides of the conflict have been integrated into the political process. Yet the economy remains unstable—about 20 percent-dependent upon remittances sent home by Salvadoreans working in the U.S.A. and other countries.  


* El Mozote, a hamlet in the mountainous Morazán region of El Salvador, was the scene of an orgy of killing by the Salvadorean Army’s Atlacatl Battalion (trained by the U.S.military) which had arrived in the vicinity searching for guerrillas of the FMLM (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front). Campesinos had gathered in El Mozote seeking a safe haven. The Atlacatl forced everyone into the village square, where they separated the men from the women. The men were interrogated, tortured, then executed. The women and girls were rapedthen machine-gunned down. Children had their throats slit then their bodies were hung from trees. Every building – and numerous piles of bodies – were set ablaze. The entire civilian population of El Mozote and its peripheral farms was eliminated. Author Mark Hertsgaard, in his book On Bended Knee – a study of the media and the Reagan administration – wrote of the significance of the first New York Times and Washington Post reports (January 1982) of the massacre: “What made the El Mozote/Morazán massacre stories so threatening was that they repudiated the fundamental moral claim that undergirded U.S. policy. They suggested that what the United States was supporting in Central America was not democracy but repression. They therefore threatened to shift the political debate from means to ends, from how best to combat the supposed Communist threat—send US troops or merely US aid?—to why the U.S.A. was backing state terrorism in the first place.”

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