El Salvador: poetry from the Civil War years: translations from Spanish by Keith Ellis

Roberto Huezo_from his series Let Me Be a Witness depicting images of suffering and death from the revolution and civil war in El Salvador (1979-1992)
Roberto Huezo_from his series Let Me Be a Witness depicting images of suffering and death from the revolution and civil war in El Salvador (1979-1992)

Roberto Quesada, born 1956
The Battle of Acaxual
City washed by waves,
8 June, 1524
(well into the sixteenth century)
Pedro de Alvarado *
(alias TONATIUH)
almost lost his breeches
when he saw he had only
a hundred cavalrymen
and a hundred and two horses,
a hundred and fifty white infantry men
and more or less
six thousand Indian auxiliaries.
Against a plain
teeming with natives,
with slingshots and clumps of earth in their hands,
And you, what did you say?
that with clumps of earth in our hands
they were going to seize us?
studied the situation
and ordered his men
to withdraw quietly and slowly.
The Acaxualian comrades,
lacking military training in their schools,
trailed stupidly behind them,
waiting for the enemy to stop.
But the man in command (Tonatiuh)
didn’t raise his hand to signal “Stop”,
then the whole flock of Acaxualians
said to themselves that Tonatiuh
was a sissy.
Tonatiuh got angry
and told his men
“about turn”
to turn around and fight.
For he knew that the Indians
(big-nosed and cross-eyed)
were already far from the mountain
close by Acaxual.
And they turned around!
The bastards
began to strike out in all directions with
spear thrusts,
The Indians also
made a mess…
the brawl was such
that when it ended
not a single Acaxualian
was left alive…
But they clobbered
quite a few on the other side,
there were many
maimed and broken,
and among the multitude with arrow wounds
was Tonatiuh.
How gallant, how gallant!
The dying were saying:
virgin of the cave.
People say
that the comrade who cured Tonatiuh
was a very good person
because she did no end of things to him
so he would limp for the rest of his life.
And that is how it was,
his left foot
(the one for scoring goals)
became quite lame,
on the lucky limb
he had to use
a sole ten layers thick.
But up until around February
of the following year,
Tonatiuh was
almost pushing up rubber trees,
confined to his sleeping mat,
between his bed and his grave.
(R.I.P., alias WATER SUN)
for his hot blood,
but I advise him
next time

. . .

  • Pedro de Alvarado (1485-1541) was a Spanish soldier and “conquistador”. He accompanied Hernán Cortés to México but also explored/conquered Central America, eventually becoming governor of Guatemala. It was he who gave the country of El Salvador its name: “The Saviour”, as in Jesus Christ.  Tonatiuh was the name he was given in the Náhuatl (Aztec) language. It meant “Sun”.

. . .
Mercedes Durand, born 1933
from: Anecdotes, Chronology, and Obituary of Boots
He sat down in his chair
after watching
thirty thousand peasants die.
That night he had for supper
herbal soup
boiled pumpkin blossoms
and lemon juice…
He was a theosophist
and knew the fine points of witchcraft.
He put water
to settle in the sun
in pretty painted bottles
and wouldn’t stand for
the killing
of an ant
a mosquito
or a spider.
He never looked anyone in the eye.
He worshipped Hitler and Mussolini.
. . .
Alfonso Hernández, born 1948
The Republic of Power
Every year the dictator makes a speech to the multitudes
from his pragmatic throne – Peace Love Justice –
(as if history were an expedient of his base passions).
The dictator makes his speech,
the promise of new schools; a plan for putting an end to
hunger, illiteracy, and many other things;
and also an agrarian reform for those who have
rosy dreams, who view
life as benign.
Every year, as I have said,
with high honours he raises his funeareal hand to make
the sign of the cross
over hundreds of sickening corpses…
. . .
José María Cuéllar (1942-1981)
from: Childhood Stories
I was born in 1942 if for some reason my mother
has not lost her memory.
At age five I learned that thirty thousand peasants died because they were hungry.
It was then that I realized that
in my country to be hungry is a crime.
The village where I was born has a bad history.
They say that around 1798
an administrator from the Central Province
had these lands peopled by Spaniards
who, vaunting their lineage,
mounted Indian women and more Indian women
as if going through an endless train.
One of these descendants of the Cid
surprised one of my great-great-grandmothers bathing in the Copinolapa River,
and, with the brusqueness of a centaur,
made her the cornerstone of my family.
. . .
Claudia Lars (1899-1974)
from: Masked Men
I saw the masked men
throwing truth into a well.
When I began to weep for it
I found it everywhere.
. . .
Wounded by machine-guns
the innocent one lay forgetting his fright
in his modest coffin.
Contemplating him,
I lost forever my seventy-year-old infancy.
. . .
Carlos Aragón (195?-1981)
My Friends
(in semi-syncopated flow)
Where are they? Where are they?
Where are my old friends?
Those from our little school
and those from the university…
Juan studied medicine
he enjoyed conversation
now he is somewhere in Europe
he fled from the social year…
Cecilia studied law
intent on changing things
now she has her lawyer’s office
and likes champagne…
Where are they? Where are they?
Where are my old friends?
Those from our little school
and those from the university…
Pedro is an economist
he has given up music
he has sold his piano
and now only knows how to add…
Antonio was a humanist
he used to like to draw
now he is a publicist
who is very quick to collect…
Where are they? Where are they?
Where are my old friends?
Those from our little school
and those from the university…
There was one we didn’t know
who liked the sea
– his name was Felipe –
he had clear and tranquil eyes
and his walk was serene…
Today the guns roared,
the sea has started to cry,
they killed the one we didn’t know,
the struggle has now begun…
Where are they? Where are they?
Where are my old friends?
Those from our little school
and those from the university…
Gary Mark Smith_1982 photograph of a victim of the civil war in El Salvador being carried home for burial_wrapped up in a hammock
Sonia Civallero, born 195?
In Memory of Comrade Juan Castro
The flower of San Andrés bursts open
while you,
Mario González,
Alexander López,
Juan Castro,
founder of the inn “La Bolsa”
coffee picker in Cantarrana
conductor on route 7
or seller of saints,
left your hunger hanging behind the door,
embraced the rosary of grenades,
greased your weapon
put on firmly the cap woven by your grandmother,
tied on your handkerchief to cover your face,
from your cheekbone to the tip of your chin,
and in a frenetic attack you tore up the stars
you ignited the minute of fury
you knew of unnoticed noises
you savoured the delights of battle.
your nineteen Januarys
died in the middle of a street…
. . .
Alfonso Hernández, born 1948
We were together at the federation,
we were ten young people, and
each one was talking about his experiences…
nobody was thinking about death,
death of a thousand faces.
But the fateful hour came,
and tens of policemen from the “Death Squad”
burst into the room.
Shots rang out immediately,
two comrades fell murdered.
We were unarmed, we had only a notebook.
We were bound, face down, and put into a Ford.
“So you are the ones who are going around saying ‘Fatherland or Death!’…Well, start praying because you have come up with death!”
We were eight.
On the way to Los Naranjos they made six get out,
and, tying them by the ankles, they bound them with strong ropes to a tree trunk;
their hands were tied to the bumper of the truck,
then they moved the truck off suddenly
and we heard the screams.
The six pairs of hands, bloodied,
hung from the bumper of the truck,
and the policemen were enjoying themselves.
Then they finished them off.
Only Raúl and I were left…
After a few kilometres they made us get out
with our hands still tied.
Raúl whispered:
“We are facing death and we must run any risk to escape…”
Those were his last words, and rapidly we dashed toward a precipice,
but Raúl slipped and was riddled with bullets;
he fell from branch to branch to the bottom.
I managed to steal away through the bushes…
. . .
Gabriela Yanes, born 1959
The Highways that Led South
The highways that led south
are now filled with corpses
the coffee plantations radiate a strange freshness
at night the dead
are absorbed through the pores of the earth
eventually they bloom as red coffee trees
(a cynical blackbird eats up the ripe guavas)
the earth is slowly tiring
of children sweet as figs.
. . .
José Luis Valle, born 1943
Reasons for Surprise
Threats. Blows upon blows.
Shadows and fears. Instabilities.
Repression and exile. One dictator after another.
From each dark spot: two stones.
At each street corner: three or more opportunists.
In each cafeteria: four or more informers.
I am still surviving. And that surprises me.
. . .
Ricardo Castrorrivas, born 1938
Theory for Dying in Silence
(to Francisco Gavidia)
[ hypocritical office rats cork men always afloat even
though the successive governments sink always looking
for a chance to have your photograph come out in the
newspapers and show it proudly in the neighbourhood
look at my eyes and see that I despise you for being
servile mediocre ignorant you who never learned to say no
why don’t you go away and leave me in peace take your
slobber and your flattery where they are well paid I want
nothing from you multiple men in the fraudulent elections
paid hacks when it comes to justifying a coup d’état
potential deviates lying racketeers get lost understand
the look in my eyes I want nothing why do you come contrite
today putting on airs saying that the supreme government
recognizes the meritorious work of a great man
and bring medicines medical books the keys to an
Institute of Housing house and also the reporters the
photographers the ladies of the Good Heart and I want nothing
look into my eyes look at me you think I am happy yes I
hear you that vicious old lady says she discerns in my
face gratitude and it is not true what I really want is for
you to go away study my eyes carefully I want nothing
why should I what I want is tranquillity to hell with the
glory the medals the esteem the parchments the prizes
the publication of my complete works the posthumous
homages the lifetime pension for my children to hell with
all that I tell you everything with these eyes that weep
from pure rage and you are saying that I weep from gratitude
you swine what I would really be grateful for is for
you all to go away leave me silence leave me silence ]
. . .
Nelson Brizuela, born 1955
from: Now that you are naked
These times have scarred poetry,
have stricken it with death,
and it can no longer be an act of peace
emerging from a common perspective.
Today it is written with
the need to bring to light
this way of looking at the world with wide open eyes,
this passing of the tongue over people’s wounds,
this wanting to stop the blood that runs and runs
like an eternally open tap.
John Hoagland_photograph from the early 1980s in Usulután El Salvador_Civilians fleeing...
Claribel Alegría, born 1924
Because I Want Peace
Because I want peace
and not war
because I don’t want to see
hungry children
or emaciated women
or men with silenced tongues
I must keep on fighting.
Because there are
Death Squads
and White Hand
that torture
that maim
that murder
I want to keep on fighting.
Because on the mountain range
of Guazapa
from their hideouts
my brothers lie in wait for
three battalions
trained in Carolina and Georgia
I must keep on fighting.
Because from armed Huey
expert pilots
wipe out villages
with napalm
poison the water
and burn the crops
that feed the people
I want to keep on fighting.
Because there are territories
now liberated
where those who don’t know how to
are learning to read
and the sick are treated
and the produce of the land
belongs to everybody
I must keep on fighting.
Because I want peace and not war.
. . .
Miguel Huezo Mixco, born 1954
The Day
The sun has already arrived
like a combatant.
Enthused I jump
from sleep
like a sword.
. . .

Translations from the Spanish were the work of Professor Keith Ellis of the University of Toronto Department of Spanish and Portuguese Studies. Dr. Ellis has published several books on Spanish- American poetry, including the prize-winning Cuba’s Nicolás Guillén: Poetry and Idealogy.
We would also like to thank Between The Lines Books in Toronto, which brought out these poems, and others, in a collection titled Mirrors of War, published while El Salvador was still in the throes of its revolution and civil war (1985).
The original Spanish versions of the above poems were compiled in México in 1982, edited by Gabriela Yanes, Manuel Sorto, Horacio Castellanos Moya and Lyn Sorto, and published as Fragmentos de la actual literatura salvadoreña (Universidad Nacional de Querétaro, México, 1983).

More poems about El Salvador’s civil war:


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