[News] Memories of Roque Dalton - The Assassination of a Poet
news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Jul 2 17:31:11 EDT 2007
July 2, 2007
The Nation and the Assassin
A Shameful Blunder
By JACK HIRSCHMAN
As the translator of Roque Dalton's
POEMS, one of the truly great books of
revolutionary poetry published in the Americas in
a generation (CurbstonePress), I must strongly
protest the inclusion of the article by Joaquin
Villalobos, the man who brutally killed Dalton,
in the pages of The Nation, an ostensibly progressive magazine.
Villalobos, so far as El Salvador and the
yearnings of the peoples of all central and south
American countries, has been the peoples' nada.
By contrast, the eminence and importance of
Dalton have grown and deepened through the years
in the place from which they wre born and which
he served comsistently and passionately to the
last of his assassinated breaths---the heart of
the people of the world beating for revolutionary change.
The Nation should hang its head in shame for such
a blunder. Despite widespread attempts to
alzheimerize revolution and its authentic voices,
the people remember and always will defy the lies
of the pimps of capitalism with the truths of both the past and the future.
Long Live Roque Dalton!
Poet Laureate of the City of San Francisco
July 2, 2007
The Assassination of a Poet
Memories of Roque Dalton
By NINA SERRANO
I first met Roque Dalton in Havana in July of
1968. He claimed he was a descendant of an
outlaw, and he turned me into a writer and a poet.
I was in Havana working on a documentary film
about Fidel with my then-husband, Saul Landau,
and our two children, Greg, age 13 and Valerie,
age 10. It was our second trip there as a family.
I researched Cuban photo and film archives and
filled in as the sound person. Making a film
about Fidel involved a tremendous amount of waiting and therefore free time.
Living in a hotel with maid and laundry service,
as well as restaurant meals, liberated my life
from domestic duties. I met remarkable people
including Estella Bravo who worked at Casa de Las
Americas, the hub of Cuban and international
leftist life with publications, exhibits, and
conferences. Estella recruited me as a volunteer
to help her catalogue American folk and protest music at "Casa."
I was walking down the hall of Casa de Las
Americas, when a man popped out of one of the
rooms, following me and quickly catching up. He
introduced himself and said his name was Roque
Dalton, a Salvadoran poet. He'd been in a meeting
of male poets and they noticed me go by. So, he
was sent to see who I was. Until then, I thought
of poets as a very serious bunch. Now, I saw that
clearly they indulged in the favorite Cuban pastime of the era- girl watching.
I commented that in my country, the United
States, the Dalton Gang members were legendary folk heroes, like Jesse James.
"Yes," he said." I am related to them."
We walked back to my hotel for lunch, He was very
witty, and we laughed with every step under hot
sun and palms trees, passing the Caribbean
splashing against the malecon, dodging cars, and
entering the limply air-conditioned Habana Libre Hotel.
It was the year when the entire island was
gearing up for a campaign to produce a
record-breaking ten million tons of sugar cane
harvest. The previous year had been the year of
the "Heroic Guerrilla." referring to recently
killed Che Guevara, whose picture hung every
where. Sacrifice abounded. Schools, work centers,
and whole families dedicated themselves to
volunteer sugar cane cutting. The "Diez miliones
van" campaign ultimately reaped only six million
tons. However, it set new norms in socialist
participation and volunteerism and promoted the
Guevara concept of the "New human being," one who
worked enthusiastically for the common good.
Roque joined my family for lunch and immediately
we were all laughing. He told us that he and his
wife, and three boys had only recently moved from
this hotel and were now installed in a Havana
apartment, mentioning that his sons missed the
use of the pool. As we moved down the cafeteria
line, we continued talking about his connections
to the Dalton gang. I was enthralled and
suggested we write a television play of the story
together using Brechtian theater ideas.
"Television?" he scoffed, "As a poet and
polemicist, I worship at the altar of the novel."
"But television reaches the masses," I countered.
"And Cubans with only two dull channels to watch
deserve better. It will set a model for
intellectuals to bring their skills and talents to the people."
He agreed and after lunch, we went across the
street to ICR, the Cuban broadcasting system and
arranged with Abraham Masiques, that we would
come back in ten days with a completed script for "The Daltons Ride South."
If it passed muster with the political assessor,
it would be videoed in their studio.
Every morning, Roque arrived with his sons,
Roque, Juan Jose, and Jorge, carrying their
bathing suits. The kids would go down to the pool
and then come up to play Monopoly, while we
worked. We sat at a big table that we
periodically cleared throughout the day for room
service family meals and snacks.
Roque sat at my Olivetti typewriter, since the
script had to be in Spanish, while I handed him
precious sheets of carbon paper. Cuba had severe
shortages of everything. We often resorted to the
dictionary and pantomime to work out linguistic
problems between us, as we were neither totally
fluent in the other's language.
On the appointed day, we arrived with a completed
script at the TV station. There were a few
annoying rewrites demanded by the assessor, but
we were too thrilled to protest. A production
team hastily formed; slides produced, music
composed, shots plotted, costumes assembled, and rehearsals scheduled.
One night after a rehearsal, Roque and I were
walking back to the hotel around the lively La
Rampa night-life, when plain-clothes police
surrounded the crowd. He grabbed my arm: "Follow
me, I am expert in escaping police." He deftly
led us back to safety, although several people
were arrested that night. We thought the raid was
part of the campaign against homosexuals.
Roque said he had escaped from Salvadoran jails
five times, once through the divine intervention
of an earthquake. When the prison wall collapsed,
he walked out on to a waiting municipal bus and
then out its side door onto another bus.
He told me he'd written a prose piece about being
threatened by the CIA saying that they would kill
him, and then spread the word that he was a CIA
agent. He would die disgraced, as a traitor. As I
listened deeply, I vowed to myself that if such a
terrible event were to happen, I would help tell
the world that Roque was honest and good.
We mounted our television drama in four days. The
rehearsal time was so short that when the camera
went into a close-up of a talking decapitated
head, the actress froze. She'd forgotten her
lines because of the quick turn-around time to
learn them. She stared out on the screen in real
terror- which was quite effective really- but
Roque and I were dying because our precious words were lost.
The program was very well received, though at the
reception party, we sat in a corner on the floor
with tears of disapointment. We had anticipated
the production like a Hollywood cowboy movie,
quick moving with lively action. But, the Cuban
TV acting at that time was exaggerated, and the editing style was very slow.
Immediately after, I rushed into the filming of
Fidel and his entourage on a jeep caravan across
the island. Roque too had pressing deadlines to
meet from Cuban publishers. He was to write an
answer to the Regis Debray's book on Cuba at
Fidel's personal request. He was also proof
reading the printer's copy for his new poetry anthology.
When I left for California, we arranged to stay
in touch through letters and invented a code for
collect calls. My children loved a TV animation
program called "Rocky and Bullwinkle." He would
phone and say his call was from "The Flying
Squirrel," which was the cartoon character "Rocky's " persona.
A year later in 1969, our family returned to Cuba
to screen the Fidel film and begin researching
for a fiction film about the Salvador Allende
election in Chile. If Allende won, it would be a
non-violent democratic revolution. This fostered
even more discussions between Roque and me, about
armed struggle and if it was the only path to revolution.
The "Fidel" documentary was lauded. We watched
the first human being land on the moon. Our Cuba
stay was short, only two weeks. Roque was
frequently tied up with mysterious meetings. I
worried about him, because it was rumored that he
was involved with a Salvadoran guerrilla
grouping. When I asked him about it, he said he
could not discuss it, which I respected. We began
a continuous dialogue about violence and
terrorism. I was afraid of them. He felt it was
unfortunate, but that sometimes for the sake of a
greater good, they were necessary.
Some people described his group to me as
"adventurist" and "Maoist." Those were frequent
charges in Havana in those days, against any
non-Communist Party leftist group. The Mao
influence was popular that year world-wide. Even
the Black Panthers at a San Francisco rally had waved Mao's little "Red Book."
I visited Roque's apartment and was happy to
finally meet his wife, Aida. On one of his visits
to our hotel, he saw a copy of a San Francisco
alternative newspaper, "The San Francisco Good
Times" with its flamboyant graphics and high
spirits. The only words in it he could readily
understand were the headlines: Los Siete De La Raza."
"Who are they?" he asked.
"They are a group of Salvadoran immigrant youth,
who are accused of killing a San Francisco
policeman. Their defense has become a rallying
point for organizing the Latino barrio, in the
way the Black Panthers have done in nearby
Oakland and the Young Lords in New York City.
"When you go home," he said, "you work with them."
I promised I would, and I did. That is how I became a poet.
Returning to San Francisco, I continued to worry
about Roque. Our conversations replayed in my
head. Emboldened by having written the video
play, I wrote a poem about my concern for his
safety and his life, The editors of the "Good
Times" splashed it on the front page, and it was
published as "To R. Before leaving to Fight in
Unknown Terrain." Thus I became a poet.
To R. Before Going to Fight in Unknown Terrain 1969
Mass media I adore you.
With a whisper in the microphone
I touch the mass belly against mine
like on a rush hour bus
but with no sweat and no embarrassment.
"Don't die," I whispered, in person.
Only the air and revolutionary slogans hung between us.
"When I die I'll wear a big smile."
And with his finger drew a clown's smile
on his Indian face.
"Don't die!" the whisper beneath the call to battle.
My love of man in conflict
with my love for this man.
Women die too.
They let go their tight grip on breath and sigh,
and sigh to die
They say that Tanya died before Che.
I saw her die in a Hollywood movie.
Her blood floated in the river.
I stand in the street in Havana.
There are puddles here
but few consumer goods to float in them.
Here the blood is stirred by the sacrifice of smiles
to armed struggle
A phrase and an act.
They leave one day and they are dead.
"Death to the known order. Birth to the unknown."
Blood. Blood. Blood.
The warmth of it between the thighs
soothes the channel
The baby fights and tears.
I stand by a puddle in Havana
a woman full of blood
not yet spilled.
Can I spill blood by my own volition?
Now, it flows from me by a call of the moon.
A woman mopping her balcony
spills water from her bucket
On my hair, my breasts
and into the puddle.
The question is answered.
When I contacted the Los Siete de La Raza Defense
Committee in San Francisco, they dismissed me as
an "artist type." They sent me to work with
Roberto Vargas, a Nicaraguan born poet living in
the Mission District, San Francisco's barrio.
"Roberto Vargas has a crazy idea about organizing
a fundraising poetry reading."
Scribbling poems on café napkins and backs of
envelopes, I was by now, obsessed with words.
But, I had never participated in a poetry
reading, though I had heard many Cuban poets like
Pablo Armando Fernandez and Nicolas Guillen read
in Havana. I'd even heard the great Welsh poet
Dylan Thomas, when I was a teenager in New York
City. In San Francisco, in the 60's, I'd listened
to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, and
Alan Ginzburg read, as well as the Soviet poet, Yevtechenko.
Roberto invited me to participate in the poetry
reading, and I read my poem to Roque. Writing
poems and reading in community poetry readings
became a vital part of my life. I met the other
poets and joined Editorial Pocho Che, a Latino
poetry publishing collective, that used stapled
mimeographed or Xerox, or any means necessary, to
publish broadsides and booklets. I reported
regularly on the "Los Siete" trials for the San Francisco Good times.
When I returned to Havana in 1974 with my
daughter Valerie, now 16, we met Roque Jr. by
chance, the first night at the hotel. He told me
that his father was in Viet Nam and was expected
back in May. That May, Roque jr. came to our new
house by the Havana Zoo to deliver a letter for
me from Roque Sr. and perhaps in hopes of finding Valerie.
Roque's handwritten letter said that he was a war
correspondent in Vietnam and told of the perils
of warfare in a very humorous way. He included
his funny little cartoon drawing. It reminded me
of one I had received from a friend, in my teens,
who had been forced into the navy during the
Korean/US war. A few days after I received the
letter from Korea, my friend's parents phoned to tell me he had been killed.
Roque's letter reassured me he would see me soon in Havana.
What I did not know then was that Roque was not
in Viet Nam as a war correspondent, but rather
was in El Salvador as a guerrilla fighter, as a
murdered guerrilla fighter. I looked forward to
seeing him, but he was already dead when I read
the letter, written months earlier.
We left Havana in the fall of 1975. Soon after,
in San Francisco, I read of his death in the
international edition of the Cuban newspaper,
"Gramna". Though deeply grieved, I took the
article as a signal to honor Roque's name, so
that the infamous CIA threat of smearing him would not happen.
I told my friends, Daniel del Solar, and
Alejandro Murguia, who had been co-editing the
new bi-lingual literary magazine "Tin Tan"
published by Editorial Pocho Che in San
Francisco. We created a flyer and poster, which
included the Gramna obituary. Countless community
people helped to post it on every corner of the
Mission district. Of special help were the
Sandinistas who by then had their newspaper, La
Gaceta Sandinista, headquarters on 22nd and
Valencia Streets. We dedicated community events
to Roque's memory and created a small insert
about him for our magazine A few years later,
Alejandro Murguia and other San Francisco poets,
like Jack Hirschman formed the Roque Dalton Cultural Brigade.
Today, over thirty years after his death, we
still do not know the whole story of his death..
I join with his family, friends, and supporters
in asking for the daylighting of the terrible and
treacherous truth about horrible events leading
to his murder by some of his fellow comrades in
arms. I hope that day comes in my life time.
Roque was a great friend, co-worker, father, and
renown writer and poet. I still miss him.
This month The Nation magazine ran a piece
attacking Hugo Chavez by Joaquin Villalobos, the
assassin of Rogue Dalton.
here to read San Francisco poet laureat Jack Hirschman's response.
Nina Serrano lives in San Francisco. She can be
reached at: <mailto:ninaserrano at yahoo.com>ninaserrano at yahoo.com
Copyright Nina Serrano 2007
Please do not republish (paper or electronic
media) without permission of the author. Thank you
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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