[News] Memories of Roque Dalton - The Assassination of a Poet

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon Jul 2 17:31:11 EDT 2007

July 2, 2007

The Nation and the Assassin

A Shameful Blunder


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!

Jack Hirschman
Poet Laureate of the City of San Francisco


July 2, 2007

The Assassination of a Poet

Memories of Roque Dalton


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.
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

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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