Ink & Ammo: The Legacy of the Salvadorian War Poets

I came to the United States in 1986, when I was six years old. My family came here, as many other families did, to escape a civil war in El Salvador, which began in October of 1979 and lasted until January of 1992. It was a war between the guerrilla revolutionaries in the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the U.S.-backed government. Looking to overthrow the regime, the FMLN commenced a series of harmonized military attacks across the country. The United States government regarded the FMLN as a Communist hazard backed by the Sandinista government in Nicaragua and the Cuban government.  

The war was ignited by the residuals of the peasant uprising of 1932 because of the visible abuses of the political class, and the wide social unfairness between the landowners and the peasants. Circulating rumors of the 14 families that run El Salvador are clear. Many of the families managed to give old fortunes muscle by paying less taxes, oligarchy and monopolies. Meanwhile, 700,000 families, 3.5 million of the country's 5 million people, lived on $1 a day or less. By the time the war ended in 1992 75,000 lives were lost, and the government and leftist rebels signed a treaty that granted military and political reforms.

I have my own history there, which probably trickles down in my poetry. Luckily, I didn’t see much bloodshed before my parents decided to leave the country on six-month visas and stay in California permanently. At least until I was deported (when the IRS caught up with us) in 1991.

The rest of my own story ends well. We’re citizens now, but we struggled, like every other immigrant before us and after us. These poems remind me of dewy November summer nights I’d spend wrapped in camouflage during dusk, listening to my father’s loud soccer games trying to cover up the AC-47’s making sweeps real close to home. I’d imagine smoke, shrapnel and bloody smiles regardless of the sufferings. Laughter is rampant in those parts; I figured it was the only way to see the beauty of the days and nights.

Some of the richest history of the civil war was written by revolutionists of the FMLN who picked up their pens instead of their rifles. Many of the poets featured here are long gone due to the gory combat, and others were already poets when they decided to join in the revolution.

Most of the revolutionaries weren’t just peasants; many of them were doctors, lawyers, and journalists. One of them, the most famous poet of them all, was a revolutionary figure before the civil war. Roque Dalton was a vital political draftsman of the revolutionary movement during the 1960’s. Being a leftist Latin American writer put him at risk with complying with the CIA and was exiled out of El Salvador in 1965. Regardless, he was diligent in joining the Marxist-Leninist political-military society but was rejected, and was told to embrace his part as a poet not a combatant. In 1965, after being captured and sentenced to be executed, he managed to flee prison and escape execution when the walls to his cell collapsed and an earthquake hit. Rumor has it he endured plastic surgery in order to live illicitly in El Salvador after his escape. Because of his resilient and emphatic nature, he took military training in Cuban camps several times by 1970. He ended up in Mexico, Prague and Cuba, before he was accused of complicity with the CIA and assassinated in 1975 by members of a rival faction of the ERP on the eve of his 40th birthday.

Others, such as 20 year-old Delfi Goychez Fernandez, was killed with two bullets in the back while transporting supplies to her comrades of the FMLN. Jaime Suarez Quemain, the editor of an independent newspaper in El Salvador, was arrested by unidentified men in 1980, and was found mutilated the following day. Roberto Saballos was assassinated by the Salvadorian death squad, and Jose Maria Cuellar was gunned down by an unidentified person in the streets of San Salvador in 1981.

Wars always transpire and inspire. Roque Dalton said it best when he assumed that, “Poetry, like bread, is for everyone.”

The poems are presented here, first in their original Spanish, and then translated into English.

El Descanso del Guerrero por Roque Dalton

Los muertos están cada día más indóciles.
Antes era fácil con ellos:
les dábamos un cuello duro una flor
loábamos sus nombres en una larga lista:
que los recintos de la patria
que las sombras notables
que el márbol monstruoso.
El cadáver firmaba en pos de la memoria
iba de nuevo a filas
y marchaba al compás de nuestra vieja música.
Pero qué va
los muertos
son otros desde entonces.
Hoy se ponen irónicos
preguntan.
Me parece que caen en la cuenta
de ser cada vez más la mayoría!

The Warrior’s Resting Place by Roque Dalton

The dead are getting more restless each day.
They used to be easy
we’d put on stiff collars flowers
praised their names on long lists
shrines of the homeland
remarkable shadows
monstrous marble.
The corpses signed away for posterity
returned to formation
and marched to the beat of our old music.
But not anymore
the dead
have changed.
They get all ironic
they ask questions.
It seems to me they’ve started to realize
they’re becoming the majority!

Con Gusto Morire por Delfi Goychez Fernandez
a mi me van a matar.
cuando?
no se…
lo que si tengo claro es que moriré
asi, asesinada por el enemigo.

como quiro seguir luchando
siempre estare luchando para morir asi.

como quiero morir junto al pueblo
nunca me separare de el.
como es nuestro grito el que llegara
debere gritarlo siempre.

como el futuro y la historia
están con nosotros,
jamás me desviare del camino.
como aspiro a ser revolucionaria
mis puntos de vista
y todas mis aspiraciones
estarán a partir de ello.

no tendre miedo nunca.
todo lo que haga
tiene que ser un golpe para el enemigo
en cualquier forma que se de.

siempre estare activa.

lo que si es seguro

es que me van a matar.

a mi sangre regara nuestra tierra
y crecerán las flores de libertad

y el futuro abrirá sus brazos
y calurozo, lleno de amor,

nos acogerá en su pecho nuestra madre
nuestra patria
reira feliz al estar de nuevo con su hijo
con su pueblo
con el niño que ayer lloraba un pedazo de pan
y que hoy
crece como rio

con la madre que moria lentamente
y hoy vive su lejano sueño de ayer.

con el eterno combatiente
cuya sangre
alimento el dia
que algún dia llegara.

si, con gusto moriré, llena de amor,
quiero morir de la manera mas natural en estos tiempos
y en mi país:
asesinada por el enemigo de mi pueblo.


I’ll Die Gladly by Delfi Goychez Fernandez

they’re going to kill me
when?
I don’t know...
what I do know clearly is that I’ll die
that way, assassinated by the enemy.

since I long to go on fighting
I’ll always keep fighting to die that way.

since I want to die with the people
I’ll never be separated from them.
since it’s our shout that reaches out
I have to keep shouting forever.

since the future and history
are with us,
I’ll never stray from the road.

since I aspire to be a revolutionary
my viewpoints
and all my hopes
depart from that.

I’ll never be afraid.
everything I do
must be a blow against the enemy,
however I give it.

I’ll always be active

what is really certain

is that they’re going to kill me.

and my blood will water our land
and the flowers of freedom will grow

and the future will open its arms
and tenderly, filled with love,

our mother, our fatherland,
will press us to its beast
will laugh happily to be once more with its child,
with its people
with the child that yesterday wept for a crust of bread
and who today
grows like a river.

with the mother who died slowly
and today live her far-off dream of yesterday.

with the eternal combatant
whose blood
nourished the day
that some day will arrive.

yes, I’ll die happily, filled with love,
I want to die in the most natural way in these times
and in my country:
assassinated by the enemy of my people.


Un Disparo Colectivo por Jaime Suárez Quemain

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


A Collective Shooting by Jaime Suárez Quemain

In my country, sir,
the men wear a padlock
in the mouth,
only alone
meditate, shout and protest,
because fear, sir,
It is gag
and the subtle padlock you drive.
In my country, sir,
- I tell me because I want my -
up on poles
nostalgia look,
parceled it, rent it, the mortgage,
they torture, kill, imprison him;
the press says
there's complete freedom,
so to speak, sir, you know.
And so my country,
with its streets, its shadows, its volcanoes,
its great buildings - hostels gamblers -
their children who achieved
Malthus slip,
poets, dreams and roses.
And my country, sir,
almost dead,
lonely ghost of the night,
dying ... and you:
as impassive

Una Historia por Roberto Saballos

Esta es la historia de Maria Teresa
de sus días cansados
y sus noches largas
de su madre sola
y su hijo joven
esta es la historia de su hastio
de su andar pausado
y su pelo negro
su sonrisa franca
y sus manos viejas.

Esta es la historia
con mas dolores que alegrías
con manos años que tristezas.
Esta es la historia de su adiós
de su despedida sin despedidas.

Esta es la historia de su madre
de sus pasos perdidos
de su suave espera de cárcel en cárcel
de tribunal en tribunal
con sonrisas de jueces
de manos vacias.

Esta es la historia de sus ojos
que buscan su pelo
su mirada clara
y sus manos fuertes
que se perdieron hace tiempo
en la fría madrugada
esta es la historia de Maria Terera
esta es la historia de mi pueblo.

A Story by Roberto Saballos

This is the story of Maria Teresa
of her weary days
and her long nights
of her lone mother
and her young son
this is the story of her boredom
of her slow steps
and her black hair
her open smile
and her old-woman’s hands.

This is her story
with more grief than happiness
with fewer years than sadnesses.
This is the story of her goodbye
of her farewell without farewells.

This is the story of her mother
of her useless steps
of her quiet waiting from jail to jail
from court to court
with smiling judges
who are empty-handed.

this is the story of her eyes
that peer at her hair
her clear gaze
and her strong hands
that were lost long ago
in the cold dawn
this is the story of Maria Teresa
this is the story of my people.

Acabo De Partir De Mi Mismo por Jose Maria Cuellar

no soy Chema Cuellar
ni soy amigo de nadie
ni tuve una abuela paralitica
ni soy poeta
ni ciudadano
ni nada
me vale un pito que nadie se acuerde de mi
me llevo a San Salvador en el bolsillo
y hablo con gentes
que no se conocen
no importa si una puerta se cierra en Nicaragua
si una muchacha se declara en Santiago
si una paloma vuela por el Yangtze
si el mejor libro se esta escribiendo en Lima
no me importa
estoy vacio
solitario como un abrigo de invierno.

I Just Walked Away From Myself by Jose Maria Cuellar

I’m not Chema Cuellar
I’m nobody’s friend
I didn’t have a paralytic grandmother
and I’m not a poet
nor a citizen
or anything
I don’t give a damn if anybody remembers me
I carry myself to San Salvador in my pocket
and talk to people who don’t know each other
and who don’t know me
I don’t care if a door slams shut in Nicaragua
if a girl declares her love in Santiago
if a dove flies over the Yangtze River
if the best book is being written in Lima
it doesn’t bother me
I’m empty
as alone as a winter overcoat. 


Ingrid Calderon is a writer, poet and pug enthusiast. Her work has been featured on Suite101, Electric Cereal, ZO Magazine, Beast Grrl Zine, the earthbound review, FORTH Magazine , Shoe Music Press and the Poems to F*ck To Anthology. Her first full-length poetry collaboration, Things Outside, is available on Lulu.com. In addition to doting on her lover, she enjoys cooking, lifting heavy things and cracking her bones.