El Salvador Tragic: 10 Roque Dalton Poems from 3 Books

1 February 2013

Roque DaltonRoque Dalton | courtesy of Transparencia Activa

As far as tragic poets’ stories go, Roque Dalton’s (El Salvador, 1935-1975) is perhaps the most tragic in Central America. In the 1950s as a Law student, he was the brightest of a literary movement which is now referred to as the Committed Generation, a group of militant leftist writers who saw art as a revolutionary act. ‘Commitment’ meant joining the cause of a communist revolution. Since any kind of dissent had been outlawed by military dictatorships in El Salvador since the 1930s, signing up to such an endeavour led to prison, exile or death.

Dalton embodied the movement’s spirit of radical, experimental and bohemian writing – he is equally known for weaving uncompromising leftist politics into avant-garde free verse as he is for a life of drink and escapades in various soviet-aligned countries. He called some of his collections ‘literary collages’, by which he meant a combination of found poems (historical documents, news, old poems, etc) and his own poetry around a theme, whether it was Communism in Latin America, the history of El Salvador or life in exile.

With a conversational style that reneged of the overly poetic (Dalton claimed to have ‘nothing to do with the Neruda family’) he borrowed from Salvadorian slang and celebrated a devious way of life with a brash sense of humour. His poems, though sometimes dated for the references to communism and revolution, still resonate with a common Latin American experience: a history of corrupt governments kept in power by a small group of wealthy families or the U.S. with the complacency of subservient middle classes and ineffective bureaucrats. Names of presidents and generals he mentions only need to be changed to current ones.

In Roque Dalton’s world reality in El Salvador was so mad that your options were to laugh or join the revolution. Or both. Dalton joined the People’s Revolutionary Army (Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo or ERP), one of five clandestine groups that eventually formed the FMLN guerrilla in the 1980s, now the political party in government. The ERP was regarded as the most extreme faction of El Salvador’s left wing movement.

The tragedy of Dalton came abruptly in 1975, when, after returning to El Salvador after years of exile or jail, he was murdered by his own comrades who accused him of being a CIA agent. The circumstances of his killing are sketchy due to the secretive internal workings of the ERP and the fact that his alleged killers, (the ERP leaders) have never stood trial.

Though widely available in Latin America, Dalton’s poetry was unknown to a large number of Salvadorians as it was banned until 1992, when El Salvador’s civil war ended. The ideological hangover that followed made his work too controversial to be taught in schools, effectively dooming the most innovative writer to have lived in El Salvador to oblivion unless readers were politically inclined to seek him out. In my opinion, this has contributed to a general misunderstanding of his work: conservatives dismiss it as propaganda, and the left, hell-bent on protecting Dalton’s killers have made its politics overpower the poetic.

To add insult to injury, the leaders of the ERP sold out after the war, making a deal with a right-wing government to introduce a series of neo-liberal policies. The group’s main leader now lives in England, where he made the startling transformation from Maoist guerrilla to conservative commentator. Twenty five years after Dalton’s death, the president of El Salvador made an official acknowledgement of the importance of the poet’s work to the country’s literature. Dalton’s family dismissed the president’s announcement given that another of the accused killers is a minister in his government.

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12 Responses to El Salvador Tragic: 10 Roque Dalton Poems from 3 Books

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  3. Thank you for this. I have been looking for a translation for years of “Poema de amor.” I asked three different Spanish speakers to translate. The only one who came close was a Salvadoran friend and ex-sister-in law who is a doctor. She knew about the Panama Canal because her father worked on it. Still though, there were some things missing.
    I don’t see anything about the “Guanaco.” Was that not in the original poem? (I know it is in the song.)
    Peace, hermano,
    Sherrie Miranda

  4. It is urgent that I know if these poems were translated by Luis Gonzalez Serrano. Specifically I need to know about “Poema de Amor.” If he is the translator, I need to know I have his permission to put the poem at the beginning of my book, before the prologue. I have permission from Juan Jose Dalton to publish his father’s poem, but I am putting in a translation – the one that is here – it’s the only English translation I have seen.
    Here is a link where he (you) can learn about my novel:
    My e-mail address is sherriemiranda1@aol.com.
    Please respond ASAP!

  5. john green says:

    Here’s our translation (British English) if you are interested, for inclusion in a forthcoming collection of poems by Dalton and Castillo:


    Los que murieron en el canal de Panamá
    (y fueron clasificados como silver roll y no como gold roll),
    los que repararon la flota del Pacífico
    en las bases de California,
    los que se pudrieron en las cárceles de Guatemala,
    México, Honduras, Nicaragua,
    por ladrones, por contrabandistas, por estafadores,
    por hambrientos,
    los siempre sospechosos de todo
    (“me permito remitirle al interfecto
    por esquinero sospechoso
    y con el agravante de ser salvadoreño”),
    las que llenaron los bares y los burdeles
    de todos los puertos y las capitales de la zona
    (“La Gruta Azul”, “El Calzoncito”, “Happyland”),
    los sembradores de maíz en plena selva extranjera,
    los reyes de la página roja,
    los que nunca sabe nadie de dónde son,
    los mejores artesanos del mundo,
    los que fueron cosidos a balazos al cruzar la frontera,
    los que murieron de paludismo
    o de las picadas del escorpión o de la barba amarilla
    en el infierno de las bananeras,
    los que lloraran borrachos por el himno nacional
    bajo el ciclón del Pacífico o la nieve del norte,
    los arrimados, los mendigos, los marihuaneros,
    los guanacos hijos de la gran puta,
    los que apenitas pudieron regresar,
    los que tuvieron un poco más de suerte,
    los eternos indocumentados
    los hacelotodo, los vendelotodo, los comelotodo,
    los primeros en sacar el cuchillo,
    los tristes más tristes del mundo,
    mis compatriotas,
    mis hermanos.


    The ones who died on the Panama Canal
    (and were put on the silver roll, not on the gold roll),
    those who repaired the Pacific fleet
    at the bases in California,
    those who rotted in jail in Guatemala,
    Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua
    for being thieves, smugglers, fraudsters,
    for being hungry,
    those always suspected of everything
    (‘Permit me to present this individual
    arrested for being a suspicious loiterer
    with the aggravating circumstance of being Salvadoran’),
    those who filled the bars and brothels
    of all the ports and capitals in the region
    (The Blue Cave, The Panties, Happyland),
    those who sowed maize in foreign jungles,
    the kings of the crime page,
    those who no one ever knows where they’re from,
    the best craftsmen in the world,
    those who were mown down while crossing the border,
    those who died of malaria
    or scorpion or pit viper bites
    in the hell of the banana plantation,
    those who cry, drunk, on hearing the national anthem
    under cyclones in the Pacific or the snow capped north,
    the freeloaders, the beggars, the potheads,
    guanacos,* sons of bitches,
    those who barely made it back,
    those who were a bit luckier,
    the eternal illegals,
    the make-all, sell-all, eat-all,
    the first to pull a knife,
    the saddest sad people in the world,
    my countrymen,
    my brothers.

    * Guanaco is a type of llama as well as an affectionate term for Salvadorans

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