In Review: Jorge Argueta’s Bilingual Memoir About Fleeing El Salvador for the States

a brave country / a strong country / a country that shouts

“When I left El Salvador running, I didn’t know where I was heading, but I ran.” Despite the apparent simplicity of its prose, this passage encapsulates the author’s harried flight from his war-torn country in a moment where facing the complete unknown of exile was the best alternative to remaining in his homeland. In a particularly cruel twist, the country he is running from, El Salvador, translates into English as, “The Savior,” and the country the author eventually comes to, the United States, is responsible for fanning the flames of El Salvador’s Civil War (1980-1992) in an effort to win its own Cold War against the former Soviet Union.

With this story of fleeing in the face of conflict at its core, Jorge Argueta’s brilliant En carne propia: Memoria poética/Flesh Wounds: A Poetic Memoir (Arte Público Press, 2017) emerges as a text that challenges straightforward narratives surrounding immigration to the United States from Latin America, and remains highly relevant despite taking place in the 80s. Those readers already familiar with Argueta’s work through his award winning children’s literature may be shocked to find the author’s personal history laid bare in a genre-bending poetry-prose narrative (in Spanish with an accompanying English translation) that does not shy away from his childhood environs “teeming with drunkards, prostitutes, servants, popsicle vendors, mechanics—the working class or the poorest of the poor” nor “an entire generation disappearing” during El Salvador’s Civil War. Those unfamiliar with Argueta’s previous publications or with contemporary Latinx literature in general will find themselves grappling with a text that at times appears both intimate and alienating as it guides the readers through the lasting consequences of a Central American Civil War that most Americans have long forgotten if they have heard of it at all.

Indeed, Argueta’s memoir is remarkable precisely for how it conjures up memory as a site of continual renegotiation and revision, less a storehouse for things that people know than a place where things are reimagined and invented. By bringing the intellectual and personal trajectories of its author to center stage, the work contests what critic Arturo Arias has referred to as the “double marginalization” and “invisibilization” of the Central American-American, and these immigrants’ “invisible status, their nonrecognition, [which] generates a sense of nonbelonging, of nonbeing, a cruel invisibility first imposed on them in their countries of origin that has carried over into these latitudes”.[i] Consider, for example, the upsurge in undocumented Central American immigration in the wake of President Trump’s proposed wall along the border with Mexico, as well as Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s role in solidifying the ouster of democratically elected Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, a major shock in a series of destabilizing events that has made that country a contender for “the most dangerous country on the planet.” These events are not unrelated, and follow from the U.S.’s long history of intervention in Latin America. Taking us back to the early 1980s, Argueta’s text deftly signals the intimate connections between US foreign policy, refugees, and immigration in the Western Hemisphere, and explodes the simplistic generalization that these issues are centered around the US-Mexico border. There are many Americas, and Central America is one of them.

Further, the work challenges us to interrogate our assumptions about these immigrants and to understand how they frequently defy facile categorization. On a literary level, the first chapter describes the author’s humble beginnings as a writer “between twelve and fourteen years old,” mentioning Argueta’s mother who was “the best cook and the best storyteller I know,” as well as his grandmother María Luisa Pérez who “spoke Nahuatl better than Spanish and always told us about our Nahua-Pipil culture”. By comparison, his father introduces him to the canonical writers of Latin American, from Gabriela Mistral to Pablo Neruda. The writer operates across multiple literary traditions, oral and written, indigenous and non-indigenous, without one being valued over the other. These reflections occur in the text’s present, and are the result of the author’s later revalorization of his cultural heritage, which takes place when a Navajo friend invites him to attend a Native ceremony in the United States, a situation that reminds us how complex our constructions of identity can become in the global environment, as even concepts like indigeneity are altered and reinforced through interactions that occur across ethnic, cultural, and political borders.

The work owes a large aesthetic debt to Gloria Anzaldúa’s foundational Chicanx classic Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza through its blend of poetry and prose. While the first chapters of En carne propia follow a binary prose introduction/poetry format, the final two chapters, “Far from the Fire” and “Close to the Fire”, are long poems that dialogue with the author’s experience at the Native American ceremony where he “stared at the fire all night long and listened to indigenous songs.” This internal poetic dialogue in turn suggests a broader, circular orientation for the text itself: oscillating between poetry and prose, orality and literacy, song and spoken words. “Far from the Fire” recounts many aspects of El Salvador’s long and tortured history:

Far from the fire
Rufina Amaya
survived to tell the world
of the massacre in El Mozote
Far from the fire
all my indigenous brothers
massacred by General Martínez
in 1932

Returning to El Salvador in “Close to the Fire,” the poetic voice finds:

a brave country
a strong country
a country that shouts
a country
that sings
that weeps
a country
that can dream again

A place where, despite the atrocities mentioned in the previous poem…

Close to the fire
boys, girls
They raise their hands
The sun shines in their eyes

Argueta translated the work into English with the help of Elizabeth Bell, a seasoned translator who has collaborated on works with authors such as U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera and San Francisco poet laureate Alejandro Murguía. Their linguistic collaboration adds yet another layer to the text itself, and underscores the work’s previously noted roots in the diverse traditions of multiple communities. It’s interesting to consider the final bilingual text, then, not as an original text and its accompanying translation, but as a thing in itself that invites overlapping publics of readers of Spanish, English, or both. No matter which of these language groups one belongs to, all are called to sit by the fire, hear Argueta’s story, and take something from the text. At a moment when some politicians cannot locate the countries from which refuges are fleeing on a map, Argueta’s memoir serves as a reminder of the human costs of these conflicts, as well as of the indelible contributions these people make to the adopted countries they come to call home.

[i] Arias, Arturo. Taking Their Word: Literature and the Signs of Central America. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2007.

Paul Worley is Asymptote‘s Editor-at-Large for Mexico and a professor of English at Western Carolina University. 


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