2018 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the formation of Nuevo Signo, arguably the most influential literary group in Guatemala. Formed during a time when the country was ridden by war, writers didn’t have access to publishing houses and artists and political dissidents were targeted continuously to the point that many sought refuge in neighboring countries. The work done by the members of Nuevo Signo was nothing short of monumental.
In three years the group funded, edited, and published over ten books of poetry, including a “greatest hits” entitled Las Plumas de la Serpiente (The Serpent’s Feathers) that stirred the local art scene. The group disbanded in 1970, after the disappearance of one of its members, poet Roberto Obregón. Roberto is just one of the many writers disappeared during the internal war (1960—1996). Except for Obregón, Antonio Brañas—who died in 1988—and José Villatoro, all of the other members went on to receive the Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature for their life’s work.
Last year, Luis Méndez Salinas and Carmen Lucía Alvarado from Catafixia Editorial rereleased Las Plumas de la Serpiente. With a cover designed by Odiseo del Silencio, this new edition of Las Plumas captures the intensity, sensitivity, poetic beauty, commitment, and ferocity of its authors. For this piece, the author spoke with former Nuevo Signo’s editor, Francisco Morales Santos and Luis and Carmen from Catafixia Editorial.
In 1944, the Guatemalan Revolution, led by the progressive military officer Jacobo Arbenz, overthrew the dictator Jorge Ubico and his successor Federico Ponce. For the next ten years, Guatemala enjoyed social, economic, and cultural improvements. The revolutionary governments started a popular literacy campaign, institutionalized worker’s rights, and funded the national institute of social security. Arbenz, as president, began an ambitious land reform that sought to redistribute unused land to landless peasants. Even local artists were able to create freely and participate in cultural activities funded by the government. However, among those affected by Arbenz’s reform was the United Fruit Company. In response, in 1954—fourteen years before Nuevo Signo’s formation—the CIA sponsored a military coup that overthrew Arbenz and placed a new president that aligned with American interests: Coronel Carlos Castillo Armas. Soon after, Guatemala went back to censorship and political persecution.
The new far-right regime punished any artistic expression that defied the castilloarmismo. Books were burned and artists were persecuted. Many intellectuals, like Luis Cardoza y Aragón and Raúl Leiva, went into exile. The artists of following generation suddenly found themselves in a hostile society, alone and unprotected. In 1960, the war began, worsening the crisis.
“Nuevo Signo began from the desire to show our work outside of the publications distributed by the government,” Poet Francisco “Paco” Morales Santos, interviewed for this piece, says. “We didn’t want to create a group; we wanted to find a way out for our poetry.”
Paco, now seventy-seven, is a kind-eyed, corpulent man with gray hair that has started to crawl up his sideburns. He is considered to be one of the essential figures of Guatemalan literature.
“We called him motorcito (little engine),” poet José Villatoro said in 1984, during an interview that was part of an undergraduate thesis on Nuevo Signo’s story.
“He set the foundations for what the following generations did,” Carmen Alvarado of Catafixia says. “He taught us countless times how to make things happen with limited resources.”
Despite Paco’s illustrious career and his peers’ flattering words, he remains modest. “Nuevo Signo had no leaders,” Paco says, bluntly. When asked how he came to curate and supervise the publications, he simply says: “someone had to do it.”
In 1968, twenty-eight-year-old Paco published Nimayá, his fourth book of poetry and Nuevo Signo’s inaugural publication. Here is a sample from Paco’s text:
Simplemente no estás.
Tu pellejo ha voceado su quebranto
y no quieres complicarte
las angustias que más que los impuestos
convinieron en darte cárcel,
sello de sombra
You’re simply absent.
That’s what it looks like.
Your skin has spoken about it fractures
and you don’t want to worsen
your grievances, which more than expenses
ended up giving you jail time,
Delia Quiñónez, the only female member of Nuevo Signo, followed with her critically acclaimed debut, Barrio pleno. In 2016, Delia became the sixth woman to receive the Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature for her life’s work. Here’s a glimpse of Delia’s poetry:
Encinta de sol,
colmada de tu barro limpio y firme
voy trasmutando mi cuerpo
en viva flor que destila rocío
tras tu ruta.
Pregnant with sun,
filled with your firm and clean mud
I’m transmuting my body
into a living flower that leaves dew behind.
Transportes y mudanzas by Antonio Brañas, Guatemala y otros poemas by Julio Aguilera, and Pedro a secas by José Villatoro, all followed in the same year. Villatoro’s book contained some of the most unapologetically political poems in the group’s bibliography, such as the following:
Funeral de Florencio Lopez Matón
Para este funeral
no hace falta estar presente
junto al cadáver o su plañidero,
el llanto, la boca seca y el pañuelo
Hace falta ser el cadáver
y ese rencor que se le apaga.
Florencio López Matón’s Funeral
For this funeral
we don’t need to be here
by the body or its mourner,
the cry, the dry mouth, and the handkerchief
We need to be the body
and its fading resentment.
These publications were self-funded, mimeographed editions with a limited print run of two hundred copies with covers made by now legendary Guatemalan artists such as Víctor Vaskestler and Isabel Ruiz.
By late 1969, Nuevo Signo put out Arpa sin ángel by Luis Alfredo Arango and welcomed its last author, the young poet and philosopher, Roberto Obregón. Roberto’s debut with the group came in the form of the second edition of El fuego perdido, originally published in the USSR.
It’s important to mention that among the poets that formed Nuevo Signo, Delia was the only one from the country’s capital. In Guatemala, where most of its artists come from or gather in Guatemala City, this is, as Luis Méndez Salinas from Catafixia says, an “unprecedented phenomenon.” Paco agrees that this geographical variety enriched the aesthetics of the group and its members.
The poets quickly gained attention and critical acclaim. Similar groups, like Piedra y Siglo (El Salvador) and Twanka (Honduras), praised Nuevo Signo. The work of some of its members appeared in anthologies throughout Central America and some as far as Europe. Nuevo Signo began reading in union meetings and public schools, too. “It was an opportunity to offer people a new kind of poetry and remove the theatrical elements of what people thought recitals should be,” Paco says.
However, in a time and place when artists were persecuted for their work, activism, or acquaintances, Nuevo Signo had its opponents as well. One time Paco and others went to the Central para Varones public school in Guatemala City. Students, inspired by the reading, asked their teachers who the poets active during the Guatemalan Revolution were. “Do not pay attention to them,” one of the teachers said, talking about Paco and the other poets, “they’re a bunch of communists.” During the early stages of the internal war, and in the midst of a ferocious political persecution that targeted dissidents, Paco says that the teacher’s response—although unfounded, since none of the writers were actively part of the insurgency—put the poets at risk.
Roberto Obregón, el desaparecido
In 1961, Roberto Obregón received a scholarship to study Philosophy at the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow. While in the Soviet Union, Roberto published three poetry books, one of which, La flauta de Ágata (Agatha’s Flute), was translated into four Soviet languages and had a print run of over one million copies. In 1968, he returned to Guatemala and joined Nuevo Signo soon after.
José Villatoro made clear that Roberto had a profound impact on the group: “He infected the rest with a different dynamic.” According to Villatoro, Roberto wanted to read in the streets or get on buses and recite. “He was an extroverted man with more experience than the rest of us.”
Obregón’s work is urgent, cosmopolitan, critical, and filled with blazing vitality as can be seen in his poem “Calavera o escudo”:
Calavera o escudo
Es urgente aplicar una hoja de papel
—de color blanco—,
como lo hacíamos, de niños,
sobre el escudo de un centavo real.
En seguida repasarlo
con la punta de un lápiz (…)
y así revelar
el rostro del fascismo norteamericano.
Encender un fósforo, y en la noche
y con la calavera
darle un buen susto a Latinoamérica.
Heads or tails
It’s urgent to press a sheet of paper
—a white sheet—,
like we used to do
over the coat of arms of a royal penny
when we were kids.
Draw it right away
with the tip of a pencil (…)
until we reveal
the face of America’s fascism.
At night light a match and set it on fire,
we’ll use the head
to scare the shit out of Latin America.
Roberto’s intensity, the content of his poems, and Soviet education also attracted the army’s attention.
Sometime in 1969, Paco and Roberto were on their way to Costa Rica. At approximately Km. 15 on the dusty and desolate Pan-American Highway, a military checkpoint stopped their bus. The passengers got out and casually showed their documents. Most passengers got back on the bus uneventfully. Roberto and Paco didn’t.
Roberto had just returned from the Soviet Union. Under an anti-communist regime, intellectuals with a résumé such as Roberto’s were obvious targets.
“Do you have any relatives in Czechoslovakia?” one of the armed officers said, looking at Roberto’s papers.
“No,” Roberto answered calmly.
The officer explained to Roberto that they had information about another Obregón studying in Czechoslovakia, sponsored by the guerrillas. According to Paco, the army had been tracking Roberto ever since he came back to Guatemala. After a while, the officer allowed the two poets to get back on the bus.
The Serpent’s Feathers
In January 1970, after all the members of Nuevo Signo had published at least one booklet under their own press, the group put out an anthology: Las Plumas de la Serpiente.
“You’d think that because they were so young, these would be immature poems; they’re the complete opposite,” Luis Méndez of Catafixia, who just last year helped put together a new edition of this book, says. “I think of Luis Alfredo, Delia, or Paco’s poems. These poems are essential, not only for the time but their careers as well.”
The group toured the book at the usual spots: public schools, universities, union meetings, etc. That excitement faded on July 6, after Roberto’s disappearance.
On March 28, 1970, Roberto traveled to El Salvador where he was invited to participate in local literary activities. After months of readings, Roberto made his way back to Guatemala. He was detained at the border. Days later, Nuevo Signo published a note in a local newspaper, asking for the prompt liberation of the poet. The group disbanded shortly after. Roberto’s whereabouts are still unknown.
Since 2011, Luis and Carmen of Catafixia have published important contemporary Guatemalan poets like Vania Vargas and Wingston González. In 2013, they started Tz’aqol, a new series meant to include key poets of the Spanish language like Raúl Zurita (Chile) and Antonio Gamoneda (Spain), and, most recently Nuevo Signo.
“As always happens, we found a copy of the original 1970 publication in a used books store,” Luis says. Soon after, Luis and Carmen got in touch with Paco—whom they had already featured in Tz’aqol with his book Estación Florida—to reissue the collection.
In May 2017, Catafixia released a faithful reproduction of Las plumas, which also includes the original covers of the 1960’s booklets, an introduction by critic José Mejía, an essay by Antonio Brañas published in 2013, and texts by Delia and Paco written for the occasion.
Carmen says that those seven poets shaped what it’s like to be a poet in Guatemala, and she adds that without them there wouldn’t be any Catafixia. “They showed us that it’s possible to generate places of dialogue and creation, and the importance to take poetry to the people,” she says. “We consider this book a tribute to their poetic activity, but also to the fact that they got together and worked under the historical conditions in which they were living,” Luis says. Even now, independent presses such as Catafixia are the true houses that champion Guatemalan literature, much like Nuevo Signo did in the sixties.
Antonio Brañas, Delia Quiñónez, José Luis Villatoro, Julio Fausto Aguilera, Luis Alfredo Arango, Roberto Obregón, and Francisco Morales Santos embodied Nuevo Signo, a seven-headed serpent that remains one of the cornerstones of Guatemalan poetry. Their work and legacy can perhaps be exemplified by the following poem:
El cómputo del tiempo
Hicieron un camino interminable:
cada hora le agregaban una piedra (…)
Mientras el camino crecía hacia delante,
los astrónomos vigías,
metidos en sí mismos,
andaban hacia atrás…
¡Tocaron lo infinito!
They made an endless road:
every hour they added a rock (…)
As the road grew longer,
the watchful astronomers,
well into their thoughts,
They reached infinity!
All translations from the Spanish by José García Escobar.
José García Escobar is a journalist, fiction writer, translator, and former Fulbright scholar from Guatemala. He received his MFA in Creative Writing from The New School in New York City. His writing has appeared in The Evergreen Review, Guernica, Words Without Borders, and Tupelo Quarterly. He is Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large for the Central American region.
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