José Roberto Cea by Daniel Flores y Ascencio

El Salvador’s foremost living poet reflects on a long career, from his involvement in revolutionary literary activities of the ’60s and ’70s to grappling with today’s political and educational crises.

BOMB 147 Spring 2019
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José Roberto Cea in San Salvador, 2018. Photo by Francisco Campos.

José Roberto Cea (b. 1939), El Salvador’s foremost living poet, is a member of the Generación Comprometida [Committed Generation], a 1960s literary group that walked the line between revolutionary armed struggle, literature, and politics. He has become a symbol of resistance, intellectual integrity, and a major political voice in the corridor of opinion-making that exists outside the mass media and established political venues of the post-civil war reality.

Cea, a laureate throughout Central American literary circles, has been recognized several times as a National Poet and “Meritorious Son” by the Salvadoran congress and other governments, yet he refuses to accept such official honorifics. Instead, he has only agreed to have a street named after him in his hometown of Izalco—an indigenous enclave and site of resistance since colonial times. 

Contrary to his contemporaries Roque Dalton and Manlio Argueta—two of El Salvador’s better-known poets, who spent most of their time outside the country—Cea remained in El Salvador and became a key witness to the often tumultuous cultural, literary, and political life there. Faithful only to his poetry, he is revered by politicians, revolutionaries, educators, and artists alike. A spirited defender of autonomous views, Cea recalls our ever-present ancestral voice in both demeanor and spirit. Of his many books of poetry, essays, and history, his best-known works include En este paisito me tocó, y no me corró (1989), Misa mitin (1998), and Todo el códice (1998).

Writing in El Salvador is a political experience, never a solely literary exercise. In that sense, it is always a subversive act. In his writing, Cea employs sometimes comical but more often tragic commentary on the nation and the condition of its people. He references the creation of the republic as an act of fiction in itself, where poets provide the nation with its soul. Cea’s merit as an intellectual has never been about success, money, fame, or even literary recognition, but about community and social responsibility measured by the risk inherent in writing this sort of poetry.

Last spring I interviewed Cea at the National Theater in San Salvador. The conversation concluded with the poet reading from his yet-to-be-published book, Xipe Totec con Bolivariana carta poema pedagógico (Self-Drumming, Self-Ridicule, Self-Love, Self-Criticism), his lone-wolf voice resounding throughout the theater with ferocious charm.

Daniel Flores y Ascencio Hey, brother wolf, how are we going to do this interview? We may need to break with all protocol. In this noisy historic center of San Salvador we’ve found an oasis, the Teatro Nacional, a cultural symbol of the nation. The choice might well be one of your clever ironies or a conscious effort to reconstruct some moment in the country’s cultural and political life. Tell me, what was San Salvador like in the 1950s, when you first came to the city?

José Roberto Cea It was one big village, more so than today, a province within Central American provinces. To reach San Salvador you would travel over bridges of every type, across family lots and hills, into neighborhoods surrounded by abandoned fields and rubble left behind by earthquakes. Living in the southern part of the city, you passed by Oscuranas Hill on the way downtown, a fitting metaphor for the political obscurantism back then, which accompanies us even now.

I came to San Salvador from Izalco in 1954. My fellow poet, Roque Dalton, came from Santiago de Chile; poet Roberto Armijo from Chalatenango, a province to the north; writer Manlio Argueta was from San Miguel. Our generation brought together diverse personalities, like Ítalo López Vallecillos, who had gathered the previous nucleus of writers.

Between 1954 and 1956, we constituted the backbone of what Ítalo called the Generación Comprometida. There were certain emblematic places near here, facing the Teatro Nacional. There was a cafe called Bengoa, with chairs out on the sidewalk imitating a Parisian atmosphere—that is, one of colonization. People gathered there every afternoon. Some were wealthy; others were writers like Salarrué or political activists like Farabundo Martí. Later, there was Café España managed by a Spanish lady, a Republican in exile, and we went there with another exile, the Spanish professor of theater Edmundo Barbero.

Amid this wave of immigrants and political exiles, what were the literary influences on your generation?

There was influence from Europe. Returning to El Salvador after studying in Spain in the early ’50s, Ítalo brought back existentialism, which couldn’t develop there because of Franco’s Catholic dictatorship. We could no longer continue to make literature with the heroic conceptions of Romanticism after the bloodbaths of the so-called World Wars. So existentialism was key, as were the Spanish Republicans, who brought their stories of struggle. This directly served some of the groups that preceded us, who were influenced by the Spanish literary movement La Generación del ’27. The poet Miguel Hernández, Federico García Lorca with his magical and poetical theater, and Rafael Alberti [Merello] with his popular poetry in songs—they had all joined the Republican resistance against Franco. Barbero, who directed La Barraca with García Lorca, was labeled a communist and expelled from El Salvador. That marked us.

There was visceral anti-communism back then; you would be thrown in jail if you had a book with a red cover. It was the legacy of the military dictatorship inaugurated here in the ’30s by the regime of General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez—the School of Cadets and Sergeants. Now there are other military schools who believe they direct our republic. Like most Salvadorans, I’m not militaristic. But many in the current government are because they used to be guerrillas. They handed in their weapons and signed the Chapultepec Peace Accords, but they still carry the image of a rifle in their heads.

All that was blatant when contemporaries of mine like Ítalo got grants to study abroad. Ironically, the one who offered these grants and tried to modernize the Salvadoran state, and who created the Ministry of Labor and founded the Ministry of Public Health and Welfare, was a military officer, Oscar Osorio [president of El Salvador from 1950–56]. His populism was linked to Juan Domingo Perón of Argentina and General Lázaro Cárdenas, then president of Mexico. Osorio had been to those countries and studied their social structures and programs, but of course, he was later drawn into obscurantist factions. Osorio also repressed students, workers, and professionals, and didn’t allow campesinos or teachers to organize. But he sent Camilo Minero and Luis Angel Salinas to Mexico to study painting. He sent the artists Carlos Cañas and Julia Díaz to Spain, and the artist Noé Canjura, among others, such as the poet Waldo Chávez Velasco, to France. This program was propelled by intellectuals, such as the diplomat Reynaldo Galindo Pohl, but then those state programs were overtaken or coopted by the oligarchy that has ruled this country since the failed Independence of Central America in 1821.

And let’s not forget Guatemala’s October Revolution of 1944 led by Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, which failed because of US intervention. The Guatemalan experience, as well as the activism of anti-Somozans in Nicaragua, and Hondurans against the dictatorships of the ’30s there, bore fruit in the liberation struggle when these regimes fell and certain changes followed that more or less modernized these fiefdoms. The October Revolution in Guatemala played an important role for anti-Fascist intellectuals. We inherited this entire social and political movement and took it beyond cultural romanticism. Some of us leaped over the wall of existentialism, realizing that the commitment is ad perpetuam rei memoriam and goes on ad multos annos.

I want to reveal something about one of the founders of ANDES 21 de Junio [the National Association of Salvadorian Educators], Mélida Anaya Montes. She received one of those grants to go to Spain, and as part of the paperwork she had to provide her birth certificate, in which she’s described as “Indian.” She was then denied. At that time colonial laws were still on the books, and Spain was under fascist rule. With the help of friends, she managed to change her birth certificate and take out the word “Indian” so that she could continue her education in Spain. It makes me think about that historical relationship between Europe and America, the political, cultural, and intellectual dynamic you’re talking about.

But let’s skip forward to 1965, when you were awarded the Juegos Florales poetry prize in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, and ended up detained under a warrant issued by Interpol. Is poetry synonymous with subversion?

Yes, so it seems. By then we’d already taken part in direct political actions, and I’d already been exiled several times. During the ’60s, we founded the first guerrilla group in El Salvador, FUAR [Frente Unido de Acción Revolucionario]. That nucleus was penetrated by our enemies and later completely dismantled. Many of us quickly realized where things were headed and tried to save ourselves—there was an organic dispersion and I began to devote myself solely to writing, leaving direct political activities to the side.

I took part in some literary contests to free myself from the “edicts” issued by the military dictatorship. I won that Quetzaltenango competition and, while staying there at the Bonifaz Hotel, the Guatemalan police came and searched my room. They didn’t find anything but told me to come with them because there was a warrant for my arrest. I left the hotel between two police officers. As we crossed Parque Central, we ran into the director of the Casa de Cultura de Occidente, my friend Julio César de la Roca. He said, “What’s going on?” I answered, “They’re arresting me.”

“No, he’s not under arrest,” the police said, “he just has to clear up a few things at the station.” So they had to take me in accompanied by the director. On the way, Julio César ran into a student from the University of Guatemala, Quetzaltenango campus and told him: “Get a habeas corpus so he won’t be disappeared.” Things were serious in Guatemala back then. Guerrillas were in daily confrontations with the army and other repressive bodies. Hours went by; the award ceremony was that night, and by mid-afternoon they brought me back to the hotel. I never found out what needed clearing up.

The students had presented my habeas corpus to an association of Guatemalan professors and municipal unions. They made a big stink and the government, for the sake of cultural politics in situ, had no choice but to make the entire city my prison. At the hotel, a police officer was at the entrance and another was outside my room; it was caricaturesque. At the ceremony that night, I was accompanied by a Guatemalan beauty queen and two policemen. (laughter) For the Quezaltecos, the locals, it was a spectacle, given the solemnity of their cultural events.

Afterward they took me to a party. While I danced with the beauty queen, one of the officers held my award and the other held a gift I had received. I held onto the quetzales [the local currency] I had won. Then I went to the hotel to sleep, and the policemen came along too—though they didn’t go so far as to follow me into bed!

When the previous winners of the literary competition—José María López Valdizón, Maynor Gill, and others—learned of my arrest, they told me I could still be disappeared. They said, “We don’t trust them. Let’s see what we can do.” I can tell this story now because they’re all dead. López Valdizón was assassinated by the Guatemalan death squads. The help these writers and artist friends gave me was invaluable.

In the meantime, the winners of the 1965 National Prize of Guatemala were announced, and I won in the poetry and short story competition. So I suddenly became an honorary guest of the Guatemalan federal government, whose police were attempting to throw me I don’t know where. It was a narrow escape.

Literature has served me well, I admit. That’s why I love it; it’s my life; it’s all I’ve done. When the prizewinners were announced, I’d already cleared out of Quetzaltenango; my friends had brought me to Guatemala City. I fondly remember them and Julio César, also killed by the death squads. They dropped me off, an unwanted guest, at the home of the deputy minister of culture, who was an old acquaintance. Though I stayed for two more days in Guatemala City, the award was later given to me in San Salvador, where the press began saying I’d taken flight and created a spectacle.

But why? They were searching for a way to explain the formation of the guerrilla movement. I was working at the [daily newspaper] Diario Latino at the time, and an undercover police agent came by the office to offer me a fifty-thousand-dollar grant to write a book, if I would denounce my companions. I refused. So they wanted me out of the country, but they’ve yet to succeed! Here I am.

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An anonymous flyer condemning the 1971 ANDES 21 de Junio teacher strike and accusing UES faculty and student organizations of receiving funding from communist groups abroad to support the strike.

How was life at the University of El Salvador (UES)? When did the University Literary Circle form?

We were just talking about 1965, but now we’re back in 1954, okay? When Ítalo came back from Spain, he took over as editor of Hoja literary magazine and the University Literary Circle was created. Following the downfall of the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenz, which occurred with the intervention of the CIA, several Guatemalan intellectuals were exiled. The poet Otto René Castillo, a contemporary of Roque Dalton’s, came to El Salvador as an exile at that time, as well as Rudy Arqueles Morales, who’s about my age. Both brought intense political activism to our group. Árbenz’s government had attempted agrarian reform and promoted the most advanced feminist movements for gender equality in Central America. It was the first government in the region to oppose the military dictatorship. After he was ousted, these intellectuals arrived here with all that experience and passed it on to us. Of course, not all leftists understood that we had also taken on their baggage and way of thinking, with all its residue.

The overlap between the political and literary life in that era was so rich—something I can’t say is true today. And there was a comradery between poets like Otto René Castillo, Roque Dalton, and yourself. What was your relationship like with them?

Like all young people, we met in cafes and bars to exchange experiences. We went to political events, held readings at various union headquarters, and read poems in parks. We did this in collaboration with political organizations and published in union bulletins or student publications such as Boletín Cultural AEU, Combat Bulletin of the General Association of Salvadoran University Students (AGEUS), and La Jodarria, the virile organ of UES students. Only one issue was published per year in conjunction with the crossdressing Buffoon Parade. This national parade at the beginning of the school year was used as a political platform. We didn’t take things too seriously. That’s what has saved us from the dictatorship, how we’ve endured right up to the present. Roque participated—there’s a photo of him dressed as a woman in the parade. Humor is part of any ideological struggle, and you must squeeze some out of politicians. You can’t hit upon a solution without a sense of humor.

Here comes the obligatory question: Why was one of our most renowned poets, Roque Dalton, killed? 

Those who are only politicos confuse discipline with submission. Partisan discipline is one thing, but irrational obedience is another. You have to maintain partisan discipline when you’re a revolutionary. That said, if you’re also a politicized writer, then things can become serious in militarized circumstances.

If we look at our politicians, whatever their ideological stripe, they’re all semiliterate in terms of overall culture. The best are unlettered asses. That’s why it all seems like a grand circus. They declare that El Salvador is “free of illiteracy,” but when are we going to make the politicians themselves literate? I’m not asking for encyclopedic knowledge à la française. If our congressmen and women are going to sing the national anthem, I’m just asking that they know the history of this country.

That situation, among other ideological nuances, was the case with the killing of Roque Dalton. I used a document for my unpublished book, “Last Afternoon with Roque,” that states there was a struggle within the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP), which Roque had joined in 1973. The ERP was branching off from the Democratic Christian Party, the mother organization. They splintered into two groups. In the midst of their dispute in 1975, Roque was executed.

With all his culture and lucidity, plus his political vision and experiences in Cuba, Czechoslovakia, and North Korea, Roque was late to realize where he had landed. The radicals in the ERP felt sidelined by an upstart like him. Just imagine, them pushed to the side!

I also suspect that Roque was both generous and naive. He returned to his country to offer himself to the revolution—a sacrifice, given his Jesuit upbringing. Did he think his “confusionism” would save him in the face of the militants who were organizing things here in El Salvador? He challenged the ones educated by the Marxists—another religious dogma.

And the main enemies of Central America’s liberation struggles had meanwhile learned from revolutions all over the world. Things happened that the Salvadoran government of the moment didn’t want but intermediaries of the American empire and their allies did. Guerrillas emerged from conflicts, but it wasn’t known if the CIA was involved. Roque devoted himself [to the revolution], but he didn’t understand this. After living abroad for twelve or thirteen years, he was no longer aware of what was happening among us. During his travels, we decided not to include him in our anthology From Here On, published in 1967. He got sore about this and sent us a letter, which we published. Excluding him was a fraternal criticism. We wanted to tell him, “Look, you’re going around making revolutions elsewhere, but what about El Salvador?” Some say it was intended to obscure Roque, but we were trying to insinuate that the revolution was here. “It’s the country we were born in; I’m not running away,” as I say in En este paisito nos tocó y no me corro (1995), where much of this story is told.

And what role does the UES play in all this? [The university was funded and granted autonomy by the Central American Common Market and became a training center for militant leftist intellectuals.]

An enormous one! When Ítalo López Vallecillos was named director of UES’s publishing house, I was working at Diario Latino, where the undercover cop I mentioned before paid me a visit (but nothing else). Ítalo said, “Come work with me, you can do more things here.” And he also hired Armijo, Manlio, Tirso Canales, and other friends. He created an editorial body with all of us writers and poets of the time. We edited high-quality publications three blocks from here. We published the magazine La Pájara Pinta and participated in the struggles of the teacher’s union, ANDES 21 de Junio. That’s why the paramilitary right-wing forces bombed our printing presses and our editorial offices in 1968. They screwed up a lot of machinery.

At that time, the minister of education was an intellectual, the playwright Walter Béneke. We went to see him and said, “Look, Walter, what you’re doing is wrong. We agree with the educational reform you’ve put in place, but you didn’t take teachers into account, people like Mélida Anaya Montes.” The teachers occupied the ministry building, which was in the old National Library that later collapsed during the 1986 earthquake. Béneke had to be rescued by helicopter. That was at about noon, and by six o’clock our editorial board was reading poems to the teachers. We supported them in their first strike and in later ones. As workers at the university, we proposed donating a day’s salary to the effort. That was in 1971. The strike had gone on for fifty-three days. It was true solidarity.

It’s incredible that after all you’ve lived through, we’re at the same point Ítalo López Vallecillos described with the Committed Generation back then: “The concrete situation of the country has created a split between those writing within the framework of authorized culture and those writing at the margins of what’s conventional.” Now that I’ve repatriated to El Salvador from the States, I keep asking myself if these two levels continue to exist, and whether I define myself more as a “national intellectual” wholly identified with national reality or the “natural intellectual” at the margins of that reality. The former helps to consolidate the Salvadoran state as it is; the latter is without organic ties, always at the edge. How do you view the question of identity in El Salvador?

It has to be a critical identity. The UES has always been an academic institution. All of the guerrillas in ’72, ’82, and ’84 wanted it to act as a political player. I was a civil servant there, as secretary of continuing education and secretary of public relations. I would say to the rector, “The University isn’t a political party. It’s an educational institution of critical consciousness.” Why? An intellectual has to have a critical conscience even within political organizations. Of course, that criticality can’t be applied mechanically, as Roque expected with the political-military organizations.

Another problem we have to look at is the colonized mind of the left, and the people who didn’t allow us to incorporate indigenous culture into the process. We understood this when we began to study American thought starting with Simón Bolívar, who declared in his 1815 “Letter from Jamaica”: “There will be no liberation if we fail to take into account the culture of the indigenous peoples.”

The Cuban poet José Martí takes up this idea in 1891 with “Our America” and his other works that have served Latin American nations in their struggles. Later on, other intellectuals picked up on the importance of indigenous people—for example, Argentina’s Aníbal Ponce in Educación y lucha de clases and El humanismo burgués y el humanismo proletario. In Mexico, La raza cósmica by José Vasconcelos and El laberinto de la soledad [Labyrinth of Solitude] by Octavio Paz. Some say, “They’re on the right; they didn’t set out the issues that needed to be presented.” That’s false; they did it well enough.

There’s Siete Ensayos de Interpretación de la Realidad Peruana by José Carlos Mariátegui. In my book, Xipe Totec Con Bolivariane Carta Poema Pedagógico, I build on Mariátegui’s argument that he would incorporate the economy of tahuantisuyo, a kind of primitive communism, in his plan for the government in Peru. The International Marxist-Leninists came from their headquarters in Vienna to tell him that wasn’t socialism or Marxist-Leninism, and they labeled him a Trotskyite. Mariátegui had studied with Gramsci in Italy. He was a typographer and then a journalist and teacher. Amauta, which means teacher in Aymara and Quechua, was the name of the inter-American journal he founded in the 1920s.

You have to look at all of this with a critical eye, clear-headed. Otherwise, it can cost you what it cost Roque: his life. Roque Dalton, the “Apostol Desarmado,” brings that clarity to the armed militants, to the sterile discussions, to the academics. You must always keep this critical sensibility and know how to act in service to the community.

When you talk about a plan for the nation, what role do academics play? Have they lost their sense of humor?

They never had one. I see their role as fairly poor. There’s a crisis of values that has generated greater intellectual misery. Today we have over thirty universities, and education has turned into a business. There’s a flood of careerists. Are they academics or academicists?

The intellectual level across El Salvador is low. You can see that in today’s journalism, which is totally obsolete, a promoter of predatory consumerism. There’s no model for the nation, so a great crisis exists. There’s only interest in big-mouth opportunists like ex-president Mauricio Funes. It’s a total pig sty! They can’t kill us today like they killed Roque Dalton. By that I mean that those who create ideas create fear, but these are ideas supported by a concrete history. In its time and space, dialectics help us in our historic evolution.

But with that development, it’s understandable how in El Salvador an intellectual like David Escobar Galindo would take part and sign the Chapultepec Peace Accords in 1992. I mean, is the formation of the nation-state, in essence, an elite affair?

There were intellectuals who worked with Martínez, with Osorio, and with other dictatorships. David represented his class. He didn’t go around saying he was a leftist. He’s been consistent with his background. His poetical, literary, academic discourse is of a high quality and he keeps it that way. You have to look at the intellectual and the opportunist. Waldo Chávez Velasco was very active in antidemocratic political work—a capable man, but he got involved in dirty business. He was the director of the Office of Information of the President, something like state intelligence. He kept his eye on us. He used to tell me I was paid with gold from Moscow. Total bullshit, man! I still don’t have two cents to rub together!

Oswaldo Escobar Velado wrote “Patria exacta” and “Carta desde el Sputnik,” among other beautiful poems, and worked as a legal advisor for the fateful National Guard disbanded by the Peace Accords. Intellectuals like Claudia Lars, Serafín Quiteño, as well as Salurrué, played their roles, but their literary works speak for themselves. You have to know how to differentiate cultural works in an anthropological context. There are nuances. That’s what politicians don’t manage to see, whether on the left or not, because they’re uneducated. That’s what I was asking: How can politicians declare El Salvador free from illiteracy when we have illiterates in politics, just as we have only careerists and academicists?

So if there’s no culture, the void gets bigger and turns into a space of ignorance. How can we then create a national identity?

The question of identity has to be taken up from several angles—it’s not a unified thing. One example relates to what you mentioned earlier about Mélida Anaya Montés. As a child, among my classmates in Izalco, if someone was described on his birth certificate as “Indian,” he was ridiculed. The government itself requires education, not training. The current model is that you’re trained, not educated. They provide us with fear. They turn us into cowards. Identity is also tied to decolonization. If you don’t address decolonization in your own identity, you’re not being true to yourself.

Look at the identity we had from 1970 to 1980: the ultra-guerrillas in the UES said that we civil servants had sold out to the revisionists. But what are those ultra-guerrillas, who also signed the Peace Accords, doing now? Worse things than what they accused the revisionists of! What identity? They’re dishonest with each other. Fakes! I won’t say their names because I don’t want to make them famous, but there they are!

It’s all because the educational model hasn’t been touched. Will the oligarchy and the American Embassy allow it to change, though? No way! Most of the educational NGOs with the Ministry of Education depend on them, or the European Union. It’s so fucked up that there are more than fourteen unions in the Ministry of Education, and none have any clarity about the educational model. They all pat their bellies, full of shit, but we’re starving for something nutritious! They haven’t learned from the lessons ANDES left them. They haven’t accepted the culture of the founders, a solid inheritance, which reflects the morals and ethics of the struggle. That shows you that no one has clarity about the educational project, much less a national project. Without education, there’s no liberation.

Does the oligarchy have a project? Of course! They have their own thinkers, their ideologues, David Escobar Galindo being one of them. Certain universities, like the Jesuits at the Universidad Centro Americana (UCA), are producing intellectuals for their benefit. They have a project, and notwithstanding all of the differences, the so-called left doesn’t. What we have now is an orphaned left. Those who think like you and I frighten the status quo, and the state invents whatever nonsense to silence us. They don’t want creativity; they want militarized subjugation as a partisan discipline. That’s not what I want to live on in posterity. The Salvadoran legislature has three times declared me a Meritorious Son of El Salvador. My enemies, the envious, and even good friends say, “It’s better than calling you a son of a bitch!”

Translation assistance by Margaret Carson.

Daniel Flores y Ascencio, of Maya/Aguach-apaneco and Nonualka descent, is a poet and filmmaker. He lives between El Salvador and New York City, where he founded the now defunct Institute of Arts and Letters of El Salvador in Exile (INALSE), which was instrumental in organizing Artists Call Against US Intervention in Central America in the 1980s. This national movement will be the subject of a major retrospective at Tufts University Art Galleries in 2021. Flores Y Ascencio is presently working on a new documentary film, Cutacuzcat, and is a coordinator for the International Network for Indigenous Peoples Rights in El Salvador and a regular attendee of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

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