Eulogies tend to describe Roque Dalton as the first poet-revolutionary, a writer who used both the pen and the sword in order to transform the world — unlike Neruda, the towering Chilean poet whose verses wept beautiful for the oppressed, but only from a distance. That isn’t true, of course; Dalton came from a long line of Latin American artists and intellectuals who risked their skins to prove their truths (to borrow from one such person). You need only whisper the name Martí to settle the issue.
Still, whereas some might say people like Martí were forced to play a political role, El Salvador’s most revered poet truly forced himself into the politics of his time.
In his early twenties the still-unknown Dalton was arrested and condemned to death by the Salvadoran dictatorship in 1959 for his outspoken support for the Cuban Revolution, escaping execution only after Colonel José María Lemus was overthrown in a coup. Dalton fled to Mexico and then Cuba, during which time he produced some of his best work, including La ventana en el rostro and El turno del ofendido.
It was during his stay in Prague in the late Sixties that the poet penned the line “Politics are taken up at the risk of life, or else you don’t talk about it” — perhaps as close to a manifesto as he ever wrote.
His name was being mentioned at literary and political gatherings from Mexico City to Buenos Aires by the time he returned to El Salvador in the early Seventies. Denied membership by Fuerzas Populares de Liberación “Farabundo Martí,” —one of the many leftist guerrilla groups operating in El Salvador at the time— Dalton joined the even more radical Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo. (Both groups would join together along with three others to form the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional in 1980, which today controls the Salvadoran presidency.)
Dalton believed the ERP should switch tactics so to broaden its appeal, which spawned resentment within many of the group’s leadersship. Labeled a turncoat and a CIA spy, the guerrilla poet was killed by his fellow comrades four days before his 40th birthday in 1975.
In 2013 Mauricio Funes, the first FMLN candidate to be elected president, established the poet’s birthday as National Poetry Day — an honor which Dalton’s family refused to accept since one of his alleged killers was still part of the Funes administration.
A year before his death, Dalton published Las historias prohibidas del Pulgarcito from Mexico, in which he wrote:
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,
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 burderles
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
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,
Remembering Dalton —nuestro hermano— is how we celebrate our heritage.