Carolyn Forché: Bearing Witness to the Wounds of HistoryHistorians/History
tags: interviews, poetry, refugees, oral histories
Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney, and the features editor of the History News Network (hnn.us). His articles have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Salon, Real Change, Documentary, Writer’s Chronicle, Billmoyers.com, Alternet, and others. He has a special interest in the history of conflict and human rights. His email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Photo by Don Usner)
“You want to know what is revolutionary, Papu? To tell the truth. That is what you will do when you return to your country. From the beginning this has been your journey, your coming to consciousness.”
Carolyn Forché in What You Have Heard is True, quoting Leonel Gomez Vides (emphasis original)
From 1980 until 1992, more than 75,000 people died in the bloody civil war that raged in El Salvador. Most of the dead were civilians who died at the hands of government forces supported by the United States. The war also left 550,000 internally displaced people and 500,000 refugees who fled the country, as well as more than eight thousand civilians who were “disappeared” and never found.
The 1980 assassination of beloved Archbishop (and now Saint) Oscar Romero—the voice of the poor—sparked the conflict, and the ensuing 12 years were marked by countless atrocities: the military’s complete destruction of villages and massacres of civilians such as the 1981 massacre at El Mozote that left more than 700 men, women and children dead; rampant kidnappings and gruesome torture; murders of labor leaders and workers; the rape and murder of four American churchwomen; and the 1989 massacre of Jesuits that led to international intervention.
Acclaimed poet, translator and human rights activist Carolyn Forché made seven extended trips to El Salvador in the two years preceding the outbreak of the war, from 1978 to 1980, during the violent “time of the death squads.” She traveled at the behest of her impassioned and brilliant guide and mentor, Leonel Gomez Vides, who desperately hoped to prevent a war in his home country. He also wanted a poet—not a journalist—to accompany him and the share with the American people the reality of life in a land of injustice, atrocity, and extreme poverty. He chose the already acclaimed poet Ms. Forché, then age 27, for this daunting task, and she eventually accepted the challenge despite Leonel’s enigmatic background.
In her powerful and lyrical new memoir What You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance (Penguin Press), Ms. Forché recounts in vivid detail her experience in those two turbulent years in El Salvador. Unlike most memoirs, she tells this story in the voice of her younger poet self and conveys the surprise and wonder and shock she felt with each new experience. At the same time, she tells the story of Leonel who introduced her to political and military leaders, American officials, and the wealthy, as well as to workers, teachers, campesinos [peasant farmers], and religious leaders including Archbishop Romero. Leonel constantly reminds her to remember what she sees and to note details because she must tell the American people the unvarnished truth about the situation in El Salvador.
Ms. Forché spent 15 years writing her new memoir. She began the book in 2003 and referred to her notes. diaries as well as photographs, reminiscences of friends, and other contemporaneous documents from her years in El Salvador. She tossed away three early drafts and finished her memoir last year.
Ms. Forché vividly describes in her book what she saw and what she learned four decades ago in El Salvador, a nation on the brink of war. She learned about living in a state of constant tension and fear. She learned about extreme economic inequality and abject poverty. She learned about the beauty of the verdant countryside and the vibrant life in the cities and villages of El Salvador. She learned about brutal torture conducted by US-trained military officials. She learned about a network of safe houses for those who opposed the vicious military regime. She learned about the excruciating pain of prisoners who were locked in wooden boxes the size of washing machines. She learned to see in a new way thanks to the questions and insights shared by the elusive and brilliant Leonel. She learned about tranquility in the face of fear from a future saint, Archbishop Oscar Romero. She learned about the body dumps where the remains of the mutilated dead were scattered. One day, she learned “that a human head weighs about two and a half kilos.” And she learned much more.
Ms. Forché’s memoir is especially timely as the current US president disregards the law of asylum and fixates on a wall to keep refugees from crossing our borders. She explores the foundations of today’s surge in refugees who flee persecution and violence in El Salvador and other Central American nations.
The title of her memoir, What You Have Heard is True, is from the opening line of perhaps her best-known poem, “The Colonel.” In this work, she describes the cruel wall that surrounded the home of this Salvador army officer:
Broken bottles were embedded in the walls around the house to
scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his hands to lace.
She continues the poem with images from a 1978 dinner at the colonel’s home. The evening concluded when the colonel emptied from a grocery bag the gruesome trophies of many kills, “many human ears,” at the table where Ms. Forché sat. And he said, “As for the rights of anyone, tell your people they can go fuck themselves.”
This haunting poem encapsulates a moment in history. The image of the colonel’s ghastly wall resonates today. A wall to separate, to intimidate, to divide, to maim, to mutilate. This wall seems a metaphor for the brutality of the oppressive, US-backed Salvadoran government of 40 years ago, and it presages the persecution suffered by refugees who flee Central America today for safety while our president promotes his wall that, regardless of human rights law, will instill fear and despair as it discourages any hope of compassion or sanctuary.
“The Colonel” serves as a historical document, a record of what Ms. Forché observed first-hand as violence grew toward war in El Salvador. The poem also stands as an example of the “poetry of witness,” a term she coined to describe poetry that concerns social and historical experiences of extremity such as war, genocide, torture, imprisonment, political persecution, and exile.
Poetic works of witness preserve moments of atrocity and trauma and serve as reminders from history for generations to come. Ms. Forché wrote: “We are writing what in the future will be the irrevocable past.” A few examples of poets of witness—and history—include Federico Garcia Lorca, Claribel Alegria, Terrence des Pres, Anna Akhmatova, Bertolt Brecht, and Denise Levertov. Ms. Forché collected these writers and dozens of other poets from around the world in two widely-acclaimed anthologies that she edited: Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, and the Poetry of Witness: The Tradition in English, 1500-2001.
Ms. Forché served until last year as the Director of the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University. Her books of poetry include Gathering the Tribes, recipient of the Yale Younger Poets Award; The Country Between Us, the Lamont Selection of the Academy of American Poets; The Angel of History, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award; and Blue Hour, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She has received numerous awards for her distinguished writing and teaching, including three fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Foundation Fellowship, as well as the Robert Creeley Award, the Denise Levertov Award, and James Laughlin Award for poetry. In 2004 she became a trustee of the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry, Canada’s premier poetry award.
Ms. Forché also has been a devoted human rights activist since her return from El Salvador in 1980 when she began speaking out in virtually every American state about the crimes against humanity there and US involvement in the civil war. In the 1980’s, she also reported from Beirut for National Public Radio about the civil war in Lebanon, and she worked with human rights groups in South Africa. In 1998, was presented the Edita and Ira Morris Hiroshima Foundation Award for Peace and Culture in Stockholm for her work on behalf of human rights and the preservation of memory and culture.She continues to advocate for a more just and peaceful world. She lives in Maryland with her husband, photographer Harry Mattison.
Ms. Forché generously spoke recently by telephone about her new memoir and about issues of history, remembrance, and atrocity as well as on the plight of Central American refugees today.
Robin Lindley: Congratulations Ms. Forché on your moving new memoir, What You Have Heard is True. Before I get to the memoir, I wanted to ask first about the “poetry of witness,” a term that you coined about poems that respond to conditions of extremity and challenge the denial of history. I think that's important now as our current president ignores and distorts history for his political advantage. What is “poetry of witness” and how do you see its role in remembering the past?
Carolyn Forché: Many poets have written in the aftermath of extremity, having lived through wars as soldiers or civilians, and endured incarceration, exile, censorship, house arrest, banning orders and other forms of state-imposed repression. As they passed through these experiences, their language also passed, and was marked by suffering and brutality. Poems written in the aftermath of these horrors might be read as “witness” to experience: personal, social, and historical. I began using this term to distinguish such works from the more polemical poems written in service to a political movement, which are sometimes attacked for being “political.”
Robin Lindley: It seems you were on the road to becoming a poet of witness even by 1977, before your El Salvador experience. You had written the award-winning book Gathering the Tribeswith now celebrated poems on history and relationships. In the summer of 1977, you stayed in Mallorca with Central American poet Claribel Alegría and translated her poetry of witness and you met other renowned writers such as World War I veteran Robert Graves.
Carolyn Forché: There were quite a few writers who visited Claribel in that house in Deia, and listening to them was the beginning of my education, not only in the political realities of Latin America at the time, but in Latin American literature as well. I also met Robert Graves and in fact we gave him his 83rd birthday party.
Robin Lindley: So, by the time your memoir begins in the fall of 1977, you had been exposed to the poetry of witness and you had been honored for your own poetry.
Carolyn Forché: I was very young. My first book had won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award, which is the wonderful thing to happen to a first book. It stressed me into a more prominent position in the world of literature than I might otherwise have been able to achieve, so it made me nervous, and it made me feel a little like retreating. I wanted to keep writing but I didn't want to be such a public person. I spent time after that traveling and backpacking.
And I had my first teaching job, which was at San Diego State University, where I'd befriended Maya Flakoll, who was the daughter of Claribel Alegria. We decided together that we were going to translate Claribel’s poetry to English for the first time. She had been translated into other languages, but never into English. And that's what led us to spend summer in Mallorca in 1977. We worked on the translations together and we finished with a book called Flowers from the Volcanoand it was Claribel’s first book in English.
\During that summer I had heard mentioned a man named Leonel Gomez Vides who was Claribel’s cousin. He still lived in El Salvador and he was a rather mysterious person. No one seemed to know clearly who he was and what he was doing. He was known to be a champion motorcycle racer and also a world champion marksman. He had given some of his land to campesinos and he may have been working with the guerillas. Or he possibly worked with the CIA. Nobody knew. But he was apparently a brilliant person. Whenever I would ask a question about him, everyone would be very quiet. They didn't encourage my curiosity at all.
Robin Lindley: And in the fall of 1977, Leonel Gomez Vides showed up at your house in Southern California with his two young daughters. He was a stranger but you let him in and he stayed with you for a few days. Why did you to trust him enough to invite him into your home?
Carolyn Forché: When he was first at the door, I showed him photographs from the summer in Mallorca and I asked him to identify the people in the photographs who were Claribel, his cousin, and Maya. And he did, and then he immediately and very warmly began to talk about them and to reminisce about times with Claribel with a kind of love, and I realized that yes, he was a family member and he was very warm, very friendly. And he was very nice with his daughters.
And so, it seemed to all right. I didn't ever question hosting them at that time. He was pretty intent on talking to me during those three days. All he did was talk and he drew illustrations of everything that he talked about. He had covered my dining room table with white paper and, by the time he was finished, there was a mural of El Salvador's history and in fact of the entire history of Central America.
Robin Lindley: He was very concerned that a war like ours in Vietnam was imminent in El Salvador.
Carolyn Forché: Yes. He was building to a revelation that he suspected his country was on the verge of war and that this would begin in three to five years. And he was interested in having an American poet come to El Salvador and try to learn as much as possible about the situation so that when this war did begin, this poet could come back and talk to the American people about the situation, about what was giving rise to the war and all of that, because he believed that if the United States entered the war on the side of the military in any serious way, it would be very different kind of war. He was hoping to avoid that.
He came to visit me as an American poet. And of course, I tried to dissuade him from imagining that a poet could accomplish the task he imagined, explaining to him that poets didn't have a great deal of exposure or credibility in the United States, and that we weren't consulted on matters of foreign policy. We were considered a subculture or a fringe element. He was surprised by that because, of course, in Latin America poetry is very important and taken very seriously, so he decided that one of my tasks was to change the role of poets in the United States, which I thought was very quixotic and probably more impossible than anything else he was asking me to do.
I was touched by his faith in poetry and by his regard for it, and by his command and his knowledge of history going way back to before the European conquest. And he did go that far back. He was really intent on my understanding the situation with the deep historical roots. He didn't just start in 1970 or some other recent year. He went all the way back before European contact.
At the end of those three days, he invited me to El Salvador and I still wasn't sure about his invitation. He said you're going to improve your Spanish and it'll be like a Peace Corps experience and I will open doors for you and show you the whole country and all of the different social groupings. He said he would introduce me to campesinos and to wealthy coffee planters and to the military. And he said, you'll get a full picture and then, when the war begins, you'll be in an excellent position to talk about it in your own country.
Robin Lindley: And you heeded Leonel’s call to come to El Salvador.
Carolyn Forché: At that time, I was having a hard time with my own poetry, which was one of the reasons I had started to translate Claribel Alegria. And I had just received the Guggenheim fellowship and I had no real plan because I didn't think I would get one. I had this fellowship and I had the opportunity and a door was opening and I knew it. And I knew that this offer doesn't come along very often.
So, most of my friends disapproved of the idea on the grounds that I didn't know Leonel very well and, in their opinion, Central America was a dangerous place. El Salvador was at peace at the time, meaning not yet at war. Then one friend, at the very end, said I think you should do it. I think you want to do it and I think you should go. And that's all I needed; one person to approve and I landed in El Salvador and January 4th, 1978 for the first time.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for that context. As you write, Leonel went to great lengths to explain the traumatic history of El Salvador when he spoke with you at your home. He talked about the Spanish conquest and the atrocities against the Indians and the history of military rule and oppression. Did you have a sense of how violent the country was before you left for El Salvador?
Carolyn Forché: Yes. I knew there was a great deal of poverty and inequality and maldistribution of wealth. The gap between the rich and poor quite resembles our own country now. But at the time, we had a large middle class here, so it was shocking to me that two percent of the of the population could own 60 percent of the resources.
And there is a violence to poverty as well. And there was a lack of willingness to reform, and a lack of willingness to do small things that led to the desperation of an armed struggle. There were peace marches and labor unions were organizing with people who were trying to get slightly better wages and slightly better conditions. And this was always refused and suppressed by armed force. All of the demonstrations were fired upon.
Leonel also pointed out that El Salvador had one of the highest murder rates in the world at that time. Violence penetrated the society, so it was a dangerous place. I didn't realize how dangerous until I got there.
The period when I was in El Salvador has been called “the time of the death squads.” It was the time before the war. There was no armed uprising yet, but there were organized paramilitary civilian and military death squads operating not only in the countryside but in the cities. By the time I was leaving in 1980, they were killing up to a thousand people a month in the capital city or disappearing them. Bodies were left everywhere or taken to body dumps, essentially dumping grounds for the dead.
They were killing anyone suspected of having anything to do with championing the rights of the poor or working on behalf of the poor in any way. So, teachers, priests, nuns, doctors, students, union organizers—all of these people—were subject to being suddenly pulled out of their houses or pulled off the street and never seen again.
So, it was dangerous, but it wasn't yet war. And the history that Leonel shared with me prior to my trip was one of violence and land confiscation and of altering the living conditions for the indigenous people of Central America who had held land in common and previously developed very sophisticated methods of growing food. And then the lands were confiscated systematically, first for the cultivation of indigo and ultimately for coffee.
When it was realized that the highlands were perfectly suited for growing excellent coffee, the violence was poverty, land confiscation, suppression, and rigidity. This is a lesson for us too in the United States. If you refuse small reforms and refuse an escalation in the minimum wage and refuse constantly to do anything at all to improve the lives of the poor, eventually you're going to have a big, big problem. This rigidity does not lead to anything good, and I'm seeing that rigidity now in our government. I've seen this before so I know what I'm looking at.
Robin Lindley: You have much to teach Americans. You became aware also that the United States was supporting an oppressive military government and funding the Salvadoran military and even training troops in skills such as torture.
Carolyn Forché: Yes. For a while aid had been cut off because the government had to be certified by the U.S. State Department as respecting human rights in order to receive economic and military aid. This was the human rights policy that was put in place by President Carter. It was primarily designed for use against the former Soviet Union and its client states, but it wound up being applied to our allies who were very busy keeping order by violent means in their own countries.
In the case of El Salvador, the Salvadoran military was very confused and angry about this certification of human rights. Eventually El Salvador somehow was certified, even though it wasn't respecting human rights. It was said that the deaths were being caused by “unknown elements” who had nothing to do with the government, which wasn't true of course. So, the economic and military aid was restored and the first $5.5 million in military aid was allocated, which doesn't sound like much now, but it was at least symbolically significant then. That happened on the day after Monsignor Oscar Romero, the recently canonized St. Romero, was murdered on March 24, 1980. The U.S. Congress held hearings. I was present at those hearings. They voted to approve the military aid and the sending of 12 American advisors who they called “trainers” because they didn't want to echo the language of the American War in Vietnam at that time. The 12 soldiers were to go to El Salvador to advise with $5.5 million in military aid. And of course, that amount increased exponentially over the course of the ensuing 12-year civil war.
Robin Lindley: That vote for aid had to be a disappointment for you.
Carolyn Forché: Yes. Congress supported the military. And we also trained the Salvadoran military on our own bases in our country and sent them back to El Salvador. But because the American public was not in favor of direct military intervention, the United States never sent our own soldiers to deploy in El Salvador and engage militarily in combat. That was largely because the American public turned against intervention.
Instead, you had this vast movement in the United States of people who supported sanctuary for fleeing refugees. They were people from established organizations like Witness for Peace and the Sanctuary movement. There was a network of U.S. residents and citizens in solidarity with the Salvadoran people. This organizing was very effective. I think we would have gone into El Salvador militarily but for that movement, and also but for certain Democrats in the Congress at the time who were vigilant about the situation in El Salvador. Certain congressmen and senators were very knowledgeable about Central America and they kept much worse things from happening.
Robin Lindley: It’s an appalling history. That brings me back to your memoir and your initial impressions. In terms of history, it’s interesting where Leonel arranged for you to stay when you first arrived in El Salvador. What happened on your arrival?
Carolyn Forché: I should say first that, in this book, I take the reader on the journey that I took. In other words, the reader never knows more than I knew at the time. So it unfolds a bit like a mystery or maybe a thriller.
Robin Lindley: Yes. I think the memoir reads like a thriller.
Carolyn Forché: In the book, I start off the journey with the arrival at the airport [in El Salvador]. I didn't know anything about anything yet and I'm 27 years old. Leonel wasn't there to pick me up. I looked around and thought, oh my gosh, what am I going to do? And then a Peace Corps volunteer came towards me and said Leonel had sent him to get me. He said, I'll take you to him. We're going to have dinner at the Benihana of Tokyo restaurant in San Salvador.
After that dinner, which had a lot of interesting people at it, Leonel took me to stay at a house that was occupied by the sister of a Catholic priest he knew. This house once belonged to General Martinez who was the dictator or so-called president of El Salvador during the 1930s, when he has presided over the 1932 massacre called the Matanza [“the killing”] of perhaps 30,000 to 80,000 people [mostly indigenous peasants], depending on your source.
And so there I am, sleeping in the dictator’s bed my first night. That was Leonel’s way: start in the dictator’s house because we have been living under military dictatorship, and that dictatorship was unbroken for 50 years.
The military candidates always won the presidential elections. There was never a question about that. The ballot boxes were fixed. They called it “sugaring the ballots” so that if the military candidate wasn't winning in any particular region, they would just stuff the ballot box with favorable ballots.
The military always won and they always appointed their own ministers and those ministers were always their fellow officers and that's how things worked. The jobs of the military weren't particularly well paid. The job was to maintain order. Their other job in their own minds was corruption and trying to get as much money as possible while they held power. And some of that pocketing of money had to do with siphoning American aid money.
That's why the military was so upset when the aid was cut off. It wasn’t because they were trying to benefit the people of El Salvador with this aid. It was because some of that aid was going into their own pockets and that's how they were becoming rich enough to retire comfortably in Miami or Houston after they left power. They didn't really have to worry too much about coups in El Salvador because every generation of officers would keep power for four years and then they would cede to the next generation. And this is how it worked in the military. And there was never any question that you had four years to steal money. So a cut in US aid was very threatening to the military.
And so, I was at the seat of power when I arrived and slept at a dictator’s house then occupied by the sister of a priest.
Robin Lindley: Leonel had a sense of irony. Your impressions on the poverty you saw are also instructive. You saw poverty in the cities and traveled out in the countryside and met campesinos.
Carolyn Forché: I had not been in an underdeveloped country, what they used to call “third-world” countries. There's no real name for a country that has not been industrialized.
I was seeing this poverty for the first time, although poverty in industrialized countries such as our own is also very brutal and harsh. It just takes a different form in El Salvador. In the countryside, they didn't have running water and they didn't have potable water. They didn't have electricity in most of the villages. They were living in very primitive conditions. And they didn't have much to eat. They lived on beans and corn. That was it. If they had anything else, they sold it. It was a very meager diet.
The life expectancy at that time was 47 years and one out of every five children died before the age of five of curable diseases like measles. I saw malnourished children. Conditions were harsh and workdays long. There was no such thing as time off.
I was startled when I first got there, and saw the world much as a visitor or tourist would see it. I write about the women carrying large jugs on their heads. The jugs were very large. Some were two feet high and they were balancing them on their heads and they could turn their heads without spilling a drop. These urns contained water because people didn't live near drinkable water so they had to carry water to where they lived. These women walked so gracefully. At the beginning I saw them walking beautifully and it was just something that would be appreciated for its beauty by a tourist. Later, I discovered that those jugs were incredibly heavy and that those women suffered damage to their cervical spines from compression caused by carrying these jugs for so many years. And so, you start to see the world differently.
Leonel taught me a new way of seeing the world—of looking and thinking. I'm hoping that, through reading the book, people will also have that experience. That education is what I tried to replicate in the memoir. I tried to, step by step, show the reader what happened, how I was shown a different reality.
It was a serious challenge to write in such a way. The book is really about Leonel. I try to capture his incredible personality on the page, his humor and his brilliance. He was complex, and I was young and rebelling, pushing back and arguing with him, not accepting everything that he said and did. We grew as friends and we found ourselves in incredible situations.
Robin Lindley: Leonel was a master of the Socratic method. He posed questions and you had to supply the answers. You had to figure out new and often perilous situations yourself.
Carolyn Forché: I would ask sometimes a simple question, and instead of answering me, he put me in a situation where I would find the answer myself. He always felt that experience was a better teacher. Some things just had to be personally felt and seen in order for learning to take place, in order for consciousness to change. He was interested in consciousness and the formation of it, and what makes us think and feel the way we do. Where do we get our ideas about the world and how are those ideas formed and what, if anything, challenges them?
In the United States we tend to think that we don't really have any ideology. We're the default position. We are the normal way of things and our way of life is the right way. We don't have ideologies. We’re not communist. We're not this, we're not that. But actually, we do. We all do. Every human does. And one of the things that would be important for us is to begin examining that ideology a little more closely. Asking questions. Why do we think this is right? And why is that wrong? How did our attitudes about the world develop over time?
Take, for example, our faith in capitalism, I'd love to know how that developed. It's an economic system. We treat it almost as a god, as sacrosanct, and unchallenged, but it's just a particular economic system we've adopted. Leonel was very, very good at raising questions and showing you that things are a little more complex than you might think.
Robin Lindley: Your courage struck me. You were actually chased by death squads. The tension and the violence are so vivid in your book. There must have been many fearful times for you.
Carolyn Forché: Everyone in El Salvador at that time lived in fear and it was intense. It was very, very scary place, and so adrenaline was always high and people were always hypervigilant and on edge. One never could relax or be comfortable. If you're sleeping in your bed at night, at any moment, something could happen to you. So that doesn't feel safe.
I experienced what everyone else was experiencing. You couldn’t avoid it if you were there. That's what the life was for the people there and also for me. I was pursued by death squads because of the people I was with, and I was very, very lucky on those occasions. I tell those stories in the book. I talk about what happened and I tried to describe them as clearly and precisely as I could.
I did witness one abduction, and I also describe it. It's been quite a few years now, but it was years more before I lost the hypervigilance. It didn't calm down within me for quite a long time after I left El Salvador.
Robin Lindley: After the violence and horror you witnessed, it’s understandable if you had some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Carolyn Forché: I didn't think of it that way in terms of myself because I associated post-traumatic stress disorder with combat veterans. You had to have been a soldier to have that happen to you. Now, of course, I know that's not true at all. You can have post traumatic stress disorder from domestic violence. You can have it from all sorts of extreme experiences—anything that frightens you deeply, any blow to the psyche, any wound to the heart or the soul can cause [PTSD] to happen.
I think everyone in El Salvador at that time who was awake and thinking probably suffered from post-traumatic stress for years.
These young parents who are fleeing now are the children of the people that I was with then. And life, for Salvadorans, is even more dangerous now. We really should be bringing them into our cities and getting them settled and then somehow working inside El Salvador and Honduras to help protect people from extortion, rape, violence and murder.
Robin Lindley: The tension in El Salvador is palpable in your writing. Yet Leonel, in the course of your two years, took you into the nests of vipers, to the homes of right-wing military officials and politicians. And he also introduced you to guerillas, doctors, nuns, priests, campesinos, and his friend Archbishop Romero.
Carolyn Forché: He knew everyone. He cultivated friendships in all sectors. Of course, when he was young, he came to a military academy in the United States for a while. And he had friends who were in the military, and friends and relatives in the officer corps. He went to grade school with men who later were officers. So he knew everyone. And he was from a prominent family and they were coffee farmers.
He had a very small coffee farm that didn't make very much money anymore, so he wasn't a rich man— but he knew the wealthy. And because he'd worked for so many years with campesinos, he knew the poor. He knew workers and labor organizers. He really did have these friendships in all these sectors and that's why he was able to bring me into the offices of the military, the homes of the wealthy, and the villages of the poor. It was because they knew him.
Robin Lindley: You described one of your meetings so vividly in your haunting poem, “The Colonel.” You actually met this military officer who was very angry and threatening. Was Leonel with you then?
Carolyn Forché: That incident happened in 1978. It was fairly early on in my time in El Salvador in the period when the military was angry with the US government for imposing the requirement for human rights compliance to re-start any US aid. And so, when the colonel says, tell your people the equivalent of go to hell, the people he was referring to was the US government. He thought I could just go tell President Carter that. He was angry and probably a little bit inebriated.
He was in possession of body parts taken as a bounty, as proof of kills, as was common in Vietnam. It has been common through the ages and in all parts of the world. He spilled some body parts in front of me and that was his answer to the State Department requirement to comply with human rights. He thought I was from the US government, and no matter how much I denied that, he was convinced. So that was the origin of the poem.
Leonel was with me and he had set up the meeting but he did not know that that's what was going to happen.
Robin Lindley: Was this the extremely brutal Colonel Chacon?
Carolyn Forché: I have not identified the colonel from the poem because of his family, and I never will. I met several colonels very much from that mold. I'm hoping that the memoir will illuminate the culture in which that colonel was formed and why the colonel was the way he was.
Colonel Chacon was probably the worst of them at the time. I talk about what finally happens to him in the book. He was truly a butcher of human beings. And he was at the helm of a fairly large network across different countries of paramilitary killers who were working for hire. He was creating his own small army, some of whom were Cuban exiles. There were various people involved in it, and that little army that he was creating scared everybody. The US had no control over it. He was forming a shadow regime, an army of killers.
Robin Lindley: Your portrait of Chacon and his atrocities is chilling. Leonel told of his horrible torture, of cutting off fingers of those he interrogated or even disemboweling living victims. Wasn’t the right-wing politician Roberto d’Aubuisson also running death squads in El Salvador?
Carolyn Forché: D’Aubuisson was a colonel who was cashiered in the 1979 coup. Later, he became a civilian politician and was a member of the right-wing political party. There's ample evidence of his connections to death squads, but I don't know enough to speak about it. I will say that there's a lot of evidence that he was involved in the murder of Monsignor Romero and that he was a member of a network of death squads. He died of lung cancer at a fairly young age. His name became synonymous with death squads when I was there. When they referred to the death squads, they referred to d’Aubuisson.
But most people wouldn't know who Colonel Chacon was. He wasn't a name on the street because he was operating internationally and clearly under the radar.
Robin Lindley: Did you meet Roberto d’Abuisson?
Carolyn Forché: I did not meet him. He was well off, living in the open, and he wasn't a shadowy figure. I saw him in public several times but never talked to him.
Robin Lindley: Your writing about Leonel’s friend Archbishop Romero and his tireless advocacy for the poor is very moving. You met him several times. What was your impression of the Archbishop?
Carolyn Forché: Leonel was a good friend of Monsignor Romero and he was also a good friend of Madre Luz, who was the mother superior of the Carmelite Order of Nuns who ran the hospital where Monsignor Romero lived. He had a little house there. Leonel kept that place going for a long time. They were all close friends and Leonel would take me to meet there with Madre Luz at the convent. Leonel introduced me to Monsignor Romero.
Monsignor Romero was very kind. He was a bit shy, very studious, and deeply thoughtful. He had studied in Rome.
As things started to deteriorate and as the killing escalated, one of his close friends, Father Rutillo Grande, a Jesuit, was murdered. Monsignor Romero went to keep vigil with his body and then began to publicly denounce the military regime. He became the only institutional voice against the oppression in the country. He was a very visible public figure, and he saw himself as a shepherd, as a bishop of his people, as someone to stay with his people and keep watch with them and take care of them. Every Sunday he would say mass in the cathedral and his homily would be broadcast all over the country on radio.
The right hated Monsignor Romero. He was number one on the death squad hit lists, some of which were printed in the newspapers. Yet he stood up and he denounced the oppression every Sunday. And he read out the names of the dead. He was very compelling. He said yes to the call of that moment.
The last time I talked to him, he told me I had to leave the country the next day. I asked if he would leave the country. He said,” No, my place is with my people and your place with yours now.” That was difficult for me to accept, but Monsignor Romero knew what was coming. He knew his time was short.
I also thought he was a saint long before the Vatican acknowledged his sainthood. There was a kind of tranquility about him, even though he felt fear. He talked about feeling fear like any other human being. But he gave his life for his people. He didn't abandon them. I have utmost regard and also love for him, and his loss was a grave one for humanity.
But now we have him among us in spirit. The people of El Salvador venerated his sanctity long before the Vatican acknowledged it.
Robin Lindley: He told you that you should leave the country to be with your own people. I believe you left the next day and, a week later, he was assassinated.
Carolyn Forché: On March 16, 1980, he told me that it was important for me to leave. He was assassinated a week later, and I was back in the United States because he asked me to leave. I received a phone call from El Salvador and I was told he had been shot. At first, I didn't know if he was dead, but yes, he was.
And then I went to Washington DC to attend the hearings I mentioned with the House Subcommittee on Inter-American Relations. They were holding hearings on whether or not to support the Salvadoran government economically and militarily. It was the day after the assassination of Monsignor Romero. They couldn't delay the vote even a day. And they voted yes, to support the military.
Robin Lindley: What a harrowing time. I'm sure you would have been at the funeral for Archbishop Romero a few days after his assassination if you had stayed in El Salvador. More than one hundred thousand mourners gathered on the cathedral plaza. The funeral turned into bloodbath when right-wing attackers threw bombs and shot into the huge crowd. Dozens of people were killed or wounded.
Carolyn Forché: My husband [photographer Harry Mattison] was there and he took the photographs of the funeral that are now iconic. He has talked to me about it. It was a bloodbath. Just horrific. Interestingly, there was no head of state or other officials there. It was a poor people's funeral, and it was brutally attacked.
I was not at the funeral but I would've been there if I had stayed was in El Salvador. There were a number of people killed. And there’s a really haunting image: there's a kind of plaza outside the cathedral and in the aftermath, after everyone had gone, there were shoes all over the plaza. People had literally run out of their own shoes to get away from the gunfire, and the shoes were strewn all over the plaza. I remember seeing that image.
My husband was taking photographs as the people were struggling to get into the cathedral to escape the gunfire. Finally, he put his camera down and just started lifting people over the barricades to protect them.
Robin Lindley: Your husband was a hero, risking his life to save others. I noticed also that your son Sean is a documentary maker. It seems he takes after both mom and dad by combining his own form of witness and photography.
Carolyn Forché: You know the expression the apple doesn't fall far from the tree? In the case of Sean Mattison, our son, we joke that he didn’t fall far from the tree. He fell on the tree.
Robin Lindley: You must be very proud of Sean.
Our present immigration and refugee issues are rooted in the history you detail of civil war and US intervention in Central America. After your two years with Leonel in El Salvador, you went to virtually every US state and used your voice to describe the oppressive military dictatorship and human rights abuses in El Salvador.
Carolyn Forché: Yes, When I came back, I went to 49 states, all except Hawaii, and talked in churches and synagogues and even in rotary clubs. I was invited to speak because of my book of poems about El Salvador,The Country Between Us. The poems became very well-known because of two newspaper columnists, Nicholas von Hoffman and Pete Hamill, who had written about the book in their syndicated columns. And as a result, my book was known more than a poetry book normally would be.
And I’m glad you brought up the US intervention and the situation of the refugees at the border because that's crucial right now.
We did so much wrong in Central America, among them supporting military dictatorships that we knew were brutally oppressing the people. And we knew also that they were stealing from American economic and military aid and that they were also stealing loans that they had received through the Inter-American Development Bank and through other resources that were intended for hydroelectric plants and projects like that.
In El Salvador, we were dealing here with a corrupt government and we supported their suppression of an uprising and the deployment of military forces against them. There was a 12-year civil war with us on the side of the military. The military could not win that war because they did not have the popular support to win. It was fought to a draw and it was settled by peace negotiations that were in fact initially arranged by the man I write about, Leonel Gomez Vides. He visited me in the United States [during the war], and he was the one who arranged the first meetings to bring the war to an end.
As part of the negotiated settlements, there were promises made about what was going to happen after the war, and those promises were broken. In the aftermath of the war, the judiciary was not functional. The society began to fall apart. Then extensive money laundering and narco-trafficking took over in El Salvador. There was corruption at every level of society and that created a situation of extreme violence that exists even now. The violence is brutal. It's gruesome. It involves the extortion, rape, torture, killing, and mutilation. Ordinary people are being preyed upon and they see terrible things happen to neighbors and those they love.
The refugees are lifting their children into their arms, taking a little bit with them in a little rucksack or something, and running north as fast as they can and with no resources. They don't care what the desert or the border have in store for them. They flee. When you're really afraid, anything you can imagine is better than what you're running away from.
The people who are coming to our border are not migrants looking for some better job. They have no illusions about what awaits them. They are refugees fleeing violence that we in great part created with our support of corrupt, dictatorial regimes.
We are the authors of the chaos that you're seeing now. And we have done nothing to abate it or mitigate it. What we have now are collapsed countries, failed states, not only El Salvador but in Honduras and Guatemala, and Nicaragua is now becoming a different kind of failed state because of Daniel Ortega's dictatorship.
The whole of Central America is in turmoil and these people are running for their lives. When they get to our now militarized border, they are treated with extreme coldness and hostility.
We have broken international law by detaining people who are seeking asylum. People used to present themselves at our border, ask for asylum, fill out paperwork, and then they were free to live and work in the United States while their asylum claims went through our court system, and that could take two or three years. If they were denied asylum, they could appeal and that would take a little more time. Now, we've criminalized them counter to international law. We're detaining them and separating their families. That separation was temporarily halted, but is about to resume under the orders of the Trump regime.
And so, we have exacerbated the so-called crisis at our border by our unwillingness to offer needed hospitality and care and comfort to people who we endangered with our policies. It's a refusal of compassion, a refusal of empathy, and a refusal of common decency.
Robin Lindley: It seems many Americans do not understand the difference between refugees who are fleeing persecution and other types of migrants.
Carolyn Forché: The media are not helping with that because they call them all migrants or immigrants. Well, no, they are not voluntarily emigrating to another country in order to get a job. We have to understand what refugees are and what they're fleeing, why they're terrified. They're refugees of war and its aftermath and they're asking for asylum. They have the right to ask for asylum and the right to have their claims considered. They have the right to request asylum inside our border and to be allowed to live freely while their claim is being considered.
Robin Lindley: There seems to be little understanding of our obligation to protect refugees under domestic and international law. That's appalling today.
Carolyn Forché: Yes, I agree.
Robin Lindley: As you said, these Central American refugees are fleeing from brutal violence. I was just reading that El Salvador’s homicide rate is one of the highest in the world. I think there are a couple of dozen murders a day in San Salvador.
Carolyn Forché: Yes, it is very dangerous now. It's more dangerous now in many ways than it was during the war. It’s beyond chaotic. A person will be asked for money. If they don't pay the money, they are brutally killed and their body parts strewn everywhere so that the next person asked for money will pay. It's horrible, and our policy at the border is making everything worse.
We're a nation of immigrants. We should be welcoming immigrants, especially those who are fleeing danger in their own countries. Most especially them.
And we need people here. It's not true, as President Trump said, that America is full, like it's some kind of building with a certain number of hotel rooms. No, we're not a hotel, but a vast part of a vast continent, and we are not full.
People who come here from Central America tend to work in the jobs that no one wants here. They work in agriculture doing stoop labor, like picking strawberries. They also work in the restaurant industry by washing the dishes and bussing the tables. They're all over American suburbs doing the landscaping, the housecleaning, and the babysitting. This is what they're doing.
I don't understand the aversion to these refugees, and I don't understand the lack of awareness about how much we need immigrants to come here and establish themselves and also keep this country a little younger demographically. We’re becoming an elderly nation. Why not let in the youth of other countries now?
The Administration talks about drugs, but most drugs are not carried by hand through ports of entry over our borders. Drugs are transported in containers, on ships entering our harbors. For some reason, it's all set up so that those containers never get opened or inspected. They come by air, they come by sea, and they come in large quantities. This is an international business that operates like any other corporation, so you're not going to find a lot of drugs on people coming across the border to seek asylum. That's not who's coming. You're going to find single mothers with little children in tow. These are families who are fleeing violence. They don't know what's ahead for them. They don't know what's going to happen to them, but anything is better than going home.
Robin Lindley: Thank you for those powerful words. You mentioned that Leonel was involved in the peace process that ended the civil war in El Salvador. What happened to him after you left El Salvador in 1980?
Carolyn Forché: He remained in El Salvador for a time, and then was granted asylum in the United States, where he worked tirelessly to influence U.S. policy and to gather the people who would eventually bring the war to an end.
Robin Lindley: Have you maintained contacts with people in El Salvador?
Carolyn Forché: Yes, my friends are still there. Many have died, but I am in touch with those who are alive.
Robin Lindley: I appreciate your comments on your experiences in El Salvador for the two years with Leonel. Is there anything you’d like to add about how that experience changed you and your writing?
Carolyn Forché: I think my experience there changed my life, and therefore my writing.
Robin Lindley: What projects are you working on now?
Carolyn Forché: I’m finishing my fifth book of poetry, In The Lateness of the World, which will be published by Penguin Press in 2020.
Robin Lindley: What lessons to you hope readers take from your new memoir?
Carolyn Forché: I’m hoping readers will be moved by it.
Robin Lindley: Thank you very much for your thoughtfulness and generous comments Ms. Forché. I know that readers will appreciate your insights. And congratulations on your powerful new memoir.
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