War and Its Impact on Central American–American Literature
Summary and Keywords
The literature of Central American–Americans is a diverse and emerging corpus of writing that testifies to the different phases and evolutions of warfare, locally and globally. This literature includes narratives about exiles and immigrants who left war zones, interdisciplinary poetry against U.S. militarized violence in different geographies, narratives about global wars and their aftermath, detective writings, and soldiers’ memoirs. War and violence have taken new shapes, and the inhumanity of war is expanded beyond the battlefield. A survey of the most representative Central American–American writers depicting these catastrophic events provides insights into the trauma of war individually and collectively and denounces its violence and causes. There are writers that propose a process of healing this history of violence and engagement with new struggles. Some of the authors in this survey make rational arguments, refuting Western-centric perspectives that justify war as a necessary and logical event. Other writers present a strong pacifist agenda as the result of having participated directly in this traumatic experience. Writers often reflect on ameliorative justice and the exile experience. Through history, they change their representation of war in Central America; later authors connect these catastrophes with violence in the United States and elsewhere. War becomes imbricated with gender violence, policing, urban policing, racism, and class discrimination. Immigrants become the main characters in many contemporary writings, and the search for identity, connected with the past of war, is common in the poetic discourse of the younger generation.
The word “war” encompasses one of the main characteristics of the modern era—we are haunted by the paradigm of mass violence.1 This world reality has been particularly evident in Central America. During the 20th century, the region suffered from varied forms of warfare—including conventional war among nation-states, civil war under dictatorships, and guerrilla warfare. Likewise, contemporary theorists of war have brought to light how military conflict has undergone a metamorphosis throughout the last century—from traditional conflicts fought among nation-states to complex and abstract forms, the so-called “global wars.”2 These new wars are produced by global instability; conflicts appear devoid of international borders, war lacks a clear face, and society is in permanent low-level conflict. Following this line of thought, we should expand the notion of war locally and transnationally to include the drug war, gang violence (maras), and the state-sponsored war against undocumented immigrants in the United States.
Taking into consideration the chameleonic aspect of war, this article focuses on this phenomenon as a motif that occurs transnationally and has an intrinsic relationship with Central American–American literature. This diverse and emerging corpus is the result of the generations born or raised in the United States coming from various stages of Central American immigration produced in many cases by situations of extreme violence. In order to fully engage with the representation of war in Central American–American literary works as part of cultural memory practices in the United States, it is necessary to emphasize the multiple articulations of this community through a “historical isthmian union in the diaspora.”3 This means including an overview of Central American authors in the United States writing about war as a diasporic community that has played a significant role in helping to historically understand the process in which Central American–American authors articulated their literary productions.
Beginning in the early 20th century, before the devastating wars in the isthmus and the major influx of Central American citizens to the United States, the representations of war can be traced through the Central American literary presence during World War I (1914–1918), or the so-called “Great War.” This was one of the bloodiest events of the 20th century, with casualties reaching approximately 9 million combatants and 12 million civilians.4 Two Nicaraguan poets, Rubén Darío (1867–1916) and Salomón de la Selva (1893–1959), temporarily immigrated to the United States and wrote about War World I. Their poetry, emerging from a small and marginalized region of the world, presents an engagement with global responses to war such as skepticism toward previously accepted values, failures of the accepted justifications of war, and promoting a pacifistic agenda.
Rubén Darío traveled to New York City and stayed for five months in 1914, during the outbreak of World War I. Darío was persuaded to make a tour promoting peace, starting in the same city. He wrote poems about the world historical catastrophe: “Pax,” “War” (“La guerra”), and “The Madness of War” (“La locura de la guerra”).5 His poems are part of a Latin American modernist response to the Great War, in which poets recognize the transition toward more technological forms of violence, as well as demystify the Great War’s propaganda as a civilizing catalyst for European progress. In its place, these modernists position the Americas as a space with the potential for peace and a better life, transcending the failures of the old continent.6
In contrast to Darío, Salomón de la Selva had a first-hand experience of World War I. He is distinguished as one of the only two Hispanic poets who enlisted in the British army during this period.7 De la Selva lived and studied in the United States in his youth, becoming a bilingual poet. His book, Tropical Town & Other Poems (1918), written in English, marks him as one of the “precursors to U.S. Latino/a literature today” according to Ana Patricia Rodríguez.8 His testimonial book of poetry, The Unknown Soldier (El soldado desconocido; 1922), in Spanish, was inspired by his experience in World War I. De la Selva’s conversational language poetizes a discourse that destroys a triumphalist vision of war, as well as humanizing the brutal experience lived by soldiers.9 The core of his book of poetry treats the character and experiences of the soldiers. He renders soldiers who are destroyed and broken men because of the war. For him, they are not just numbers, or a collectivity of unknown men; he rescues this anonymous multitude. Although The Unknown Soldier portrays horrifying visions of World War I, this book is also charged with a great hope and concern for humanity. In a poem titled “The Bullet,” De Selva imagines a new type of bullet that will not wound or kill men. Rather, this will be a projectile “with a soul,” one that will positively change the environment for combatants suffering in the trenches. De la Selva’s poetry proposes a standing point inside war and from below, based on the life of foot soldiers. He wants to change the way we see war and our mentality toward its actors, the soldiers. He strongly influenced not only the future political or committed poetry in Latin America but also the antiwar activism of later Central American and Central American–American writings.
After these writings from the early 20th-century Central American émigré experience, the writers exiled from the civil wars in the late 1970s and 1980s set the scene for the emergence of the Central American–American movement.10 From there, the corpus of literature deals with warfare from different geographical spaces: transnational conflicts such as the Iraq War, civil wars in Central American countries, and urban and transnational violence in the United States. All these conflicts involve the interests and actions of the United States. Its role is evident in military interventions in Central America in the 1980s, drug and gang violence, invasions of the Middle East in the late 20th century, and the war against immigrants.
The Civil Wars and Postwar Militarization: Narrations through the Exile Experience
Civil wars in Central America took place in Guatemala (1960–1996), El Salvador (1980–1992), and Nicaragua (1962–1990). These three wars spread throughout the isthmus from the 1960s to the 1990s, resulting in the death of more than 300,000 people. Causalities were mainly civilians, who also experienced the devastation of these countries’ economies.11 The wars were rooted in poverty, racism, and class inequality. Constant state violence toward civic and pacific oppositional channels prevented non-military solutions; the results were mass mobilization and army rebellions until the peace agreements.12
Around 4 million Central Americans left their countries because of war. When they arrived in the United States, their diasporic consciousness was pervaded by their conditions of exile, globalized representations of violence, and their proximity to the trauma of war. As Arturo Arias mentions, the civil wars of the 1980s marked the identity of Central American subjects; they “differ from many other immigrant groups, in that they are neither strictly economic migrants nor accepted as refugees, but have the character of both.”13 Some of the representative narratives related to war from Central American writers exiled in the United States are nomadic in nature. Characters suffer the drama of violence in a multiplicity of spaces; sometimes they migrate, or they live the constant absurdities that arise in Central American societies at the aftermath of war, with new forms of violence. This is the case of two exile writers, Mario Bencastro (El Salvador, b. 1949) and Horacio Castellanos Moya (El Salvador/Honduras, b. 1957).
The writings by Mario Bencastro depict a passage through time and space, a northern migration that never succeeds in achieving rest. He begins with a series of scenes from the war in El Salvador, before seeing its violence and trauma recycled, transnationally, in the United States. His novel A Shot in the Cathedral (Disparo en la catedral; 1990) and the short stories The Tree of Life: Stories of the Civil War (Árbol de la vida: historias de la guerra civil; 1993) capture the devastated atmosphere of death and violence created by the direct conflict in El Salvador.14 The novel deals with tragic events that affect Salvadoran society as a result of state terrorism as well as militarization supported by the United States. Bencastro connects the fictionalized stories of his characters with the assassination of an important historical human rights advocate, the Archbishop Óscar Romero. The Tree of Life also presents the inhumane stories of war: the death and disappearance of war photographers and other journalists, the clandestine practice of common graves, and the end of laughter and entertainment. However, some of these short stories demonstrate a regenerative aspect—creating life and hoping for peace, even during the chaos of war. For example, “The Tree of Life” brings life to the materiality of corpses from a clandestine mass grave through the emergence of trees; “The Spirit of Things” proposes that Archbishop Óscar Romero’s legacy makes him immortal; and in “The Report,” the murdered lover lives on in a woman’s unborn child.
Bencastro’s later narratives traces the connection among race, ethnicity, militarism, and diasporic Central American productions. In his writings, many of his characters are immigrants who left the past of war but carry the trauma with them, suffering marginalization, racism, and militarized violence in the United States or El Salvador. Similarly, as Ana Patricia Rodríguez has noted (using Homi Bhabha’s terms), Salvadoran transnational communities negotiate their identities, histories, and subjectivities in the United States as an “in-between moment” and “in-between space.”15 In the novel Odyssey of the North (Odisea del Norte, 1999), we learn of the dramatic journey of Calixto to the United States. The author blurs temporalities; he creates spaces through interpolated flashbacks, and the story intercalates between El Salvador and Washington, DC.
In each of these places, Calixto faces dangers; assassination in El Salvador or deportation in the United States. The common link between these two geographies is militarization. The United States directly supports paramilitaries in El Salvador; less directly, Bencastro perceives the effects of militarism in the domination of minority groups by the U.S. police. Social struggles such as the Washington 1991 riots are part of the plot, inserted with journalistic materials. His narrative presents the legacy of grassroots mobilization of Salvadorans, continued in the United States, as well as the “know-how” derived from their experience of rebellion in their own country.16 His last book, a bilingual collection of short stories titled Portal Paradise (Paraíso portátil; 2010), expands the cycle of war presented in his initial stories. Bencastro presents war experiences connected with emigration and the border; these focus on the trauma of migrating, the dangers of crossing, borders and coastlines as war zones, the genocide of the civil war, and the problems of reparative justice for victims.
Horacio Castellanos Moya is one of the most well-known contemporary writers. Many studies have dealt with the rhetoric of violence of his novels, including works by Alexandra Ortiz Wallner, Rafael Lara- Martínez, Misha Kokotovic, and Sergio Villalobos-Ruminott.17 Castellanos Moya’s novels are set in postwar Central America, which he views as an era of continuation of the civil war by other means. This implies that the so-called “democratic societies” experience a proliferation of violence that differs from war traditionally understood but is fundamentally bound to it. These new representations of violence are the result of the collapse of traditional conceptions of politics and state and the emergence of new phases of militarization, constituting permanent, low-intensity conflict influenced by globalizing forces. This mutation is the emergence of other types of war: conflicts lacking political ideologies, propelled by crime and drug trafficking. The civil war, which the state called a “war against subversive forces,” has not truly ended with the demobilization of guerrilla armies. Instead, it continues in the form of a war of the state against civil society.
Castellanos Moya’s cynical narrative denounces the absurdities of the wars, past and present. This aesthetic characteristic initially coined as precarious and full of disappointment recently has acquired new revisions and positive potentialities in recent studies by Magdalena Perkowska and Alberto Moireras.18 For Perkowska, Castellanos Moya’s cynical tone functions as a parrhesia, a boldness of speech, to tell the scandalous truth which is the result of confrontation with the present, and a search for other possible futures, yet not precise.19 Moreiras views the cynical affect as distinct from failure or marginalization. Instead, he argues that Castellanos Moya may express a lucid cynicism. His narrators are superior subjects with a privileged understanding of reality, which helps them to expose the institutionalized hypocrisies of postwar societies.20
Exile from war appears in Castellanos Moya’s novels The Diaspora (La diáspora, 1988) and Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador (El asco, Thomas Bernhard en San Salvador; 1997).21 His early novel, The Diaspora, deals with stories of leftist revolutionaries who have gone into exile. It is primarily a criticism of the revolutionary project’s incongruities, such as the so-called “revolutionary justice” that led to the assassination of important Salvadoran guerrilla figures like Mélida Anaya Montes and the great poet Roque Dalton.22 In contrast, the protagonist of Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador is a petit bourgeois who criticizes everything about his country, from “las pupusas” (El Salvador’s national dish) to the absurdities of politics and governmental institutions in the militarized country. Both novels propose a lucid criticism that relies on a geographical distance from the zones of war. Likewise, Castellanos Moya’s narrative portrays the remains and trauma of wars, felt physically in his characters’ bodies as well as mentally. In Revulsion, this trauma is described as “the filthiest vomit . . . the most sordid and revolting vomiting you can imagine.” In the novel Senselessness (Insensatez; 2004) the collective trauma of the Guatemalan genocide is transmitted mentally to a writer who proofreads the report of the army’s massacre to civilians.23 Last, a novel, The Weapon in the Man (El arma en el hombre; 2001), unveils the hypocrisies of demilitarization processes in postwar Central America and the impossibility of soldiers’ reinsertion to society. This novel is the best radiography of the new mutations of globalized violence. The main character, a former soldier named “Robocop,” shows different layers of corruption and criminalities in a system without ideologies by working for a variety of groups with vastly different ideologies that nonetheless converge on similar goals: guerrilla forces, right-wing militants, drug traffickers, and anti-drug agencies.
Politics of Collage: Poetry About War by Central American–Americans
The first generations of Central Americans after the diaspora of the 1980s, known as “Central American–American,” produce a poetry that collects and blends multiplicity of signifiers from their personal and transnational histories.24 War constitutes an array of different fragmented elements, producing their hybrid identities and consciousness. Poets from the anthologies Izote Vos: A Collection of Salvadorian American Writing and Visual Art and Desde El EpiCentro: An Anthology of US Central American Poetry become collectors of pluralistic discourses and materials that intertwine in their poetic projects. As noted by Arturo Arias, this poetry challenges traditional and conventional forms of writings. Arias contributed a thorough study of the EpiCentro, an interactive blog of virtual art collectives, in his book Desde El EpiCentro: An Anthology of US Central American Poetry.
Arias foregrounds the performative and interactive aspect of this poetry, which includes sounds, speech, objects, visual art, and audience interaction, creating counter-hegemonic practices that interrogate the dominant culture.25 We might think of these new generations of U.S.-raised or -born Central American poets as inheriting the past of Central American civil wars. Their visual materials, performances, poetic texts, spoken languages (bilingual), and bodies become a living archive of war; forming sites of transmission for memory and identity.26 However, the portrayal of war is not exclusively formed from warfare that takes place on Central American soil. These poets expand their understanding of war in the United States, drawing from militarized domination of communities of color, gender violence, and U.S military interventions far from the Americas, such as the invasion of Iraq.
Izote Vos: A Collection of Salvadorian American Writing and Visual Art (2000), edited by Katherine Cowy Kim and Alfonso Serrano, is an anthology of fourteen Salvadoran-American writers, comprising a mosaic of personal and collective histories, including war stories. This is a collage book with poetry, photography, photo essays, personal insights, and visual art. War produces diverse effects on the personal lives of these poets, including separation from family members, memories or silences from their parents or themselves about the horrors of war, and the questioning of the idea of home. This book also captures the transnational phenomenon of “maras,” Salvadoran gangs formed by young immigrants who fled civil war. The testimony of Mr. Snoopy, one Salvadorian man locked up in juvenile hall for gang violence, documents these maras.27 In his personal reflection, “My Crazy Life,” he gives advice to other young people about the perils of drugs, alcohol, and violence. This piece shows implicitly the criminalization of brown bodies by the U.S. jail system and how violence mutates as civil war, as well as its social forms, are transplanted to the United States.
Desde El EpiCentro: An Anthology of US Central American Poetry (2007), edited by Karina Oliva-Alvarado and Maya Chinchilla, compiles literature by Central American–Americans in the United States, whose experience is marginalized by the dominant culture.28 The project assembles a plurality of ideas about what might define this space; it is a collage of distinct experiences. Raquel Gutíerrez, one of the founders of the EpiCentro virtual art collective, previously suggested this idea: “we are hungry for images of an experience that somehow reflects our own. When that longing materializes then we as an ever-growing collective are able to produce a multiplicity of understanding of the plethora of identities, practices, and desires. . . .”29 In the collection, the poets Janssen Chavarria, Ernesto Garay, Anayvette Martínez, and Maya Chinchilla reflect on their own experience of the effects of war. Their personal stories form the basis for a political argument that urges the necessity of guiding political activism against different types of war, alongside the promotion of gender equality, and connecting Central American solidarity movements in the United States. Janssen Chavarria’s poems criticize the devastating effects of U.S. militarization and imperialism in Central America, calling it “a war on the poor.” He also protests other diverse forms of U.S. militarism, such as detention of immigrants and the invasions in the Middle East (Afghanistan and Iraq).
Similarly, in his poem “US Democracy,” Ernesto Garay exposes the hollowness of this word in the face of the “War on Terrorism” and the mass incarceration of blacks and Latinos. Anayvette Martínez, in her poem “My Pussy Wants Peace,” denounces violence against women in different geographies, including war zones, and embraces the political potential of female bodies from “the barrio of la Mission” to “the Middle East.” Last, Maya Chinchilla, in her poem “Solidarity Baby,” recalls her awareness as a child of her own formation by personal and collective movements of political activism and resilience.30 She explores her own genesis in the U.S. Central America solidarity movements that consumed her parents, as well as her imaginary fantasies of revolutionary figures and leaders. Enumerating these origins, she makes the claim that activism and rebelliousness is in her DNA. Her poem bears witness to the national and transnational stories of Central Americans political resilience; as she insists, “unless we document ourselves we are invisible!”
Global Wars: Narratives of Central American–Americans
As we have seen, Central American–American narratives depict new types of war. In these conflicts, violence exceeds borders and domestic clashes emerge in heterogeneous urban spaces. Individuals and families flee state violence, migrating to capitalist regions only to be inserted into a new form of social domination.31 The notion of the United States as a haven from violence is exposed as a myth. These narratives present subjects passing through two regions of neoliberal economic production, from the Central American periphery to the North American core. In both cases, they are direct receivers of violence; they have escaped one war to enter into another. They are victims of global wars. These bonds among global capitalism, immigration, and violence appear indelibly in the work of a Central American–American writer born in Los Angeles, Héctor Tobar (b. 1963).
As for Mario Bencastro, Héctor Tobar’s central characters are immigrants. In his novel The Tattooed Soldier (1989), two immigrant laborers from different war backgrounds encounter one another in Los Angeles. Antonio, who was once a student and is now a homeless refugee, meets Longoria, the soldier who killed his family in Guatemala. The jaguar tattoo on the soldier’s forearm is the distinctive proof of the crime; the novel recounts the quest of Antonio to kill the soldier. This story of revenge raises the question of restitution for war victims in an instance where civil justice is provided in neither Guatemala nor the United States. Likewise, The Tattooed Soldier exposes the connections of local and global representations of violence in the bodies of immigrants, as well as other marginalized groups in the United States. In the novel, the trope of the Guatemalan war emerges and overlaps into the North American space, blurring time and space.
In Los Angeles, Central American immigrants find themselves immersed in a vicious circle of violence. The city controls the changing urban population with racial violence and economic inequality and relies on its own type of militarism, practiced by Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). Mike Davis notes that “[p]olicing has been transformed into full scale counterinsurgency.” This counter-insurgent role for police, in which it functions like a colonial army, appears vividly in the novel by the incorporation of a real historical event: the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.32 Approximately 22,000 people of black and Latino origin participated in these riots, sparked by the impunity of police brutality. The state deployed the full force of the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department but supplemented these police officers with 10,000 National Guard members and 3,500 military personnel.33 The incorporation of the riots into Tobar’s plot, then, brings our attention to an urban multi-ethnic revolt symptomatic of the complex violence of global wars.
The insurrection stems from a variety of distinguishable but related factors: the lack of justice and equality in institutions, injurious effects of economic recession, and racism.34 In addition, the riots connect Central American immigrants with their past of war: Central Americans who left war zones had already been politicized in ways that other members participating in the riots developed later. Moreover, this event produced a war against immigrants; the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and border patrols became prominently involved, deporting nearly seven hundred people. These displacements of the Central American community echoed the civil wars in their countries of origin.
Detective Fiction and Nonfiction: Denouncing the Crime of War and Corrupt Institutions
Second-generation Central American–Americans Francisco Goldman and Marcos Mc Peek Villatoro incorporated the past of war, impunity, and systemic violence that had inflicted the Central American history into their writings. Some of their books of fiction and nonfiction participate in the crime novel genre. This is in tune with the tendency for Latino and Chicanos writers to use this genre to inquire about sociopolitical issues such as authoritarian institutions, (re)elaboration of official histories, and denunciation of violence and criminality.35 Likewise, this dialogues transnationally with the contemporary detective novels written by Central American writers, including the aforementioned diasporic writer Horacio Castellanos Moya, in which the detective inquiry is just an excuse, where solving the crime is not as important as the condemnation of different social stratum of corrupts societies.36
Francisco Goldman (b. 1954) is the son of a Guatemalan mother and a Jewish father. He is one of the most prolific writers. The context of some of his novels are on the civil wars in the region: the dictatorship and death squads’ violence of the Guatemalan civil war in The Long Night of White Chickens (1992) or the trauma of Sandinista guerrilla war in the journey of transnational labor and migration The Ordinary Seaman (1997). Additionally, Goldman has written nonfiction of the continuation of violence and impunity in the transitional period after war in Guatemala in The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? (2007). This is a journalistic investigation of the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi in Guatemala, who led the compilation testimonies about disappearance, murders, and tortures from victims during war, known as Recovery of Historical Memory (REHMI). This book is about a real assassination; however, it participates as a crime narrative, since it is based on detective inquires that Goldman, also reporter from the New Yorker, investigated with a Guatemalan team. The titled is a rhetorical question; everyone knows who killed the bishop, since “the Gerardi crime and the extrajudicial executions carried out during the armed internal conflict have the same pedigree.”37 This book is a call to the hypocrisies of the official version of the murder and the criminality of the Guatemalan state.
Marcos McPeek Villatoro (b. 1962) is the son of a Salvadorian mother and a southern (Appalachian) father. He has written poetry such as They Say That I Am Two (1997), a collection of poems about tropes, people, and places that form sketches of his life and identity, including his experiences in Central America during wartime. “I thought that war was black and white with scratches on the screen,” says one poem.38 However, he is more well known for a series of crime novels: Home Killings (2001), Minos: A Romilia Chacón Mystery (2003), A Venom Beneath the Skin (2005), and Blood Daughters (2011). A new type of female hero appears in these novels: Romilia Chacón, a Salvadoran-American police detective who applies her cultural knowledge and Salvadoran family background of war and violence in order to solve crimes.39 These are elements that connect Chacón’s identity to Central America’s violent history: deaths in her family and the trauma of her mother’s exile; murders linked to police corruption; and her love–hate relationship with her adversary Rafael Murrillo, a Guatemalan-American narcotrafficker who was once part of a death squad and transnational narcotrafficker. Villatoro proposes critical readings of institutional oppression, along with socioeconomic barriers for Central American–Americans in the United States, through a reinvention of genre fiction.
The Memoir of an Anti-Soldier in the Middle East
The genre of soldiers’ memoirs is a crucial part of the literature about war. This section will focus on an unusual memoir, transnationally positioned between the long tradition of Central American testimonies and U.S. veterans’ memoirs and activism against war. Writing from “an urgency to communicate a problem of repression,” Camilo Mejía’s Road from Ar Ramadi (2007) is the story of his personal experience of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. His recollection presents the paradoxes and inhumanity of the military apparatus toward the soldiers that comprise it as well as the people of the countries it invades.40 Camilo Mejía inherits the anti-war tradition of the poet-soldier Salomón de la Selva. While de la Selva wrote about and against World War I, Mejía criticizes the injustice and irrationality of the Iraq war. He also presents the vulnerability of soldiers to war violence as well as to racism, gender violence, and class discrimination. Mejía is the son of the famous Nicaraguan folk Carlos Mejía Godoy, a former revolutionary and an icon of the Sandinista National Liberation Front. However, Mejía’s paternal origin did not prepare him for the violence he experienced when he moved to the United States and entered the military. After fighting in Iraq for five months, Mejía deserted and was eventually sentenced by a military court to a year in prison. Like Darío, he became a pacifist activist as a member of the Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW).
Camilo Mejía’s testimony exposes significant absurdities and illegalities of the Iraq War and the U.S. military establishment in general. He depicts the desperation of many immigrant youth who join the army, the irrationality of high commanders who put soldiers in danger, the dehumanization of the Iraqi people, sexual violence against civilian and army women, and the economic causes of the Iraq invasion. Mejía views this economic motive as the basis for a “criminal, illegitimate war for empire.” In his eyes, soldiers “don’t have a good reason for being in Iraq.” He declares that “I did not sign a contract to fight for oil in the Middle East, and I don’t think anyone in the military did.”41 In conclusion, Road from Ar Ramadi summarizes the relationship between contemporary warfare, immigration, and capitalist interests. The activism of Mejía has an important effect in delegitimizing the U.S. culture of war, which disproportionately affects marginalized groups, including Central American–Americans. Likewise, his memoirs show the violence and inequalities within the military apparatus, and—most importantly—make visible the devastating effects of war.
Discussion of the Literature
Various approaches and literary productions have emerged through an engagement with Central American past of war and new types of militarization in the United States that had shaped the experiences of Central American–Americans. Two founding texts that capture the emergence of Central American–American literature through the lens of war, immigration, and diaspora are Arturo Arias’s Taking Their Word: Literature and the Signs of Central America (2007) and Ana Patricia Rodríguez’s Dividing the Isthmus: Central American Transnational Histories, Literatures, and Cultures (2009). Arias categorizes this group in the last section of his book, also addressing the invisibilities and margins they live in opposition to other Latinos as part of the memory of war and violence. Rodríguez resignifies Central American isthmus narratives into a “transisthmian perspective,” including chapters on Central American Latino solidarities with war refugees and artists and the artistic productions of Salvadorans in Washington, DC, who left the violence of the Cold War.
Almost a decade later, a landmark and multidisciplinary book U.S. Central Americans: Reconstructing Memories, Struggles, and Communities of Resistance (2017), edited by U.S. Central American–American scholars Karina O. Alvarado, Alicia Ivonne Estrada, and Ester E. Hernández, brings new critical approaches to the literature and cultural texts produced by generations of Central American–Americans. The book includes articles on stories of female resistance; second generations’ engagement with the legacy of older struggles through poetry, criticism of anti-immigrant violence, and counter-hegemonic spaces of artistic expression in Los Angeles; and other topics.
Another significant book is The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States (2017) edited by Leticia Hernández-Linares, Rubén Martínez, and Héctor Tobar. This is a multi-genre collection, including sixty-eight collaborators including poets, writers, visual artists, activists, and scholars. From refugees leaving the homeland to children of immigrants or second generations, this literary publication has the widest scope of writers who articulate Central American experiences in the United States: “[W]ar scars the soul worse than any natural catastrophe” says one.42 The wounds of war lived or imagined represented in vivid images, multiple representations of violence as well as hope, and the process of healing through writing are common elements of many of the works in this collection.
Ariana E. Vigil’s War Echoes: Gender and Militarization in U.S. Latina/o Cultural Production (2014) studies the U.S. Latina/o response to military intervention in Central America and the Middle East, connecting transnational feminism, pan-Latina/o solidarity, and global war narratives. Her work on U.S. Latina/o activisms with armed movements and warfare in the region dialogue with Rodríguez’s chapter on transnational solidarity literature and activism. Vigil’s book historicizes gender and war in literary productions. Similarly, Yajaira Padilla in her Changing Women, Changing Nation (2012), although focusing on U.S. Salvadoran literature, explores “trans-Salvadoran narratives” about representations of women and agency in context of the Salvadoran civil war and postwar violence.
One of the great challenges for Central American–Americans and their effort to represent experiences and effects of war has been pointed out by the editors of U.S. Central Americans: Reconstructing Memories, Struggles, and Communities of Resistance, who ask: How can it be possible to deal with war as a discourse inherently linked with trauma, immigration, and new types of violence without essentializing Central American–Americans as “traumatized people”?43 This question receives a complex answer through the diversity and richness of the literary works presented in this essay. Gloria Anzaldúa’s idea of identity as an “open wound” is similar to the trauma of war; this cannot be totally eliminated from the different configurations that make Central American–Americans’ identities unique. However, the transformation of the Central American stories of violence into narratives of resiliency and struggle, as many of these works show us, sheds new light on this group and its important contributions to a larger Latino community, without essentializing them.
Alvarado, Karina O., Alicia Ivonne Estrada, and Ester E. Hernández, eds. U.S. Central Americans: Reconstructing Memories, Struggles, and Communities of Resistance (2017). Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2017.Find this resource:
Apel, Dora. War Culture and the Contest of Images. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012.Find this resource:
Arias, Arturo. Taking their World: Literature and the Signs of Central America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.Find this resource:
Bruneau, Thomas, Lucía Dammert, and Elizabeth Skinner, eds. Maras: Gang Violence and Security in Central America. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011.Find this resource:
Galli, Carlo. Political Spaces and Global War. Translated by Elisabeth Fay. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.Find this resource:
Gooding-Williams, Robert, ed. Reading Rodney King: Reading Urban Uprising. New York: Routledge, 1993.Find this resource:
Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of the Empire. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.Find this resource:
Hernández-Linares, Leticia, Rubén Martínez, and Héctor Tobar, eds. The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States. San Fernando, CA: Tía Chucha Press, 2017.Find this resource:
Mansfield, Nick. Theorizing War: From Hobbes to Badiou. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.Find this resource:
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(1.) Alain Badiou, Le Siècle (París: Seuil, 2005), 34.
(2.) For more information see Carlo Galli, Political Spaces and Global War, trans. Elisabeth Fay (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).
(3.) This is an approach that U.S. Central American–American scholars Karina O. Alvarado, Alicia Ivonne Estrada, and Ester E. Hernández emphasize in their anthology U.S. Central Americans: Reconstructing Memories, Struggles, and Communities of Resistance (2017) (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press); I borrow this term from them.
(4.) Gerard De Groot, The First World War (London: MacMillan, 2001), 1.
(5.) Darío’s anti-war activism was interrupted by pneumonia and financial problems in New York. He returned to Nicaragua, dying, a year later in 1916. For more information about his stay in New York, see his biography, Edelberto Torres, La dramática vida de Rubén Darío (Mexico City: Ediciones Grijalbo, 1966); and Eliot Fay, “Rubén Darío in New York,” Modern Language Notes 57, no. 8 (1942): 641–648.
(6.) For more information on modernist poets and World War I, see Mariano Siskind, Cosmopolitan Desires: Global Modernity and World Literature (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2014), 237–240.
(7.) The modernist Enrique Gómez Carillo (Guatemala, 1873–1927) and the poet José Basileo Acuña Zeledón (Costa Rica, 1897–1992) were two other Central Americans writing on war from personal experience. Gómez Carrillo was a war journalist and wrote chronicles of the front: Campos de batalla y campos de ruinas (1915), Crónica de la Guerra (1915), and En las trincheras (1916). Acuña Zeledón was a medical student and a soldier with the British army, like Salomón de la Selva. He published a book, Proyecciones (1959), written from 1916 to 1919. This article does not include their works because they do not deal explicitly with diasporic experience within the United States.
(8.) Ana Patricia Rodríguez and Silvio Sirias mention the influence of Hispanic and Anglo traditions in his poetry. Rodríguez, Dividing the Isthmus (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009), 449; and Sirias, “Introduction” in Salomón de la Selva, Tropical Town and Other Poems (Houston: Arte Público, 1998).
(9.) Mexican poet José Emilio Pacheco categorized him as a member of what he called “the other Avant-Garde.” According to Pacheco, De la Selva was one of the founders of a new type of poetry influenced directly by North American poetry (New Poetry). This other avant-garde poetry was a precursor of the Latin America poetry of the 1960s called “anti-poetry,” or “conversational poetry,” with very famous authors such as Nicanor Parra. For more information see José Emilio Pacheco, “Nota sobre la otra vanguardia,” Revista Iberoamericana 44, nos. 106–107 (1979): 324–327.
(10.) For more information on different phases of Central American migration in literature, see Ana Patricia Rodriguez “Literatures of Central Americans in the United States,” Routledge Companion to Latino/a Literature, eds. Suzanne Bost and Frances Aparicio (New York: Routledge, 2012), 445–453.
(11.) Fabrice Lehoucq, The Politics of Modern Central America: Civil War, Democratization and Underdevelopment (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 30.
(12.) Edelberto Torres-Rivas, Crisis del poder en Centroamérica (San José, CR: Editorial Universitaria Centroamericana, 1981), 71.
(13.) Arturo Arias, “Post-identidades post-nacionales: duelo, trauma y melancolía en la constitución de las subjetividades centroamericanas de posguerra,” in (Per)versiones de la modernidad, literaturas, identidades y desplazamientos. ed. Beatriz Cortes et al. (Guatemala City: F&C editores, 2012), 203.
(14.) This novel and the collection of short stories has been translated into English in 1996 and 1997, respectively, by Susan Giersbach Rascon.
(15.) Rodríguez, Dividing the Isthmus, 194.
(16.) The 1991 Washington, DC riot occurred in May, when rioting broke out in Mount Pleasant neighborhood as a result of the shooting of a Salvadoran man by a police officer.
(17.) For more information see Alexandra Ortiz Wallner, El arte de ficcionar: la novela contemporánea en Centroamérica (Madrid: Vervuert, 2012); Rafael Lara-Martínez, “Cultura de paz: herencia de guerra. Poética y reflejos de la violencia en Horacio Castellanos Moya,” Istmo. Revista virtual de estudios literarios y culturales centroamericanos 3 (January–June 2002); Misha Kokotovic, “After the Revolution: Central American Literature in the Age of Neoliberalism,” A Contracorriente: Una revista de historia social y literatura de América Latina/A Journal of Social History and Literature in Latin America 1, no. 1 (2003): 19–50; and Sergio Villalobos-Ruminott, “Literatura y destrucción: aproximación a la narrativa centroamericana actual” Revista Iberoamericana 89, no. 242 (2013): 131–148.
(18.) The study that coined Horacio Castellanos Moya’s writing, and other postwar narratives under the name of “aesthetics of cynicism,” was Beatriz Cortez’s book, Estética del cinismo: pasión y el desencanto en la literatura centroamericana de posguerra (Guatemala City: F&G Editores, 2010), 25.
(19.) For more information see Magdalena Perkowska. “La infamia de las historias y la ética de la escritura en la novela centroamericana contemporánea,” Istmo. Revista virtual de estudios literarios y culturales centroamericanos 22 (January–June 2011).
(20.) Alberto Moreiras proposed this idea in his essay “The Question of Cynicism. A Reading of Horacio Castellanos Moya’s La diaspora.” I thank Prof. Moreiras for kindly providing me with a copy of his essay. His writing will be available at the special issue of Revista Iberoamericana, Tiranas ficciones: poética y política de la escritura en la obra de Horacio Castellanos Moya.
(21.) This novel was translated into English in 2016 by Lee Klein.
(22.) For more information about the practices of revolutionary justice within the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), read Juan Duchesne Winter, La guerrilla narrada: acción, acontecimiento, sujeto (San Juan, Puerto Rico: Ediciones Callejón, 2010).
(23.) This novel was translated into English in 2008 by Katherine Silver.The 1,100-page report on the army’s massacre and torture of thousands of indigenous communities in Senselessness is inspired by the report by the Recovery of Historical Memory (REMHI), headed by the Catholic Church. According to the report, in the 1980s, over 150,000 people were killed or disappeared, over 440 villages were destroyed, and over 1 million people were internally displaced; D. R. Oficina de Derehos Humanos del Arzobispado de Guatemala. Informe del Proyecto lnterdiocesano de Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (REMHI): Guatemala Nunca Más. Impacto de la Violencia, vol. 1.
(24.) Arturo Arias was one of the first academics to theorize these generations, using the term coined by Maya Chinchilla in her poem “Central-American American.” For more information, see his article “Central American–American? Re-Mapping Latino/Latin American Subjectivities on Both Sides of the Great Divide,” Explicación de textos literarios 28, nos. 1–2 (1999–2000): 47–63.
(25.) Arturo Arias, “EpiCentro: The Emergence of a New Central American-American Literature,” Comparative Literature 64, no. 3 (2012): 304–305.
(26.) Diana Taylor, in The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), proposes the constant interaction of the archive and the repertoire as valued sites of knowledge-making and transmission.
(27.) To learn more about the transnational roots of maras, see Thomas Bruneau et al., Maras: Gang Violence and Security in Central America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011).
(28.) I thank Karina Olivia-Alvarado for kindly giving me a copy of the anthology.
(29.) See Raquel Gutíerrez Epicentro Founder’s Note in Desde El EpiCentro. Unpublished Chapbook.
(30.) This poem is also included in Maya Chinchilla’s later book The Cha Cha Files: A Chapina Poética (San Francisco: Kórima Press, 2014).
(31.) See Galli, Political Spaces and Global War, 158–159.
(32.) Two events directly inspired the riots: Rodney King’s beating by L.A. police and the murder of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by a Korean shopkeeper in Los Angeles; in both cases, the persecutors received a not-guilty verdict or mild charges. For Mike Davis’s reflections on the LAPD and L.A. riots, see “Uprising and Repression in L.A.: An Interview with Mike Davis by the CoverAction Information Bulletin,” in Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising, ed. Robert Gooding-Williams (New York: Routledge, 1993), 142–154.
(33.) Melvin L. Oliver et al., “Anatomy of a Rebellion: A Political-Economical Analysis,” in Reading Rodney King/Reading Urban Uprising, ed. Gooding-Williams, 118.
(34.) See Davis, “Uprising and Repression,” and Oliver, “Anatomy of a Rebellion.”
(35.) This tendency appears in Ralph E. Rodríguez, Brown Gumshoes: Detective Friction and the Search for Chicano/a Identity (2005); for more information see Ana Patricia Rodríguez, “Heridas abiertas de América Central: la salvadoreñidad de Romilia Chacón en las novelas negras de Marcos McPeek Villatoro,” Revista Iberoamericana 76, no. 231 (April–June 2010): 425–442.
(36.) For more information about the tendencies of contemporary detective novels in Central America, see Emiliano Coello Gutiérrez, “Variantes del género negro en la novela centroamericana actual (1994–2006),” Istmo. Revista virtual de estudios literarios y culturales centroamericanos 17 (July–December 2008).
(37.) Francisco Goldman, The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? (New York: Grove Press, 2007), 357.
(38.) Marcos McPeek Villatorio. “First Impressions,” in They Say That I Am Two (Houston: Arte Público Press, 1997), 9.
(39.) To learn more about Romilia Chacón’s Salvadoran sensibilities and her identity linked to Central American history, see Ana Patricia Rodríguez, “Heridas abiertas de América Central,” and Yajaira Padilla, Changing Women, Changing Nation: Female Agency, Nationhood, and Identity in Trans-Salvadoran Narratives (New York: State University of New York Press, 2012).
(40.) On testimony, see John Beverley, “The Marginal at the Center: On Testimonio (Testimonial Narrative),” in The Real Thing: Testimonial Discourse and Latin America (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 27.
(41.) Camilo Mejía, Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Mejía (New York: New Press, 2007), 231.
(42.) Carolina Rivera Escamilla, “Night Memory: The Mansion in the Middle of a Gully,” The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States, eds. Hernández-Linares, Leticia, Rubén Martínez, and Héctor Tobar (San Fernando, CA: Tía Chucha Press, 2017), 25.
(43.) See Alvarado, Estrada, and Hernández, U.S. Central Americans, 4–5.