CENTRAL AMERICAN WRITERS IN CONVERSATION: ANTHOLOGIES, IDENTITY, AND COMMUNITY
Salvadoran poet Leticia Hernández-Linares steps into the spotlight wearing a striped black-and-white dress with large flowing sleeves, a chunky beaded necklace, and bright red lipstick. With a personality to match her bold outfit, Hernández-Linares rattles her flamboyán, an instrument made from a tree native to Madagascar and traditionally used in transformative rituals, as she recites a poemsong. We sit listening in the small theater at Beyond Baroque, a literary arts center in Venice, California. Some of us are waiting in the cool darkness to share our own truths with family, friends, and locals. Hernández-Linares, acting as the evening’s MC, introduces each new speaker with a blast of song from her smartphone.
When she calls my name, I approach the podium to read poems about my uncle, Arnoldo Chavez. He was one of 45,000 Guatemalans “disappeared” by a series of repressive US-backed regimes who from 1960 to the mid-1990s engaged in armed conflict with leftist guerrilla groups and ordinary protesters. I feel my face go red and my body tense — whether due to the hot stage lights or the subject matter, I can hardly tell. When I presented this work at a conference on narratives and veracity, a professor remarked that Central American narratives too often focus on war and trauma. But here, my first time reading to a crowd of Central Americans, I don’t have to provide much context or any justification for telling my family’s story. Many of us are children of parents who fled the violence and economic ruin of the early 1980s. I am comforted by the audience’s intense silence — some people nod as I read, others look down to listen.
When I return to my seat, comic relief is provided by Cynthia Guardado, a self-described “punk profe” of English at Fullerton College, who reads a meditation on poetry and pupusas. After that, Kelly Duarte, a recent undergraduate at University of California, Riverside, transports us back to a youthful summer day at a lakeside.
The Trump administration has done its best to strip Central Americans — and especially migrants — of their humanity by labeling them animals, rapists, and gangsters that must be confined.
We are here to celebrate the publication of The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States (2017), edited by Hernández-Linares, Rubén Martínez and Héctor Tobar, all established literary figures in their own right. Both the book and gathering bring together a diverse community of Central American writers who, as the introduction explains, have been “largely unbeknownst to one another.” Previously, the few anthologies of Central American writers residing in the US have focused on a single country or literary genre. These include Izote Vos: A Collection of Salvadoran American Writing and Visual Art (Pacific News Service, 2000), Desde El Epicentro: An Anthology of Central American Poetry and Art (2007) self-published by EpiCentro, a collective of writers and artists, and Theatre Under My Skin / Teatro bajo mi piel (Kalina, 2014), which showcases contemporary Salvadoran poetry on both sides of the border. The Wandering Song broadens the landscape by featuring poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction by 70 US Central American authors at various stages of their careers.
Seeking to fill a perceived gap, Luis J. Rodriguez, Chicano writer and founding editor of Tía Chucha Press, asked Hernández-Linares if she would help create the anthology, and they worked together to assemble the editorial team. This publication is timely, produced at a moment when increased migration from Central America is met by an extraordinary wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric and foreign policy targeting the region. The Trump administration has done its best to strip Central Americans — and especially migrants — of their humanity by labeling them animals, rapists, and gangsters that must be confined. For Hernández-Linares, “The anthology project was a way of countering hegemonic narratives of violence.”
As the administration works to turn asylum seekers into criminals, the anthology’s focus on movement and migration offers much needed perspective. Rubén Martínez proposed “El Canto Errante” by Nicaraguan revolutionary poet Rubén Darío as the epigraph and anthem for the collection.
“The idea of wandering is a double-reference to the genres of testimonio and nuevo canto that formed a big part of our first wave of cultural production,” Hernández-Linares explained. “At least that is my interpretation because my aesthetic is so heavily influenced by testimonio, oral history and protest music, and these genres have also been a huge influence on other Central American writers.”
The theme of wandering conveys the idea of not having one particular home.
Castillo’s work helped me understand that my uncle’s death was not an isolated story, that it was part of a larger system of US interventionism and globalization...
This anthology would have been a godsend for me at 20 as I struggled, in isolation, to make sense of my family history and my identity as a second-generation Central American. Growing up, I encountered multiple silences. My mother’s hesitation and, at times, outright refusal to speak about my uncle or anything to do with politics, a silence that stemmed not only from grief but also a broad culture of impunity in Guatemala where nearly all crimes go unpunished. I later experienced the silences within the dominant US literary canons and university curricula, in which only a few and predominantly Chicanx writers served to represent anyone of Latin American descent. Throughout most of my education, I was exposed to the same few Chicanx writers, such as Sandra Cisneros, Gary Soto, and Lorna Dee Cervantes. It was a play by Chicana writer Ana Castillo assigned for a Latinx literature course during my last semester in college that finally exposed me to Guatemala in literature. Castillo’s work helped me understand that my uncle’s death was not an isolated story, that it was part of a larger system of US interventionism and globalization. But I was deeply dissatisfied to encounter yet another Central American narrative neither written by nor focusing on a Central American. This would remain true until I entered my doctoral program.
Our stories and identities have often been subsumed within a broader category of “Latinidad” that places Chicanoness and Mexican-Americanness at the center. As a young girl, I had identified as Mexican to gain recognition because I was aware, even then, that people took one look at my brown skin and assumed I could only be from one place. I came to understand my experience as a continuation of cultural disappearance or erasure, and this realization gave me a sense of urgency to document life from a Guatemalan-American perspective. In the process of writing, I came across the work of Maya Chinchilla, an Oakland-based Guatemalan-American poet that left me in awe.
“am I a CENTRAL / American? / Where is the center of America?” Chinchilla’s 1999 poem “CentralAmericanAmerican” asks.
Though she had not yet published a poetry collection at the time, Chinchilla’s single poem was a revelation: never had I felt myself reflected so deeply in a work of literature. I responded by publishing a poem about Central American cultural invisibility in which I named her. When I met her a few months later, she was encouraging and remarked that we had been in a Chapina (Guatemalan) and Central American conversation without even knowing each other. I would in turn receive an email from a Central American student at Cal Poly Pomona thanking me for publishing my work, which had conveyed to her the sensation of finally being seen.
In fact, the publication of The Wandering Song has sparked gatherings and events at literary venues, cafés, and backyards throughout California that have felt historic. This past March, at an Oakland library, Chinchilla read the lines, “What if I tell you that / if I make up what it means to be Guatemalan-hyphen-American / no one in the room will be able to call me a liar?” in the presence of four other Guatemalan poets, a true rarity, prompting ironic laughter and moans of approval. Together we took pictures and ate pepián, plátanos, and panes con pollo at a nearby Guatemalan-Salvadoran restaurant, where we discussed Black Lives Matter, how to navigate academia as people of color, and how to continue our work as educators and writers beyond the academy. Out of these conversations have emerged creative projects and events beyond the anthology, including conference panels, readings, and art installations.
For some people to love it, others must loathe it, so I took the chance.
I recently Skyped with Michigan-based Central American scholar and contributing writer Andrew Bentley, whom I likely would not have met if not for this publication. I asked how he had reacted upon learning of this anthology. “It’s about damn time!” he answered, and then apologized after a family member in the background asked him to quiet down. That, loud volume and all, was my response as well, and I have heard similar reactions over the past year. “There’s the Norton Anthology of Latino/a authors that’s like a phone book,” Bentley continued, “and there’s not one Central American in there. We’re not considered important or relevant.”
While there have been a few individual collections by US Central Americans published in the last few years, an anthology like this offers a wide-ranging and complex view of what it means to be Central American. In “El Gringo Chapín,” Bentley writes about his experience as an adoptee raised from a young age by white American parents. Bentley admits he was apprehensive to submit his piece out of fear that he would be dismissed. He has often been met with skepticism due to his name, upbringing, and inability to speak Spanish as a child.
“‘You can’t say that you are from there,’ I’ve been told by non-Central American Latinos. US Americans too, have said things like, ‘You can’t say that’s your country of origin, that’s an insult to people,’” Bentley tells me. “In academic and creative writing, there will always be people who disagree with or don’t believe you. For some people to love it, others must loathe it, so I took the chance.”
Bentley’s story is the story of the 1990s and the story of today; Central American minors recently separated from their families at the border will have to negotiate their identities as they grow up with little, if any, cultural ties to the land and community of their birth. Perhaps his piece will help some of them make sense of their experiences.
“When people are hungry for their story to be told and people are hungry to hear it, this will be sought out,” said Trini Rodriguez, the co-founder (with Luis) of Tía Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore in Sylmar, California, which houses the press, adding that “There may be a reprint of The Wandering Song, which has sold out.”
Kórima Press, an independent publisher of queer Chicanx literary art, is slated to publish CentroMariconadas: A Queer & Trans Central American Anthology next year, edited by Maya Chinchilla. With an ever-growing Central American community of writers and migrants in the United States, more projects like these are sure to come. Long silences will continue to be broken.
When people are hungry for their story to be told and people are hungry to hear it, this will be sought out.
Gabriela Ramirez-Chavez is a Guatemalan-American poet and Literature PhD candidate at UC Santa Cruz. She specializes in twentieth century and contemporary US Latinx and Latin American literature with a focus on experimental poetics and cross-genre writing. Gaby’s recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Practicing Transgressions (Third Woman Press), The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States (Tía Chucha Press, 2017), and Imaniman: Poets Writing in the Anzaldúan Borderlands (Aunt Lute Press, 2016).