• Carolina Quiroga-Stultz

57 - Female Poets


What can save a girl from the horrors of war? The author Roxana Méndez tells us that she found refuge in poetry during the Salvadorian civil war. In this episode, we present two of the author’s poems that reflect the moment when a family is fleeing the armed conflict. In the comments, we reflect on one of the poems and talk about the poet’s life. We finalize the program with another poem called “Flying Machines.”



Pequeño poema infantil

(Short poem for children)

by Rubén Darío


And do you know, my child,

Why there was no fairy?

Because there

close to you

was the one who blessed your birth:

Queen of all queens:

The Queen of the Stars,

The sweet Virgin Mary.

May she bless your path,

Like your Mother and your friend,

With her divine counsel

Fear not infernal war;

May her name that banishes evil

perfume your wishes

For she scents the skies

And the earth.


(Fragment from “Pequeño poema infantil” or “Short poem for children” by Rubén Darío; translated by Alexa Jeffress)



Welcome


Hello! Welcome, dear listeners of Tres Cuentos, the bilingual podcast dedicated to the literary, historical, and traditional narratives of Latin America.


I’m Alexa Jeffress, and the poem that we just heard is titled “Pequeño poema infantil” (or “Short poem for children” in English) and was written by the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Dario, who influenced the author that we welcome today. A woman who developed a passion for poetry from a very young age, Roxana Méndez.


Four years ago, I had the opportunity to meet many brilliant poets during a poetry course that the poet Fernando Valverde taught at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. I met contemporary poets from all over the Spanish-speaking world, including poets from Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Spain, and of course, El Salvador. It was there that I met Roxana Mendez. Her presence transformed the classroom full of grad students. Roxana read poems from her book The Rain of 1979 and we were transported to a world that was foreign to many of us - the world of El Salvador during the Civil War.


When I heard Roxana read her poems, I knew that I wanted to dig deeper, learn more about the history of her country, and continue to read her beautiful and rhythmic verses.


When we began to develop the season about female poets, I immediately thought of Roxana and remembered how much I had learned about her country through her poetry.


In this episode, we will hear two poems by Roxana Mendez - One is titled “Gray Hills” and the other is “Flying Machines.” You can find both poems in the book La lluvia de 1979, or The Rain of 1979 in English, published by Valparaíso Ediciones in 2018.


The poem that we will hear next, “Gray Hills” describes the experience of a family that has to flee the violence of the war. A young girl wakes up to the sound of her family packing their things before leaving the house for some unknown period.





Gray Hills

(Translated by Alexa Jeffress)


I think of the gray hills

viewed with just one eye open

an August morning,

as a child.


I hear the bustle in the kitchen,

doors that open

and close before opening

and open before closing once again,


we have to leave

but I don’t know yet.


We have to flee

but nobody has awoken me

to tell me so.


Someone watches the street

from a window,

someone prepares the suitcases,

but I suspect nothing, I lie

on a bed still fluffy

between thousands of pillows,


observing white deer

glide over slow gray hills

beneath a new sun round

like a copper coin

about to rise


from a bottomless

pocket.



Commentary


Let’s return from the world of an innocent child who awoke without knowing that that day, everything was about to change for her.


“Gray Hills”, the poem that we just heard, is narrated from the perspective of someone who remembers how their childhood changed in an instant. The poem invites us to reflect on the experience of surviving a war as a child who does not fully understand the circumstances around her.


Now, when she looks back, the poetic voice has a perspective that differs from that of the young child about whom she writes. One of them is experiencing the morning of the escape as it happened, and the other experience the same moment through a memory of the event. This poem made me think of how we continue to be the same person at the same time that we are very different people during distinct chapters of our lives.


I think we all have moments in life where we are completely unaware that something huge is happening to us. During childhood this occurs more often because our innocence protects us from the world. How many times have you looked back on something and realized you had no idea what was about to happen minutes, hours, or days later? Imagine that one minute you’re contemplating something outside your window and the next, you’re gathering your clothes in a suitcase, preparing to flee. Would you be afraid? Would you want to know why you have to leave your house?


At the same time that this poem reflects on these questions, it also explores the different versions of the same self. To me, this poem, and others in the book, comes from a type of literary therapy in which the poet meditates about her experiences and memories. In the poem, the poetic voice tries to reconcile the memory of the event with the experience of living the event many years before.


Surveillance and quickly packing suitcases evoke the sensation of imminent danger, even as the young girl appears to be unaware of the violence occurring outside her window. The poem creates a situation that I can easily imagine and see in my mind with descriptions of the landscape and a family in panic, preparing to leave its home. Although the poem describes an image of El Salvador from several decades ago, we know that today, there are still many people that have to flee their homes in all parts of the world because of persecution for their ideals, race, religion, gender, and politics. “Gray Hills” is a poem that could easily describe the experience of many young children in many parts of the world.


*


Let me tell you a little about the poet who wrote this poem. Roxana Méndez, who was born in 1979, is a distinguished Salvadoran poet. She has won several prizes for her poetry, including the El Salvador National Poetry Prize. On top of writing poetry for adults, Roxana has also published children’s books like El gato mecánico (which translates to The Mechanical Cat) and Máquinas voladoras (or Flying Machines in English). The latter won the Fundación Cuatrogatos Prize, an international prize that recognizes authors who write in Spanish for young readers. One fun fact about Roxana is that she loves fantasy and science fiction, two genres that, according to her, influence and have a lot to do with children’s and young adult literature.





Roxana’s poems address themes like memory, her country’s history, childhood experiences, nature and daily life. We frequently see her family reflected in her poems - for example, sometimes she writes about her mom, her dad, or her grandmother.


Some of the literary figures that have inspired Méndez’s poetry include Rubén Dario from Nicaragua, and Antonio Machado, Gloria Fuentes and Federico García Lorca from Spain.


*


Roxana grew up during the Salvadoran Civil War between 1981 and 1992, and we see this theme arise frequently in her book of poetry The Rain of 1979. The Salvadoran Civil war has a very complex history which is often controversial due to debates about the facts surrounding the time period. I’ll give a quick summary of some key moments to help situate us and understand the context behind Roxana’s poems that we are sharing in this episode.


In the early 1980s, the government of El Salvador considered democracy to be dangerous and subversive. Supporting democracy, unions, the Catholic church, or freedom of speech could result in - and often did - the death or disappearance of individuals. For example, in 1980, the archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was assassinated after harshly criticizing the Salvadoran military. Toward the end of the decade, in 1989, six Jesuits, their maid, and the maid’s daughter were also assassinated. If you are interested in learning more about this, I highly recommend Jorge Galán’s novel Noviembre, or November in English.


During the war, some people chose to fight in guerrilla groups and others chose to suffer the hunger and misery that the war brought in silence. The guerrilla groups, which were made up of Marxist-Leninists, formed the group FMLN, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. This group also belonged to the Revolutionary Democratic Front. As the guerrilla groups took up arms, the Salvadoran government received economic and political support from the United States.


During the conflict, for fear of repression and violence, more than 10% of the Salvadoran population was displaced. In addition to the difficult political conditions, the economic consequences were grave - there was a high level of unemployment, poverty, and inflation. The war finally ended in 1992 when both sides signed the Peace Agreement of Chapultepec, but this was only after 75,000 people had been assassinated or disappeared.


Thirty years have gone by since the peace agreements were signed, and this year El Salvador became international news again. This past April, the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, arrested more than 18,000 people for their involvement with gangs. The mass incarceration combined with food rationing has provoked panic among citizens and the international community for the violence with which these measures were taken. Some people think Bukele’s actions are terrifyingly similar to the injustices that sparked the Civil War just a few decades earlier.


*


I hope this summary helps provide some context and shows how Roxana Mendez’s poetry fits within this puzzle. In Roxana’s poetry, we see the effects of violence and the war on a child who grew up in a time period marked by violence. During the war, Roxana suffered from sleepwalking and experienced many sleepless nights for fear of the guerrilla groups and the military’s helicopters that fought through the night. Each night her mother would read her poems and little Roxana survived the sleepless nights reciting poems that she eventually learned by heart.


In a 2019 interview with the Cuatrogatos Foundation, Méndez explained that going through this experience at such a young age, forged her strong connection with poetry. In her own words: “I tend to have the feeling that literature has always been with me.”


Of course, it’s to be expected that the young girl would end up reading many Salvadoran and Central American poets. Roxana said that when she read, she always searched for the musicality in the verses, so much so, that when she first began to write poetry, she started by playing with poems written by other poets in free verse and reorganizing the verses to make them fit into a metric that was familiar to her. Free verse poetry was something new for her that she wanted to experiment with. Later, at age 14, Roxana began to write her own poems, and by the time she was 17 years old, she had already won her first poetry prize.


In a panel during the Children’s Literature Seminar and Reading at the Book Fair in Miami, which was organized by the Cuatrogatos Foundation in 2019, the poet reflected on a question that she receives often: “Why write for children in one of the most violent countries in the world? It’s important to talk about fantasy and imagination in a childhood that confronts violence and mistreatment at school, in the street, and even at home. Can literature perhaps save a child from violence?”


In Roxana’s case, this was true. By 1992 when the war ended, literature had helped this young, 13-year-old girl emotionally survive the horrors of the armed conflict. The Salvadoran writer suggests that fantasy can transport us to another world at the same time that it can confront the daily reality of a specific place. In the same way, Roxana’s poems open a window to the world that was and is El Salvador.


*


Well, that is all for today. I’ll leave you, listeners, with one last poem from this fabulous poet who teaches us that literature can be more than a lifeboat. The poem that I will read next, “Máquinas voladoras” or “Flying Machines” in English, holds the same title as one of her children’s books.





Flying Machines

(Translated by Alexa Jeffress)


The little plane

glides over the valleys

and life reduces

to a double stroke of luck.


My small hand

in my mother’s small hand,

as if not letting go were enough.


I look outside searching for birds

but the sound of the propellers

makes me sleepy.


We came from the west,

leaving behind fields of cotton.

I don’t understand why we flee

because at six years old

I don’t understand anything about war,


the dead on the sidewalks

are not foreign enough,


I don’t understand

the reason for the grown-ups’ prayers, nor the

explosions around me

like buds of smoke

that suddenly burst into

grey flowers.


The fields below have

yellow and green stretches.


The little plane glides sweetly,

I fall asleep, and when I awake,

twenty years have passed,

and I understand it all.


And with those words from El Salvador, we end today’s episode. In the next episode, we will explore the poetry of Puerto Rican author Johanny Vázquez.


Until next time, adios adios.


*

Credits


Tres Cuentos is an exercise of creative writing, researching, and retelling.

Special thanks to ….

Remember that you can listen to Tres Cuentos in any podcast app, Google Podcast, iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, iVoox, or wherever you found us listed. Also, check our website www.trescuentos.com

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The list of credits per song can be found in the transcript.

Thanks for listening, adios, adios.


Bibliography

RoxanaMéndez. By Valparaíso Ediciones. http://valparaisoediciones.es/tienda/6_mendez-roxana

Roxana Méndez y sus puertas a la infancia. Entrevista con la autora de “Máquinas voladoras”, Premio Fundación Cuatrogatos 2019. May 16, 2019. Published by Fundación Cuatrogatos. https://cuatrogatos.org/blog/?p=6050

Entrevista a Roxana Méndez. May 30, 2012, by the Spanish Cultural Center in El Salvador. Published by El Mixtifori. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEVxhzMud3o

Los libros, la lectura y nosotros. November 27, 2019. Published by la Fundación Cuatrogatos. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4FebFnmTQ2o

Premio Fundación Cuatrogatos. https://www.cuatrogatos.org/premio.php

Las poderosas imágenes de la sangrienta guerra civil que terminó hace 25 años en El Salvador. January 16, 2017. Published by BBC Mundo. https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-38613136


El Salvador’s Brutal Civil War: What We Still Don’t Know. By Mike Allison. March 1, 2012. Published by Aljazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2012/3/1/el-salvadors-brutal-civil-war-what-we-still-dont-know


In El Salvador, the President Cracks Down on Civil Liberties, and Is Beloved for It. By Natalie Kitroeffie. April 28, 2022. Published by the New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/28/world/americas/el-salvador-bukele-gangs.html


Causas y perspectivas de la guerra civil en El Salvador, por Guillermo M. Ungo. Jul. - Sep., 1984. Published by Revista Mexicana de Sociología, Vol. 46, No. 3, Centroamérica y el nuevo imperialismo, pp. 143-154.






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