Shortly after the Trump Administration announced it was ending Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans, the New York Times ran an article with reading suggestions for understanding the country those immigrants are expected to return to in 2019.
Of the three books suggested, only one is by a Salvadoran author. Readers are led to assume that Salvadoran storytellers simply don’t exist—a dangerous lie I myself believed for the majority of my life.
Growing up, I devoured many, many books about white people. Stories about white people turned me onto reading. Though prep school and the glamourous New York City were completely foreign to me, J.D. Salinger managed to make Holden Caulfield feel like a familiar friend, a reflection in a funhouse mirror. Ray Bradbury’s short stories introduced me to the place where nostalgia meets science fiction, an intersection I now write from often. Stories about, and by, white people gave me a voice by which to pen my own stories.
But the stories I’d begun to formulate in the margins of a high school notebook full of biology notes were hollow. The dialogue and monologues that I gifted my characters with were all mine, imbued with my teenage confusion and angst. But the characters were not like me. They were not Latinx, they were not the children of immigrants, and they knew nothing of growing up Salvadoran in Los Angeles. My first full-length draft ended up being an eighty-page young adult novel where two of the main characters were white teenagers from the suburbs of Colorado.
At another juncture in my development as a reader, with a college acceptance that relocated me across the country, the handful of non-white professors at my predominantly white institution gifted me stories that were (finally!) not about white people.
In a contemporary African American literature course, Claudia Rankine, Toni Morrison, George C. Wolfe, and Paul Beatty stunned and haunted me. Lisa Ko, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Amy Tan wrote stories about immigrants that struck a chord deep inside.
Perhaps most life-altering were the Latinx authors I hadn’t realized were so desperately missing from my own personal canon. I flipped through Drown by Junot Díaz, as if to catch up for every day I hadn’t spent reading his work. Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera gave me the words to explain the feelings I knew too well, of being American but hyphenated. Achy Obejas, Luis Valdez, Julia Alvarez, Hector Tobar, and other Latinx authors unhinged my timid tongue. They offered well-crafted stories about Latinx families and enemies and lovers. Their work gave me permission to write stories as I lived them, in English and Spanglish and slang.
But El Salvador, the country of my parents’ birth, wasn’t in those stories. The conjugation of voseo, refugees labeled economic immigrants, a U.S.-funded civil war and its aftermath: it was all missing from the literature I was reading. I convinced myself that those stories simply didn’t exist and anything I wrote about El Salvador and Salvadorans was a whisper into a cultural abyss.
It wasn’t until months later that I’d come to realize that these stories existed, but that they’d been hidden away from me. According to Arturo Arias, “the Central American population remains nearly invisible within the imaginary conﬁnes of what constitutes the multicultural landscape of the United States.” Sociologist Leisy Abrego has argued that the U.S. government’s failure to acknowledge individuals fleeing the Salvadoran Civil War as refugees created “the silence that is the large void in generations of children of Salvadoran immigrants growing up in the US being denied access to our own histories.”
The stories I so desperately needed were out there.
But because of the value placed on Salvadoran lives and xenophobic assumptions of what El Salvador offers the world culturally, they were not on my radar. The journey I’m on now is one that involves recovering Salvadoran stories, mining them out with the help of friends and colleagues who offer a title here, a poem there.
It wasn’t until my sophomore spring of college, two decades into my life, that I finally discovered literature that represented El Salvador as fully as I’d come to know it on every international trip back to San Salvador. A professor asked me if I’d ever read Roque Dalton. I hadn’t, and I told him so.
Looking back, I feel an irrational sense of shame in the fact that, as an intense lover of books, I hadn’t heard about the most famous Salvadoran writer. But the stories had been hidden from me, and it wasn’t until I picked up Dalton’s poetry that I began to see the artistic landscape that’s existed in El Salvador for decades.
Though Roque Dalton’s extensive body of work comes from the years leading up to his assassination in 1975, he understood El Salvador and its diaspora the way I’ve come to, decades after his death. In “Poema de Amor” he refers to Salvadorans as,
los guanacos hijos de la gran puta,
los que apenitas pudieron regresar,
los que tuvieron un poco más de suerte,
los eternos indocumentados,
los hacelotodo, los vendelotodo, los comelotodo
Salvadorans, particularly those “eternally undocumented,” are those that do it all: as cooks, housekeepers, landscapers, farmers, and all the jobs in between. They sell it all as street vendors in Los Angeles where they’re criminalized for their attempts to make a living. Roque Dalton’s poetry has reflected what I know about the people who’ve left El Salvador for their new homes up north. Versions of my friends and families live in the poems I spent far too long assuming didn’t exist.
But Dalton was a poet, a damn good one, not an all-knowing oracle. A twelve-year-long civil war left 75,000 Salvadorans dead, 50,000 missing, and hundreds of thousands more displaced all over the world. A scissure of that degree inevitably changed the literature produced about El Salvador, especially when a three-million-person diaspora begins to pick up their pens to write stories Dalton could have never imagined.
In a stroke of luck, I was at Harvard at the same time as a Salvadoran graduate student and poet who led me to a generation of Salvadoran writers who were like me: straddling that space between El Salvador and the United States. One of her first recommendations was a Javier Zamora, whose debut collection was forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press a few months from the day of our conversation.
When it was released, Javier Zamora’s Unaccompanied felt like the book I’d been searching for from the moment I’d realized that writing about El Salvador was not a hopeless endeavor. My complicated relationship with another country that is mine, though more in my nostalgia than anything else, has never been an easy thing to articulate. Yet Zamora writes tactfully, “Tonight, how I wish / you made it easier to love you, Salvador. Make it easier / to never have to risk our lives.” The poems were written in the distinctly Salvadoran Spanglish I’ve learned to speak but had yet to see in print. Reading a line like “to say sobreviviste bicho, sobreviviste carnal. Yes, we over-lived” felt like knowing a secret language, coded just for me.
Roque Dalton died in 1975 and Javier Zamora’s collection was published last year. Their writing spans more than four decades. But initially, those were the only two Salvadoran storytellers I had to cling to. Only in the last few months have I begun building up my own personal canon of Salvadoran writers telling their stories, and indirectly mine, those of my parents, tíos, and tías.
William Archila conciliates the tension between American and Salvadoran by presenting them as one in the same, writing Duke Ellington into Santa Ana in his poetry.
Señor Ellington claps his hands along,
dancing in a two-step blues, stomping
in the center of everyone like a traffic cop
conducting a busy city street.
Leticia Hernández-Linares write musical poems about women who challenge the machismo of the culture they belong to, including one about a woman who shares my own mother’s name.
Sitting with Estella, Dolores conjures
cumbias with sugar on top, about women
who aren’t gonna take it anymore
Yesika Salgado guided me through heartbreak, hunger, and the presumed unknowability of our Salvadoran identity, writing:
every man I have loved does not know my country / has
not been awakened by the rooster’s crow / does not know
the swell of grass and dirt beneath June thunderstorms /
does not smell burning wood and think of home
My canon, writers from both here and there, grew little by little, like a Santa Tecla sprinkle turned tropical storm: Quique Avilés, Claribel Alegría, Cynthia Guardado, Elena Salamanca, Lorena Duarte, Karina Oliva Alvarado, Susana Reyes, harold terezón, Alejandro Córdova, Willy Palomo, Janel Pineda, Claudia Castro Luna, Roberto Lovato, Raquel Gutiérrez, Alexandra Lytton-Regalado, Gabriela Poma.
These writers, whose work has entered my life in its most recent era, give El Salvador and its diaspora shape, complexity, and dignity. Finding faithful representations of Salvadorans in literature has been a difficult process, access to texts being one of the central struggles. Personal recommendations and anthologies like “The Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States,” have made the process easier.
But it’s also required hours of sifting through footnotes and hoping that the cited texts are still in circulation. Two bilingual anthologies published by Kalina Editorial, “Teatro Bajo Mi Piel/Theater Under My Skin” and “Puntos de Fuga/Vanishing Points,” have been wildly helpful for identifying contemporary Salvadoran authors. Yet, I wasn’t able to buy copies until I was physically in San Salvador last summer.
These questions of access, of who comes across our stories and why, offers me, as a reader and writer, a challenge. For the sake of a rich but overlooked literary tradition, there’s a need to archive and connect others to our stories with the hope that people will begin to acknowledge that El Salvador is more than just its social ills.
In perhaps my favorite Roque Dalton poem ever, “El Gran Despecho,” he writes:
País mío no existes
sólo eres una mala silueta mía
una palabra que le creí al enemigo
That country of mine, nestled between two Americas, is the vibrant homeland of poetry and prose. Read its literature, lest you believe the lie that it simply doesn’t exist.