Preguerra. This is the name of a series of poems about my childhood is called in the 70s in El Salvador, a country that is currently cataloged as one of the most violent in the world. The title of the book derives from “El payaso y la filosofía” essay of María Zambrano published in 1957. The essay, among other things, says the following: “I remember an old grock smiling to an immense crowd of all ages and social classes in the Circus of Price, of an already anguished Madrid, in that period even more distressing than the postwar period, which is the prewar period. (I do not know why it is never told )”. While it is true that I have known pre-war, war and postwar of my country, the sharpest memories of violence that rooted my feelings around the world, my meditative silence, are those who have stayed sailing in that childhood block. Powerful memory filaments that mark the vicissitudes of my adult body.
My childhood in the Salvadoran prewar era witnessed photographs of the disappeared, bomb blasts, curfews, military speeches on television, violently repressed demonstrations, schoolmates as young as eight who wanted to kill “communists and fagots”; but I was also witnessing whispers, silent taxes, unanswered questions. In one of my poems, it characterizes the tense silence that surrounded me as a “sour and stale shell”. In that environment, my resistance came from the pasty color that the tropics offered me and the sound words of my mom’s stories. Those were my “patches of joy”. However, the girl who appears in the poems, goes through the field of anguish and, despite being small, senses the arrival of the dark night of history, as Pasolini would say. Zambrano’s quote that opens the book obviously reflects that reading: the prewar anguish. In that sense, I wanted to express that I am an inseparable part of that ruined, historical, collective spirit, although at the individual level, many years later, I have rebuilt my life in another country. I have learned to manage, “with grotesque grace,” others forms of violence, but I’m still “the drop that, without detaching itself from the lake, knows that it is a drop.”
2. Small bodies transits
Childhood is one of the most recurrent topics in literature. It is a kind of a screen on which adult subjectivity is projected: fears, anxieties, emotional breakdowns, desires. Deleuze and Guattari say that the adult is usually captured in a childhood block, while still an adult; or vice versa, the child can be captured in an adult block without ceasing to be a child. When does a girl who witnesses a massacre names the world as an adult? When does a desolate adult decide to imagine the present with the power of a child to survive the losses of it in torn environments? The border is thin and, apparently, both spaces operate in strict proximity. Now, is there a difference between childhood and infancy?
The Sociologist Iskra Pavez Soto refers to the social and etymological complexity regarding the concepts of infancy and childhood. She affirms that infancy comes from the Latin infantia, “whose meaning refers to the inability to speak”; thus, the înfâns or înfantis are defined as “those who have no voice”. If we ascribe to sociology, infancy would refer to a social condition derived from a differentiated cultural and historical construction and characterized by relations of power, that is, it would be located in a world marked by binary oppositions that silence or minimize their voice against the adult voice. Childhood, on the other hand, would embrace the group of people or subjects who develop in social space. However, in literature, childhood also involves certain topics, such as adult utopia, memory, the magical stage of childhood, the loss of innocence, paradise lost by the imposition of the world of adults, etc.
In short, the notion of childhood in most literary and cultural discourses is shaped as an invention or adult projection. And while it has been imagined, symbolized, it has also been excluded from public space and, therefore, traditionally has not been recognized as a citizen voice. In recent years, geography, sociology and anthropology took a critical turn to consider subjectivity and political actions of childhood and teenagers. Thus, they have problematized how historically, their subjectivities have been reduced through a social construction that correlates childhood with fragility and passivity. This critical turn argues that childhood, in fact, observes the world, accumulates experiences and knowledge, and has the capacity of response, imagination and resistance. They are, then, actors in the socio-political space: they have agency. The foregoing has been transferred to literary and cultural criticism, which has stopped in its representation in various texts, for example, indigent childhood unfolding in public space, small bodies symbolizing answering actions and complaints.
This is how, according to Catherine Coquio, the figure of the child-witness sprouts from the writing of memory, especially in particularly traumatic historical situations, which leads to the image of the child as resistant.
Walter Benjamin says that memory is not an instrument but a space that, however, does not have to be traversed horizontally, such as a city, but rather one that has to be dug up. As an archaeological action, you have to go down through its thickness, find the remains. Memory is dynamic because it signifies the present and, for it to make sense, it must be brought to today. I thought of this powerful image, that of removing the land of memory, when I read a poem by William Archila (1968), a Salvadoran who migrated to the United States at the age of 12. In “Bury This Pig”, included in The Art of Exile (2009), the poet recalls his childhood through a chilling episode. In El Salvador, together with his friends, he used to climb the hillside behind a corn field. One morning they found a dead “thing” girded in a ditch; they thought it was a butchered pig. The child William, remembered by the block of his adult, imagined the death of the animal: “los huesos se deshacen en el suelo, abiertos / al tajo y al desgarro de las manos humanas: / carne de cerdo y manteca de cerdo, patas delanteras, lomo de cerdo cortado en trozos, / un órgano engordado y descuartizado”. For weeks, the children came to see the remains of the animal: “gusanos / robando el gris del cerebro, / cada vez, otro niño descalzo / sondeando la cuenca del ojo con un palo”. Finally, one day they decided to bury him, once and for all, and they arrived at the place with picks, bars and shovels. It was at that moment that they heard the battle cry emanating from the earth:
¿Cómo iba a saber
que estarían enganchados, mutilados,
los hocicos aplastados contra la pared,
sus cuerpos descorchados en el suelo?
¿Cómo iba yo a saber
que enterraría a este cerdo, roca sobre roca?
The adult Archila and the child William merge in the poetic gesture: by removing the earth from the graves of the disappeared, one reaches the heart of memory.
Those of us who left, those who stayed: we have traces of ash on our hands from so much digging.
The photographer and journalist Donna de Cesare has documented the Salvadoran reality from the civil war in the 1980s to the emergence of the so-called maras in the 1990s. In recent years, she has continued to portray the complex daily life of the families of gangs, both in El Salvador and in the United States and Italy. In the summer of 2018, Donna was visiting Barcelona and we shared in-depth conversations about the problem of gang violence, which takes the form of extortion, drug trafficking and murder. After the Peace Accords, signed in 1992, governments did not root out the socio-economic problems that caused the war. The persistent inequality, the arrival of fierce neoliberalism, the substratum of the colonial wound that has never ceased to throb, the “clean slate” policy, among other things, contributed to creating the conditions for gang members deported from the The United States, in the 90s, will find fertile ground to develop an organized crime structure. Faced with a future without a future, children and young people from precarious neighborhoods were drawn to the life of the gangs. However, the stigma around these young people is often simplified and exacerbated.
As Donna says, in her book Unsettled. Children in a World of Gangs (2013), “the legacies of brutality, impunity and memory suppression are part of the unpaid accounts. The accumulated damage underlies the new forms of violence, corruption and injustice that young people of the postwar generation […] have to confront ”.
I pause carefully to look at Donna’s photographs: a girl looks at the body of a man killed by death squads in the 1980s; “Gustavo” appears in a guerrilla field with his rifle, he decided to join after his parents were killed by the army; eight-year-olds show off their gang affiliation tattoos, markings that make them targets of enemy cliques and social cleansing squads; a boy no more than ten years old named “Baby Bugsy” shows his gang sign; “Esperanza”, a three-year-old girl, holds a bird in her hands, she has named it after her adolescent uncle, who uses a wheelchair after being shot by rival gang members. The photographs summarize our history of violence distributed in small bodies that pass through the remains of life.
María José Punte, author of La topografía del estallido (2018), affirms that it is necessary to contextualize children in national histories, to provide them with a place, since it is precisely that history that “has taken them out of every safe notion of home” . But not only because of wars or state terrorism, but also because of the polarized and impoverished society model that continually grows, as the sociologist Sandra Carli maintains. Therefore, it is necessary to review the way in which children and adolescents are criminalized in a country that offers them very few opportunities for development. In other words, destigmatize, dispute the univocal, homogeneous idea with which these “children” of violence have been built. Sometimes they are victims, sometimes executioners, or perhaps both at the same time. Teenage gang members and young hit men: they are the nightmare of the Salvadoran civilian population, but, on some occasions, they are also the scapegoat for a policy that seeks an alibi to expand and strengthen repressive measures. On many occasions this translates into arbitrary arrests of innocent young people.
Self-naming itself with a verse from Roque Dalton’s “Love Poem”, “Those Always Suspicious of Everything” is a movement made up of relatives of adolescents illegally detained by public security institutions; it is also made up of young people, activists, artists and lawyers. The initiative combines artistic performances at the gates of the Attorney General’s Office with an intense campaign of complaints regarding arbitrary police arrests and opaque trials. In addition, between 2009 and 2016, 11.252 reports of disappearances were registered; 3 out of 10 disappeared were under 18 years of age. Marcela Zamora’s documentary, The Bones Room (2015), reflects this reality and the tireless search for mothers and grandmothers.
Since the 1990s, it has been extremely difficult to be between 10 and 20 years old in El Salvador, considering both the few options that children and adolescents have, and the stigma attached to them. Many parents, fearful that their sons and daughters will turn to crime or be killed for refusing to be part of gangs, send them down the migrant trails to the United States. Several decide to leave on their own. In other cases, young people who were once gang members, but who want to change the course of their lives, also leave alone.
The roads to the north are broken lives, echoes of hustle and bustle and extortion. Their forks smell of erasure. And sulfur.
Back in the war years, when a bomb damaged the electrical system, we lit the candles. It happened quite often. After dinner we would sit around mom and she would tell us stories. Dad listened to the news on his portable battery-powered radio. I remember the shadows on the walls, the dark night, the distressing news. But Mom insisted on relating, anything, and she so she gathered us. My anguish diminished and I lingered in the taste of the words. We imagined and we resisted.
Miroslava Rosales, Salvadoran poet and friend living in Germany, recently shared with me her poem “No hay sitio para mi país en las enciclopedias del asombro” (There is no place for my country in the encyclopedias of wonder). After several images that reveal a tremendous unease, the poem closes with these beautiful verses:
Mi país: cactus en una larga temporada de sequía.
Mi país-fogata resistiendo a las pirañas del poder.
Del cactus una flor espléndida nacerá
para hacernos recordar la existencia del consuelo pese a la aridez del terreno.
Professionals of survival, we insist on telling to shelter our babbling before its transformation. In what? Maybe in hope. Hopefully in hope.