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date: 24 June 2022

Diasporic Social Imaginaries, Transisthmian Echoes and Transfigurations of Central American Subjectivitiesfree

Diasporic Social Imaginaries, Transisthmian Echoes and Transfigurations of Central American Subjectivitiesfree

  • Ana Patricia RodríguezAna Patricia RodríguezDepartment of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, University of Maryland


Throughout the mid-20th and early 21st centuries, Central American writers, in and outside of the isthmus, have written in response to political and social violence and multiple forms of racial, economic, gendered, and other oppressions, while also seeking to produce alternative social imaginaries for the region and its peoples. Spanning the civil war and post-war periods and often writing from the space of prolonged and temporary diaspora as exiles, sojourners, and migrants, in their respective works, writers such as Claribel Alegría, Gioconda Belli, and Martivón Galindo have not only represented the most critical historical moments in the region but moreover transfigured the personal and collective social woundings of Central America into new signs and representations of the isthmus, often from other sites. Read together, their texts offer a gendered literary topography of war, deterritorialization, and reterritorialization and imagine other “geographies of identities” as suggested by Smadar Lavie and Ted Swedenburg for post-conflict, diasporic societies. These writers’ work is testament to the transformative and transfigurative power of women’s writing in the Central American transisthmus.


  • Latin American and Caribbean Literatures

Throughout the mid-20th and early 21st centuries, Central American women writers, living and writing in and outside of the isthmus, have produced a literature of liberation, resistance, testimony, and diaspora, following the greater migratory cultural flows at the turn of the millennium.1 In their texts, writers like Claribel Alegría, Gioconda Belli, and Martivón Galindo weave narratives of struggles across Central America and their diasporic sites to create a transisthmian women-centered, if not feminist, literature.2 Their texts not only echo the past but also prefigure future imaginaries and subjectivities for Central America, especially feminine ones. In this context, they “challenge the accepted order of life in the isthmus . . . [and] question the logic that justifies that order.”3 They transfigure Central American literature from national contexts into diasporic transmutations. They not only expose what Martivón Galindo calls the wounded social body of Central America, but also offer new social geographies in and outside of the isthmus.4 Indeed in her poem titled “Retorno” from the collection Retazos (Pieces), Galindo imagines poetry as an act of “covering with gauzes” the wounds produced by armed conflict and civil unrest that shattered Central American societies and sent them on diasporic paths.5 She shows her own personal psychic and physical displacement to be a part of the larger narrative of the social wounding of Central America in periods of war and post-war. Reading or taking their words as “signs of Central America,” as suggested by the cultural critic Arturo Arias, this article reads Alegría’s, Belli’s, and Galindo’s respective narratives of Central America at key moments of transformation or transfiguration that give rise to new subjectivities and “geographies of identities” in post-conflict, diasporic societies.6

Transisthmian Echoes of War

The 1980s (and the decades leading up to it) represent an epoch of impressive abundance and terrible misery for Central America.7 It was during this decade that the Cold War spread throughout Central America as a series of homegrown civil wars, Marxist revolutions, and foreign interventions took hold of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama. In 1979, US officials became concerned that the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution would set off a domino effect leading to a Communist takeover of the region. Thus, the US government heightened its counterinsurgency efforts in the region and increased its economic, military, and political aide to military regimes and allies.8 Identified as small wars, the Nicaraguan Sandinista Revolution (1962–1990) and Contra War (1981–1990) coincided with Guatemala’s prolonged armed conflict (1954–1996), El Salvador’s bloody civil war (1980–1992), and the US invasion of Panama (1989).9 Against this backdrop, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Belize played host to opposing factions, or home to fleeing refugees as the wars spread around them.

Indeed, in The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War, Greg Grandin asserts that “in the 1980s, the final escalation of the superpower conflict turned this country [Guatemala], along with Nicaragua and El Salvador, into one of the Cold War’s last killing fields.”10 In like fashion, Eric Hobsbawm alludes to revolutionary struggles in the developing world, including Central America, as the final phase of extreme world violence at the end of the 20th century.11 The political violence that spread across the isthmus during the 1980s ultimately resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, disappearances, and displaced people seeking refuge in and outside of the region.12 Fleeing the war zones, they often surfaced as refugees and migrants in host countries such as Mexico, Canada, Australia, and the United States, as well as other countries throughout Central and South America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.13 The civil wars in Central America, thus, should be understood as a global crisis extending across and beyond the isthmus and producing the transnational migrations that continue well into the 21st century.14

By the 1980s and 1990s, Central American women, in particular, were writing liberation texts, resistance novels, and testimonial literature, which not only documented the gendered wars and historical struggles in the region but also circulated widely in the international solidarity and feminist networks. In Writing Women in Central America: Gender and the Fictionalization of History, Laura Barbas-Rhoden calls attention to the critically “disruptive” work by writers like Claribel Alegría and Gioconda Belli, who were frequently exiled due to their political affiliations and work.15 Even before the original publication in Spanish of her novel Ashes of Izalco, in 1966, Alegría, for example, had begun a life of extended sojourns between Nicaragua, El Salvador, Mexico, Europe, the United States, and other countries.16 From these places, she wrote some of her most important texts reflecting on and critiquing Central American official history and its patriarchal narratives, see the section “Literary Battlegrounds.” So, too, Belli was exiled periodically in Mexico and Costa Rica in the 1970s and 1980s because of her opposition to the Somoza dictatorship and her participation in the Sandinista Revolution; and lived partly in the United States and Nicaragua, from 1992 until 2013, due to her marriage to Charles Castaldi, in 1987, and her final break with the Sandinista Party. In her own turn, Galindo fled El Salvador in 1981 upon being her release from the torture chambers.17 In her reading of Central American women’s writing, Barbas-Rhoden thus rightly suggests that Central American women writers not only fought multiple warfronts as combatants, peacemakers, and solidarity workers but also “have taken up arms, spun plots, uncovered violence. They have reinvented landscapes and histories. They have threatened identities, politics, and social structures.”18

In this vein, the politically engaged writings of Alegría, Belli, and Galindo can be read as literary mappings of personal and political liberation struggles in El Salvador and Nicaragua.19 Produced during revolutions and civil conflicts, their texts shine light on women’s significant participation in national liberation movements, which, however, politically oppositional, were male-centric, patriarchal, and heteronormative organizations.20 In Fire from the Mountain: The Making of a Sandinista, Sandinista leader Omar Cabezas, for example, produced a primer for the Nicaraguan revolution. In his testimonio, Cabezas emphasized the historic importance of men in the revolutionary struggle as it was “[the] man’s responsibility to raise up others out of poverty and exploitation, and to [rise] to a higher level on the revolutionary scale,” always in the proverbial attempt “to be like Che.”21 In Latin American revolutionary discourse of the 20th century, Ernesto “Che” Guevara came especially to embody the revolutionary hero and “new man,” who selflessly sacrificed himself for others, inspired the masses, lived by higher values, and put into practice the ideal that “the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love,” all of which Guevara outlined in “Socialism and Man in Cuba.”22

Despite the large number of women involved in the armed struggles in El Salvador and Nicaragua, as documented by feminist scholars, the revolutionary narrative in Central America erased the presence and contributions of women and queer people in the struggles.23 Often writing from diaspora or extended periods of sojourning abroad and informed by critical distance, Alegría, Belli, and others attempted to transform the revolutionary narrative of the “new man” and “woman” to signal the construction of new Central American gendered subjectivities. Concurrently, they challenged the androcentric revolutionary narrative and sought gender equality, sexual liberation, and equitable division of labor, while also highlighting the contradictions and tensions embedded in conventional revolutionary and patriarchal narratives.24 Claribel Alegría (They Won’t Take Me Alive: Salvadoran Women in Struggle for National Liberation), Gioconda Belli (The Inhabited Woman), Nidia Diaz (Nunca estuve sola/I Was Never Alone), and Jacinta Escudos (Apuntes de una historia de amor que no fue/Notes on a Story of Love that Never Was), for instance, documented women’s participation in the Central American revolutionary struggles while calling into question the notions of state, culture, nationalism, and masculine order within the revolutionary apparatus.25

Literary Battlegrounds

One of the most prolific and vocal writers of Central America, Claribel Alegría (a.k.a. Clara Isabel Alegría Vides) often wrote about Central America from a distance and across extended exile periods, from Central America to Europe and the United States.26 In “The Writer’s Commitment,” Alegría identified herself as a profoundly “committed writer,” who dedicated a great part of her life to social change, human rights struggles, and the making of a transnational “literature of emergency,” addressing the most pressing issues of state-sanctioned repression, US intervention, and systemic exploitation of peoples in Central America in the 20th century.27 Tracing her own political and literary transformations, she explained that, early in her life, she wrote poetry without knowing “what was happening in my country—El Salvador—or my region—Central America.”28 Her position would irrevocably change with her affiliation and support of the Cuban Revolution, the Sandinista Reconstruction, the Salvadoran Civil War, and her own personal relationship to these historical processes. These social movements and historical moments indelibly marked both her prose and poetry, making her one of the most respected writers in Latin America as well as one of the most politically engaged writers of the Central American revolutions.

In the testimonio, They Won’t Take Me Alive, Alegría and her husband Darwin (“Bud”) Flakoll co-wrote the testimonial of “Comandante Eugenia,” an active member of the Salvadoran Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, FMLN), who died in a failed clandestine operative. Writing from abroad, Alegría and Flakoll reconstructed her story based on letters, missives, and interviews with people who had known Eugenia. A composite, posthumous testimonio, They Won’t Take Me Alive represented the revolutionary woman as perhaps the culmination of all the female protagonists in Alegría’s body of work. At the time of its publication, critics both praised and critiqued They Won’t Take Me Alive for its ideological content and experimentation with the literary genre of testimonio, which was institutionalized by Casa de las Américas in the 1960s but has long since fallen out of favor with the interrogation of the truth value of Rigoberta Menchú’s testimonio.29 In another testimonial text, Tunnel to Canto Grande, Alegría and Flakoll interviewed clandestine members of the Peruvian Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru, MRTA) and the Argentine Revolutionary Workers’ Party (Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores, PRT), while, in Death of Somoza, they revealed how Argentine leftist militants assassinated Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the ousted president of Nicaragua, in Paraguay.30 Alegría’s contributions to testimonial literature, narrative, and poetry placed her at the vanguard of transnational political, solidarity, feminist, and literary movements. Along with other revolutionary writers from Central America like Roque Dalton, Ernesto Cardenal, Sergio Ramírez, and Gioconda Belli—all associated with the era of the civil wars in Central America—Alegría worked tirelessly to put Central America on the literary map, and to make literature, especially poetry, “a basic human right” within the reach of all people.

Indeed, many of Alegría’s texts draw from her own personal experiences covering decades of political conflict and activism in Central America, making her perhaps the premier chronicler of Central American women’s lives in that region. When no author would venture to write about women’s lives, Alegría wrote about personal and political conflicts from the perspective of Central American women as represented in Ashes of Izalco, Luisa in Realityland, and Family Album, which includes three short novellas titled Family Album, The Talisman, and Village of God and the Devil.31 In these coming of age texts, the protagonists are girls and young women who learn about themselves and their society, in the context of civil strife if not overt revolutionary war. Narratives of formation and transformation, these texts deal with female coming of age, sentimental education, family allegiance, and sexual transgression, among other things. The female characters experience hostile environments—patriarchal families, abusive husbands, violent dictatorships, and prolonged war. In The Talisman, an adolescent girl named Karen escapes sexual abuse by her mother’s boyfriend through the power of fantasy and storytelling.32 In Family Album, a young Nicaraguan woman named Ximena, while in living exile in Paris with her husband, comes to political awareness and contributes to the Sandinista war effort. In Village of God and the Devil, another woman Marcia and her husband Slim retreat to the town of Deyá in Mallorca, much like Alegría and Flakoll were forced into exile on account of their political views and writings.33

In another short novel titled Despierta, mi bien, despierta (Awake, My Love, Awake), which has not been translated into English, Lorena, a socialite living in San Salvador, falls in love with a militant university student and learns of the oppression and exploitation that led to the civil war in her country.34 In Alegría’s women-centered novels and novellas, the female protagonists are forced to confront abject marginalized realities in their countries. They learn about their own complicity in the exploitative socioeconomic system and are forced to break free from the constraints placed on them by family, husband, home, tradition, and nation. In several of Alegría’s novels, most notably Ashes of Izalco and Luisa in Realityland, Alegría portrays her hometown of Santa Ana as a liminal site of transformation on the eve of historic events such as La Matanza of 1932, when the Salvadoran dictator Maximiliano Hernández Martínez ordered the massacre of more than thirty thousand indigenous people. Alegría’s texts thus map out the growing violence leading up to the civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1970s and 1980s, while also representing the family, home, homeland, and nation as battlegrounds for women.

Literary Transfigurations

In many heteronormative works about the Central American civil wars, romantic love generally plays an important function. As represented in these texts, women’s erotic relationships with revolutionary men serve as the entry point into revolutionary struggles and political awakening.35 For example, Alegría’s socialite in Despierta, mi bien, despierta comes to an awareness of her own place in the oppressive social structures in her county through her love affair with a militant university student, while the protagonist of Belli’s novel The Inhabited Woman, Lavinia, questions the phallocentric master-narrative of the male revolutionary hero precisely because her lover dismisses “the historical importance of love” in the revolution.36 In the poem “Vestidos de dinamita” (Dressed in Dynamite), Belli uses the metaphor of dynamite to deconstruct the patriarchal notion of respectability because to assume revolutionary Sandinista militancy signifies dismantling stereotypes and roles of conventional middle-class womanhood and sexuality in order to give birth to a new Nicaragua.37

Moreover, in The Inhabited Woman, Belli tells the story of the political awakening or transfiguration of Lavinia, named after the founding mother of Rome. Lavinia is a wealthy young woman coming of age during the Sandinista Revolution. A graduate of architectural design and liberated into her own space—she has her own well-furnished house, her own salary, and her own life, so to speak—Lavinia remains class-blinded to her complicity in the Somocista dictatorship until she assumes a militant position within the Sandinista Revolution. A love story, The Inhabited Woman kills off the revolutionary male hero mid-novel in order to give way to a newly incorporated woman warrior who stands her own ground and fights in her own right. During the course of the novel, Lavinia’s story and narrative voice merge with those of an indigenous woman, Itza, who has reincarnated as an orange tree in the young woman’s patio. Itza, named after the last Maya group to be conquered by the Spaniards in the 17th century, loses her life, family, and people to the invaders. From her reincarnated state, Itza witnesses Lavinia’s transformation into a woman guerrilla fighting against contemporary imperial forces.

Historically, Itza and Lavinia represent a continuum of women warriors who take desperate measures to defeat the (neo)colonizer. As recorded in Francisco López de Gómara’s Historia general de las indias, an official document of the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica, indigenous women in what is now Nicaragua refused to have sexual relations with their men and thus to give birth to enslaved peoples.38 Through pre-Columbian sexual abstention and resistance, the indigenous women protested the conquerors’ destruction and eminent enslavement of their people. The indigenous people’s resistance, however, could not withstand the imperative of conquest and the so-called divine right by which the Spanish conquistadors took Mesoamerica. In due time, Itza’s spirit begins to “inhabit” Lavinia’s body, pushing her toward political awakening. Lavinia gives up her family, class position (if not privilege), and relative comfort to join the Sandinista Revolution against the Somoza regime, which was first brought to power by the United States in 1937 and supported by US economic and military aid until the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution in 1979.39

By way of Itza’s story, Belli reminds readers that the gains of the Sandinista Revolution would be tenuous if oppressive social and economic structures were not transformed for the majority of Nicaraguans, including women. In her book, Gathering Rage: The Failure of Twentieth Century Revolutions to Develop a Feminist Agenda, Margaret Randall, a one-time supporter of and participant in the Sandinista Revolution, critiqued the “Sandinista experiment” for not developing “an indigenous feminist discourse and a vital feminist agenda . . . [in] the consolidation that would push an otherwise more humane society forward.”40 As noted in Randall’s Sandino’s Daughters, one-time Sandinista women collaborators like Gioconda Belli, Daisy Zamora, Nora Astorga, and others were at the center of the Revolution, yet as time passed, “the dramatic necessities of guerrilla warfare [gave] way to the longer term and more complex problems of government [that] men always limit[ed] women’s space.”41

In The Inhabited Woman, Belli situates Lavinia and Itza, mestiza and indigenous women in the contemporary and pre-Columbian eras, in a continuum of struggle that spans over five hundred years of women’s resistance initiated by Itza’s people against the Spanish conquistadors and continuing well into the 21st century. Waking up for the first time as a blooming orange tree in Lavinia’s garden, Itza recalls the long history of la resistencia, that began in the 16th century, when “the Spaniards said they had to make us ‘civilized,’ make us give up our ‘barbarism.’”42 She also recalls how the Spanish conquistadors enslaved and transported to other lands the Nahuat, Chorotega, Carib, Dirian, and Niquirano people, enslaving them in diaspora:

They sent them in great ships to build a distant city they called Lima. They killed them: their dogs tore them to pieces, they hung them from trees, cut off their heads, shot them, baptized them; they prostituted our women.43

In the 20th century, Itza, transfigured into a tree of historical knowledge, continues to bear witness to neocolonial violence in what is present-day Nicaragua. She testifies that “Men are still running. There are bloodthirsty governors. Flesh is still being torn; they are still fighting. Our legacy of beating drums is still pulsing in the blood of these generations.”44 Through the merging of the characters Itza and Lavinia, Belli links the Spanish conquest, (neo)colonialism, foreign intervention, and the Sandinista Revolution to over five hundred years of resistance and diaspora in the Central American isthmus. Moreover, Belli proposes that women’s voices, agency, and resistance are central to the revolution. Written from within the Sandinista Revolution, The Inhabited Womanthus represents the utopia of the revolution that could transform a country led by a Marxist–Leninist program toward progress, development, and liberation. The novel begins with scenes of a country in disarray on the edge of transformation, where the forces of nature and modernization vie for space. The physical layout of Faguas (the fictional Nicaragua) is figured as “volcanic, seismic, opulent nature” using any “artifice to convey modernity,” almost seeming to birth department stores and shopping centers while displacing poor residents and producing shanty towns overflowing with slum dwellers.45 In the late 20th century, Faguas “was trying at all costs to become modern, using any outlandish method possible.”46

In her 1996 post-revolutionary novel, titled Waslala: Memorial del futuro (Waslala: Memorial of the Future), Belli returns to Faguas, the site of The Inhabited Woman, but, by the third millennium, Faguas has lost the war and the dream of revolution.47 Dictatorship has overtaken Faguas once again. The borders have been sealed and the country has been converted into a dumping ground for the North. Faguas’s economy runs on the exchange of contrabands, the production of air (trees are preserved to produce oxygen for the world), and the incineration of global waste, which is shipped in on highly toxic barges. Cut off from the rest of the world, no one visits Faguas except smugglers and occasional journalists and individuals arriving to conduct illegal or clandestine business there. No one leaves Faguas either, for immigration to the North has been completely banned: “Now it was very dangerous to emigrate. It was very difficult. Almost no one could cross the wall.”48 In the allegory of Faguas (Nicaragua), Central America is brought into the 21st century when armed conflict and civil wars have given way to the prolonged war for economic survival under global, neoliberal forces and the reterritorialization of Central Americans across the world. As the dream of revolutionary transformation cedes to dystopic and disenchanted images of Central America in the early 21st century, so too, Central American writers break with literary genres and forms such as the testimonio and refocus their attention on the issues of social violence, crime, impunity, justice, and migration in the region. Returning to a wounded Central America in ruins, Galindo pieces together memories, stories, and lives in Retazos, Whisper of Dead Leaves, Para amaestrar un tigre (To Tame a Tiger), and La tormenta rodando por la cuesta: Impresiones El Salvador, 1979–1981 (The Storm Moving through the Mountain: Impressions El Salvador, 1979–1981), discussed in “Diasporic Social Imaginaries.”49

Diasporic Social Imaginaries

In the 1980s, Martivón Galindo and other Central American exiles, refugees, and activists fleeing the armed conflict in the isthmus relocated to long-standing diasporic sites such as San Francisco, California, to which Central Americans have been immigrating since the 19th century.50 Galindo not only settled in that city but also joined diasporic solidarity networks and collaborations. In the early 1980s, she co-founded the Salvadorian Cultural Center that later became the Cultural Documentation and Investigation Center of El Salvador (CODICES) in solidarity with the people of El Salvador. Among her many cultural projects, Galindo published collections of her poetry, exhibited her paintings in local galleries, gave presentations on Central American cultural production, completed a doctoral degree at the University of California, Berkeley, and collaborated with the San Francisco-based editorial house Solaris and the literary journal Voces. In the diaspora, CODICES sponsored art exhibits, writers’ workshops and readings, and other cultural events, thus laying the cornerstone for much present-day Salvadoran and Central American cultural activism and production in the San Francisco Bay Area.51

Autobiographical in nature, many of Galindo’s short stories, poems, sketches, and artwork in Retazos (Pieces), Whisper of Dead Leaves, Para amaestrar un tigre (To Tame a Tiger), and La tormenta rodando por la cuesta: Impresiones El Salvador, 1979–1981 (The Storm Moving through the Mountain: Impressions El Salvador, 1979–1981) draw from her experience of war in El Salvador and displacement and exile in the United States. She writes that, in the 1980s,

under [Ronald Reagan’s] presidency, the worst battalions were trained in the School of the Americas causing many massacres in El Salvador and Guatemala. Under his command, Honduras became a United States military base used to attack and control the neighboring countries.52

Moreover, according to Galindo, Central Americans, particularly Salvadorans, suffered the direct effects of political violence generated and supported by the United States. During the civil war, the United States government intervened politically, economically, and militarily in the country, leaving almost eighty thousand dead and displacing up to 30 percent of the population. Many people immigrated to the United States as a consequence of the violence of civil war described hereto. Galindo explains that the armed conflict in El Salvador produced a “wounded generation” afflicted by war traumas, family separations, and economic crises. The most affected, or “wounded” by the violence have been, as Galindo puts it, “thousands of people [who] risk their lives crossing the United States border seeking the fabled land of opportunity that they can’t find in their own countries.” Left behind are “homeless children [who] walk the streets of Central American cities sniffing glue, getting intoxicated, selling their bodies, or sleeping in doorways,” or “gangs made up of children of the Central American Diaspora and raised in the United States [who] are deported to their parents’ country, a land that is now alien to them.”53 Indeed, according to Galindo:

The damage of 30 years of violence, terror and destruction in Central America is reflected not only in the bodies of millions of people and the physical degradation of their environment, but also, and in even more devastating fashion, in their minds and spirits which have been broken and alienated forever. It will take many generations to heal the pain, to instill new faith and, as with the children lost in gangs, to erase the tattoos, not in their bodies, but engraved on their souls.54

Where words fail to represent the wounded generations of Salvadorans still searching for better prospects, Galindo’s paintings and monotypes cast images of bodies, often represented in cubist-style diffraction. In one of her pieces titled Indocumentados (Undocumented), she represents immigrants and refugees as blurry figures encapsulated in a glass bottle as if in a state of suspension.55 The figures, in muted greens, oranges, and grays, appear static and faceless, without markers of racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identity. Extraterrestrial in form, the figures in the bottle invoke filmic scenes of “alien-like” creatures and X-ray images taken by US border patrol agents of transport trucks carrying their cargo of immigrants. In Indocumentados, Galindo paints the experiences of war, migration, and trauma, especially in the context of war and post-war Central American diasporic communities in the United States. Across genres in literature and visual arts, Galindo’s work illustrates a mobile “geography of identities” of the Salvadoran diaspora, displaced and scarred by the long-reaching violent effects of civil war and the lacerations of the new neoliberal regimes of the 21st century.

Her book Retazos, whose title can be translated as scraps or pieces, is a collage of poems, personal vignettes, and paintings dating back to her arrival in the United States in 1981 as the violence in El Salvador escalated. The pieces are immersed in childhood memories of her Salvadoran foremothers; her “semi-bourgeoisie” upbringing, as she calls it; her rites of passage through young adulthood, marriage, childbirth, and divorce; her architecture training and revolutionary coming of age; her political activism and torture at the hands of military personnel; and finally her flight from El Salvador and permanent exile in San Francisco. Her short vignettes capture personal memories encoded in kaleidoscopic visual images and dissonant sound bites—from her brother’s colorful glass marbles, her favorite aunt’s long gray hair, her leaf-strewn boarding school yard in Santa Tecla, El Salvador, to the voice of her gynecologist nearly blending with the voices of her torturers in a dank cell—an experience also documented in her memoir, La tormenta rodando por la cuesta: Impresiones El Salvador, 1979–1981 (The Storm Moving through the Mountain: Impressions El Salvador, 1979–1981).56 Writing also about her life in exile, in her poem “San Franciscanos,” she transports readers to a city inhabited by exiles, migrants, war refugees, homeless prostitutes, and disaffected locals, all set against the neoliberal landscape of streets, skyscrapers, and shopping malls, among other things. Crossing paths in diaspora, these city dwellers

speak all the languages / and once in a while a little English / the Cholo, Chinese, Filipino, / Nica, and a bit of not from here / and not from there / and thus in the middle we remain.57

Her poems, vignettes, and paintings magnify the vision of the exile, refugee, migrant, and, in sum, all deterritorialized subjects, recalling the past with nostalgia and occupying the thirdspace, a space of intersecting identities and subjectivities.58

Galindo’s collection titled Para amaestrar un tigre (To Tame a Tiger) returns to life altering traumas that transfigure Salvadoran subjectivities. For example, in the title story to the collection, Galindo brings to life Coronel Arnoldo Gómez of the notorious Salvadoran National Guard, also known as El Tigre (The Tiger), a heavy set man, fifty years of age, with blue-green eyes, a mark of his Ladino maleness and whiteness in Central America, which embolden him with the military power and ambition to aspire to be president of the nation. In the story’s opening scene, Coronel Gómez is delayed from going home to eat dinner with his wife “La Peche” (the Skinny One, a Salvadoran colloquialism) because he has to attend to the urgent matter of a political prisoner. Known for his strategies of “taming the tiger” in prisoners, hence his nickname, the coronel meets the prisoner José Mejía, the director of the university press affliated with the United Popular Action Front (Frente de Acción Popular Unificada, FAPU), who had been captured while leading a protest in the city against then President General Carlos Humberto Romero Mena alongside campesinos, ANDES 21 teachers, labor union members, and Christian organizers. His mother, a single mother and nurse, had always told him that in his country “ser pobre is fregado,” (to be poor is to be screwed), to lack healthcare, to live in pain, to go hungry, and not to have rights—that was the social order of El Salvador.59 And thus José had decided that he would be an “abogado de los pobres,” a lawyer and advocate of the poor.60 On the day of his political debut at the protest, however, he is captured and brought before El Tigre, who proceeds to “interrogate” him with punches, kicks, and electric shocks, among other strategies of torture known to El Tigre. Days later, Coronel Arnoldo Gómez is ambushed by four assailants who, in turn, take him to a guerrilla camp, where the tables are turned, and El Tigre becomes the prey (“presa”) of José Mejía whom he had tortured. In this narrative of possible retribution and eye-for-an-eye justice, Galindo, however, envisions a different future and narrative ending for the Salvadoran wounded nation, when she imagines José (the pueblo) confronting and freeing the Tiger, his torturer and victimizer. In this alternative ending, Galindo offers other possibilities for ending structures of violence in post-war El Salvador, as the coronel returns to work, pondering on the idealism of the young revolutionary who set him free, and pleading (albeit unconvincingly) with his superiors for the release of political prisoners held by government military forces.

Along these lines, Galindo’s other stories in Para amaestrar un tigre offer narrative twists and endings, where social transformation and redemption are possible for the wounded body politic of Central America. In the short story titled “Aurora” (Dawn), for example, a successful architect, commissioned by the government to build substandard housing for one hundred low-income families in “ratoneras” (rat holes), is killed by falling earthquake debris precisely at the same moment that she learns she has been awarded a contract to build the new art museum in the city.61 The story seems to say that exploitative systems must fall in order to make possible the rebuilding of society. In another short story, titled “Líos” (Troubles), a corrupt and bankrupt factory owner flees the country, leaving behind his employees without livelihood and wages as they organize a protest at the Ministry of Labor.62 In “Ropa sucia” (Dirty Laundry), an exiled Salvadoran official goes to a US laundromat for the first time and tries to seduce a woman into washing his dirty clothes, which she promptly refuses, leaving him alone to clean his own clothes and memories.63 In “Otra vez el canto del Torogoz,” two childhood friends, Margo and Miriam, make life-altering decisions: Margo joins the urban guerilla, and Miriam leaves her husband and family business, Both trade the comforts of their middle-class lives for other options.64 Galindo’s stories, thus, are about transfigurations or transformations by which people resist and resignify violence in and outside of the isthmus.

Putting the Pieces Together

In her poem “Retorno” (Return) found in Retazos, Galindo recalls the deep sense of pain with which the deterritorialized subject (now resignified as a diasporic subject) remembers her homeland and mourns the loss of hope, now covered up with metaphoric gauzes. Theses gauzes seem to cover up the original material causes (the wounded body politic), which gave rise to the civil wars in Central America in the late 20th century and continue to push Central Americans to emigrate en masse in the 21st century. Where there was once hope to change the world as articulated in the one-time revolutionary narratives by Claribel Alegría, Gioconda Belli, and others, Galindo suggests that what remains are wounded generations across national territories and diasporas. In the rest of the poem, Galindo writes about the passage of diasporic time without the possibility of healing from the wounds of war.

And time timidly / passed through our hands, / temples, / the days . . . / For the awaited celestial music / that did not come / we made lines, / penances / bought stamps / pretended to be good / hearts of broken bread . . . / Leave our dreams / deceitful hope . . . / make no promises / let us be . . . without God and heaven.65

Almost in cubist fashion, Galindo’s texts diffract time, space, and subjectivities to show that, for many Central American exiles, migrants, and diasporans as well as those who remain in the isthmus, the civil wars of the late 20th century are directly linked to their permanent condition of psychic displacement. There is no retorno (return) to the Central America forged in the hope of revolution and transformation of bygone years.

In her Retazos, Galindo thus takes her readers through the topography of war, deterritorialization, and reterritorialization, which has been her own personal narrative and trajectory, having lived in El Salvador during a great part of the civil war and in exile in San Francisco, where she has witnessed the construction of new “geographies of identities” as suggested Smadar Lavie and Ted Swedenburg in post-conflict, diasporic societies.66 In her poem “San Franciscanos,” Galindo explores not only her subjective location as someone in exile and as a refugee in a new land but also at the intersection of hegemonic, marginal, and subcultural social groups coming into contact to form new identities in the thirdspace.67 An “hermana lejana” (distant sister) pushed out of El Salvador by state violence during the civil war, Galindo traces the movements, reconfigurations, and transfigurations of subjectivities in diasporic sites such as San Francisco. Like Alegría and Belli, Galindo charts a history of oppression, a landscape of pain, and a geography of gendered identities produced in situ and in diaspora as a consequence of armed conflict in Central America. As argued throughout, Claribel Alegría, Gioconda Belli, and Martivón Galindo show identities to be shaped by war, displacement, and reterritorialization, spanning a wide spectrum of decades as well as gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, and geographic locations. With their measured images and words, these Central American writers guide us through the minefields and geographies of Central American identities produced in and beyond the isthmus.

Discussion of the Literature

In Resistance Literature, the cultural critic Barbara Harlow identified and examined a corpus of literary texts produced in armed struggle and social movements. According to Harlow, this deeply analytical and historical literature emerged with national liberation, decolonization, and social movements in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Resistance literature manifested itself particularly in highly localized, historical, and political texts, which in their own right challenged literary norms, discursive conventions, and hegemonic structures of power. Harlow suggested that resistance texts incorporated fictitious and documentary elements and developed “narrative analysis” of political, economic, and cultural circumstances of third-world countries. Such narratives assumed the “communicative” role of critical journalism and the “investigative” function of the social sciences when state repression and censorship shut down regular channels of information gathering and research, especially in times of war. In their stead, resistance novels, according to Harlow, registered the “struggle over the historical and cultural record.”68

In their landmark book, Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions, John Beverley and Marc Zimmerman examined the role of literature in the making of Central American societies and revolutions. Writing at the height of revolutionary fervor in Nicaragua and El Salvador, Beverley and Zimmerman called for a critical reception of “literature of resistance” and a problematizing of the representation of “popular or subaltern voices.”69 They seemed to anticipate the interrogation of revolutionary ideals, agendas, and discourses that culminated in David Stoll’s infamous interrogation of Rigoberta Menchú’s testimonial text, I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala.70 In their book, Beverley and Zimmerman noted, moreover, the impact of “feminism and women’s writing” in Central America, although their book did not critically analyze or account for Central American women’s resistance writing. That would come with the publication of Ileana Rodríguez’s Women, Guerrillas, and Love: Understanding War in Central America, Laura Barbas-Rhoden’s Writing Women in Central America: Gender and the Fictionalization of History, and various anthologies on Central American women’s writing.71 Finally, Arturo Arias, in Taking Their Word: Literature and the Signs of Central America, writes about Central America as a discursive hinge, bridging north and south, the isthmus, and its diasporas reterritorialized across the Americas.72 In Dividing the Isthmus: Central American Transnational Histories, Literatures, and Cultures, Ana Patricia Rodríguez explores this theory further with the concept of the transisthmus.

Further Reading

  • Alegría, Claribel. Luisa in Realityland. Translated by Darwin J. Flakoll. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1987.
  • Alegría, Claribel. They Won’t Take Me Alive: Salvadoran Women in Struggle for National Liberation. Translated by Amanda Hopkinson. London: The Women’s Press, 1987.
  • Alegría, Claribel. “The Writer’s Commitment.” In Lives on the Line: The Testimony of Contemporary Latin American Authors. Edited by Doris Meyer, 308–311. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988.
  • Alegría, Claribel, and Darwin J. Flakoll. Ashes of Izalco. Translated by Darwin J. Flakoll. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1989.
  • Alegría, Claribel. Family Album. Translated by Amanda Hopkinson. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1991.
  • Alegría, Claribel, and Darwin J. Flakoll. Death of Somoza. Translated by Darwin J. Flakoll. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1996.
  • Alegría, Claribel, and Darwin J. Flakoll. Tunnel to Canto Grande. Translated by Darwin J. Flakoll. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1996.
  • Arias, Arturo. Taking Their Word: Literature and the Signs of Central America. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.
  • Arias, Arturo, ed. The Rigoberta Menchú Controversy. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.
  • Barbas-Rhoden, Laura. Writing Women in Central America: Gender and Fictionalization of History. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2003.
  • Belli, Gioconda. “Vestidos de dinamita/Dressed in Dynamite.” In From Eve’s Rib. By Gioconda Belli. Translated by Steven F. White, 30–31. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1989.
  • Belli, Gioconda. The Inhabited Woman. Translated by Kathleen March. New York, NY: Warner Books, 1995.
  • Belli, Gioconda. Waslala: Memorial del futuro. Managua, Nicaragua: Anamá Ediciones, 1996.
  • Beverley, John, and Marc Zimmerman. Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1990.
  • Booth, John A., Christine J. Wade, and Thomas W. Walker. “Nicaragua.” In Understanding Central America: Global Forces, Rebellion, and Change. By John A. Booth, Christine J. Wade, and Thomas W. Walker, 97–136. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2015.
  • Cabezas, Omar. Fire from the Mountain: The Making of a Sandinista. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 1985.
  • Córdova, Carlos B. The Salvadoran Americans. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005.
  • Díaz, Nidia. Nunca estuve sola. México, DF: Editorial Mestiza, 1989.
  • Dunkerley, James. The Pacification of Central America: Political Change in the Isthmus, 1987–1993. London and New York: Verso, 1994.
  • Escudos, Jacinta. Apuntes de una historia de amor que no fue. San Salvador, El Salvador: Universidad Centroamericana Editores, 1987.
  • Galindo, Martivón. Retazos. San Francisco, CA: Editorial Solaris, 1996.
  • Galindo, Martivón. “Retorno.” In Galindo, Retazos, 44–45.
  • Galindo, Martivón. “San Franciscanos.” In Galindo, Retazos, 81–84.
  • Galindo, Martivón. “Dreaming a Nation: The Salvadoran Cultural Work in the San Francisco Bay Area.” Paper presented at the conference Reconstructing Central America II: The Pueblos of Maize in the United States. University of Maryland, College Park, October 2000.
  • Galindo, Martivón. “Wounded Generation: Aftermath of Chaos in Central America.” Unpublished manuscript, 2003.
  • Galindo, Martivón. Whisper of Dead Leaves. San Francisco, CA: Black Note Publishing, 2004.
  • Galindo, Martivón. Para amaestrar un tigre: Cuentos. San Francisco, CA: n.p., 2012.
  • Galindo, Martivón. “Aurora.” In Galindo, Para amaestrar un tigre, 7–11.
  • Galindo, Martivón. “Para amaestrar un tigre.” In Galindo, Para amaestrar un tigre, 53–82.
  • Galindo, Martivón. “Líos.” In Galindo, Para amaestrar un tigre, 91–95.
  • Galindo, Martivón. “Otra vez el canto del torogoz.” In Galindo, Para amaestrar un tigre, 97–114.
  • Galindo, Martivón. “Ropa sucia.” In Galindo, Para amaestrar un tigre, 115–118.
  • Galindo, Martivón. La tormenta rodando por la cuesta: Impresiones El Salvador, 1979–1981. San Francisco, CA: n.p., 2015.
  • Galindo, Martivón. “¡Y estoy viva!” In Galindo, La tormenta, 103–125.
  • Gold, Janet N., ed. Volver a imaginarlas: Retratos de escritoras centroamericanas. Tegucigalpa, Honduras: Editorial Guayamuras, 1998.
  • González, Hernán. Centroamérica en crisis. Heredia, Costa Rica: EUNA, 1992.
  • Grandin, Greg. The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
  • Guevara, Ernesto “Che.” “Socialism and Man in Cuba.” The Che Reader. Edited by David Deutschmann. Melbourne: Ocean Press, 2005.
  • Harlow, Barbara. Resistance Literature. New York and London: Methuen, 1987.
  • Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1996.
  • Kampwirth, Karen. Women Guerrilla Movements: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chiapas, Cuba. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.
  • Kampwirth, Karen. Feminism and the Legacy of Revolution: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chiapas. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2004.
  • Lavie, Smadar, and Ted Swedenburg. “Introduction: Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identity.” In Displacement, Diaspora, and Geographies of Identity. Edited by Smadar Lavie and Ted Swedenburg. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.
  • López de Gomara, Francisco. Historia general de las Indias y vida de Hernán Cortés. Caracas, Venezuela: Biblioteca Ayacucho, 1979.
  • Luciak, Ilja A. After the Revolution: Gender and Democracy in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
  • Lungo Uclés, Mario. El Salvador in the Eighties: Counterinsurgency and Revolution. Edited by Arthur Schmidt. Translated by Amelia F. Shogan. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1996.
  • Mahler, Sarah J. Salvadorans in Suburbia: Symbiosis and Conflict. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 1995.
  • Menchú, Rigoberta. I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray. Translated by Ann Wright. London and New York: Verso, 1984.
  • Meza Márquez, Consuelo. Narradoras centroamericanas contemporáneas: Identidad y crítica socioliteraria feminista. Aguascalientes, Mexico: Universidad Autónoma de Aguascalientes, 2007.
  • Prada Ortiz, Grace. Mujeres: Forjadoras del pensamiento costarricense: Ensayos femeninos y feministas. Heredia, Costa Rica: EUNA, 2008.
  • Preble-Niemi, Oralia, ed. Afrodita en el trópico: Erotismo y construcción del sujeto femenino en obras de autoras centroamericanas. Potomac, MD: Scripta Humánistica, 1999.
  • Randall, Margaret. Sandino’s Daughters: Testimonies of Nicaraguan Women in Struggle. Vancouver, BC: New Star Books, 1981.
  • Randall, Margaret. Gathering Rage: The Failure of Twentieth Century Revolutions to Develop a Feminist Agenda. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1992.
  • Randall, Margaret. Sandino’s Daughters Revisited: Feminism in Nicaragua. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1994.
  • Robinson, William I. Transnational Conflicts: Central America, Social Change, and Globalization. London and New York: Verso, 2003.
  • Rodríguez, Ana Patricia. “Refugees of the South: Central Americans in the U.S. Latino Imaginary.” American Literature 73, no. 2 (2001): 386–412.
  • Rodríguez, Ana Patricia. Dividing the Isthmus: Central American Transnational Histories, Literatures, and Cultures. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2009.
  • Rodríguez, Ana Patricia. “Toward a Transisthmian Central American Studies.” Latino Studies 15 (2017): 104–108.
  • Rodríguez, Ileana. Women, Guerrillas, and Love: Understanding War in Central America. Translated by Ileana Rodríguez with Robert Carr. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
  • Soja, Edward W. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.
  • Stoll, David. Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of All Poor Guatemalans. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999.
  • Universidad Nacional and Universidad para la Paz. Los refugiados centroamericanos. Heredia, Costa Rica: EUNA, 1987.