An Interview with Manlio Argueta

Claudia M. Milian Arias

Haverford College

Manlio Argueta, poet, critic, and novelist, was born in San Miguel, El Salvador in 1935. He is a member of El Salvador’s Generación Comprometida, a literary generation comprised of distinguished cultural workers whose works were influenced by Jean-Paul Sartre. Argueta, alongside other members of this generation who includes revolutionary writers such as Roque Dalton, grounded the concerns of European existentialism to Central America––engaging in what philosopher Lewis R. Gordon calls, in an Africana context, philosophies of existence. Broadly understood as modes of Africana thought, these ontological preoccupations are projects advancing an understanding of black intellectual history as one based on liberation and human agency. This theoretical framework, manifested through the complexities that arise from a humanity that is denied, can be easily extended to Argueta. His allegorical novels blend philosophical inquiry with poetic vigor; the questions identified and raised in his narratives, vis-à-vis issues of freedom, agony, liberation, and responsibility, ascend to the level of praxis.

Argueta’s literary works include A Place Called Milagro de la Paz (Curbstone Press, 2000), Little Red Riding Hood in the Red Light District (Curbstone Press, 1998), Cuzcatlan: Where the Southern Sea Beats (Vintage Books, 1987), and One Day of Life (Vintage Books, 1983). He was awarded the Casa de las Americas Prize in 1977; his work has been translated in more than 12 languages. One Day of Life, banned in El Salvador during the civil war, was recently named fifth in a list of the 100 best Latin American novels of the twentieth century conducted by the Modern Library.

In what follows, Argueta discusses the role of Central American literature, and provides incisive considerations regarding the functions of "leftist" intellectuals. Having lived in exile in Costa Rica from 1972 until the early 1990s, Argueta also raises provocative remarks about the meanings of diasporic Salvadoran identities. Argueta demonstrates that while certain Latin American writers––let alone Salvadoran cultural workers––remain marginal to U.S. dominant culture, he is a central figure in the shaping and advancement of Latina, Latino, and Latin American thought and culture.

Argueta currently lives in El Salvador. He serves as Director of Art and Culture at El Salvador’s National University.


CLAUDIA M. MILIAN ARIAS: In an editorial published in El Salvador’s El diario de hoy you described your mother as an "honest and humble manual worker" who taught you "the mystery of poetic sounds." Please expand on this comment by telling us of your formation and influences as a writer. Also, in what ways do you link your literary relationship with the intellectual tradition of El Salvador and Latin America?

MANLIO ARGUETA: That qualifier of my mother as an "honest and humble manual worker" is only to assert the notion that poetry and art, in the regions of the periphery, don’t necessarily arise from intellectually elite families, as often happens in the metropolis. I don’t want to generalize, nor process these matters theoretically, but I do visualize them within the contents of my own life. Regarding "the mystery of poetic sounds," I refer to my childhood. I want to say what is the product of intuitions, of what might seem "unexplainable" but that has an explanation. The rhythmic element and interior musicality is the key in poetry, and this is learned as a child or not at all. I have explained this in my novel Siglo de O(g)ro. Childhood is the homeland of poetry. The poet is like the violinist and the pianist, who learn since childhood. But in poetry there are no concrete instruments, as there are in music, which is why poetic sounds align themselves with mystery (the "fairies," "ghosts," and "muses"). The explanation for that is that there is a "nourishment" or accumulation of figures that favor the brain’s reference point through the senses, which will be richer if developed since childhood. This, being untied from rationality, is what would appear to be an unexplainable product of the brain. My desire to incorporate myself in the literary tradition stems from my teenage readings of world literature.

M. A.: The New York Times published a book review in 1987 of Cuzcatlan: Where the Southern Sea Beats. The reviewer, Alfred J. MacAdam, concluded rather offensively by noting: "We sympathize with Mr. Argueta’s peasants and are indeed moved to side with them against their oppressors, but we do not respond to the text as a work of art." I mention MacAdam’s opinion because the reception of your work in the United States as well as El Salvador seems rather problematic. You were forced to flee El Salvador in 1972; books like One Day of Life were previously banned; and most recently, certain columnists from El diario de hoy even doubted that One Day of Life was nominated by the Modern Library as the fifth best novel from Latin America in the twentieth century. So that while you may be dismissed by some as propagandistic, others praise you for your compassionate portrayals of marginalized peoples. How do you balance art with the apparent political tensions surrounding your work? What is your opinion of the leftist Salvadoran intellectual inside and outside of El Salvador?

A: The political tensions that surround my work have to do with my affinities concerning the rescue of historical memory. As such, they deal with the special circumstances of the prewar period that for me begins in 1932 and lasts until 1980; and later, to the references to the crisis of war (1972–92). But after the Peace Accords those tensions started to disappear. During this period I was able to write without any tensions in Costa Rica, trying to capture the social chronicle. And regarding what some journalists have said about the nomination of my novel One Day of Life, their opinion is part of the prejudices against those who write chronicles of a small country which endured a huge crisis that many did not forsee. Well, I wrote One Day of Life before the civil war was declared (1981–92). Those prejudices exist among some intellectuals without regard to ideologies. The crisis produced other great voids, indifference toward artistic expressions, the marginalization of the cultural sphere, and what was worse, neglect towards the problems of integral education. The results in the formative plans are visible not only in the political area, but in several sectors.

M. A.: How did critics in El Salvador respond to your nomination by the Modern Library?

A. : Some responded with the silence of the graves of writers when they first heard of my nomination for the Modern Library’s one hundred best novels in the Spanish language. They questioned how it was possible that one of my novels could be considered above one of Alejo Carpentier’s novels or those of Ernesto Sabato? What they’re really saying is that someone who belongs to the periphery of the periphery, marginalized Central America, someone with whom one drinks a coffee and jokes, can't even be compared to the great masters who have had such great influence in LatinAmerica and Europe. I myself consider them my teachers, but I also try to explain to myself the phenomenon of what it means for a writer to project himself from his marginality in a productive manner. In another context this happened to Rubén Darío when he met Miguel de Unamuno, who with sarcasm, asked to see not Darío’s pen [Sp., pluma/Eng., feather ] but his Indian feather. Some time later, famous in France, the great Rubén, with his spirit of greatness and poetic humility, dedicated a sonnet to Unamuno who, in turn, thanked the genius for having dedicated the poem to him. In response to the humanist’s curiosity as to the poetic greatness Darío had reached, he answered that he wrote the poems thanks to his Indian feathers.

M. A.: So, in other words, the prejudices have always existed?

A.: The prejudice is born because a writer from the periphery of the periphery, who doesn’t command the attention of Latin American critics, as others do, this writer, cannot be counted among these. "No," think my intellectual contemporaries, "something’s suspicious here, someone’s pulling our leg." What they aren’t familiar with, because of the same cultural isolation, is the acceptance my novel has had among critics outside of the Latin American market. Besides, the critics and magazines never arrive at the periphery. We do reach them, but the opposite doesn’t happen. This is how we maintain prejudices: criticism always refers to others, but almost never to the marginalized and invisible Central America. Regardless, with information technologies and the interactions of migration, the periphery and the center interconnect; even more, in literature, the periphery imposes on the center. We can observe this in the "Boom," as well as with the writers in England who come from the ex-colonies.

M. A.: What do you think about U.S. reviews of your work, such as the criticism raised by MacAdam?

A.: Regarding MacAdam’s appraisal, it seems, in part, to make sense when he afirms that "We sympathize with Mr. Argueta’s peasants . . . but we do not respond to the text as a work of art." I think that if he didn’t read the novel in Spanish it would be difficult to enter into the aesthetic dimensions of Cuzcatlán: Donde bate la mar del sur. Language plays an important role in understanding the aesthetic of a piece of literature. One can appreciate other qualities in a translation: theme, technique, emotion, parts of the work’s greatness. This happens to me with one of the writers who influenced me the most and whom I’ve read in translations, J. D. Salinger; on my part, it would be too presumptuous to judge his aesthetic depth without reading him in his New York English.

To conclude, I must tell you that I don’t subscribe to the notion of leftist [Salvadoran] intellectuals. We are simply Latin American intellectuals who, in general, cover the large gaps at the level of human projection; in this same manner emerged García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, Rulfo, Sábato, Carpentier, and others. This is where their chimerical position in literature comes from: they arrived to cover the gaps that originated in colonial domination. We, Central Americans, were ethically obliged to cover the wide fault lines that exist in the periphery of the periphery.

M. A.: A common observation raised by some critics is of your particular use of Salvadoran vernacular. Rather than noting how the Spanish language has many regionalisms throughout Latin America––indeed, is Salvadoran speech any different than the other transformations Spanish has undergone throughout the Americas?––the mere "distinctiveness" of Salvadoran speech is posed through a binary of inferior and superior cultures and languages. It seems as though the significance of your literary enterprises gets fairly diminished. Can one say that your books are not only in solidarity with the struggles and everyday speech habits of the poor, but also with linguistic practices by other authors that displace colonial tongues? I am thinking of writers like Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe, India’s Salman Rushdie, and Gloria Anzaldúa, a Chicana.

A.: Certainly, the use of this vernacular tongue is profoundly intentional, it is a way of promoting the oral language as our own wealth, although I don’t do it as a means of displacing the language of the hegemonic center, nor do I even have that opportunity. I do this to reaffirm our own values, local values, so as to know that we exist; and "local" does not simply refer to the entire Central American region, but rather to the sub-regions within the area. So that if the language of a Central American country is marginal, imagine that of the various regions of that country. Costa Rica, for example, has four well defined zones: an original indigenous one in the mountains; another on the Atlantic coast, where English is predominant; then there’s the Mesoamerican zone; and a fourth, more European zone. Honduras and Nicaragua also have the Atlantic region, with an English influence, and the Pacific region where the Indigenous-Spanish cultures were founded. In El Salvador and Guatemala the social divisions inherited from colonial times culture continue to prevail, which distinguish between Amerindians, criollos and campesinos, with very little influence from African-American culture. So, in conclusion, the struggles faced by writers in the periphery of the periphery are much greater than those faced by others.

M. A.: In One Day of Life, you cite the rights of Salvadorans, through the voice of Lupe Fuentes, as having equitable access to health care, to food, and to schooling. After the 1992 Peace Accords, what do you think are the contemporary struggles of Salvadorans in El Salvador as well as abroad?

A.: The Peace Accords have given us a base on which to develop national institutions, but we still have not overcome our social problems. We can list three cruel paradoxes: the social problem was what precipitated the war and now this problem has gotten worse and, among governmental spheres, there is talk of a "social war," more difficult and just as vicious as the other war. A release valve for the pressure cooker are the migrations towards hegemonic countries, which would be the second paradox, since those countries have been involved in this unjust domination and now they have to share the problem. And the third paradox is that 90 percent of the migrants are socio-economically marginalized and they maintain afloat or balance out a classical liberal economy that does not concern itself with those on the margins.

M. A.: Now that the FMLN is an established political party, how do you evaluate and measure the potential of socio-economic justice in El Salvador?

A.: There’s no exit in sight. The political class has entangled itself in its own factional interests. They are at the edge of being completely discredited, which puts the achievements of the Peace Accords in extreme risk. The emotional conditions of the country are not right for making a change, although neither is it going to descend into the abyss of another war. I don’t see how one party or another is going to solve the country’s problems. The most I can conceive of is to have a vague hope, perhaps because I belong to a privileged minority as a writer, because other people don’t even have that hope for an improvement.

M. A.: How does being forced into exile, as was your case, change your perceptions about Salvadoran identities in terms of survival and change? Since Costa Rica served as your host country, did you feel any sense of Central American solidarity, especially since you functioned as President of the Association of Central American writers?

A.: I did everything I could not to feel like an exile, taking into account that I was in Central America where I felt the solidarity of artists, particularly from the theater, university academics, and professionals from civil society. It was thus that, because of this solidarity, I founded a theater (although the theater is not very strong) in order to place it in the service of groups that could not find a place in the most recognized halls of San José, Costa Rica. You should know that in those two suicidal decades that we lived through in Central America there were––in that city, with little more than half a million inhabitants––some eight theaters. I was the president of a cultural institute that promoted artistic exchanges throughout the region, as well as the director of the Coordination of Central American Culture. Some of these achievements were lost when I returned to my country. When I tried to repeat these experiences in El Salvador, I realized that it was not possible, that the propitious or emotional conditions, which I mentioned earlier, do not exist.

M. A.: Aside from the high level of remittances sent to El Salvador, what do you think are the ways in which U.S. Salvadorans change and contribute to Salvadoran culture and society?

A.: We Salvadorans will no longer be the same. It is curious that those who live in the United States maintain, through the mediation of nostalgia, those local values. They promote the traditional foods, the dances, their distinct popular dialects. While those of us who have remained inside the country are subject to greater external influences. Our young people have not been educated in their local values and nationalism is merely a slogan from the political parties. These young people are not interested in their own foods or dances. Instead, they’re more subject to external influences by the image that travels through space and which we view on TV, or through the webs of information, or through movies, or through the fast foods that are promoted through those same images. Meanwhile, those of the diaspora, through their nostalgia, contribute towards maintaining the dream of the local values. But we should also see in them not only an immediate source of remittances in dollars, but rather a future with advanced knowledge and new technologies: different forms of conduct that reinforce the ties of familiar solidarity.

M. A.: Certain U.S. Latina writers like Demetria Martínez and Sandra Benítez have published books about the Salvadoran civil war. Have you read any of these novels and what do you think of the ways in which Salvadoranness is being imagined and construed by other ethnic groups with Latin American ties?

A.: I haven’t read the writers you cite, but I have read Salvadorans such as [Mario] Bencastro, Rubén Martínez, Molina, Ivonne Galindo, Kattán. But there are also those who live in other countries, promoting the literature of the peripheral-periphery inside the metropolis. I’m referring to Canada, Australia, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, France. And I’m talking about a quarter of the population, which is the percentage of those that live outside of El Salvador. It’s hard to say exactly what the outcome of these changes will be. Still, I’m sure that it won’t be negative, but that instead it is simply making us different. The national being will not disappear, but it will be different in terms of how much it is absorbed by, or is absorbing, global culture.

M. A.: In the United States, U.S. Salvadorans have yet to be inserted into the discursive practices that signify "Latina" and "Latino." This ethnic group is generally understood as exclusively consisting of Mexican American and Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Nuyorican, and Cuban American, even though Salvadorans (in addition to other Central and South Americans) represent a significant portion of the U.S. Latina and Latino population. Should U.S. Salvadorans preoccupy themselves with inserting their particular experiences to U.S. Latina and Latino as well as American dialogues?

A.: I think that the Latino incorporates himself into the Central American Culture, which is already being discussed. That process of insertion is already taking place in San Francisco and Los Angeles, in the literature, foods, and the holidays shared by Central Americans. There is already a Central American cultural presence in New York, in places like the Nuyorican Poets Café. Also, there’s the literature about Central America not written by Central Americans. Here in El Salvador, we also include the testimonios and political analyses. Of course, the Central American migration is more recent in comparison to that of Mexicans or Puerto Ricans, which is why it has as yet to be noticed completely. But it is beginning to be noticed in the electoral results in the United States. And I think that when the nostalgia towards the native countries diminishes, and when the newer generations of Latin Americans emerge (as they already have) they will play a determining role in deciding on a faction of power. Thay is why that both presidential candidates in the United States feel obliged to speak Spanish. This is the first time that this situation has emerged, in which the Spanish language has become a flag that benefits the presidential contenders.

M. A.: There are scholarly debates, in contemporary diasporic studies, over what binds certain groups of people together––whether it’s a longing for returning to the homeland, an active participation for the development of the homeland, or a history of repression and displacement. What do you think binds the different Salvadoran populations dispersed in places like Australia, Mexico, Sweden, and the United States, among others?

A.: I mentioned it earlier. It is nostalgia that unites them, with the disadvantage that this nostalgia only unites the first generation of emigrants. We don’t know what will happen with those who are developing in the universities, or who already hold positions in those universities or in research centers, and even those in the exceptional instances within the political sphere. It has rarely been mentioned but, for example, the son of a Salvadoran woman with a reputation of being a brilliant politician was the chief of staff for President Bush, John Sununu. At the moment, there is also a senator who represents one of the most technologically advanced regions of the country, Silicon Valley. Let’s not forget that the United States is a country shaped by immigrants in this century: Irish, Italian, Greek. Some of these migrations have not lost touch with their original cultures, even after several generations, as in the case of Chicanos or Jews. But if we only understand diasporas as sources of division, or as peripheral consumers, the ties will begin to vanish. This is why it’s important to maintain a permanent cultural exchange that goes both ways. We also have to understand that after the crisis of the war, which was the beginning of the migrations, we are no longer the same. We have to revise our conception of the nation. This will benefit us in the long run. Otherwise, we will disappear as a nationality, incorporating ourselves only as consumptive, passive, and invisible subjects in the planet.

Note: This interview was conducted in Spanish and was translated by the author.