Central America’s poets confront the era of globalization
· illustration by Katie Yamasaki
Granada, founded in 1524, is a small city of elegant colonial buildings that sits beneath the tapered green cone of the Mombacho Volcano on the shore of Lake Nicaragua. The city’s cultural highlight is the annual Granada Poetry Festival, which attracts poets from all over Latin America, not to mention Californians, Taiwanese, Greenland Inuit, and Romanians. The poets read before huge crowds against the floodlit backdrops of Granada’s colonial facades. As a veteran of poetry readings attended by jaded but polite middle-class Canadians, I was riveted during my visit to last year’s festival by the sight of working-class single mothers, nuns and priests, middle-aged men in T-shirts and baseball caps, and avid schoolchildren hanging on every poetic line.
No country in Latin America loves its poets like Nicaragua. Rubén Darío (1867–1916), the innovator who brought Spanish-language verse into the twentieth century, lived much of his life abroad, then returned to die in this poor Central American republic where he was born. Darío’s early work is populated by nymphs, water sprites, and resuscitated Renaissance poetic forms, but he ended his career warning his compatriots against United States imperialism in poems such as “To Roosevelt,” in which he wrote (of the US), “You believe . . . /that where you place the bullet /you place the future.” Darío’s work is omnipresent in Nicaragua, his verses quoted everywhere.
The fusion of art and national self assertion forms part of Darío’s legacy. It is not that Nicaraguan poets write “political poetry” in the anemic sense the term conveys in English. In Nicaragua, where a feeble state has been trampled repeatedly by foreign invaders and monomaniacal strongmen, poetry is the nation, the sole consistent thread that lends substance and chronological perspective to the experience of being Nicaraguan. South America, Mexico, and Cuba have middle classes whose lives lend themselves to being mythologized in novels; in Nicaragua, where only a tiny middle class separates the oligarchy from the peasantry, forms of poetry that are only one step removed from oral storytelling have persisted as the most compelling record of the blending of public and private consciousness.
Today, in Nicaragua and across Central America, where George W. Bush-worshipping governments are distinguishing themselves from the left-wing regimes that predominate in South America, poetry has strengthened its defining role. In their fear that any assertion of national identity might offend the US administration, many of Central America’s rulers suppress their countries’ histories and cultures. This leaves a field wide open to the poets. However, the left-wing culture that boosted poetry’s fortunes in the 1980s and continues to influence Nicaraguan verse is not equally strong across nations, and, as globalization advances, the relationship between poetry and the state in Central America is becoming more varied and unpredictable.
In Nicaragua, the decision to establish the poetry festival in Granada, rather than in Rubén Darío’s hometown of León, was a source of controversy. The most common explanation I’ve heard is that the government was afraid that in León, where left-wing murals emblazon the walls and folksingers strum revolutionary anthems in bars, the festival would morph into a publicity circus for Nicaragua’s revolutionary past. Yet locating the festival in a politically conservative city has not eliminated this dynamic, because literary culture and revolutionary nationalist culture have been so closely linked.
At the 2006 festival, a plaque that is to be unveiled before the second night of readings expresses one of the week’s two central themes: “Aquí está Granada” (“Here is Granada” ). In 1855, William Walker, a California filibuster who had earlier tried to take over the Mexican state of Sonora, led an invasion of Nicaragua. Walker, who enjoyed tacit support from elements of the US government, had himself elected president, declared English the official language, and reinstated slavery. Driven out after a two-year occupation, Walker is most notorious in Nicaragua for having tried to incinerate the country’s colonial jewel. As he set fire to Granada, Walker’s cronies left behind a sign reading, “Here was Granada.”
The sesquicentennial of Walker’s burning of the city dovetails with the centenary of the birth of Nicaraguan modernist poet José Coronel Urtecho, who died in 1994 and to whom the 2006 festival is dedicated. For most of his life, Coronel was a spokesman for the dictatorship of the Somoza family, which ruled Nicaragua for forty-five years. In the 1970s, Coronel reversed his stance and became a supporter of the left-wing Sandinista guerrillas, who overthrew the Somozas in 1979 and ruled until their defeat at the polls in 1990.
Granada is also the traditional home of the Chamorro family, mainstays of Nicaragua’s conservative oligarchy. The Chamorros were denied their natural role of running the country for much of the twentieth century, first by the US Marines, who placed the upstart (but English-speaking) Anastasio Somoza García and his Liberal Party in power in 1933 after a six-year military occupation, then by the Sandinistas, who succeeded where the Conservative Party had failed by putting an end to the Somozas’ rule. But the Chamorros have prospered in recent years. The first post-Sandinista president, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, was a Chamorro widow; various Chamorro relatives served as cabinet ministers in the first three post-1990 governments; and the members of the board of directors of the right-wing newspaper La Prensa are all Chamorros.
Álvaro Chamorro Mora has been elected mayor of Granada twice, the first time as a Conservative and the second, in 2004, as a nominal convert to the Sandinista Front, supported by right-leaning elements among local Sandinistas. Approaching the podium in front of La Merced Church, Chamorro avoids looking at the plaque, over which someone has draped a white sheet inscribed in English with the words, “Here was Granada.” Chamorro praises the Granada Poetry Festival as an opportunity for Nicaraguans to participate in the world. Poetry, he proclaims, recognizes no national boundaries; it is the incarnation of free trade. His speech is a direct attack on the idea that poetry can have local, or national, relevance. Chamorro claims his cousin, Coronel Urtecho, for the cause of painless globalized entertainment. He skirts the burning of Granada. The unveiling of the plaque takes place later, after a speech by the festival organizer.
The first poet to read is Ernesto Cardenal. In the 1970s and 1980s, Cardenal, an ordained priest and one of Latin America’s major poets, was one of the most public faces of left-wing Catholicism. During the disastrous 1983 papal visit to Nicaragua, the sight of Cardenal — Nicaragua’s then-minister of culture — standing amid the welcoming delegation provoked Pope John Paul II to wag his finger in Cardenal’s face, shouting, “You must regularize your situation!” In 1985, John Paul barred Cardenal from administering the sacraments, a punishment that Cardenal later wrote was no punishment at all, because his religious vocation was always a contemplative one. As minister of culture, Cardenal presided over a renaissance in Nicaraguan folk art, establishing workshops where aged masters of moribund indigenous crafts taught their skills to the young, as well as fostering a school of naive painting. These products of a left-wing quest for national identity now stock the markets that fuel Nicaragua’s tourist industry.