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by Bamber Gascoigne

Ciro Alegría (1909-1967)


Ciro Alegría was one of the best-known Spanish-American novelists of the 1940s and 1950s. Due to his political activities, he was imprisoned several times and forced to go into exile. In his novels and articles, Alegría described the lives of the Peruvian Indians. His international breakthrough novel was Broad and Alien Is the World (1941), an account of the destruction of the traditional Indian community by the expansion of the latifundia system. It has been reprinted many times. Alegría saw that the Indians are not oppressed only by covetous landowners but also by "bad government":

"The authorities of this district are exploiters and are also unconditional instruments of the exploitation by the bosses. The rural districts are the small cells of our nation where the germs of evil are first incubated; I am sure that if in each of these diminutive communities we could manage to radically uproot the evil in all its extensions, we should manage to constitute a true democracy full of justice and liberty." (from Broad and Alien Is the World)

Ciro Alegría was born in Sartimbanba, in the Marañón River region, the eldest son of mestizo and Spanish-Irish parents, José Alegría and Herminia Bazán Lynch. His grandfather was said to have made and lost a fortune in mines. Alegría acquired a firsthand knowledge of Indian life in his native province of Huamachuco. The deep understanding of the oppressed people became the focus of all his later literary works.

At the age of sevent Alegría was sent to live with his paternal grandmother Herminia in Trujillo. Alegría's first grade teacher was the poet César Vallejo (1892-1938).  Later he recalled how Vallejo's whole being reflected his misery at that time: "His pain was simultaneously secret and yet visible and it ended up spilling over onto me. A strange and inexplained pain overwhelmed me. Although he could at first seem calm there was something profoundly torn in that man which I didn't understand but which I felt with the whole of my alert childlike sensitivity." (César Vallejo: A Literary Biography by Stephen M. Hart, 2013, pp. 17-18)

After contracting malaria Alegria returned to the northern Peru, where he completed his primary education in the Andean town of Cajababma. Before  completing his secondary education at the National College of San Juan, in Trujillo, he spent a year on his paternal grandfather Don Teodoro Alegría. In the late 1920s he worked for a year as a reporter and then on construction and road-building projects. In 1930 he returned to the newspaper El Norte and attended classes at the University of Trujillo, without taking a degree.

In 1930 Alegría joined the left-wing Aprista movement, the brainchild of Victor Raul Haya de la Torre (1895-1979), a politician, philosopher, and writer. The APRA party (Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana), founded in 1924, was dedicated to social and economic reform and to improving the lot of the Indian majority. Alegria led a failed Aprista rebellion in Cajamara and for his militant activism, he was tortured and jailed, once in the notorious penitentiary at Lima (El Sixto). In 1934 he was deported to Chile, where he contracted tuberculosis. By 1948, internal tensions within the party had become so serious, that Alegría resigned in protest.

Alegría wrote short stories to a Buenos Aires newspaper and expanded one of them into a novel, La serpiente de oro (1935, The Golden Serpent). Set among the river villagers of the Marañón, it depicted their struggle for survival. The title refers to the river, as source of death and renewal. Alegría's second novel, Los perros hambrientos (1938, Starving Dogs), was set in northern Peru and revealed the difficulties of shepherd Indians. According to Alegría, the white landowners were the cause of Peru's economic backwardness.

Alegría's major work, Broad and Alien Is the World, takes nearly an anthropological approach in its depiction of an Indian tribe struggling to survive in the Peruvian highlands. Alegría painted a romantic portrait of a harmonious relationship between the land and the Indians, who are threatened by an avaricious rancher. Rosendo Maqui leads the peaceful commune, but he is powerless when the rancher uses the resources of law and state organization to gain control of the communal land. Rosendo is imprisoned and he dies after being beaten by the guards. His adopted son Benito Castro continues the struggle, but his efforts fail and the Indians are killed after troops are sent against the commune. "Where shall we go? Where"" asks Benito's wife at the end of the novel. "She does not know, and Benito has already died. Nearer, ever nearer, the explosion of the Mausers continues to resound." Politically Alegría saw the situation of the Indias similar to that of proletariat. It has beeen summarized that the main message of the story is that "the community is the only habitable place for indigenous Andeans." (Imagining Modernity in the Andes by Priscilla Archibald, 2011, p. 66) 

The work reflected the political programme of the Aprista union, which advocated an alliance between intellectuals and workers. Originally the story was based on a deleted episode from the novel Los perros hambrientos. Alegría's manuscript won a contest sponsored by the Pan-American Union and was published in the United States by Farrar and Rinehart, and and was also translated into many languages. The novel's many subplots stirred both criticism and praise.

From 1941 to 1948 Alegría lived in New York, where he translated screenplays for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, contributed to various publications, and lectured at Columbia University. Later he taught at the University of Puerto Rico and edited the magazine Presente. In 1953 he moved to Havana, where worked on the unfinished novel Lázaro and wrote of the Cuban revolution in La revolución cubana: un testimonio personal. These works were not published until 1973. After a long period of exile, he eventually returned to Peru, where he was received with great honor and appointed member of the Academia Peruna de la Lengua.

In 1961 Alegría joined Fernando Belaúnde Terry's Acción Popular party and was elected to the Chamber of Deputies in 1963, when Terry was elected president for the first time. Duelo de caballeros (1963, Duel of gentlemen) collected his short stories published in English or in small magazines. In 1966 he was elected president of the National Association of Writers and Artists. President Terry, at the request of the association, decorated Pablo Neruda with the Orden del Sol del Perú for his poem, Alturas de Macchu Picchu (1947, The Heights of Macchu Picchu).Alegría died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage the age of fifty-seven, in Trujillo, on February 17, 1967. His fourth son was born after his death. Alegría was married three times. While in Santiago, he married Rosalía Amézquita; they had two sons. After divorvce he married in 1948 Ligia Marchand in Puerto Rico. His third wife from 1957 was the Cuban poet Dora Varona, who collected and published many of the author's essays and tales that he wrote for newspapers.

Alegría was among the pioneer writers who made transition from European traditions toward new confidence, first seen in the work of Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839-1908), the Brazilian mulatto who wrote Epitaph of a Small Winner (1880) and Don Casmurro. By the 1930s a regional literary movement wholly of its time and place began to flourish. From Venezuela emerged Rómulo Gallegos (1909-1967), who portrayed the hard life of hinterland in Doña Bárbara (1929) and Canaima (1935), from Brazil Graciliano Ramos (Barren Lives, 1938), and later João Guiarães Rosa (The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, 1956). – Enrique López Albújar's (1872-1966) Andean tales (1920) appear to have influenced Alegría's Broad and Alien is the World.

For further reading: The Golden Land, ed. by H. de Onís (1948); Ciro Alegría by F. Bumpas (1962); The Modern Short Story in Peru by E.M. Aldrich Jr (1966); An Introduction to Spanish-American Literature by Jean Franco (1969); A New History of Spanish American Fiction, Vol. 2 by K. Schwartz (1972); Joy in Exile: Ciro Alegría's Narrative Art by E. Early (1980); Spanish American Authors by A. Flores (1992); La sombra del condor: biografia ilustrada de Ciro Alegria by Dora Varona (1993); World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 1, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); La "trilogía novelística clásica" de Ciro Alegría by Antonio Cornejo Polar (2004); 'Alegria, Ciro' by Michael D. Sollars, in The Facts on File Companion to the World Novel: 1900 to the Present, edited by Michael D. Sollars (2008); Ciro Alegría y la amazonia peruana by Manuel Marticorena Quintanilla (2009)

Selected bibliography:

  • La serpiente de oro: novela laureada en el concurso Nascimento, 1935
    - The Golden Serpent (trans. Harriet de Onís, 1943)
  • Los perros hambrientos, 1938
  • El mundo es ancho y ajeno, 1941
    - Broad and Alien Is the World (translated from the Spanish by Harriet de Onís, 1941)
  • Novelas completas, 1959 (foreword by Arturo del Hoyo)
  • Duelo de caballerros, 1963
  • Novelas completas, 1963 (ed. by Arturo del Hoyo)
  • Gabriela Mistral íntima, 1968
  • Panki y el guerro, 1968
  • Sueño y verdad de América, 1969
  • La ofrenda de piedra, 1969
  • Lázaro, 1973
  • La revolución cubana: un testimonio personal, 1973
  • Mucha suerte con harto palo: memorias, 1976 (foreword by Dora Varona)
  • 7 cuentos quirománticos, 1978 (edited by Dora Varona)
  • El sol de los jaguares: leyendas, cuentos y narraciones de la selva amazonica, 1979
  • Dilema de Krause: Penitenciaría de Lima: novela póstuma, 1979
  • Fábulas y leyendas americanas, 1982 (edited by Dora Varona, illlustated by Horacio Elena)
  • Relatos, 1983 (edited by Dora Varona)
  • El mundo es ancho y ajeno, 2000 (edited by Carlos Villanes Cairo)
  • 'The race problem' (1941), 'Germán Arciniegas' (?), 'English lessons' (1945). in Writings from Spanish America on the US, 1800 to the Present, 2012 (edited by John J. Hassett and Braulio Muñoz)

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