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by Bamber Gascoigne

Claribel Alegría (1924-2018)


Salvadoran-Nicaraguan poet, novelist, essayist, and human-rights activist, noted for her testimonio, accounts of the Sandinista movement and the experience of Salvadoran revolutionaries. Much of her life, Claribel Alegría spent outside El Salvador in self-imposed exile, in the U.S., Europe, and Mexico and other Latin American countries, but in the 1980s she took up residence in Nicaragua. Alegría's most acclaimed books include Cenizas de Izalco (1966, Ashes of Izalco), Sobrevivo (1978), and Saudade (1999, Sorrow).

Come, be my camera.
Let's photograph the ant heap
the queen ant
extruding sacks of coffee,
my country.

(in 'Documentary', Woman of the River, tr. D.J. Flakoll, 1989)

Claribel Alegría was born Clara Isabel Alegría Vides in Estelí, Nicaragua, but she grew up in exile in Santa Ana, El Salvador, where her family had moved when she was still an infant. Daniel Alegría, her father, was a medical doctor and supporter of Augusto César Sandino. After opposing the the U.S. occupation of Nicaragua in 1924 he was forced into exile.

Alegría's mother, Ana María Vides, was a Salvadorean, whose family belonged to the coffee planter elite. Later Alegría described her grandparent's house in Santa Ana in Luisa en el país de la realidad (1987, Luisa in Realityland), an experimental novel consisting of short stories, poems and vignettes.

Alegría attended José Ingenieros school, founded by her uncle, Ricardo Vides. After winning a scholarship, she spent a summer term at the Loyola University, New Orleans. At the age of 19, she moved to the U.S., where she studied at the George Washington University, Washington DC., receiving in 1948 her B.A. degree in philosophy and letters.

In 1947 Alegría married the U.S.-born journalist Darwin J. ("Bud") Flakoll; they had three daughters and one son. Flakoll co-authored some of her novels and translated much of her work into English. He died in 1995. Alegría's Sorrow, a collection of love poems, was written for her deceased husband.

Alegría began her literary career under the influence of the Nobel laureate Juan Ramón Jimenez, with whom he studied in Washington, DC. Also Emily Dickinson inspired her work, especially the award-winning collection Sobrevivo (1978, I Survive). Alegría's first poetry collection, Anillo de silencio, was came out in 1948. According to some sources, she took the pen name of Claribel Alegría by the suggestion of José Vasconcelos, a Mexican philosopher and writer.

In 1951, Alegría moved to Mexico and to Santiago de Chile in 1953, where she and her husband worked on a anthology of Latin American Writers. In 1956 she returned to the United States. A turning point in Alegría's career was the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Her writing, which earlier had been introspective and meditative, took a more politically aware and radical turn. "I consider my poetry love poems to my people," he said. ('Claribel Alegría 1924' by Nuala Finnegan, in Encyclopedia of Latin American Literature, ed. by Verity Smith, 1997,  pp. 38-39) As a figure of resistance, Alegría was known all over Central America. However, Alegría emphasized that she never wanted to subordinate her literary work to political activism.

For the first forty years of her life, Alegría mostly published poetry. Her style, in blank verse, is urgent and straightforward; female identity, love, death, and suffering are recurring motifs, but her focus is the Central American reality, of which she writes with commitment and passion: "my wounded country, / my child, / my tears, / my obsession" (from 'Documentary'). In the poem 'Eramos tres' (Flores de volcán, 1982) Alegría called herself a "cementerio apátrida" (a cemetary without a country) – in her work, the memories and ideals of the dead live on.

While living in Paris, Alegría wrote with Flakoll Cenizas de Izalco, which broke the traditional literary discourse and signaled the end of social realism. The novel was a finalist in the Biblioteca Breve competition sponsored by Saeix Barral. It uses diaries as a narrative vehicle, re-creates the 1932 "Matanza" (massacre) of over 30,000 Salvadoran peasants by government troops at the behest of the dictator Maximiliano Hernández Martínez. At the time of the event Alegría was eight; she witnessed the aftermath scenes of the uprising, and remained traumatized for many years. Cenizas de Izalco was first condemned in El Salvador by authorities and publicly burned. However, later it was used a secondary school textbook. The subject was suggested by Carlos Fuentes; Alegria first hesitated because until then she had not written prose.

Alegría accompanied her husband on diplomatic posting to Argentina and Uruguay. Disillusioned by the U.S.-supported Bay of Pigs invasion  of Cuba in 1962, Flakoll eventually resigned from his job and returned to journalism. In the 1960s they lived in Paris and on the island of Mallorca, first in Palma Nova and later in Deiá. Reflecting on her commitment to the revolutionary cause and present circumstances, she said in the poem 'My Paradise in Mallorca:' "my paradise in Mallorca / is a closed room / that each night is peopled with phantoms." (Halting Steps: Collected and New Poems, 2013, pp. 105-106) The island was a source for Alegría's novella Pueblo de Dios y de Mandinga (1985, Village of God and the Devil). She also met in Mallorca the English writer Robert Graves, who lived in Deiá like they did. Alegría and Flakoll translated Graves's poetry into Spanish. 

Alegría also marked the assassination of Archbishop Romero in 1980 as a turning point in her own conscientization. On a trip to El Salvador she saw people put sings in their windows reading, "Haga patria, mate un cura" (be a patriot kill a priest). After giving a book readining at the Sorbonne in Paris, in which she condemned the assassination, he went into a self-imposed exile, which lasted until 1991.

In her historical/testimonial books Alegría fused the personal and the political, the collective and the internal. "In Latin America a writer can't live in an ivory tower," she once said in an interview. "Reality marks you. You can't shut yourself away." (Claribel Alegría, Central American poet who wrote of personal and political anguish. died at 93' by Harrison Smith, The Washington Post, February 1, 2018) After the fall of Anastasio Somoza and the rise of the Sandinistas to power in 1979, Alegría traveled with Flakoll to Nicaragua, where they moved in 1985. During this period they collected material for Nicaragua: la revolución sandinista: una crónica polítika, 1855-1979 (1982). In 1983 Alegría published with Flakoll No me agarran viva (They Won’t Take Me Alive). The book, based on interviews, tells of the life and death of a young Salvadorian guerrilla and mother, Eugenia, who was a member of the FMLN (Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation).

Somoza: expediente cerrado, la historia de un ajusticiamento (1993, Death of Somoza) reveals the story of the assassination of the deposed Nicaraguan President Somoza in Asunción, Paraguay. On the recommendation of the novelist Julio Cortázar, Alegría and Flakoll had a contact person, who helped them to meet and interview the survivors of the commando team, that carried out the "bringing to justice" of Somoza.

Alegría was one of Central America's major poetical voices. She recorded the experience of revolutionaries, the contributions of women involved in the struggle for a new society, and the fate of political prisoners, who have been silenced. In her interest in recovering women's history and bringing women to the foreground, she shared much in common with postcolonial writers from Africa, India, and the Caribbean.

Alegría's prizes include the Cuban-sponsored Casa de las Américas Prize in 1978 for Sobrevivo, the 2006 Neustadt International Prize for Literature. The University of Eastern Connecticut awarded her a Doctorate Honoris Causa in 1998. Besides her poetry and prose writings, Alegría translated works by Robert Graves, Miguel Angel Asturias, and Salman Rushdie. With Flakoll she translated and published On the Front Line (1990), an anthology of Salvadoran guerrilla poetry. Alegría made in 2002 a reading tour with the poet Ernesto Cardenal in the northeastern United States. In the 2006 presidential election she supported the economist Edmundo Jarquin of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS). Alegria died on January 25, 2018, at her home in Managua. She was 93. 

For furter reading: 'Some Central American Writers of Liberation', in Culture, Human Rights and Peace in Central America, ed. by George F. McLean (1987); Líneas para un boceto de Claribel Alegría by José Coronel Utrecho (1989); Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions by John Beverly and Marc Zimmerman (1990); Spanish American Woman Writers, ed. by Diane E. Marting (1990); Claribel Alegría and Central American Literature: Critical Essays by Sandra M. Boschetto-Sandoval and Marcia Phillips McGowan (1994); 'Claribel Alegría 1924' by Nuala Finnegan, in Encyclopedia of Latin American Literature, ed. by Verity Smith (1997); Writing Women In Central America: Gender & Fictionalization Of History by Laura Barbas-Rhoden (2003); 'Claribel Alegría and Ricardo Piglia: Experimental Writing and Political Commitment,' in Gunshots at the fiesta : Literature and Politics in Latin America by Maarten van Delden and Yvon Grenier (2009)  

Selected works:

  • Anillo de silencio, 1948 [poetry; Ring of Silence]
  • Suite de amor, angustia y soledad, 1951
  • Vigilias, 1953 [poetry; Vigils]
  • Acuario, 1955 [poetry; Aquarium]
  • Tres cuentos, 1958
  • Huésped de mi tiempo, 1961 [poetry; Guest of My Time]
  • New Voices of Hispanic America, 1962 (ed. and tr. with Darwin J. Flankoll, as Nuevas noces de norteamérica, 1981)
  • Vía única, 1965
  • Cenizas de Izalco, 1966 (with Darwin J. Flakoll) - Ashes of Izalco (tr. Darwin J. Flakoll, 1989)
  • The Cyclone by Miguel Asturias, 1967 (tr., with Darwin J. Flakoll)
  • Aprendizaje, 1970 [poetry; Apprenticeship]
  • Pagaré a cobrar y otros poemas, 1973
  • El déten, 1977 [The Detainee]
  • Sobrevivo, 1978
  • La encrucijada salvadoreña, 1980 (with Darwin J. Flakoll)
  • Homejane a El Salvador, 1981
  • Suma y sigue. Antología, 1981
  • Album Familiar, 1982 - Family Album: Three Novellas (contains The Talisman, Family Album, Village of God and the Devil, tr. Amanda Hopkinson, 1990)
  • Flores de volcán=Flowers from the Volcano, 1982 (bilingual edition, tr. Carolyn Forché)
  • Nicaragua: la revolución sandinista: una crónica polítika, 1855-1979, 1982 (with Darwin J. Flakoll)
  • No me agarran viva, 1983 - They Won’t Take Me Alive: Salvadorean Women in Struggle for National Liberation (tr. by Amanda Hopkinson)
  • Poesía viva, 1983 (bilingual edition)
  • Petit Pays, 1983
  • No me agarran viva: la mujer salvadoreña en lucha, 1983
  • Para romper el silencio, 1984 (with Darwin J. Flakoll)
  • Pueblo de Dios y de Mandinga, 1985 - Village of God and the Devil, in Family Album: Three Novellas (tr. Amanda Hopkinson, 1990)
  • Despierta, mi bien, despierta, 1986
  • La mujer del Rio Sumpul=Woman of the River, 1987 (bilingual edition, tr. Darwin J. Flakoll)
  • Luisa en el país de la realidad, 1987 - Luisa in Realityland (tr. Darwin J. Flakoll, 1987)
  • Y este poema-río, 1988
  • On the Front Line, 1990 (ed. and tr., with Darwin J. Flakoll)
  • Loves and Comrades: Women's Resistance Poetry from Central America, 1989 (tr. Amanda Hopkinson)
  • Fuga de Canto Grande, 1992 (with Darwin J. Flakoll) - Tunnel to Canto Grande (tr. Darwin J. Flakoll)
  • Fugues, 1993 (bilingual edition, tr. Darwin J. Flakoll)
  • Somoza: expediente cerrado, la historia de un ajusticiamento, 1993 (with Darwin J. Flakoll) - Death of Somoza (tr. 1996)
  • Thresholds=Umbrales, 1996 (bilingual edition. tr. Darwin J. Flakoll)
  • El Nino Que Buscaba A Ayer=The Boy Who Searched For Yesterday, 1997
  • Saudade=Sorrow, 1999 (bilingual edition, tr. Carolyn Forché)
  • Sueno Y Verdad de America, 2000
  • Soltando Amarras=Casting Off, 2003 (bilingual edition, tr. Margaret Sayers Peden)
  • Una vida en poemas, 2003
  • Esto soy: antología de Claribel Alegría, 2004 (ed. Luis Alvarenga)
  • Ars poética: antología, 1948-2006, 2007 (ed. Ruiz Udiel)
  • Mitos y delitos, 2008
  • Pájaros incendidos: antología poética, 2010 (selección y prólogo: Francisco Ruiz Udie)
  • Otredad, 2011
  • Luisa en el país de la realidad, 2011
  • Halting Steps: Collected and New Poems, 2013
  • Voces, 2014
  • Aunque dure un instante, 2017 (introducción y edición de Eva Guerrero Guerrero; selección de Claribel Alegría y Eva Guerrero Guerrero)
  • Amor sin fin, 2017

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