40 Years Without Roque Dalton: A Body in the Postwar Period


by Elena Salamanca

The original article in Spanish can be viewed by clicking here.

I write this text with the intent to comprehend Roque Dalton (1935-1975) in the postwar period: as a symbol the impunity that exists within the Left and as the construction of a metaphor for a country, a missing body.

Roque Dalton, a photograph without date from the collection at Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen (Museum of Words and Imagery). You can find more here
Roque Dalton, a photograph without date from the collection at Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen (Museum of Words and Imagery). You can find more here


Neither bee nor bread; storm

I could say many things about Roque Dalton. I could say that he is perhaps our national poet because he wrote about those who were othered, “guanacos hijos de puta, mis compatriotas, mis hermanos / guanacos, sons of bitches, my compatriots, my brothers,” those scattered by the world that did not fit “el país de la sonrisa / the country of smiles” nor sang zealously about Snow White and the dwarves, or the coal man while living in “El Pulgarcito de América / The Tom Thumb of the Americas.”

I could say that the poetry of Dalton touches us because it is an experience through humor. That is, in his poetry there is love, there is pain, and above everything else there is laughter. And laughter, as Zambrano would say about knowledge, comes from the core.

I could say that the poetry of Dalton is very prophetic. “Cuando sepas que he muerto, no pronuncies mi nombre / When you’ve heard that I’ve died, do not pronounce my name.” He asked for silence and we gave it to him. But we gave it to him in a manner bereft of justice, he did not earn his silence.

I could say about Roque Dalton what has been said about Julio Cortázar, Eduardo Galeano, Rafael Lara Martínez, Luis Alvarenga… I could say “abeja, lágrima, pan / bee, tear, bread…” But no.

I write this text to attempt to understand, to ask, what have we done with the dead Roque Dalton? Really dead. Roque Dalton, a cadaver without a burial mound. Without mourning. An unburied cadaver that is itself a burial, a burial of memory.


The Paradox of Victims

By legislative decree of the Salvadoran state, every May 14th is celebrated as the national Day of Poetry, the same day as Roque Dalton’s birth. But that same government also ignores the day of Dalton’s death, just four days prior on May 10th. Maybe because Dalton was murdered by his comrades in the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo / People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) in 1975. To celebrate Dalton’s day of birth but to not speak of, to erase the day of his death, of his murder, is one of the great paradoxes of the postwar period in El Salvador.

Roque Dalton is, outside of his literary uniqueness and his posthumous construction as a martyr by the Left, a victim whose murder remains unpunished.

In 2010, the Salvadoran state apologized for El Mozote, in Morazán, for the massacres committed by the military during the civil war (1980-1992). The person who apologized was Mauricio Funes, the first president from the FMLN, in an act of justice and reparation that no government before had enacted, in spite of the recommendation by the Informe de la Comisión de la Verdad / Report from the Truth Commission in 1993. 1

And it was a paradoxical apology at that, since the government that apologized wasn’t even the government that ordered the massacre of civilians as symbolically represented by El Mozote, that government was headed during that generation by the military personnel and politicians that continue to be protagonists in the postwar period. No, the state that apologized was a leftist government. And herein is the paradox: that same leftist government, nor its political party, has recognized the murders–adjustments as they are called–committed by the national liberation front. 2

That is to say, an apology was made, but not for all the victims.

It’s important to point this out in order to understand the postwar period. The ethical dimension of the FMLN–as the hegemonic voice of the Left that it has assumed itself to be–should recognize and apologize for the murder of Roque Dalton as symbolic of other victims, from the same Left, even if Dalton was murdered before the civil war.

Roque Dalton, through the complexity in clearing up his murder, through the freedom with which the confessed masterminds of the murder reincorporated into civilian life, 3 represents the impunity within the Salvadoran Left. Who are the real victims and the real heroes of the Left?

Of course, they will say that it wasn’t the actual upper ranks of the the FMLN that ordered the murder, or they will argue that the FMLN didn’t even exist in 1975. But after signing the Peace Accords and when it formed as a political party, the FMLN has assumed itself as the only voice of the Left in El Salvador; it does not permit dissidence 4 And if we do accept that game, if the party is the only voice that matters, let it be that same voice to have the courage to recognize the past and reconcile the future of the Salvadoran Left.

These debates are neither new nor unmentionable in the Latin American Left. In 2004, the Argentine philosopher Óscar del Barco, who at the time supported the ERP of Argentina, wrote a letter titled “No matarás / Thou shalt not kill,” in which he speaks about the murder (or “adjustment”) of two members of the ERP between 1963 and 1964, recently confessed to by Héctor Jouvé in the documentary “La guerrilla que no fue / The Guerrilla that Never Was.” The letter was a reflection and a petition for political, historical, and ideological accountability in the murders. It reads:

“Whether it is from inside or outside, we are responsible for the murders of Pupi and Bernardo (…) there is no ‘ideal’ that justifies the death of a man, whether it be General Aramburu, or a militant, or a police officer. The principle that is the foundation of all communities is thou shalt not kill (…) It is time, like he says, to tell the truth. But not just the truth of others, but ‘our’ truth as well. (…) They killed, but ours killed as well.” 5

For those of us who write, our commitment is the thought, we work toward reflection and critique; that is also what Dalton did. I am not here to tell the FMLN what to do. Its upper ranks would never listen to me anyway! I have no commitments to either the left or the right; you know me, I am too much of a hipster for the youth of the FMLN, and I am too much of a commoner for the youth of ARENA. And that bipolar sentence, that uprootedness, is what allows me to ask questions that many ask themselves but never publish. I write this text without any emotional commitment to Dalton, simply, I am writing  because asking these questions allows us to understand what has happened to us in the postwar period. What has happened to the body of Dalton as a metaphor for the country.


Without a body, there is no mourning, and without mourning, there is no national day of poetry.

We made Roque Dalton a national poet, with an official day and protocols. Posthumous national glory is demagogic, a way to wash your hands in the style of Pontius Pilate. The Amnesty Law of 1993 also saves the FMLN from its shortcomings and internal weaknesses. And while there is no recognition of Dalton’s murder–nor of many others, be they poets, mayors, or military personnel–nor apology nor whereabouts of bodies, there is no mourning. That is why we cannot remain quiet, despite [what Dalton says in his poem] Alta hora de la noche / Late Hour of the Night. Without mourning, there can be no national day of poetry.

Roque Dalton asked, prophetically, to be erased, to say “flor, abeja, lágrima, pan, tormenta / flower, bee, teardrop, bread, storm.” But silence is the storm of a past that never ends. There is a profound sense of ethic in pronouncing his name, to join in the moral and legal struggle of his sons, Juan José and Jorge, who for years had been asking and demanding from the Salvadoran Left-the historical, actual, and the splinters–an apology for the murder as a symbol for other murders (adjustments) committed during the civil war, and as reparation for all the other families who were not apologized to in 2010.

The Truth Commission indicated that an apology and recognition of all victims as important factors for the process of national reconstruction. By making demands to the Left, we are not ignoring or hiding the murders and human rights violations committed by the Salvadoran military and paramilitary groups like the death squads. No. It’s not about compensating for Dalton [by recognizing] the murdered children in El Mozote and El Sumpul because this is not about winning the horror olympics. 6

But we know that a missing dead person, and a missing person, are uniquely both missing and dead; it is an uncertainty, an unresolved mourning of a family; it is that which consume[s] what is called the social fabric, a thread that is at once constantly tense but also torn in the postwar period, embodied in those mothers who search daily, and now, for their children disappeared by the gangs. 7

In spite of human rights organizations, the families of victims and survivors, an apology and recognition of the victims took 18 years to arrive. And this tells us much about a society where boys, girls, old people, and poets continue to be murdered every day. This tells us much about the value of silence and the will to forget in El Salvador. What were and are the only voices that should have value for posterity?


As always, I don’t have the answers. But Dalton, in a notable writing, left us the following:

El descanso del guerrero

Los muertos están cada día más indóciles.

Antes era fácil con ellos:
les dábamos un cuello duro una flor
loábamos sus nombres en una larga lista:
que los recintos de la patria
que las sombras notables
que el mármol monstruoso.

El cadáver firmaba en pos de la memoria:
iba de nuevo a filas
y marchaba al compás de nuestra vieja música.

Pero qué va
los muertos
son otros desde entonces.

Hoy se ponen irónicos

Me parece que caen en la cuenta
de ser cada vez más la mayoría.
 Rest for the Warrior

The dead are everyday less docile.

Before it was easy with them:
to each stiff neck we gave a flower
we praised their names in a long list:
that the enclosures of the motherland
that the notable shadows
that the monstrous marble.

The cadaver would sign in pursuit of memory:
it would return anew to the lines
and march to the rhythm of our old music.

But what gives?
The dead
are not the same since then.

Today they are all ironic
they ask.

It seems to me that they have figure out
that each time they become more the majority.
  1. Report from the Truth Commission, in its recommendations suggests both a material and moral reparation, pgs. 256-257.
  2.  Report from the Truth Commission, “Violencia contra opositores por el Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional / Violence Against Opponents by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front,” pgs. 202-208.
  3. The Truth Commission recommended a ten year moratorium from public office for all those who were responsible for human rights violations, pg. 245; this recommendation, like many others, was suppressed by the approval of the general Amnesty Law for national reconciliation of 1993.
  4. For example, let’s recall the conflicts between the orthodox and progressive members of the FMLN and the way in which various of the party’s founders were expelled for proposing reforms that led toward social democracy. A work by Salvador Martí i Puig, Adolfó Garcé and Alberto Marín published in 2003 in Revista Española de Ciencia Política / Political Science Spanish Magazine indicates this very thing: “In the conversation from December of 2000, a statutory reform was approved that by decree prohibited the existence of internal trends (…) during the period between 2001 and 2004 inter party conflicts continued, which were finally resolved by expelling the leaders of the progressive trends and with the assumption of party control by the socialist-revolutionary group (FPL and PCS)”, pg. 65.
  5. Del Barco, “No matarás”, consulted: https://lectoresdeheidegger.wordpress.com/2011/09/22/oscar-del-barco-no-mataras-carta-a-schmucler/
  6. Todorov, in his book “Los abusos de la memoria / The Abuses of Memory,” asks to be careful with “la reivindicación del superlativo, los hit parades del sufrimiento, las jerarquías del martirologio / the revindication of the superlative, the hit parades of suffering (oppression olympics), the hierarchies of martyrology.”
  7.  Todorov also says,  “Aquellos que, por una u otra razón, conocen el horror del pasado tienen el deber de alzar su voz contra otro horror, muy presente, que se desarrolla a unos cientos de kilómetros (…) Lejos de seguir siendo prisioneros del pasado, lo habremos puesto al servicio del presente, como la memoria –y el olvido- se han de poner al servicio de la justicia / Those that, for some reason or other, know the horror of the past have the duty to raise their voice against another horror, presently or as it develops hundreds of kilometers away (…) Far and away from being prisoners of the past, we have placed it at the service of the present, with memory–and forgetfulness–shall be placed at the service of justice,” pg. 105.
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2 thoughts on “40 Years Without Roque Dalton: A Body in the Postwar Period

  1. Greetings friends! It is our pleasure to once again publish another translation of Elena Salamanca’s work.

    41 years ago, Roque Dalton, one of El Salvador’s most celebrated leftist poets, was assassinated by his own comrades in the Salvadoran Left. This article discusses how the Salvadoran Left, in particular the FMLN, has outright refused to acknowledge its own participation in Dalton’s murder.

    While I don’t necessarily agree with the entirety of this article’s arguments, nor does it represent my own political beliefs, nor do I feel a sense of commitment to the problematic legacy of Roque Dalton, I do feel that his murder is an outright travesty and that his family deserves justice. Moreover, it is my fundamental belief that critiques of the Left, such as this one, are necessary for healthy political growth and progress. Unfortunately, the FMLN, like many other Marxist political organizations, respond to critiques in the most reactionary manner possible, accusing its critics of either being agents of their right-wing opponents, or of inadvertently aiding and abetting the right-wing.

    Please enjoy the reading!

  2. Uno de los grandes y peores errores que halla cometido algunos elementos del Movimiento Social Salvadoreño, lo cual genero el esparcimiento y la division del movimiento Revolucionario Salvadoreño encabezado por el Partido Comunista Salvadoreño, fue el cobarde asesinato del gran Poeta Vanguardista de la epoca Roque Dalton, y, que a la postre surgieron otros grupos y por ende otras divisiones, y fue lo que hizo prolongar mucho mas el triunfo revolucionario, y sacrificar mas al Pueblo,en dicha lucha, y que en la actualidad no se logra reagrupar y consolidar los cambios profundos por los cuales se ha luchado.

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