In the summer after my junior year of college, one of my fellowship advisors urged me to read The Decline & Fall of the Lettered City, a cultural history of Latin America during the Cold War, written by Jean Franco, an emerita professor of literature at Columbia. I bought a copy in Cambridge—as a birthday present to myself—and started reading it on the bus back to New York. I couldn’t get past the first page of the introduction, though. It begins:
In 1953 I sailed to Central America on a Dutch merchant ship that reached Santiago de Cuba a few days after the attack led by Fidel Castro on the Moncada barracks. We found the shops closed and the whole town in mourning. I was on my way to Guatemala and was living there when the Arbenz government was overthrown by a mercenary army subsidized by the United States. From one day to the next the city became a hostile territory—friends had taken refuge in embassies; there was no longer news over the radio, only marimba music; and at night the curfew confined us to the house. What I remember most vividly about that time was not the emptiness of defeat but the poet Alaíde Foppa de Solórzano reading her poems during the curfew, an experience that was to leave a trace in everything I have written, especially in this book. Literature is a protagonist in this drama of loss and dislocation not only because it articulated the utopian but also because it is implicated in its demise. That is why what began as a a book on the Cold War and culture developed into an exploration of a postwar battlefield from which many of the old landmarks seem like ghostly remnants. (Harvard: 2002, p. 1)
That was enough for me. At that point, I remember that I started sobbing. Although I knew nothing about Alaíde Foppa and had never read her poems, that image tapped into what I can only describe as a deep, unexamined grief. The text also woke me up, in that heady way in which certain books can astonish you. I don’t think that I was able to pick it up again for months, and even today, I keep that book on my desk as a reminder of what literary criticism can do.
But that same summer, I ran into another new title, Looking for History, by the journalist Alma Guillermoprieto, and that eerie-wonderful thing happened: the two books proceeded to engage in a conversation that seemed intended specifically for who I was at that moment. (Yes, I am a superstitious reader who thinks that certain books find you when you most need them.) When I reached “The Harsh Angel,” an essay about Che Guevara, I was surprised to come across Alaíde, whom Alma describes with incredible gentleness:
[Che Guevara] knew, of course, that his death would fan that flame [of revolution]. One wonders if he had any sense in the final awful weeks of how badly things would end, not just for him but for everyone involved in the ubiquitous attempts at armed radical revolution that followed upon his death. I am thinking now of Guatemala, which, more than any other country in the hemisphere besides Cuba, formed Guevara’s view of the world and was a testing ground for his ideas about class warfare and the struggle for liberation, and which paid the price. And I am thinking of the Guatemalans I knew, like the poet Alaíde Foppa, a feminist editor, art historian, and critic, who was a great friend of my mother’s. Alaíde had lived in exile in Mexico with her husband, Alfonso Solórzano, since the 1954 coup against Arbenz. They had five children, including Mario, who returned to Guatemala in the late seventies to found an opposition newspaper. The youngest, Juan Pablo, joined a Guatemalan guerrilla organization. The group’s founders, who had trained in Cuba and been directly encouraged by Che, shared his faith that a small group of steel-willed men could win the people’s support and overthrow an unjust regime, no matter how large or well trained the enemy’s army might be, or what foreign powers might decide to intervene. In 1979, Juan Pablo was captured by the military and killed. In Mexico City two weeks later, his despondent father died when he walked into oncoming traffic.
Just before Christmas of the following year, 1980, I arrived in Mexico from Central America, expecting to spend Christmas Eve with my mother at Alaíde’s house. That did not happen, however, because when I walked into my mother’s apartment I found her holding the phone, silent with shock. Alaíde, following her son’s death, had apparently made the decision to match his sacrifice: she traveled to Guatemala City on a courier mission for the guerrillas, and there, the caller on the phone had just told my mother, she was almost instantly detected and “disappeared” by the security forces. According to information gleaned by her relatives, she was kept alive and tortured for months. Her corpse has never been found.
And then Mario was killed. I had last seen him the previous year. We had had dinner in Mexico City, and he had listened joyfully to my account of the Sandinistas’ overthrow of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua—a spectacularly unforeseen event, which I had covered as a reporter, and which had revitalized flagging guerrilla forces everywhere. I had no idea that within weeks of my meeting with Mario he himself would go underground, joining the guerrillas’ urban infrastructure in the Guatemalan capital. He learned in clandestinity of his mother’s disappearance, and then he too was betrayed. Someone revealed the location of his safe house to the army…and Mario was ambushed and killed.
Alaíde and Mario appear in my memory whenever I try to make sense of those fervid times…Alaíde was exceptional only in that she was sixty-seven when she responded to the call issued in Havana by Fidel on the day he told Cubans that Ernesto Guevara was dead. “Be like Che!” Fidel cried, and the exhortation gave purpose to an entire generation that desperately needed a way of being in the modern world, a way to act that could fill life with meaning and transcendence. But, in the end, Che…could offer only one course of action, and this was his tragedy, and that of Alaíde and her children: the only way to be like Che was to die like him, and all those deaths were not enough to create the perfect world that Che wanted.” (Vintage: 2001, pp. 83-85)
I am thinking about my family—Salvadorans, Hondurans, Colombians, Mexicans—as I copy Alma’s text. This history is visceral. All I can say here is that the account of Alaíde reading her poems at curfew is something that I carry with me. It challenges and makes me hopeful, and holds me accountable to the things I love. Alaíde Foppa was disappeared seven months before I was born, and her case has not been closed. She makes me hunger to be alive in the world. This blog is written in her memory.