These poems by Otto René Castillo will ask a new kind of response of their readers.
The translations were not made for the reasons one translates Vallejo or studies Lorca.
They were not even made for the reasons one might transpose the work of some of our outstanding contemporaries: Ernesto Cardenal or Juan Gelman. Otto René Castillo was not a man whose prime concern in life was poetry; his prime concern in life was life,andthat concern and commitment led to his death as well as producing, along the way, a legacy of three books of poetry.
Castillo’s language is simple, direct, but never ordinary. He asks not metaphorical involvement from his reader, but action. His play with the phraseology of his time may result in cliché to the reader looking only for literary innovation. In this case the reader must come prepared to follow the twist now almost lost among us: absolute honesty and absolute commitment.
Otto René Castillo’s life sounds heroic to us. It is. And it is even more heroic if one realizes it is not unique among Latin Americans of his generation. He was born in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, in 1936 and entered political life at the age of 17, assuming the presidency of his high school student association. In that same year, 1954, he was exiled for the first time. In that same year in that same exile, he began writing poetry.
In 1955 he shared the famous Central American Poetry Prize with Roque Dalton, well-known poet from El Salvador. The following year, 1956, he won the “Autonomia” poetry prize in Guatemala City, and in 1957, he was awarded one of the poetry prizes at the World Youth Festival.
Castillo returned from exile in 1958 and began studying law at the University of Guatemala. He was declared the best student in the school and awarded the “Filadelfo Salazar” scholarship. His particularly analytical mind not only marked his academic career as exceptional, but gave him particular insight into problems of Guatemalan political life, evoking great respect among his comrades.
In 1959, again in exile, he began to study letters at the University of Leipzig, Germany, where he was exempted from taking almost all examinations as the rectors felt they were unnecessary.
Again in his own country in 1964, he continued his activities as a student organizer and co-edited the newspaper “Vocero Estudiantil.” He founded the “Teatro Experimental de la Municipalidad”, experimental revolutionary theatre which, although unknown to them, is certainly one of the ancestors of the current U.S. guerilla theatre (both, perhaps, having their roots in Brecht). The same year he published his first book of verse, Tecun Uman.
In 1965 the military dictatorship of Guatemala imprisoned and exiled Castillo again. From that time to late in the following year, he spent some time in Cuba and also in Germany again, where he left a wife and two small children. Near the end of 1966 he returned to Guatemala to integrate definitively into the F.A.R. (Revolutionary Armed Forces), under the command of the late Major Luis Agusto Turcios Lima. In March, 1967, after 15 days of eating only roots, he and a girl comrade (Nora Paiz, known to the guerillas as “Raquel”) were captured in ambush, tortured 4 days and finally burned alive---March 19th
These poems are a selection from his second book (the last to be published during his life). Vamonos Patria a Caminar. A posthumous collection was due to appear, but the print shop, presses and publications were all destroyed by the Guatemalan government. Copies exist, however, and sooner or later the poems will appear. Meanwhile, as Cesar Montes, Commander of the F.A.R. says in a short introduction to a new Mexican edition of Vamonos Patria a Caminar, “the greatest homage we can pay him, is to go on fighting.”
CURBSTONE PRESS has brought out a new edition of Let’s Go!, the book you hold in your hands. And they have asked me to write a new introduction to these poems, create a bridge of words from 1971 to present.
What to say? More than a dozen years have passed. Otto René continues to grow among his comrades in the vastly multiplied Guatemalan struggle for justice. His poems are the voice that refused to die that March 19th, in his painful- and extraordinary-jungle.
In the brief introduction to the first bilingual edition(Cape Goliard Press, London), I said “Otto René Castillo was not a man whose prime concern in life was poetry; his prime concern in life was life . . .” Today I would say that’s far too simple – and rhetorical- a statement. Poetry, when it works- when it’s poetry – IS life. Anything else is irrevelant.
There is little I can add about the poet’s life. The basic facts are here, in the first introduction. In 1979, newly arrived inManagua, I met Zoila Quinones, Otto René’s sister. Hearing her speak of her brother’s life and death brought a few new details to the surface. But it allowed a retake on the significance and worth of the contribution of this man who, like his brother Roque Dalton in El Salvador, or Carlos Fonseca in Nicaragua, were among the early architects of the long hard war being won for freedom in Central America.
Rereading the translations, I find them somewhat literal. Perhaps today I would have taken more liberties, made a bit more use of the Central American idiosyncrasy I have come to recognize. But I stand by them. They carry the content and spirit of the verse. As between the inhabitants of Vietnam and the United States, between those of Central America and our country a mutual knowledge has deepened around a terrifying relationship. Names such as Quetzaltenango are familiar today in the U.S. because of news services, massacres, and poetry. No matter which side of the battlefield you’re on, the days of trivial tourism and tropical exploitation are doomed. Largely because of the sacrifice of tens of thousands like Otto René and Nora.
So, I am glad for this new edition of these poems. Glad and moved, 12 years closer to a free Guatemala and a living Central America.
Managua, August 1983
These translations are dedicated to our compañeros all over the world who, like Otto René Castillo, “remain blind so we may see.”
print this article send this article to a friend link to this article