On March 19, 1967, in the remote highlands of Guatemala, a 31 year old poet named Otto René Castillo was burned at the stake after being savagely tortured and mutilated for four days by the Guatemalan Army. Castillo met with dignity the prescribed fate of captured guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) of Guatemala. After years of agitation and exile, he had entered into armed struggle convinced that it was the only way to liberate his country from a tragic history of oppression and genocide.
Castillo’s life reads like a litany of the experiences of an entire generation of Central American writers, artists, and intellectuals who have suffered torture, imprisonment and exile since their early youth. His death, an event painfully augured in many of his poems, eloquently testifies to his deep commitment to revolutionary ideals of justice and liberty.
Castillo’s poetry is one of extreme urgency. Devoid of literary preoccupations, it is packed as lean and effective as a guerilla’s knapsack. It is a dialectical poetry in which the most intimate experience — love — already includes a collective destiny of redemption. The poet not only wants the reader to empathize with the poor, the workers, the peasants, but he challenges and inspires us at the broadest human level to participate in the struggle for liberation.
An irreducible ethical and spiritual current permeates Castillo’s poetry. The world is seen as the living stage on which humanity struggles against the onslaught of exploitation, hatred and injustice. In every scene, even amid terror and mourning, the poet announces the coming of a new age when the “beast” will have died beneath the weight of humanity. Known throughout Latin American as the “poet of hope,” Castillo believed that the drama of history can admit of only temporary defeats because the common people — whose sufferings force them to struggle for a better world — are the true bearers of the seeds of the future.
Castillo underwent his first exile when he was only 17 years old. He was later to spend five years in exile in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) where he married and fathered two children. Some of his poems are drawn directly from that bitter-sweet experience. For Castillo, the GDR serves, perhaps too romantically at times, as a counterpoint: its process of economic and social development accentuating Guatemala’s precarious conditions. The GDR also provides the setting for some of his most beautiful love poems. But it is Guatemala, the exuberant beautiful of its land and the misery of its people that saturates Castillo’s poetry with the ultimate experiences of love and hatred, joy and sorrow, life and death.
These poems are deliberately partisan: inspired in part by revolutionary Marxism, they are a contemporary call to reason and love in the midst of systematic butchery and terror. These poems comprise a high example of the unification of poetry, love, action and life. They reaffirm faith in humanity and its future while drawing strength from the past, especially from Guatemala’s history of resistance as personified by the Indian leader Tecún Umán who was also burned to death, and from the rich cultural spirit of the Mayans who were attuned to the land long before the first invaders arrived. So formidable and inspiring is the life and work of Otto René Castillo that revolutionary forces in Guatemala City have named a front after him.
With the publication of this bilingual collection, the Roque Dalton Cultural Brigade and its friends offer their assistance and solidarity to the peoples of Central America in this critical period of their struggle. May this book serve the triumph of justice and freedom throughout the Americas.
- Francisco X. Alarcón
Roque Dalton Cultural Brigade
March, 1984, San Francisco
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