Claribel Alegría is one of the most respected and prolific writers of Central America. Since the late 1940s she has written more than forty books across many literary genres, including novels, novellas, stories, essays, testimonios(testimonials), children’s stories, and poetry. Her works have been published in more than fourteen languages throughout Europe, Latin America, and the United States. With Darwin J. “Bud” Flakoll, her husband and partner in writing, Alegría has translated and edited other writers’ work, produced anthologies, and cowritten novels, testimonios, and journalistic exposés. She has lectured and read widely from her work in diverse international media and academic forums, especially during the 1980s, when she was recognized unofficially as cultural ambassador of El Salvador in exile. In “The Writer’s Commitment” (which first appeared in the journal Fiction International in 1984) Alegría identified herself as a profoundly “committed writer,” one who envisions social change, struggles for human rights, and produces a transformational “literature of emergency.” Tracing her own political and literary transformations, she explains that, early in her life, she wrote poetry without knowing “what was happening in my country—El Salvador—or my region— Central America.” The Cuban Revolution in 1959, the Sandinista Revolutionary Period in Nicaragua from 1979 to 1989, the Salvadoran Civil War from 1979 to 1991, and her own personal relationship to these historical events transformed her writing. These social movements and historical moments indelibly marked both her prose and poetry.
Born in Estelí, Nicaragua, on 12 May 1924, Clara Isabel Alegría Vides was taken to live in El Salvador by her parents at the age of six months. A binational citizen and international traveler, she has claimed Nicaragua as her matria (motherland) and El Salvador as her patria (fatherland). Her father, Daniel Alegría, was a Nicaraguan citizen and medical doctor who was exiled from Nicaragua after expressing his discontent with the United States Marine occupation of Nicaragua, critiquing the Somocista repression of peasants and dissidents in his country, and voicing support for the revolutionary forces of Augusto César Sandino. Although he never returned to Nicaragua, Alegría’s father remained a fervent supporter of Sandino’s ideals in Central America. Upon being terrorized by the Nicaraguan National Guard, the Alegría family fled to the northwestern department of Santa Ana in El Salvador, the home of Alegría’s mother, Ana María Vides. There, Alegría grew up as a member of the landed coffee oligarchy, to which her mother’s family belonged.
Alegría was reared amid the privilege of her socio-economic class, although from an early age she demonstrated a sense of autonomy and free thought, electing to attend public schools rather than the private parochial schools preferred by her siblings. In a 2000 interview with Antonio Velásquez, Alegría explains that in Santa Ana she had access to good libraries, wherein she began to read at an early age. Her parents introduced her to the poetry of the Spanish Golden Age, including that of San Juan de la Cruz and Santa Teresa, and many Latin American writers, among them Rubén Darío, Gabriela Mistral, and Rómulo Gallegos. She learned at an early age that she wanted to be a poet, thereby challenging prescribed gender roles and traditions of Salvadoran elite society.
In 1943, perhaps seeking other directions for herself and her artistic production, Alegría moved to the United States to attend George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where she earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and letters. In 1948 Alegría published her first book of poetry, Anillo de silencio (Ring of Silence), for which the Mexican philosopher and writer José Vasconcelos wrote the prologue. In his travels through Central America, Vasconcelos met the young Clara Isabel Alegría Vides. Vasconcelos, according to sources, suggested to her the pen name of Claribel Alegría. During her residence in Washington, D.C., in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Alegría met the Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez, whom she called her mentor. In her interview with Velásquez, Alegría affirms that “Juan Ramón Jiménez fue, en ese sentido, muy estricto conmigo y me decía que había que tener oficio para ser poeta, para ser novelista, y yo nunca había tenido un oficio de narradora, solamente de poeta” (Juan Ramón Jiménez was, in a sense, very strict with me and he would tell me that one has to have vocation to be a poet, a novelist, and I only wanted to be a poet, not a prose writer). Despite her initiation in poetry, Alegría has been recognized both for her poetry and prose. In 1978 her book Sobrevivo (I Survive) received Cuba’s Casa de las Américas prize for poetry, while her novel Cenizas de Izalco (1966; translated as Ashes of Izalco, 1989), cowritten with her husband, was the first Central American novel published by the prestigious Seix Barral of Barcelona.
While studying at George Washington University, Alegría met Flakoll, a student studying journalism and diplomacy, whom she married in 1947. Together they formed a deep partnership that lasted a lifetime of family commitments, worldwide travels, and writing projects. They lived in the United States, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, France, Spain, and Nicaragua, meeting many writers with whom they collaborated on various projects. During that period of living as expatriates, Alegría and Flakoll produced poetry anthologies, in which they compiled and translated the work of international writers. These anthologies include New Voices of Hispanic America (1962), Unstill Life: An Introduction to the Spanish Poetry of Latin America (1970), Cien poemas de Robert Graves (One Hundred Poems of Robert Graves, 1981), Nuevas voces de Norteamérica (New Voices of North America, 1981), and On the Front Line: Guerrilla Poetry of El Salvador (1989). While living in Paris from 1962 to 1966, Alegría and Flakoll met the writers of the Spanish American “Boom” who resided in that city. The couple became lifelong friends of the Argentine Julio Cortázar, who participated in their enthusiasm and support of the Sandinista Revolution until his death. Flakoll and Alegría lived for years in Deyá, on the island of Majorca in Spain, which serves as the setting for the novella Pueblo de Dios y de Mandinga (1985; translated as Village of God and the Devil, 1991).
In 1979 Alegría and Flakoll relocated to Nicaragua to join the Sandinista reconstruction efforts. They cowrote an historical text, Nicaragua: La revolución sandinista—Una crónica política, 1855–1979 (Nicaragua: The Sandinista Revolution— A Political Chronicle, 1855–1979, 1982), and produced several anthologies of poetry and prose, published in solidarity with the revolutionary movement in El Salvador. During this period Alegría and Flakoll were prolific, publishing La encrucijada salvadoreña (The Salvadoran Crossroads, 1980), Homenaje a El Salvador, and On the Front Line. They also collaborated in the writing of testimonial and resistance texts such as No me agarran viva: La mujer salvadoreña en la lucha (1983; translated as They Won’t Take Me Alive: Salvadorean Women in Struggle for National Liberation, 1987), Fuga de Canto Grande (1992; translated as Tunnel to Canto Grande, 1996), and Somoza: Expediente cerrado: La historia de un ajusticiamiento (1993; translated as Death of Somoza, 1996)....
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Sorrow in Her Own Life
As she approaches the period that she calls “old age,” Claribel Alegría responds by composing her own elegy, “Accounting,” for which she uses a traditional poetic form to reflect upon the events of her life. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Alegría described this poem as having been created as a result of a period of reflection in which she asked herself, “what have been the crucial moments in my life?” In reflecting on her life, she chose “a few electrical instants” so that she could create a poem that would, as she related to Moyers, “sum up all my life.” This poem accomplishes this goal, transforming determinate elements of time—“six hours in Macchu Pichu,” “the ten minutes it took / to lose my...
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Life Transformed Into Verse
Fugues (1993), Claribel Alegría’s collection of elegies and love poems, contains the poem “Accounting,” a tally of experiences singled out as “electrical instants” in the aging poet’s life. As a reviewer commented in Booklist, the collection is “lyrical” and “speaks of the solitary self and the self that is lost and found in love.” Likewise, in “Accounting” the poet draws on past experiences in order to gather this self back to the present moment of composition, through which she desires to be transformed. Alegría wants to transmogrify herself “into a verse,” to change her form into something surprising and perhaps strange, like a “shout” and “a fleck of foam.” In this poem,...
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Claribel Alegría and the Elegiac Tradition
In the post-Matanza era, elegiac poetry in Central America is eloquent through stark simplicity. The great cathedral organ of Hispanic tradition is sparingly intoned or renounced in favor of an unamplified voice that is at once personal and collective. Death in the Central American isthmus is not cortés, as elegized by Manrique; Death as personified by Alegría is the implacable god Tlaloc demanding blood; his victims are the dispossessed, stripped of land, customs, dress, language, and history. The language of elegy must faithfully reflect this; a lament for the children of the Woman of the River Sumpul must of necessity be as pure as water, uncompromised by reliance on the codes of power.
It is not merely the diction...
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Claribel Alegría: Human-Rights Activist and Poet
“My main concern, rather than to talk about me, is to talk about my countries,” says Claribel Alegría in the Fall 1989 issue of Curbstone Ink. “To talk about what is happening in El Salvador and Nicaragua is important,” she continues. “Just to let people know what is happening right there, right then: that’s my main concern. Nicaragua and El Salvador. I consider them both my countries.”
Alegría, who was born in Nicaragua on 12 May 1924 and grew up in El Salvador, is one of the major contemporary voices in the struggle for liberation in Central America. As a poet, novelist, essayist, storyteller, translator, and indefatigable humanrights activist, she combines both love and revolution, the personal...
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