The Assassination of a Poet

Posted on May 4, 2010

July 2, 2007

The Assassination of a Poet

Memories of Roque Dalton


I first met Roque Dalton in Havana in July of 1968. He claimed he was a descendant of an outlaw, and he turned me into a writer and a poet.
I was in Havana working on a documentary film about Fidel with my then-husband, Saul Landau, and our two children, Greg, age 13 and Valerie, age 10. It was our second trip there as a family. I researched Cuban photo and film archives and filled in as the sound person. Making a film about Fidel involved a tremendous amount of waiting and therefore free time.
Living in a hotel with maid and laundry service, as well as restaurant meals, liberated my life from domestic duties. I met remarkable people including Estella Bravo who worked at Casa de Las Americas, the hub of Cuban and international leftist life with publications, exhibits, and conferences. Estella recruited me as a volunteer to help her catalogue American folk and protest music at “Casa.”

I was walking down the hall of Casa de Las Americas, when a man popped out of one of the rooms, following me and quickly catching up. He introduced himself and said his name was Roque Dalton, a Salvadoran poet. He’d been in a meeting of male poets and they noticed me go by. So, he was sent to see who I was. Until then, I thought of poets as a very serious bunch. Now, I saw that clearly they indulged in the favorite Cuban pastime of the era- girl watching.

I commented that in my country, the United States, the Dalton Gang members were legendary folk heroes, like Jesse James.

“Yes,” he said.” I am related to them.”

We walked back to my hotel for lunch, He was very witty, and we laughed with every step under hot sun and palms trees, passing the Caribbean splashing against the malecon, dodging cars, and entering the limply air-conditioned Habana Libre Hotel.

It was the year when the entire island was gearing up for a campaign to produce a record-breaking ten million tons of sugar cane harvest. The previous year had been the year of the “Heroic Guerrilla.” referring to recently killed Che Guevara, whose picture hung every where. Sacrifice abounded. Schools, work centers, and whole families dedicated themselves to volunteer sugar cane cutting. The “Diez miliones van” campaign ultimately reaped only six million tons. However, it set new norms in socialist participation and volunteerism and promoted the Guevara concept of the “New human being,” one who worked enthusiastically for the common good.

Roque joined my family for lunch and immediately we were all laughing. He told us that he and his wife, and three boys had only recently moved from this hotel and were now installed in a Havana apartment, mentioning that his sons missed the use of the pool. As we moved down the cafeteria line, we continued talking about his connections to the Dalton gang. I was enthralled and suggested we write a television play of the story together using Brechtian theater ideas.

“Television?” he scoffed, “As a poet and polemicist, I worship at the altar of the novel.”

“But television reaches the masses,” I countered. “And Cubans with only two dull channels to watch deserve better. It will set a model for intellectuals to bring their skills and talents to the people.”

He agreed and after lunch, we went across the street to ICR, the Cuban broadcasting system and arranged with Abraham Masiques, that we would come back in ten days with a completed script for “The Daltons Ride South.”

If it passed muster with the political assessor, it would be videoed in their studio.

Every morning, Roque arrived with his sons, Roque, Juan Jose, and Jorge, carrying their bathing suits. The kids would go down to the pool and then come up to play Monopoly, while we worked. We sat at a big table that we periodically cleared throughout the day for room service family meals and snacks.

Roque sat at my Olivetti typewriter, since the script had to be in Spanish, while I handed him precious sheets of carbon paper. Cuba had severe shortages of everything. We often resorted to the dictionary and pantomime to work out linguistic problems between us, as we were neither totally fluent in the other’s language.

On the appointed day, we arrived with a completed script at the TV station. There were a few annoying rewrites demanded by the assessor, but we were too thrilled to protest. A production team hastily formed; slides produced, music composed, shots plotted, costumes assembled, and rehearsals scheduled.

One night after a rehearsal, Roque and I were walking back to the hotel around the lively La Rampa night-life, when plain-clothes police surrounded the crowd. He grabbed my arm: “Follow me, I am expert in escaping police.” He deftly led us back to safety, although several people were arrested that night. We thought the raid was part of the campaign against homosexuals.
Roque said he had escaped from Salvadoran jails five times, once through the divine intervention of an earthquake. When the prison wall collapsed, he walked out on to a waiting municipal bus and then out its side door onto another bus.

He told me he’d written a prose piece about being threatened by the CIA saying that they would kill him, and then spread the word that he was a CIA agent. He would die disgraced, as a traitor. As I listened deeply, I vowed to myself that if such a terrible event were to happen, I would help tell the world that Roque was honest and good.

We mounted our television drama in four days. The rehearsal time was so short that when the camera went into a close-up of a talking decapitated head, the actress froze. She’d forgotten her lines because of the quick turn-around time to learn them. She stared out on the screen in real terror- which was quite effective really- but Roque and I were dying because our precious words were lost.

The program was very well received, though at the reception party, we sat in a corner on the floor with tears of disapointment. We had anticipated the production like a Hollywood cowboy movie, quick moving with lively action. But, the Cuban TV acting at that time was exaggerated, and the editing style was very slow.

Immediately after, I rushed into the filming of Fidel and his entourage on a jeep caravan across the island. Roque too had pressing deadlines to meet from Cuban publishers. He was to write an answer to the Regis Debray’s book on Cuba at Fidel’s personal request. He was also proof reading the printer’s copy for his new poetry anthology.

When I left for California, we arranged to stay in touch through letters and invented a code for collect calls. My children loved a TV animation program called “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” He would phone and say his call was from “The Flying Squirrel,” which was the cartoon character “Rocky’s ” persona.

A year later in 1969, our family returned to Cuba to screen the Fidel film and begin researching for a fiction film about the Salvador Allende election in Chile. If Allende won, it would be a non-violent democratic revolution. This fostered even more discussions between Roque and me, about armed struggle and if it was the only path to revolution.

The “Fidel” documentary was lauded. We watched the first human being land on the moon. Our Cuba stay was short, only two weeks. Roque was frequently tied up with mysterious meetings. I worried about him, because it was rumored that he was involved with a Salvadoran guerrilla grouping. When I asked him about it, he said he could not discuss it, which I respected. We began a continuous dialogue about violence and terrorism. I was afraid of them. He felt it was unfortunate, but that sometimes for the sake of a greater good, they were necessary.

Some people described his group to me as “adventurist” and “Maoist.” Those were frequent charges in Havana in those days, against any non-Communist Party leftist group. The Mao influence was popular that year world-wide. Even the Black Panthers at a San Francisco rally had waved Mao’s little “Red Book.”

I visited Roque’s apartment and was happy to finally meet his wife, Aida. On one of his visits to our hotel, he saw a copy of a San Francisco alternative newspaper, “The San Francisco Good Times” with its flamboyant graphics and high spirits. The only words in it he could readily understand were the headlines: Los Siete De La Raza.”

“Who are they?” he asked.

“They are a group of Salvadoran immigrant youth, who are accused of killing a San Francisco policeman. Their defense has become a rallying point for organizing the Latino barrio, in the way the Black Panthers have done in nearby Oakland and the Young Lords in New York City.

“When you go home,” he said, “you work with them.”

I promised I would, and I did. That is how I became a poet.

Returning to San Francisco, I continued to worry about Roque. Our conversations replayed in my head. Emboldened by having written the video play, I wrote a poem about my concern for his safety and his life, The editors of the “Good Times” splashed it on the front page, and it was published as “To R. Before leaving to Fight in Unknown Terrain.” Thus I became a poet.

To R. Before Going to Fight in Unknown Terrain 1969

Mass media I adore you.
With a whisper in the microphone
I touch the mass belly against mine
like on a rush hour bus
but with no sweat and no embarrassment.
“Don’t die,” I whispered, in person.
Only the air and revolutionary slogans hung between us.
“When I die I’ll wear a big smile.”
And with his finger drew a clown’s smile
on his Indian face.
“Don’t die!” the whisper beneath the call to battle.
My love of man in conflict
with my love for this man.

Women die too.
They let go their tight grip on breath and sigh,
and sigh to die
They say that Tanya died before Che.
I saw her die in a Hollywood movie.
Her blood floated in the river.
I stand in the street in Havana.
There are puddles here
but few consumer goods to float in them.
Here the blood is stirred by the sacrifice of smiles
to armed struggle
A phrase and an act.
They leave one day and they are dead.
“Death to the known order. Birth to the unknown.”
Blood. Blood. Blood.
The warmth of it between the thighs
soothes the channel
The baby fights and tears.

I stand by a puddle in Havana
a woman full of blood
not yet spilled.
Can I spill blood by my own volition?
Now, it flows from me by a call of the moon.
The moon
A woman mopping her balcony
spills water from her bucket
On my hair, my breasts
and into the puddle.
The question is answered.

When I contacted the Los Siete de La Raza Defense Committee in San Francisco, they dismissed me as an “artist type.” They sent me to work with Roberto Vargas, a Nicaraguan born poet living in the Mission District, San Francisco’s barrio.

“Roberto Vargas has a crazy idea about organizing a fundraising poetry reading.”

Scribbling poems on café napkins and backs of envelopes, I was by now, obsessed with words. But, I had never participated in a poetry reading, though I had heard many Cuban poets like Pablo Armando Fernandez and Nicolas Guillen read in Havana. I’d even heard the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, when I was a teenager in New York City. In San Francisco, in the 60’s, I’d listened to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, and Alan Ginzburg read, as well as the Soviet poet, Yevtechenko.

Roberto invited me to participate in the poetry reading, and I read my poem to Roque. Writing poems and reading in community poetry readings became a vital part of my life. I met the other poets and joined Editorial Pocho Che, a Latino poetry publishing collective, that used stapled mimeographed or Xerox, or any means necessary, to publish broadsides and booklets. I reported regularly on the “Los Siete” trials for the San Francisco Good times.

When I returned to Havana in 1974 with my daughter Valerie, now 16, we met Roque Jr. by chance, the first night at the hotel. He told me that his father was in Viet Nam and was expected back in May. That May, Roque jr. came to our new house by the Havana Zoo to deliver a letter for me from Roque Sr. and perhaps in hopes of finding Valerie.

Roque’s handwritten letter said that he was a war correspondent in Vietnam and told of the perils of warfare in a very humorous way. He included his funny little cartoon drawing. It reminded me of one I had received from a friend, in my teens, who had been forced into the navy during the Korean/US war. A few days after I received the letter from Korea, my friend’s parents phoned to tell me he had been killed.

Roque’s letter reassured me he would see me soon in Havana.

What I did not know then was that Roque was not in Viet Nam as a war correspondent, but rather was in El Salvador as a guerrilla fighter, as a murdered guerrilla fighter. I looked forward to seeing him, but he was already dead when I read the letter, written months earlier.

We left Havana in the fall of 1975. Soon after, in San Francisco, I read of his death in the international edition of the Cuban newspaper, “Gramna”. Though deeply grieved, I took the article as a signal to honor Roque’s name, so that the infamous CIA threat of smearing him would not happen.

I told my friends, Daniel del Solar, and Alejandro Murguia, who had been co-editing the new bi-lingual literary magazine “Tin Tan” published by Editorial Pocho Che in San Francisco. We created a flyer and poster, which included the Gramna obituary. Countless community people helped to post it on every corner of the Mission district. Of special help were the Sandinistas who by then had their newspaper, La Gaceta Sandinista, headquarters on 22nd and Valencia Streets. We dedicated community events to Roque’s memory and created a small insert about him for our magazine A few years later, Alejandro Murguia and other San Francisco poets, like Jack Hirschman formed the Roque Dalton Cultural Brigade.

Today, over thirty years after his death, we still do not know the whole story of his death.. I join with his family, friends, and supporters in asking for the daylighting of the terrible and treacherous truth about horrible events leading to his murder by some of his fellow comrades in arms. I hope that day comes in my life time. Roque was a great friend, co-worker, father, and renown writer and poet. I still miss him.

This month The Nation magazine ran a piece attacking Hugo Chavez by Joaquin Villalobos, the assassin of Rogue Dalton.Click here to read San Francisco poet laureat Jack Hirschman’s response.

Nina Serrano lives in San Francisco.

Copyright Nina Serrano 2007


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