Alegría, Claribel Joy: 1924—
Claribel Joy Alegría: 1924—: Poet, novelist
One of the most poignant poets on the subjects of oppression and injustice in the Hispanic world, Claribel Joy Alegría has used her place in the world of literature to speak out against numerous countries and leaders who have misused their power to keep the citizens of Hispanic countries impoverished. Much of her poetry is influenced by the life she has lived, an exile before the age of one, Alegría has faced death threats, been barred from home and family due to her beliefs, and has traveled the world over seeing the ways in which the systems of government and culture can be sculpted to bring about change.
Learned of Political Unrest Early
Claribel Joy Alegría was born on May 12, 1924, in Esteli, Nicaragua. Her mother, Ana Marie Vides, was originally from El Salvador. Her father, Daniel Alegría, was from Nicaragua. Alegría's father was a medical doctor who opposed the United States Marine occupation of Nicaragua in 1924. Because of this opposition, her father was the victim of frequent harassing attacks by marines. On several occasions United States Marines fired upon his family, once when his infant daughter was present. Three months later, when Alegría was nine months old, the family fled Nicaragua for El Salvador. Alegría grew up in Santa Ana, El Salvador and was educated there. She attended a progressive school, Jose Ingenieros, which was founded by her uncle, Ricardo Vides, who named the school after the Argentinean philosopher. From the time she was nine months old until she was eighteen, Alegría lived as an exile in El Salvador, as did her family.
Although the family now lived in El Salvador, Alegría's father continued to protest against the occupation of Nicaragua. As part of his opposition, Alegría's father worked to support rebellions against the occupation, including that of a failed peasant uprising in 1927. In spite of her father's work on behalf of Nicaragua, life in El Salvador seemed very calm and ordinary to the young girl. The family lived in a pleasant Spanish home that was filled with opportunities for Alegría to explore her future. Even as a small child, Alegría composed poetry. She was only six years old when she began to create her own poems, and although she was too young to read or write, she dictated poems to her mother, who carefully wrote them down. In a 1995 interview with Bill Moyers for his book, The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets, With Bill Moyers, Alegría recalled that her father "loved to recite poetry," while her mother also loved reading poetry, especially the Spanish poets. Both parents often recited poetry to their daughter, and so her desire to compose her own poetry, as well as the request that her mother record her compositions, seemed not at all unusual.
At a Glance . . .
Born on May 12, 1924, in Esteli, Nicaragua; married Darwin J. Flakoll 1947 (died 1995); children: Maya, Patricia, Karen, Erik. Education: Georgetown University, BA, 1948.
Career: Author and poet, 1948–.
Awards: Casa de las Americas Prize for Sobrevivo, 1978.
Address: Office— c/o University of California Press, 2223 Fulton St., Berkeley, CA, 94720.
Although she was already creating poetry at a young age, Alegría did not always want to be a poet. She told Moyers that she had wished to be an actress. As an adolescent, she wanted to be a "tragic artist of the theatre" and she would often look in a mirror and recite lines of poetry to gauge the effect on her face. Of course, like any other child, Alegría was interested in other possible careers as well. In a 1989 interview with Rafael Varela, for the 2 Culturas Publishing Company, Alegría told of how, as a child, she wanted to be a scientist or a doctor. Except for dictating her poems to her mother, she had no other interest in literature, even though she lived in a house with many books. As a child, Alegría had easy access to many books. Her grandfather had an excellent library. He had been educated in France, and many of the books were in French, which she learned to read. In spite of the emphasis on poetry and literature in her home, Alegría continued to want to be a scientist throughout adolescence.
Then, when she was fourteen, Alegría read Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. Rilke had long been recognized as the most important European poet of his time. His letters, written in 1903, had a profound effect on Alegría's young life. In virtually every interview ever given, she has recounted how, upon reading Rilke's letters, she stayed awake all night pacing through the halls of her family's home. Eventually, as she told Moyers, she knew that "This is what I want to be. This is it. I want to be a poet." After this moment of epiphany, Alegría began what was to become an earnest commitment to writing poetry. By the time she was sixteen, Alegría was writing poetry with all the seriousness of an established poet, even though she was still unpublished. Finally, in 1941, when she was seventeen years old, she published her first poems in Repertorio Americano, a Central American cultural supplement. Then, two years later, José Vasconcelos, the Mexican educator, who was at that time living in exile from his home in Mexico, arranged for Alegría to be admitted to a girls' finishing school in Hammond, Louisiana. By the time she was eighteen, Alegría had emigrated to the United States for what was to be an almost permanent visit, as her parents wished for her to study English and to attend a university.
Studied Poetry with Jiménez
In 1944 Alegría received a scholarship to attend a summer session at Loyola University in New Orleans. In her interview with Varela, Alegría recalled how she met Juan Ramon Jiménez, who would achieve signifi-cant importance as her mentor. Alegría knew that the poet, Jiménez, lived in Washington, D.C. Alegría admired Jiménez's work, and so she decided to write a letter to him. In what was to become a very fortunate bit of luck, Jiménez responded to Alegría's letter. He told her that, while in Costa Rica, he had read some of her poems in Repertorio Americano, and he invited Alegría to move to Washington, D.C., where she could study with him while attending college. Even though she had a four-year scholarship elsewhere, Jiménez convinced Alegría to give up the scholarship and move to Washington, D.C., which she did. She enrolled at Georgetown University and immediately found a job as a translator at the Pan-American Union. Alegría studied at night, and three afternoons a week, she studied with Jiménez.
Jiménez insisted that Alegría learn about rhyme and about sonnet forms and about meter—things that she had never bothered with before. She had always written in free verse, but Jiménez pointed out that free verse was actually a much more difficult style of poetry to master and that she should, instead, begin with more absolute forms. He also insisted that she go to museums so that she could understand the relationship between visual art and poetry. Jiménez instilled in Alegría a discipline that she had lacked as a poet, and he is responsible for the publication of her first book. Putting together this first book was not her decision, but Jiménez's. After three years of studying with Jiménez, he chose 22 of her poems, and they became Anillo de silencio, which was published in 1948. In both the interview with Moyers and the one with Varela, Alegría has described the relationship with Jiménez as painful because Jiménez was very critical of her work and kept pushing her to do better. Years later, Alegría would recall that Jiménez had admired Emily Dickinson and insisted that she read Dickinson's work. After Anillo de silencio was published, she was frightened that her first book was too much like Dickinson's work and that the critics would think she had plagiarized the poems in it. Of course, that did not happen. Anillo de silencio contains poems of Alegría's adolescence, and as she told Varela, these are things that she could not say now.
In 1948 Alegría graduated from Georgetown University with a bachelors of arts degree in philosophy and letters. Six months earlier in December of 1947, she had married Darwin J. Flakoll, a student at Georgetown University, who was completing a graduate degree. The two formed a collaboration that would last until his death in 1995. Flakoll co-authored some of Alegría's novels and translated many of her other works into English. In time Alegría and Flakoll had four children. A daughter, Maya, was born in Washington, D.C., in 1949. Later, twin daughters, Patricia and Karen, were born in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1950. Also while in Virginia, Alegría completed a book of short stories, Tres cuentos, which would not be published until 1958. In 1951 Alegría and her growing family moved to Mexico. Over the next several years, Alegría had three more books of poetry published. While still in Mexico, she wrote Suite de amor, angustia y soledad and Vigilias. Alegría told Varela that Suite is the only book of which she is ashamed. In this book of poetry, she felt she had lost her voice, and to her great relief, "luckily it was published in Argentina and only five hundred units were left." In 1953 Alegría and Flakoll received a fellowship from the Catherwood Foundation to fund research in Santiago, Chile, where both Alegría and her husband worked on an anthology of Latin American writers. Also with the move to Chile, the family was completed with the birth of a son, Erik, who was born in Santiago in 1954. While in Chile, Alegría would write Acuario.
After three years in Chile, Alegría and her husband returned to Washington, D.C., where in 1956, Flakoll sought work with the State Department, in the Foreign Service. Because of his tour with the Foreign Service, Flakoll's work required that the family had to move often, and they eventually lived in Uruguay, Argentina, and Paris. Eventually, however, his disagreement over United States foreign policy in Latin America caused Flakoll to leave the Foreign Service. Yet even while moving frequently, Alegría continued to write, and although she traveled a great deal, Alegría always returned to El Salvador whenever she wished to see family and friends. Alegría published two works during those years of travel in the early 1960s: Huésped de mi tiempo and Vía única. Because of changes in Cuba that were brought about by the Cuban Revolution, the creative atmosphere for writers was vastly improved in that country. Alegría became one of several Latin American writers who celebrated the new cultural freedoms that writers could now enjoy under Fidel Castro's regime and she visited Cuba in 1961. She was also able to have greater interaction with other Latin American writers who also gathered in Cuba for cultural events. In her book on Latin American writers, Novels of Testimony and Resistance from Central America, Linda Craft says of Alegría, that before the Cuban Revolution, she "had written off Central America as 'sin remedio' (hopeless) and doomed to eternal dictatorship." Alegría told Craft that Castro's victory gave her "hope" that things could change.
Gave Testimony to a Life
Alegría did not limit herself to writing only poetry. In 1966 she wrote a novel, Cenizas de Izalco with her husband, Flakoll. Then in 1968 she wrote three short novels that would not be published for several more years: El Detén, Album familiar, and Pueblo de Dios y de Mandinga. Craft suggested that Alegría turned to writing novels when "poetry no longer sufficed to describe the national reality." But even with a creative change to writing novels, Alegría never abandoned her poetry. A 1978 book of poems, Sobrevivo, would win the Casa de las Americas Prize in 1978. Alegría was finally able to return to Nicaragua to live in 1979, when the Sandinista rebels gained power. After the move, Alegría and her husband began to research Nicaragua's history of revolution and political unrest. The result was a new book, a history of revolution, Nicaragua: La revolución sandinista; Una crónica política, 1855-1979, which was published in 1982. In what was to be their longest period in one house, Alegría and her husband lived in Deya, Majorca, just off the coast of Spain, from 1962 to 1983, although they did continue to travel and visit other countries, even maintaining a second home in Nicaragua.
A pivotal event in Alegría's life occurred in 1980. She and Flakoll had gone to Paris, where Alegría was to give a reading at the Sorbonne. But that same day, she received word that Archbishop Romero had been assassinated in El Salvador. Her husband encouraged Alegría to abandon the reading and in its place to speak about the murder of Archbishop Romero. Instead of her scheduled reading, Alegría provided a tribute to the slain churchman, but she also spoke about the death squads in El Salvador, and it was this last fact that resulted in a twelve-year self-imposed exile. Alegría did not even return to Santa Ana for her mother's funeral in 1982 because she had been warned that she would be killed if she entered the country. In her interview with Moyers, Alegría recalled how difficult it was to stay away at this time. She said, "I adored my mother, and she wanted to see me, but my brothers telephoned and said, 'Don't come because there will be two funerals instead of one.'" It was not until 1992 that Alegría could finally visit her mother's grave for the first time.
During the 1980s Alegría and her husband published two testimonial works that attempted to give voice to the victims of political war. No me agarran viva: La mujer salvadoreña en lucha documents the story of the women of El Salvador, who continue to fight and survive through oppression and war. Another book in a similar vein is Para romper el silencio: Resistencia y lucha en las cárceles salvadoreñas, which tells the stories of political prisoners. In these two books, Alegría moves beyond novels to give voice to those who might otherwise never be heard. In an article that explores Alegría's work as a means of testimony for those who are displaced by war and oppression, "Migrancy, Exile and the Hybrid Landscapes of Homelessness," author, Teresa Longo, suggested that Alegría is "ever mindful of her role as a poet/peace-activist," and as a result, "her writing emerges as a poetic reconstruction of places torn apart by injustice and repression." Because of Alegría's texts, "Exile—and the everyday rage and impotence that accompany it," are given voice. She recalled a home for those who are homeless, the displaced victims of tyrants and dictators.
For nearly 50 years, Alegría and her husband formed a personal and professional partnership. His death in April of 1995 was captured by Alegría in her last published book of poetry, Saudade = Sorrow, which was published in 1999. She began writing the poems in this book soon after her husband died, and several reviewers have noted the pain and grief expressed in the poetry. Liz Rosenberg, writing for The Boston Globe, noted that "saudade" is a Portuguese word that is "nearly untranslatable," but that it comes closest to meaning a "sadness, a longing beyond words." And yet, Alegría used words to express her grief at Flakoll's death: "I don't know what seas/ rivers/ or secret passages/ you have to cross/ but I'm waiting for you today." Another reviewer, Sandra Bertman, asserted in her review for the New York University system's Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database, that Saudade = Sorrow contains 47 sparse love letters, that are "neither sentimental nor confessional." Instead these poems "draw on the struggles of Circe, Prometheus, and Orpheus as well as themes of unfinished rites, sadness, and symbolic immortality." Although she is deep in grief, Alegría used classical allusion to demonstrate that she is not a victim. Just as she has proved so many other times in her life—Alegría is a survivor.
Anillo de silencio, Botas, 1948.
Suite de amor, angustia y soledad, Brigadas Líricas, 1950.
Vigilias, Poesía de América, 1953.
Acuario, universitario, 1955.
Tres cuentos, Ministerio de Cultura, 1958.
Huésped de mi tiempo, Américalee, 1961.
Vía única, Alfa, 1965.
Cenizas de Izalco, Seix Barral, 1966.
El Detén, Lúmen, 1977.
Sobrevivo, Casa de las Américas, 1978.
Album familiar, Editorial Universitaria Centroamericana, 1982.
Nicaragua: La revolución sandinista; Una crónica política, 1855-1979, Era, 1982.
No me agarran viva: La mujer salvadoreña en lucha, Era, 1983.
Pueblo de Dios y de Mandinga, Era, 1985.
Saudade = Sorrow, Curbstone, 1999.
The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets With Bill Moyers, Doubleday, 1995, pp. 5-16.
Novels of Testimony and Resistance From Central America, University Press of Florida, 1997.
Boston Globe, February 27, 2000, p. C2.
Peace Review, Vol. 13, Number 2, 2002, pp. 167-175.
"Alegria, Claribel: Sorrow/Saudade," NYU Medical Humanities, www.endeavor.med.nyu.edu/lit-med/lit-med-db/webdocs/webdescrips/alegria11962-des.html (March 13, 2003).
"Claribel Alegría," Entrevistas de Rafael Varela, www.2culturas.com/entrevistas/claribel.html (March 13, 2003).
—Sheri Elaine Metzger
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