Alegría, Claribel (1924—)

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Alegría, Claribel (1924—)

Nicaraguan writer of poetry, narrative, and testimony about political upheaval in Central America from the perspective of popular resistance. Pronunciation: Clar-ee-BEL Al-eh-GREE-uh. Name variations: Alegria. Born on May 12, 1924, in Estelí, Nicaragua; daughter of Dr. Daniel Alegría and Ana Maria Vides; attended George Washington University, B.A., 1948; married Darwin B. Flakoll (a journalist), in December 1947, in Wendte, South Dakota; children: daughters Maya, Patricia, and Karen; son Erik.

Family forced into political exile in El Salvador because of father's opposition to U.S. Marine occupation of Nicaragua (1925); published first poems in Reportorio Americano (Costa Rica, 1941); admitted to George Washington University (1944); graduated and published Anillo de silencio, first book of poetry, inMexico (1948); moved with husband and three children to Mexico; moved with family to Santiago, Chile, to work with husband on anthology of Latin American writers and poets (1953); returned to U.S. (1956); moved to foreign service post in Uruguay (1958); posted to Argentina (1960); moved with family to Paris and began collaboration on a novel (1962); moved to Majorca (1966); San Salvador's university closed and remaining copies of Aprendizaje burned by army (1972); won the Casa de las Américas Prize (1978); after the Sandinista rebels gained power in Nicaragua, began research with husband for history of the Sandinista movement (1979); delivered eulogy at the Sorbonne for assassinated Monsignor Arnulfo Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, resulting in exile (1980); co-authored history of the Sandinista revolution.

Selected writings:

Anillo de silencio (Ring of Silence, Mexico, 1948); Suite (Argentina, 1951); Vigilias (Vigils, Mexico, 1953); Acuario (Aquarium, book of poems, 1953); Huésped de mi tiempo (Guest of My Time, Argentina, 1961); (edited with Darwin B. Flakoll), New Voices of Hispanic America (Beacon Press, 1962); Via Unica (One-Way Traffic, Uruguay, 1965); (edited with Flakoll) Cenizas de Izalco (Ashes of Izalco, novel, Spain, 1966, English trans. in United States, 1989); Luisa in Realityland (prose-verse novel, 1966, published in United States by Curbstone Press, 1987); Aprendizaje (Apprenticeship, poetry collection, Editorial Universitaria, San Salvador, 1970); Pagaré a cobrar (Installment Payments, Barcelona, 1973); El detén (The Talisman, Barcelona, 1977); Sobrevivo (I Survive, Havana, 1978); Suma y sique (Add and Carry, Spain, 1981); (edited with Flakoll) Nuevas Voces de Norteamerica (New Voices of North America, Spain, 1981); Flowers from the Volcano (a poetry collection translated by Carolyn Forché , University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982); (edited with Flakoll) Nicaragua: La Revolucíon sandinista: Un crónica politica 1955–1979 (Nicaragua: The Sandinista Revolution, a Political chronicle, Central America, 1982); Karen en barque sur la mer (French version of novel El detén and poetry Petit pays, Paris, 1983); Despierta mi bien despierta (Awake, My Love, Awake, El Salvador, 1986); Woman of the River (poetry trans. by Flakoll, United States, 1989); Y este poema-rio (And This River Poem, Nicaragua, 1989); (edited with Flakoll) On the Frontline (guerrilla poetry, Curbstone, 1990); Album familiar (Family Album, three-novella collection, Women's Press, England, 1990, Curbstone, United States, 1991); Fugas (Fugues, Curbstone, 1993). Also edited with Flakoll, Cien poemas de Robert Graves (One Hundred Poems of Robert Graves).

Following the climax of the Cuban revolution in 1959, the 1960s ushered in what the writer Arturo Arias has called a "golden decade of Latin American narrative [boom literature]," during which it became evident to a number of writers living in Central America that those who were politically committed could employ new narrative methods in order to blend their personal and political concerns. At the forefront of this movement was Claribel Alegría, who initiated what Arias has described as a "generic transition from poetry to narrative" that led to "the transformation of Central American literature."

Alegría's most singular achievement is the novel Cenizas de Izalco (Ashes of Izalco), co-written with her journalist husband Darwin (Bud) Flakoll, and widely recognized today as a seminal work in Central American literature. Rooted in Alegría's childhood memories of the matanza, it is the story of the 1932 massacre of 30,000 peasants in Izalco, El Salvador, by members of the Salvadoran army, as the country's military dictatorship sought to quell an uprising led by the revolutionary hero Farabundo Martí. Since the book's first publication, in 1966, it has become an instrument for Salvadoran school children to learn about a chapter in their history that the dictator Maximiliano Hernández Martínez had sought to excise, performing what Alegría has called a "cultural lobotomy" on her people by means of censorship.

Indeed, all of Alegría's writing is rooted in the historical and social history of her region, as well as in its spiritual life and its "magical reality." It is the work of a woman who knows the pain of exile, but who, first and foremost, as she writes in her experimental prose-verse novel, Luisa In Realityland, believes in "the resurrection of the oppressed/ in the Church of the people/ in the power of the people."

This writer who was to become a voice for the oppressed was born into a well-to-do family in Estelí, Nicaragua. Her mother was a member of the oligarchy of neighboring El Salvador, and her father was a physician with liberal views who had fought against "yanqui invaders" as a boy. Before Alegría's first birthday, the family was forced to flee to El Salvador because of her father's active opposition to the 1925 occupation of Nicaragua by U.S. Marines. Alegría remembers being told by her mother that when she was eight months old and in her mother's arms in front of her house, a bullet narrowly missed the two of them and lodged in the wall.

In El Salvador, Alegría's childhood was enriched by various storytelling uncles, by her

grandmother's reciting of Biblical passages, and by the family's well-stocked library. The house was frequented by Salvadoran intellectuals—Claudia Lars , Alberto Guerra Trigueros, Serafin Quiteño, and José Vasconcelos, who eventually wrote the prologue to her first book of poems, Ring of Silence. In 1929, Alegría entered the progressive school of her uncle Ricardo, where she learned regional history, mythology, and geography. In 1932, after the matanza, her teacher, Chico Laura, explained the reason for the uprising, describing the conditions of the country in which the vast majority of Salvadorans lived in abject poverty, while the wealth of the country was in the hands of a privileged few. Alegría's sense of injustice grew steadily after the matanza, reinforced by her view of the squalid lives of the children in the meson, or tenement, across the street from her house. She has related that she began to understand "the cruel reality in which the majority of my countrymen were immersed," and the knowledge opened in her "a deep psychic wound that has never healed."

Alegría has often spoken of the encouragement received from her mother regarding her literary ambitions, and the complicity of her father and grandfather, as well as family friends like Trigueros and Quiteño. But she has also acknowledged the difficulties in Central America for a woman wishing to become a writer in a social atmosphere where women who wrote were regarded as "pedantic" or "crazed." From an early age, she consciously sought out women poets as role models: Claudia Lars, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, Gabriela Mistral, Alfonsina Storni , and others. Alegría revealed in an interview that she feels that "women poets of this generation—the Sandinista women—are better than their male contemporaries," and that the women writers of the region, by bearing witness to their own experience, are educating people around the world about "the position of women in Central America, about the importance of women in the liberation movements, about the many women who have died under torture." Alegría points to the stereotypical gender roles reinforced by male machismo that support the oppression of women in her culture, with a political awareness that draws on memories of her own youth. Though she finished secondary school before her 16th birthday, her father initially refused to send her abroad to study, stating that it was a "woman's place" to stay beside her mother, learning from her until marriage. He also refused to allow Alegría to study medicine at the University of San Salvador, consigning her instead to a regimen of sewing, piano, and cooking lessons. During this interval, Alegría read and wrote extensively, biding her time. Her father finally realized her misery when she admitted that she had been weeping because she found herself praying for him to die and set her free. Shortly thereafter, she was sent with her brother to study in the United States.

Alegría first attended a preparatory school for women in Hammond, Louisiana, repeating her senior high school year in order to learn English, the language in which she preferred to study. She was successful enough to win a scholarship to Loyola University, but after attending a summer session there in 1944, she followed the advice of Juan Ramón Jiménez and his wife Zenobia ; they recommended that she study at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where she could be tutored by Jiménez in poetry. The resultant volume of her poems, Annilo de silencio (Ring of Silence), came out in Mexico in 1948, the year after she met and married Bud Flakoll, and the year in which she graduated from the university, conspicuously pregnant with her first child.

During the ensuing years, especially after twin daughters were born in mid-1950, Alegría had little time for writing, with the exception of a book of children's stories, Tres cuentos (Three Stories). In 1951, however, after Flakoll accepted a job as managing editor of the Daily News in Mexico City, she was able to hire household help and proceed with her writing; she has said, "For me, Mexico was a rebirth." Soon she had produced two new collections of poetry, Suite, which was published in Argentina in 1951, and Vigilias (Vigils), written mostly in sonnet form, in which Alegría feels that she came into her own poetic voice. At this time, she also forged friendships with prominent Latin American writers Augusto (Tito) Monterroso, Juan José Arreola, and Juan Rulfo.

In 1953, Vigilias was published in Mexico, and Alegría and Flakoll moved their family to Chile, where they were supported by a Catherwood Foundation grant while they worked together, compiling an anthology for English-speaking readers of Latin American writers who were part of the new literary "boom." Among the writers introduced to the English-speaking world by their New Voices of Hispanic America, published in 1962, were Ernesto Cardenal, Juan Rulfo, Rosario Castellanos , Mario Benedetti, Julio Cortázar, and Octavio Paz.

In 1953, after giving birth to her son Erik, Alegría completed a new book of poems,Acuario (Aquarium), in which she emerged from her more personal perspectives of the past into social awareness and the characteristic humor that marks her later work. The years 1956–59 were trying on a personal level, however, as she and Bud returned to Washington so that he could train for the foreign service; they were subsequently posted in Montevideo, Uruguay. In 1958, despite her completion of the poems that would later appear as Huésped de mi tiempo (Guest of My Time), Alegría felt her poetic expression blocked.

After another diplomatic transfer to Argentina in 1960, Alegría, inspired by the overthrow of the dictatorship in Cuba, published Vía Unica (One Way Traffic), a volume of poetry that embodies her newly confirmed belief in political self-determination in Latin America. The Cuban revolution established Havana as a haven for Latin American artists and offered them the opportunity for cross-cultural communication. In 1962, when Flakoll resigned from the foreign service to resume a journalistic career, the family moved to Paris, where their apartment became a gathering place for prominent Latin American writers—Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Saul Yurkievich, Mario Benedetti, and Mario Vargos Llosa. It was Fuentes who suggested that Alegría write a historical novel about the matanza, and eventually Flakoll suggested that they write it together. Although the plan was for Flakoll to write from the male protagonist's point of view and Alegría to write from that of the female protagonist, the collaboration was so close that today neither can remember who wrote which part of the novel. The project took two years, and publication was initially delayed by Spanish censorship. According to Alegría, Ashes of Izalco was eventually allowed to be published in El Salvador, when the dictator, General Arturo Armando Molina, decided to "leave office with a liberal image." Since then it has become a secondary school text, has gone through many editions, and is widely acknowledged as one of the most important Central American novels of the 20th century. Nominally a love story, it captures the spirit and essence of an event that shaped the character of El Salvador for years to come. Into the novel Alegría has poured her outrage and grief for the peasants and Indians whom she saw marched by her house with their thumbs tied behind their backs, and the painful memory of the shots she heard that marked their execution.

In 1966, Alegría and Flakoll decided to move to the island of Majorca and devote their full time to writing, and in 1968 they bought a house, Ca'n Blau Vell ("the old blue house") in Deyá. For Alegría, the Deyá years were highly productive, covering the time that she wrote Pagaré a cobrar (Installment Payments); Sobrevivo (I Survive), which won the Casa de las Américas Prize in 1978; Suma y sigue (Add and Carry); and three short novels: El detén (The Talisman), Album familiar (Family Album), and Pueblo de Dios y de Mandinga (Village of God and the Devil). The latter novella evokes the magical reality of Deyá, and its protagonist is based on Robert Graves, a close friend of Alegría and Flakoll's. During this time, they were collaborating on an anthology of Graves' poems, as well as on another anthology of poems by young U.S. poets, Nuevas Voces de Norteamerica (New Voices of North America). Also in Deyá, at the urging of Cortázar and his wife Carol Dunlap , Alegría wrote Luisa in Realityland, an experimental prose-verse novel that contains reminiscences of her childhood.

In 1979, rejoicing at the flight of the dictator Anastasio Somoza II and his son El Chiguín from Nicaragua, and the ascendancy to power of the Sandinista rebels, Alegría and Flakoll returned to Nicaragua for six months to do the research for an historical account of the Sandinista revolution, using interviews of the comandantes and soldiers who had finally triumphed after 20 years of struggle against the Somoza dynasty. They were on their way back to Deyá to write their account when they stopped in Paris to visit their daughters, and were told by the Salvadoran writer Roberto Armijo that Monsigñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, had been assassinated by a member of the government's death squad while saying mass in a hospital chapel. Alegría, who had been preparing for a poetry reading at the Sorbonne, stayed up all night with Flakoll preparing a statement of outraged protest against the Salvadoran government and its death squads, which she delivered instead of her poems. Shortly afterward, Alegría reports, her cousin, who was director of the national guard of El Salvador and later minister of defense, told her that she should not return to that country, as he could not guarantee her safety. Viewing this event as her moment of "awakening," the poet has said: "I felt that I had to do something for my people, that I had to have the courage to speak out about what was happening. I was frequently invited to the United States and Europe, and I felt it would be self-betrayal if I didn't speak out."

Thus began a long period of political exile. When her mother died in El Salvador in 1982, Alegría was warned by her brother not to return, or "there would most likely be two burials." Since the signing of the peace agreement, in 1992, she has returned to the country once, on the anniversary of her mother's death, to lay flowers on her grave. In the interim, she has received threatening letters, one of which "bore the letterhead of the Women's Auxiliary of ARENA," the death squad party in power. The letter said that as Alegría was "senile" and "crazy," they wouldn't "bother" to kill her but would revenge themselves on her children. Not even that threat could silence her.

In Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Alegría states that she writes her poetry "under obsession's spur." And though the political and social turmoil in Latin America began to obsess her in 1982, she says, "The poems that I began to write then are not political, as some have said. To me, they are love poems to my people, to my America…. But if a situation or event moves me, that event can sometimes be translated into poetry, just as love or death or a tranquil evening can be so translated."

Nicaragua: La revolutión sandinista: Una crónica politica, 1955–1979 (Nicaragua: The Sandinista Revolution, a Political Chronicle) was published in 1982, and the years since then have been productive ones for Alegría. Her growing political awareness has been manifested, in part, in her collaboration with Flakoll in recording a number of testimonies, or eyewitness accounts, of the comandantes, soldiers, and political prisoners in El Salvador and elsewhere in Latin America. Among these works are La encrucijada salvodoreña (Salvadoran Crossroads), No me agarran viva (They Won't Take Me Alive: the story of Comandante Eugenia's life and death), and Para romper el silencio (To Break the Silence: the history of El Salvador's political prisoners). Because most of the people who could tell these stories were in Nicaragua, Alegría and Flakoll decided in 1983 to make their principal residence in Managua, Nicaragua, and to vacation occasionally in Deyá.

Besides the remarkable testimonies, Alegría continued in the mid- to late-1980s to publish poetry and fiction in France, Mexico, England, El Salvador, and the United States. Flowers from the Volcano, poetry translated by Carolyn Forché , was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1982, and Woman of the River, translated by Flakoll, in 1989. In 1990, On the Frontline, an anthology of Salvadoran guerrilla poetry, edited with Flakoll, was published in the United States by Curbstone Press, which also brought out three novellas written at Deyá under the collective title Family Album. Another short novel, Despierta mi bien despierta (Awake, My Love, Awake) was published in El Salvador in 1986, and Y este Poema-río (And This River Poem) was published in Nicaragua in 1989. Many other poems and stories have appeared in journals and have been anthologized.

Because I want peace and not war because I don't want to see hungry children squalid women men whose tongues are silenced I have to keep on fighting

—Claribel Alegría

Claribel Alegría's joy in life, her creativity, her political commitment, and her courage endure. She and Flakoll wrote yet another testimony, covering the account of 48 political prisoners in Lima, Peru, who tunneled to safety through a 345-meter cavity dug secretly over a period of three years at the maximum-security detention center, Canto Grande, from a safehouse operational base outside the walls to a point within the prison. On the basis of their previous testimonies, Alegría and Flakoll were invited by some members of the MRTA (Peruvian Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement) to go to Lima and spend a week in a much hunted-for clandestine safehouse, interviewing escapees and the people who had planned and dug the tunnel. In addition, a new book of poems, Fugas (Fugues), was published by Curbstone Press in 1993, whose themes, Alegría says, are "love, death, and the encounter with old age." This volume incorporates the perspectives of such female mythological figures as Penelope, Pandora, Persephone, and Demeter in light of contemporary feminism and psychology.

Alegría has said in many interviews that she writes "letras de emergencia" or "urgent literature." Her sense of urgency, as well as her humor and ebullience, pervade her fiction, her poetry, and her testimonies. As Marjorie Agosín has said in the Foreword to Claribel Alegría and Central American Literature, "By means of this woman's furious, fiery, tender and lovesick words, the marginalized, the indigenous recuperate spaces, resuscitate their dead, and celebrate life by defying death."


"Alegría, Claribel," in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series. Vol. 15. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Boschetto-Sandoval, Sandra M., and Marcia Phillips McGowan, eds. Claribel Alegría and Central American Literature. Ohio University.

suggested reading:

Beverley, John, and Marc Zimmerman. Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions. Austin: Texas University Press, 1990.

Center for International Studies: Monographs in International Studies, 1993. (This anthology contains 13 critical essays on Alegría's work, as well as a bibliography and an interview with the author.)

Hopkinson, Amanda. Lovers and Comrades: Women's Resistance Poetry from Central America. London: The Women's Press, 1989.

Sternbach, Nancy Saporta. "Remembering the Dead: Latin American Women's 'Testimonial' Discourse," in Latin American Perspectives. Vol. 18, no. 3. Summer 1991, pp. 91–102.

Marcia Phillips McGowan , Professor of English and director of Women's Studies, Eastern Connecticut State University, Willimantic, Connecticut, and author with Sandra M. Boschetto-Sandoval of Claribel Alegría and Central American Literature