I translated Fr. Ernesto Cardenal’s letters, from Spanish, to English after coming across the 1998 Spanish edition of the correspondence of Cardenal and Thomas Merton, Del Monasterio al mundo, edited by Santiago Daydi-Tolson who also translated Thomas Merton’s letters, all but one of which were written in English, into Spanish. Thomas Merton could read Spanish, but I have the impression that Cardenal, in writing to him, made some effort to speak directly and plainly, as he was aware that Merton was not a native Spanish speaker. As a poet, Cardenal’s prose in these letters, sometimes comes across, as somewhat breathless, unpunctuated, and sometimes grammatically circular, or without a definite end in sight, if that makes any sense; which made the task of catching his tone in English a labor, though a very interesting one.
This work was complicated for me in a couple of other ways. One is that my family is Nicaraguan. I was born in Los Angeles, but my parents moved back to Nicaragua when I was two, and we stayed in the country for two and a half years. After many years, of trying to put the tragedies of Nicaragua behind me, I was suddenly back, fully returned in memory, while working on these letters. As a toddler, I remembered chasing chickens and piglets, and playing hide and go seek with older cousins, on various family farms, spanning the Nicaraguan countryside, from Chontales, to the Somoto; a small town, on the northern border with Honduras. Cardenal’s language brought me back to brief, early memories of cows, of sun bathing in the coral, being lulled to sleep on a hammock, by the musky smells of warm glassy black waters, during night-time ferry crossings across, Lake Nicaragua, and watching lizards zigzagging with comical urgency, up drain pipes, while my mother bathed me in an outdoor sink. These letters brought me back, and deeper inside, the sensual Central America of Ernesto Cardenal’s early poems.
Then there was the politics. In those early years of childhood paradise, the security and independence, that families like ours had enjoyed for generations, by taking refuge inside our economically self-sustained agrarian way of life—an almost pre-industrial age, colonial model of doing business— where a handshake between land owning neighbors and town elders, could guarantee a loan–and allow us, to lightly maneuver around party politics, without compromising too much— was suddenly buckling under the weight of a new world order, already slow-boiling in cruelty, many decades, before my birth.
Before the 1980’s, political parties, like the Liberales, or Conservadores were antiquated nationalistic identity fiefdoms, fronting as political philosophies, but mostly organized around old family alliances and loyalties, which most Nicaraguans were born into, not chosen. Our unique social class, as wealthy land owning peasants with middle class sensibilities, had positioned our family, strategically between the rural campesinos, who trusted us, and those in powerful positions, who respected us, and therefore, facilitated access and social connections in our favor. “My father would let Somoza Garcia hunt on his land, they liked each other.” is what my grandfather used to tell us, about “El Viejo, Somoza”, or the “Old Man, Somoza”, and the so-called, good old days, when my great grandfather and Somoza were still young men, during the 1920’s. “The old man wasn’t like his son, that madman”, referring to Somoza Garcia’s son, Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Despite their personal affinities with the first Somoza, or “the old man” — my great grandfather, and grandfather had been Conservadores, not Liberales — which was, in fact, a political party, basically serving as a front operation, for the Somoza regime. I am convinced, that what kept my family, truly safe and alive during all those years, before the Sandinista Revolution was their reluctance to vote, and publically endorse, any political party. Politics, for my grandfather, were, at best, only a necessary evil for those who lacked the necessary character, and courage to govern themselves, or conduct ethical business relationships, without the ever looming threat, of a good public shaming. My family’s Christian Catholic faith, not politics, were the teachings that informed their morality, social commitments, and ideas about charity for the sick, poor, and el projimo, or their fellowmen.
The indiscriminate carnage of the civil war in Nicaragua, during the late 1970’s, stripped away the last vestiges of shame, dignity and propriety, that the privileged minority of our country had perceived for centuries, as inalienable to their class, by divine right. Divisions and distinctions between politics, religion, private, and public life, were exposed, as purely superficial aesthetic elitist conceits whose pretense, only benefitted those in a position to negotiate access, and trade favors, between Church hierarchy, the wealthy, and those with political clout, discretely behind the scenes – and away, from any transparent accountability. In a morbid and brutal turn of events, the civil war freed many Nicaraguans from, suffocating class constraints, naïve social taboos, and legacies of Spanish and European colonization, which prayed on our anxieties and fears; that, perhaps we would never be nothing more, than very polite, well trained, house broken monkeys, from the banana tropics. Simply put, the war served as shock therapy, rousing the poor and rich, alike, from decades of self-denial, fantasies and myths— bringing us, up to date, with other post-colonial global struggles, that had already broken significant ground, almost two decades earlier, during the late 1950’s, to late 1960’s.
These letters, before you, between Ernesto Cardenal and Thomas Merton, between, 1958-1969 hold great personal significant to me, not only because they are historical documents— offering personal anecdotes and references about significant literary, artistic and political figures relevant to this era of great turmoil and resistance, and essentially, a poetic fleshing out of political events, leading up to Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution— but also, because as we read deeper, into each letter, these dates, timelines, names and grand political ideas, slowly begin to give way, to the immediate preoccupations of daily life, an internal, intimate struggle, for finding meaning, purpose, and love. I am currently, about the same age, that Cardenal was while he was writing these letters, and it is not, until now, that I have begun to better understand, socially sanctioned state violence, as a very intimate problem of the heart and human psyche, which can only be solved, one person, at a time. I say this, as someone who cannot reconcile, move forward and heal, from the wounds of Nicaragua’s history of struggle, without also understanding, how these events intersected, and disrupted the health and sanctity of my own humanity, and of individuals in my family. The time period of these letters coincide, precisely with my own mother’s adolescence, as she was coming into her own political awakening, and building up her own intellectual resistance, to a system she was already recognizing, as obscenely unjust. “Durante la epoca de mi General”: “during my General’s era” is my mother’s dark humorous way, of referring to the Somozista regime— her own way of coping with her own memories, of the country she left behind— especially after she’s had a few cocktails.
Just like most war veterans, my mother and father found it, almost impossible to talk about, or work through most of the physical and emotional trauma, they and their families had suffered, while in Nicaragua; and later, during the aftermath of the civil war, as they began to trickle into California, as refugees during the early 1980’s. When my mother speaks of Nicaragua, very clear distinctions are made, and disclaimers are loudly announced, before she begins any story. In her mind, it is absolutely crucial, that you truly understand, which Nicaragua, she’s referring to in her relatos— because there are definitely more, than a few different versions of our country and people, converging, collapsing and splitting, like the earth skin growing out of our volcanos. The Nicaragua of her early childhood— during the summer, before she was supposed to attend third grade— that was the Nicaragua, right before Somoza Garcia was shot, during the fall of 1956, amidst a failed coup, and before, all the schools in her town were closed for a year— that Nicaragua was for, climbing trees behind the church, and, getting spankings for ripping her dress and being an incorrigible tomboy— a Nicaragua, for staging elaborate bible themed pageants with her brothers and sisters, at home, for her parents, aunts and uncles, during pitch dark nights, at the family farm— yes, that Nicaragua could drown out the bellowing of pumas in the mountains.
Like most Nicas, from my generation, I was raised to venerate poetry, especially our Nicaraguan poets, like Ruben Dario, Pablo Antonio Cuadra, and Ernesto Cardenal. You speak with any Nicaraguan, and they will proudly inform you, that we are all poets, and that Nicaragua is the land of poets – it’s our most prized export. Indeed, this is how most Nicoyas felt about Ernesto Cardenal, when I was kid, in the early 1980’s. His snow white hair, and black beret, made our jungle revolution, cool. The magazine covers, and propaganda publications his face graced, during my teenage years, also signaled a bohemian Frenchness to me, while also, helping to shellac a shiny sheen of universal, romanticized militancy, over the crude reality of, what had truly been, a sea of dark indigenous brown bodies, wading, waist-deep in the sweltering mountains of our banana republic jungle— during the height of the US funded Contra campaign against the Sandinistas.
These were some of the complexities for me, in setting myself to the task of immersing myself in these letters, while living in Oakland California during the same time that our city and community were in the throes of the Occupy struggle, during the fall of 2011, and I was spending my days, helping to translate political propaganda— political activities that would lead me, directly, to Ferguson, Missouri, just a few years later, during the summer of 2014, to join a movement, that ignited nationwide resistance, in support of Black Liberation, against State violence, across the country.
I need to thank Professor Robert Hass, for continuing to be my teacher, mentor, and friend, more than fifteen years, after taking my first poetry class with him, at UC Berkeley. I was only able to undertake this enriching and transformative project with his sponsorship, guidance, and support. Also, I am eternally grateful, to Fr. Cardenal, for giving permission to Counterpoint Press to reprint these letters, after I translated them, and also, for very generously spending two long afternoons talking to me about those years, full of the exhilaration of the revolution for him and full of complicated pain for my family. | Translators Note | From the Monastery to the World: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Ernesto Cardenal | Counterpoint Press, 2017
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