NAL: When I read your description of how you first met this man, Leonel Gómez Vides, I was completely shocked at how courageous and open-minded you were just to say yes to him. I was wondering what you think accounted for this decision.
CF: Well, you know, during that previous summer I felt really ignorant of Central America. And the people who were gathering every day to talk about politics and literature at Claribel’s house were very intriguing and compelling, and they had fled murderous military regimes in Argentina and Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay. I was very curious. I wanted to do something. I didn't want to just be a passive North American. And also, like many young people today, I wanted to do some good in the world. I wanted to join the Peace Corps, and I'd never done that. I had all sorts of ideas about what I might do with my life. And this was a moment when someone was actually opening a door, and presenting an opportunity to me. I knew that if I didn't walk through that door, if I said no, I could never really view myself the same way again. I could never tell myself I'd never had the chance. So for me, it was something I just had to say yes to.
NAL: It must have been difficult to relive so much of what you write about in this book. It's jarring to read so many descriptions of death and decay and violence all around. What made you decide to publish this book now?
CF: Well, it took me a long time to even begin writing it. I left El Salvador in March 1980. I did go back at the end of the war and several times since then, but I didn't begin my memoir until 2003—twenty-three years later. It took me that long to mature and to process my experience. I had written a few poems, as you know, about that time, but nothing else. I had to process it. I had to mature. I had to think about it and have some distance on it. And also during those early years, I was traveling around the U.S., giving poetry readings and talking about El Salvador and trying to help build a sentiment toward anti-intervention in Central America and toward sanctuary and toward witness for peace.
When I finally began writing, it took me fifteen years. I always wondered, will I ever finish this and are these events receding and far in the past? Will they still matter? To my surprise, at the moment when the book was finally published, we had the situation of the refugees fleeing the horrors and the dangers of Central America for our borders, and seeking refuge.
And so once again the story has become important to us—only this time, in another way. And so I was hoping to write a story that would allow young readers in particular, but really anyone, to go through the journey that I went through, to take that journey with me, and somehow come to understand how my activism was born and how my consciousness was formed, and also learn something about what these people are running away from, what the refugees are fleeing. Because of course people don’t just pick up their children in their arms and grab a rucksack with a few possessions and run thousands of miles through a desert. They don’t do that. They don't leave their homes unless what they’re running from is more frightening than anything they can imagine in their future.
NAL: You write in one passage that you would “never again feel the fear that [you] felt in those days, even in other countries at war.” And that there was “a special quality to the fear” that you experienced in El Salvador. Could you say more about this?
CF: Well, for one thing I would say that it was a fear that everyone felt. It was a fear that was in the air, it permeated life, it was the ground of our being, really. Because the time when I was there we refer to now as the “time of the death squads.” The war had actually begun, but it wasn't being called that yet. And at that time it was a war of terror against the civilian population—in the cities as well as in the countryside.
You know, the death squads were everywhere. They were apprehending people, people were disappearing. They were killing people. At the time I was there, I would say at its height, they were killing a thousand people a month in the capital city alone. So the quality of the fear was that you never knew. You couldn’t sleep, because most people were abducted or taken from their places of residence in the middle of the night. Or you’d be grabbed from the street. So if you were walking somewhere, or driving somewhere, or just in your room at night...anything could happen to you at any moment. So it wasn’t like being in a war where you’re either in an area where the fighting is occurring or you’re not.
The population of El Salvador was being preyed upon by squads of killers, who not only killed people, but killed them slowly and brutally and engaged in mutilation. It was very, very difficult. I never lived again in an atmosphere where every moment of daily life was permeated with fear.