Reflections of a Nomad
This text by a Salvadoran writer is several years old,
but its message is every bit as valid today.
We include it because it surely echoes the
voices of many other Central Americans
who left their homeland for any
number of reasons.
They say that those born beside the sea are destined to travel. I wasn’t born by the sea, but I am destined to travel. Perhaps because of my Romany grandmother who put down roots in El Salvador at the end of the 19th century, part of a wave of “Hungarians,” as they called the gypsies who crossed the Atlantic in that period and settled in various countries from Mexico to Colombia and Venezuela. One still finds groups of gypsies in those countries who have conserved their language and customs.
Migrations mark modern times just as they have always marked the history of humanity. The planet’s first inhabitants were nomads and although they became sedentary, there have always been people who for one reason or another continued moving, walking, sailing, flying, fleeing, returning, finding, re-finding and discovering…
Defining these movements could include internal exile, political exile, economic migration, tourism or adventure. The motives for the movement are as diverse as the people and the means they use to achieve it. Planes, buses, cars, rafts, trains, skiffs, hiking. Equally diverse is the landscape they cross and the risks they run. But one thing unifies all these experiences: the nomad’s desire to share them, control them, make them known to others, whether as a testament to success, a measure to prevent danger to others about to undertake the same route, a description of the amazement sparked by the landscape and the discovery, a way to comprehend what was left behind, a way of grasping it even if at the end of the day it is a purging of nostalgia and melancholy.
Literature and movement go hand in hand. From a Central American’s oral narrative to an unknown drinking mate in a Tijuana bar that will surely be repeated to anyone who has ears to listen until he reaches his target; passing through the ever more abundant journalistic features that enumerate the experiences, conditions and results of migrants and exiles; and ending with travel chronicles, one of the first and oldest literary genres, human beings have always felt the need both to travel and to tell the story of their experiences.
Examining the Central American case, we find very curious details. A great number of writers have written much of their work outside their countries of origin. It’s hard to explain this; the only thing that occurs to me is that perhaps the Central American reality is so overwhelming that writers can only began to approach it from the coldness and the distorting mirror of distance, in which being away freezes images, sounds, smells, colors, tastes and memories of a reality that in our latitudes is stranger than any fiction, as confirmed in innumerable situations.
What would Central American literature be, what would its current limitations be, had it not been for the pioneering writers who dared or were forced to leave their land and ply their literary trade in other frontiers? Would the course of modernism have differed radically if Rubén Darío hadn’t lived in Europe? Could we imagine a Guatemalan literature without European and Mexican influences and, curiously, without the reaffirmation of what is Guatemalan, had it not been for the successes and travels of Miguel Ángel Asturias, Luis Cardoza y Aragón, Mario Monteforte Toledo and Augusto Monterroso? What would the work of Roque Dalton be without “Tavern and other places” or the testimony of Miguel Mármol, both books conceived and written during his stays in Prague, Cuba and Mexico? Could it be that it was during his time in Chile that Joaquín Gutiérrez clearly saw what inspired the great majority of his work: the unequivocal evocations of the Caribbean and of being Costa Rican? Did the Mexican exile of Eunice Odio and Yolanda Oreamuno help put them in contact with their internal exile and pull from the silence some of the most intense verses ever written in our region?
If a statistical analysis were done of the quantity, but above all of the quality of the work Central Americans have written outside of their countries, I’m quite sure the results would surprise us.
Modern times haven’t varied this. On the contrary, it would seem to have increased. The different economic and political events of the eighties and nineties have forced a mass migrations of citizens, particularly from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, to other countries, in many cases in search of new beginnings, or of a life “for the time being,” until the country returns to its longed-for previous order. It’s an ingenuous premise, if I may say so, since the world order moves forward and never toward recovery of its past.
In the case of El Salvador, many writers assumed political commitments that forced them into exile. Many of them were encouraged to return to their country after the signing of the 1992 Peace Accords. But distance, adjustment problems, the lack of reintegration policies from the ARENA party, which has been in power since before those agreements, have led many to leave again when they found the means neither to publish their work or to combine economic survival with their literary trade, which I like to compare to a possessive, demanding, exhausting lover, the sort that demands all your time, your mind, your heart, your prudence and your passion, and when they go, they leave you drained, empty, overwhelmed, without words, dejected, run-down, like a wrung-out rag, worn out but happy.
Many of us contemporary Salvadoran writers have written our work in exile. Manlio Argueta, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Rafael Menjívar Ochoa, Alfonso Quijada Urías, Róger Lindo, René Rodas, myself… Many other Central American authors are outside of their own countries at this very moment, for diverse reasons: Arturo Arias, Dante Liano, Franz Galich, Gioconda Belli, Nicasio Urbina, Uriel Quesada and Gloria Guardia, to mention only some.
Traveling—whether for tourism, exile or migration, whether voluntary or forced—doesn’t imply only a brush with different landscapes. Journeys, stays in another country, involve a cultural exchange in which the traveler-migrant-exile learns about other worlds and other beings.
Travel enriches. It exercises and strengthens the muscle of tolerance and the muscle of wonder. Travel makes you discover other literature. It broadens horizons, it bathes us in humility, makes us recognize that the world is large but not necessarily always alien.
I’m convinced that travel is necessary for a writer. It helps us expand our vision of the world, complement it. The brush with other literature, with the sound and rhythm of other languages, the loneliness we encounter in hotel rooms or a train car or waiting in line at the migration office where anguish becomes an ongoing companion, all these instants and situations inundate us with thoughts and fantasies that emerge at the right moment like small black ravens of good luck, words that appear on the blank pages to turn into literature.
I’ve had the opportunity to experience all these three types of travel; tourism, exile and migration. The movement’s always the same but the mood changes.
The tourist trip involves the excitement of the unknown and also the privilege of leisure in a society that incites us more every day to alienation, competition, accumulation, to the mechanization of the individual who, with the passing of years, becomes an object to be discarded, replaced, put to rest.
The imposition of exile is a never desired trip, with thorny problems and variants that generally involve landing in places not chosen voluntarily with death snapping at your heels, because at the end of the day taking exile is an attempt to save one’s life from dark forces. Expressing an opinion, following one’s conscience, protesting against injustice can cause fear in others, a fear of us so profound that it moves them to wish for and increase our annihilation.
Migration is a journey into the unknown, with a mixture of feelings, a mix perhaps of tourism and exile, randomly selecting a new beginning insofar as possible in a new and unknown land, like the ancient sailors and explorers who felt the need to grow in a bright promised land that we can’t be certain of reaching one day.
All three cases share the malady of nostalgia for the land left behind. The land left behind becomes a mirage. One dreams of returning, but in reality one never will. Twenty years is nothing, said Gardel, but Gardel lied.
I returned after twenty years away from my country. And the country was a land of hostile strangers, with unfamiliar streets, landscapes destroyed by a disturbed sense of progress, inhabitants whose customs are alien to me, with an oxygen I find impossible to breathe.
Returning isn’t possible for someone who leaves. The land to which one returns isn’t the same. Nor is the traveler-migrant-exile the same person who left. The emotion of the journey and the pain of the distance will have changed everything, in a thousand and one different ways. Returning travelers won’t find their childhood friends or a static family like a framed photo on the living room table. They won’t understand the others or be understood; they will no longer feel at home in the abandoned space.
So what can one do? Become something you don’t want to be, a bitter and paranoid inhabitant of a strange land of caudillos and criminals, or continue seeking a personal promised land? I left again with the certainty of a definitive breakup, with a sensation of being orphaned but purged and cured of the malady of nostalgia.
In my case, I surrendered to the certainty of the eternal movement to which I was condemned from that first journey, in which my grandmother crossed the ocean with her family by ship in search of a better life.
Unfortunately gypsies don’t believe in the written word and what is known of their history has generally been documented by others. I don’t know how my grandmother would have felt. I never knew her personally. For me she was a photograph in a white-painted oval wood frame and the stories my father told about her, constantly telling me I was her living portrait.
Nonetheless, I often think of her in all my travels. Of how, without knowing each other, she willed me her restless feet, her small travel bag and the nostalgia of a home to which she would never again return.
I have been a tourist, an exile and a migrant. I have lived most of my life outside of the country in which I was born and raised. This has diffused certain concepts that for others seem of vital importance, such as “identity,” “homeland,” “nationality,” to the point of modifying them and turning them into new conceptions. At this point, like the navigators of yesteryear, I barely know from which port I left. I only know that the journey is continuing and that in all certainty it will end on the day of my death in I know not which land or frontier.
I know I’m a writer and that this is my only and real identity. And if I have some nationality, if I belong to some nation, it is the Republic of Literature, from whence I write, with all the freedom that my eternal nomadic condition affords me.
This essay was presented at the “Literature, migration and exile” panel of the International Gathering on Migrant Populations and Human Rights in Latin America, held by the National University of Costa Rica in Heredia.