Alexandra Lytton Regalado: “There’s Room at the Table”


I’m a double agent—I was born in El Salvador, grew up in Miami, and then moved back to El Salvador. At this point I’ve lived about two decades in each country.

The first time I encountered Carolyn Forché’s “The Colonel” I was struck by the fact that a woman was speaking to me about my home country in English, in an American classroom, where I was the only Salvadoran. Forché was not tiptoeing or whispering, she was describing carefully, confidently.

Before my classmates, I felt responsible to explain, to agree or dispell. What had I heard? But I could say: nothing. I didn’t know enough about the history, hadn’t asked the right questions, perhaps. I’d received no clear answers from books, my parents, or the news. I’d read Roque Dalton, Claribel Alegría, Escobar Velado and others in an anthology published by the Salvadoran Ministry of Education. And I’d sensed the emotional landscape: the fear, anger, dissent, resistance—but the images were abstract and I couldn’t fully engage with the Spanish language. Forché’s poem opened up to me like the photojournalism books that my father tried to hide on the high shelves of our living room.

Now I’ve been living in El Salvador for just over twenty years. When I first returned, there were certain barriers keeping me from connecting with the local writing community—namely the language, and the fact that we had different literary canons.

Throughout the years I’ve presented “The Colonel” to Salvadoran poets and on one occasion, for example: four out of four had never read it, although two of them knew of Forché and admired her anthology on poetry of witness. The consensus is that it’s a good narrative poem, but in all cases I noticed they didn’t respond with the horror or shock of American audiences. They shrugged and agreed that it was likely true. To me, personally, poet Miguel Huezo Mixco his outcry was, “Que pena que tenia que ser una poeta americana que te causó esa reacción.”

I’d like to continue by reading my response to “The Colonel,” which I wrote around 2012, as El Salvador celebrated the 20-year anniversary of the signing of the peace treaty and it’s from my first book, Matria.



After Carolyn Forché

Yes, what you’ve written is true. A Salvadoran colonel might have collected a sack full of human ears in the late 70s. I know a retired colonel and I’ve heard his talk to consider it possible. The death squads of the 80s—certainly not a subject for dinner conversation, which according to my grandmother, should glide over pleasant topics and promote easy digestion. I’ve sat with threaded lips listening to the stories of our current ex-guerrilla-leader’s family trips to Disney on the presidential jet, of a winning mayor’s campaign: go-go dancers grinding on a table in their political-party-colored thongs, of gang leaders watching their flat screens alongside lovers in their hotel-prisons, of 6pm city buses overturned and lit on fire. The men pound their hands on the polished wood and the wine goblets jump, the red liquid sloshes in the crystal wells. I’ve watched the waiters dressed in white tuxedo jackets, the black moth of death clinging to their throats as they listen, offering a second helping of roast lamb. We’ve left behind the sandbagged street corners and now it’s only the bodyguards driving us around in bulletproof SUVs that keep us from the gun-toting assailant at the stoplight. The thick glass that separates us from the children begging at their mother’s side—and my own child asking, What does she want mom? Where is her car? Where is her house? And the driver staring ahead at the road through the tinted glass, his ears listening and listening for my reply. What to answer: this is something for my poetry, no? Would my hand move toward the knife as those on the left and right argue for their piece, the country carved up like a pie? In the morning I’ll hold my grandmother’s porcelain cup and pour sugar into the bitter black while I read the newspaper, guaranteed a ladle of casualties, dead bodies splayed across page two, all this news sounding like the maid saying, A dish broke—the action disembodied of any blame or fault—an object finished or disappeared of its own volition. My husband across the table says with his eyes, say nothing. And I think of this life: of pears stewed in wine, the instant gratification of artichoke hearts, the chalice always refilled, music in stereo and the velvet wind through the pines, a pair of loyal dogs sleeping at our feet. The moon shines its white beam across the lawn’s smooth plane.


When I engaged with the poem at that point I was no longer a teenage immigrant sitting in an American classroom. I was a poet and mother living in El Salvador. I wanted to study her poem from various angles and bring it to a contemporary table. And depicted in this poem is one of the many tables I sit at. I did not intend to provide any answers in “La Mesa,” I wanted to sit in the discomfort of the questions, in the unease of a situation that has no clear resolution, and that tugs at me from all sides. My intention was to approach my country from the point of view of a human being. My poem is not a dissertation that hinges on research and evidence; it is a searching.

At the 2019 AWP I was talking with Central American writers as we exited a panel called “American Poetry, Salvadoran Letters.” We’d spent an hour talking about the possibility of defining a Salvi poetics and the difficulty of that umbrella term. What did Salvadoran-American writers have in common with Salvadoran-Cuscatleco writers? We talked about immigration in the news, how stories are reported and photographs selected and how they paint different scenes. Forché’s new memoir came up and “The Colonel” as well. How was El Salvador being portrayed? Its people? Someone in the audience urged, “We need to take back the narrative!” And to me. there was something unsettling about that sentiment.

First of all, who is “we”? Salvadoran-Americans in the audience? Salvadoran-Cuscatlecos back in the homeland? Who do “we'' need to take the narrative from? But it wasn’t until later that I got to the grain of what really vexed me about that statement. It was one word, the article: “The.” Who says there is only one narrative? Why can’t there be many narratives? That insistence on a single truth seeks to exclude and blot out all others. And I can’t sit with that. Absolute truth is a lot to ask of poetry. But even Forché challenges the reader with her starting line: “What you have heard is true.” Is this the only, final and uncontested truth? Can’t these narratives run parallel, intersect, echo, or respond to each other?

I find that we are still stuck in this polarized climate: a binary right/left, US/Them viewpoint; there is still a lot of blaming and finger-pointing. And this extends even among Salvadoran Americans and Salvadoran Cuscatlecos creatives: discussions about who has the claim to write about certain topics and who controls that conversation—in the U.S. academic world, in the Salvadoran academic world. I believe there is room for all of us at the table.

The poem “La Mesa” originally appeared in Matria, Black Lawrence Press (2017)

Alexandra Lytton Regalado is the author of Relinquenda, winner of the National Poetry Series (Beacon Press, 2022) and Matria (Black Lawrence Press, 2017). Co-founder of Kalina press based in El Salvador, Alexandra is author, editor, and/or translator of more than fifteen Central American-themed books. www.alexandralyttonregalado.com