Claudia Castro Luna: ‘The Colonel:’ Thirty Years Later
I was fourteen years old when my family arrived in the United States. The year was 1981, the same year “The Colonel” was published. My parents were both teachers in El Salvador and early on in the civil war teachers were systematically persecuted and killed. My parents lost colleagues, good friends, and a family member—all teachers, at the hands of the death squads.
The first time I came across “The Colonel” was in the stacks of the Berkeley Public Library. I remember sitting on the cold floor with the book on my lap feeling the current, the charge of El Salvador at the war’s onset lurking between and beneath the lines. The words struck a chord, and without knowing anything about the writer, I knew they had to have been there.
In 1981 when we came to the United States, Salvadorans were a slight minority. Even though the U.S. government provided intelligence to the military and millions of dollars in arms, the American public knew little about the circumstances that led to the war, or about the U.S. financing of it. I was grateful whenever I read a newspaper report, anything that validated my family’s experience. I felt the same gratitude reading “The Colonel” for the first time. Here was someone—not Salvadoran—speaking of that which we Salvadorans knew well.
We have yet to understand the toll of the Civil War. There is no absolute report on the number of casualties. The numbers vary depending on what report you read and range from 70 to 90 thousand lost lives. Less is known about those who were disfigured, those who lost limbs, and those whose wounds are psychological.
Forty years separate us from the publication of “The Colonel,” there are now over two million Salvadorans living in the U.S. and thousands more exiled throughout the world. Now as then, few of our stories are known, and what stories there are, are mostly academic or journalistic in nature and told by non-Salvadorans.
I think back to the story with which I opened this panel in which the producer for a national news outlet covering a momentous event for the people of El Salvador reached immediately for “The Colonel” as a way of remembering El Salvador of the 1980’s rather than seeking Salvadoran writers and poets whose families were directly impacted by the war.
The incident reminds me of Chimamanda Adichie’s talk on the danger of the single story. Adichie argues that one of the consequences of the single story is that It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult, she says.
“The Colonel” has acted as a kind of single story that has invertedly erased the experience of Salvadorans who endured the war and its aftermath. The continuous return to The Colonel freezes us, Salvadorans, in time and distorts who we are. The only embodied Salvadorans in the poem are the colonel and his family. We see a part of his victim’s bodies but never the faces to whom the ears belong. Aside from the colonel all others are silenced. The Salvadorans in the poem are objects of an outsider’s perception, rather than historical subjects drafting their own experiences.
As I see it, “The Colonel” has acted as a kind of single story that has invertedly erased the experience of Salvadorans who endured the war and its aftermath. The continuous return to “The Colonel” freezes us, Salvadorans, in time and distorts who we are. The only embodied Salvadorans in the poem are the colonel and his family. We see a part of his victim’s bodies but never the faces to whom the ears belong. Aside from the colonel all others are silenced. The Salvadorans in the poem are objects of an outsider’s perception, rather than historical subjects drafting their own experiences.
In a recent article for The Nation, Salvadoran American writer Roberto Lovato reports on the undercount of thousands of Latinx people killed at the hands of police in the US, and compares the silence and erasure of these murders with the erasure of thousands of Salvadoran and other Central Americans murdered before, during and after the wars of the 1980’s. Lovato writes that, “The only representations of the Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Salvadorans who are at the center of this story were two-dimensional images of pain and soundbites of suffering. No Central American scholars, lawyers, nonprofit leaders, or journalists were included in any of the stories from any of the major media. Not one.”
Our voices, our story, our embodied experience of resistance, resilience, and hope remains by and large, silenced. Stories matter. The right to story matters. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign as Chimamanda notes, but stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. I appreciate the poem for the spaces and hearts it opened to bring awareness of the war in the 1980’s. Forty years later, it is time for Salvadorans to write and voice their own experiences.
Yvette Siegert: “What You Have Not Heard: Reading and Writing with Carolyn Forché’s ‘The Colonel’”
Maryam Ivette Parhizkar: “In the Negative Space of Witness”
William Archila: “Reflections on ‘The Colonel’: A Poem of Witness”
Alexandra Lytton Regalado: “There’s Room At The Table”