In Chicago, Illinois, 1989, civilians march in protest of the U.S. involvement in the Salvadoran Civil War. (Photo used by permission of Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license)

WHEN INSPIRATION STRIKES: Senior emulates poet to relate Salvadoran refugees’ struggles

I’m working on a project inspired by Terrance Hayes’s famous poetry series, in which all the poems are titled: “American Sonnet for my Past and Future Assassin.” His series consists of “American” sonnets – that is, not “English” sonnets with lines written in iambic pentameter or rhyming in any specific pattern or order.

One theory for why “American” sonnets are written without rhyme schemes is that in languages such as Italian and Old English, rhyming would have been more common, and romantic languages lend themselves to rhyme. Old English convention was strict meter, hence the iambic pentameter in traditional “English” sonnets. “American” sonnets have no rhyme scheme or meter because that’s not how we use modern English.

That was a tangent. (But seriously, check out Terrance Hayes’s sonnets.) My project is similar; I’m titling each poem in the series the same name and using the same poetic form for all of them. The poems started out as one (super-duper) long piece with odd section breaks that I’m glad to have moved away from.

I’ve written 22 poems thus far, formed from the original (super-duper) long piece. My working title is based off a quote on a Nicaraguan mural of a massacre: “Por la libertad hemos luchado y hoy juramos defenderla” (For liberty we have fought and today we swear to defend it). I wanted to capture part of what too many people have witnessed:


bodies at side of road like dogs. we would hear the bombs. guerillas

april may april

hiding in hills, soldiers looking for them. we still went to school


it is El Salvador, 1932, or it is Bolivia, 1942, or it is Poland, 1943,

or it is Japan, 1945, or it is Korea, 1949, or it is South Africa, 1960,

or it is Brazil, 1964, or it is Guatemala, 1965, or it is Mexico, 1968,

or it is Vietnam, 1968, or it is Chile, 1973, or it is Peru, 1985, or it

is Rwanda, 1994, or it is Afghanistan, 2003, or it is Syria, 2016, or


The first stanza here is one of the odd section breaks; the second is the final stanza in the piece.

We’ve been reading “Beloved” by Toni Morrison in English class. This novel relates the fictional story of ex-slaves in Southern Ohio during the Reconstruction Era.

At the beginning of the novel, there’s a dedication: “Sixty million and more.”

Reading the story of former slaves in the U.S., I can’t help but contrast the validity they get and the validity immigrants get today. During in-class discussions, everyone uses the past tense. There’s a sense – and it’s been voiced – that we are looking far into the past to see where one group of people come from.

There are still field workers in El Salvador who get paid nothing and must live on the land. Their room and board is their compensation for long days of labor.

They can’t leave.

In the 1980s, there was a civil war in El Salvador. The Soviet Union backed the rebels financially; the United States backed the Salvadoran government. This was just one proxy war of the Cold War. When the Soviet Union fell, both sides pulled out, and El Salvador was left in ruin. But before the superpowers stopped funding the violence, the rebels and the government alike ravaged the countryside.

There was no distinction between which side held you at gunpoint and robbed you of your only source of income. To young girls who’d get raped, there was no distinction between the armies.

But the United States granted asylum to fewer than 3 percent of Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees in 1981. In comparison, the asylum approval rate for Afghans fleeing Soviet invasion was 40 percent. After fleeing from all the civil war trauma, finally making it to the U.S., refugees would still live in fear of being deported – of returning to their war-stricken homeland.

When I read “Beloved,” I read the story of my family in the 1980s, crossing two borders just to get to the U.S. and not to receive asylum – rather, to face prejudice and poverty for decades.

We are part of those “sixty million and more.” So are the children being detained at the border at this moment. “Beloved” isn’t a story only about Reconstruction in the U.S. – it’s also about everything that has happened since. We’ve already repeated that history. That so-called past is millions of people’s presents.

I’ve been talking to my aunts about their experience in El Salvador before they left on their journeys across the three borders: Guatemalan-Salvadoran, Guatemalan-Mexican and U.S.-Mexican. These stories are at the heart of the triolets I’ve been writing. I’ll include two here:


Epitaph of Fighters for and Defenders of Liberty


could the children breathe could her babies breathe

stayed in mexicali with mumps five days fevers coyotes

motel doors unlocked thought robbers beds pushed the door

could the children breathe could her babies breathe

after the heat wave dear girls are still safe in mexicali

in trunk or in compartment in a car could she breathe

could the children breathe could her babies breathe

could she herself breathe herself could she breathe


Epitaph of Fighters for and Defenders of Liberty


We got robbed three times.

The first time all I did was hear about it. The second,

They held my family at gunpoint on the floor.

We got robbed three times.

In the night I went to the outhouse and returning, saw

Them standing with guns. My mother lying on the floor.

We got robbed three times.

They turned a gun on me. I raised my hands and knelt.

—By Gabi Alvarado

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