“Pocho Boy Meets World” is a Latinx poetry column written by California poet, Alan Chazaro. The son of Mexican immigrants, he is leaving his home and teaching job in Oakland to pursue living in South America and Mexico for the next year. For each destination, Pocho Boy will search for emerging and iconic Latinx voices to read, while documenting the textures, histories, and influences of each poet’s hometown region. Join him as he eats his share of quesadillas and uses broken Spanish in hopes of connecting more deeply with what it means to be a U.S. Latinx writer in Latin America.
Vol. 2: In Chile, Pocho Boy Learns About Exiles and Oceans
This story starts in the basement of La Tienda Nacional de Santiago—where I first discovered a nation of poets in hiding. I’d been in Chile’s capital city for less than 24 hours (where 40% of the country’s entire population resides), exploring the tree-lined avenues and European-style architecture, before mindlessly wandering into a shop filled with miniature Chilean flags and nationalistic art.
Within minutes of telling the employee at the front desk about my interest in poetry, she had me flipping through the pages of anthologies filled with Chile’s most prominent voices in the secrecy of a back corner basement. Although hidden from the sights of the trendy metropolitanos in Santiago, I quickly learned that poets–especially from the past–are highly regarded in this country. From the first ever Nobel Prize winner in Latin American history—Gabriela Mistral—to the most universally embraced and heralded Latinx writer of the 20th century—Pablo Neruda—Chile is in a heavyweight class of its own for having produced poets who can throw down. And impressively, it’s a nation where poetry refused to die, against all odds.
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that—as Neruda wrote in Canto General, his 15,000 line poem that tells the history of the American Western Hemisphere—“from the limits of agony you engender hope.” Because for many Chileans, agony had become a second language learned from years of oppression, and having voice was a luxury; hope was rarely seen or felt in the body, so had to be engendered from the limits of imagination with poetry.
If you don’t know much about Chile, you need to know this: during the Cold War, the U.S. became involved in sabotaging the leadership of a democratically-elected socialist president, Salvador Allende, which led to the unraveling of the nation’s political framework and, ultimately, Allende’s death. Afterwards, the country endured a decades-long military dictatorship under Augustin Pinochet, beginning in 1973, in which students, activists, artists, teachers, musicians, workers, and poets were tortured and murdered for speaking out. It’s considered one of the longest, most brutal periods of human rights violations in modern South American history. Most famously, during this time, songwriter and guitarist Victor Jara had each of his fingers smashed by prison guards, and his body was later found beaten and filled with 44 bullet holes–a tragic metaphor of the military’s power in silencing even the most popular artists of the time. Understandably, this sort of abuse only further ignited the poets to sing more deeply—which they did until Pinochet lost power in the late 90s.
Those who survived were often forced into obscurity or exile, including the notorious Neruda, who spent many years on the run as an adamant Communist party member before Pinochet came into power, and mysteriously died two weeks into Pinochet’s reign (he also served as a senator and consulate for his country under President Allende). I was amazed by Neruda’s life as a writer and politician, which served as a larger symbol for the status of poetas in Chile’s history: where else have poets been so highly regarded and valued that they were elected into office?
The more I researched the country, visited museums, and spoke with locals, the clearer it became that politics and poetry go together here like jamón in an empanada–you can’t find one without the other wrapped around it. But it is precisely this inextricable combination that made the poetry, and the poets, of Chile so vibrant and urgent for me.
Indeed, there is something deeply nuanced in modern Chilean poetry because of the political instability and brutal dictatorship of the past—their poems seems to take on a blood-hymn for the people, not simply as words written on a page to describe unhappiness, but outright declarations of rage denouncing the violent killings of neighbors, family members, and friends. They form a tangible body of resistance, rather than a quiet space for introspection.
Of course, the poetry of this nation goes beyond the trauma of the people–it’s the legacy of demanding justice and directly participating in government that continues to proudly weave itself into the fabric of contemporary voices in Chile.
I wanted to honor Chile’s prolific female writers (especially Gabriela Mistral, who I’ve already mentioned was the first Latin American–male or female–to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945, before Neruda, Garcia Marquez, Borges, etc.), so for my first book on this year-long trip through parts of Latin America I deliberately chose a contemporary woman to read. I was curious to read from the perspective of someone in 2019, perhaps who had not experienced living under the scarring times of dictatorship, but perhaps like Mistral–who to this day seems to not get the recognition she deserves–was being overlooked. I wondered: How were female Chilean poets moving on and responding to a rapidly globalized world filled with new problems and new possibilities? Were they confronting and addressing current injustices like poets of Chile’s past, who had sacrificed their lives during the anti-communist Pinochet years? What influenced the spirit of this new generation of writers?
Angela Neira-Muñoz, a young poet and professor who embraces her Mapuche identity (one of Chile’s few indigenous groups), answered many of those questions for me. Her most recent collection, Tengo una deuda (2017), caught my attention in the basement of poems I discovered on my first day, and I made my first poetry purchase of this year-long trip by copping her book. Her language is sparse and simplistic–even for poetic standards–but her message is clear: “no quiero ser gramatical/ ni aceptable/ Soy escribidora/ y por eso mi activismo es la escritura” (translation: I don’t want to be grammatically correct/ nor acceptable./ I’m a female writer/ and writing is my form of activism). She is very direct while using abstractions and -isms in her poems that many contemporary U.S. writers might avoid like “feminism,” “activism,”, and “racism” to call out what she sees as needing change in her country.
Not that U.S. writers don’t write about these topics–they regularly do–but they tend to disguise it more often with imagery, associative references, or by drawing upon specific incidents to incite memory and emotion. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but simply that I found many Chilean poems to be literal–without elaborate figurative language– so as to not blur anything between the lines.
Her entire book speaks in this tone, by absolutely rejecting the status quo and calling for recognition of indigenous women. In a later poem, she declares: “Te digo que soy una mujer mapuche/ que tengo cara de mujer mapuche/ y que tengo apuro por decir/ porque robaste las tierras de mis abuelas” (I’m telling you that I’m a Mapuche woman/ that I have the face of a Mapuche woman/ and that I have something troubling to tell you/ because land was stolen from my grandmothers). Like Neira-Muñoz’s poems demonstrate, being straightforward and to the point can allow for unmistakable clarity: we demand change right now, we are activists, and we will not be silenced.
From the present to the past, there is a culture of calling for change and not holding back any punches in a poem–even if it means directly calling out those in leadership and risking your comfort and safety. Neira-Muñoz, in many ways, is carrying on this Chilean poetic legacy of fearlessly loving and “engendering hope” with her poetry, even reaching as far as the Middle East in declaring for the improvement of human rights in a poem titled “Palestina,” disregarding any distance between her and other oppressed people worldwide. She reminds us that poets like her are unkillable, that they will write even “si me sacas los ojos/ y si me sacas la lengua” (if you remove my eyes, and if you remove my tongue).
Sadly, this violence was a reality for many Chilean poets, leading to their untimely ends. In our final days in Chile, my wife and I visited the site in Isla Negra where Pablo Neruda’s remains are buried, overlooking the Pacific. He is known to have loved the ocean, often writing about it and designing his house to resemble a sailor’s boat overlooking the nearby waves.
Isn’t there something poetic–for lack of a better phrase–about Neruda being an exile who returned to his homeland, only to be lowered into a cliff above the central coast of Chile?
And isn’t there something about the ocean that calls all of us–especially Chileans, whose coastline along the Pacific is the longest of any nation in the world, and where many would once go to in times of tyranny to dream of leaving?
There is something intrinsic about this country–especially in cities like Valparaiso and Viña Del Mar–that allows you to simply gaze out into the endless water and contemplate being along the frontier of your world, of yourself, of your imagination, and having the desire to go beyond that limit of knowing to define your own borders for a more inclusive tomorrow.