Sometime in 1986, I did a reading with Eduardo Galeano and Mauricio Rosencof in New York City. The dictatorship of Uruguay had recently ended, but the pain of those memories was still raw and the civil wars raging in Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua) gave the evening both urgency and an air of hope that events in Central American would eventually lead to revolutionary outcomes.
Galeano had escaped military rule in Uruguay and fled to Argentina, only to flee again to Spain when the military junta overthrew the government of Isabel Perón in March 1976. Rosencof, aside from being a poet and playwright, was one of the three top leaders of the MLN, the urban guerrilla movement known as the Tupamaros. He was not as fortunate as Galeano: he had been captured by the military, imprisoned, tortured savagely by his captors, and spent eleven of thirteen years in solitary confinement.
He shared with the audience that while in prison he would smuggle poems out written on cigarette paper tucked into dirty T-shirts his family would collect, wash and return to him clean. He called them his “poemas de la camiseta” (t-shirt poems) and he read many of them that evening. They were short, sharp, and devastating.
Galeano took the stage, thanked Rosencof, and spoke of the difficulty of the democratic transition, quoting soccer player Obdulio Varela (“We have grown selfish. We no longer see ourselves in others.”). He then remembered how Uruguayan culture had survived during those dismembering years in large and small ways, which he described using the words of Martín Fierro: “the fire that really heats comes from below.” Galeano then read texts from his monumental trilogy Memory of Fire (three volumes 1982–1986), short texts or vignettes that captured the poetry, joy, and resistance of Latin America and its torturously beautiful history.
For me, what remains from that night is a sense of community built not only through the power of the word but also through “[creative] shit, grit and mother-wit” (to quote Ralph Ellison), a community of pain, solidarity, creativity, and hope that stretches from New York City (or Los Angeles) to Tierra del Fuego.
Galeano, through his words, was a builder of communities, a true pan–Latin Americanist, whether he was talking about religions in the favelas of Brazil, the bewildering intricacies of Peronist populism in Argentina, genocide against the Maya in Guatemala, the social violence of Caracas, a festival in Mexico, a soccer game that led to war (between El Salvador and Honduras), or the beauty of Nicaraguan poetry.
As an aspiring poet-revolutionary, I was awed to be in the same room with Galeano, by then a renowned author throughout Latin America, with a growing reputation in the US. His Open Veins of Latin America (1971) and his two Casa de las Américas Awards (in 1975 for La canción de nosotros, a novel, and in 1978 for his Days and Nights of Love and War, a testimonial essay) made him one of Latin America’s most read and admired writers.
But those were my days of connecting to my Cuban revolutionary roots, of being a comecandela, a word in Spanish that conveys a total revolutionary commitment, and this must have tempered my nerves. Comecandela literally means fire-eating, which in English would be best rendered as fire-breathing.
Fire is the image that recurs when thinking of Galeano and his trilogy Memory of Fire, which captures both the urgency — and yes, warmth — of both his imagination and indignation. This fire was one of intelligence, curiosity, and rebellion, the fire of resoluteness, Martín Fierro’s fire from below.
A precocious writer, Galeano was already an editor at Marcha, Uruguay’s prestigious weekly paper at age twenty. He then worked for Epoca and as director of publications at the University until he fled the dictatorship in 1973, moving to Buenos Aires, where he founded the journal Crisis. In 1976, because of the Argentine dictatorship, he fled to Barcelona, where he lived until 1985, when he returned to Montevideo. Along with Juan Carlos Onetti and Mario Benedetti, they founded Brecha in 1985, a weekly meant to continue in the tradition of Marcha; it continues to appear thirty years later.
In the late eighties he formed his own small publishing house Ediciones del Chanchito (Little Pig Editions), which issued his book on soccer. In 2005, he joined the advisory committee of Tele Sur, the Pan-Latin TV station based out of Caracas, Venezuela. In 2007, he successfully underwent surgery for lung cancer, but eventually it would claim him.
Galeano’s great obsession was memory and history, as he wrote in the Guardian in 2013: “My great fear is that we are all suffering from amnesia.” It terrified him that human beings, ever more distracted by the velocity and depredations of consumer culture, would lose our sense of culture, rootedness, and identity.
He was fond of saying that every time an old person dies in Latin America, it was like having a library burn down, because that person’s life was an enormous repository of living history and culture. One could argue that his work was dedicated to at least capturing some of those voices, of building a library to ward off the ravages of oblivion.
Even his best-known work, The Open Veins of Latin America, could be seen as an attempt to chronicle the forgotten or domesticated history of capitalism in Nuestra América (Our America), as Martí put it. Aware that capital wants us to see the glittering skyscrapers and forget its slums, crime, and plunder, Galeano was a consistent critic of capitalism and neoliberalism.
He took Adorno’s “all reification is a forgetting” to heart and his other books build on what he laid out in Open Veins, offering not only a critique of capitalism, but glimpses of alternatives to it based on values of solidarity, anti-authoritarianism, dignity, creativity, and selflessness.
In this the New York Times’s obituary only had it half-right in merely describing him as anti-capitalist. Galeano had a gift for making social realities come to life, as in the following about the poor: “They sell newspapers they cannot read, sew clothes they cannot wear, polish cars they will never own, and build homes where they will never live . . . They build Brazil each day and Brazil is their land of exile.” After being a clandestine book in many countries during the 1970s, Open Veins experienced a resurgence in sales when Hugo Chávez recommended it to President Obama in 2009.
Much has been made of Galeano’s subsequent criticism of Open Veins in 2014 when he said, “I wouldn’t be capable of reading this book again; I’d keel over. For me the prose of the traditional left is extremely leaden and my physique can’t tolerate it.”
Galeano did not say that he regretted having written the book, but that he was unprepared to have taken on such a major work on political economy in his late twenties. (The book was published when he was thirty-one.) Compared to his other writings it is the one book that most reads like a social science text, unlike the more poetic or writerly language that characterizes The Book of Embraces (1989), The Memory of Fire, We Say No (1989), and Soccer in Sun and Shadow (1995).
Despite having written and published short stories and a novel, Galeano is best known for a hybrid style that is uniquely his own: using vignettes he either tells a story (or anecdote) that usually has a point (political, moral, philosophical, historical, cultural).
The language can vary from poetic musing to philosophical aphorism, or plain sentences with a hint of irony or outright sarcasm. His style effortlessly combined storytelling techniques, aphorism, chronicle, dream narratives, historical citations, lists, and snippets of dialogue. Most of these vignettes last less than half a page.
In the case of Memory of Fire, Galeano proceeds chronologically, with Volume I (Genesis) starting with indigenous myths, then going from 1492-1700; Volume II (Faces and Masks) from 1700 to 1900 and Volume III (Century of the Wind) covering the twentieth century up to 1986. Each text is followed by a number (or numbers), which refers to a bibliography of hundreds of sources at the back of the book should the reader want to follow up on the vignettes.
The three volumes, running over a thousand pages, are a collage of history, a rich amalgam of indigenous myths, letters, chronicles, historical documents, poems, dialogues, speeches, diaries, quotes from novels, newspaper clippings and more. Galeano claims he undertook the project because growing up he found history textbooks unbearably boring, and Memory of Fire is a beautiful and captivating response to history as a dry recitation of facts.
Galeano was equally gifted as an essayist, with an omnivorous curiosity, often with a different style, less expansive but always honing in on an image or idea. Among his most memorable are “God and the Devil in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro” (1969), “In Defense of the Word” (1976), “Ten Frequent Lies or Mistakes About Latin American Literature and Culture” (1980), “The Blue Tiger and The Promised Land” (1987), “Salgado: Light is A Secret of Garbage” (1990), on Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado, and “Othercide: For Five Centuries in the Rainbow Has Been Banned from America’s Sky” (1991). (Fortunately, all are in We Say No, Chronicles 1963–1991).
His essays show the same wit and incisiveness, often using the vignette style to string together an argument. And despite some of the grim subjects he covers (dictatorship, social violence, racism, imperialism), Galeano always tries to leave his reader with a note of hope.
In “The Blue Tiger and The Promised Land,” which deals with indigenous genocide and current injustices, he concludes with the following:
And perhaps in this way we could get a bit closer to the day of justice than the Guaraní, pursuers of Paradise, have always been awaiting. The Guaraní believe that the world wants to be different, that it wants to be born again, and so the world entreats the First Father to unleash the blue tiger that sleeps beneath his hammock. The Guaraní believe that someday that righteous tiger will shatter the world so that another world, with neither evil nor death, guilt nor prohibitions, can be born from its ashes. The Guaraní believe, and I do, too, that life truly deserves that festival.
While Galeano reserved most of his criticism for the Right and conservatives, he was not above criticizing the Left, albeit constructively, since he remained on the Left until his death. Sometimes, he could do both at once, as when he wrote about soccer.
First, he deals with the conservative position and its “conviction that soccer worship is precisely the superstition people deserve. Possessed by the ball, working stiffs think with their feet, which is entirely appropriate, and fulfill their dreams in primitive ecstasy. Animal instinct overtakes human reason, ignorance crushes culture, and the riffraff get what they want.” A fairly conventional argument that equates sporting skill with animality and the abandonment of civilized mores.
But the Left comes under equal scrutiny: “In contrast, many leftist intellectuals denigrate soccer because it castrates the masses and derails their revolutionary ardor. Bread and circus, circus without the bread: hypnotized by the ball, which exercises a perverse fascination, workers forget who they are and let themselves be led about like sheep by their class enemies.”
Here, aside from the puritanical sentiment expressed, is a real blindness in underestimating the intelligence of working people as well as their ability to distinguish between a sporting event and the realities of their lives. Galeano reminds us that there are progressive elements in South American soccer, ending with a quote by Antonio Gramsci describing soccer as “this open-air kingdom of human loyalty.”
In one of Galeano’s most delightful books, Las palabras andantes (The Walking Words), his vignettes are accompanied by the woodcuts of José Francisco Borges, one of Brazil’s most brilliant folk artists. The book begins with a quote from Bahia’s Caetano Veloso, singer and songwriter extraordinaire: “Visto de cerca, nadie es normal” (“Seen close up, no one is normal”).
Under the vision and pen of Galeano, Latin America’s history and culture, with all of its cruelty and beauty, was always seen close up, with an appreciation for the region’s exciting diversity, always resisting neoliberal cultural homogenization and the bland platitudes of the status quo.