No Pronuncies Mi Nombre Poem by Roque Dalton & Music by Steve Gillette
This article takes up my musical setting of the poem “Alta Hora de la Noche,” by the Salvadorian poet Roque Dalton, and my thoughts on why it’s important to study and share this work. The title of the poem translates roughly as “At the high hour of the night.” I took my title from the first line of the poem, and it translates as “Don’t speak my name.”
On Tuesday, April 24, 1984 I took part in a benefit concert to raise money for the Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero Relief Fund for the people suffering the civil war in El Salvador. Edward Asner spoke on “What You Can Do,” Diane Ladd gave a talk called “A First Hand View,” Ivan Hoffman spoke on the “Historical Overview,” and Sister Patricia Kromer delivered a message entitled “The Reality / The Hope.”
A choir sang several songs including a choral arrangement of my song “La Guitarra.” This is the setting of the poem by Federico Garcia Lorca that I wrote about in a previous article.
I had been drawn to the poem by Lorca for several reasons. It’s a very beautiful sounding poem, the vowel sounds of Lorca’s Spanish resonating with the guitar symbolism. It talks of a non-verbal language, the voice of the guitar — a voice that can not be forced to be duplicitous, a voice that cannot help but betray the misery and treachery afoot in the world.
This poem by Roque Dalton does not have any explicit political content, unless you take the view that he might have been saying that it was a dangerous thing to speak his name at all. But I believe he is talking more about the lasting legacy of one’s work. Some of his poems about the nature of love have become anthems of the Latin American diaspora, and several have been set to music. Dalton's "Poema de Amor" was recorded by the group Yolocamba Ita.
Aside from the fact that they are both in Spanish, I feel there are many similarities between “La Guitarra” and “Alta Hora de la Noche,” and many of the same reasons for working with them musically. Both poets died in a struggle against fascism, and both predicted that their lives would end prematurely.
The song “No Pronuncies Mi Nombre” has some stark dimensions. It’s a love song, to be sure, and one that speaks of a love that reaches beyond the grave. That aspect calls to mind the recognition that poetry itself represents an immortal voice that can be heard long after the death of the poet.
The lover’s voice, or the reader’s eye, can call back the person — awaken him from his eternal slumber. And at the same time, reawaken the issues for which that person stood, reasserting the premises of their work. In the case of Roque Dalton, an eloquent representation of the essence of freedom.
Born in 1935, Roque Antonio García, better known as Roque Dalton, was a Salvadorian poet. One reviewer wrote: “He wrote emotionally strong, sometimes sarcastic, and image-loaded works dealing with life, death, love, and politics.”
He was imprisoned in 1960 for inciting revolt during the presidency of José María Lemus. He was sentenced to be executed by a firing squad, but the day before his execution, October 26th, the president was overthrown, and Dalton’s life was spared.
He went to live in exile in Mexico and then to Cuba. It was in Cuba where most of his poetry was published and where he matured as a poet and journalist. In Cuba, he received military training after the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
In 1965 he returned to El Salvador where he was again captured and sentenced to death. He awaited execution in Cojutepeque, but on the afternoon of May 3rd, there was a major earthquake and the wall of his prison cell fell in allowing him to escape. He slipped into a passing religious procession and managed to return to Cuba.
The poet/journalist became more involved in El Salvador's civil strife as the repression intensified. In 1973 he joined the People's Revolutionary Army, the ERP. He found himself in a dispute with Alejandro Rivas Mira, who was an influential leader of the armed group. As a consequence, the leadership of the ERP conspired to execute him, which they did in May of 1975.
He is remembered for his bohemian lifestyle and the jovial, irreverent personality reflected in his literary work, as well as his commitment to social causes. He is considered one of the most influential Salvadorian writers and has received recognition as "Hijo Meritísimo" and "Poeta Meritísimo" by the Salvadoran government and an honorary doctorate degree from the Universidad de El Salvador.
“Dalton represents a new type of Latin American writer: no longer the genial 'fellow traveler' of the revolution, like Pablo Neruda, but rather the rank and file revolutionary activist for whom the intricate cabbala of clandestine struggle, pass-words, safe houses, escape routes, forged documents and sectarian squabbles was as familiar as Parisian surrealism. A dangerous and difficult profession, in which the event that seals a writer's reputation is often precocious martyrdom.” — Dalton biographer John Beverley
Archbishop Romero was an outspoken advocate for the poor and spoke of the unfairness of the rule of the Salvadorian Oligarchs known as the ‘Fourteen families — La Catorce.’ He said, “When I fed the poor they called me a saint. When I asked why they were suffering, they called me a communist.” He was a proponent of what was known as “Liberation Theology.”
Liberation theology in Central America grew out of a movement initiated by Pope John XXIII. With the Second Vatican Council in 1962, the Pope tried to reverse the use of Christianity as a shield of power and to focus on the suffering of the repressed people of the world.
This message was preached to a very receptive under-class by priests like Oscar Romero. This was met with a vicious backlash by the oligarchs of the country backed by the military support of the US. When the church took up the 'preferential option for the poor,' it threatened to de-stabilize the regime and was countered with violence.
From 1979 to 1992, civil war ravaged El Salvador. The war pitted the government and military against leftist guerrillas and ordinary civilians suspected of supporting them. Fighting produced great violence, most of it waged by counterinsurgency forces of the military. They destroyed entire villages and displaced thousands of people while paramilitary death squads targeted peasants, whom they believed to be organizing a revolution against the government.
The peasants, farmers and activists who took on the Salvadorian military also took on the largest and best equipped army in the world, ours. Of the estimated seventy-five thousand killed in the civil war, a United Nations Truth Commission only attributed five percent of the total deaths to the rebels of the FMLN compared to the ninety-five percent attributed to security forces of the government.
The Reagan administration poured billions of dollars of economic and military aid into the tiny country. In the early 1980s, El Salvador was receiving more such aid than any country except for Egypt and Israel. For Reagan, El Salvador was the place to draw the line in the sand against Communism.
At the time of the memorial concert for Archbishop Romero, our shadow government was very active in Central America, especially Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. This was the time of “Iran / Contra.” Ronald Reagan signed the presidential finding that authorized the sale of seven hundred Tomahawk missiles to Iran, delivered by way of Israel, in return for millions of dollars that were sent to the Contras. All this was to circumvent a congressional order against American involvement.
The operation was also later revealed to have another dark component. Flights that went south with arms for the Contras would return to the North laden with cocaine, the cash crop of the Contra war. Although there was already an established illegal drug industry, this represented a massive increase in the scale and political cover for an enterprise which is the scourge of Latin America today.
On October 5, 1986, a CIA cargo handler, Eugene Hasanfus was arrested after his plane was shot down over Nicaragua. The pilot and navigator of the Fairchild C-123 were killed in the crash. Hasanfus was able to survive because he had disobeyed orders not to wear a parachute. In the plane was a ‘black book’ with many important names in it and evidence that the flights had originated at Ilopango airbase in El Salvador. Implicated were anti-Castro CIA operatives Felix Rodriquez, Oliver North, Jack Singlaub, and Richard Secord.
During the Senate Iran / Contra hearings government secrets came to light which put a temporary end to many of these activities. Only two people were sentenced to prison and their sentences were commuted by President Reagan before he left office.
The word “arena” struck me in the Lorca poem. I believe he means the ‘hot sand of the South’ and the inference is that the bull ring is closely allegorical to the battle field. “Arena” was also the name of the political party of death squad leader, Roberto D’Aubuisson, reputed to have ordered the killing of Archbishop Romero while Romero spoke from the pulpit in San Salvador. D’Aubuisson had presided over a meeting in which soldiers drew lots for the right to kill the archbishop.
There were several other parallels with Lorca’s poem. He wrote the poem in the early days of the Spanish Civil War, but it seemed that it could have been written fifty years later. It was distressing to realize that the same things the Nazis were doing in Spain in the thirties were being done in the New World in my time.
D’Aubuisson was a graduate of the infamous “School of the Americas” (or School of Assassins depending on your point of view). This school is still held at Fort Benning, Georgia, although the name has been changed to “The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.”
Between 1946 and 2001, the SOA trained more than sixty-one thousand Latin American soldiers and policemen, among them Manuel Noriega, and many of Augusto Pinochet's officers. In the investigation of the November 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador, a United Nations panel concluded that nineteen of the twenty-seven killers were SOA graduates.
No act of barbarism is more emblematic of the deceit that marked Washington’s policy in El Salvador in the 1980s than the sexual assault and murder of four US churchwomen — three Roman Catholic nuns and a lay missionary. Jeane Kirkpatrick, advisor to President Reagan, told The Tampa Tribune, “The nuns were not just nuns; the nuns were also political activists, with a leftist political coalition.”
One year after the churchwomen were murdered, one of the worst massacres in modern Latin American history occurred when soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion, who had recently attended the Special Warfare Training Center at Fort Bragg, carried out an operation in the mountainous region of northeastern El Salvador. Altogether more than seven hundred men, women, and children were killed in El Mozote and surrounding villages.
Even today this brings into question the role of our foreign policy in creating the conditions that push people in Central America and Mexico to make the long and dangerous journey to our border. For at least 150 years, the United States has intervened with arms and foreign aid to protect the business and military elites of these countries who have prospered by impoverishing their people.
Illegal immigration from the region was modest until the 1980s, when the US government began imposing policies on the region that favored large multinational corporations, undercutting the small farms and businesses that had supported the working poor.
Meanwhile, many of the oligarchs became partners in the growing narco-trafficking business. Protected by government officials, criminal gangs have spread throughout the region, adding kidnapping, extortion, rape, and murder to the daily life of people struggling to make a living. A young Guatemalan recently said, “Unless you are connected to one of the families that run this country, there is no future here. Either you work for the narcos or go north.”
Buckminster Fuller was a visionary inventor and peacemaker. He wrote: “It is now highly feasible to take care of everybody on Earth at a higher standard of living than any have ever known. It no longer has to be you or me. Selfishness is unnecessary. War is obsolete. It is a matter of converting the high technology from weaponry to livingry.”
Curbstone Press was started in 1975 in Willimantic, Connecticut by Judith Doyle and Alexander Taylor. They specialized in fiction, creative nonfiction, memoir, and poetry that promotes human rights, social justice, and intercultural understanding. They were kind to give me permission to set the poem to music. I recorded the song on my Compass Rose CD, Texas & Tennessee.
Here’s my video for the song:
"No Pronuncies Mi Nombre". Video by SteveAs far as the structure and the harmony of the song, there’s nothing very remarkable to point to, unless it’s the use of some borrowed chords in the chorus. For the second line of the chorus the song accompaniment goes to the IV, and then the iv – that is the minor form of the four chord, and then to the ii – the two minor, and then the passing chord ♭VII — the major chord built on the flat seventh of the scale.
In our version in the key of C, the passage goes from the F to Fmin to Dmin and then B-flat major and then to the G7 or the dominant, and staying there before moving to the F in the middle of the next line. On our recording of the song Mark Schatz plays bass, Cindy Mangsen sings harmony and plays accordion, and I sing and play guitar.
“No Pronuncias Mi Nombre” — Poem by Roque Dalton & Music by Steve Gillette
Cuando sepas que he
Don't speak my name when you know that I am gone
Because my soul will be detained from its rest
Your voice is the clarion of the five senses
Don't speak my name when you know I'm gone
It's no use for your lips to form the eleven letters of my name
I dream, I am cherished, I have attained the silence
Don't speak my name when you know that I am gone
Or from the dark realms I will return to the sound of your voice
© 1998 Curbstone Press / Compass Rose Music, BMI
Children of the World Dream of Peace by Leo Tanguma at Denver International Airport