Brave poets don’t just write poetry – On Otto René Castillo

“But I don’t shut up and I don’t die.
I live
and fight, maddening
those who rule my country.

For if I live
I fight,
and if I fight
I contribute to the dawn.”
― Otto Rene Castillo

There is a poem stuck to the door of the small room where I work and write, and it’s by Otto Rene Castillo. It’s about what kind of poet (or in my case, writer and journalist) not to be, when writing in a world overflowing with orchestrated injustice.

Castillo was a Guatemalan who was tortured for five days then burnt alive by the Guatemalan army. It was 1966, and he was resisting the CIA-imposed dictatorship in his country, set up to protect the interests of the US’s United Fruit Company. He was a member of the Rebellious Armed Forces, where he directed plays aimed at teaching poor farmers about social and economic injustice.

He had also participated in his country’s workers party, in a group of film-makers who made shorts about the armed struggles for freedom around Latin America, and taught at a self-governing school system under the government that the US overthrew in a coup.

This is the poem that greets me whenever I sit down to work (better read in Spanish, translated to English here):

Apolitical intellectuals

One day
the apolitical intellectuals
of our land
will be interrogated
by the poorest of people.
They will be asked what they did
while their community
was extinguished,
like a sweet fire, small and alone.

No one will ask them about their fashion sense,
or their long lunches at the faculty club.
No one will want to know about their absurd
attempts to discover “the meaning of it all.”
No one will care about or even understand
their economic outlook for
“the current recession.”
They will not be questioned on
Greek mythology,
nor their new age remedy for
feelings of alienation.

They’ll be asked nothing about their
post-modernist justifications for apathy, concocted as self-serving lies.

On that day the simple folk will come.
Those who had no place in the
papers, books and poems of
the apolitical intellectuals,
but who produced their
food and clothes, built
their homes and cars,
who cleaned their
offices, raised their children, and cooked
their meals,
and they’ll ask:

“What did you do when the poor
suffered, when tenderness and
life burned out in them?”
Apolitical intellectuals,
you will not be able answer.
A vulture of silence
will eat at your guts. Your own misery
will pick at your soul.
And you will be mute
in your shame.
― Otto Rene Castillo

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