Juan Garrido-Salgado

'The poet’s challenge is to not turn into a pure activist, but to recreate the language of reality.'

Juan Garrido-Salgado is an Adelaide-based Chilean poet and activist who migrated to Australia in 1990. He was a political prisoner during the Augusto Pinochet military dictatorship (1973-1990), when he was censored and tortured. In Australia, he has established himself as one of the strongest voices of the Latin American diaspora.

Garrido-Salgado has built links with First Nations poets in both Chile and Australia. He has translated the work of Aboriginal poets into Spanish, and Mapuche poets into English. He is the author of eight books of poetry and his work has been translated into several languages. As a poet and activist, he recognises systemic inequalities in Australia, and speaks about them in his work.

After talking about the life of contemplation that he currently leads (‘I am fortunate enough to work in a community garden, the Roma Mitchel Garden. We tend to the orchards with organic products, nothing chemical; this program was created by Janet Mead, coordinator of the Adelaide Day Centre for the homeless’), Garrido-Salgado discussed with César Albarrán-Torres his poetry and life-long interest in Indigenous issues, Latin American exilic poetry in Australia, the role of poetry in today’s political reality, and the implications of using Spanish or English as a colonising language for poets.

You have worked extensively with Aboriginal poets. Have environmental concerns played a part in this?

Of course, but there are other issues. I was reading Natalie Harkin‘s Dirty Words. Harkin is an Narungga poet who expresses how damaging it was to be forced to communicate in a language that was imposed upon her and her people. Aboriginal people, as the owners and first inhabitants of these lands, can speak in many tongues.

Is this conflictive relationship with a colonial tongue something you have experienced as a Chilean migrant?

Yes, initially speaking Spanish in Chile, and then arriving in Australia and having to learn English, the coloniser’s tongue. This is something that we questioned during the Pinochet era: education was imposed and classist.

In middle school, we never learnt an Indigenous tongue like Mapuche or Aymara. They massacred those languages. In middle school, we learnt nothing about Mapuche culture. We had to learn English or French as established disciplines, but then, when one becomes a militant, one questions this.

Why weren’t we given the opportunity to learn about the Indigenous people of Chile? It was imposed from the top but accepted at the bottom. Pinochet’s dictatorship was brutal, it turned Indigenous culture into something forbidden. Just as he tried to erase Marxism or Leninism, he forbid anything having to do with the Mapuche.

And how did you deal with the lack of knowledge of the Indigenous world back in Chile?

Mapuche culture then was cornered into a ghetto in Temuco. After I graduated high school, I had all these cultural and literary questions and, in the leftist movements that I was part of, we discussed Indigenous matters at length. Young people were the driving force, and we questioned why leftist parties were paternalistic towards Indigenous cultures.

Mapuche voices were not heard then. Today, no one can speak for the Mapuche or any other Indigenous group. They have their own voices, their own writers, poets, historians and strong communities. This wasn’t the case 50 years ago.

Writers of the Latin American boom (1960s and 1970s) like Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes and Jorge Luis Borges seldom discussed Indigenous issues. They saw English and French Literature as the pinnacle, what Latin Americans should aspire to …

Yes, and we, leftists, questioned the reason behind this. We tried to read as much as we could, even though it was forbidden. We didn’t have the internet back then. We got together with poets from the Mapuche resistance. The book that I published in Chile under a pseudonym, Variantes de la Libertad Definitiva by Samuel Lafferte, reached some Mapuche poets. They loved it. That established a link between the Mapuche and my poetry. Currently, there is a powerful group of Mapuche poets. They define themselves as heirs to their ancestors.

You often discuss ideological progress, inclusion, and diversity in your work. Looking at the global political scene, however, we see a return to right-wing governments. What do we need to learn from the past, its regimes and acts of resistance?

We need to learn how to listen to and respect different voices and ideologies.

We can’t afford to censor or crush ideas without having a deep, conscious debate. We need a multiplicity of voices and ideas, a return to humanism.

We need dialogue to fight back against a system that has been in place for way too long, either on the left or the right. This system is capitalism, imperialism.

Based on my experience during Pinochet’s dictatorship, and the fight against this regime, I think the key is to bring different voices together. And we did it. We brought together leftists, Christians, Evangelicals, Mapuches. We joined towards a common cause: freeing our country. Sadly, that was diluted by another regime after the dictatorship: the regime of pragmatism that comes with imperialism. They tried to pass as something else, but it was imperialism. People who were on the left shifted towards the right.

In Chile, we were very hopeful about the current Gabriel Boric presidency. We thought he would bring back the legacy of Salvador Allende [the democratically elected president overthrown by Pinochet’s military junta]. But we are not sure if he is tilting towards the centre, listening to the imperialist axis, like some governments that came after the dictatorship. We need to continue searching for a plurality of voices; we need a political project that is not dictated from above, but that emerges from the act of listening to all these different voices. Chile tried to have a new constitution that would have been a great example for all humanity, but it was defeated by right-wing forces.

What should a poet do at this juncture?

The poet’s challenge is to not turn into a pure activist, but to recreate the language of reality. I love poetry, I study poetry, and I want to develop my work in the most poetically sound language possible. But I position my poetry within a reality that is painful. I am not comfortable in our society; I cannot turn a blind eye to the many injustices in Australian society. Poetically, my work needs to show that dilemma.

Before I became a poet, I worked in a theatre troupe. We did street performances. We had a brilliant director, Jorge Elgueta, and actors Alberto Salinas and Marta Lazo. Elgueta introduced us to one of Pablo Neruda’s odes, ‘Oda al hombre sencillo’. We took it to the stage, three scenes detailing how the youth lived during the dictatorship. It played for almost a year. We went from place to place, churches, communities, union halls … We also played the show in Taller 666, a theatre workshop. Neruda’s widow, Matilde Urrutia, showed up. She told us Neruda dreamt about having his poetry performed in a theatre. It was such an honour for us. As Chileans, we always go back to Neruda.

I also participated in the literary workshop Taller Andamio, under the wing of the radio show Nuestro Canto, whose hosts are Miguel Davagnino and John Smith, key figures in the cultural defence against the dictatorship. Their mission was to keep the culture of resistance alive. We were young, audacious and rebellious against tyranny. The Taller Andamio was a poetic and rebellious voice of the 1980s in Santiago. Many were part of it, including endearing companions and poets like Víctor Hugo Romo, Omar Lara López, Eduardo Yañez and Manuel Paredes.

What does it mean to be a Latin American poet in Australia?

Being a Latin American poet is to be influenced by the cultural richness emanating from the continent. There are plenty of people who shed their Latin American identity and transform themselves into a European Australian.

The poet’s duty is to take advantage of the cultural and linguistic vortex that is Latin America.

Latin America is plagued by economic and political injustice, yet ancient cultures are coming back to the surface. This involves language. As poets or writers, we have the duty to try to rescue, or at least appreciate, these original tongues.

We must search for the literary or artistic elements that come with the conflictive nature of Latin America. We must accept that Castilian Spanish was imposed upon us through religion, bloodshed and executions that took place 500 years ago. There was a genocide, but these ancient cultures are reemerging. New generations of Latin American writers are feeling empowered. These generations are reclaiming their language and culture. Even though I am a mestizo [of Indigenous and European heritage], I feel part of this process, and I am passionate about it.

One final question. What are you reading?

Among Australian writers, I am reading Bruce Pascoe and his Dark Emu, and Aboriginal poet Lionel Fogarty (Harvest Lingo), an activist and great revolutionary poet. Academics have a hard time trying to make sense of Fogarty’s work. He uses English as the language of the coloniser and inserts it in his poetry, in his political and cultural reality.

I love the Mexican writer Juan Rulfo. ‘Tell them not to kill me!’ from The Burning Plain and Other Stories is a great short story. I have also revisited Gabriela Mistral, whose literary work and role as rural schoolteacher have been forgotten in Chile. I always return to the classics like Julio Cortázar. I even reconciled with Jorge Luis Borges here in Australia. I was adamant to read him because of his right-wing inclinations, how he never denounced the Chilean dictatorship. Back in Chile, as a leftist militant, I never read him, but when I arrived in Australia, I had the time to read him, little by little, and I enjoy his work.

I also keep going back to early 20th century Spanish poets such as Miguel Hernández, Federico García Lorca or Rafael Alberti. I am interested in how they created a language out of the brutal realities of the Civil War. I also love Roque Dalton from El Salvador, a poet and guerilla fighter who is a great inspiration and influence within political poetry.

Juan Garrido-Salgado’s new collection of poems, The Dilemma of Writing a Poem, was recently released by Puncher & Wattmann. His poetic approach is expressed in this book, with sections for poetica, political poems and Mother Earth poems.