The Mission and the revolution, as lived and told by Roberto Vargas
"Because Allen knew me when I was a kid, he helped me with my organizing for Nicaragua," says Vargas. "Allen was part of PEN, and in 1973 or '74 he went to the State Department with other writers to put pressure on [Anastasio] Somoza. Eventually Somoza relented and we brought Cardenal to New York for a reading."
The poetry of Cardenal was a north star to the young Mission poets. Cardenal's epic 1957-60 masterwork Zero Hour is perhaps the literary foundation of revolution in Nicaragua. Influenced formally by Ezra Pound, Zero Hour weaves a sprawling history of Somozan oppression and U.S. intervention in Nicaragua together with lyrical imagery of Nicaragua's natural beauty and wildlife. The poem creates a poignant sense that Nicaraguans, unable to enjoy and own these natural riches, had under Somoza become exiles within their own country.
Of particular interest to the young Mission poets, though, was Cardenal's Homage to the American Indians (1969), a book-length meditation on the glory of Mayan and North American native civilizations. "For us, the work of Cardenal was very important," says Murguía. "Homage to the American Indians is a continental vision of Native Americans — everything from the San Blas Indians of Panama to the Indians of Omaha to the Indians of Mexico City and Peru."
In Homage, Cardenal evokes a lost Indian Utopia "so democratic that archaeologists know nothing about their rulers," where "their pyramids were built with no forced labor, the peak of their civilization did not lead to an empire, and the word wall does not exist in their language." He writes:
But how to write anew the hieroglyph,
How to paint the jaguar anew,
How to overthrow the tyrants?
How to build our tropical acropolis anew
Cardenal's poems of this lost glorious past were to Vargas more pointedly a vision of a Latin American utopia that can also be regained in the future. In Cardenal's work, says Vargas, "There is a longing for the simplicity of that civilization — the creativity, the innocence, the tribalism. Can we get it back after all the dictatorships, after all that capitalism has done? Cardenal showed us what we were, what we had, what we lost."
Under Cardenal's influence, the Mission poets turned seeing lost Mayan cities beneath the city's factories into a literary movement. By 1975, members of Pocho-Che had started a magazine called El Tin Tan with Murguia as editor and Vargas as contributor. El Tin Tan presented a sweeping utopian vision of a borderless invisible Latino republic united culturally and politically under the sign of the palm tree. The poets situated the capital of this world right here in the Mission District.
"To tropicalize the Mission — to see it as a tropical pueblo — was a political act of defiance and self-determination," says Murguía. "We were saying that we put this particular neighborhood — our pueblo, in a way — not in a context of North American history but in the context of Latin American history. The history of the eastern U.S. doesn't affect California until 1848 when the first illegal immigrants came to California — not from the South, but from the East.
"El Tin Tan," Murguía continues, "was probably the first magazine that was intercontinental in scope, a combination of politics and literature and art and different trends from the Mission to Mexico City to Argentina and everywhere in between." He proudly recalls that it ran the first North American essays on Salvadoran poetry, and translated and printed a short story by Nelson Marra, a writer imprisoned by the Uruguayan dictatorship.