The Mission and the revolution, as lived and told by Roberto Vargas
I ask Vargas to consider the successes and failures of the Nicaraguan revolution. He pauses and then seemingly changes the subject, excitedly telling me of the time he brought Ginsberg to meet the Sandinista soldiers. "Ginsberg was fascinated by the Sandinistas," says Vargas. "And he wanted to see what he had been supporting on my behalf all these years. So I took him to the fighting along the Honduras border in 1984, during the Contra war."
When Ginsberg went to the war zone, he brought not a rifle but a concertina. "I took him to meet these young soldiers in a trench. They see Allen with the concertina and they were like, 'Who the hell is this guy?' I told them he was a very famous poet. At once, they all started taking bits of paper out of their pockets that they had written poems on and started reading them to Allen. So there we are, with these soldiers in the trench with their rifles reading poetry, and Allen just wailing away on this concertina!"
I think of the strange road from Cardenal's vision of lost Mayan cities to Vargas' dreams of a Bernal Hill utopia to Ginsberg listening to soldiers' poetry in a Nicaraguan trench, and I see that Vargas has answered my question with his own, the question asked by revolutionary poetry.
LOST CITIES, AND NEW ONES
The lost moment with Ginsberg in the trenches is like a missing chapter out of Roberto Bolaño's Savage Detectives. Indeed Vargas' story in many ways embodies that of Bolaño's exile poet generation, of which he wrote, "They dreamed of a Latin American paradise and died in a Latin American hell." Except for one crucial difference: Vargas is very much alive and still fighting.
Today, Vargas still puts in a tireless 50-hour work week as a labor organizer for the American Federation of Teachers in San Antonio, TX. During our conversation, he excitedly tells me of an action he is organizing for next month, a march of teachers on the Texas capital to protest budget cuts to education. "I camp out in the teacher's lounge and talk to them when they are on break," he says. "I signed up 50 new members last week!"
As he nears 70, the poet shows no signs of slowing down. "I can't afford to!" he says. "My youngest son is only 17. When I get finished putting him through college, then maybe I can take a break."
But work seems like more than necessity to Vargas; political struggle is the central theme of his life's work. "Work, work, work, Erick," he tells me. "That is what we have to do. I could go back and forth about what went wrong in Nicaragua, but there is more work to do and I have to stay positive. It is all part of the process."
When Vargas comes back to the Mission Cultural Center this week, he will literally return, full circle, to a building he helped build. "We had no money to hire laborers, so we'd be there with our kids every weekend, building the place," he remembers.