The Mission and the revolution, as lived and told by Roberto Vargas
Coronel knew an old man in Granada who said
(who often said):
"I wish I were a foreigner, so that I
Could go home
— Zero Hour, Ernesto Cardenal
I first came into contact with the work of poet Roberto Vargas a couple of years ago, when I saw his face, projected several stories tall, on a wall just off Valencia Street.
I was riding my bike to the Day of the Dead procession when I came across filmmaker Veronica Majano screening historical footage of the old Mission District on the wall of Dog Eared Books. The footage of Vargas was from a movie called Back to the Streets, and it showed a Latino hippie fest in Precita Park circa-1970. Long-haired Chicanos smoked weed and danced and played bongos on the grass while Vargas read from a stage. On today's Valencia Street, Vargas was a ghost returned from a long-lost Mission, now standing twenty feet tall on the bookstore's wall, reading a powerful poem that angrily denounced the SFPD for the mysterious death of a Mission Latino youth in police custody.
The film of Vargas was a beautiful snapshot of Latino youth culture in the neighborhood before gang violence and gentrification, like a Mission High School yearbook scene from an exhilarating era of Latino self-determination. In 1970, the Free Los Siete movement was feeding the community at a free breakfast program out of St. Peter's Church on Alabama Street and had started free clinics and legal aid programs in the Mission. In the years to follow, the neighborhood would see the founding of the Mission Cultural Center and Galeria de la Raza and the inception of many of the neighborhood's now world-famous mural projects.
Looking at the groovy scene in the park, it was hard to imagine that just a few short years later, Vargas and other kids from the Mission would be fighting alongside the Sandinistas in the jungles and mountains of Nicaragua. Yet the utopian promise of the era's poetry, art, and youth culture in many ways culminated in the guerrilla war in which Vargas and other poets from San Francisco would fight and ultimately — in 1979 — help defeat the forces of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza.
On Feb. 24, the day of his 70th birthday, Roberto Vargas makes a rare return to San Francisco to perform in a poetry event at the Mission Cultural Center in honor of that Nicaraguan solidarity movement of the 1970s. A video will be shown of footage from that struggle — classic scenes of Vargas and others taking over the Nicaraguan consulate in San Francisco; of the famed nightly candlelight vigils at 24th and Mission BART Plaza in support of the Sandinistas — and Vargas will be reunited on stage to read with old poet friends like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, Alejandro Murguía, and Vargas' old compañero from San Francisco State University's Third World Liberation Front, actor Danny Glover. The event is not open to the public. Invitations have been given out and the small MCC theater's 150 seats have already been filled. Yet the event provides an opportunity to publicly honor Roberto Vargas' contributions to the Mission, and to reflect on the hopes and dreams of Mission past.
Poetry was a part of Vargas' world from the beginning. Vargas was born in Nicaragua, but came to the United States when he was a small child. In his 1980 collection of poems Nicaragua Te Canto Besos, Balas, y Sueños, he writes of "living in an offbeat alley called Natoma Street (where I always imagined a lost Mayan city existed beneath the factories)." By the late 1950s, Vargas may have been the first Mission District Latino Beat poet. "I graduated from Mission High School in 1958 and used to hang out in North Beach, going around to see all the poets," he says. "I met Allen Ginsberg when I was just a 19-year-old kid running around in North Beach. Diane di Prima, Bob Kaufman, Ted Berrigan — all the major poets knew me when I was in my teens."
After a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps and an attempt at a boxing career that ended with a detached retina (an injury that also helped him avoid the Vietnam-era draft), Vargas went to SF State, where he was heavily active in the student strike of 1968-69. Students walked out of campus and battled riot police while standing on picket lines for five months to demand an ethnic studies program at the university.
In the spirit of the times, Vargas and other poets — including a young Mission Chicano named Alejandro Murguía — joined the Pocho-Che Collective to publish poetry by local Latino poets. The poets went to cut sugar cane in the Venceremos Brigade in Cuba. They put out small poetry chapbooks in the Mission, full of poems that linked Che Guevara's call for Third World revolution with the experience of the Chicano barrios of the United States in a new vision tropical. In the era after the SF State strike, the city started funding community arts projects in the ghettos. Like all classic zines, the first copies of Pocho-Che were scammed, in this case late at night at Vargas' new job in the Mission's Neighborhood Arts Program. In the years to come, the group would eventually publish hardbound books by Vargas, Nina Serrano, and others.
Today, Murguía is a professor in the ethnic studies program at SF State that the strikers fought to originate. He is the author of the American Book Award-winning short story collection This War Called Love (2002) and the memoir The Medicine of Memory (2002). He remembers, "The poetry scene was incipient, very young, and the readings weren't always very formal. Sometimes they were at community events or protest rallies. But we had contact with Latin America. We knew people who had been in Chile, like Dr. Fernando Alegría."
Alegría was a poet who had been the cultural attaché to the U.S. under Allende in Washington. Vargas recalls, "Alegría had myself and some other young poets come to Chile and spend a month or two studying with [Pablo] Neruda. But, of course, our plans were canceled by the coup in Chile."
Murguia remembers the September 1973 coup in Chile that overthrew the popularly elected Socialist democracy of Salvador Allende caused the young poets to organize rare formal readings at Glide Memorial Church in protest. "We had several big ones there," he says. "There was a broad range of poets — Michael McClure, Fernando Alegría, Jack Hirschman, Bob Kaufman, Janice Mirikitami all read. There was a line going down the block to get in."
In addition to their mentor, Alegría, Vargas, and Murguía also knew one of their heroes, the Nicaraguan Marxist poet and priest, Ernesto Cardenal. Cardenal lived under the Somoza dictatorship in a sort-of internal exile in a religious artist commune called Solentiname. Vargas wanted to bring Cardenal to read in the United States, but Somoza would not allow the poet, who was critical of the Nicaraguan dictator, to travel outside the country. Vargas went to his old pal Ginsberg for help.
"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.
Yet for all its international perspective, El Tin Tan remained firmly rooted in the Mission. Columns by Nuyorican poet Victor Hernández Cruz and news of the assassination of Salvadoran guerrilla poet Roque Dalton ran side by side with the first comics by future Galeria de la Raza founder Rene Yáñez, all folded between wildly colorful cover art by neighborhood favorites like the famed Chicano artist Rupert Garcia and the muralist Mike Rios.
"The magazines were colorful — tropical — on the outside, but very political on the inside," says Murguía. "That was a metaphor for our own work."
By this time, Vargas had become an Associate Director at the SF Arts Commission. From within City Hall, he started to pump city arts money into the Mission, helping to fund projects like Mike Rios' mural of the people holding BART on their backs at 24th and Mission BART Plaza and the Balmy Alley Mural Project — art that can still be seen in public today.
Once, Vargas commissioned a Chuy Campesano mural for the Bank of America building at 22nd and Mission. "I read a poem called "Boa" and had the crowd dancing and chanting, Es la Boa, Es la Boa," says Vargas. "We were trying to say, 'You made your millions off our farmers, but now you are on our turf in the Mission here in occupied Mexico. So we'll put hieroglyphics on the walls of your bank like we used to do!' Someone from the bank tried to take the mic from me and cops came and escorted us out."
Vargas's story of the mural's dedication ceremony captures the bravado of the era. "It was a beautiful time, all of us young and thinking we were going to change the world. We wanted to change the world through culture."
The poets organized the community to demand a neighborhood's arts center, too. In 1977, the dream was realized when the City, with pressure from Vargas from within City Hall in the Arts Commission, purchased an old, five-floor furniture store at 24th and Mission to be made into the Mission Cultural Center. Murguia became the center's first director.
The Mission utopia was becoming a reality for Vargas. In Nicaragua Te Canto, he wrote:
We used to drive
Our lowered down Plymouths and Chevys
On top of the breast of a mountain to
Make love and drink wine... Never
Knowing what was going to happen after
Mission High School
The Mission is now an expression of real culture, a many-faceted being ... both plus and minus with the soul of a human rainbow...My people watching slides of Sandino and Nica history ... White children wearing guarachas and afros trippin' down the streets to party. Young Salvadoran poets discussing the assassination of Roque Dalton ... The Mission is now an implosion/explosion of human color, of walls being painted by muralistas. There is a collective feeling of compassion for each other Nicas Blacks Chicanos Chilenos Oppressed Indios. The sense of collective survival, histories full of Somozas, Wounded Knees written on the walls.
In Zero Hour, Cardenal wrote of Nicaragua's trees and birds and lakes, and their call to revolution, as seen from its mountains:
What's that light way off there? Is it a star?
Its Sandino's light shining in the black mountain
Vargas, the excited Mission kid, echoed in his work:
Tonight I am sitting on a mountain called Bernal Hill ...
Tonight I see the flames of America Latina spreading from here ...
Perhaps inevitably, the Latin American Utopia Vargas and company created in poetry would seem so tantalizingly close to actualization that they would be forced to pick up the gun and fight for its existence.
When the enormous earthquake of 1972 left Nicaragua's capital, Managua, in ruins, Nicaraguan refugees flocked to SF's Mission District. Soon, San Francisco was home to more Nicaraguans than any place on Earth outside of Nicaragua. The family of Anastasio Somoza had controlled Nicaragua with brutal repression for generations. Somoza's embezzling of relief funds for earthquake victims led to increased revolutionary activity against his rule. Taking their name from Augusto Sandino, a Nicaraguan revolutionary who led resistance against U.S. occupation of Nicaragua in the 1930s, La Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) — or the Sandinistas, as they were popularly known — began guerrilla activities in late 1974 by taking government officials and Somoza relatives hostage in a raid on the house of the minister of agriculture. They received a $2 million ransom and had their communiqué printed in the national newspaper. Thus was born the Sandinista revolution.
In the Mission, Vargas, Murguía, and others were in touch with La Frente, and began organizing Sandinista solidarity rallies to coordinate with La Frente's actions in Nicaragua. Out of offices in the Mission Cultural Center, along with El Tin Tan, the poets published a newspaper called La Gaceta about the situation in Nicaragua. The paper had a circulation of 5000 copies and was available for free all over the district. The sight of pro-Sandinista rallies at 24th and BART Plaza became so common that the plaza was popularly nicknamed Plaza Sandino.
Vargas organized takeovers of the Nicaraguan consulate in San Francisco and traveled the US, speaking about Nicaragua. Yet, soon, this kind of support didn't seem like enough. In Cardenal's poetry, victory was inevitable. Cardenal had written that Indian time was circular, that "history became prophecy," and that therefore the "empire will always fall." He had also written, "The hero is reborn when he dies. And the green grass is reborn from the ashes." In poetry, Vargas and Murguia found inspiration to go to war.
In 1976 and 1977, Mission District residents, in solidarity with the FSLN, began quietly leaving San Francisco to join up with La Frente and pick up the gun in the Sandinista Revolution. Among them were Roberto Vargas and Alejandro Murguía.
"It was very romantic," says Murguía. "If you grew up in the time after Che's death, when you had Che's figure calling for "1,2,3, many Vietnams" and a lot of different armed struggles going on all over Latin America, then it would seem logical, I think, if you were kind of young and crazy, that you would want to participate in some of these situations besides just doing solidarity work or organizing rallies. Also, the coup in Chile crushed our generation's hope for electoral change in Latin America."
Today, Murguía tries to situate the poets' embrace of armed struggle within the spirit of those long ago times, but one senses that Vargas would not hesitate to join a guerrilla war tomorrow morning. When I ask him how the young poets made the leap from verse to bullets, he is incredulous at the question.
"We had to fight! There was no other way!" Vargas says. "We had the historical perspective and as a people we were worthless if we let that situation stand. We had our own books out. But are we really revolutionary poets if we just sit back and collect our laurels?"
Murguía compares the Sandinista war with the Spanish Civil War, when there were many international brigades in which writers had been involved. He suggests the poets went to war because they were poets. "If you knew the situation intimately in Nicaragua and you were reading Cardenal's poems," he says, "it was easy to see the connection between poets and political necessity."
Vargas began organizing small, tight-knit cadres for battle in Nicaragua, recruiting his Sandinista guerrillas right off of the streets of the Mission. "I was secretive and I found them one by one," he explains. "We were very clandestine and very compartmentalized. We never had more than a dozen people in our committee at once."
Men who were menial laborers in San Francisco would one day be among the most respected heroes of the Nicaraguan Revolution. "When I recruited Chombo [Walter Ferretti], he was a cook at the Hyatt Regency," says Vargas. "Later, Chombo would become a head of national security in Nicaragua. Another recruit was a former pilot, so I went to talk to him where he pumped gas at 21st and South Van Ness. That was Commandante Raúl Venerio. After the triumph of 1979, he would become the Chief of the Nicaraguan Air Force."
When in San Francisco, Venerio later served as the editor of La Gaceta. In Nicaragua, the former gas station attendant became a real hero. "They got an airplane and attacked the National Palace," says Vargas, laughing. "They hit it and split, and got away — real Mission boys!"
Before heading off to join La Frente, Vargas' recruits would undergo a regimen of training and political education, an informal boot camp largely hidden in plain sight in the Bay Area.
"It was primitive," remembers Murguía. "We didn't really have someone with a military background to train us. We got just guns at pawn shops on Mission Street and practiced shooting at the firing range in Sharp Park down in Pacifica. We worked out with a friend who was a black belt in karate."
Murguía says the most difficult part of training was the daily pre-dawn run of five laps around Bernal Hill. "We would run up the hill counter-clockwise — because that way is more difficult," he says, "and we would wear these combat boots we bought at Leed's Shoes on Mission."
Besides being a part of physical conditioning, the run was a litmus test of the recruits' commitment. "Doing activity like that is almost impossible if you're not really psychologically into it," says Murguía. "Try running five times around Bernal Hill! You start wondering after your third lap, 'Goddamn! Why am I doing this?' Especially when no one is forcing you to do it!"
When I ask if the daily jog of 10 or 12 Latino men in combat boots on the hill at sunrise did not attract any, uh, attention, Murguía shrugs. "There were less people on the hill in those days," he says. He recalls that the Mission cadres trained in complete anonymity: "We got money to rent planes and we took turns learning to fly the planes around the Bay Area. Nobody suspected anything because nobody knew anything about Nicaragua then."
When I try to imagine a phalanx of Sandinistas at dawn on today's Bernal Hill, surrounded by a crowd of early morning dog walkers, I can't help but laugh. But the cadre's training was deadly serious, and Murguía says its value was far more than psychological. "What I discovered when I went to the Southern Front was that our San Francisco cadres were some of the most advanced in the war," he explains. "We understood the political situation and the tactic of insurrection and we had a minimum of physical conditioning. But some of these other cats, man! They literally just walked in off the street!"
For a time, Murguía remained the director of the Mission Cultural Center, while making regular trips to fight in Nicaragua. In 1977, Vargas resigned from the Arts Commission and went to battle for six or seven months. He and Murguía would spend the next couple of years rotating back and forth from the war front in Nicaragua to their solidarity work in the Mission. Murguía describes his entry into Nicaragua, his stay in various guerrilla safe houses in Costa Rica, and his experiences in the war in his 1991 American Book Award-winning fictionalized memoir, Southern Front.
Though Murguía says the actual military war on the ground was largely a stalemate between the Sandinistas and the Somozas' National Guard, the Sandinistas were at last able to triumph through international pressure, strategic military victories, and a general strike. Somoza fled in July of 1979, and the Sandinistas entered Managua victorious on July 19 of the same year. Cardenal's poem "Lights" describes the city as seen from a plane that brought the elder poet into a Managua free from the Somoza family's rule for the first time in 43 years. In Managua, street graffiti declared, El triunfo de la revolución el triunfo de la poesía.
Vargas and Murguía, however, did not enter Managua with the victorious army. The Southern Front did not go to Managua, and Vargas had recently been sent back to the U.S., to coordinate a simultaneous take over of the Nicaraguan consulates in major U.S. cities from coast to coast to coincide with the victory in Managua.
Vargas' work for Nicaragua did not end with victory. The Mission High kid now found himself serving in the new revolutionary government as cultural attaché to the United States. "I was jailed in the takeover of the DC consulate," Vargas says, laughing, "but then I came back several months later to serve there!"
The voluble poet grows uncharacteristically silent when I ask him what it felt like to actually win the war.
"To win?," he asks, pronouncing the word as if he was hearing it for the very first time. "Well ... it's like taking off a huge load, man. Like taking mountains off your back." He is silent for a bit and then adds, "But what do you win? You win the right to continue the struggle."
"To win was to reach the objective of getting rid of the Somoza family once and for all," Vargas says. "But it was not really a win/lose situation." Indeed, the Sandinistas inherited a country in ruins and in debt, with an estimated 50,000 war dead, and 600,000 homeless. Nicaragua's left-wing powers would become an obsession for the Reagan Administration, who for the next ten years offered heavy financial assistance and training to the Contras, a coalition of pro-Somoza and anti-Sandinista guerrillas who fought to overthrow the revolutionary government. The U.S. strangled Nicaragua's economy with a trade embargo like it employed against Cuba. In reality, for the Sandinistas, the war literally never ended.
"Somoza bombed everything in Nicaragua before he left the country. Reagan was spending — what? — $100 million a year annually against us at that time?" says Vargas. "They spent so much for a decade to destroy our little country."
Nonetheless, poetry remained in the forefront of the Nicaraguan revolution. Cardenal was named Ministry of Culture, and he instituted poetry workshops across Nicaragua as part of a highly successful literacy campaign that raised literacy from just 12 percent to over 50 percent in the first 6 months of the revolutionary government. Soon, poetry was being written and taught in the tiniest villages and in the fields.
"We tried," Vargas says bluntly. "We were doing very important land reform, incredible stuff for the economy. But it was dangerous to be a good example. We had the potential, but we had to hold off this enormous power [of the U.S.] for decades. Ultimately, we had to step back so they would not destroy Nicaragua."
In 1990, Nicaraguan voters, weary of war and economic misery, chose to elect FSLN President Daniel Ortega's U.S.-backed opponent, Violetta Chamorro, in the presidential election. "We lost the elections," says Vargas. "But we had to allow them to demonstrate that we were not like Cuba or other revolutions. We lost beautiful young men and women to get that liberty."
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.
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.
One of those kids was Vargas' son, Mission poet Ariel Vargas, who will read in public with his father for the first time this week. "Cardenal baptized him when Ernesto came to bless the new Mission Cultural Center in 1977," Vargas says. "He had offered to baptize any children who also might be there. In the end, there was a line of families around the block on 24th Street who had brought their children for Ernesto Cardenal to baptize. Ariel had already been there every weekend on his hands and knees sanding those huge gymnasium-like floors with us. The Mission Cultural Center is still there and that is our monument." As he discusses the Mission, Vargas forgets the problems of the Nicaraguan revolution and begins talking nonstop again at last. He comes back to the stories that started our conversation. "You know, I lived at 110 Mullen on Bernal Hill," he says, his excitement gathering. "Mike Rios was my neighbor. Rene Yáñez lived on the block. So it was all happening right there! Carlos Santana lived down the block at around 180 Mullen or something. We used to hear him and his band jamming all the time. The Arts Commission had a stage truck and I'd take it out to Precita Park and put the stage down for Carlos to play on." I think of Cardenal's vision of the repeating cycle of time, the promise that the empire will always fall and the hero will always be reborn. Much in the Mission has changed. But Vargas, the old poet, still looks out from Bernal Hill today and sees lost cities beneath the surface.