Bios of Authors and Activists
In workshops on Central America, we begin with the question on the home page of this website, “How many Central Americans of note can you name? They can be in any walk of life (literature, sports, politics, etc.) and they can be from history or today.” Only a few hands go up to respond.
The question surfaces the realization that most of us know very little about Central American history or people. Workshop participants often guess “Cesar Chavez” or “Che Guevara” who are well known Latino/Latin Americans, but not from Central America.
Even in schools with large numbers of students with Central American heritage, at best the staff can name one person, usually Rigoberta Menchú who won a Nobel Peace Prize or Archbishop Oscar Romero who was in the news because of his beatification.
To help school staff fill this gap, we introduce a lesson where participants take on the identity of one of a few dozen people of note in Central American history. They interact in a meet and greet role play.
Below are a few of the people featured in the role play. They are Central American authors, poets, revolutionaries, priests, and musicians. We hope that these brief introductions encourage readers to learn about the people listed below and many more.
Please note that our goal is to add many more names and bios. Your donations will help us expand the list.
Manlio Argueta was born in San Miguel, El Salvador. A student at the University of San Salvador, he helped found the University Literary Circle in 1956. He lived in exile in Costa Rica from 1972 until the end of the Salvadoran Civil War. His works include A Place Called Milagro de la Paz, Little Red Riding Hood in the Red Light District, Cuzcatlan: Where the Southern Sea Beats, and One Day of Life, which was banned in El Salvador during the civil war but earned fifth place on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best Latin American novels of the twentieth century. He currently serves as the Director of the National Library of El Salvador.
He was a member of the Committed Generation.
Read an interview with Argueta by Claudia Arias.
Roque Dalton was born in Quetzaltepeque, El Salvador. After a year at the University of Santiago, Chile, he attended the University of San Salvador, where he helped found the University Literary Circle in 1956, just before the Salvadoran military set fire to the building. He was arrested in 1959, 1960, and 1965 for his political involvement with the Communist party, escaping his last imprisonment when an earthquake shattered the outer wall of his cell. He lived in exile in Mexico, Cuba, and Prague, winning the Casa de las Américas poetry prize in 1969 for his book Tavern and Other Places. In 1973, he reentered El Salvador in disguise and joined the Revolutionary Army of the People (ERP) as a soldier-poet. During the next eighteen months he wrote Clandestine Poems. As a member of the ERP, he worked to establish bonds between the guerrillas and civil society, but was accused of collaborating with the CIA and assassinated by other members of the ERP in May 1975, four days before his fortieth birthday.
He was a member of the Committed Generation.
Farabundo Marti was born on May 5, 1893, in Teotepeque, a small farming community in El Salvador. He was studying political science and jurisprudence at the University of El Salvador during the harsh conditions under the El Salvadoran dictatorship led by Maximiliano Hernandez Martínez, including a devastating economic recession. After repeatedly witnessing how El Salvador’s rich elite exploited the poor in his country, he dropped out of school to fight in the peasant movement. He was exiled multiple times for his efforts, but persevered and help create the Communist Party of Central America. He was instrumental in the development of the “International Red Aid” program, which was similar in function to American Red Cross. In 1932, Marti helped organize a massive peasant uprising against Martinez, his elite supporters, and the national army. The uprising was crushed by the army in what became known as La Matanza or the Massacre. On February 1st, 1932, government forces shot and killed Marti. He is considered a martyr by many of El Salvador’s people and his name is honored by the political party, Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).
Archbishop Oscar Romero
Archbishop Oscar Romero was a religious leader and activist in El Salvador during the 1960s and 1970s. He was appointed archbishop because during the early part of his career he was a conservative and traditional religious figure. After a fellow priest and friend, Rutilio Grande, was assassinated for his political and social work with El Salvador’s peasants and poor, Romero was transformed. Romero began to fight fervently for the rights of the oppressed and was a key figure in the religious movement to practice “liberation theology”. His high position within the Catholic Church allowed him to speak out for the poor and oppressed, and he became known across the country as the “Voice of the Voiceless.” He championed the human rights of the people of El Salvador, using YSAX, the archdiocesan radio station, to give sermons and speeches about the injustices committed against his fellow El Salvadorans. In February of 1980, he wrote a letter to President Carter asking him to halt U.S military assistance to the Salvadoran government. Later in his life, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. On March 24th, 1980, an assassin shot and killed Archbishop Romero while he was giving mass in small hospital church. Over 250,000 people attended his funeral, which became a protest against the government. He became an icon to El Salvador’s revolution.
Maria Serrano, born in 1950 in El Salvador, was a revolutionary who fought against the corrupt Salvadoran government during the civil war. She joined the guerrilla forces of the FMLN and quickly became a passionate and effective leader of the group. Serrano spent three years organizing peasants across the country. In 1988, she granted a group of filmmakers access to both her personal life and the frontlines of the war, and in 1991 they created an award-winning documentary about her life called Maria’s Story.
Humberto Ak’abal was born in Momostenango, Guatemala. He grew up in a Mayan K’iche peasant village, and moved to Guatemala City to work as a street vendor. In the 1980s he began to write in K’iche, but although he translated his own poems into Spanish, he could not find a publisher willing to print his work until 1992. Since then, he has won many prizes for his poetry, including the 2004 Guatemala National Prize in Literature, which he turned down because it is named for Miguel Asturias. Ak-abal explains that Asturias’ 1923 essay, The Social Problem of the Indian, contributed to the marginalization of the indigenous peoples of Guatemala. His works include Poems I Brought Down from the Mountain, Drum of Stone, and Honeyword.
Otto René Castillo
Otto René Castillo was born in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala. He was exiled in 1954 after a CIA-sponsored coup that overthrew the democratic Arbenz government. He went into exile in El Salvador where he attended the University of San Salvador and helped found the University Literary Circle. He returned to Guatemala in 1957, but went into exile again in Europe. In 1966, he returned to Guatemala to join the FAR (Revolutionary Armed Forces). He was captured by government forces the following year, along with Nora Paiz, and was interrogated and tortured before being burned alive. His poetry is found in Tecum Oman, Let’s Go!, and Tomorrow Triumphant.
Rigoberta Menchú was born in Chimel, Guatemala to a peasant family. Her family, of the Mayan K’iche, was active in grassroots organizing for land reform and women’s rights. As a catechist in the Catholic Church, she also became involved with social reform. After the murders of her brother, father, and mother by Guatemalan military forces, she joined the Committee of the Peasant Union and the 31st of January Popular Front, rebel groups in the Guatemalan Civil War. She was forced to flee to Mexico in 1981, and there dictated the book I, Rigoberta Menchu to anthropologist Elizabeth Burgos. The testimony gained her international renown, and in 1992, she won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of indigenous rights. She continues to advocate for indigenous rights, and ran for the Guatemalan presidency in 2007.
Nora Murillo is a poet, social worker, and professor. She was born in Livingston, Guatemala in 1964 as part of the Garifuna minority, a community of less than 8,000 people who are descendants or African, Island Caribbean, and Arawak peoples. She became a social worker to address the limited access to healthcare, education, and jobs in her community. She is a professor at the San Carlos University of Guatemala, at the University Center of Izabal. Her passion is poetry, to which she has devoted most of her life. Her writing centers on her African heritage and the struggles of women surrounded by patriarchal institutions and society. In 2000, her book Abrir la puerta (Open the Door), won the Alaide Foppo Poetry Prize. To share her love of literature, she is working on transforming the house she grew up in into a children’s community library.
Claribel Alegría was born in Nicaragua, but grew up in Santa Ana, El Salvador. She attended George Washington University in Washington, DC. Originally traveling through Europe with her husband and translator, Darwin “Bud” Flakoll, she became an exile when she spoke out against the Salvadoran military’s role in the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. A celebrated poet, novelist, and translator, her books include Luisa in Realityland, Ashes of Izalco, and I Survive, which won the Casa de las Américas prize for poetry. She lived in Managua, Nicaragua at the time of her death on January 25, 2018.
She was a member of the Committed Generation.
Gioconda Belli was born in Managua, Nicaragua. She joined the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) in 1970 and was involved in the underground resistance movement until 1975 when she had to flee the Somoza regime’s secret police and go into exile. When the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, she held various government positions, working primarily in communications, journalism, and public relations. She left the Sandinista Party in 1993 is now a vocal critic of the Ortega government. Her works include The Inhabited Woman, The Country Under My Skin, and Line of Fire , which won the Casa de las Americas Prize in 1978. Belli’s website.
Ernesto Cardenal was born in Granada, Nicaragua. Ordained a Catholic priest in 1965, from 1965-1977 he lived in the Solentiname Islands, where he helped found the peasant artist colony which originated primitivist style painting. He was a close collaborator with the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front), and after the revolution, served as the Minister of Culture for the new government from 1979-1987. He left the FSLN in 1994, and is now part of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS). His works include Zero Hour, The Doubtful Straight, Psalms, and The Gospel of Solentiname.
Ruben Dario was born in Metapa, Nicaragua. In 1880, he published his first set of poetry at the young age of 13. He continued writing and by the late 1800s he had created a Spanish-American literary movement called “modernism.” Modernism incorporated unique rhythms and symbols, and broke from the traditional poetry form. For many years he traveled the world as a journalist, visiting Argentina, Chile, France, and Spain on assignment. Between 1882 and 1915 he served as a Nicaraguan diplomat and as the Nicaraguan ambassador to France and Spain. He was also famous for his criticism of Spanish colonialism. In 1892, during the 400th anniversary celebration of the conquest led by Christopher Columbus, Dario read a poem to the Spanish court protesting the conquest and exposing the injustices it caused.
Carlos Mejia Godoy
Carlos Mejia Godoy was born in Somoto, Nicaragua. He is a folk musician, guitarist, and songwriter who, along with his brother Luis Enrique, led the transformation of the Central American music scene in the 1970s. Godoy and his brother helped bring about the New Song Movement, a movement born as musicians began to write lyrics about the social and political issues of their country. Many of Godoy’s best songs were written during the Sandinista movement to inspire peasants and revolutionaries in their fight. Accompanied by his band “los de Palacagüina,” Godoy’s music frequently addressed the political climate in Nicaragua. One of his famous songs during the late 1970s instructed Nicaraguan revolutionaries on how to use, assemble, and disassemble the rifles people were capturing from dictator Somoza’s National Guard during street battles. Some of his other more well known songs include Nicaragua, Nicaraguita and La Tuela Cuecho.
Sergio Ramírez as born in Masatepe, Nicaragua. In the 1960s, he gained prominence as an intellectual and participated in the resistance against the Somoza government. He declared his support for the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in 1977 as a member of the Group of Twelve, leading members of civil society who spoke out against Somoza. Ramírez was part of the transitional revolutionary junta in 1979, and was elected vice president in 1984. He broke with the FSLN in 1996, and now works primarily as a writer. His works include Cuentos and Margarita, está linda la mar.
Augusto Sandino was born on May 18, 1895 in Niquinohomo, a small town in Nicaragua. During his youth, he worked at an oil company in Mexico and became inspired by the message of social equality advocated for by Mexican labor unions. Sandino fought on the side of the Liberal party during the Nicaraguan civil war, often called the “Constitution War.” The United States supported the Nicaraguan government by sending in the Marine Corps. After the war had ended, U.S. troops continued their military occupation, by claiming to oversee social stability during the presidential election. From 1927-1933, Sandino led a rebellion against the United States military occupation of Nicaragua. Sandino fought against the Nicaraguan government and their repressive policies, which included the crushing of a people’s uprising against the corrupt President Adolfo Díaz in 1912. The group he led was named “The Defending Army of National Sovereignty” and their motto was, “Motherland and Liberty.” Sandino is remembered today as a courageous revolutionary in Nicaragua who fought for an independent and autonomous Nicaragua, free from foreign intervention. Learn more at the Sandino Rebellion website.
Alvaro Rogelio Gómez Estrada (Guatemala)
Alvaro Rogelio Gómez Estrada
Alvaro Rogelio Gómez Estrada was born in Santa Cruz del Quiché, Guatemala in 1944. He has written a variety of literature including novels, stories, legends, and poetry and has won awards for his work in both national and international contests. The French Alliance of Quetzaltenango conferred to him the honorary titles of Freedom Poet and Great Teacher of Poetry.
Oscar de Leon Palacios
Oscar de Leon Palacios was born in Guatemala in 1909 He was a teacher, editor, and writer. He was known as “the teacher of the mountain.” One of his greatest contributions to Guatemalan society was his work in advancing rural education. He created a free program where teachers could receive the title “Teacher of Rural Education.” The president at the time, Carlos Castillo Armas, gave him a medal recognizing him as a distinguished teacher.
Claudia Lars was born in Armenia, El Salvador in 1899 as Margarita del Carmen Brannon Vega. She traveled to the United States where she worked as a Spanish teacher at the Berlitz School in Brooklyn. Her first book of poems, “Triste Mirajes,” (“Sad Mirage”) was published without her consent by General Juan Jose Cañas. Claudia traveled to the United States a second time where she worked packing peaches, translating stories for Walt Disney, and contributed to an anti-fascist newspaper. She was then appointed to work at the El Salvadorian embassy in Guatemala. She later moved to Canada where she worked in the editorial department in the Ministry of Culture and was in charge of the magazine, “Culture.” Claudia wrote 19 books of poetry and a memoir and received international recognition for her work.
José Coronel Urtecho
José Coronel Urtecho was a Nicaraguan poet, essayist, playwright, diplomat, and historian. He was born in Granada, Nicaragua in 1906. His father was an influential politcian and journalist and worked for the government under José Santos Zelaya. After the United States militarily invaded Nicaragua and forced Zelaya into exile, his father died under unknown circumstances when José was six. His mother then moved with him and his sister to San Francisco. He returned to Granada in 1927 where be began writing for the newspaper, Nicaraguan Daily. He helped found the Vanguard Literary Movement in 1928 which greatly influenced Nicarguan literature.
Marilena Lopez was born in Guatemala City in 1902. She was an actress, essayist, playwright, and puppeteer. She created the first theater dedicated completely to puppet theater which influenced other schools around the country to implement puppet theaters. This rise in popularity then gave way to the theater festivals of the 1970s. Marilena Lopez promoted puppet theater as a way to teach young children while having fun.
Adrián Ramírez Flores
Adrían Ramírez Flores was born in Guatemala City in 1920. He was a teacher and writer whose work was dedicated to the perception and expression of children. He worked at a night school where he taught educators about the language and literature of children. He held several public postions including director of the Normal School of Musical Education, director of the Institute of Humanities, Coordinator of Special Projects for the United States, and Sub Secretary of Public Education in 1962. He also served as an international representative for Congress.