A celebrated poet and political activist, University Professor Carolyn Forché joined Berkley Center Senior Fellow Paul Elie on Monday to talk about her new memoir, What You Have Heard Is True, as part of Georgetown’s Faith and Culture Series.
The book, a finalist for a National Book Award, recounts the time Forché spent in El Salvador from 1978 to 1980, when she interacted with key military, political, and religious leaders before the outbreak of the Salvadoran Civil War.
Forché and Elie were joined by Rev. David Hollenbach, S.J., Georgetown’s Pedro Arrupe Distinguished Research Professor and a Berkley Center senior fellow with expertise in human rights and experience in Latin America.
Reliving to Remember
The poet began her unexpected journey to El Salvador when she met Leonel Gómez Vides, a Salvadoran political activist who appeared at her doorstep in 1977.
“The book begins with this visitor who is predicting war in El Salvador in three to five years,” Forché explained. “What does he want? He wants a poet to come to El Salvador right now because it’s very important for a poet to see this right now.”
Gómez wanted Forché to witness the unrest in El Salvador before explaining the situation to the American people, a chance to contribute to political activism that the poet could not pass up.
“He asked me a question that no one had ever asked me before,” she said. “What had I planned to do for the rest of humanity?”
Forché was often terrified of the political violence in El Salvador, a trauma the poet processed while writing her memoir.
“It took a long time for this experience to mature within me,” Forché said. “I had to go through it again. I had to relive it to remember it in precise terms.”
Jesuits and Justice
Forché credits her commitment to social activism to her upbringing in the 1960s.
“I went to college between 1968 and 1972,” she said. “I majored in the anti-war movement – we all did.”
So when the poet met Jesuit activists in El Salvador working for human rights and social justice, she was well prepared to join their work.
While in El Salvador, Forché befriended the prominent priest, scholar and activist Rev. Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., who, alongside five other Jesuits and two associates, was assassinated by Salvadoran military forces in 1989.
“He was a guiding intellect among everyone who was working for human rights and social justice,” remembered Forché.
The poet also spent time with Saint Óscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, an outspoken advocate for social justice who was killed by right-wing forces in 1980. She recalled witnessing how Romero assumed an aura of holiness.
“He was giving off this strange light – it was on him, it was on his face, it was in his hair, it was in his eyes,” shared Forché. “I saw his tranquility.”
Reflecting on Refugees
Hollenbach later joined the conversation to reflect on the aftermath of the Salvadoran Civil War, noting how the U.S. decision to pull out of El Salvador after the war contributed to continued unrest.
“We basically just left people in the state that we had helped create there, where there was continuing poverty, continuing urgency of need for help,” Hollenbach explained. “Many of them migrated to the United States as refugees.”
Forché, who has continued to advocate for Salvadoran refugees, finds working for those in need key to processing her own experiences.
“There’s one thing that really helps trauma – more than medications, more than anything else – and that’s work on behalf of suffering people who are adjacent somehow to the trauma,” Forché said.
By continuing to advocate for social justice, Forché accomplished the goal that Gómez laid out in their first meeting.
“In Latin America, we take our poets very seriously – we either send them to diplomatic posts or we put them in prison,” she said. “You’re just going to have to change what a poet is in the United States.”