'Central American Book of the Dead': Poetry, migration and death
Mexican poet Balam Rodrigo explores the multiple cultural identities of people living in liminal spaces, such as Mexico's along southern border
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In 2018, poet and activist Balam Rodrigo won the Premio Bellas Artes de Poesía Aguascalientes, Mexico's most prestigious poetry prize, crowning his writing career.
The winning work was Central American Book of the Dead (to be published in English by Flowersong Press on May 31, 2023), a sequence of poems in multiple voices, interwoven with the author's own narrative about Central American migrants and refugees — living and dead — journeying through Mexico to the north. The book also interweaves altered passages from A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1552) by Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish colonist (later friar and bishop) who became the first and fiercest critic of Spanish colonialism in the New World and the enslavement of Indigenous people.
In poems of great formal variety and lyrical depth, the book portrays the massive migration of Central Americans fleeing terror, crime, and extreme poverty, and the persecution and danger they face in traveling through Mexico to the United States.
The book is divided into five sections, for the five main countries of origin in this migration: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Mexico itself. Each section contains portraits of migrants, first-person testimonies of the dead — often titled by the precise locations where their bodies may be found — and poems that deploy varied sources, including news stories and political and scientific reports, to give fuller context to the human tales.
"The sections that make up this book of memory (each one determined by the migrants' country of origin) are a sample that "allows us to delve into the understanding of the human condition and bear witness to a vital experience that reflects the present," said the jury of the award in 2018.
The book of poems was also novel for bringing to light the concept of "centromexicanidad" and "centroamericanidad": the multiple cultural identity of those people who live in liminal spaces, such as the southern border of Mexico, where dozens of migrants from other countries circulate daily.
"The region from which Balam Rodrigo writes, which is our south, is shared with Guatemala on a territorial and historical level and with other parts of Central America product of constant migration, of those men, women and children Hondurans, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans and Americans from other latitudes, who come to our country," writes Israel León o'Farrill in La Jornada de Oriente.
"That book, which I faced without having any idea of what it would be, contained, distilled and exploded the odyssey of countless people in a circular and perpetual flight," writes Mexican writer and literary critic Emiliano Monge in El País.