Interview with Jorge Argueta
By Kathryn Olney*
If you are meeting Salvadorian poet and children's book
author Jorge Argueta for the first time, he might offer this feature
as a way to identify him: I have a river running down my back.
The river, it turns out, is a swath of curly black hair, parted in the
center, pulled back into a long, flowing pony tail.
There's an air of poetry in just about everything Argueta
does, whether it's describing himself, or retooling a Salvadorian
folktale for an American audience. One of these, Zipitio,
is based on the legend of the Nahua Indian trickster of the same name,
a gnome who falls in love with all young girls when they come age.
El Zipitio is ugly and no taller than a child, and his feet point
backward, so that when a girl looks at him she never knows whether
he is coming or going. But he'll appear when a village girl is alone,
and beg her to run away with him. One day pretty Rufina Perez's mother
warns her that Zipitio may soon appear to her, because he loves being
in love. Do not be
afraid, she advises, he only wants to be loved because
he is ugly and lonely. When Zipitio appears Rufina is washing
clothes in the river, and she is indeed afraid, like every village
woman before her. Her mama advises her with a secret that the
reader never hears
that may help Rufina deal with the little man.
On the fourth day of Zipitio's appearance at the river,
Rufina brings a basket, and tells Zipito that if he truly loves her,
he will journey to the sea, and fetch her one of the sea's murmurs, a
wave, because she longs so very much to see the ocean. Zipito gleefully
takes on the task, and she never sees him again. "She's sent
him on an impossible journey
he can't catch a wave!" laughs
That a middle-aged man can write a captivating, lyrical
story which also gently tells a young reader that she, too, will be
able to stand up to the scary beings that lurk in the shadows and
try to seduce her, speaks to the empathy Argueta can muster for experiences
he can only imagine.
Then again, even the well-healed denizens of Jorge Argueta's
adopted city, San Francisco, can only imagine the life that he lived
before immigrating here in 1980. He grew up dirt poor in the outskirts
of San Salvador. Literally raised by a village including his mother,
grandmother and aunt he later watched his teachers, neighbors and
friends slowly disappear to the military death squads as they slaughtered
opponents during the civil war that ravaged the country from 1980 to
But I grew up with so much talk, with so much
love. My aunt used to say that when people in my family fought, it
was over who could cuddle and kiss the little kids. Argueta
attributes much of his love of language to his grandmother, a diminutive
woman who loved the macaw that rode on her shoulder while she made
She looked like this little pirate, with a cloud of white hair.
I spoke Nihu with her, remembers Argueta. The Salvadorian Nihu
Indian language, passed down from the Aztecs, is called the language
of the birds. She talked in such a beautiful, simple
way. Before she used to eat a tomato or an onion, she would say, thank
you for these beautiful flavors. Or when the parakeets flew
into our mango tree in the afternoon and one day her macaw
flew away with them she said sadly, there is nothing
so beautiful as the heart of an old woman on the wings of a bird.
You remember these things, they became ideas for poems and stories.
When I was in 5th grade, one of my teachers paraded
around the school with a story I had written, and told everybody I was
a writer. It was a story about butterflies and rocks, the world that
my grandmother and I loved. I'm not romanticizing life there though.
We were very, very poor, our floor was literally dirt; eventually I
had to leave, without even saying goodbye, so I wouldn't be caught.
His mother sent Jorge to join his sister, who had already
fled to the San Francisco Bay area. Argueta spent his first nights
there in jail before his sister, who worked as a cleaning woman, hired
an immigration lawyer to defend his case. My first job was as
a gardener in Daly City. It was so cold. Argueta remembers weeping
as he dug in the dirt in the foggy hills of the windswept coastal
city. Eventually, he got a job in a coffee house in San Francisco's
Latino Mission district, one that was frequented by poets and writers.
He began to write again.
First I started writing letters to El Salvador; then, I began
to write poetry.
People wanted me to write political poetry, but
in hindsight, I wasn't very happy doing that.
Argueta in fact longed to write about the political turmoil
in his homeland and of immigrating to the United States, but his greatest
talent lay in eloquently describing simplest aspects of world around
him. The effect of ignoring this truth was devastating. That was
the start of a dark, dark period, where I thought I had to wear black,
be tough, and drink a lot. I guess I was trying to cut lose from the
little boy inside me. Pretty soon my sister didn't want anything to
do with me. My relationship with my wife and my daughter fell apart.
It took seven years for Argueta to find that boy again.
He credits a happenstance visit to a Native American church service
in Watsonville, California, with turning his life around. During
the ceremony, they built a fire in the shape of a teepee. I don't
know exactly what it was, maybe it was hearing all the languages
being spoken around me, maybe it was all the colors in the clothing
Argueta's eyes well up with tears when he remembers this moment that
was such a turning point. Around that time, a friend of mine
told me he was writing poetry for a children's book press. I began
to remember my grandmother again and the world she had opened my
Argueta did write political poetry in the end, but he
needed to arrive at it through his love of the natural world. He also
began to write about the emotions and upheaval children experience
as they left their country, and the confusion that they felt in a brand
new one. His book A Movie in My Pillow describes
San Francisco through a newly-immigrated El Salvadorian boy's eyes,
and won a 2001 Americas award for Childrens and Young Adult
Like poet Kenneth Koch before him, (who published Rose,
Where Did You Get That Red?, a volume of breathtaking poems
written by the children he taught in Harlem), Argueta began to
hold workshops in schools and other venues around the country,
especially in neighborhoods with a large Spanish-speaking population.
Like Koch, he found that children are natural poets. They
are just like me when I was a boy, I can bring in some little object,
a rock, a plant, and kids are able to draw up so many feelings
from that one little thing. Then we write those impressions down.
A Kirkus magazine reviewer recently wrote of
his book Zipitio that this folklore from
Central America isn't going to go over too well in this culture. The
reviewer found the sexual nuances disturbing, and thought it odd that
Rufina Perez's mother would tell her daughter that Zipito was a harmless
There are scary, predatory beings in every culture's folktales!
exclaims Argueta, look at the witch in Hansel and Gretel!
This "strange" folktale (which, like all his
books, is published in English and Spanish) went over just fine for
this reporter's 14 year-old Anglo daughter. She saw that Rufina had
taken the first step in being self sufficient, and understood that
the young heroine had also learned from the experience of generations
of village women before her.
No doubt, the daughters of over a million Salvadorian
immigrants, along with some ten million other new Americans from Central
America who clean houses, garden, baby-sit and make up the legal and
illegal working backbone of the United States, may also find inspiration
in the tale if they are given the chance.
*Kathryn Olney is a San
Francisco-based writer, editor and high school and college journalism
instructor. She has written for Mother Jones, Parenting,
Book, Newsweek, Wired, and other magazines and
Posted: February 2004
Updated: April 2010