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  • Fire of Memory:The Geographical Legacy of Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015)
  • W. George Lovell

Recordar: to remember, from the Latin, re-cordis, to pass back through the heart.

Eduardo Galeano, The Book of Embraces (1991)

The death of Eduardo Galeano on April 13, 2015 removed from our midst not only one of Latin America's most eminent men of letters but a global citizen of immense stature, a writer inimitably versed in documenting the world's weary ways and unrivaled in celebrating its myriad, marvellous joys. He held true to a "fugitive faith," not in any deity but in humanity itself, above all its subversive inclination to thrive in the face of dire adversity. "Courage is born of fear, certainty of doubt," wrote the Uruguayan maestro. "We are the sum of our efforts to change who we are" (Galeano ([1989] 1991: 126). He confronted terminal illness stoically, but it wore him down, in the end keeping him close to home in Montevideo and curtailing his often far-flung travels, including being unable to come to Canada, where he had been nominated to receive an honorary degree from Queen's University. "That's the only way I'll get a doctorate," Galeano joked with me once in Cuba, on the occasion of his being awarded one from the University of Havana, "Someone will have to give it to me." An invitation from the Fundación Vivián Trías in Montevideo, requesting that I participate in a forum in 2016 paying homage to Galeano, afforded me the opportunity to look back, take stock, and engage his legacy, part of which has a decidedly geographical resonance—especially in relation to the part of the world he cherished most, Latin America.

Uruguayan Origins and Guatemalan Trajectories

Born September 3, 1940, in Montevideo, Eduardo Hughes Galeano chose to be identified by his maternal surname as opposed to his paternal one, "Hughes" indicating [End Page 199] immigrant Welsh ancestry, "Galeano" Italian roots in Genoa. His formal schooling ended at age fourteen, when—according to the dustjacket of his book Guatemala: Occupied Country ([1967] 1969)—he began earning his keep, "as a bill collector, commercial artist, caricaturist, stenographer, bank clerk, and fashion-page artist," before embarking on a career in journalism with the Uruguayan weeklies El Sol and Marcha and the daily La Época. He was in his twenties in the mid-1960s when he ventured to the Oriente of Guatemala. There, in the Sierra de las Minas, a guerrilla insurgency had sprung up, led by junior officers of the national armed forces outraged by the heavy-handedness of their superiors. Idealist insurrection, however, proved no match for the clout of those long in control, whose reaction to any clamor for justice was repression in the extreme. What Galeano experienced living in Guatemala alongside the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes scarred and shaped him, for government response to any form of dissent turned out to be a harbinger—the tactic of "disappearance" but one among many—of what was to come in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, and elsewhere in Latin America. Guatemala became a model laboratory for Latin America's military dictatorships to learn from. Galeano bore witness to these horrors in Occupied Country; in Days and Nights of Love and War ([1978] 1983), a foray into creative non-fiction based on his time in Guatemala, Galeano's mastery of the literary vignette became evident. Other countries and other struggles commanded his attention, but Guatemala exerted upon him a peculiar, unrelenting hold.

It was through Guatemala that we first connected, and kept in touch thereafter. My love affair with the country began ten years or so after Galeano's when, in 1974, I found myself drawn not to the Sierra de las Minas but to the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, a remote highland area in the far northwest adjacent to the border with Mexico. The fate of Maya peoples under Spanish rule in a beautiful but tormented land was the focus of my doctoral research (Lovell [1985] 2015). In April 1991, I presented a paper at the Latin American Studies conference in Washington, DC, for which Galeano was a keynote speaker. After he had read to an enthralled...


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