A Brief but Decisive Moment in San Francisco's Long History of Entrepreneurial Innovation
If someone cared to try I could probably be convinced that murdered revolutionaries from the 19th century are returning on social media to take spectral revenge on the systems that brought them down. There are more far-fetched things in the world. Really, anything is possible – right? – and after having spent most of my life as a skeptic (of many and most things) I must now concede that all hyper-complex things are full of ghosts. How could they not be?
Ghosts don’t really have forms, are not volumetric. They do have names and patterns and impulses. They coalesce just shy of voice. They are both abstract and utterly particular, dense with detail, convoluted. But not figurative. No, they are not kitsch — not walking bronzes decoupled from gravity. They are avant-garde, that is, they do not matter any more, radically anachronistic, wicked into thought as into a shelf of sea-sponges, and they like taking presence in small grammars and thickets of code and coil and circuit and concept. Self-strewn beings who act with an awareness of the distances through which they measure themselves.
As an example, here is a twitter account belonging to Gerardo Barrios, leader of the army that in 1860 defeated William Walker, the San Francisco entrepreneur who crowned himself sovereign ruler of Nicaragua in order to try and makeover all of Central America into his own slave-owning empire. The plan was a corporate-backed hedge against the dim future of slavery in the US and simultaneously a move against competing European interests. To accomplish this, Walker put together an SF dream-team of logisticians, consultants and UX specialists, and they called themselves “the 57 Immortals.”
There’s a pretty bad movie from 1987 starring Ed Harris as William Walker, but much much much much much better is the following 1974 experimental-documentary-historical poem by Roque Dalton. I just recently finished translating this poem after it has sat around on my hard-drive for about a decade half-translated.
If you’re not familiar with Dalton, he was a poet from El Salvador.
A leftist militant, he went underground in Cuba in 1961. After disguising himself with plastic surgery he returned to El Salvador in 1965. He was taken prisoner and was about to be executed when an earthquake hit and the prison that held him crumbled, so he slipped into a passing religious procession and escaped. He was killed, however, a few years later by his own Leftist militant group, who mistakenly accused him of being a CIA mole based on information that may have been planted by the CIA.
Why didn’t I finish translating the poem? I can’t quite say. I love it very much. Maybe I figured, cynically, that nobody has time for long oddly plainspoken historical poems nowadays. So, I must admit the fucking Internet is probably not a great place for this poem to live. But I would like it to live as many places as possible. For the lucky few of you that will read it all the way through to the end, I thank and congratulate you. I’m glad you get to look at it in its splendor (slightly tarnished by my so-so translation) before it’s washed back into the liquid crystal depths of the attention mega-economy.
Before the poem, though, I’d like to introduce its large cast of characters, just for the sake of readerly clarity.
First there is the “filibustering” (filibuster is the 19th century word for immersive live-gaming start-up) William Walker. San Francisco wonder-boy looking to develop mid-continent human capital with venture funds from J.P Morgan and from the 5th mayor of San Francisco, Cornelius Garrison.
Then there is Francisco Morazán, who successfully united all of Central America as the Federal Republic of Central America, of which he was president from 1830-1839. Part of his idea was that a united Central America would be a large and resource-rich nation, to hold its own, economically and militarily, against the United States.
Rafael Carrera, president of Guatemala on and off between 1851 and 1865. Loved the theater and loved his friend King Leopold I of Belgium. Made sure the Federal Republic of Central America didn’t last very long.
Cornelius Vanderbilt: rich guy who wanted to build a shipping canal through Nicaragua.
Cornelius Garrison – the wide-jawed 5th mayor of San Francisco. Principal stockholder of Accessory Transit Company. Also wanted a canal in Nicaragua. Financial backer of William Walker.
Francisco Dueñas, president of El Salvador, on and off between 1851-1871.
And J.P. Morgan, rich guy with a lot of decorative abdominal jewelry.
1856-1865 by Roque Dalton
Filibustering Northamerican William Walker
took possession of Nicaragua.
His army was composed of adventurers
recruited on the piers of San Francisco,
to serve, among other things, the interests of
who saw in Central America
a possibility of shelter and imperial continuity
from the vantage point of their imminent defeat in the United
Walker elected himself President of Nicaragua,
decreed the confiscation of the goods of all
declared English the official language of the whole
and reestablished the enslavement of blacks,
which had been abolished by the federal law of
Of course Walker was not an absolute pioneer in
and it’s clear that the slavers of the south
Weren’t the first to lay eyes on
“The San Juan River Pass was much utilized then
from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans. The Accessory Transit
Company, owner of the ships that
belonged to a large Wall St. consortium.
Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan, and other capitalists were its
Moreover these consortiums controlled all the exports
coffee, cotton, bananas, and premium materials of
Central America, and they were owners
of the gold and silver mines.”
The North and South of the American Union were incarnated
William Walker came to deliver testimony of the dollar
so that, by means of it, all might believe.
He was like the John the Baptist of Imperialism.
John the Baptist with a dagger between his teeth.
All over Central America chaos and anarchy reigned.
All over Central America liberals fought against
Or, in other words, the conservatives—already established and
by President-for-life of Guatemala,
Rafael Carrera, ex-breeder of pigs—
set out to exterminate all the liberals of the region.
The liberals believed that out of the chaos would rise
freedom, on the other side of the struggle.
The conservatives believed that the chaos, the worst chaos,
England, for its part, disputed the United States’
right to construct, in Nicaragua, the
The liberals of Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, and El
united all of Central America in the struggle against the gringo
and they poured into it
all the weight of war,
which, to the conservatives, was just fine.
England leaned opportunistically on the liberals
And the United States snorted: “All attempts on the
the European states to extend their
into America will be taken as threats to
and to the security of the continent.” America
belongs to northamericans, they wanted to say.
“The Route of the San Juan River would open the whole region
to northamerican capital: Walker
was the best guarantee of the operation.”
See, in the United States the northamericans were
between slavers and anti-slavers. In Central America
one slaver represented all northamericans.
For Central America all northamericans were
that is, until Lincoln, the friend.
When the liberals got news of him
they united in the name of all Central America in the
in the campaign’s decisive phase the chief
of the Salvadoran forces who went to combat against
William Walker was
Captain-General Don Gerardo Barrios.
Of the war against the Yankee, Barrios had this to say:
“No sacrifice, however great,
can be spared in the accomplishment of the single most holy
cause we central-americans have had since
our political liberation.”
“My government knows, and the Salvadoran people also
that we dispute the filibustering Yankee
the political existence of the Central American
the national honor,
the institutions and public liberties,
the very existence of our race.”
“A manly force, proper to the cause we
and proper to the population and wealth of these republics,
is sufficient to frighten this enemy who has grown
bold because he ignores
the capacities of people who love their liberty
and governments that are aware of the duties with which they are
And still more:
“Yes, in spite of everything, Central America
has had to succumb so that it would not be ours anymore,
so that its children would perish with glory defending it.
That we are conquered is not important
except that in it there is neither honor, nor love, nor liberty.”
With these arguments, Gerardo Barrios gained
until the ultra-conservative Guatemaltecos
who couldn’t negate him without unmasking themselves before their
were also inflamed with holy wrath against the invader.
By the united people of
the Yankee was vanquished in blood and fire, with the flash of the weapons, in a massive
and Northamerica learned a lesson:
direct military intervention – it concluded –
is not the first recourse to use but the
So, in the epoch of modern nation states
the conquest of a nation should be made from the inside of
“Or, if it were, stranger, that you have to cross the heart
of a nation
you do not do it with your lance,
you accomplish it instead with the mast of its own flag.”
Besides, in each Central American nation there were groups of
ready to serve at the front lines for any
stranger who could pay them enough
and in moving forward it would be much better that the filibusterers
had names like
Carrera, Dueñas, Regalado, Somoza:
in all cases, the last recourse was always there
in the back pocket.
Captain General Gerardo Barrios thought
That the lesson in victory against the filibuster
it clearly showed that only a united Central America
like that for which Morazán fought
could be a strong front against the greed of the
After assuming the presidency of El Salvador, he said:
“Suppose we enter a certain calm after the
of Walker’s expedition, we could employ this time
to concentrate ourselves on the future
and not only to quickly conserve the integrity
of our territory
but also to insure the interior peace, under which singular base
the country might prosper.”
He added: “I know now the condition of the republics of
They are not well because they do not have the means for secure existence
I will say it once: they are parodies of nations and their governments too
I have the right to say it because I am the present chief of a
And I have travelled the world, through Europe well as through
And I am very familiar with the nature of nations and governments
and this is why I believe we are ridiculousness personified
in the eyes of the wider world’s political beings.”
But Barrios did not have in mind the Central America of Carrera and of
nor of the Central America of the Bishops and the British
Barrios was thinking of the Central America united by what
Morazán fought for,
the great nation of the workers,
the nation of liberty and equality.
With this in mind he began to lead by example:
he declared the separation of Church and State, and of
He initiated judicial reform and brought French teachers
for the schools
He reorganized the military, created the Salvadoran merchant
and ordered the intensive cultivation of coffee.
The Central American conservatives declared war
first they provoked the Bishops to represent the Salvadoran
as a heretic.
And then they commanded the invasion of the combined
armies of Guatemala and Honduras.
Exterior aggression and conservative fifth column.
It was this way of defeating Barrios
which instituted the methods of CONDECA throughout
the past century,
the Guatemalan ex-pig-breeder
then installed as Salvadoran president ,for the seventh time,
Francisco Dueñas, otherwise known as the Friar, father of
Barrios and Salvadoran and Central American liberalism
would remain forever marked by the scars of this
Barrios had to go into exile.
called out by Dueñas as guilty of high treason,
and he suffered the confiscation of all his property and titles
First he went to the United States,
where the State Department denied him all aid, so
he went to live in Costa Rica.
When Rafael Carrera died, on April 14th 1865,
the Salvadoran liberals who had resisted him
believed the moment had come for Barrios to return
to El Salvador.
On the return voyage, while passing through the port of
Corinto, in Nicaragua,
he was captured and delivered by the Nicaraguan government
into the hands of his mortal enemy, Francisco Dueñas, The
who had him shot on the early morning of August 29th
before the people of San Salvador awoke
and especially the people of the barrios, like at Calvary.
In front of the Ceiba tree where they shot him, sitting on a
just about to die, Barrios prayed the
“Thy will be done in heaven
and in El Salvador the will be done of Archbishop
and President Dueñas, my murderers.”
After this death
the liberals started becoming conservatives in
The people continued fighting in obscurity,
looking for a new form of thought with which
to fight in the new era
for the Great Nation and Unity of Morazán,
that of the liberty and equality of the workers,
who were no longer foreigners but ourselves.
That thought exists.
It is paid for with blood
and it is what will connect our people with our
and with all the peoples of the earth.