Eduardo Galeano: Writing to Re-think Mythologies of Memory

Always in all my books I’m trying to reveal or help to reveal the hidden greatness of the small, of the little, of the unknown — and the pettiness of the big.”

–Eduardo Galeano

Uruguayan poet, journalist and writer, Eduardo Galeano, is one of the most widely read literary figures of the 20th century.  He is read in many history classes, as well as third-world activism classes and workshops and Latin American studies courses.  His works are the telling of stories in ways that break down ‘the usual’ and shift the imagination of social breakdown and social change.  His most well-known works, which propelled his writings into larger international fields, are Memory of Fire (1986) and The Open Veins of Latin America (1971).   He makes use of his political analysis as a historian and journalist, to bring his activism forward as one who opens the can of development and neo-colonization to the fore.  He presents it not as an easy North versus South battle because there has now been internalized colonization and the shift of cultural myths and memory.  His most pointed method for telling his stories toward the evocation of the will for change, is through the actions of our memory/amnesia.

He is one of my favorite authors, and like many, consider him to be one of the most important scholar/writers of the 20th century to the present, and always into the future.  His Memory of Fire Trilogy, beginning with Genesis, and his Mirrors: The Stories of Almost Everyone are among the most creative, profound and historical of his works as he continues to work for change in the recovery of forgotten histories and the complexities, dominations, and oppressions of our times.

Below are Exerpts from Interviews with Eduardo Galeano by Danish journalist Niels Boel for UNESCO courier

On Globalization:

This is not a new phenomenon, but a trend that dates back a long while. Globalization has considerably accelerated in recent years following the dizzying expansion of communications and transport and the equally stupefying transnational mergers of capital. We must not confuse globalization with “internationalism” though. We know that the human condition is universal, that we share similar passions, fears, needs and dreams, but this has nothing to do with the “rubbing out” of national borders as a result of unrestricted capital movements. One thing is the free movement of peoples, the other of money. This can be seen very clearly in such places as the border between Mexico and the United States which hardly exists as far as the flow of money and goods is concerned. Yet it stands as a kind of Berlin Wall or Great Wall of China when it comes to stopping people from getting across.

The Right to Choose One’s Own Food:

The perfect symbol of globalization is the success of firms like McDonald’s, which opens five new restaurants around the world each day. For me there is something more significant than the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was the queue of Russians outside McDonald’s on Moscow’s Red Square as the so-called “iron curtain”—which turned out be more like a “mashed potato curtain”— was coming down.
The “McDonaldization” of the world is planting plastic food in the four corners of the planet. But the success of McDonald’s has at the same time inflicted a kind of open wound on one of the most basic human rights, the right to choose our own food. The stomach is part of the human soul. The mouth is its gateway. Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are. It’s not about how much you eat but what and how you choose to do so. How people prepare food is an important part of their cultural identity. It matters greatly to poor or even very poor people, who have little or no food but who respect traditions that turn the trivial act of barely eating into a small ritual.

Against Standardization:

The best side of the world is that it contains many worlds within itself. Such cultural diversity, which is the heritage of all humanity, appears in the different ways people eat, but also in how they think, feel, dream, talk and dance.
There’s a very marked trend towards the standardization of cultural behaviour. But there is also a backlash by people who endorse differences that are worth preserving. Emphasizing cultural differences, not social ones, is what gives humankind its many concurrent faces instead of just a single one. In the face of this avalanche of forced standardization, there have been very healthy reactions alongside the odd crazy ones springing from religious fanaticism and other desperate attempts to affirm identity. I don’t think we’re at all doomed to live in a world where the only choice is between dying of hunger or dying of boredom.

Identity on the Move:

Cultural identity isn’t like a precious vase standing silently in a museum showcase. It’s always moving, changing and being challenged by reality that is itself in perpetual movement. I am what I am, but I’m also what I do to change what I am. There’s no such thing as cultural purity, any more than there is racial purity.
Luckily, every culture is made up of some elements that come from afar. What defines a cultural product—whether it be a book, a song, a popular saying or a way of playing football—is never where it comes from but what it is. A typical Cuban drink like a daiquiri has nothing Cuban in it: the ice comes from somewhere else, just like the lemon, the sugar and the rum. Christopher Columbus first brought sugar to the Americas from the Canary Islands. Yet the daiquiri is considered quintessentially Cuban. The churro fritters of Andalusia originated in the Middle East. Italian pasta first came from China. Nothing can be defined or derided on the basis of its origin. The important thing is what is done with it and how far a community identifies with something that symbolizes its favourite way of dreaming, living, dancing, playing or loving.
This is the positive side of the world: a constant intermingling that produces new responses to new challenges. But because of forced globalization, there’s a clear trend these days towards uniformity. This trend comes largely from the ever-greater concentration of power in the hands of large media groups.

Hope for the Future:  the Internet and Community Radio:

the right to speak? And how many people have the right to speak? These questions are very closely connected with the battering that cultural diversity is currently suffering.
Opportunities for independent activity in the world of communications have been greatly reduced. The dominant media groups are imposing doctored and distorted news along with a vision of the world that tends to become accepted as the only one possible. It’s like reducing a face that has millions of eyes to the standard two.
What does seem promising is the dawn of the Internet, one of those paradoxes that keeps hope alive. It sprang from the need to coordinate global military strategy—in other words, to serve the cause of war and death. But it is now the forum for a myriad of voices that were barely noticed before. Today they are heard and networks can be created using this new tool.
It’s true that the Internet can also be used towards commercial ends or to manipulate people. But the network has definitely opened up very important areas of freedom for expressing independent views, which tend to be ignored by television and the print media.
Good things are happening in radio too. The growth of community radio stations in Latin America is encouraging a much wider spectrum of people to express themselves. Talking to people about what is happening is not the same thing as listening to their own voices recounting their lives, when this is possible and when freedom of expression is respected.

End and Means:

In Ancient Greece, knives were convicted along with the murderer. When a knife was used in a crime, the judges threw it into a river. We must not confuse the means with the end. Latin America’s misfortune is that the U.S. model of commercial television has taken root. We’ve learned nothing from the European television model, which is geared towards different ends. In countries such as Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, television still plays a very enriching and important cultural role thanks to a degree of public ownership—even though it’s not as strong these days. Here in Latin America, by virtue of the North American television model, anything that sells is good and what doesn’t is bad.

The Indigenous Struggle:

One of the great hidden strengths and energy sources in Latin America is the people, who have expressed themselves through the revival of indigenous movements and the tremendous force of the values they stand for. These values are about harmony with nature and sharing lives in communities not focused on greed. They are values drawn from the past but which speak for the future and are relevant for all of us today. They are widely shared because they are values everyone needs to grasp in a world where compassion and solidarity have been seriously wounded in recent years and in some cases destroyed. Ours is a world focused on selfishness, on a belief in “everyone looking out for their own self.”

People and Land:

Five centuries ago, people in Latin America were taught to separate nature from Man—or so-called Man—which in fact meant men and women. Nature was placed on one side, human beings on the other. The same divorce took place the world over.
Many of the indigenous people burned alive for worshipping idols were simply the environmentalists of their time who were practising the only kind of ecology that seems worthwhile to me—an ecology of communion with nature. Harmony with nature and a communal approach to life ensured the survival of ancient indigenous values despite five centuries of persecution and contempt.
For centuries, nature was seen as a beast that had to be tamed—as a foreign enemy and a traitor. Now that we’re all “greens,” thanks to deceitful advertising based on words rather than deeds, nature has become something to be protected. But whether nature is to be protected or mastered and exploited for profit, it’s still seen as separate from us.
We have to recover this sense of communion with nature. Nature is not a landscape, it’s something inside us, something we live with. I’m not just talking about forests, but about everything to do with the reverence for the natural that the indigenous people of the Americas have and always have had. They see nature as sacred in the sense that every harm we cause turns against us one day or another. So every crime becomes a suicide. This can be seen in the large cities of Latin America, which are bad copies of those in the developed world where it’s just about impossible to walk or breathe clean air. We’re living in a world whose air, water and soil are poisoned. But most of all, our minds are poisoned. I truly wish that we could manage to summon up enough energy to heal ourselves.

Memory as a Catapult:

In my book Days and Nights of Love and War, I’ve asked myself whether our memories will allow us to be happy. I still have no answer. There’s a North American novel in which a great-grandfather meets his great-grandson. The old man remembers nothing because he’s lost his memory. He’s senile. His thoughts are as colourless as water. The grandson doesn’t have any memories because he’s too young. As I read the novel, I thought: “This is bliss.”
But this is not the happiness I’m after. I want happiness that comes from both remembering and from fighting against remembering. A happiness that includes the sadness, pain and injury of experience but also goes forward. Not memory that works like an anchor, but like a catapult. Not a memory that you just arrive at, but one that’s a launch pad.
There’s an American indigenous tradition found in the islands of the Pacific, in Canada and also places like Chiapas, in Mexico. It goes like this: when a master potter gives up his trade because his hands are no longer steady and his eyesight is failing, there’s a ceremony at which he presents his best pot, his masterpiece, to a young potter just starting out. The apprentice takes the flawless pot and smashes it into a thousand pieces on the ground. He then picks them up and mixes them into his own stock of clay. That’s the kind of memory I believe in.


I find it hard to categorize any of the books I’ve written. It’s difficult to draw the line between fiction and fact. What I like best is telling stories. I feel I’m a storyteller. I give and take, back and forth. I listen to voices and transform them through the creative act into a story, an essay, a poem, a novel. I try to combine genres to go beyond the standard divisions and convey a complete message because I believe you can create such a synthesis with human language.
There’s no divide between journalism and literature. Literature is the totality of written messages that a society produces in whichever form it chooses. You can always say what you feel like saying, whether as a journalist or a writer. Good journalism can also be fine literature as José Marti, Carlos Quijano, Rodolfo Walsh and many others have shown.
I’ve always been a journalist and want to continue because once you enter the magic world of newspaper offices, who can pull you out again? You are taught how to be brief, to summarize—an interesting exercise for someone who wants to write about so many things. You’re also forced to come out of your little world to face reality and dance to the tune of others. You have to get out and listen to people. But there’s a downside, mainly the urgency. Sometimes when I’m writing I get stuck on a word and spend three hours looking for another. That’s one luxury journalism couldn’t afford to give me.

Dreams and Vigilance:

My only task is to try to reveal a masked reality, to write about what we see and what remains hidden. It is a reality that comes from being on watch, a false reality, sometimes a deceptive one, but also one capable of telling unknown or rarely heard truths.
There’s no magic formula for changing reality unless we start by looking at it as it is. To transform it, you have to begin by accepting it. This is the problem in Latin America. We still cannot see that. We are blind towards our own selves because we have been trained to see through the eyes of others. The mirror only reflects an opaque glint, and nothing more.

And Football:

All Uruguayans are born shouting “goal” and that’s why there’s always such a tremendous racket in our maternity wards. I wanted to be a football player like all Uruguayan boys. I started playing when I was eight years old but I was no good at it because I was so clumsy. The ball and I never got along. It was a case of unrequited love. I was also a disaster in another way. When an opposing team played a good game, I’d go and congratulate them—an unforgivable sin in the rules of modern football.

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