Christopher Soto remembers taking joyous trips with his family to El Salvador as a young kid.

“I just remember my father driving poorly on unpaved roads in the countryside and almost taking our car off the cliff side of volcanoes,” he said. “I even helped my tío, we bought a live chicken and we took it to the rooftop and he killed the chicken and I helped him and my to prepare the chicken for dinner.”

Christopher’s parents are Salvadoran immigrants and he was born outside of Los Angeles, but he continued visiting El Salvador throughout his life. He is a poet, activist and prison abolitionist who also works at UCLA. Christopher recently published his debut poetry book Diaries of a Terrorist, which touches on subjects like the abolition of policing and prisons.

“I think that poetry does two really interesting things in the context of the abolitionist movement,” he said. “One is that poetry is hypersensitive to word choice and the particularities of language, so what that means is if you’re an abolitionist poet you’re looking at things such as the word ‘arrest’ and you’re thinking of the etymology of the word ‘arrest,’ meaning ‘to stay, to stop’ and you’re saying, ‘Is that actually what I’m witnessing, a person who’s being stopped? Or is a more appropriate definition of the action kidnapping?”

Christopher is already working on his next book and he traveled to El Salvador last summer for research, but this visit to El Salvador was noticeably different: the country was, and still is, as of March 17, under a state of exception. Since the state of exception was declared by president Nayib Bukele, in March 2022, there have been tens of thousands of mass arrests, many of them arbitrary.

“In these mass arrests, people are essentially assumed to be guilty,” he said. “If someone just says that you are gang affiliated, you can be swept into the prison system in El Salvador without any due process.”

In this episode of Latino USA, Christopher takes us to El Salvador during a state of emergency. Christopher talks about the state of fear in a country where people are getting detained arbitrarily, the importance of poetry within the abolitionist movement and the complicated relationship between the U.S. and El Salvador when it comes to incarceration culture.

Featured image courtesy of Obidigbo Nzeribe.

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