The Last Gift of Eduardo Galeano: Stories of History for the Sake of the Future

Eduardo Galeano at a bookstore in Vizenza, Italy, September 11, 2008.Eduardo Galeano at a bookstore in Vizenza, Italy, September 11, 2008. (Photo: Mariela De Marchi Moyano / Flickr)

Journalist and historian Eduardo Galeano frequently confessed that he was obsessed with remembering. On accepting the 1999 Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom, he explained, “I tried to find a way of recounting history so that the reader would feel that it was happening right now, just around the corner—this immediacy, this intensity.”

That account is an apt description of Galeano’s last book, Children of the Days, first published in Spanish in 2011, and now available in English in paperback. A “calendar of human history,” the book consists of lyrically composed historical vignettes, so characteristic of Galeano’s style, each connected to a specific day in the year.

Knowledge of the past can be a source of power, but, in Galeano’s view, human history does not center exclusively on “great men” and potent institutions. The diversity of topics he selects to remember includes everything from bicycles and chess to kissing and whistling, right alongside state executions and public health. In this way, he imparts a simple but profound lesson about the crucial links among understanding the past, our capacity to choose, and the pursuit of justice: “Knowing the before lets you create a different after.”

The book begins and ends with fire. In the January 2 entry, he recounts the 1492 fall of Granada – “the last Spanish kingdom where mosques, churches, and synagogues could live side by side in peace.” He links the burning of Muslim books under order of the Holy Inquisition with the fate of America’s indigenous peoples. The final entry, for December 31, recalls the figure of Quintus Serenus Sammonicus, physician to two Roman emperors and “owner of the best library of his time.” In 208, Serenus Sammonicus proposed an infallible way to avoid fever and keep death at bay: Always keep the magical word “Abracadabra” close. From ancient Hebrew, Galeano reports, the term means, “Give your fire until the last of your days.”

Across the year, Galeano offers his inimitable perspective on well-known dates, including May Day, famous peoples’ birthdays, and celebrated events, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Other entries in Galeano’s year recover what Noam Chomsky (adopting George Orwell) has called “unhistory” – events otherwise forgotten or marginalized because they were inconsequential or inconvenient for history’s official narratives. September 18, for example, was the day in 1915 that Susan La Flesche died. Galeano remembers La Flesche as the first indigenous woman to graduate from medical school in the United States. She combined “medicine learned with knowledge inherited” so that the lives of her people would “hurt less and last longer.”

Similarly, Galeano reminds us that April 9, 2011, was the date when the people of Iceland said, “No!” to the International Monetary Fund, while his entry for April 19 recounts the ongoing but grossly underreported plight of the Sahrawi, “children of the clouds.” Since 1987, a wall built and guarded by Moroccan soldiers has prevented the nomadic Sahrawi from inhabiting their historical homelands. Since time immemorial, Galeano reports, Sahrawi people have pursued the clouds that give rain. “They also pursue justice, which is harder to find than water in the desert.”

Justice hinges on knowing our histories. “What process of change can urge forward a people which doesn’t know who it is nor where it comes from?” he asked in a 1977 essay “In Defence of the Word.”

For Galeano, that process began early in life through journalism. At 14, he penned political cartoons for El Sol, the weekly newspaper of Uruguay’s socialist party. Later in life, he interviewed the most famous leaders of the Americas including Castro, Perón, Allende, and Chávez.

A masterful storyteller, Galeano authored more than 40 books, many of them translated into multiple languages. His three-volume Memory of Fire (1982-1986) tracked the Americas from pre-Columbian times to the present and was regarded as a tour de force. At the 2009 Summit of the Americas, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez publicly gave Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America (1971) to President Obama. The book, which had been banned by rightwing governments in Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile, became a best seller. Galeano loved fútbol and his Soccer in Sun and Shadow (1995) was reviewed as “the most lyrical sports book ever written” by NPR. In 2013, The Guardian characterized Galeano as “the poet laureate of the anti-globalisation movement.”

Galeano gave fire to the last of his days. He died on April 13, 2015, at 74. Children of the Days serves as a cherished capstone for those who already know and love his work and as an exhilarating introduction to those encountering him for the first time. Galeano will be remembered around the world as a champion of human liberation through solidaristic action. It remains to us to fulfill the legacy he leaves, by pursuing justice with the same immediacy and intensity that he conveyed history.