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An activist and artist examines policing, incarceration and trauma — through poetry

In "Diaries of a Terrorist," Salvadoran American Christopher Soto takes an unflinching and raw view of current systems' impact on Latino and other communities — and imagines "a more just, caring, and equitable world.”
Image: Salvadoran American poet and activist, Christopher Soto.
Salvadoran American poet and activist Christopher Soto. Obidigbo Nzeribe / Courtesy of Copper Canyon Press

The written word and its power have long fascinated poet Christopher Soto. “I started writing poetry in the first grade,” he said, “so I always knew I wanted to write. Basically, writing has been an obsession for me.”

Soto, 31, is garnering widespread praise for his debut poetry collection, “Diaries of a Terrorist,” that takes on violence, policing and trauma.

“The heart of the book is to create a world without policing and human caging,” said Soto, who identifies as nonbinary and uses the pronouns he/they. “As poets, we are daydreamers, the people who imagine the world as we want it to be.”

"Diaries of a Terrorist" by Christopher Soto.
"Diaries of a Terrorist" by Christopher Soto.Courtesy of Copper Canyon Press

 Sometimes described as an abolitionist, Soto writes in one poem:

   Dear police

   Trust means I give you the gun

   You don’t shoot

   It’s not something you deserve

   To be trusted

The Salvadoran American artist and activist grew up outside Los Angeles. By high school, he’d started a slam poetry club and ventured into performing their work.

Soto’s view of policing has been shaped in part by personal experience. A survivor of domestic violence, Soto saw firsthand how inadequate the current justice system was for addressing such problems.

“When I was going through domestic violence, I needed safe housing near my school, I needed food, I needed access to mental health services," Soto said. "What I didn’t need and would never want was for my father to be incarcerated.” 

As a child, one of Soto’s uncles was incarcerated and would send letters with drawings made in prison to Soto’s older cousin. This cousin later became an artist and taught Soto that a life in the arts was possible. The arts, as mediated by experiences with policing and prisons, is intergenerational for his family.

Soto cited statistics from RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) that show that only 2.5% of sexual assaults lead to incarceration. “If only 3% lead to incarceration, why are we so heavily invested in police and prisons? What about the other 97% of victims of sexual assaults ... shouldn’t we be investing in systems that help them, rather than relying on a prison framework that re-perpetuates systems of violence?” 

According to a Pew Research Center report last year, a growing share of Americans want more spending on police in their area. Among Latinos, 46% said that police spending in their area should be increased, 16% believed that it should be decreased, and 37% thought it should remain the same. Although calls to defund the police spread in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing in 2020, since then even Democrats have moved away from embracing this approach.

Polling and popular sentiment do not faze Soto. “I don’t feel distracted by what other people are doing. My obligation as a poet is not to work on legislative strategy. My obligation is to imagine a more just, caring, and equitable world.”

Soto has written for The New York Times and The Nation, and is a co-founder of the Undocupoets Campaign, which successfully lobbied publishers to remove proof of citizenship requirements from some book contests.

A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, Soto also co-founded Writers for Migrant Justice, to protest the detention and separation of migrant families.

“I see (Soto’s) poetry as activism, and I also perceive their activism as poetry,” said Myriam Gurba Serrano, acclaimed writer and author of “Mean.” I think their work has a prophetic character to it.”

“I think that (Soto’s) work walks a tightrope,” Serrano Gurba added. “It achieves playfulness while at the same time maintaining gravitas, especially as that gravitas relates to the violence that minoritized communities face in the U.S. and abroad.”

Changing the one-dimensional view of El Salvador

Through their work, Soto also hopes to disrupt the narrative around El Salvador. “I want to push back on the idea that America is so exceptional, and that El Salvador is a void of queer culture and poetry. In a lot of ways, I feel like my life is fuller there than it is here.”

While there is persecution of transgender community in El Salvador, Soto pointed out that anti-transgender violence and legislation is happening across the U.S. as well.

When it comes to Salvadorans, Soto believes the U.S. media is fixated on violence and deaths. “I feel like, for the media, it is easier to talk about our deaths — rather than the breadth of our lives, the beauty we produce, and joy we share, as a people, when we are together.”

El Salvador is home to over 6.4 million people, and there are roughly 2.3 million Latinos of Salvadoran origin in the U.S.

Soto is not alone in feeling that Salvadorans are often narrowly portrayed and associated with violence. 

“There is a deep history of seeing Central Americans as victims of violence or as actual gang members, like MS-13,” journalist Roberto Lovato said. He said that this view usually excludes the fact that the primary engine of violence in El Salvador is state violence.

“Salvadorans are like an inconvenient truth for the U.S.,” Lovato said. El Salvador is rarely discussed in depth in U.S. media because, he explained, that would shine an unpleasant light on our country role in creating instability in the region. “It is rare to even have Central Americans, or people of Central American heritage, telling their own story. I am happy to hear that young people (like Soto) are telling more love-soaked, and not blood-soaked, stories.”

Currently working on a novel, Soto intends to keep writing their truth and expressing themself.

“I view myself as being an activist and an artist for life. Whether we are ’winning’ or ‘losing,’ I am going to be doing the same work to support Central Americans, queer and trans communities, working- class people and incarcerated people,” he said. “No matter the landscape, I will be doing that work.”

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