Grassroots Remembering and Narrative Building in El Salvador

When Jean-François Lyotard wrote The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, he indicated that a primary distinguishing characteristic of postmodernity has been the decline of the metanarrative. This has not, however, meant a decline in the narrative in itself as a powerful force for shaping society. Rather, an increasingly globalized context has witnessed a shift from narratives which purport universality (metanarratives) to local narratives. This shift creates an important space in which communities can take control of the process of narrative production. Rather than passively buying into oppressive narratives, communities equipped with the tools to recognize the role of those narratives in affecting their experiences can take on a more intentionally participatory role in shaping the stories which in turn shape their experiences of reality.

Today, a small community in rural El Salvador is doing just that. Aguacatal is a hamlet made up of around 100 families whose handmade homes are scattered over a mountainside. The community is nestled among the hills in what is today one of the most peaceful regions of El Salvador. The western province of Morazán is perhaps the province least affected by violence associated with the growing presence of gangs, but thirty years ago, in the throes of civil war, it was one of the most dangerous areas of the country.

Morazán was one of several regions where early organization leading to the civil war began, characterized by peasants banding together in cooperatives in an attempt to more evenly distribute the agricultural wealth of the area then being amassed in its majority by an elite oligarchy. In the late 1970s, hamlets like Aguacatal began to see the earliest stirrings of the war that was to come. In one interview I conducted while researching historical memory in Morazán, Vitalina described the early days of war:

I want to tell you about the beginning of the war. In ‘80, I was 9 years old when the first operative arrived in Morazán. It was October of 1980 when they came to my hamlet. They captured my cousin, who was 14 years old. His name was Salvador. And they tortured him, they went along for two miles torturing him, removing his body parts, leaving him, finishing him off in the street that went toward Villa El Rosario. It was sad for us. I was still just a girl. I was 9 years old, but I felt hopeless given everything that was happening. I asked my mom, “Why would they kill him?,” and she said that if today they had taken him, later it could be that one of us dies, too. [1]

Photo copyright by Augusto Vásquez

The beginning of Vitalina’s experience of war was sadly not unique among inhabitants of the area. Many young boys, some of them actively involved in the resistance but many of them not, shared her cousin Salvador’s fate, guilty of walking while young, male, and poor – a situation whose parallels to the situation of many young black men today I cannot help but draw. Much of the population of Morazán either joined the resistance, fled to the cities, or left El Salvador altogether for refugee camps in Honduras. Some young men joined the government-backed armed forces, creating a situation in which the poor could ultimately be found on both sides of the proverbial battlefield.

The war lasted a long twelve years, although the unrest and violence began several years prior to the 1980 formal commencement of war. Peace accords in 1992 established no official victor but a much-desired end to the violence, and the country slowly began piecing itself back together, resting on NGO assistance, international aid, and the abiding resilience of its individual citizens.

Aguacatal had been emptied of its inhabitants, the houses razed and the subsistence farms decimated as a result of the armed forces’ “scorched earth” method. Many of its previous residents chose to reestablish themselves in resettlement camps scattered throughout the country upon their return from Honduras rather than return to Aguacatal, but slowly the mountainside community reclaimed its sleepy, small-town character as old and new families constructed their casitas and began to farm.

As people began to rebuild their lives, some of the physical trauma of war began to heal. However, the emotional trauma lingered, and for many the act of remembering the history of suffering became an act of healing and resistance – resistance to being consumed by trauma and resistance to continued oppression. Through remembering and passing along the stories of suffering to future generations, many Salvadorans see an opportunity for their participation in the effort to keep history from repeating itself.

Exhumation of FMLN Soldier
Three men exhume the body of an FMLN soldier, to be reburied in his family’s hometown.

Today, October 26, 2013, one grassroots group of committed rememberers, the Asociación de Desarrollo Cultural Pro Rescate de la Memoria Historica de Jocoaitique, will gather to hold the eighth annual vigil in memory of their loved ones lost in the war. The same organization has exhumed burial sites of guerrillas killed in battle and given them proper burial, complete with a funeral and vigil so that their family can mourn in the embrace of the community as they were never able to do during the war. They raised funds for and erected a statue remembering those same “heroes” and “martyrs,” to use the language they have chosen themselves to describe those who died fighting among the guerrilla movement or otherwise at the hands of the government-backed armed forces.

This group of Salvadoran campesinos is onto something. The stories we tell about ourselves and our history truly do shape the reality we experience. To effect a better future, we must first imagine its possibility, and we must remember the history of suffering upon which today’s victories rest. There are no easy answers in life, and the situation in El Salvador is not perfect: we are always standing in gray area. Nevertheless, as I stand back and watch the Salvadoran community I have grown to love seize their history and remain unwavering in their hope for the future, I cannot help but be filled with hope myself.

Our pluralistic world presents us with many narratives, a slippery ground whose navigation we have not yet mastered. Certainly many pitfalls lie ahead. But to see local communities attempting to reclaim and retell the stories that shape their lives seems to me to be a successful, if small, step forward on that slick ground of multiplicity.

[1] Quiero contarle el inicio de la guerra. En 80, yo tenía nueve años cuando llegó el primer operativo a Morazán. Era en octubre del 80 cuando llegaron a mi caserío. Capturaron a un primo mío que tenía catorce años. Él se llamaba Salvador. Y lo torturaron, lo caminaron como dos kilómetros torturándolo, quitándole sus partes, su miembros, dejándolo, terminándolo de matar en la calle que iba en rumbo a Villa El Rosario. Fue triste para nosotros. Yo era una niña todavía. Tenía nueve años, pero me sentía desesperada por todo lo que estaba pasando, y yo le decía a mi mamá que por qué lo iban a matar, y ella dijo que si ahora se lo han llevado a él, después puede ser que moramos nosotros también.

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