Gendering Exclusion in El Salvador
What if our blindness toward other people also produces a tragic blindness toward God, the Other?
– Joerg Rieger, God and the Excluded, x
In my junior year at Xavier University, I was given the opportunity to design my own research project, made possible through a fellowship from the Edward B. Brueggeman Center for Dialogue. I spent the year intensively studying Spanish, Salvadoran history, and liberation theology in preparation for a summer spent researching historical memory and grassroots narrative production on the ground in El Salvador. The following spring, alongside six other fellows, I presented my research before my family, professors, and fellow students.
One slide in my presentation was a collage of photos of the individuals I had interviewed. Seeing all of the faces on one screen made uncomfortably apparent the lopsided gender distribution among my interviewees. Only six of the twenty-one people whose stories I recorded were women.
I believe whole-heartedly in the power of storytelling. By having the power to tell our own stories, we can infuse histories of personal and collective suffering with meaning. By listening to the stories of others, we can validate their experiences, gain perspectives on our own, and collaborate in preventing histories of suffering from repeating themselves. I went to El Salvador hoping that the act of listening necessary for my research would also create a space of empowerment for those telling their stories. However, looking at this photo conglomeration now, I feel that I did not listen to the people whose versions of history are most excluded.
Vitalina, whose story I referenced in an earlier blog post, hosted me in El Salvador and was one of my closest friends there. One day in June of 2012, I made the hour-long bus trip with her to the Museum of the Salvadoran Revolution in Perquín, which housed an impressive collection of photographs and newspaper clippings, anti-war posters, and weapons from the Salvadoran civil war (1980-1992). Vitalina fought in the civil war on the side of the revolutionary movement, and as I walked through the exhibits in the museum alongside her, she would volunteer anecdotes about different items. This, she would tell me, was the type of gun she carried. That was the type of radio she used as a radio operator.
I was much less interested in learning about weapons for their own sake than for their role in Vitalina’s story, so I rapidly lost interest when a museum guide began hovering in our vicinity, interrupting Vitalina when she would try to share something. He talked over her, asserting his version of history over hers. It was particularly uncomfortable because his version was not substantially different from hers: both offered perspectives that cast a favorable light on the guerrilla forces rather than the state-sponsored armed forces, and the facts were more or less the same. He did not seem to interrupt her because he disagreed with her, but because he perceived himself as the more authoritative voice. While it is entirely possible that he derived this sense of authority merely from the fact that he worked at the museum, the interaction nevertheless pointed toward a more general trend I witnessed in this corner of rural El Salvador, where women’s voices are largely excluded from the narrative-shaping forces, even at the grassroots level.
An examination of the structures of the Spanish language and their use raises interesting questions around this idea of exclusion and inclusion. In El Salvador, there are two ways to address someone in the second person: that is, there are two ways to say “you.” In formal, polite interactions, the word usted is used, whereas in more familiar relationships the informal vos (or sometimes tú) is used. To put it another way, if I am asking my professor, “Do you feel all right?” I would say, “¿Usted se siente bien?”. If I am asking my younger brother the same questions, I would say, “¿Vos te sientes bien?”. The questions would be translated into English identically, but one (usted) is more polite, and the other (vos) is casual. I observed that the culture of the rural province of Morazán uses usted in most situations, including many situations where their urban counterparts would have opted for vos (children addressing parents, for example, or neighbors borrowing sugar).
To add another layer of analysis, men and women seem to use different criteria in selecting usted and vos. Though my observations are admittedly anecdotal, based primarily on the speech patterns of the few families with whom I spent the most time, I believe they are indicative of general society. Women seem to generally select the familiar vos with only a few groups of people, specifically their children, their spouses, and their siblings. Men select vos in those same settings, but with the important addition of their male friends. In younger generations of women, I observed some deviation from this pattern, but, generally speaking, middle-aged women did not use vos with non-family. As an outsider and non-native speaker, I do not presume to understand the reasons behind the differing selections of vos and usted among men and women in rural El Salvador. However, it raises interesting questions of inclusion and belonging. If addressing someone informally implies a close relationship, or at least a comfortable, amicable one, is society structured in such a way that men have more opportunities to form those relationships outside of the family context?
My experience suggests that, in the particular community where I lived, they often do. In the house where I lived, Vitalina spent the day doing work in the house. Occasionally her brothers and extended family would stop by to visit, but the only non-family visitors were usually friends of her children or women offering bread for sale. Cleaning and cooking kept Vitalina busy for most of the day. Like most men, Abraham, Vitalina’s spouse, worked outside of the house. His job required him to interact with people from the broader community. At the end of the work day, he would usually spend a few hours playing cards and socializing with his male friends before descending the steep footpath that led to their house. As a result of the gender norms to which most people in this particular village strictly adhered, placing men in the community and women in the household, women by default were more isolated from extra-familial community bonds.
Unfortunately, it was not uncommon that their isolation was more deliberately enforced by spouses. Though physical spousal violence against women in El Salvador has decreased since it was outlawed after the civil war, many men still exert their control over their wives, forbidding them to leave to go into the city alone, for example. This is made possible by loyalty networks of male eyes and ears serving as constant critics and informants on the behavior of women. I was on an outing with one woman from my village when she received a text message from her husband in the United States that he knew where she was. It was not so much a rebuke as a reminder of his omnipotence and control.
How might the isolation, either by default or enforced, of women from the broader community contribute to the exclusion of their voices from the narrative production process? It is in the context of playing cards with friends or selling goods in the market that stories are spun and versions of history are asserted. Of course, there are public spaces where women do play an important role. Women are often highly involved in their church congregations, and, although it was not the experience of the women to whom I was closest, many women work in the market, interacting with a multitude of customers every day. Nevertheless, at the end of three months, I saw how my failure to intentionally include the stories of women gave me an overall male version of history in my research.
As a student of theology, I left El Salvador with a newly nuanced understanding of who is at the margins of history. Rather than an abstract, decontextualized commitment to the excluded voices of “the poor,” I understand now the importance of a commitment to the poorest of the poor, the most excluded of the excluded. In God and the Excluded: Visions and Blindspots in Contemporary Theology, Joerg Rieger asserts that the “crisis of theology is not primarily an intellectual crisis, as many theologians still think, but the fact that we have separated ourselves from most of humanity” (4). He adds later that “simply trying to alleviate the results of exclusion without facing our own complicity will no longer do” (10). Though my work will never be perfect, I want to minimize my complicit role in perpetuating structures of exclusion and do theology for authentic liberation.
Editor’s Note: I am delighted to publish Anna’s very thoughtful and aptly challenging post especially on this day, March 24, which marks the 34th anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Thank you, Anna.
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