El Salvador Rising
"The Salvadorans then had two amazing qualities, a driving individual spirit and a grace and joy about their whole personalities," despite all the carnage, Tabankin recalls. "But the killing of the nuns (in December 1980) made it an American issue," she believes. And Congress in those times, she adds, was far more progressive and activist than the current Democratic majority when confronted with evidence of US-backed death squads.
At the time, Pentagon strategists still viewed El Salvador as "an experiment, an attempt to reverse the record of American failure in waging small wars, an effort to defeat an insurgency by providing training and material support without committing American troops to combat." On the home front, however, a majority of Americans were souring on the Central American counterinsurgencies, and were flatly against sending American ground troops. The US was forced to accept a negotiated peace accord in 1992, having failed to defeat the FMLN after spending $6 billion and contributing to 90,000 deaths over a twelve-year war. Besides that failure on the battlefield, it had become idiotic to accuse the FMLN of being agents of a Soviet Union which no longer existed.
Now "Los Angeles is the second capital of El Salvador," Rosanna Perez says of the place she lives. Carlos Vaquarano was in El Salvador for countless meetings during the inauguration along with leaders of CARACEN and El Rescate. CARECEN in LA today services 65,000 immigrants with legal aid and advocacy, and has fifteen sister organizations in cities like San Francisco; Houston; Washington, DC; New York; and Boston. Salvadorans are experts at multiplying organizations; one of CARECEN's founders, Angela Sambrano, how heads the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean communities.
The irony is that in the 1980s White House communications director Pat Buchanan was promoting low-intensity warfare in Central America, while today he is a vociferous opponent of the "flood" of Central American immigrants, never acknowledging that his own administration caused their exodus.
"This country became our home in a way," says Rosanna, "but I still don't feel it is. At the end of this, we are trying to make sense of all the history. The idea of the solidarity movement was maybe a layout of something bigger, a visionary thing, preparing the path for a change to happen." She herself never sought asylum or TPS. "I refused. It was ridiculous to have to prove my husband was disappeared and I was in jail or tortured, it was inhuman to ask those questions." For the sake of her children, she decided to marry an American, the first time in 1986, for a combination of love and legal protection, and later a second time to build a family. (Her husband is a landscape architect and a friend of mine, currently advising me on pruning roses.)
Rosanna became a student, then a lecturer, at Cal State Northridge, home of the country's first Institute of Central American Studies, which serves hundreds of Salvadoran immigrants. She aspires to a master's degree in comparative literature, Spanish and English. "I have this idea of a book, always cooking in my mind, based on my strong mother and grandmother, of an indigenous woman telling a story in the 1800s, speaking in Nahuatl, Spanish and English. It's about how the conquerors altered the production of literature in El Salvador. It's about identity," she says.
While Carlos and Rosanna were being exiled in America, Leslie Schuld is an example of a solidarity activist who emigrated permanently to El Salvador. From her days in the Dayton, Ohio, CISPES chapter twenty-eight years ago, her commitment has been steadfast. It started when she was shaken while studying for her university finals during the massacres of 1981. Having seen the film Revolution or Death and heard the radical priest Father Roy Bourgeois on campus, Leslie started having serious questions about her priorities. She became a full-time CISPES organizer, including two years in Washington, DC, then moved to El Salvador after the 1992 peace accords, along with her mentor Angela Sambrano. She has lived there for sixteen years, and today directs the Center for Interchange and Solidarity (CIS), a San Salvador-based outgrowth of CISPES, which offers education, scholarships, support for women's enterprises, and continuing delegations to El Salvador. CIS, which is supported by numerous American churches and humanitarian groups, promoted the coming of hundreds of observers during the March election. When I asked Leslie to sum up the decades of solidarity work, she was quick to answer:
"We curbed any possibility of a larger escalation involving ground troops.
"We saved many lives with our urgent telexes to US and Salvadoran officials.
"We raised up awareness of human rights as a core policy issue; we ended funding for the military dictatorship; and we told who the FMLN was and what they represented, bringing up speakers and sending so many delegations here."
She had learned firsthand that social action can mean a lifetime, not a short stint on the picket lines. "It's gonna be tough," she says of the future, shrugging off the challenges. "Funes and the FMLN will need the social movements."
Note: See Jessica Levy's photos of Tom Hayden, Eduardo Linares and Eduardo Espinoza at tomhayden.com.