In Izalco, El Salvador, an idyllic but very poor village nestled under the gaze of the great volcano of the same name, I asked Juliana Ama to help me understand how the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the guerrillas-turned-political-party, had managed to triumph over the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) in the presidential election on March 15, ending the right-wing party’s twenty-year reign. Ama guided me to a dusty, football field-size dirt lot adjacent to a church. The 61-year-old schoolteacher said nothing at first, staring meditatively at a round spot blackened by a campfire or some burnt offering. Then she said simply, “It’s our dead.”
Her explanation lacked the revolutionary bravado and the análisis político heard from chain-smoking former guerrilla commanders and Facebook-using radical students in San Salvador, the capital. Instead, she threw open her arms and said, “Most of the people killed in the Matanza [the Great Killing] are buried here.” Before us lay the remains of many of the 20,000 to 30,000 mostly indigenous Pipil-Nahuat killed in January 1932 on the orders of military dictator Maximiliano Hernández.
In slow, measured speech, Ama, one of a tiny fraction of Salvadorans who identify themselves as indigenous, explained how indigenous peasants like her great-great-granduncle, the peasant leader Feliciano Ama of Izalco, and others from the western coffee-growing part of El Salvador rose up against deadly poverty, stolen land and other abuses in Depression-era El Salvador, only to be brutally slaughtered.
“We’ve organized commemoration ceremonies on this spot since 2001,” said Ama, as she pointed at the darkened patch on the lot. “People who can’t remember and are silent are people who are submitted (sumisos). Those ceremonies made it normal and acceptable to be open about the loss of long ago, the loss that still lives with us. Nothing like this was ever possible before, and I think that the ceremony made it possible for people to start being more open about political feelings too.”
My initial reason for visiting Izalco during the country’s presidential election season was that I’d learned of ARENA’s defeat in the Izalco mayoral race in January–the party’s first defeat since it was founded in 1981 by Roberto D’Aubuisson, who also founded El Salvador’s notorious death squads. The death squads, backed by the right-wing military government, were responsible for killing many of the 80,000 people who died during the bloody civil war of 1980-92.
The FMLN’s recent victory in small, neglected Izalco–after campaigning on a message of change backed by a coalition of Catholics, students and evangelicals–had political analysts buzzing about how it might herald a national trend in the lead-up to the historic presidential election. Even some ARENA loyalists I interviewed quoted D’Aubuisson’s prophetic maxim: “The day we lose Izalco, that day will be the end of the party.”