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.”
In Izalco it became clear how Ama’s explanation of the FMLN’s victory aligned perfectly with the central lesson of revolutionary political warfare that some former Salvadoran guerrilla commanders told me they’d learned in Russia, Vietnam and other Communist-bloc countries in the 1960s and ’70s: the spirit of the people matters most. The power that broke the chain of oligarchies and military dictatorships that shackled El Salvador for 130 years was the will of the people to break their silence.
Few embody this will to break the silence like Mauricio Funes, the FMLN candidate and the first leftist elected president in the history of El Salvador.
Funes, a 49-year-old former journalist, rose to prominence in no small part thanks to the democratic space created by the signing of the peace accords ending the war in 1992. Until then, the seventy-year rule of oligarchs and dictators made freedom of expression a rarity. My first memories of Funes are as the talk-show host and commentator my family in San Salvador would listen to in the late ’80s as they huddled around a small, battered black-and-white television set during their lunch breaks.
As the grip of state military-run television loosened in the postwar period, Funes became the country’s most popular TV personality in his role as host of Entrevista al Dia (Interview of the Day), El Salvador’s equivalent of Meet the Press.
Hosting al Dia, on which he grilled and debated left- and right-leaning guests with his famously mercurial intelligence, helped to make Funes a symbol of the openness ushered in by the signing of the peace accords. After losing every presidential race since laying down its arms to become a political party in 1992, the FMLN embraced change. With the help of people like Funes’s mentor Hato Hasbun–a sociology professor who worked closely with the six Jesuit priests killed by the military during the FMLN offensive in 1989–the party finally recognized that putting up presidential candidates who were former guerrilla commanders or wartime opposition leaders might not be the best strategy for winning over an electorate trying to overcome the war’s painful legacy. The party chose Funes, who was neither a combatant nor a member of the FMLN during the war.
In doing so, the former guerrillas gave their party a much-needed upgrade that allowed them to use the FMLN’s legendary organizational capacity (during the war, the US State Department called the FMLN one of the “best organized” and “most effective” people’s movements in Latin America in the last fifty years) to meet the political requirements of the media age. And as a Jesuit-influenced intellectual, Funes also gave the FMLN–an organization with many leaders who were themselves profoundly influenced by liberation theology and first organized in Christian base communities–some ideological comfort.
When I interviewed Funes on the night of his victory, in the restaurant of a San Salvador hotel, the first thing he did was echo the thinking of one of those who courageously broke El Salvador’s silence. “Now we need a government like the one envisioned by [Archbishop of El Salvador] Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who, in his prophetic message, said that the church should have a preferential option for the poor. Paraphrasing Monseñor Romero, I would say that this government should have a preferential option for the poor, for those who need a robust government to get ahead and to be able to compete in this world of disequilibrium under fair conditions.”
Like almost every Salvadoran I spoke with after Funes’s victory, the candidate said he wished a deceased family member, in his case his brother killed during the war, was with him to share the moment.
And like Juliana Ama, he too rooted his victory in the legacy of silence and struggle from Izalco: “Our history–what happened in 1932, the poverty of the ’70s that caused the armed conflict in the ’80s and the state in which many in the countryside like Izalco still find themselves today–these can be explained fundamentally by the unjust distribution of wealth, the use of the government to support the process of concentrating wealth.”
After talking with Funes at the hotel, I went to the Escalon neighborhood, where those who have benefited from the concentration of the country’s wealth live and do business behind the big, heavily guarded walls of gated buildings and fortressed mansions. For reasons I don’t know, but imagine have something to do with poetic justice, the FMLN decided to hold its massive victory celebration that Sunday night on Escalon Boulevard.
The neighborhood was also where the FMLN launched its offensive on San Salvador in 1989. After the demise of Communism put in doubt the survival of Latin American revolutionary movements, including El Salvador’s, the FMLN made a strategic decision to bring its guerrilla army of young men and women and older adults, some of whom had little to no combat experience, into the capital, leading to some of the bloodiest battles of the war.
I walked along the crowded blocks of the Escalon with my good friend Joaquin Chávez, a fellow in the NYU history department, who founded the first Central American studies program in the United States with three other colleagues and me. Passing by Citibank and Scotiabank, OfficeMax, McDonald’s and other corporate buildings on the Escalon never felt so exhilarating. The major difference was the hundreds of thousands of boisterously happy, red-shirted, mostly poor children, youth and families waving homemade red-and-white FMLN flags.
For his part, my bookish, bespectacled historian friend Joaquin, who had lost many friends and family members during the war, was initially pretty academic about what the electoral victory meant.
“The origins of the war were not ideological. What brought on the armed struggle,” began Joaquin, whose current research looks at the role of intellectuals in the origins of the war, “was the reaction of various groups to the repression of the state. If the government had allowed fair elections in 1972 and 1977, there would have been no war.” His voice started to crack slightly with emotion. “And that’s what makes tonight so hope-inspiring: it makes possible a political transition through legal and electoral means.”
Watching the wave of thousands of mostly young FMLN supporters walk, sing and dance as they held handpainted signs with messages like Misión Cumplida: Compañeros Caídos en La Lucha (Mission Accomplished: Compañeros Who Fell in the Struggle), Joaquin reminisced, not as the accomplished historian but as the former guerrilla leader: “I remember being here on Seventy-fifth Street (during the 1989 offensive) to pick up the bodies of dead and injured young combatants. They were the ages of these kids walking here now.”
He continued: “Tonight I feel like they didn’t die for nothing. Spiritually, it feels like a weight has been taken off of you, where you feel the absence of those who initiated these processes. This is an explosion of happiness and a celebration of rebellion, a triumph of the 1932 rebellion of Feliciano Ama and the indigenous people.”
Back at the empty lot, near the blackened patch of dirt that is ground zero of revolutionary El Salvador, Juliana Ama pondered the escape from silence her country had begun. Despite the threats the commemoration ceremonies provoked, she said, “our ceremony is not intended as a political act. It is first and foremost a spiritual act. We have no choice; we can’t remain and suffer in silence.” Her eighth-grader son, Alex Oswaldo Calzadia Chille, stood solemnly nearby.
Asked what he thought the political turns in his country portended, the rather reticent, dark-skinned 14-year-old star student, soccer forward and drummer at the Mario Calvo school responded with an unexpected forcefulness. “I’m Pipil (Indian). Feliciano Ama, he’s my family and was killed defending the land against the government, like many people do today.” As if he’d been waiting for the opportunity to speak even more, he declared, “My family voted for the FMLN because they wanted change.” His intense brown eyes alive with the energy one imagines his rebellious ancestor had, Alex added, “When I’m old enough, so will I.”