El Salvador questions role of past atrocities in creating new future

Jose Cabezas/Reuters
A man sets candles at a memorial during a ceremony Dec. 11, 2021, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the massacre of nearly 1,000 civilians by Salvadoran soldiers, in the village of El Mozote, El Salvador.
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Seventh grade teacher Laura Quinteros decided to add literature and museum visits related to El Salvador’s civil war to her classroom curriculum several years ago. Then the phone calls from upset parents started coming in: Many didn’t want her touching on such a sensitive topic with their children. Three decades after the war came to a close, historical memory and discussing the past are still taboo for many politicians and families. 

The clash between those who want to remember and those who prefer to forget has gained new visibility in El Salvador in recent years, as the current administration is accused of actions that feel reminiscent of the past, such as an increased reliance on the military. But as the nation commemorates 30 years since signing a peace accord on Jan. 16, survivors and nongovernmental organizations are stepping up to use education as a tool to make sure history isn’t repeated.

“The hope is in the youth,” says civil war-era massacre survivor Dorila Marquez, who shares her experience with student groups that visit her town of El Mozote. “There are few of us left who lived the massacre in the flesh. So I encourage students to learn the history.”

Why We Wrote This

Amid political polarization and an increasingly authoritarian government, teaching about El Salvador’s violent past may be key now more than ever. Civil war survivors and NGOs hope to fill that educational void.

Laura Quinteros, a seventh grade teacher at a private school, noticed something missing from her class reading list: Salvadoran literature.

So she added “Fireflies in El Mozote,” a first-person account of a 1981 massacre when soldiers killed nearly 1,000 unarmed civilians. Although her students are too young to remember the days when El Salvador was in the midst of a civil war between the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government and a left-wing guerrilla insurgency, she didn’t want the lessons and realities of the war to end with those who lived it.

“Historical memory should be revived,” Ms. Quinteros says. 

Why We Wrote This

Amid political polarization and an increasingly authoritarian government, teaching about El Salvador’s violent past may be key now more than ever. Civil war survivors and NGOs hope to fill that educational void.

But not everyone here agrees.

On Jan. 16, El Salvador marks 30 years since the government of the day and rebel guerrillas signed a peace accord to end a 12-year civil war. El Salvador, like many in the region, is still grappling with how to come to terms with its dark past. During the civil war, the military and death squads sowed terror by murdering nuns, priests, and peasants, and disappearing political dissidents and student leaders.

The atrocities were documented by a Truth Commission, which counted 75,000 dead and 5,000 disappeared, most at the hands of the military. But present-day politicians, businesses, and communities have direct ties to one side of the conflict or the other, making the war a tender topic. And some politicians, such as former President Alfredo Cristiani, argue that efforts to document the past, like the Truth Commission, are biased, and it’s better to “forget this painful page” and move on.

From Colombia to Guatemala, Peru to Nicaragua, the question of how to talk about past national conflicts can be difficult. In El Salvador, the clash between those who want to remember and those who prefer to forget has gained strength in recent years, as the current administration displays increased reliance on the military.

And although politics, pandemic exhaustion, and issues such as gang violence and migration all threaten to overshadow the memory of El Salvador’s civil war, those who believe that knowing history is the best way of not repeating it are stepping up.

People often prefer to avoid talking about recent conflicts, says Virginia Garrard, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who researches historical memory in Latin America. Perpetrators directly involved in past abuses may feel threatened by efforts to recall them, and younger Salvadorans feel the country is “picking at scabs” of events long past. “They want to get on with it,” she says.

Turning the page

Shortly after the peace accords were signed in 1992, politicians promised to educate students about the civil war, says Claudia Garcia de Cartagena, director of education programs at the Museum of the Word and Image (MUPI), an organization founded by former left-wing guerrilla fighters that is dedicated to preserving historical memory of the civil war and more distant history.

But these promises fell short. Most curriculum reforms over the past 30 years only scratched the surface of the conflict and have increasingly been seen as a partisan matter, with leftists pushing to include the civil war history in the national curriculum, and more conservative politicians ignoring or countering them.

Then, President Nayib Bukele, a young populist, took office in 2019. Under his leadership, El Salvador has seen authoritarian rule, political polarization, frequent attacks on political enemies, and militarization, according to watchdogs.

Mr. Bukele, who was born a year after the war started, has minimized its importance, angering victims and nongovernmental organizations. “El Salvador has turned the page on the postwar era,” Mr. Bukele said in his election victory speech. 

This week, his Nuevas Ideas party proposed making the anniversary an opportunity to commemorate the war’s victims. But critics see this as a bid to rewrite the past. “What they want,” says Celia Medrano, a human rights expert here, “is to force people to forget that at one moment in our history, we understood that we have to talk through things” in order to move ahead.

“They are betting on forgetting history,” Ms. Medrano says.

But civil war survivors like Dorila Marquez can’t forget.

Perhaps no case is quite as sensitive in El Salvador as the 1981 massacre in the remote village of El Mozote, carried out by an elite, U.S.-trained Salvadoran military unit. Ms. Marquez was 24 when troops stormed into her village and, over the course of the next three days, killed nearly 1,000 people, the youngest of whom was 8 months old.

Evidence gathered by the Truth Commission shows that the victims, almost half of whom were under the age of 12, were unarmed. Yet the military maintains that those killed were guerrillas. A criminal case against more than a dozen high-level military officers involved in El Mozote was reopened in 2016 when an amnesty law was overturned, but the trial has moved slowly. Without a ruling, the events are still disputed.

Ms. Marquez says despite the government’s announcement that it wants to honor victims, she has not been invited to any kind of anniversary ceremony. Although she’s discouraged with the lack of justice, she has placed her faith elsewhere.

“The hope is in the youth,” says Ms. Marquez, who shares her experience with student groups that visit El Mozote. “There are few of us left who lived the massacre in the flesh. So I encourage students to learn the history.”

Jose Cabezas/Reuters/File
Relatives participate in a ceremony in 2016 to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador, in which Salvadoran troops killed nearly 1,000 villagers, half of whom were children.

Acceptable to speak openly?

Groups like MUPI are trying to teach that history. The organization trains teachers, such as Ms. Quinteros, to incorporate lessons about the country’s past into their curriculum. Nearly 200 educators have been part of the program since it began in 2015, reaching thousands of young Salvadorans. 

Students are taught to “analyze their reality and see what is needed so that this history is not repeated,” says Ms. García de Cartagena from MUPI. The course focuses on first-person testimonies, so as to elicit empathy for everyone involved, whether they were guerrilla fighters who took up arms against inequality or government soldiers who took the job to feed their family.

About six years ago, Ms. Quinteros felt it had become acceptable to speak openly about the war, and sought out MUPI’s training. A former guerrilla leader had been elected president, and the right-wing ARENA party, founded by a death squad leader, was no longer in power.

But when Ms. Quinteros introduced “Fireflies in El Mozote,” she was met by a backlash. Some of her students came from upper-class military families, for whom the subject was still taboo. While teaching about the war, Ms. Quinteros discovered that one student’s grandfather was accused of civil war-era human rights abuses.

“That student got uncomfortable,” she recalls, but she did not see it as a reason to “forget [history] or erase it.”

Dr. Garrard, the historian, says family ties often motivate a desire to forget the past. “If your version of the story is on the wrong side of history, that’s another reason to just say, ‘Let’s not talk about it,’” she says. She sees MUPI’s work in Salvadoran schools as unique in the region, where much of the effort to preserve historical memory is confined to museums.

Students’ “own experience starts to fit into something,” she says. Citizens become “part of a larger narrative in a way they didn’t necessarily understand” before. 

“Never stop questioning”

Some students who have studied the civil war period see disturbing echoes in today’s El Salvador.

Mr. Bukele’s administration has been accused of harassing civil society members, journalists, and opposition politicians, and of quashing public debate. “This doesn’t allow the country to have harmony, peace, and development,” says Aaron Manzano, a recent graduate who learned about the war in MUPI’s after-school program. As in the 1980s, today everyone has to pick a political side, he says.

Karen Rivera, a former student of Ms. Quinteros’, recalls that she began noticing an increased military presence on the streets during the pandemic as part of Mr. Bukele’s response. “But then they stayed.”

If she hadn’t learned about the civil war in school, she might not have noticed this or been alarmed by it, she says.

And the classes have taught her a broader lesson. They “helped me to learn to never stop questioning everything that is happening around me,” Ms. Rivera says. “Living without questioning is dangerous.”

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