DURING MY THREE-month stay in El Salvador, I found oxidized AK-47 bullets in the countryside earth; I touched faint traces of military posters on building walls; visited marked and unmarked sites of military-led massacres; and listened attentively to new friends about the impacts of a Civil War (1980-1992) that came in the form of U.S.-funded and trained state terror: systemic disappearances, massacres, torture, sexual violence, and a death-toll of 75,000 people.
I confronted this history as a curator at the Museo de la palabra y la imagen (Museum of the Word and Image or MUPI, see http://museo.com.sv/es/), an institution dedicated to writing subaltern histories, from the participation of peasants, indigenous peoples, workers and women in social movements, to the everyday moments of urban and rural life.
The MUPI is a direct challenge to the “official narrative” that re-writes the Civil War as a struggle of “national security” against an “internal communist threat,” manifested in the form of unions, student groups, human rights and refugee organizations, progressive Christian base communities, and the peasant insurgency of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).
Within this narrative, military men like Lieutenant Colonel Monterrosa are upheld as national heroes. Trained in the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, Monterosa ordered the 1981 massacre of 1,000 civilians in El Mozote. In the early 1990s, scientific exhumations revealed that one mass grave alone included the remains of 143 children under the age of 12; the youngest victim, Concepción Sánchez, was three days old.
Soon after the signing of the Chapultepec Peace Accords in 1992, Carlos Henríquez Consalvi (also known as “Santiago”) initiated a project to preserve the memory of social movements and military-led massacres.
As a journalist and founder of Radio Venceremos, “the official voice of the FMLN,” Santiago had throughout the course of the war gathered indispensable documents, objects and testimonies that revealed an alternative history, one told by the targets and resistors of state repression.
Since its founding, the MUPI has extended its efforts to include other themes, including Salvadoran literature, art, and film, early-20th-century social movements, and current migration; approximately 700 Salvadorans migrate daily to the United States.
Some of the museum’#8221;s oral history projects include interviews with contemporary migrant mothers, and indigenous survivors of the 1932 genocide that killed at least 10,000 peoples. These interviews are used to produce educational materials, and often communities participate directly in the process. The MUPI organizes exhibitions, talks, workshops, festivals, and film screenings that travel to the most isolated areas of El Salvador, and also publishes books, magazines and coloring books, produces cartoon-animations and documentaries, and broadcasts the radio show “Tejiendo la Memoria” (“Weaving Memory”).
The museum has nonprofit status, and gets funds through private grants, foundations, etc. With the FMLN now in government as a formal political party, the MUPI has had agreements with the Ministry of Culture to bring 2,000 children to the museum, and the government covers the cost of their travel and food. Everyone has a salary except the director, because money is tight and Santiago would rather give people jobs.
The MUPI is ultimately driven by a core belief in the power of historical memory to provide people with the tools to actively understand and shape the world around them. Through personal and collective testimonies of ordinary Salvadorans, the MUPI presents history not as an abstract concept or collection of dates but rather as a lived and embodied experience.
Historically, testimonials have provided oppressed Latin Americans with a medium to speak and write themselves into history, allowing them to articulate their identities and political visions.
For example, the testimony of Rufina Amaya, the only survivor of El Mozote, shined the international spotlight on the actions of the U.S.-funded Salvadoran military, while Maria Teresa Tula articulated the struggles of the mother’#8221;s committees to search for the disappeared.
In addressing the absence of “bottom-up” historical perspectives in the Salvadoran educational system, the MUPI cultivates the values of solidarity, diversity, and equity. MUPI-led workshops provide young people with the opportunity to tell and document their own stories and that of their communities.
Youth are encouraged to see themselves as historical actors in their own right and to understand how the past has shaped the landscape that they currently navigate. This is especially important in a postwar context; youth face violence in the form of gangs, homicides, and drug trafficking, and Central America is the most violent region in the world, second only to warring countries.
Historical memory also positively impacts the individual, often in unexpected ways. In the words of Gaby Benítez, a young visitor to the museum, “Visiting this grand place has given me the hope to trust in myself and to take advantage of what I have…” Other visitors have been surprised to acknowledge that the stories of those excluded from textbooks have touched them so deeply:
"I never thought that I could be so inspired and impressed, but the lives of peasants during the armed conflict are truly unforgettable; there is so much to see with the photos of Monseñor Romero and of Radio Venceremos; the memories of the armed conflict have taken me into a time machine; through their gazes I witness the suffering of each person that lived during that period."
Given that the war ended 20 years ago, it is not uncommon for visitors to share a direct connection to the historical actors and themes of the MUPI’#8221;s exhibitions:
"A very powerful place; I hope Salvadoran youth do not forget their past history…I have a heart heavy with so much pain due to the disappearance of so many friends. I always think about them. [I send] my love to our El Salvador.
"This afternoon I arrived to the MUPI and saw your things in an exhibition. I have remembered you so much with that little shirt; thank you to the museum for making known what women warriors were and are like."
The second quote references “Amada Libertad” (“Beloved Liberty”), the pen name of a woman FMLN guerrilla and poet who died in combat. I displayed her poems and personal objects in a glass case as part of the exhibition I wrote: Mujer la desnudez de mi lenguaje (Woman, the nakedness of my language). Through photographs, paintings, testimonies, and objects, the exhibition examines women’#8221;s diverse roles, experiences, and political contributions in social movements during and after the Civil War.
"I belong to the nakedness
of my language
and I have burned silences and lies
knowing that I transform
the history of mothers."
— Claudia Lars, “Palabras de la nueva mujer” (“Words of the New Woman”)
Amidst the devastating conditions of a Civil War, Salvadoran women organized in prisons, villages, workplaces, and universities; led marches, strikes, occupations, health, literacy and political education campaigns, searched for the disappeared, fought in combat as FMLN guerrillas, and created military strategies against the dictatorship.
According to conservative estimates, 34% of rank and filers and 29.1% of combatants in the FMLN were women, and 80% of civilian supporters were women.
Women also composed the membership majority in popular organizations. One of the largest unions during the Civil War, ANDES 21 de JUNIO (National Association of Salvadoran Educators), had a total membership of 90% women and organized one of the largest anti-government protests in the country’#8221;s history. The committees that searched for the disappeared were also founded and led by women.
In short, the exhibition is an attempt to write a history outside the shadows of great historical figures, which on the orthodox left often translates into iconic images of bearded men — the commanders of guerrilla armies — to the detriment of ignoring the backbone organizers of social movements. In the FMLN, revolutionaries manifested not only in the woman guerrilla, but also the cooks, medics, and educators; the providers of “logistical support” whose political contributions are often undervalued.
Also, in presenting the FMLN alongside unarmed movements, viewers can appreciate the contributions of these movements in their own right, and get a clearer sense of the long history of political struggle that in many ways gave rise to the FMLN and made the downfall of the dictatorship possible.
I also hoped to demonstrate that women not only supported social movements, but shaped the goals and practices of social struggles. Many women within popular and armed organizations confronted the sexism of their political compañeros, and fought to make gender equality and the eradication of patriarchy a revolutionary goal. In the words of Morena, a former FMLN guerrilla and the founder of the feminist organization, Las Dignas (Dignified Women):
"I remember an ambush in Guazapa where the women got all the batteries needed to connect a great quantity of mines…That day the operation was a success. But all the praise was given to the men, and the women who had done all that work received no recognition…I was not a feminist at that time but I did have a lot of grievances…Discovering feminism — to see that it had not only happened to me but that all women had lived it — was very powerful."
Experiences of empowerment as political leaders, combined with the trauma of gendered violence, exploded after the Peace Accords into a strong feminist movement that fought for the social and economic rights of women and girls, workers, mothers, lesbians and sex workers, to name a few.
The exhibition also dealt with the central role of sexual violence in the Civil War. As previously mentioned, the military deployed a “scorched-earth” policy to massacre civilians and destroy their collective property through the burning of villages and crops, and the raping of “their women.” Such military logic equated women as the property of men and as trophies of war.
While the military systemically deployed a strategy of sexual violence, I did not want to silence women’#8221;s accounts of sexual abuse within the FMLN, partially the product of the FMLN’#8221;s tumultuous relationship to feminism, which resulted in treating gender oppression as subordinate or separate to the overthrow of capitalism.
Nonetheless, rank-and-file women pressured the FMLN to denounce sexual violence within its ranks, and the FMLN declared rape to be punishable by death. While the form of punishment is debatable, it nevertheless demonstrates the FMLN’#8221;s denunciation of sexual violence. The challenge became how to present the widespread nature of sexual violence that is characteristic of a patriarchal society, while recognizing the glaring differences in political goals and strategies between the FMLN and the dictatorship.
In the end, I wrote an introduction conveying those differences and presented two powerful testimonies side by side:
"…when I was very young I saw some [female victims of the Armed Forces] with their faces cut and their hair dangling, decapitated, or with their breasts cut off, or needles inserted into them, naked, raped. Those girls had a right to be young, to be mothers if they wanted to be…to be teachers and president."
—Arely, ex guerrilla, Cuscatlán
"When the FMLN issued the death penalty for rapists, there was a case of four guerrillas who had raped a female cook…they put all five of them on trial; her for having provoked it and the other four for being rapists. They did a symbolic shooting [of the rapists] with blanks [and made the rapists believe they were going to be executed]; she wasn’#8221;t “gunned-down” but she had to stay in the company of the rapists…when the state commits rape as part of its terror campaign we are outraged…but when revolutionary men practice it there is still not enough commitment to imposing the punishment they deserve."
— Anonymous Guerrilla Commander
“The past is never dead. It’#8221;s not even past.”
— William Faulkner
The MUPI is in a constant struggle against systemic oblivion — the erasure of the names of victims and the impunity of responsible parties. The unrelenting dedication of the MUPI and other groups to keep the flame of memory alive, has allowed Funes, the current president of El Salvador and head of the FMLN, to acknowledge previous state crimes. Recently this September, the Supreme Court decided to reopen investigations of El Mozote.
The MUPI is an inspiration to other institutions to re-conceive the transformative power of history and testimony, and intervene in public debates. This is more than relevant in the United States, where there is a disturbing silence and denial of U.S. empire.
Recently, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), have denied access to key documents on the School of the Americas.
Fortunately, museums can decide on which side of history they will be on. In the words of Chiyo, former FMLN child combatant who now as an adult works at the MUPI, the responsibility of the museum is to present an alternative vision for society, “to inculcate optimism and a vision of El Salvador where we all belong.”
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November/December 2013, ATC 167