“The revolution was what happened, but when we started to understand and describe it, and live in its reality, we realized that as women we were, and we arethe revolution.”
Post-revolution Nicaragua in the 1980s ushered in an avalanche of ideas on the reconstruction of the “new” society. After four decades of the Somoza dictatorship (1937-1979), women had emerged with a progressive feminist agenda and a determination to make fundamental and structural changes toward social, economic, and political equality. Their demands were within their rights, after all, over a third of the Sandinista revolutionary forces fighting in the military front-lines were women. (1) Heroic actions by Nicaraguan women are legendary and documented in archives of revolutions or armed conflicts where other brave and courageous women were notably recognized such as in El Salvador, Guatemala, Cuba, Spain, México, and in South America. In every case, the endgame was focused on improving the lives of women, with consequential outcomes that would potentially affect everyone. But, after a decade of struggle in the course of negotiations, Nicaraguan feminists had far less gains in their advances than anticipated or hoped for. Especially disheartening was to realize that their first democratically elected president was female (Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, 1990-97), and far from promoting an agenda favoring women’s rights, the new president emphasized the traditional role of women as primarily wives and mothers. It appeared as if they had experienced a serious and debilitating setback, but for feminists living in an era of revolution and change their fight was just beginning.
Today, Nicaraguans are living under the repressive, authoritative government of Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice-president, Rosario Murillo. In a cruel and most unfortunate circumstance, the Ortega-Murillo regime has meticulously carved out a repressive government aimed at mostly the younger generation who seek democratic freedoms, but especially feminists for whom Daniel Ortega seems to have a personal vendetta against. Ortega’s disdain toward feminists originated at the time (in 1998) that his stepdaughter, Zoilamérica, publicly accused him of sexually assaulting her during a period of about twenty years since she was eleven years old. An intense campaign by feminists to hold Ortega accountable for his crime served to unnerve him, but he abused his power to wrangle his way out of the legal quagmire. Certainly, Murillo’s protective shield was instrumental in her role as the grieving wife, even though she turned against her daughter, and denied even knowing about the abuse.
Since the 2018 Rebellion, the Orteguista regime, whose overwhelming power and control permeate throughout every branch of government, mobilized a crackdown on social protests, systematically blocking off any movement from the opposition. The extreme violence exercised by the various state police and parapolice units caused a devastating blow to Nicaraguan democratic society. Over 300 people were killed, mainly by the state forces and most were peaceful youthful protestors. Additionally, over a thousand people were injured and several hundred were detained, many of whom are still incarcerated.
Ortega and Murillo’s strategy for controlling the opposition included the closures of certain social and civic organizations that functioned independently of the government’s purview. Over a hundred organizations have been forced to close their doors since the 2018 Rebellion, and their properties have been confiscated. (2) Many of these were non-profit organizations that for years had served the community, especially women and their children. The reporting of these closures by media sources generally maintain that the reason behind the governmental order is the organizations’ presumably accepting international funds to undermine the government or because of the lack of proper bookkeeping, all of which are flatly denied by the executive directors.
Sandra Ramos, a representative of the women’s movement, el Movimiento de Mujeres María Elena Cuadra (MEC), describes the regime’s actions to shutter their organization as political violence. (3) Ramos is director of the non-profit organization, Asociación de Mujeres Trabajadoras y Desempleadas María Cuadra and in defiance, resolves that the government’s punitive actions will not deter their work seeking the rights of women in the workplace. The organization has endured for 28 years, assisting women in their clamor for descent and fair working conditions in the industrial zones, and in assuring women legal protection in the court of law. On a Twitter video clip, Ramos explains that their organization’s work has been continuously conflicted within the context of a society that is patriarchal and “machista,” (sexist) and where women’s political action is often disregarded and dismissed. (4) Ramos contends that the organization has established a solid structure of volunteers and supporters that will continue working and advocating, even if the government has cancelled their legal status.
The Ortega-Murillo winning strategy for the presidential election in November 2021 was to incarcerate all potential candidates by the time the ballots were printed. It was an easy win for the duo, except that they were critically regarded as illegitimately elected, but elected nevertheless, much to the chagrin of many Nicaraguans that anticipated a transitional change toward democracy. Among the more than 120 incarcerated political prisoners are women whose activism and feminism were particularly threatening to Ortega and Murillo. Some of the women have been sentenced, receiving around 8-12 years of prison each, although the trial processes were, and still are, reportedly a sham, clearly in violation of their rights according to the constitution and international law. (5)
The following are brief bio summaries of some of the feminists/activists incarcerated since last year: (6)
Dora María Tellez (arrested on June 13th): Born in Matagalpa in 1955, Tellez joined the FSLN in León when she was twenty years old. Her initial move to León was to enroll in the School of Medicine. She was twenty-three years old and commander number three when on August 22, 1978, she participated in the Operation Pigpen, the takeover of the Somoza regime’s National Palace that resulted in the release of FSLN prisoners and a ransom. She was chosen as chief negotiator amongst her comrades, illustrating their confidence in her remarkable abilities. Then, under her command, the FSLN unit in León “liberated” the department, defeating the powerful, well-trained and equipped Somoza National Guard. Her success as a female commander was perceived as one of the most heroic acts in the Sandinista Revolution. The international feminist communities took special interest in her achievements. She was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Helsinki, and she was invited as a Visiting Professor by the Harvard University’s Robert F. Kennedy School of Theology, although she was unable to attend due to problems with a U.S. visa. After the Revolution, Tellez served as Vice President of Parliament and in the Ministry of Health. In 1995, disillusioned and disappointed over the direction of the FSLN political party, Tellez and many other stalwarts of the FSLN, left the party and created their own movement based on democratic ideals. The Movimiento Renovador Sandinista (MRS) was established and later “cancelled” by Ortega in 2008. A new version of MRS emerged as the Unión Democrático Renovadora (UNAMOS). Tellez’ writings have been well-received by international audiences. Her publications are archived in the centers of investigation such as Instituto de Investigación y Desarrollo Nitlapan (UCA), the Institute of History in Nicaragua an Central America (IHNCA), and the Envió Digital Journal. She was in charge of coordinating the project Memoria Centroamericana, an academic platform in the field of Social Science.
Dora María Tellez and Ana Margarita Vijil were taken by force by the Orteguista police from their home on June 13, 2021. A few others that were in the home were also taken away but then released. A large convoy of police in tactical gear barged into their home, ransacking and confiscating anything they deemed of some value although they didn’t have a warrant nor could they elaborate on why they were being arrested.
Ana Margarita Vijil (arrested on June 13th): Vijil, born in 1978, is a human rights defender and former president of MRS (now UNAMOS). In her mid-twenties she worked at the International Court of Justice in the Hague. She received a Fulbright Scholarship and graduated from the University of Arizona majoring in Political Science. Vijil was professor at the Universidad Politécnica de Managua.
Suyén Barahona (arrested on June 13th): On Sunday, June 13th, a huge police presence descended upon Barahona’s home. She was taken prisoner without the presence of a lawyer and remained in isolation for months. Like Vijil, Barahona is a Fulbright Scholar. She has a degree in International Relations and a Master’s degree in Environmental Politics. She was a political science professor for eight years. She founded the project, “La Mujer Nica Como Emprendedora Social,” that focuses on helping low-income women become entrepreneurs. She joined MRS, now UNAMOS in 2007 because she believed in the democratic principles, justice, equality, and respect for human rights. She looks to a brighter future for Nicaraguans, where no generation will ever have to live through another dictatorship. Barahona was elected president of UNAMOS in 2017.
Violeta Granero (arrested on June 8th): Granero, a sociologist, is the leader of the Unidad Nacional Azul y Blanco political organization.
Others include Maria Oviedo (arrested on June 29th): Oviedo, a human rights defender, is the coordinator for the Comisión Permanente de Derechos Humanos (CPDH). Also arrested and imprisoned were: María Fernanda Flores; María Esperanza Sánchez García; Karla Escobar; and Julia Hernández Arévalo.
Tamara Dávila (arrested on June 12th): Dávila and her five-year old daughter awoke in the middle of the night to the noise of Police tearing down the front door, who then, proceeded to ransack her home, confiscating the electronic equipment as well as a family album featuring her daughter growing up, which was later used as “evidence” during the sentencing procedure. She was taken to prison without allowing her to prepare her daughter for her departure. Dávila is a forty-year old feminist and an executive member of UNAMOS. She is an experienced psychologist committed to the defense of human rights and gender equality. (7) Dávila commented in a podcast that although “machismo” is amplified by the dictator Daniel Ortega, who is a rapist (un violador), the fact is that women live within a societal structure that is profoundly “machista.” (8) Not only are women subjected to an extremely flawed dictatorship, she says, but we must also confront flagrant gender inequalities that exist throughout our society. (9)
In a June 6, 2021 interview with COYUNTURA, just days before she was incarcerated, Tamara Dávila expresses confidence that the Ortega Murillo regime will collapse due to the escalating repression involving various segments of the population. (10) Her comments follow:
“It’s unsustainable to live under these conditions, not only for those of us that are politically organized but for the population in general. There’s a tremendous economic crisis in our country. Every day, more people are unemployed, businesses are closing, and there’s a health crisis. With so much repression, and the economy stifling many families, an eruption is bound to happen. On April 17, 2018, the people didn’t imagine what would happen the next day. The same thing can happen again.”
Daniel Ortega Protected for His Crimes of Sexual Assault
When Zoilamérica Narváez, Daniel Ortega’s stepdaughter, publicly denounced in 1998 that for two decades she had suffered sexual abuse perpetrated by then the presidential hopeful Daniel Ortega, people expressed an array of emotional sentiments. Ortega’s supporters immediately responded with outright denials and accusations, while others remained silent and restrained. Feminists rallied around Zoilamérica’s case and began to give voice to thousands of “silenced” women that had experienced sexual assault, particularly during the armed conflict (known as the Contra War) in the 1980s. Ortega’s supporters, many of whom were regime militants, carried out an intense campaign aimed to discredit Zoilamérica and hide the truth. In response to why she had prolonged her pronouncement for so many years, Zoilamérica explained that Ortega had insisted that she must refrain from revealing his acts of sexual indiscretion for the sake of the “revolution.” (11)
Sociologist, feminist and former member of the Sandinista guerrilla, María Teresa Blandón, re-affirms Narváez’ statement on how the system of militancy during the 1980s resulted in sexual assault cases where victims were too afraid or ashamed to seek justice. The ranking Sandinista militants gained preferential treatment, and the act of sexually assaulting young women was expected, especially among the officers. These acts of violence against women were “generalized, accepted, silenced, and concealed,” according to Blandón. Besides those who committed the assaults, there were others who were in complicity, and just as guilty. All of the sexual assault cases, recognized as violence against women, were considered of low priority in defense of the “revolution.” The prevalence of sexual violence and abuse suffered by women, especially the very young resulted in the “normalization” of this behavior.
In general, the public had knowledge of the sexual assault problem during the armed conflict, but the government failed to systematize sexual assault cases and to conduct proper investigations. Instead, the government officials were likely to “dismiss” the problem (“borrón y cuenta nueva), in the same vein as recently observed when Ortega declared the 2018 Rebellion cases as “borrón y cuenta nueva.”
Blandón’s following declaration has similar sentiments as those spoken by Tamara Dávila:
“It’s intolerable to think we have a president, a magistrate, or a member of parliament that is a rapist (violador), one that is a sexual predator; and if this continues to occur, it means that this society has not changed, and the level of tolerance for this violence still exists.” (12)
Luz Marina Torres, Coordinator of the Colectivo 8 de Marzo, explains that in 1987, during her work with members of the Asocación de Mujeres Nicaragüenses Luisa Amanda Espinoza (AMNLAE), she collected the testimonies of over 100 women serving in the military that had been sexually assaulted or abused. (13) They refused to lodge official complaints against their perpetrators, citing fear of retaliation and shame. At the time of the violations, the women were told that the immediate attention to the revolution took precedence over the crimes committed against them.
Torres understands how victims of sexual assault experience long-term consequences, and yet, it’s highly improbable to prove their cases in the court of law. Their “profound silence” brings to the foreground a broader reality that the revolution was disproportionately cruel to women. (14)
Even today, relatives of women murdered in the hands of their (ex)partners consistently voice their outrage over the failure of the courts to exercise their judicial order and punish the murderers. Each femicide, i.e., a woman killed because of her gender, is a murder of insurmountable consequences. But in a broader context, the circumstance of abject disadvantages that relegate women to an inferior position against men is a product of historical consequences. (15)
Murdered in October of 2020 by her partner for whom she had sought a “breakup.”
Yorli left behind an eight year-old son, a grieving sister, and a mother in the hospital with a serious illness. Yorli’s case brings into focus the flawed system of mediation, which she was required to participate in order to process a legal complaint against her partner. During the mediation, she described to the officiating committee, La Comisaría de Mujer y la Niñez de San Rafael del Sur, her partner’s relentless psychological violence against her, and asked for a legal separation. In response to the committee’s question on whether she owned the house, she replied that she had used her money that she earned in selling fruits and vegetables to construct the home but the land belonged to her partner. The committee refused to resolve her complaint since her partner asked that she leave their house. Three months later, her partner went into the house and viciously stabbed her in the presence of her son. She died two days later. Her murderer (known as “el femicida”) was eventually tried and sentenced to thirty years of prison term, although, the current status of his imprisonment is unknown.
Sentencing a convicted murderer is not a guarantee that the sentence will be served. For example, in the case of Escalante Betanco who murdered his partner, Fatima Justina Cuadra Cruz in 2016, charged and convicted, was early-released after serving just four years of a 30-year sentence. After his prison release, Escalante returned to his town and proceeded to psychologically abuse the mother of the woman he had killed. The mother, Felicita Cruz, was not notified of his early release, nor given a rational explanation for the release. (17)
In the case of Yorli, several issues emerged as problematic in the handling of overall domestic violence. Women are at a disadvantage in abusive relationships because the men have the absolute, legal property rights in cases of marital ownership, even when children are involved. Everything falls under the husband’s name, and women are unable to acquire loans in their name unless, as in the case of Yorli, the loan is procured as a business microfinance debt.
Another issue revolves around the incompetence of both the policing units investigating domestic violence and the judicial court consisting of the regional women’s commission, the Comisarías de las Mujeres, established by the government. Luz Marina Torres, (Director of the women’s collective, Colectivo 8 de Marzo), explains that women who file a legal complaint with the women’s commission (Comisaría) don’t have the confidence that they will achieve justice for the injuries, and acquire the protection and assurance that they and/or their children will not be harmed. The mediation process officiated by the Comisaría actually serves to further place the women at greater risk since the partners, who are present in these hearings, are readily given a “second” chance based on their “promise” to improve upon their behavior. Torres explains that time and time again these sort of proceedings end in tragic circumstances, usually violently, and sometimes the women are killed. The gross negligence and overall lack of competence on the part of the policing unit and members of the Comisaría in the handling of these cases is appalling. The women’s organization such as the Colectiva directed by Torres has the staff competence and experience for working in domestic violence, yet the Ortega Murillo regime has diligently casted off her organization and others like it, cutting off their strong advocacy efforts in the pursuit of human rights for all women. (18)
The case of Petrona (“El femicida de El Portón”) (19)
In January, 2011, Petrona had stepped off the bus after arriving at her municipality, called El Portón, not far from Managua, when in broad daylight, her husband lunged a dagger into her chest — three times. This act of violence would not be less significant than other femicides across the country, except that in this case, the community of their families and friends made a concerted effort to protect the murderer, helping him evade prosecutorial action. In the process, Petrona’s death was considered inconsequential as demonstrated by the community’s rejection toward her and the three daughters.
The case is particularly puzzling to members of the Colectiva 8 de marzo, a woman’s organization focused on domestic violence prevention and protection. The community of El Portón, both men and women, chose to protect Velásquez who had killed his wife whom he had physically and psychologically abused throughout their marriage of 37 years. In defiance of the law, some members of the community displayed egregious acts of hatred toward the police who wanted to arrest him, as well as animosity toward the women in the Colectiva for attempting to help Petrona.
Petrona (Petrona Orquín Mendoza) and Rogé Son (a nickname of endearment for Velásquez Campos) were married when she was 13 and he was twice her age. Aside from being a housewife and mother, Petrona shared the farming workload with Velásquez, planting, harvesting, and tending to the cattle and other domestic animals. After thirty-seven years of marriage, and at the age of fifty, Petrona decided on a small business venture of raising cattle. She was able to procure the loan she needed but only with her husband’s signature. When Petrona tried to engage in business interactions, Velásquez refused to acknowledge her ownership according to their previous agreement. They argued, and Velásquez agreed to leave the house.
Velásquez became enraged and his abusive behavior escalated. Petrona felt afraid and powerless against his constant and vicious threats. Her only option was to ask the Colectiva to help her attain a restraining order. This was a court procedure that required Petrona and Velásquez to participate in “mediation,” based on a law, Ley 779 that addresses “violence against women.” (20) Petrona presented her complaint during the hearing, but Velásquez’ anger evolved into a physical altercation with the police and was ordered to remain in detention. He served two days in jail and was released. Having been forced to attend the mediation and then, serving jail time, Velásquez amplified his furor and continued attacking Petrona. Two days after his jail release, some of Velásquez’ neighbors told him that Petrona was seen traveling on a bus toward the main town nearby, and that she may be going to the Colectiva to cast another complaint against him. She had in fact, gone shopping at the market. Velásquez waited at the bus stop for Petrona’s return, and stabbed her, eventually killing her.
The police went to El Portón to arrest Velásquez, but they were refused entry into the community; no one spoke to the police, much less complied with their orders. Petrona’s funeral wake was arranged by the women from the Colectiva. Many community members expressed their bitterness toward the women and warned them to stay away from El Portón. But the women proceeded to hold the funeral service as a way to demonstrate respect for Petrona and her three daughters. Very few community members attended. Afterwards, the women decided to stay the night in El Portón, at a home where they had previously stayed as guests. That evening, Velásquez went to the house and demanded to see the women. The owner managed to convince Velásquez to leave since enough violence had been committed.
Petrona’s three daughters were abandoned by their father and the local authorities denied them compensation for the violent murder of their mother. The Velásquez’ family members took over the entire property, leaving the daughters without their home.
According to the women in Colectiva, Velásquez was never arrested; he lives in Managua and has been sighted with another woman, presumably his wife.
Questioning the Integrity of Institutions Complicates a Patriarchal Society
The case of Petrona clearly illustrates the deeply entrenched sentiments against women, and how the laws function in favor of the husband, even in extreme violent circumstances that threaten the life of a woman. Velásquez was a beloved member of the community; he was known as handsome (with green eyes) and charming, except when he had too much to drink. Despite being a problem drinker, he was perceived as an outstanding, peaceful citizen. His long standing abusive behavior toward his wife was acknowledged by his immediate circle of friends and family, but it was not questioned. Even as a murderer, Velásquez maintained the affection and support of his inner and outer circle. He falsely believed that killing Petrona was justified, and his “machista” anger was buoyed by his inner circle of friends. General mistrust toward the state and civic institutions was common among the social groups in the community, and defying the authorities and threatening the woman’s organization were acts of self-preservation. Any regard for the well-being of women in general is secondary to the values and beliefs espoused by the community as a whole.
Why the women in El Portón refused to support Patrona and her daughters in time of great need, has yet to be fully understood. One can readily conclude that the women’s behaviors were congruent with the overall gender-related situation in the context of a patriarchal environment, but there are too many other questions to draw conclusions in a generalized fashion.
In towns such as El Portón, feminists recognize their work as vital not only in educating the public about women’s rights, but advocating for change at the highest ranks of governmental and civic institutions. Laws that protect women and defend their human rights are pivotal to building a responsive and responsible governance, but equally important are the adequate resources to develop programs of support and to build skills, knowledge, and competence among all those that work with the women. These concerns and others are commonly expressed by feminists that have first-hand experience living under a repressive Ortega Murillo dictatorship.
Changes in the Workplace
Only a woman can give eyes to a blind woman; and
only a woman can give voice to a voiceless woman.
In the absence of adequate pro-labor laws related to women in the workplace such as “sweatshops,” maquiladoras, or manufacturing factories and plants, the international treaty, the ILO Convention No. 190, serves as a formidable defense against the work-related forms of violence and sexual harassment. Subjecting women to verbal abuse, inappropriate touching and groping, and harassment are commonplace, but even so, in a climate of repressive and harsh economic circumstances, many of these cases remain unresolved, or underreported.
Interviews with women reveal the inside story of women in the workplace, and ondalocal.com author, Duyerling Ríos provides a descriptive context to document the enormous challenges in efforts to implement substantial change and improvements. (21) Sandra Ramos explains that due to a pact devised by the private business sector and the government, ILO 190 has yet to be ratified, presumably for reasons of preventing the destabilization of the work place order. In the current repressive circumstances, many women refuse to formalize their own or others’ complaints, citing fear and retaliation. Ramos reiterates that this makes her role and others as feminists and defenders of human rights extremely difficult and challenging.
Work place violence and sexual harassment are among many in the long list of human rights violations. Health issues are of great concern to women who slave over the grinding, long hours of labor that aggravates key areas of the body such as the shoulders, back, knees, hands, and wrists. After seven or eight years of heavy and intense labor, many women end up in the hospital with serious ailments that can only be corrected by abstaining from their jobs. But their options are to either continue the work despite their disabilities or quit and accept a measly pension.
Nicaragua’s labor law, “Ley General de Higiene y Seguridad del Trabajo,” obligates the employer to adopt preventive measures to guarantee the rights of their workers. But in general, employers have failed to comply with the law, evidenced by the affected women. After the women are forced to drop out of the labor market, they are stonewalled from receiving adequate and fair compensation from both their employer and the national social security office, INSS. Since there’s a lack of coordination between the government, the employer, and the labor unions in addressing the conditions of work, i.e., safety, security, health, etc. in effect, the women are left to fend for themselves, and no one is held accountable.
Women make up the majority in the industrial work force, which is approximately 52% of the total number of workers. Their monthly earnings of about $150 are less than the approximate amount deemed essential to feed a family of three or four, about $400. Apart from their full-time employment, the women, especially single mothers, assume other “informal” employments such as selling fruits and vegetables at the local market in order to provide for their children. Thus, women make up a large proportion of the informal sector of the work force.
The Survival Economy
In the northern department of Nueva Segovia, bordering with Honduras, women continue to work in low-skilled employment as they have for decades, and their earnings are barely enough to survive. Sociologist Haydee Castillo describes the women’s work as self-employment in a “survival economy.” Nueva Segovia’s population relies largely on agricultural work, and women have very few opportunities to make advances in education and in acquiring specialized skills. Women are unable to develop a business plan because they lack literacy skills, explains Castillo, and whereas women in Managua have access to technology, learning English, and working with computers, the women in Nueva Segovia sell coffee, corn, fruits, and make bread to sell at the local markets. It’s a form of subsisting.
Castillo believes that improving the lives of women begins with an education that is designed to develop a strong labor force. Women are at a disadvantage when their economic well-being depends on their cash flow from outside the home, but they must also take care of the home and their family.
Women Who Envision a Social Economy
“Las Mujeres Cooperativistas”
Organizers and leaders of agricultural production cooperatives, María del Rosario Alarcón Sánchez with the, Agropecuaria de Mujeres Productoras de Río Blanco (a southern department bordering Costa Rica), and Angela Rayo with the Cooperativa Multisectorial Angela Delgado, Chinandega (a northern department bordering Honduras), answered interview questions during a recent podcast episode delivered by ondalocal.com (February 2022). (22) In their remarkable stories the women discussed how they began their organizations, the innumerable rewards and benefits derived from their hard work, and the obstacles that stand in the way of achieving even greater goals.
For Alarcón, the reason for creating a cooperative emerged as a survival strategy at the end of the armed conflict in the late 1980s. Families were desperate to find a way to feed their families, and subsistence farming was no longer a viable solution during this critical period. The concept of creating a cooperative was familiar to the communities, but actually leading and organizing the “movement” was difficult. Alarcón’s strategy was to organize the women, a practical approach considering that so many of the community male members were at war. Not every woman had experience working in the fields, planting, harvesting, and selling their products. But, the opportunity was too great to dismiss it, and Alarcón and the women worked diligently. They were highly successful in including more and more families in their collective, thus assuring that the women could feed their families. Although their work was not as consistent and productive from year to year, nevertheless, the women maintained the cohesiveness within their organization.
Angela Rayo’s idea for organizing a cooperative was similar to Alarcón’s in that she recognized the need to create a space for survival in the aftermath of destruction, but in her case it was due to the hurricanes. Rayo lives in an area that was heavily affected by natural disasters. She was participating in the group clean-up tasks when she realized that the people involved could benefit from a cooperative. It was a labor of hope and love that compelled her and other women to develop an organization where they could make their own decisions concerning what to grow and when, as well as to eliminate the use of toxic chemicals. The development of a successful collective opened up opportunities for the women to become better educated and to develop specific business skills.
Both women attest to the improvements in the quality of life for the participating women and the community as a whole. They argue that the women’s collective contributes widely to the overall economy at the national level. They envision a future where the cooperatives can continue to play a vital role in improving education for all children, opening more opportunities for women to actively engage in the labor market, and to adequately address the problem of increased migration amongst the youth.
However, the women have battles to fight in a variety of fronts. One of the biggest challenges is procuring land to carry out the collective’s production. But to purchase land, the women must have access to credit, which they don’t qualify for, and be able to pay off the loans with exorbitant high interest rates within a short period of time. Basically, the women believe that the private and government sectors are in a position to assist them, but their investment strategies are focused on big businesses with wealthy patrons.
Toward a ‘Global’ Feminist Movement
“Love amongst women is revolutionary, it is resistance, and it is giving yourself the opportunity to live each day with a different perspective.” (23)
The feminist movement continues to intensify from the 1990s when women were increasingly concerned with establishing their organizational work as autonomous, removed from the Sandinista movement that had abandoned their position of support for women. The women that began the movement were reluctant to articulate their identity as feminist, in fact, some rejected the term “feminism.” The conservative faction in the Sandinista ranks was a powerful force against what the feminist wanted to accomplish. They were undeterred, however, and whereas their progress might have appeared waning in the face of the country’s political turmoil, the feminists remained steadfast in their beliefs in the equality of women. (24) Today, veteran feminists stand firm in their dedication as first and foremost “feminists” and their work continues to influence other women, in Nicaragua, Central America, South America, and beyond.
What is different today, of course, is the extent to which technology has facilitated the development of the feminist movement. The technological network has extended throughout the Americas and in Europe, thus widening the worldwide web, bringing together diversified voices and promoting a unified feminist agenda. (25)
Perhaps, one of the best known feminist movement, Argentina’s Green Wave, brought the world’s attention to the 2018 march of over a million women, with green scarfs, demanding the legalization of abortion. In 2015, the Argentinians had organized a movement #NiUnaMenos (not one less), in reference to the skyrocketing femicide rates. México adopted their version of similar movement, #NiUnaMas, which served as a unified message that women demanded of their governments to take immediate action.
The women in Colombia extended their feminist agenda, targeting the abortion bans in their country and helping others in their fight as well. It is the “shared struggle” of women around the world that results in a powerful, effective campaign that strengthens the global feminist movement. (26)
In Nicaragua, university students have taken a leadership role in the feminist movement. Amaya Coppens recounts how she and her classmates joined the peaceful social protests in 2018, clamoring against the Ortega-Murillo repression, injustices and violence against women. (27) The consensus is that far too many young women fall prey as victims of sexual violence in their homes. Violators are rarely prosecuted, leaving women in revictimization that prolongs their suffering. The social media, then, becomes a way to deal with the injustices, according to María José Díaz Reyes. Publicly calling out the aggressors and violators for committing crimes against women is a way of treating the victims in a dignified way, letting them know that they are not alone.
Although the feminist movement embraces the critical causes that affect women in general, the need for change in Nicaragua has its particular nuances. María José Díaz Reyes discusses the localized themes that are critical to the feminist agenda: “leadership, power, the State, coalition, violence, human rights, technology, and collective memory.” (28) As a leader in the feminist movement, Díaz Reyes acknowledges the diversity amongst its members, not only in the lived experiences but in the ideas, ideologies, opinions, concerns, even in their approaches to solving pressing problems. At the base of their collective narratives, Díaz Reyes explains, are the pleas for carrying out justice in reparation for the overwhelming occurrence of the machista violence in its various manifestations. The agenda is inclusive of all women, regardless of their political affiliation.
The challenges facing Nicaraguan feminists are immense, and given that their freedoms are indefinitely suspended, their future may appear bleak, even so, they are embolden by the overwhelming national and international support of women who are passionate about constituting change. Everyday resistance strengthens women’s determination to break through the chains of repression specific to their gender. They realize that their fight is revolutionary, and their efforts illuminate the power of sisterhood and the lessons that they can pass on to the rest of the world. (29)
5. See latest report and YT video via Jared Genser, Twitter: @JaredGenser. See also Confidencial article on how prosecutors are selected to preside in the trials of political prisoners, selected through a process initiated by the Attorney General Ana Julia Guido Ochoa who was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2020 for the formation of a judicial entity to work with the National Police on fabricating charges against political prisoners and their families.
14. See article in Nicaraguainvestiga.com: Abuso sexual, un mal silenciado en la guerra de los 80
15. See Dore, E. (2000). Property households and public regulations of domestic life. In Dore, E., & Molyneux, M. (Eds.). (2000). Hidden histories of gender and the state in Latin America. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
18. The Comisarías de Mujeres was originally established in 1993 to specifically focus on violence against women, then were completely shuttered in 2016. In early 2020, Murillo ordered the re-openings of similar organizations without the specialty care needed to work with women who have experienced violence in their homes.
29. Their acts of resistance are reminiscent of Bourdieu’s notion of reflexivity, the “conscious, rational use of power to resist all various forms of subordination.” In “Pierre Bourdieu and La Domination Masculine” by sociologist Bridget Fowler.
Doña Teresa, a Maya K’iché woman, relaxed and pensive on a mountain slope in Zacualpa, (1) reflects upon her life-changes and transformations from the last three decades. She was a teenager when the state military forces’ violent confrontations of terror and chaos shocked her community and thousands of others, causing death and destruction at a unprecedented scale. Historians compare the 36-year catastrophic Armed Conflict in Guatemala with the near-total devastation during and after the conquest of 1524 by the Spanish conquistadors. (2) Doña Teresa and her family grew up subsisting in the mountainous part of Zacualpa, an area deemed excessively impacted by the military forces as reported by the United Nations report, Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH). (3) Zacualpa, where Doña Teresa grew up, and two other, K’iche’-speaking pueblos – Joyabaj, and Chiché, constituted one of the four geographical areas that the state military had reportedly identified the inhabitants as the “internal enemies,” based on their tactical assessment. (4)
Doña Teresa’s healing practices are rooted in Mayan spirituality and the cosmovision, which together, encompass every aspect of her life. She learned the Mayan way of life through the cultural transmission process within her extended family and community. But when the Internal Armed Conflict erupted violently, the cultural and social foundations of life became fragmented and weakened. (5) As a result of the tragic devastation of so many lives, as well as the loss of physical property, Doña Teresa turned her attention toward mere survival, for herself and her family.
Several decades later, her long, arduous journey of self-healing has closed a circle, and Doña Teresa’s vibrant and positive outlook on life is a testament to her determination to regain her Maya spiritual strength, and to help others realize their journey of self-healing as foretold by their ancestors. The effects are far-reaching, beyond the rewards of basic health and well-being. At the core of the principles that she espouses is the belief that a cultural reconstruction of the Mayan culture as gifted by her ancestors is the best antidote for the affliction that many people continue to suffer, especially the women survivors of the Armed Conflict. As a member of a woman’s organization devoted to using native plants for alternative medicine, Doña Teresa is a change agent in the cultural reconstruction process.
Doña Teresa’s reflection video:
The Reports: Women as Victims and Protagonists During and Post-Periods of the Internal Armed Conflict
Women were violently targeted, specifically during the genocidal events between 1981 and 1983. The CEH, the United Nations report on the Guatemalan 36-year Armed Conflict, concluded that at least 25 percent of the human rights violations and acts of violence were directedly attributed to women. However, children were also impacted as a result of the violence that women experienced; the CEH reported that a “large number” of children were also victimized directly, citing atrocious acts of torture, rape, and forced disappearances. Another document detailing the Armed Conflict, the REMHI investigative report supported by the Archdiocese Office of Human Rights in Guatemala, includes first-hand accounts of several massacres in which the state military forces, in direct knowledge of villages whose male members had left for work in distant labor jobs, descended upon pueblos of innocent families of women and children and proceeded to torture, rape the women and young girls, murder, and destroy their entire farms – homes, crops and farm animals. (6) Several hundreds of mostly women and children were killed or died from related illnesses, and many more hundreds fled to the mountains for refuge. Disturbing images of graphic violence perpetrated against women and children are included in the internet version of the REMHI document. (7) But these massacres of mostly women and children were not isolated instances of violence, including the brutal massive sexual assaults on the women. The conclusions in the CEH report makes reference to the systemic genocidal operations as deliberate actions inherent in a policy that could only been executed with specific mandate(s) by the highest governmental institutions. Indeed, the CEH includes statements regarding their investigation’s conclusions that the State of Guatemala is undeniably responsible for “human rights violations and infringements of international humanitarian law.” (CEH, p.41) The violations perpetrated against women are underscored in the CEH report, and argues the case of genocide committed by the State, i.e., the official military plan, (“Victory 82”), part of the overall state’s National Security Doctrine. The report emphasized that the mission was to “annihilate the guerrillas and parallel organizations,” of which the “internal enemy” had been identified as the inhabitants or civilians of the specified locations. (CEH, p. 40) The State acted to intentionally destroy as many groups of Mayans as it could, and to cause damage to women as a whole and specifically targeting their reproductive capabilities. The data reveal that 89 percent of sexual assaults were committed against the Maya women, and mostly in the massive sexual violence during the massacres or invasions. (8)
Documenting Women’s Experiences
The documentation of the horrendous acts of crimes against women in violation of their human rights impels investigators to use extensive research methods and analytical lenses by which to study these actions.
Two recent published reports that highlight the women’s traumatic events as well as their recovery from their perspective are Mujeres indígenas: clamor por la justicia: violencia sexual, conflicto armado y despojo violento de tierras by Luz Méndez Gutiérrez and Amanda Carrera Guerra (2014); and Tejidos que lleva el alma: memoria de las mujeres mayas sobrevivientes de violación sexual durante el conflicto armado by Amandine Fulchirone (2011), (and her team: Olga Alicia Paz, Angélica Lopez, María José Pérez, Patricia Castañeda, & Luisa Cabrera).
Luz Méndez Gutiérrez and Amanda Carrera Guerra’s study includes two groups of women: 1) the survivors of the Sepur Zarco invasion during the Armed Conflict which occurred between 1982 and 1986 (the government’s military base closed in 1988); and 2) the survivors of the massive sexual assaults that occurred in Lote Ocho in 2007 during an invasion by the Policía Nacional Civil and Military (government) forces and security units employed by the HudBay transnational mining company, a subsidiary of Compañía Guatemalteca del Niquel (CGN). Both groups of women reside in Q’eqchi’ communities of el Valle del Polochic (El Estor, Izabal, bordering Alta Verapaz) in the towns of Sepur Zarco and el Lote Ocho. The authors interviewed almost 60 women all together, either individually and/or in focus groups. Their pre-established premise forms the basis of their study, i.e., in Guatemala’s institutions the indigenous populations are systematically discriminated against, and that racism against the indigenous people is at the root cause of inequality. In their stories, many of the women subjects gradually gained a consciousness of understanding the injustices they experienced as women. Thus, the patriarchal system that dominated their lives was integral to their understanding of how they were (and continue to be) systematically and socially excluded, and discriminated against. The investigation sought to document the human rights violations perpetrated against the women, and how the women pursued justice for the crimes committed against them.
The Lote Ocho Case (2007): Justice in the Court of Law as a Form of ‘Healing’
The Peace Accords document was signed in 1996, purportedly ending the devastating 36-year Armed Conflict. Yet, eleven years later, in January of 2007, the war had not ended, at least not according to the inhabitants in the remote community of Lote Ocho.
An incendiary land dispute between the Q’eqchi’ community members and owners of the HudBay Minerals and HMI/Skye mining company in charge of the Fenix mining project came to a halt when the corporation ordered the eviction of the residents they claimed were blocking the construction of their mining project. The Fenix project security guards (the Campañía Guatemalteca del Níquel or CGN), the police, and army took charge of the violence and destruction on January 7th and 8th, according to the lawsuit summary filed by the legal counsel representing the affected Q’eqchi’ women. A week later, the same kind of force was repeated by the three enforcement units, however, the level of violence became extreme. In the January 17th eviction, the uniformed soldiers attacked viciously, and the terror and destruction tactics they used were strikingly similar to those used by the state military units during the Armed Conflict. According to the survivors’ description of the events on that day, the armed guards and soldiers surrounded the homes, and everyone took cover, paralyzed with fear. After the soldiers broke down the front doors, they asked the women, many with their children, the whereabouts of their husbands. The women bravely stood steadfast against the armed soldiers that had surrounded the entire community. They believed that since their husbands were all gone to work in the distant fields, the soldiers would not harm them. But, the commanding officers knew that the men were absent, and strategically targeted the community in their absence. As they ordered the inhabitants to leave their homes, they were doused with tear gas; soldiers with powerful guns sprayed bullets everywhere, barely sparing the lives of family members as they frantically escaped their homes. Before their homes were completely torched, the soldiers destroyed their essential belongings such as the grinding stones, dried corn in storage bins, their beds, clothing, tables and chairs. Then, they destroyed their crops and killed their domestic animals. They stole food and any materials they found of value.
Just as they had terrorized the families and destroyed their possessions and valuables, the uniformed soldiers proceeded to torture the women and girls. The sexual assaults were massive. The women suffered long-term consequences; pregnant women miscarried; internally injuries caused infertility; and psychosocial, emotional trauma left permanent scars. (9)
An excellent documentary titled, Defensora, includes an explanation behind the three lawsuits brought against the Canadian mining company by 1) Angelica Choc, whose husband, Adolfo Ich Chaman, was murdered in 2009 by a security guard with the mining company; 2) Rosa Elbira Coc Ich, speaking on behalf of herself and the women that were sexually assaulted during the unlawful eviction of 2007; and 3) German Chub Choc, shot and paralyzed by a security guard in 2009. The film is produced by 6Kidsproduction, Girl Edge Films and the Right Actions Organization. Included are interviews with the three plaintiffs.
For more information please consult their website.
The Sepur Zarco Case (1982-1988)
The women in the study, known as the Sepur Zarco abuelas (grandmothers) from the aldea (the town) of the same name, endured a six-year, torturous imprisonment during the Armed Conflict. The state military and paramilitary forces had established a number of army bases near their community on the fincas (large plantations) of owners (finqueros) who welcomed the military. The women’s husbands were “disappeared,” a term commonly used to indicate that they were murdered and buried in a clandestine grave. The military told the women that as widows they were obligated by law to work as servants for the soldiers. They were threatened with death or those of their children if they didn’t comply. The women endured an inexplicable emotional, physical, debilitating pain while the men physically abused and sexually assaulted them. The women were forced to labor as domestic workers, cooking and cleaning for the men while their own children were left unattended. Not only had the military assassinated their husbands, but had also kidnapped their teenage sons, and burned their homes to the ground. Everything they owned had been destroyed. The women had to build simple, makeshift shelters near the military base for themselves and their children. They worked twelve-hour shifts without pay and all of the women were sexually assaulted at gunpoint. The six-year reign of terror and imprisonment ended when the military bases were finally shuttered.
Many of the women believed that the reason they were targeted was because their husbands (the campesino leaders who were “disappeared”) had filed formal complaints with government officials about their land claims and titles. The large landowners (the “finqueros”) were eager to collaborate with the government on any strategy to quash the campesinos’ efforts to pursue their rights to their ancestral lands. The finqueros felt threatened because their land titles were fraudulent or illegal as was the “widow’s” law that the military imposed on the women to coerce them to acquiesce in their criminal activities. The military base in Sepur Zarco where the women were enslaved bore the United States trademark in most of everything that was used: weapons, ammunition, vehicles, communication devices, etc. Even the well-equipped army personnel had received training that originated from the United States. The army was well-prepared for combat of any scale. But, the military base was used as a transitional station for their soldiers, and faced a minimum amount of threat, if any, from counterinsurgency attacks. The explanation for using extreme military tactics was to keep the guerrillas from infiltrating and contaminating the indigenous population. The state relied on the rhetoric that best suited the interests of the United States: to keep the communist from taking over and keeping Guatemala “safe and secure.”
El Consorcio de Victimas a Actoras de Cambio: From Victims to Change Agents
Although the 1996 Peace Accords opened up a space for women’s rights advances, the government lacked then, and as is the case presently, the resources or the will (or both) to initiate mechanisms by which to appropriate justice for human rights violations committed against the women. (10)
However, autonomous feminist organizations began to propose actions that addressed the critical need of women whose human rights had been violated during the Armed Conflict. In 2003, feminists Yolanda Aguilar and Amandine Fulchirone sought the collaboration of four organizations to develop a project of support, development, and investigation related to the human rights violations committed against the indigenous women. (11) These associations were 1) Mamá Maquín (see Entremundos Organization); 2) Mujeres Petén Ixqik; 3) Union Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas (UNAMG); and 4) Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Atención Psicosocial (ECAP). The key goals and objectives of el Consorcio revolved around breaking the silence (“romper el silencio”) and recovering the history (of human rights violations), and guiding and supporting women in transcending the complex psychological and social obstacles in order to develop self-validation, self-affirmation, and self-esteem. These were extraordinary goals considering that the women initially felt unable to share their utmost intimate and private tragic experiences. Additionally, they refused to subject themselves to social backlashes like the types they had experienced in the wake of the violations when they felt stigmatized, of no fault of their own, for having been sexually assaulted. The women had lost their place of dignity and respect in the social realm of their communities and as widows, they were left without the prospects of land ownership. But as members of a collective, the women courageously seized the moments of challenge and opportunity and reached out to other women that sought their help, sharing their journeys of self-healing.
The Formation Stage of el Consorcio, 2004-2008
The Consorcio de Víctimas a Actoras de Cambio program involved sixty-two women from four different Mayan pueblos: Chuj, Mam, Kaqchikel and Q’eqchi’. The group leaders consisted of Guatemalan feminists who served as facilitators, supporters, and confidantes, and their first and foremost task was to build trust between and amongst each other. From the outset of the formation period, the women shared their stories and gradually, they began to feel confident enough to talk about the worst parts of their experiences: the sexual assaults. Clearly, the women’s successful participation was largely due to the group’s dynamics that eventually engaged everyone to support each other and learn from one another, creating a consensus-building spirit with intentions of overcoming the individual tragedies and developing solidarity and sisterhood.
As a part of their investigation, the Consorcio (or Colectivo) helped the women develop biographical profiles and personal narratives, and then, published them on their website. (12)
The women’s understanding of their role in helping other women who had similarly suffered during the Armed Conflict influenced the way they shaped their responses. Their voices are powerful, not only because they speak from the heart, but they signal to other women the importance of re-birth and self-validation. It serves as a testament to the incredible journey of courageously strong women.
The Women’s Voices:
“Estoy aquí, sobreviví, estoy viva.”
“I am here, I survived, I am alive.”
Doña Julia resisted the move to a refugee camp in México, but it was the only option she had in order to stay clear from the violence triggered by the Armed Conflict of the 1970s and 80s. Once she and her family fled from her home, the Maya Chuj aldea of Subajasum, near Nentón Huehuetenango, they were unable to return until after the violent skirmishes subsided, but by then, their home had been completely destroyed.
Doña Julia’s childhood and adolescence was “normal and typical” of females in her pueblo. At birth, she was disdained by her father who preferred a male child, and the extreme poverty that they experienced caused the usual predicaments of hunger, malnutrition, lack of education, etc. But in her community, her father had the option of “selling” his daughter, as was the custom, to a man that would eventually carry her off as soon as possible. Doña Julia refused this arrangement and left home to live with relatives.
Doña Julia discovered that fleeing a “problem” was the best solution. She suffered serious physical, emotional, and psychological abuses, but the worst one was the sexual assault by a guerrilla soldier. Although she survived the attack, the resulting psychological and emotional scars were deep and long lasting.
At the Mexican refugee camp, Doña Julia became involved with the women’s organization, Mamá Maquín (see below for information on Mamá Maquín). This experience proved to be life-changing; she believes that by participating in the organization she became a very different person. She acquired literacy skills in Spanish; she learned about human rights, and her legal right to own land, and how the justice system operates. She thought she didn’t have any rights because of her gender. She continued to participate with the organization for six years. She’s proud of her accomplishments and feels confident that she can overcome the obstacles to achieving her goals:
“Yo era una persona dormida, inconsciente, pero gracias a Mamá Maquín aprendí cosas buenas y a dejar atrás todos esos obstáculos que no nos permiten hacer muchas cosas.” (Colectiva, p.32)
At first, Doña Julia was afraid to talk about her sexual assault. But then, she realized that many of the women in her group had had similar experiences. The women had remained “silent” for so many years and Doña Julia understood their pain and sadness. Gradually, she convinced the women of their “rights” to denounce the crimes committed against them, and to seek justice. She explained that the men that raped them have always escaped punishment, while the women victimized by them are left with the social repercussions and psychological scars.
In expanding her role from student to teacher in the Mamá Maquín organization, Doña Julia acquired a kind of re-birth that she had not expected: a genuine sense of self-validation, confidence, and self-esteem. Her empathy toward women who have been sexually assaulted or physically abused was sincere; in every case she felt as though she was the victim. But, she’s not running away from the “problem” anymore because she has learned how to cope and resolve.
Her spirituality is at the base of her strength, “ I pray with candles and incense; I ask for strength from the heart of water, the earth, the air, and nature; I burn my candles for everything that exists….. when I do this, my heart feels so happy.”
Me pongo a rezar con candelas, veladoras y pom, pido por el corazón del agua, de la tierra, del aire y de la naturaleza, enciendo mis velas por todo lo que existe en la naturaleza, yo misma voy a buscar el copal y lo enciendo, cuando hago eso, me alegra mucho el corazón. (Colectiva, p. 36)
Doña Dorotea’s Inner Strength
When Doña Dorotea was taken by force and sexually assaulted by the soldiers along with numerous other women in the Q’eqchi’ pueblo during the six-year period in the early 1980s, she lost everything of value. Apart from her home, her possessions, and of course, her dear family members, Doña Dorotea felt empty and lost without the spiritual practices that she had known since childhood.
The Maya Q’eqchi’ people attribute their existence to a special relationship with the land and the mountains. They believe that the mountains are alive, and each one is a sacred dwelling for a spirit akin to a personhood which is central to the relationship between the mountain and the people. They are known as Tzuultaq’a, spirits in the form of human beings that are imagined as members of their community. Caves are spiritual spaces for the traditional Q’eqchi’ that perform rituals of sacrifice, giving thanks and offering food in return for what the spirits have given them. The bond between the Tzuultaq’a and people must be maintained for good health and prosperity. For the Q’eqchi’, using the land to plant and harvest is considered a religious event as they perform their rituals; in their prayers they ask the Tzuultaqa’a for permission and offer their undying gratitude.
Anthropologist Richard Wilson explains that “so long as the Mayans are alive in the mountains, each community claim to be the rightful owner of the land remains alive too. (Wilson, 1995, p. 85)
Doña Dorotea survived the Armed Conflict, but after her community was demolished she joined the thousands of people as refugees in search of a new life. (13) Without her community, the respected elders and the collective traditions and customs of spiritual manifestations, Doña Dorotea relied on her own strength and beliefs as part of the healing process. She alone summoned the Tzuultaq’a in her dreams and interpreted their words for guidance. She found her inner strength in the ancient traditions of her culture to resolve the painful lingering problems that impeded her ability to live her life to the fullest. As an integral member of the Colectiva, Doña Dorotea is known for spiritual devotion, believing that everything in our natural world has life, and the need to show our appreciation by offering our positive energies. Her inner strength and self-respect is well-noted in her leadership abilities, and as a dutiful, passionate advocate against domestic violence. (Fulchirone, p. 349.)
Doña Carolina: “Soy fuerte, no tengo miedo.”
Doña Carolina’s story begins when she embarked on journey of grief, searching in clandestine graves for the eight members of her family killed violently during the Armed Conflict, and concludes with the beginnings of a journey of hope.
Doña Carolina, a Maya Kaqchikel “war widow” from Chimaltenango, spent many years after the 1996 Peace Accords demanding to know where her loved ones were buried. But the government would not lend assistance to war widows’ demands, and Doña Carolina had no other choice but to assume the responsibility on her own. She had lost her husband, tortured and then murdered; her father and two-year-old son were killed in front of her; her sister and her brother-in-law; her mother-in-law; her sister-in-law; and her husband’s brother. She and her mother survived – miraculously. During the entire search process she was stricken with grief, sadness, and a broken heart. She was among the organizers in the exhumation of 35 corpses, where she recalled she almost died, then and in numerous other occasions.
Doña Carolina’s indefatigable determination to find the graves of disappeared loved ones became her life’s work. She began to work with human rights organizations like CONAVIGUA (The National Association of Guatemalan Widows), and was asked to share her inspirational story of grief and service with others (see Rosalina Tuyuc below). Her work evolved into a mutually supported effort focused on the recovery of collective memory and in seeking the truth and justice. She was also involved in organizing the war widows of San José Poaquil and helped them denounce the sexual assaults committed by the army, and demanded that the government remove the military base from their municipality.
The processes of self-validation and self-affirmation are evident in Doña Carolina’s overcoming the immense pain that she managed to control, and in becoming a strong, passionate supporter and advocate on behalf of women and others that clamor for justice and reparations. She is fearless and courageous: “Soy fuerte no tengo miedo. Aunque me vaya en la cárcel puedo salir adelante.” (Fulchirone, 2011, p. 327-329)
In their long journey of hope, the women relied on their collective strength to attain unity as well as self-reflection, and engage in a process of accompaniment (“el proceso de acompañamiento”), clearly a collaboration between the women and the feminists, blending their support and guidance throughout the stages of the women’s development.
The Healing Process and Seeking Justice
The road toward recovery for the eleven Maya Q’eqchi’women survivors of the Sepur Zarco sexual assault case was excruciatingly painful, explains Luz Méndez Gutiérrez, moderator in a documentary film about the Sepur Zarco case. The women felt shame and guilt; they kept this “dark” secret to themselves which further exacerbated their emotional, psychological, and physical injuries. Twenty-five years later, between 2004-2011, the women began to share their heart-wrenching stories publicly, eventually marking the end of a difficult “metamorphosis” transformation, enabling them to acknowledge their life as victims in the past, and their newfound freedom as change agents (“actoras de cambio”) in the present.
The women’s decision to demand justice for the crimes committed against them was remarkable. Once they had taken this important first step, the national and international human rights and feminists organizations were more than willing and able to lend their assistance and support. A support network was organized in 2010, called the Alliance to End Silence and Impunity, specifically to address the human rights and gender inequality (UN Women) and Mujeres Transformando el Mundo (MTM); to lend psychological and social support to the women -Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Atención Psicosocial (ECAP); and to establish political precedence at the national and international levels – Union Nacional de Mujeres Guatemaltecas (UNAMG). The fifteen women asked the court to punish those responsible for the crimes, to reveal the truth of the events and the consequences, and to establish that the crimes would not be repeated; that no other woman or girl would be subjected to such violence as they experienced.
The Court of Conscience was formed to serve as a symbolic form of justice, called “el tribunal de consciencia contra la violencia sexual hacia las mujeres durante el conflict armado de Guatemala.” (14) The Court of Law was yet to be formed by the Guatemalan legal system, nevertheless, the Tribunal Court served the purpose of allowing the case to go forward.
A three-year investigation yielded substantial evidence to charge two former military officers: Lt. Col. Esteelmer Reyes Girón and military commissioner Heriberto Valdéz Asij. Both men also faced additional charges of murder.
Then, on February 26, 2016, presiding judge, Yassmin Barrios Aguilar, the president of the High-Risk Court of Guatemala, handed over the verdict of guilty for both men, including a prison sentence of 120 years for Reyes Girón and 240 years for Valdez Asij. Reparations that address the health and education needs of the community were also included. (15) The Sepur Zarco case brought to justice those responsible for the crimes of sexual slavery committed against the women during the course of an armed conflict. It was the first of its kind in Guatemala and the world. (16)
For many women that experienced sexual assault during the Armed Conflict, the Sepur Zarco case advances their pursuit for justice. Although the State of Guatemala has formerly agreed upon certain declarations that function as laws to protect women and prevent crimes of violence against them, many human rights advocates are dismayed over the lack of adequate enforcement that renders these protection measures as meaningless. Resolution 1325, adopted by the United Nations Security Council on October 31, 2000, declares that the government has the responsibility to end impunity and prosecute those responsible for “genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes including those relating to sexual and other violence against women and girls.” In a communiqué by Immunity Watch, a statement of support is mentioned concerning the Sepur Zarco case, however, it also reiterates the need to specify reparation measures for the victims, to “overcome the structural conditions that allowed the public security forces to perpetrate sexual violence against women.”
On February 21, 2018, two years after the decisive verdict, the Ministerio Público de Guatemala and the United Nations Women (UNO) awarded the 14 surviving abuelas a special recognition, including a Medal “Naxjolomi,” signifying their courageous leadership – “aquella que lidera,” in Q’eqchi’. The (remaining) survivors are: Matilde Sub, María Ba Caal, Felisa Cuc, Margarita Chub, Cecilia Xo, Catarina Caal, Manuela Bá, Candelaria Maaz, Rosario Xo, Carmen Xol, Antonia Choc, and Demesia Yat. María Ba Caal’s main concern is that because of her advanced age, she may not see the reparations that were included in the verdict.
The “success stories” of women who participated in the Colectiva and whose narratives are presented herein, are imbued with a unique significance when analyzed from the historical and social perspective of survival. Guatemala’s 500 year-old history of conquest, colonialism, and armed conflict is replete with countless stories of struggle for justice, which often seemed untenable for the majority against a backdrop of institutionalized racism and discrimination. The women’s stories in the Colectiva are representative of their journeys of hope, not only because of their singular accomplishments, but for the powerful messages they emit to the world. As a whole, they share a story of profound sadness, tragedy, pain, anguish, and frustration. But they also demonstrated to the world how each one overcame their multiple near-death experiences, and resisted what could have been a life sentence of extreme psychological and emotional debilitation. Instead, they radiate with a keen sense of love for life and the natural world around them. There is no greater hope than that, especially for women.
Luz Méndez Gutiérrez
“Que todos sepan lo que sufrimos las mujeres. Sufrimos destrucción de nuestras cosas, violación, nos dejaron sin tierra” (17)
‘In Defense of the Indigenous Women’s Rights’
Luz Méndez Gutiérrez’ prior experiences in the counterinsurgency movement during the Armed Conflict and in the post-conflict, peace accords process were instrumental in the development of key aspects of the investigative report, Mujeres indígenas: clamor por la justicia: violencia sexual, conflict armado y despojo violento de tierras. In the 1970s, Méndez was an activist with the Guatemalan Labor Party (el Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo or PGT), which became part of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (Unidad Revolucionario Nacional Guatemalteco or URNG) in the 1980s. In 1991, she was appointed Political Diplomat by the URNG as a representative in the Peace Accords process. As the only female in the committee, she began to understand her vital role in representing women, and in particular, the indigenous women, for whom she had deep regards for the suffering they had endured during the Armed Conflict. However, understanding that her depth of knowledge about their experiences was insufficient, she became a dedicated researcher, collecting data from multiple sources, including first-hand information from the affected women, and the organizations that supported the women. As part of the peace negotiators, Luz Méndez played a vital role in the inclusion of an “Office for the Defense of Indigenous’ Women’s Rights” in the Peace Accords’ official document. (18) Included in her research were feminist organizations, such as the National Union of Guatemalan Women (Union Nacional Asociación de Mujeres Guatemaltecas or UNAMG) and human rights authorities such as the United Nations Women (UN Women). Her leadership, along with others, was instrumental in assuring that the Peace Accords include the substantial advances on the rights of indigenous women, especially their rights to demand justice against all forms of violence against women. (19)
Mamá Maquín: A community leader that fought for land rights on behalf of the Maya Q’eqchi’ becomes a legend and serves as an inspiration for women in the Colectiva
María Maquín and a photo of her grandmother, Mamá Maquín
At the time that Mamá Maquín joined the march of Maya Q’eqchi’ protesters in the heart of Panzós, Alta Verapaz on May 29, 1978, she was known as a respected leader and spokesperson for the campesinos fighting for their rights to procure land titles that they had inherited from their ancestors over a century ago. What was unknown to her and the rest of the large group of unarmed, peaceful protestors of men, women and children, was that the army awaited for them at the end of the street. In a surprise attack, the soldiers opened fire on the crowd, and although, everyone scurried to safety, there were hundreds killed or injured. Some of them, including women and children, jumped into the Río Polochic, and drowned in their desperation. This was later known as the “Panzós Massacre.”
María Maquín, standing by the photo of her grandmother, Mamá Maquín, recounts her experience on the day of the march. She was twelve-years old at time, alongside her grandmother when they were fired upon; her grandmother was shot and killed but she managed to dodge the bullets, and pretended to lay dead until she was able to escape with the others to the mountain.
The soldiers ordered to quash the rebellion were trained as assassins at the Zacapa military base, headed by a former military president, Carlos Arana Osorio (1970-74), known as the “butcher of Zacapa.” (Stoll, 1993, p.108). Approximately, 140 to 150 unarmed, peaceful protesters were killed and later, buried in clandestine graves by the soldiers. (20)
Mamá Maquín, whose real name was Adelina Caal, earned the title Mamá, which denotes respect and admiration, and was so honored because of her leadership in the fight for the campesinos’ rights to land titles that had been revoked or stolen by the government. The May 29 March was part of a series of protestations enacted by campesinos (farmers, activists, community leaders, etc.) from various Mayan pueblos, all of whom share similar grievances, e.g., lack of land, discrimination, forced conscription, and low wages, to name a few. The land that the campesinos used for their livelihood had been illegally transferred to wealthy landowners who claimed to have bought the titles. These titles were issued under the auspices of the government agency, the Guatemalan Agrarian Transformation Institute, administered by Hans Laugerud, the brother of the Guatemalan president, Kjell E. Laugerud García (1974-78). The fraudulent titles were given to wealthy landholders on a regular basis, many of whom had high-ranking positions in the military and/or the government. The area for which they had personal interests, called the “zone of the generals,” had extensive oil and nickel deposits and was amenable to raising cattle. (21) The small number of wealthy landholders (2 percent) laid claim to more than 57 percent of arable land, which the Mayan pueblos considered extremely unfair and unjust. They were unable to sustain a living under the circumstances without resorting to migratory work as field hands. (22)
Campesino leaders and activists began to build a support base in 1974, after the fraudulent presidential election of the military-supported Kjell Laugerud García. However, the spectacular success of the 150,000-strong, nine-day Ixtahuacán Miners March in November of 1977 compelled the Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC) to take the affirmative steps in becoming an organized, liberally-oriented, organization dedicated to the struggles of the rural Maya pueblo campesinos. (23) It was against this background of peaceful protests that the Panzós May 29 March was organized by the community leaders, including Mamá Maquín.
In a historical panorama, the “Panzós Massacre” was a crucial event that propelled and accelerated forward the Armed Conflict. Two years later, in January of 1980, a group of K’iche’ and Ixil men peacefully occupied the Spanish embassy in the hope of garnering international attention of the killings of civilians, especially in the north Quiché pueblo communities. (24) The government, presided by President Fernando Lucas García (1978-82), acted with brutality and burned down the embassy, killing everyone inside, including the protesters. Just a few weeks later, the Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC) organized a leadership conference that introduced a document known as the “declaración de Iximché,” or as author Arturo Arias asserts, was actually a declaration of war against the state forces. (Arias, 1990, pp. 230-57)
As an organization, Mamá Maquín originated in México where hundreds of Mayan families were refuged after fleeing the violence in Guatemala. Amongst these groups were the inhabitants of Santa María Tzejá, a K’iche’ community that had been devastated by the violence. In her book, Beatriz Manz describes their journey through the horrendous years of the Armed Conflict. Although hardships and tragedy dominated their lives, Manz makes the concerted effort to focus on the strengths and accomplishments of a people that lost everything but also, had an opportunity to apply fresh ideas to a new start in life. (25) Mamá Maquín promoters offered post-conflict workshops to help women learn a broad and deep perspective of the chaotic and complex Armed Conflict, and to understand, protect, and defend their rights. Rosalía Hernández was a founding member of Mamá Maquín in México and took great lengths to help women in all aspects of self-help, including the use of birth control. Of course, some of the women were in opposition to what Hernández proposed, but many others benefitted from the organization, such as Doña Julia. (26)
Rosalina Tuyuc Velásquez
Coordinadora Nacional de Viudas de Guatemala
Rosalina Tuyuc Velásquez is a human rights activist and the (1988) founder of CONAVIGUA (The National Association of Guatemalan Widows), dedicated to seeking truth and justice on behalf of the women whose husbands and other loved ones were assassinated or disappeared during the Internal Armed Conflict. Rosalina Tuyuc’s father and husband were killed during the early 1980’s of the Armed Conflict, and soon after, she began the painful ordeal of searching for their remains. Since then she has devoted her time to helping women, the “war widows,” in not only finding the graves of their loved ones but in seeking justice. (27)
1. Zacualpa is in the department of El Quiché, Guatemala, about 100 kilometers northwest of Guatemala City. This excerpt is based on a You Tube video, Doña Teresa.
2. The official investigations concurred that during the armed conflict, from 1960 to 1996, at least 440 rural massacres (other reports estimate 669 massacres) took the lives of 200,000 people, 83.3% were Mayans; in Quiché 45.5% of violence with the most victims, the perpetrators consisted of 93% State forces (Army, Civil Patrols, Commissioners). Additionally, 45,000 people, mostly civilians, have been reported “disappeared” and over a million inhabitants, mostly Maya, were forced to flee their homes. (See CEH: Report for Historical Clarification, 1999, the English language summary version.)
3. The Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH) is a comprehensive report that chronicles the Armed Conflict from its beginnings in 1960s to the 1996 Peace Accords; the investigations yielded detailed information regarding human rights violations, deaths, massacres, forced disappearances, physical destruction, etc. A trove of evidence was acquired from direct testimonies of survivors and witnesses. See CEH, the English language summary, p. 39.
8. Luz Méndez Gutiérrez and Amanda Carrera Guerra, Mujeres indígenas: clamor por la justicia: violencia sexual, conflict armado y despojo violento de tierras, (2014), p. 78.
9. Similar violent evictions that occurred in the Lote Ocho, Q’eqchi’ community had been repeated throughout the Armed Conflict. The military committed hundreds of massacres and killed and injured thousands of innocent people, mostly among the indigenous population, and thousands of women were sexually assaulted. In the Izabal/Alta Verapaz region, 9 percent of the 1980-1983 genocide victims were Maya – or at least 18,000. This information is recorded in both the CEHand the REMHI reports.
10. In the 2017, the CEDAW report includes the following statement that underscores the government’s lack of attention to this matter: “(22.) The Committee is concerned, however, about the significant delay in the implementation of the Agreement on a firm and lasting peace, especially with regard to reparations for the crimes perpetrated against women during the internal conflict and the pledges relating to the advancement of women.”
12. The publications listed as “Publicaciones propias” include nine women narratives and a collection of documents that serve as guides and manuals on the development of the Consorcio project. See actoras de cambiohere. For specific information about their methodology see “Metodología de formación sanación con mujeres sobrevivientes de violencia sexual y de la guerra en Guatemala” on their website.
13. Over a million people and mostly from indigenous communities, were displaced due to the Armed Conflict; the process of return or relocation took place between 1993-95 (CEH).
16. Information about the ongoing trial filed by the MUJERES ACHI can be found here.
17. This is a quote from one of the women in Méndez and Carrera study, p.65. “Everyone should know what went through… we suffered the destruction of our personal belongings, sexual assault, and we were left without land.”
22. See Méndez and Carrera, p. 28. Additional information: 84 percent of land is owned by men; 16 percent by women; nickel increased 164.4 percent annually 2002-2012.
23. See Arias, pp. 248-249. The CUC led the preparations for the May 1, 1978 demonstrations, which were hugely successful, and large, unexpected numbers of protestors participated.
24. In 1972, the guerrilla organization, Ejército Guerrilla de los Pobres – the Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) settled in the northern part of Quiché, close to the Maya pueblo Ixil (Nebaj, Chajul, and Cotzal) and the Christian base communities. In the Spring of 1976, the military began its repressive operations upon the request of Sebastian Guzman, a ladino landowner who had the names of men “presumably” collaborating with the guerrilla (the “blacklist”). Three thousand army troops were stationed in the region. The repression resulted in the deaths and injuries of thousands of civilians, later determined as a genocidal event. See Winds of Change in Ixil Country, in this website.
25. See Beatriz Manz, Paradise in ashes: A Guatemalan journey of courage, terror, and hope.
26. Manz, pp. 200-203. Additional information: Rosalía Hernández succumbed to cancer and died at the age of 36.
1. Arias, A. (1990). Changing Indian identity: Guatemala’s violent transition to modernity. In C. Smith (Ed)., Guatemalan Indians and the state, 1540 to 1988 (pp. 230-57). Austin: University of Texas Press.
2. CEH (Comisión para el Esclarecimento Histórico). (1999). Guatemala Memoria del Silencio
(Guatemala Memory of Silence. Conclusions and Recommendations. Guatemala City: United
Nations Office for Project Services.
3. Fulchirone*, A. (2011). Tejidos que lleva el alma: memoria de las mujeres mayas sobrevivientes de violación sexual durante el conflicto armado. Guatemala: ECAP and UNAMG.
*Note that spelling varies: Fulchiron or Fulchirone.
4. Manz, B. (2005). Paradise in ashes: A Guatemalan journey of courage, terror, and hope. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
5. Méndez Gutiérrez, L. & Carrera, Guerra, A. (2014). Mujeres indígenas: clamor por la justicia: violencia sexual, conflict armado y despojo violento de tierras. Guatemala: ECAP and UNAMG.
6. REMHI (Informe del proyecto interdiocesano de recuperación de la memoria histórico Guatemala: nunca mas) Recovery of Historical Memory Project, Guatemala Never Again. Official Report of the Human Rights Office, Archdiocese of Guatemala. (1999). Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
7. Stoll, D. (1993). Between two armies in the Ixil towns of Guatemala. NY: Columbia University Press.
8. Wilson, R. (1995). Maya resurgence in Guatemala.: Q’eqchi’ experiences. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma.
An historical perspective of Nicaragua brings into focus an immense and varied series of events and developments that combines war and conquest with phenomenal cultural, social, and economic changes–all within a physical and geographical environment known around the globe for its extraordinary biodiversified regions and of course, its natural beauty. The intervention and subsequent conquest of the Nicaraguans by the Spanish conquistadors beginning in 1523 established a colonial period that lasted far beyond the time the country gained its independence in 1838. Once an indigenous nation where numerous distinct tribal groups claimed their longstanding ancestral roots, some as far back as 900 AD, today, Nicaragua is a country with 6.5 million inhabitants. Although most of the remaining dominant indigenous languages (Chorotega, Nahuat, Xiu, Cacaopera) have become extinct, according to linguists, a large portion of the population self-identifies as indigenous (“indio”). Only about five indigenous languages remain (most belong to the Macro-chibcha family), and these are spoken in the far eastern part of the country and along the littoral region of the Caribbean Sea. (2) Nicaraguans have had to endure a forty-year brutal dictatorship (1937-1979); a costly and painful revolution, and another violent and deadly armed conflict known as the Contra War, both of which lasted from 1979 to 1990 and took at least 50,000 lives; and most recently, a succession of different, turbulent, and competing governing regimes. The story of Nicaragua entails a historical richness abound with colorful characters that bring to the fore humanity in all its glory, or as Steven Kinzer describes “implausible characters.” (3)
According to linguists, the remaining dominant indigenous languages (Chorotega, Nahuat, Xiu, Cacaopera) have become extinct. About five languages are spoken along the littoral region of the Caribbean Sea.
Zeledón’s Stance Against Imperialism
But the story of Benjamín Zeledón, whose letter to his wife reveals his impassioned plea for a revolution, has a plausible storyline from beginning to the end. It is also a story that unveils the strength and courage of a people who believed that they could change their world.
Zeledón was a former school teacher, a lawyer/judge and a military general. He was a patriot and like many others, and he shared the indignation toward the unencumbered American military intervention. His life and heroic patriotism inspired others, especially Augusto César Sandino, who upon learning of his heroic death, followed in his footsteps and eventually, became a legendary, revolutionary hero in his own right.
In its early stages as an independent nation, Nicaraguan politics seemed to adopt a democratic option but change in governmental control usually involved the conservative faction taking over the liberal faction and vice versa. It wasn’t long before the political parties seeking power turned their attention to the United States as a potential ally. The election of the liberal president, José Santos Zelaya (1893-1906), and his government’s attempt to “modernize” the country caught the undivided attention of the U.S. president, Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909). President Roosevelt, the champion of the Spanish-American War (1898), created and administered the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (1907) that invariably engaged the United States in interventionist maneuvers to insure that American capitalist investors would reap the rewards. Nicaragua was amongst several countries throughout Latin America affected by the ambitiously and invasive U.S. foreign policy. The multi-faceted policy also included President Taft’s administration (1909-1913) in what was known as the “dollar diplomacy,” allowing the U.S. to exercise full control over Nicaragua’s banks and transportation agencies, including railroads and canals. The conservative faction seeking to overthrow the popular Pres. Zelaya, rallied around the prospects of a shared power grab with the well-equipped American military forces. Upon the request by the conservative leadership, the U.S. deployed a marine unit in 1909, entering the country through the Caribbean coastal town of Bluefields. Once a British protectorate in the 18th century, Bluefields had been declared the capital of the Department of Zelaya in 1903, shortly after it was incorporated into the country in 1894. Negotiations between the conservative party leaders and the U.S. resulted in the ouster of Zelaya’s replacement, José Madríz Rodríguez, and in exchange, the Nicaraguan leaders agreed to a multi-million dollar business transaction deal. Although the conservative leadership had selected Juan José Estrada, Adolfo Díaz challenged the decision and then, was eventually elected. In 1912, President Díaz transferred the control of the country’s National Bank to the United States’ Commercial Bank owned by the Brown brothers. Benjamín Zeledón, a general pertaining to the liberal faction, adamantly opposed Díaz’ controversial dealings with the U.S. and in response, organized a rebellion. Díaz requested military intervention, and the U.S. responded–again. After Zeledón was defeated (and subsequently assassinated), the United States assumed a dominant role in Nicaragua’s government with a strong military presence for twelve years, until 1924, and again from 1927 to 1933. (4)
Sandino’s Rebellion Against the U.S. Marine Corps
As a young man barely twenty years old, Augusto César Sandino left his country to seek his fortunes in Honduras and México. He worked in various American-owned companies such as United Fruit. His involvement in the labor unions steered him toward activism, advocating for workers’ rights and agrarian reform. He learned from his fellow workers and union activists about how his country had agreed to the extraordinary demands by the Americans to take over the financial institutions and become deeply indebted to American businesses. Indeed, the United States’ intrusion was evident all over Mexico and Latin America, but Nicaragua, according to Sandino’s circle of union laborers, exemplified the worst case scenario. Sandino was thirty-one when he returned to Nicaragua (1926) and headed directly to the mining industry where he knew he could successfully talk to the downtrodden miners about joining an insurrection. His message was clear, engaging, and convincing, that the United States Marines must be dislodged from the country, and as proud Nicaraguans, take back their freedom and independence; and that the Americans had robbed them of their possessions and turned their people into slaves.
Sandino was anti-imperialist and a nationalist, but not a Marxist. After all, Agustín Faribundo Martí, the Salvadoran legendary hero, who had joined Sandino in Nicaragua for a brief period, returned to his country and told his fellow comrades that he was unable to convince Sandino to adopt Marxist tenets.
Several hundred men, many of them boys, joined Sandino’s army and began attacking the U.S. military outposts, but as expected, the U.S. Marines fired back with a vengeance. In their first major attack in Ocotal in the Segovia highlands, Sandino’s guerrilla unit managed to push the marines toward the outer perimeters of the town. No one expected aerial bombardments, but soon, two American planes dropped bombs all over the town killing at least 300 people, many of them women and children. This tragedy has the distinction of being the “first” aerial bombardment of its kind in all of Latin America. (5)
The conservative party had elected Adolfo Díaz as their president for a second time (1926-1929); the same President Díaz that had made the business deals and military pact with the United States in 1912. Under his presidency, more U.S. Marines were deployed, strategically located, and instead of Zeledón, his new enemy was Sandino.
Battle skirmishes with Sandino at the helm continued for several years. Then, in 1933, Sandino traveled to Managua to sign a Peace Treaty with President Sacasa. Included in the agreement was that certain state lands along the Coco River would become accessible to the farmers. Later that year, as the United States grappled with the Great Depression, the American Marines were withdrawn from Nicaragua. Sandino was overwhelmed with celebratory cheers from his many supporters; as a poorly equipped insurgency, they had managed to evict the U.S. Marine Corps from their beloved country and signed a peace treaty. This image lay deeply buried in the memories of Nicaraguans.
Somoza Eliminates His Rival and Unwittingly Solidifies the Struggle Against Imperialism
Anastasio Somoza García, just a year older than Sandino, was the son of a wealthy family of coffee plantation owners. At the time the U.S. Marines were withdrawn (1933), Somoza had achieved a superior rank as a military officer. Thus, when the conditions for removal of American military personnel required a Nicaraguan officer to replace the American general, Somoza was chosen for the position. However, Somoza was also a politician with presidential aspirations, and he perceived the popular Sandino as his rival. On February 21, 1934, Somoza ordered his National Guard to capture and assassinate Sandino while in Managua, attending a dinner with President Sacasa. Sandino and his entourage had just left the presidential event when the National Guard carried out Somoza’s orders. The Guard transported their corpses and buried them in an unknown location. But Somoza’s plan to eliminate his rival also included the murder of hundreds of men, women and children in the eastern semiautonomous region, all of whom were Sandino’s supporters. Somoza used fraudulent electoral tactics to gain presidential positions, from 1937 to 1947, and again from 1950 until 1956, when he was assassinated in Panama. He was replaced by his son, Luis Somoza Debayle from 1956 until his death in 1963. (His death was due to illness.) Somoza’s other son, Anastasio Somoza Debayle became president from 1967 to 1972 and from 1974 to 1979. In interim periods when the Somoza father and sons were not presidents, the presidency was held by politicians for whom many believed were acting as their “puppets.” (6)
The United States response to the assassination of Sandino was not publicly disclosed, although anyone that had a substantial or even periphery understanding of the current events in Somoza’s political orbit understood the repercussions quite clearly, especially in Latin America. According to historian David Francois (2018), the United States’ animosity against Sandino, along with his subsequent assassination, caused a furor across the revolutionary landscape of Latin America. The Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA), one of many organizations whose prime focus was to fight North American aggressive imperialism, declared Sandino as the symbol of the Latin American struggle. (7)
Somoza’s Blind Ambition
Somoza’s calculations for staying in power and accumulating wealth amounted to what Thomas Walker describes as a simple formula: “maintain the support of the guard, cultivate the Americans, and co-opt important domestic power contenders.” (8) The United States, well-trained National Guard was the prize that kept on giving for Somoza since he had intimate knowledge on how he could maintain the soldiers’ loyalties while coercing them to commit heinous crimes against innocent people, mostly the elderly, women and children. Corruption was an integral part of Somoza’s authoritative rule and to hold on to power, the well-mannered, English-speaking ruler created a special image of himself for the Americans as the benevolent, astute, rule-abiding, and promoter of human rights for everyone, including women. His two sons, Luis and Anastasio, Jr., both highly decorated in military rank and file, were equally adapt to playing the roles as powerful, pro-American dictators, although Anastasio, Jr. or “Tachito” received the worst criticism. After the devastating earthquake in 1972 that killed at least 10,000 inhabitants and leveled 600 square blocks in the heart of Managua, Anastasio Jr. created a fiasco of a scale that only a corrupt dictator could achieve. While the international community responded with compassion and generosity, Anastasio Jr. used the donations to line his pockets and those of his loyal guards and supporters. At first, the public was unaware of the plunderage but Somoza’s deception and lies became particularly noticed by the well-off business and private, elite sectors. The anti-Somoza sentiment began to escalate as more middle-class and wealthy people participated in the FSLN revolutionary organization. The red-and-black flag, once the symbol of the revolutionary Sandino, appeared increasingly dominant as it became the adopted symbol of the SANDINISTA FRONT OF NATIONAL LIBERATION (FSLN).
A Victorious Euphoria and the End of the Somoza Dynasty
“This is another distinctive element in Nicaraguan history –
that the fragile but heroic resistance of a small guerilla army
Somoza Jr. stepped down from the presidency for two years (1972-1974), presumably to create a deceptive appearance as a proper presidential candidate complying with electoral law. But, he became president for a second time from 1974 to 1979. The Revolution intensified to a an excruciating rage in its final years, from 1977 to 1979. The Sandinistas’ persistence, determination, and perseverance resulted in an extraordinary victory against Somoza’s giant war machine. By July 20, 1979, the Somoza family had departed to their property in the United States, taking their wealth and valuables while the Nicaraguans relished in their victorious euphoria. By the time the Somoza’s left, their financial worth was estimated at one billion dollars. Their property ownership included more than ten thousand square miles of fertile and grazing land throughout the country and in Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica. They controlled investments in numerous capital ventures, such as railroad lines, steamship travel, fisheries, mining industries, lumber, and brewery companies. At least, these were the financial sources considered as legitimate. (10) All of the possessions (known as the “piñata” at the stage of disbursements by the state) were now in the hands of the victorious Sandinistas. (11)
The Women and Their Stories: Amada, Rosario, Doris, and Dora María
When the Winter comes, I will take you to
You will love it there!
You will love my home, my house in Nicaragua,
So large and queenly looking, with a haughty air
That seems to tell the mountains, the mountains of
By the time the Sandinista Front of National Liberation, (the FSLN, also known as the “Frente”) was in the conceptual phase constituted by Carlos Fonseca, Silvio Mayorga, and Tomás Borges in 1961, the Somoza dictatorship or “dynasty” had ruled for twenty-four years. The Somoza governing hand print was starkly obvious in the economic, social, and cultural divisions of the country, where the well-off consisted of a small fraction of the entire population and the majority of Nicaraguans were poor, illiterate, underemployed, and in some cases living in extreme poverty where families were barely surviving.
In her story, Amada Pineda tells how she and her husband worked long and arduous hours picking coffee beans for a pittance, subsisting on a meager diet for a family of nine children. Amada’s story, full of struggle and tragedy, as told to Margaret Randall (13), coincides with those of thousands of others during the sixties and seventies when Somoza’s attempts to quash the increasingly vocal campesino uprisings developed into a brutal repression. Amada’s husband joined the Socialist Party and then, began to participate in labor union meetings. After the union leader, Bernardino Díaz Ochoa, was violently killed by the Somoza’s National Guard, Amada began to get involved. She learned from the fledgling FSLN members about Somoza’s repressive regime. She joined the Women’s Organization associated with the Socialist Party. As the Guard hunted down the families suspected of supporting the guerrilla, people would disperse throughout the countryside. Amada’s husband left the country for the Soviet Union, and Amada took her young children to a safehouse (her infant son died in a rainstorm while they attempted to flee). But the Guard tracked her down, and at dawn one day, Amada awoke to find her dilapidated house where she was sheltering surrounded by guardsmen with weapons pointed at her. The Guard was looking for her, not necessarily her husband. In her reluctance to surrender, she refused to give up her child that she carrying in her arms. She was forced to let go of her child, and as soon as she did, several guardsmen began beating her with gang style force and violence until she could hardly stand up. They threw her in a prison cell with six other men, her comrades, and then, the Guard began to interrogate her, mostly about the whereabouts of her husband and other “subversives.” Amada claimed she knew nothing about the union, the leaders, and their activities.
Several guardsmen proceeded to violently sexually assault Amada. She recalled that within a few days the men had raped her seventeen times. She managed to stop the assaults by pleading with them to consider the fact that she is a mother and wife and not a prostitute, and she had had enough of their brutality. To her astonishment, the men stopped, leaving her with painful injuries, and alone in a locked room.
Amada’s story, one of several in Randall’s Sandino’s Daughters, concludes with a hopeful but tragic sense. The revolution had finally reached closure and Amada’s determination to impact the gross inequalities amongst the working poor affected her perception of the roles that women assume in the insurrection. She now believed that women are as capable as men in making important decisions in labor unions, and in fighting alongside their male counterparts in the Frente’s frontlines. Amada’s father prevented her from attending school, which she strongly regrets, but now believed that women should have the same or similar educational opportunities as men. The loss of her children during the war was the most emotionally, heart wrenching for Amada. The Frente had just declared victory when she learned that her seventeen-year old son had been violently killed while collecting firewood for cooking. The teenager was wounded, tortured and then shot to death. His corpse was found in a shallow grave alongside those of a woman and her baby. Her sentiments reflect a profound sense of a mother’s sadness: “What’s there to say? War is like that. You lose and you win, and sometimes you lose what you loved the most. But what really upsets me is the way he died. If he’d been killed in battle, with a gun in his hand, maybe I wouldn’t feel like I do.” (14)
The Mothers of FSLN Soldiers
The mothers of fallen soldiers, or incarcerated in torturous prisons, became the most vocal critics against the Somoza regime. Their indefatigable campaigning was forceful and their presence was perceived as honorable and courageous by the Sandinistas. It became their fight, their struggle to abolish the torture, and to free the prisoners of war. The mothers’ sorrowful voices were refrains in the revolutionary marches where young men and women proudly and bravely fought and died for their freedom—in Nicaragua, but also in Chile, Argentina, and El Salvador.
The Women in the Revolution—Dora María Tellez and Doris Tijerino
La Revolución empezó en las estrellas, a millones
de años luz. El huevo de la vida
es uno. Desde ..
el primer huevo de gas, al huevo de iguana, al hombre nuevo.
Sandino se gloriaba de haber nacido del ‘vientre de los
(el de una indita de Niquinohomo)
Del vientre de los oprimidos nacerá la Revolución.
The Revolution started in the stars, millions
Of light-years away. The egg of life
Is one. From
The first bubble of gas, to the iguana’s egg, to the New Man.
Sandino was proud he had been born “from the womb of the
(from the womb of a Niquinohomo Indian woman)
From the womb of the oppressed the Revolution will be born.
Doris Tijerino was one of the first females to fight in the frontlines as a ranking officer with the Frente. She was captured three times between 1967 to 1978. In an article that draws together a review of Tijerino’s book, Somos millones with a biographical profile, the author Kristine Byron describes the impossible and agonizing position of the incarcerated females. (16) Tijerino is a daughter of a wealthy family, the granddaughter of an English colonist, whose mother is caring and loving and whose father dominated her life in the tradition of a patriarchic society. Her mother gave her a special collection of classical books, which inspired and guided Tijerino to develop into an independent intellectual. Tijerino’s praise for “motherhood” is based on her beloved mother’s image, the selfless mother such as in Maxim Gorky’s novel, Mother, that above all and despite everything, loves her child profoundly, a raison d’etre behind the unconditional love for the son or daughter.
Rape is a form of gendered violence and within the context of an armed conflict, female prisoners are subject to the most heinous, inhumane cruelty.
Yet, in prison she was treated like an animal. She was tortured like the rest of the male prisoners, however, as a woman in the guerrilla, she had to endure the cruel and savage methods that target her sexuality. She was repeatedly raped, her breasts and vaginal area were electrocuted; the guardsmen sexually abused her while naked; they humiliated her and made her feel as though she was a despicable female, a “communist whore.” The author explains that when she was captured for the third time in 1978, many people, including author Margaret Randall, feared that she would be killed. Randall had the unpublished, Spanish language manuscript, Somos millones, detailing the life of Tijerino as a female FSLN combatant. She believed that by publishing it, Tijerino’s imprisonment would bring international attention to her case. An English-translated version of the book was published within months of her capture in 1978. A photojournalist’s documentation with photos and audio recordings revealing Tijerino’s harrowing experiences also contributed to her eventual release and safety.
“We revolutionaries are visionaries to a certain extent.”
Dora María Tellez was sixteen years old when she entered the university in León to study medicine. She knew that the university was known for the radical student organizations, and before long she became a member of the FSLN. Her initiation activities were fairly risk-free – procuring food, supplies, medicine, clothes, weapons, and identifying safehouses. Then, around Christmas Eve, the earthquake hit taking 10,000 lives and destroying 600 blocks in a downtown area of Managua. Even so the Sandinistas continued their work and two years later in 1974, the FSLN pulled off a hostage takeover at the Castillo Christmas Party effectively causing intense negotiations between Somoza and the commanders. The Sandinistas asked for the release of prisoners, a hefty ransom, a broadcasting of a prepared communiqué over the public radio waves, and safe passage to Cuba. Somoza complied. One of the prisoners released was Daniel Ortega, convicted for bank robbery and had spent seven years in prison. The FSLN commander was Eduardo Contreras and next in command was Hugo Torres. Edén Pastora, Hugo Torres, and Dora María Tellez commanded the next hostage operation, Operation Pigpen, in August, 1978 with Tellez as the principal negotiator. Later, in 2021, both Tellez and Torres were incarcerated by the Ortega Murillo regime on false charges that amount to a politically motivated vendetta.
Tellez was one of the lead commanders of the Western Front. Her comrades were killed while planning their next operation in a “safehouse” in León, thus, she was tasked with unifying the units and taking command in the liberation of León, which had become one of the Guard’s stronghold. In the summer of 1979, she led her unit in a highly intense battle for several weeks, pushing and dispersing the National Guard at the street level while escaping aerial and mortar bombardments. It was a phenomenal feat considering that the National Guard had major weapons and many more soldiers and the FSLN guerrilla were far short in numbers and in weaponry. However, by this stage of the revolution, thousands of civilians had joined the FSLN as supporters, setting up barricades, and using anything they could to fight off the Guard. There’s no doubt that their involvement was a contributing factor to the FSLN victory. (18) At twenty-two years old, Dora María Tellez who went to León to study medicine, and instead, led a squadron to liberate it, was a heroic figure. (19)
Dora María Tellez: “What makes a woman believe that she is capable of anything? No one taught us. That is one of the great mysteries about the Revolution. They don’t teach it to you at school. You don’t learn to believe in humanity on the streets. Religion doesn’t teach it. It teaches us to believe in God, not in men and women. So it’s difficult to awaken that belief in yourself and in others. But in spite of all that, many women and men did develop that commitment.” (20)
“All we knew was that we were going to make the Revolution, however long it took. Ten, 20, 30, even 40 years. Most of us thought we’d never live to see the day. It’s still hard to believe that we’ve done it.” (21)
“It’s through experiences like these that our values have changed. We’ve had to live through things most people can’t even imagine. All of this has called into question values and beliefs that used to be taken for granted. How could values not change in families where sons and daughters were killed, where a mother lost what she loved the most? I mean, what couldn’t change in a home where a woman was already capable of seeing her children fight for the Revolution, accepting their death, burying them, and then often having to pretend they were still alive so the repression wouldn’t fall on them all the harder? Anything, even the role of women—so deeply rooted—can change.” (22)
Gone from them laughter and the warm light of day.
Pallid she is sat in her golden chair;
Unsounded the keys of the harpsichored there,
And a flower, from a vase has swooned away.
From Poetry to Politics
Today, Rosario Murillo is the Vice President of Nicaragua, and her position of power has been scrutinized by many. (24) Murillo began her political career alongside Ortega immediately after the 1979 Sandinista Revolution. As the official spokesperson for Ortega, she has remained in the public’s eye for over forty years, long enough for the world to adjust a broad lens upon which to examine and analyze her actions and decisions as both a First Lady and now as the Vice President to her husband, President Daniel Ortega.
Who is Rosario Murillo? She is the VP, “groomed” by President Ortega to replace him if the need occurs; so what should the public expect if she would inherit the presidency? Is she the benevolent, stately “queen” that deeply and genuinely cares about all Nicaraguans, especially the poor, struggling and suffering “la gente del pueblo.” Or, is she the “dictator” at heart whose ambition is paramount and will use (and abuse) whatever political maneuverings in the toolbox to gain that power? What kind of ambition—besides president? Does Murillo harbor the desire for the accumulation of wealth? And, perhaps, significantly, does Murillo promote the empowerment of woman especially since she possesses a position of power?
A Privileged Education and an Exuberant Ambition
Murillo’s family was a member of the bourgeoisie. She attended a private high school in Great Britain, the Greenway Convent Collegiate School. At the Institut Anglo-Suisse Le Manoir in Switzerland, she was an art student; while at the University of Neuchatel also in Switzerland, she earned a French language certificate. At the University of Cambridge, she acquired an English language certificate. Upon her return to Managua, she attended the National Autonomous University and afterwards, became a language professor at the Instituto de Ciencias Comerciales and the the Colegio Teresiano. About that time, at the age of sixteen, Murillo gave birth to her daughter, Zoilamérica, whom she named after her maternal grandmother. (25) Like so many others with privileged positions, both educationally and economically, Murillo’s ambition was based on a European tradition with an international scope. A teaching career wasn’t in Murillo’s horizon and after two years she began instead, to support the FSLN, setting up her house as a clandestine shelter and also, becoming politically involved. She was caught by the National Guard in 1976 because of her political activities and detained for a short time. Upon her release she fled to South America, Panama, and then, to Costa Rica where she met and fell in love with the future president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega.
Daniel Ortega’s working-class parents were fierce opponents of Somoza. He and his two brothers were young revolutionaries socialized by their parents rhetoric and political activities. (26) Ortega joined the Frente at age fifteen and three years later in 1967, he was convicted of armed bank robbery and imprisoned for seven years. Murillo knew about Ortega’s imprisonment and reportedly, sent him some of her poems. His release from prison was due to the Frente’s armed operation at a Christmas party hosted and attended by Somoza’s government dignitaries. Among the commanders of the 1974 guerrilla unit were Eduardo Contreras and Hugo Torres. Their operation was successful in collecting a hefty ransom and in forcing the Somoza government to release the FSLN prisoners, which included Daniel Ortega.
Perhaps, one of the most enduring qualities of mutual attraction between Ortega and Murillo was their ambition—the notion that they could become the country’s most powerful couple seemed to be a formidable reality. After the war ended on July, 1979, Murillo and Ortega, now a couple with children, moved to Managua where their political trajectory had its start.
Rosario Murillo, the Writer
In 1932, the newspaper La Prensa, owned and operated by editor-in-chief Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Zelaya, became the established news outlet and the critical voice of the conservative, wealthy sector against the government of President Sacasa and then, Anastasio Somoza García. Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal (the son) took over the business after the death of his father in 1952 and followed a similar course of descension and critique against the Somoza dictatorship.
During the 1940’s and early 50’s, in other Central American countries like Guatemala and El Salvador, the voices of descension were escalating, especially amongst women leaders, and the middle and upper-middle classes began to rise against their despotic leaders. (27)
Chamorro and a co-editor, Pablo Antonio Cuadro, both of whom were members of the conservative, wealthy elite, began to use La Prensa as a platform to publish stories with varied literary genres specifically intended to unify the anti-Somoza opposition and create a viable coalition against the dictatorship. (28)
Many young and aspiring writers were direct beneficiaries of the opportunities that La Prensa afforded them. La Prensa Literaria was the major source of Nicaragua’s published poetry during the 1960’s. Eventually, a group of writers whose diverse works focused on anti-somozacismo within the forceful, pro-revolution rhetoric, emerged as frontrunners in the category of poet-combatants. Some of the most popular works were writings by Carlos Fonseca, Ricardo Morales Avilés, Leonel Rugama, Ernesto Cardenal, Sergio Ramírez, and Doris Tijerino, to name a few. (29)
In the early 1970’s Murillo began working as a reporter with La Prensa and at the same time was a member of “Gradas,” a group of politically oriented artists, consisting of poets, singer/songwriters such as Carlos Mejía Godoy, painters, and others. As a reporter, Murillo took on the assignment of writing up Amada Pineda’s story, which Chamorro then published with full knowledge that the Somoza regime would retaliate for this act. (30)
Amada Pineda had tried in vain to seek justice against the perpetrators that committed the brutal torture against her and others. She made a personal plea to Chamorro as the last resort, and her published story reached a wide, economically diverse readership. As expected, Amada Pineda’s story, in full display in the country’s major newspaper, was received with outrage by Somoza and his supporters. But its publication was also perceived as a bold and powerful statement against the dictatorship’s brutality and repression. Chamorro was assassinated by the National Guard in 1978. His murder sparked a tsunami of violence: the National Guard increased its terror of fear and death against the revolting populace, and the FSLN responded with a massive and forceful mobilization. (31)
Rosario Murillo, the Poet
Murillo played an important role as a featured poet during the late 60’s and early 70s. She was a member of a group of middle and upper-class women known as “The Six,” and their writings were called the new women’s poetry. (32) “The Six” included Murillo, Michele Najlis, Yolanda Blanco, Vidaluz Meneses, Gioconda Belli, and Daisy Zamora. The women shared similar backgrounds and experiences: a Catholic school education throughout their youth, including at the (modernized) private universities, and some studied abroad as did Murillo; all were influenced by early vanguard poets, including Ernesto Cardenal; their poems were published in La Prensa Literaria; and they benefitted from the support of the international community by which they gained greater access to the world-class literary field as women at the universities and in career training. Their poetry was not “feminist” per say, but the overtones were obviously encased within a unique female voice. In as much as their poetic expressions contained images of the female emancipatory identity and the revolution, in general, their feminist themes were consistent with the Nicaraguan society that upholds women’s social traditions as primarily mothers, daughters, and wives. Their poetic inclinations of advancing women’s liberating process from the Somoza patriarchal grip was exhilarating but far removed and out of the grasp of the majority of women in Nicaragua that lived in poverty and repression. (33)
Murillo published seven poetry books from 1975 to 1992: Gualtayán (1975); Sube a nacer conmigo (1977); Un deber de cantar (1981); Amar es combatir (antología) (1982); En espléndidas ciudades (1985); Las esperanzas misteriosas (1990); Angel in the deluge (1992) translated from the Spanish by Alejandro Murguía. (34)
After the revolution in the early 80s, Murillo positioned herself alongside the leadership of her compañero, Daniel Ortega, the coordinator of the Junta of National Reconstruction. (35) She was director of a union of cultural workers, the Asociación Sandinista de Trabajadores de la Cultura (ASTC), and the editor of the literary supplement of the Sandinista newspaper, Barricada. She believed that the artist should always be prepared to defend the revolution through their art—music, painting, writing—but, also in combat fighting with the guerrilla. (36)
The Ministry of Culture at the State level was directed by the vanguard poet, Ernesto Cardenal. He and his brother, Fernando Cardenal, the director of the Ministry of Education, worked in coordination to administer two of the most important projects of the era. Ernesto Cardenal organized the poetry workshops (talleres de poesía) based on his previous work known as the Solentiname writing project. (37) Fernando Cardenal’s work involved the organization and deployment of thousands of volunteer literacy educators to areas of Nicaragua that had experienced extreme social, cultural, and educational neglect throughout Somoza’s reign. (38) Both projects introduced poetry writing and literacy development at the grassroots level, using techniques advanced by Paulo Freire. (39) Particularly important was the inclusion of the narrative, testimonial poetry techniques developed in the Solentiname Project. (40)
Murillo and other established poets of the Vanguard era, were highly critical of Ernesto Cardenal’s writing project. Murillo used her authority and arranged for the airing of a televised program, which she hosted, to publicly discredit Cardenal’s work, essentially pointing to the “too simplistic” and substandard quality of the poetry written by workshop participants. However, Cardenal was also a Catholic priest and as a liberation theologian his work at the Solentiname lay monastery (which he founded), had as its core and foundation the pastoral duty to bring the teachings of Christ into the daily lives of the poor and oppressed, which was a spiritual/religious process in the revolutionary act of liberation. (41) Cardenal’s response was that the goal of the project was to introduce and teach the expressive arts to the disadvantaged and disenfranchised populace. But Murillo’s preference for a system of cultural brigades, i.e., taking the arts in performance to the people, over Cardenal’s writing workshops, i.e., nurturing creative writing at the grassroots level, eventually, pushed Cardenal out of the Ministry. Whether the conflict between Murillo and Cardenal was personal rather than substantive remains unanswered, although Murillo’s ambition could not be overlooked.
Rosario Murillo and Amada Pineda, Again
On July 20, 2018, in a ceremony to commemorate the 39th anniversary of the Sandinista victory over the Somoza regime forces, Amada Pineda stood on a stage platform with Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo. In front of a huge crowd of Sandinista supporters at the Plaza la Fe, Ortega pins the Augusto César Sandino medal on Pineda’s blouse. The special honor is bestowed upon Pineda as an award for her heroism as a fighter for the Sandinista Revolution. Pineda took the microphone to thank the Commander for the honor and then, proceeded to tell the story of how the Somocista Guard assassinated her son in 1979, and now her other son, Francisco Arauz Pineda was assassinated by those that want to end the Revolution. “I want to say to the young people,” she stated, “to continue forward, don’t hold back, work hard for the Revolution, since it has given us so much.” “ Comandante Daniel is here to stay,” she added. In referring to the assassins, she remarked that she wanted to yell at the golpistas (the persons that attempted the “coup”) that they were murderers but “they will not finish off the Revolution.”
Murillo, standing by her side, listening intently, waits until she puts down the microphone and then embraces her. The two women pose for photographs; Murillo’s expression shows compassion and warmth, as if to offer Pineda her most profound condolences. (42)
Who Killed Francisco Arauz Pineda?
Arauz Pineda, the 55-year old son of Amada Pineda, was struck with gunshot and then, partially incinerated on June of 2018 at the site of one of the multiple barracks in Managua that had been erected by the civilian protestors. He and his three companions, all workers with the Sandinista government, were part of the “clean-up” crew tasked with dismantling the barracks. The protest had started peacefully on April 18th, and by most accounts, there was no intention of violence on the part of the protesters. However, violence erupted, and the back and forth skirmishes between the unarmed protestors and the armed Sandinista police and paramilitary (called voluntary police by the government) lingered intermittently for several months.
Although Arauz Pineda’s perpetrators were captured the following month, very few details about the crime were available to the public. The following contains the information published in the Sandinista news outlet.
Four adolescent men were charged with participating in the assassination of Arauz Pineda, as well as injuring one of his fellow workers. According to the digital article in El 19, the court hearing took place on November 14, 2018, while Amada Pineda sat somberly in the audience. Two of the young men, Juan Ramón Mena (not present) and Misael Espinoza stand accused of killing Arauz and wounding his co-worker, José Antonio with an AK rifle. The other three, Erick Antonio, Cristopher Marlon and Ulises Ruben Tovel, were charged with each carrying an illegal fire arm and incinerating the lifeless corps of Arauz Pineda. The young men, wearing a passion purple color uniform, sat confused while conferring with their legal counsel.
Just seven months later, on June 11, 2019, Confidencial.com.ni published an article with photographs of jubilant men celebrating their release from prison. The opening paragraph informs the reader that dozens of political prisoners were recently released due to an amnesty proclamation. In this particular group (alluding to the fact that another group of fifty prisoners were previously released) were campesinos, ex-military members, journalists, and student leaders of the April 18th (2018) “rebellion.” The student leaders had been imprisoned by the Ortega Murillo dictatorship on false charges of terrorism, organized crime, and even murder. Reportedly, some had served a prison sentence of 380 days.
Among the 56 names of prisoners released were the four that had been charged with the murder of Arauz Pineda: Cristopher Marlon Mendez, Misael Espinoza, Ulises Ruben Toval Ríos, and Erick Antonio Carazo Talavera. Questions about the men’s judicial process remain unanswered without additional information on the circumstances by which these men were charged, tried, and sentenced. However, if they gained their release based on the premise of “amnesty,” then, it appears that Amada Pineda lost the justice she sought for the assassination of her son. She believed that the murderers were part of a scheme to overthrow the Sandinista government; and that imperial forces financed the agitators and paid assassins to murder Sandinistas. This was the official message communicated by Ortega and Murillo, and hardly anyone had any reason to question its integrity. News outlets throughout the country are obligated to disseminate official Sandinista communication since most, if not all, are owned or controlled by the Ortega Murillo government. One of Murillo’s responsibility is the management of communication networks and systems, ensuring that her specific message is widely broadcasted on a daily basis.
The June 8, 2019 Amnesty Law that was passed by the National Assembly in 24 hours.
The Amnesty Law grants “broad amnesty to all people who took part in the events that have taken place throughout Nicaragua from April 18, 2018, until this law enters into force.” The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) raises its objections to this law, not only because of its ambiguity, but because it purports to grant amnesty to those that committed serious human rights violations. Over 300 people lost their lives as a direct result of the April 18th Rebellion, and thousands were injured, some seriously, and many of the hundreds of people that were detained and imprisoned were subjected to torture. In an article by Noelia Gutiérrez, “The Price Paid by Nicaraguan Women Opposing the Ortega Regime,” women were picked up by the police, taken to jails, brutally beaten with clubs – in the legs, stomach, chest, face – and interrogated endlessly. They were denied medical assistance they desperately needed and two pregnant women suffered miscarriages. According to international human rights law, the government is obligated to “investigate, identify, and sanction “ the individuals responsible for the human rights violations. If the court determines that grave human rights have been violated, the perpetrators must be held accountable.
Rosario Murillo Chooses Which Grieving Mothers to Support
Amada Pineda lost her son in the milieu of protestations, and although her case for justice is yet unresolved, she has the support and admiration of Rosario Murillo. But it’s another completely different story for the mothers of victims who were also killed as a result of the 2018 April Rebellion. Dozens of mothers and their family members of the victims who were shot and killed by the police and/or paramilitary-style forces have desperately sought the truth. They followed every protocol and procedure in filing formal complaints with the state authorities, but were repeatedly turned away. They finally realized that the Ortega Murillo regime would never concede to their demands, and to make matters worse, some group members began to suspect that they were being targeted and persecuted. When they understood the uphill battle against the ironclad and repressive regime, they realized the need to create their own power of defense. They launched La Asociación de Madres de Abril (April Mothers Association) or AMA, which not only formed a base of support for the members, but it also constituted a means by which to seek truth and justice, using every available resource, including those offered by the international community.
AMA’s first major task was to provide support for the grieving mothers and other family members. Many of the victims were teenagers whose sole purpose were to participate in a peaceful protest as part of their civic duty. The April 18th march was started by people (mostly older adults) protesting the government’s decision to cut back their pension checks. But then, the students joined in and the police responded; the violence escalated, especially when the police began to use deadly violence. The families learned that their loved ones were unarmed when they were shot, and the police refused to render aid to the wounded, causing some of the victims to bleed out. They were appalled at the brutal assault on defenseless young people that didn’t deserve to be killed or wounded.
The families chose to create a museum, Ama y No Olvida: Museo de la Memoria Contra La Impunidad, to dignify the lives of their loved ones and to remember them. They also wanted to publicly denounce the circumstances by which the victims lost their lives. They were not criminals, nor were they conspiring to overthrow the government, as the Ortega Murillo government claimed. With the assistance of the commissioned, Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEL), an entity of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the AMA members are able to declare, with their own documentation, that the offenses committed by the Ortega Murillo government constitute crimes against humanity.
The museum opened on September 30th, 2019 and closed a year later, December, 2020 due to the constant harassment by police and their agents. The virtual museum features the 70 victims killed during a five-month period in ten departments. Each department features a custom-made map of the municipality where the victims were shot, and illustrates the location of the police that committed the assassinations. Many of these killings occurred at the site of the barricades where protestors were positioned. These barricades, once hailed as heroic symbols of resistance during the Sandinista Revolution, were re-named by the Ortega Murillo regime as “tranqueros de muerte.”
Murillo’s words and deeds were closely aligned with Ortega’s accusations that the protesters were paid by foreign agents and the killings were justified to end the attempted coup. Murillo’s similar message to the mothers of the victims was intended to discredit their complaints against the police, and despite their unfortunate loss, the Sandinista government would only acknowledge the loss suffered by Sandinista women like Amada Pineda.
Murillo’s Repression Against AMA (Mothers of April Association)
In a news release (dated April 21, 2021) by the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders, several incidents of aggression and assault were reported toward members and supporters of the AMA as they commemorated the third anniversary of the April 2018 Rebellion. Between the 14th and 17th of April, about 75 women (human rights defenders) associated with AMA (and their families) were subjected to harassment by police, preventing them from leaving their homes. On April 19th, a similar group of women in Masaya and Carazo were also harassed by the police. Their commemorative books were confiscated, their purses and bags were searched, and they were threatened with incarceration.
On April 20th, the police physically assaulted and then, detained Francys Valdivia Machado, a human rights defender and the president of AMA, her mother and three other women. While in police custody, the women were physically and verbally assaulted. They were eventually released but never told the reason for their detention.
On August 15, 2018, BBC World Service released the news report on YouTube about the women outside of the El Chipote Prison where their children and other family members were detained. According to “Betsy,” the spokesperson, the women were demanding the answers to their basic questions: where are their loved ones, why are they detained, and when can they see them. Their detention is illegal and the accusations against them are false. On that day, the women were ordered to voluntarily leave the premises or face the physical aggression by police. Betsy reiterates the group’s response, that contrary to the government’s claim, their family members in detention are not “golpistas,” (seditious protestors), and their families are not “terrorists.”
Murillo’s Propaganda and Distortion of the Truth
The Ortega Murillo dictatorship is dependent on key governmental authorities, and the expanded core of Sandinista supporters to apply the regime’s manifesto accordingly. In the case of the paramilitary or parapolice, which Ortega calls the “voluntary police,” their actions reflect an autonomous interpretation of responsibilities and expectations. Thus, their repressive actions against civilians, regardless of the extent of aggression or brutality that they exercise, are in acquiescence to the order established by the National Police, which functions exclusively under the Ortega Murillo directive. From all indications, the government allows the paramilitary forces (or voluntary police) to act with impunity.
As VP, Murillo has strict control over the content that’s broadcasted throughout the country. Her precise language used to describe the April Rebellion and the protesters is repeated in a variety of formats by various governmental functionaries, e.g., that the protestors are golpistas, seeking to overthrow the government, and/or they are paid by foreign interventionists, or the imperialists such as the United States, and that they and their families are terrorists. Essentially, individuals that are pro-government and embrace the Sandinista rhetoric and propaganda have the support of the Ortega Murillo administration, but the anti-government populace, or everyone else, is abhorrently rebuked.
The human rights violations committed against those associated with the April Rebellion have been documented in various reports including the following: two Human Rights Reports: Human Rights Violations and Abuses in the Context of Protests in Nicaragua, April 18 to August 18, 2018 and Situation of Human Rights in Nicaragua: Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. An additional document was produced by the Comisión de la verdad, justicia y paz, as ordered by the government’s National Assembly.
It’s important to point out that the Nicaraguan government authorities have yet to acknowledge the violations of human rights as the first step toward reconciliation and reparations. The following are some of the most egregious violations in the findings reported in the above mentioned reports: 1) the disproportionate use of force by the police, in some cases resulting in extrajudicial killings; 2) enforced disappearances; 3) obstruction to access medical care (particularly of victims of gunshot); 4) widespread, arbitrary, illegal detentions; 5) prevalent ill-treatment and instances of torture and sexual violence in detention centers; and 6) criminalization of social leaders, human rights defenders, journalists, and protesters considered in opposition of the government.
The OHCHR reports consistently conclude that over 300 people were killed as a result of the April Rebellion, with about 2,000 injuries. The July, 2018 Comisión de la verdad, justicia y paz report, the official document commissioned by the National Assembly, includes the total deaths of 222 as a result of the April Rebellion and 2,225 wounded. The autopsy reports issued by the Instituto de Medicina Legal (IML) include information that of the 81 corpses examined, 71 of these were killed violently by gunshot. The report also concludes that the deceased received gunshot wounds to the head and chest, suggesting that they were killed by “tiradores expertos” (francotiradores or sharp shooters). This evidence strongly suggests that the gunmen were members of the National Police. They have the training and the weapons to carry out these kinds of killings. Barricades or “tranques” were reportedly assembled by the protesters, which obstructed vital routes throughout the cities. The National Police ordered the paramilitary groups called “fuerzas de choque” or shock forces, to attack the barricades with military-style weapons. These confrontations caused the deaths of 108 victims, which presumably were mostly protesters since they only had hand-made, crude weaponry to defend themselves. Numerous complaints by victims and their families were filed; besides extrajudicial killings, these included extreme beatings resulting in fractured bones, sexual violence, and some were burned to death.
The Case of Cristiana Chamorro Barrios: Two Perspectives – Vilma Nuñez and Rosario Murillo
At the time the La Prensa editor, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, was arrested for publishing Amada Pineda’s story which Rosario Murillo had written up, Vilma Nuñez de Escorcia was a human rights defender and lawyer. She recalls in an article “Ni Somoza, la destrucción judicial del gobierno Ortega Murillo” (Not even Somoza: The Destruction of the Judicial System in the Ortega Murillo Government), that Pedro Joaquín Chamorro was allowed due process, and his court proceedings were open to the public, allowing journalists, family members, human rights defenders and activists in the courtroom. Daniel Ortega was also allowed similar judicial proceedings after his arrest for bank robbery in 1967. In contrast, Nuñez argues that Cristiana Chamorro Barrios, illegally arrested on June, 2021, was detained for three months before any proceedings were allowed. Subsequent to her arrest were at least thirty others that were similarly detained. Clearly, their rights were violated, and Nuñez contends that Chamorro’s arrest was political as were the others, and that the judicial process is so corrupt that a fair trial is unlikely to materialize. (43)
Cristiana Chamorro Barrios, the daughter of Violeta and Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, founded the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation in 1987 with the expressed mission of promoting free speech and freedom of the press. On September 11, 2020, Chamorro Barrios bestowed the Foundation’s prestigious award to the Association of Mothers of April (AMA) for their diligent work in the creation of Museum of Memory Against Impunity in Nicaragua. The museum became the target of cruel harassment and threats by the Ortega Murillo regime supporters, and on December, 2020, the museum closed its doors but retained its website as a virtual exhibition. In the same month, the Sandinista National Assembly approved controversial laws that were consider in violation of international human rights norms and standards. One particular law, Ley 1055, The Defense of the Rights of People to Independence, Sovereignty, Self-determination for peace, developed on the behest of the Ortega Murillo regime, was obvious to many government critics as a means by which to attempt to silence the opposition that threatened their electoral victory in November 2021 elections. On February 5, 2021, Barrios Chamorro publicly announces that her Foundation had to shutter because Ley 1055 specifically targets her NGO, which receives international funding. The Ley 1055 is so ambiguous and broad that a partial judge can readily amplify the “treasonous” interpretation of Barrios Chamorro’s support of associations like AMA.
It seems that Barrios Chamorro’s fate was sealed, probably even before she was actually arrested. After a few days of her arrest, according to the news article, “Murillo clamors for justice, against corruption and la huaca golpista,” Murillo broadcasted her opinion of Chamorro in her daily radio show, saying in effect that Cristiana Barrios Chamorro is a “huaca golpista,” and “receives blood money to kill, to quash, subordinate, to create chaos, instability, insecurity… [it is] money to destroy, and she will pay.” Murillo adds that Barrios Chamorro “receives money from those that believe they are powerful (presumably from the United States); it’s a crime and the “pueblo” (Nicaraguan people) demands justice and reparations.” However, Murillo refuses to reveal the nature of Barrios Chamorro’s crimes, although “money laundering” is on the list, which human rights defenders and Sandinista opposers claim are all false and thus, deliberately intends to obfuscate the judicial process. Barrios Chamorro was considered by many political analysts to be the viable front runner as a presidential candidate, which posed a serious threat to the Ortega Murillo aspirations for a November electoral win.
Vilma Nuñez, her two siblings and their mother, grew up in a single parent household in Acoyapa, Chontales. (44) Their father and his wife (not their mother) were wealthy; their father was a stern critic of Somoza’s dictatorship. Vilma and her siblings had to be home schooled by their mother because they were born out of wedlock. (45)
They were refused enrollment at a public school and, then a Catholic school, as well as a neighborhood social club. After the death of her father, their mother was excluded from receiving the inheritance, but had to collect the monthly check from a designated guardianship on behalf of her children. Eventually, the siblings lost all of their inheritance when a judge gave approval to the guardian in charge to sell their property. From these discriminatory experiences, Vilma learned about injustices and at a very early age began to ask questions, which only deepened her quest to find the answers from a personal level. In Managua, she was able to study law and eventually, obtained her law degree. In 1990, after the election of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro in a stunning defeat of Daniel Ortega, she founded the Centro Nicaragüense de Derechos Humanos (CENIDH), and continued to practice law in the area of human rights.
In contrast to Nuñez, Murillo’s wealthy, elite upbringing included attended the best private schools in Nicaragua and abroad. Even when Murillo became part of the Sandinista movement, her family’s wealth offered her economic security. After Ortega assumed the leadership in the Sandinista government, Murillo benefitted from the properties and possessions that the Somoza family left behind. (46) Today, Murillo, Ortega, and their children are reportedly millionaires. Their businesses are set up as anonymous companies to hide their identity and their wealth. (47) You can view Nuñez biographical video here.
Murillo, the Real Power Behind Ortega
Murillo used her position as VP and the numerous, privately-owned communication outlets at her disposal to disparage her adversaries, including mothers, activists, professionals in their own right, scholars, and in the case of Dora María Tellez, as a revolutionary hero. She used propagandistic schemes to denounce the women’s efforts in raising their voices in opposition to the Sandinista dictatorship. Her main targets are female leaders/activists, particularly those actively preparing for the November elections. Murillo’s plan was to silence the key female members of the political opposition in a deliberate, synchronized tactical strategy. First, she had to convince her supporters that the women were “enemies of la patria,” or traitors that should be charged and convicted for their treasonous acts. Cristiano Barrios Chamorro was the first victim of her nefarious campaign strategy. There are approximately 11 female political prisoners. They include the following: (48)
Dora María Tellez (arrested on June 13th): Born in Matagalpa in 1955, Tellez joined the FSLN in León when she was twenty years old. Her initial move to León was to enroll in the School of Medicine. She was twenty-three years old and commander number three when on August 22, 1978, she participated in the Operation Pigpen, the takeover of the Somoza regime’s National Palace that resulted in the release of FSLN prisoners and a ransom. She was chosen as chief negotiator amongst her comrades, illustrating their confidence in her remarkable abilities. Then, under her command, the FSLN unit in León “liberated” the department, defeating the powerful, well-trained and equipped Somoza National Guard. Her success as a female commander was perceived as one of the most heroic acts in the Sandinista Revolution. The international feminist communities took special interest in her achievements. She was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Helsinki, and she was invited as a Visiting Professor by the Harvard University’s Robert F. Kennedy School of Theology, although she was unable to attend due to problems with a U.S. visa. After the Revolution, Tellez served as Vice President of Parliament and in the Ministry of Health. In 1995, disillusioned and disappointed over the direction of the FSLN political party, Tellez and many other stalwarts of the FSLN, left the party and created their own movement based on democratic ideals. The Movimiento Renovador Sandinista (MRS) was established and later “cancelled” by Ortega in 2008. A new version of MRS emerged as the Unión Democrático Renovadora (UNAMOS). Her writings have been well-received by international audiences; her publications are catalogued in the centers of investigation such as Instituto de Investigación y Desarrollo Nitlapan (UCA), the Institute of History in Nicaragua an Central America (IHNCA), and the Envió Digital Journal. She was in charge of coordinating the project Memoria Centroamericana, an academic platform in the field of Social Science. (49) Dora María Tellez and Ana Margarita Vijil were taken by force from their home on June 13, 2021. A few others that were in the home were also taken away but then released. A large convoy of police in tactical gear barged into their home, ransacking and confiscating anything they deemed of some value although they didn’t have a warrant nor could they elaborate on why they were being arrested. (50)
Ana Margarita Vijil (arrested on June 13th): Vijil, born in 1978, is a human rights defender and former president of MRS (now UNAMOS). In her mid-twenties she worked at the International Court of Justice in the Hague. She received a Fulbright Scholarship and graduated from the University of Arizona majoring in Political Science. Vijil was professor at the Universidad Politécnica de Managua.
Tamara Dávila (arrested on June 12th): Dávila and her five-year old daughter awoke in the middle of the night to the noise of Police tearing down the front door, who then, proceeded to ransack her home, confiscating the electronic equipment. She was taken to prison, leaving her daughter behind. Dávila is a forty-year old feminist and an executive member of UNAMOS. She is an experienced psychologist committed to the defense of human rights and gender equality.
Suyén Barahona (arrested on June 13th): On Sunday, June 13th, a huge police presence descended upon Barahona’s home. She was taken prisoner without a lawyer and remained in isolation for months. Like Vijil, Barahona is also a Fulbright Scholar. She has a degree in International Relations and a Master’s degree in Environmental Politics. She was a political science professor for eight years. She founded the project, “La Mujer Nica Como Emprendedora Social,” that focuses on helping low-income women become entrepreneurs. She joined MRS, now UNAMOS in 2007 because she believed in the democratic principles, justice, equality, and respect for human rights. She looks to a brighter future for Nicaraguans, where no generation will ever have to live through another dictatorship. Barahona was elected president of UNAMOS in 2017. (51)
Violeta Granero (arrested on June 8th): Granero, a sociologist, is the leader of the Unidad Nacional Azul y Blanco political organization. Maria Oviedo (arrested on June 29th): Oviedo is the coordinator for the Comisión Permanente de Derechos Humanos (CPDH). Also arrested and imprisoned were: María Fernanda Flores; María Esperanza Sánchez García; Karla Escobar; and Julia Hernández Arévalo.
The international community has overwhelmingly expressed outrage over the incarceration of the women and others. In a recent letter issued by the UN Human Rights Council, the Nicaragua Core Group makes a forthright plea, “We once again urge the Government of Nicaragua to immediately release all political detainees, refrain from reprisals and all acts of intimidation.” In a gesture of solidarity, representatives from fifty countries signed the letter. A similar statement was issued by the U.S. Secretary of State on September 14, 2021: “[President Ortega and Vice President Murillo] have closed all space for political competition and public discourse, cruelly jailing in recent months more than 30 opposition leaders, students, reporters, business leaders, human rights activists, and members of civil society.”
In Ortega’s response, according to the article published in the newspaper, Confidencial, he maintains that his government seeks good relationships with all countries; and asks for their respect. He made an intriguing plea to the international community– to continue their contributions (in donations) to combat poverty and develop the country. However, in previous public speeches, Ortega has insisted that the jailed political leaders are “criminals,” who sought to depose the government and/or were complicit with imperial elements (“el imperialismo”) to overthrow the government.
Murillo’s Tactics in Targeting Women That Oppose the Regime
Murillo is Ortega’s best and formidable defense for the cruel, despicable acts of violence that he perpetrates against women. The aforementioned women, Tellez, Vijil, Dávila, Barrios Chamorro, Barahona, Granero, Oviedo, Flores; Sánchez García; Escobar; Hernández Arévalo, are well-educated (two are Fulbright Scholars), have professional occupations, accomplished, intelligent; and some are wives and mothers. If Ortega called out each woman by her name, establishing a case of treason, conspiracy, money laundering, etc., he may risk losing some of his popularity amongst the Sandinista female supporters. Certainly, he would be chastised by the international community of feminists. Thus, Murillo’s role is key to Ortega’s successful outreach to both the male and female political bases. She interprets and embellishes Ortega’s messages, and channels the substance of the content to match the discourse, specifically tailored to the audience. The supporters believe Murillo’s persuasive, fervid rhetoric when she describes the women as “bad mothers, traitors, liars, thieves, deceitful, evil, and dangerous.” Murillo’s daily speeches spoon feed an audience that has limited access to the news outside of their communities. (52) Murillo insists on their loyalty to “la patria”, that when they believe in the “comandante” Daniel (Ortega), they are placing their faith in God. In her actions and words Murillo caters to the patriarchal society deeply seeded in Nicaraguan society, reinforcing the kinds of gender-based violence that many women have longed fought against.
Silencing the voices of the opposition by cancelling the legal status of the non-profit organizations to which they belong is another tactic used by the Ortega Murillo regime. The National Assembly, heavily dominated by Ortega supporters, used their power to void the legal standing of at least 55 NGOs. Many of these have been critical of the government, not necessarily intended to confront the authorities but rather to denounce the serious problems and offer solutions. An example is the Centro de Estudios para la Gobernabilidad y Democracia (CEGODEM). Their leader, Fidel Moreira, gives a testimonial statement in the video located in the organization’s Face Book page, which describes the assaults, including murder of human rights defenders, and campesinos by paramilitary units operating with impunity. In a news report published in August, 2021, Deputy Brooklyn Rivera, gave testimony in objection to the closure of Acción Médica Cristiana which has offered assistance to the indigenous communities along the Caribbean Region in areas of health and emergency relief during natural disasters. He also opposed the shutter of the women’s association, el Colectivo de Mujeres de Matagalpa, which has a lengthy trajectory of 31 years serving thousands of women and their families, creating Casas de Mujeres, libraries, constructing homes, to name a few of their projects. Many of the canceled NGOs received international funds to carry out social, health, and educational projects.
Three other women organizations, known for their feminist perspectives, and have served to defend women’s rights and defenders, were ordered to close by the Ortega Murillo regime: La Asociación de Mujeres de Jalapa contra la Violencia Oyanka; la Fundación entre Volcanes; and Fundación Xochiquetzal. The National Assembly’s president, Gustavo Porras indicated in his statement published by Nicaragua Investiga that the NGOs’ cancellations are as a result of the organizations’ irregularities or non-compliance with accountability requirements on donor identification and the operational budget. However, the IM-Defensoras article points to the belief that many feminists and human rights defenders perceive this action as part of the repression unleashed by the Sandinista government in the course of the presidential electoral process–to persecute, criminalize, and subject to imprisonment–dozens of people, including feminists, journalists, lawyers, and defenders of human rights, or simply to eliminate the opposition.
Murillo, the Mother of Zoilamérica Who will Not Be Silenced
At thirty-one years old, Zoilamérica, daughter of Rosario Murillo and (stepfather) Daniel Ortega, took the giant step toward recovery as a survivor of sexual abuse. For the previous decade, Narváez had undergone a transformative process to alleviate the emotional and psychological pain from a twenty-year nightmare of sexual abuse perpetrated by her stepfather. As a final step toward her healing process, she petitioned the court to legally change her last name from Ortega to her late father’s last name (Narváez), and stated the reason: that she had been sexually abused by her stepfather. However, for such an accusation she had to have proof. In the spring of 1998, Narváez made public her painful admission that she had been sexually abused by Ortega since the age of eleven. She told about her decision to do so in her 2002 declaration a few days ahead of her testimony with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: “I was a prisoner of desperation and anguish at the time, but I’ve celebrated that day like a second birthday ever since. I celebrate it as the day I took off a mask and was able to break with a history that had scarred by life.”
Her denunciation sent shock waves throughout the country. The general public was in disbelief, and some felt indignant that she even brought up such a private matter. But, the most ferocious attacks came from her mother and Ortega. Murillo denied the accusations, as did Ortega, although, in her testimony she recalls a private conversation in which he admits to the abuse and blames his emotional problems on his seven-year prison term. These and other details are documented in Kenneth Morris’ book. (53) Morris explains his analysis concerning the verity of Narváez’ accusations: “… the evidence suggests that Narváez is telling the truth. No one has ever linked Narváez’ accusations to any of Ortega’s political opponents at home or abroad, and Narváez herself was a militant Sandinista at the time she leveled the charge. She has had nothing material or political to gain by accusing Ortega of sexually abusing her, and in fact had much to lose.” (54) Narváez describes in detail the gross, criminal misconduct of Ortega toward her in the 1998 manuscript, “Testimonio de Zoilamérica Narváez Murillo.”
When Narváez took her case to the Inter-Amercian Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 1999, Vilma Nuñez de Escorcia, founder of the Nicaraguan human rights center, CENIDH, was her legal representative. In the case document, Narváez contends that the State of Nicaragua had violated her right to a fair trial because the Court of Managua refused to suspend Ortega’s congressional immunity. (At the time Ortega was a member of the Parliament.) Thus, the court ruled in Ortega’s favor without allowing witnesses or even a testimony from Narváez.
Later, when the case was re-activated, the IACHR did not make a ruling in Narváez’ case because Ortega threatened to withdraw from the Organization of American States (OAS), of which the IACHR is an integral component. Having been re-elected in 2007, he used the power of his presidency to make this claim, and Narváez once again, was left defenseless. (55)
Although Narváez chose not to bring charges against her mother, it’s clear from her testimony that Murillo had full knowledge of the sexual abuse, and instead of helping her daughter, she became an enabler. Murillo’s sister, Violeta Murillo, had agreed to come forth as a witness in Narváez defense and testify what she saw and heard at their home in Costa Rica, before their move to Managua in 1978. Morris believes that Murillo knew about Ortega raping her daughter, but that when her sister, Violeta Murillo confronted her about it, “Murillo dismissed her concerns.” (56) Narváez asked her mother for help, but was rejected. Murillo must have known that Ortega was going into her bedroom at night because Narváez begged her mother to let her sleep with a sibling, as a way to protect herself, but she refused. Murillo chided Narváez for not wanting to sleep alone. When Narváez decided to go public with her accusations, Murillo was furious. Narváez harbored a resentment toward her mother for siding with the man that repeatedly raped her.
Morris analyzes the relationships between Murillo, Ortega, and Narváez from the perspective of a power pact. “Instead of helping the man she came to love overcome an obvious emotional problem, or the daughter who depended upon her for protection, she exploited the man’s weaknesses by offering him her daughter. In exchange Murillo extracted real political power.” (57)
Although Narváez’ attempt to prove her case in court was not successful, her battle was not lost. Her video testimonies reveal her strong willingness to expose the truth regardless of the consequences. Murillo and Ortega’s futile attempts to hide their dark secret failed, and the more they ramped up their accusations against Narváez, the bigger their crime and conspiracy to cover it up. Narváez was steadfast in her determination to expose the horrid truth of sexual abuse in children. She came to recognize that, as a survivor, she possesses the powerful platform from which to advocate on behalf of child victims, and demand the reconstruction and reform of the broken judicial system that favors the criminal and further persecutes the abused child. (58)
Concluding her remarks in the 2002 declaration (before she was forced to drop her case), Narváez makes the following statement: “Whatever happens in the international process at the IACHR, I cannot allow this case to be closed, because that would amount to closing the option of many other women to talk and to feel that justice is being done in their case. My struggle is no longer against Daniel Ortega, it is against the precedent that my case created through the complicit action of the executive branch, the legislative branch, the judicial branch and the country’s whole political system. (59)
‘To Change the World’ is a Call for Action
As Narváez’ legal counsel, Vilma Nuñez was instrumental in navigating Narváez’ case through a difficult course. She prepared her defense despite Murillo’s plea to refrain from representing her. Murillo’s animosity against her became starkly evident after Nuñez was named the recipient of a prestigious award, Woman of Courage, from U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua, Laura Farnsworth Dogu on March 7, 2017. Murillo tasked her female cabinet members with a letter to Ambassador Dogu, asserting their objections on the basis of Nuñez’ “insults” toward the government. In learning about the letter, Nuñez was not surprised and indicated that Murillo’s hostility toward her derived from the time she legally represented Narváez. Observers and critics (especially feminists) of the Ortega Murillo regime are synchronized in their analysis about the roles and functions of the large numbers of females in their government, which they believe are prohibited from working outside an anti-feminist agenda strictly controlled by Murillo. But the disparaging letter was only the beginning of Murillo’s actions against Nuñez. In December, 2018, the IM-Defensoras.org reported that the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) was cancelled by the National Assembly, in part by the Sandinista-dominated congress agenda to quash non-governmental opposition entities. As founding member of CENIDH, Nuñez had been the target of personal attacks and threats; after the 2018 April Rebellion she worked with CENIDH to compile complaints of human rights violations against the State police forces. In February, 2021, the IACHR asked government officials to file a report that specifically responds to the “aggression and harassment faced by CENIDH workers,” since the 2018 April Rebellion. The Ortega Murillo government has yet to respond to the request for an investigation into the documented violations compiled by CENIDH, and has turned the State’s repressive forces against the staff (human right defenders), some of whom had to self-exile for fear of their lives.
Women have only themselves to create a powerful force beyond the wide realm of possibilities.
Left with a dictatorship that punishes female activists, shutters feminist organizations in an attempt to silence their descending voices, weakens institutions by politicizing their power and rewarding corruption, controls and manipulates the media to exploit the vulnerability of women in dire social and economic circumstances, and all within the context of a paralyzing fear wrought by repressive forces becoming increasingly lethal–women have only themselves to create a powerful force beyond the wide realm of possibilities.
The “sisterhood” that exists today between and among women in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and México was evident during the periods of armed conflicts, i.e., El Salvador, 1979-1991; and Nicaragua, 1970s-mid-1980s, and beyond. Even though the wars had major differences, the women shared common problems, during and after the armed conflicts. For example, the majority experienced similar discriminatory treatment as they sought to gain equal status with the men as combatants, and after the war, the infuriating disappointments and frustration of not being able to achieve the substantive changes in favor of women at the highest levels of their “new” government. (60) From these experiences and others, the women crafted a unique interpretation of the international women’s movement in which they found their own voice.
The United Nation committees responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) have published reports which address the specific areas of issues related to the discriminatory practices against women. A careful perusal of these documents reveal patterns of similarities in regards to gender-based human rights in Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
Some of the common areas of human rights violations against women include: 1) increasing rates of femicides and the failure of the State to properly investigate, prosecute, and punish the perpetrators; 2) sexual and reproductive rights violations, resulting in an alarming increase of underage pregnancies; 3) increase in domestic violence and lack of appropriated funds to resolve cases, especially those that threaten the lives of the victims; 4) the absence of full protection for domestic violence victims where the courts favor the perpetrator or where laws such as Law 779 in Nicaragua, require the victim to confront the aggressor for purpose of mediation that results in the re-victimization of the victim; 5) increased violations against female human rights defenders, including the LGBTQ community members and indigenous women defending land rights and environmental resources—that have resulted in attacks, sexual violence, intimidation, and criminalization; 6) increase of sexual violence against women activists in general and specifically, the online violence against women; and 7) the increase in the deteriorating conditions in education and social services for girls and women.
Latin American women—feminists, activists, advocates, and defenders of human rights—all form an indestructible link, especially evident in times of great need. They realize that their strength is in their collective force, and when they raise their voices in unison and deliver a heartfelt message on behalf of their “sisters” in peril and resistance, the international community listens. Such a clarion call is heard in the voices of three women in a brief video feature, all are members of the Iniciativa Mesoamericana– Red Nacional de Derechos Humanos (IM-Defensoras/National Network Human Rights): Morena Herrerra, El Salvador; Gilda Rivera, Honduras; Yésica Sánchez, México; and Lydia Alpizar, México. Their message clearly and accurately describes the conditions of repression in Nicaragua, and for some women, the constant fear of persecution.
They hunger for freedom, and although they are trapped in an anti-democratic state, they realize the liminality of their lives; today they struggle but their future is bright, and they will never give up hope.
To Our Sisters—”Nunca están solas.”
When night comes,
The moon will rest on your forehead;
You will close your eyes and DREAM
Like you’ve never dreamt before;
SEE what you’ve never
BECOME what you’ve always
Thought you could.
A NEW DAWN awaits you.
Dear English-language Readers: We tried to include English-language resources as much as possible; many of the original sources are in Spanish. Some of the newspaper articles have the “translation” option which is worth a try if you need it. Thank you for your patience.
1. Excerpt from Benjamín Zeledón letter to his wife on eve of his assassination, October, 1912. In Kinzer, S. 1991. Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, p. 27.
2. See Nietschmann, Bernard, “Chapter Seven: Protecting Indigenous Coral Reefs and Sea Territories, Miskito Coast, Raan, Nicaragua,” pp.357-415. Nietschmann is quoted: “If you’re interested in cultural diversity, you have to be interested in biological diversity because nature is the scaffolding of culture; it’s why people are the way they are. If you’re interested in environments you have to be interested in culture.” 1992 Audubon Magazine.
3. Kinzer, S. (1991). Blood of Brothers. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, p.16.
4. In 1926, President Coolidge ordered U.S. troops to the Caribbean town, Puerto Cabezas and in 1927, 5,000 U.S. Marines were deployed along with 16 warships. After the Battle of Chinandega and the signing of the Peace Treaty in Espina Negra, Coolidge, followed by Hoover, signed an order that upon removal of the U.S. armed forces, the Nicaraguan National Guard will serve as its replacement under the command of U.S. generals. (Walker, 2003).
5. See Kinzer (1991), p. 29.
6. See Walker (2003).
7. See Francois (2018).
8. See Walker (2003), p. 26.
9. See Chávez, D. (2015), p.18.
10. See Kinzer (1991), p. 33.
11. See also Ramírez (2012), p. 32.
12. Excerpt from “Tropical Town,” by De La Selva, Salomón. (1918). Tropical Town and Other Poems. NY: John Lane and Company.
13. Randall, M. (1981). Sandino’s Daughters. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, p. 80.
14. See Randall (1981), p. 92.
15. Excerpt from “El canto nacional” by Ernesto Cardenal. Translation by Marc Zimmerman in Beverley, J., and Zimmerman, M. (1980). Literature and Poetics in the Central American Revolutions. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, p. 84.
16. Byron, K. (2006). “Doris Tijerino: Revolution, Writing, and Resistance in Nicaragua.” In NWSA Journal, V.8(3), 104-121.
17. See Randall (1981), p. 53.
18. The Nicaraguan “Revolution” was a 20-year struggle from 1960 to 1979. The dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle left the country for Miami, with the help of the United States, on July 16, 1979, leaving behind a ruthless, brutal repression, and on July 19, 1979 the Sandinistas took a victory lap in Managua with all fronts represented: the Northern, Southern, Central, Eastern, Western, Southeastern, and lastly, the “elite” Southern Front. See Francois (2018).
26. Ortega’s brother, Humberto, served in the FSLN as a ranking military officer and his brother Camilo, was killed in 1978 during a battle with the National Guard.
27. For example, in Guatemala, the dictator, Jorge Úbico resigns under pressure from the middle-class; a civilian, Arévalo is elected president and in 1950, Jacobo Arbenz is president, and then, ousted with the intervention of the United States’ CIA; and in El Salvador women were able to vote in 1950.
28. Chamorro founded the Unión Democrático de Liberación (UDEL) in 1974. See Beverley, J., and Zimmerman, M. (1980).
29. See Beverley and Zimmerman (1980).
30. Pedro Joaquin Chamorro was considered an important man that would help others in dire need. For example, he paid for the funeral services of Luisa Amanda Espinosa, upon request of her family after she was killed by the National Guard on April 3, 1970. See Randall, Sandino’s Daughters, 1981, p. 29.
31. See Francois (2018).
32. See Beverley and Zimmerman (1980), p. 89.
33. La Prensa newspaper/organization was ordered to shut down by the Ortega Murillo regime in this article, and the explanation of the losses suffered from this politically motivated order in this article.
35. Ortega was elected president for the first time in 1985 then, was defeated in 1990.
36. Murillo did not serve in combat although her involvement with the Sandinistas in the mid-1970s led to a brief jail sentence.
37. Solentiname is the largest island on the 38-island archipelago in Lake Nicaragua. Cardenal founded the Our Lady of Solentiname, a lay monastery that includes a farmer’s collective, an artist center and a clinic. See Cardenal, Ernesto (1976).
38. Known as the Literacy Campaign in the countryside – 60,000 to 80,000 volunteer literacy workers, 1980-81. See Beverley and Zimmerman (1980). Also, see also Ramirez (2012) and Vilas (1986).
39. Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire was published in Portuguese in 1968 and then, in English in 1970. The proposed pedagogy in the book focuses on the irrevocable relationship between teacher, student, and society.
40. Costa Rican Mayra Jimenez was the coordinator and teacher of the Solentiname Writing Project. See Jimenez (1985).
43. Nuñez points out in the same article that the Secretary of the Organization of American States (OEA), Luis Almagro, declared in a statement that Nicaragua was a “failed state.”
44. Nuñez profile can be retrieved here. Since this article is archived in web.archive.org, the download may take a little longer than usual. On some days the web.archive.org may be out for maintenance purposes, so you may need to try another day.
45. See Dore and Molyneux (2000).
46. In this YouTube video report on “la piñata,” the focus is on how Somoza’s possessions were purported to be expropriated by the Sandinista government but instead, the properties were distributed to individuals, including Ortega and Murillo.
47. See an investigative report on the wealth accumulation of the Ortega and Murillo children. This YouTube videoreports on the ownership of businesses of the Ortega/Murillo family.
48. See the confidencial.com.ni article that reports on the political prisoners.
49. This is the YouTube video message by Tellez concerning the crisis in her country, before she was arrested.
50. More information about Unión Democrática Renovadora (UNAMOS) can be retrieved from this FB page.
51. Suyén Barahona has a video clip of her speech here.
52. See article on Nicaragua’s low availability of the internet in comparison to other similar countries here.
53. Morris, K. (2010). Unfinished Revolution: David Ortega and Nicaragua’s Struggle for Liberation. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books.
54. Ibid, p. 136.
56. Ibid, p.137.
57. Ibid, p. 139.
58. The Institute of Legal Medicine, 2018 report concludes the following 2017 data: 1,679 girls from ages 0-12 and 1,643 girls ages 13-17 were sexually abused. See also, “Abuso sexual: Un mal silenciado en la guerra de los 80,” a YouTube documentary video by Nicaragua Investiga about the sexual abuse of Sandinista female combatants during the Revolution.
59. See Kampwirth’s (2004) analysis of how Narváez’ public denunciation of Ortega sexually abusing her is partly due to the feminist movement in Nicaragua, especially after 1990.
60. See Kampwirth (2002).
Beverley, J., & Zimmerman, M. (1990). Literature and politics in the Central American revolution. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Byron, K. (2006). Doris Tijerino: Revolution, writing, and resistance in Nicaragua. NWSA Journal, 8(3), 104-121.
Cardenal, E. (1976). The gospel in Solentiname. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Chávez, D. (2015). Nicaragua and the politics of utopia. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.
De la Selva, S. (1918). Tropical town and other poems. NY: John Lane Company.
Dore, E., & Molyneux, M. (Eds.). (2000). Hidden histories of gender and the state in Latin America. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Francois, D. (2018). Nicaragua 1961-1990: Volume 1, the downfall of the Somoza dictatorship. Warkwick, UK: Helion & Company Limited.
Gonzalez Rivera, V. (2011). Before the revolution: Women’s rights and the right wing politics in Nicaragua, 1821-1979. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University.
Gould, J.K. (1998). To die in this way: Nicaraguan Indians and the myth of the mestizaje 1880-1965. Durham: Duke University Press.
Incer, J. (2002). Colón y la costa Caribe de Centroamérica. Managua: Fundación Vida Colección Cultural de Centro America.
Kampwirth, K. (2002). Women and guerrilla movements: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chiapas, Cuba. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Kampwirth, K. (2004). Feminism and the legacy of revolution: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chiapas. Ohio: Ohio University Press.
Kinzer, S. (2007). Blood of brothers: Life and war in Nicaragua. Cambridge: Harvard University.
Maier, E., & Lebon, N. (2010). Women’s activism in Latin America and the Caribbean. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Morris, K.E. (2010). Unfinished revolution: Daniel Ortega and Nicaragua’s struggle for liberation. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books.
Newson, L. (1993). The demographic collapse of native peoples of the Americas, 1492-1650. Proceedings of the British Academy, 81, 247-288.
Ramirez, S. (2012). Adiós muchachos: A memoir of the Sandinista revolution. (Translated by Stacey Alba D. Skar). Durham: Duke University Press.
Randall, M. (1981). Sandino’s Daughters: Testimonies of Nicaraguan women in struggle. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Sabia, D. (1997). Contradiction and conflict: The popular church in Nicaragua. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press.
Sierakowski, R.J. (2019). Sandinistas: A moral history. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.
Tijerino, D., & Randall, M. (1970). Somos millones …: La vida de Doris María, combatiente nicaragüense. México City: Extemporáneos.
Tijerino, D. (1978). Inside the Nicaraguan revolution. (As told to Margaret Randall). Translated by Elinor Randall. Vancouver: New Star Books.
Vilas, C. (1986). The Sandinista revolution: National liberation and social transformation in central america. Berkeley, CA: Monthly Review Press Center for the Study of the Americas.
Walker, T. W. (2003). Nicaragua: Living in the shadow of the eagle. Cambridge, MA: Westview Press.
For more information about the “Contra War,” 1979-1996, see the following books: Brown’s book includes in-depth accounts from the perspective of a former diplomat working with the U.S. State Department, and Horton’s perspective originates from the campesinos’ or peasants’ points of view.
Brown, T.C. 2001. The real contra war: Highlander peasant resistance in Nicaragua. Norman, OK: The University of Oklahoma Press.
Horton, L. 1998. War and peace in the mountains of Nicaragua. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.
For human rights violations, please see the following document:
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Nicaragua: Concentration of power and the undermining of the rule of law. October 25, 2021. IACHR.
The heroic images of young combatant females fighting alongside their male counterparts in the insurgent armed conflicts of El Salvador Nicaragua, Guatemala and Cuba, during the 1950s to 1990s, lead us to (re)examine the historical currents of gender inequality. The militant roles of women in the guerilla, combatants or non-combatants, run counter to the traditional wife and mother narratives. Certainly, their accomplishments serve to advance the argument that gender equality can be achieved as they’ve demonstrated in the battlefield and beyond. But, as in every instance, there are many stories behind the image; an historical context laden with facts and figures, analysis and perspectives. In the past, historians’ depictions of women’s roles in response to the call-for-arms were generally consequential or supportive, however, the recent works of scholars have yielded a vibrant profile of riveting insights on how women created their own space. Initially motivated by their ardent convictions that substantive changes must be structural in a society marked by blatant inequalities, revolutionary women progressively adopted a perspective as protagonists, confronting and calibrating changes in the injustices and gender biases relevant to their lives.
The discussion brings into focus these questions: 1) who were the women in the resistance and what specific roles did they play; 2) why is it important to recognize their struggles and challenges; and 3) why study the women and what can we learn from their stories. The first part of this article’ title: ‘To Change the World’ is a reference to the motivation that compelled so many women to join the guerrillas. There were other factors, of course, which are discussed in the corresponding paragraphs, but the women’s voices particularly stand out because they wanted a better future for themselves, their families, and their countries, specifically, their children. What sets the women in the resistance apart from other women seeking justice, such as the Western European and North American feminists, is the fact that the women in the armed resistance were concerned with issues beyond gender equality, for the greater good of the society, i.e., the fight for democratic freedoms, the right to live a life of dignity and free of violence, encompassing a far broader vision of equality.
We adhere to the corresponding ‘Feminist Ghosts,’ as a metaphor that represents the act of consciousness-raising that underscores the urgency to think responsibly and critically about how to advocate for change so that all women, regardless of where they live and who they are, and have the opportunity to fight for social injustices and inequality. One of the goals of this writing endeavor is to encourage the reader to embark on a personal quest in a journey toward greater understanding and participation in gender-related issues and problems.
“First let me tell you, a woman is never more equal
The Gender-based Revolution: Collecting the Stories
One of many challenges of collecting historical, accurate numbers on the women that participated in the guerrilla is the lack of a single source for the depository of the data. In Nicaragua, a total of guerrilla members, men and women, range from 15,000 to 18,000.4 However, the Nicaraguan Revolution was a grassroots phenomenon that included the participation of 250,000 to 300,000 civilians.5 Many sources agreed upon the fact that the number of women in guerrilla increased as the revolutions progressed. Post-war or conflict demobilization data collected by external sources such as the United Nations offered yet another view. A general consensus, then, is that women combatants in the Nicaraguan Revolution (FSLN – Sandinist Front of National Liberation) consisted of 25 to 30 percent of the total number, about 5,000 or so. The Salvadoran armed conflict had a slightly lesser amount, about 4,400 or 30 percent of the total (around 15,000), although one of the guerrilla organizations, the ERP – Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo, had as many as 40 percent female combatants.6 The Guatemalan armed conflict documents have the most inconsistent data base, perhaps due to the longevity of the war (36 years) and the high attrition rates among the women combatants. Guatemala’s united guerrilla, the URNG (Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca), developed in the early 80s, included four different guerrillas. Of the overall total of around 6,000 participants serving as combatants, approximately 1,440 women or 25 percent served during the 1978-80 period of the war.7
Oral History in the Context of War
The women’s stories in this volume are genuine, at least to the extent that they could be appropriately verified. Thus, the primary sources for the research purposes were social scientists, e.g., anthropologists, sociologists, and historians. In addition to the work of scholars in the areas of gender studies, the primed sources came from writers that based their information on first-hand experiences. Indeed, collecting, analyzing, and interpreting authentic narratives about traumatic events that the subjects personally experienced should be examined with a critical eye and filtered through the contextual lens of unprecedented moments of enormous upheaval. Historian David Carey8 points out that interviewees’ past accounts of events, as difficult and heart-wrenching as they were, often attach meaning to experience, and that by remembering the events, a process of reconstruction is at play. Thus, their narratives can be expected to be imbued with some imagination, omissions, and embellishments. There is also the importance of dignity in the manner by which the interviewee refused to speak or share only parts of their stories because they felt shame, for themselves and their families. Silence as a coping strategy was used by women who endured horrendous torture by the state military forces.
At the very least an historical snapshot of the three countries is essential, and potentially contributes to our overall understanding of the evolution of change and circumstance. Before the European conquistadors conquered and colonized the Mesoamerican region of the Americas, from northern region of what is today México to the southern area that includes about half of Costa Rica, the population consisted of widely diverse indigenous groups. Scientists and scholars’ works have produced voluminous publications about the history, cultures, and languages, an immense undertaking that has brought to light the phenomenal accomplishments of a civilization dating as far back as fifteen thousand years ago.
It was in 1523, after the fall of the Aztec Empire when the Spanish army led by Pedro de Alvarado began its expansive expedition into the Central American region. The state of Chiapas in Mexico was included in the Spanish conquest of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and most of Costa Rica. In 1522, the Spanish explorer, Gil González, traveled from Panama with his cavalry to ascertain his country’s conquest of Nicaragua. The Spanish crown governed the entire region from 1609 until 1821 when the newly established state of Central America gained its independence from Spain (as did Mexico). In 1823, Central America seceded from Mexico and became the Federal Republic of Central America. When the countries – Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica – became autonomous entities in the course of gaining their independence from Mexico in 1838 (and later, El Salvador in 1841), they terminated their collective federation existence after 230 years. It’s arguable, then, that as a result of their experiences as a long-time federation they share similar patterns of post-colonial governance, the emergence of an economy established in inequality, and the social adherence to the accumulation of wealth by an elite segment of the society. From the outset, each country was rooted in an historical context of pitting the majority poor against the minority wealthy that was destined to lead into a series of revolts, some of major proportions. It’s through the lens of history and critique that I analyze the stories, struggles, and achievements of the women in resistance.
Gumercinda “Chinda” Zamora is one of the organizers of the peasant movement, the Union Trabajadores Campesinos (UTC) in Chalatenango, a department in northeastern El Salvador, along with three others – Facundo Guardado, José Santos Martínez, and Justo Mejía.
Chinda, a middle-age woman, married and mother of nine children worked as labor union organizer and midwife in the areas around the rural communities of La Ceiba and Las Vueltas. She relates one of her encounters with a National Guard soldier to Joaquín Chávez, author of the book, Poets and Prophets of the Resistance.9 At the time, Chinda was on the “blacklist” as a dangerous militant because of her work with the labor union. The Guard was stationed throughout the neighboring areas, on orders to conduct surveillance, threaten residents, and if the soldiers deemed necessary, they would detain, torture and even execute those that are suspected of being radicals or subversives. Chinda and the other leaders lived in secluded areas in the mountains to escape persecution but would return to the villages at night. Chinda used her midwife identity to disguise her labor union activities. On her walk home one night, she was stopped by Guardsman and proceeded to interrogate Chinda – what was her business and why so late at night. Chinda explained that she was on duty as a midwife and even opened up her bag of herbs she uses to deliver babies. The Guardsman seemed satisfied and then asked her if she knew a woman by the name of Chinda Zamora. Chinda replied that she did know the woman, but she hadn’t seen her lately. Chinda was able to avoid capture this time, however, she was eventually arrested and imprisoned a few years later.
Chinda was by the State standards a very dangerous woman. She was one of the leaders that created a forceful, unprecedented peasant movement whose militant members engaged in all aspects of the revolutionary efforts and through their accomplishments, formed a foundation for the major armed organization, the FMLN – Faribundo Martí National Liberation.
The Armed Conflict Between the FMLN Guerrilla and the State Military
El Salvador entered into a very dark moment of history as two factions met in egregious combat for twelve years (1980-1992). The twelve year war caused devastation to a country already reeling from a debilitating economy, where approximately 75,000 civilians and tens of thousands of soldiers lost their lives. Some of the cases of brutal repression and suffering are described in a report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, “From Madness to Hope: The 12-Year War in El Salvador,” and the data speak volumes of the most horrendous, unspeakable tragedies: 22,000 human rights violations were documented along with 60 percent extrajudicial killings, 25 percent disappearances, 20 percent were tortured; and approximately 85 percent of civilian killings were attributed to state agents such as the military and death squads while the FMLN killed 5 percent. Additionally, about a million people experienced displacement as a result of the war, and many were survivors of massacres similar to the scorched earth tactics practiced by the Guatemalan military during the genocidal era of the late 70s and early 80s.
The El Salvador armed conflict, the 36-year internal armed conflict in Guatemala (1960-1996), and the Nicaraguan revolution (1978-79), were part of a regional conflict the erupted after the Cuban revolution (1953-59). Both the Cuban and the Nicaraguan wars meet the criteria as transformative revolutions, although Nicaragua’s success was truncated with the eruption of the Contra War (1981-1990).10 Guatemala’s and El Salvador’s armed conflicts came to an end in the most dismal of circumstances thereby losing their ability to negotiate in a true revolutionary fashion. It was the era of upheaval where other regions of Latin America were marred with violent conflicts that resulted in the deaths of thousands, and countless numbers of extreme cases of human rights violations.11
The United States’ Dominant Role
One of the most notable features of the violent conflicts is the powerful influence leveraged by the United States, which undoubtedly is considered the world’s greatest military force. During the presidencies of Dwight Eisenhower (1953-1961) through Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), the United States played a dominant role in Latin America as the defense leader against the Soviet Union’s threatening menace as a nuclear power. Fearing that the “rebel” forces were aligned with the “communist bloc,” the Cold War, in geopolitical terms, the United States provided generously to strengthen the military might of the state governments thus, blocking the guerrillas from fully taking control. Even after Nicaragua’s triumph in 1979, the United States supported the “Contras,” the anti-Sandinistas, in their attempts to “take back” their government. Each of the three state governments -El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua – had a huge arsenal of all-things military, for ground, naval and air assaults. The military aid transferred to the three state governments during the periods of armed conflicts totaled to billions, an extraordinary amount, especially during the Reagan presidency. The price tag for fighting the insurgency in El Salvador, as well as Guatemala and Nicaragua, amounted to billions USD, that included the funding of the counterinsurgency in each country, the militarization of Honduras, and the support for maintaining the state repression. The insurmountable support underscored the interventionist role of the United States, and greatly attributed to the state governments’ abilities to counter attack the insurgencies, which resulted in the staggering death toll amongst guerrilla combatants and non-combatant civilians.12
Revolts, Electoral Fraud, and Coup d’état Waves
As a young girl, Chinda lived in and around the rural communities of La Ceiba and Las Vueltas, a region covered with rolling hills amid the two summits of Cerro Picacho and Cerro El Infiernillo in the volcano corridor of Chalatenango Department. Families subsisted in farming corn, beans, and sorghum, and cash crops such as coffee and sugar. In 1931, the Great Depression had impacted the coffee industry, and the consequences were the most devastating for families like Chinda’s. Chinda’s parents were contemporaries of Augustín Farabundo Martí, the labor union leader whose reputation for his rebellious and tenaciousness had won over the support of thousands of campesinos. The rallying cry amongst the peasants was the same then as it was during Chinda’s leadership with the UTC labor union. Far from extravagant or even unreasonable, the demands were basic like decent wages and working conditions, and use of land, all necessary for sustaining a meager subsistence. But after sixty years since the inception of the Central American Congress of Workers organization in 1911, and the perseverance of leaders such as Martí and others, Chinda’s labor union demands were more radical and astute, calling for the restructuring of the capitalist society, politics, and political economy. They demanded justice: higher living wages, improved working conditions, access to clean water, and an end to the abuses perpetrated by landowners.13
Martí’s rebelliousness and courage were emblazoned in the memory book of Chinda’s family and friends. An entire generation came to know Martí as a folk hero, the legendary leader that represented the hearts and minds of struggling, hard-working peasants that for the first time began to think about a revolution. But before Martí there was Anastasio Aquino, in 1832, a hundred years prior, who had led a year-long revolt with 3,000 campesinos in protestation of gross injustices committed against mostly indigenous farmers. Aquino’s status as a cacique offered him an unprecedented voice amongst the powerful elite and wealthy oligarchs that took advantage of the hard-working peasanty to further their wealth and prestige. The slavery existence which the indigenous people had been relegated since colonial times was further exacerbated with the usurpation of the ancestral lands which rendered the poor peasants landless. The wealthy oligarchs, owners of the indigo monocrop economy, justified their actions by falsely claiming that their profits were used for the betterment of the country. The huge margin of profits were incrementally used for budgeting infrastructure projects, but none were allocated for anything other than for personal benefit, thus enriching themselves and neglecting the “good” for the Salvadoran people. The revolt ended with the capture and assassination of Aquino, who was decapitated with repressive force to demonstrate an example of punishment for any other rebels that dare to speak the truth. Like Martí, Aquino was considered a hero. Chinda’s parents and grandparents reminisce about Aquino’s bravery as one of their leaders whose violent death by decapitation signified a fight to the end, like a true revolutionary.
Augustín Farabundo Martí was born in 1893, and although he lived in a community of hard-working, poor campesinos, his family was better off because his father was a moderate landowner. His father had adopted the surname of Martí from Cuba’s emblematic writer and one of the founders of the communist party, José Julián Martí Pérez. Farabundo Martí, nicknamed “el negro,” attended the university for a short time until his legal problems led to expulsion. He acquired learning experiences about the plight of the exploited campesino by living and working amongst the peasants in México and Guatemala. He eventually returned to El Salvador as a labor union organizer, and in 1928, then President Quiñones Molina, recognizing the activism in Martí, exiled him to Nicaragua. During the year in Nicaragua, he worked with Augusto César Sandino, whom he had met in México, in the insurgency efforts to oust the powerful, U.S. backed conservative faction of the Nicaraguan government. Martí was a devout Marxist and leader of the Socorro Rojo Internacional, while Sandino, who was two years older than him, was completely focused on nationalistic ideals. Both men dedicated their lives to fighting for the rights and freedoms of the working poor and their names became synonymous with heroism and hope.14 The leaders of the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan revolutions named their guerrilla organizations, respectively, the Farabundo Martí Front for Liberation (FMLN) and the Sandinist Front of National Liberation (FSLN), as a way to memorialize their heroes, and popularize their movement of armed insurrection.
La Matanza, literally translated as “the killing,” involved the military in the mass killing on January 22, 1932 of thousands of so-called “communists,” but in reality they were mostly poorly armed peasants and university students protesting in a campaign for labor reform. Martí was not part of the group because he had been captured several days before the uprisings and was unable to send a communiqué to the protestors to inform them of the military’s intentions. They were gunned down with machine guns, and not just the protestors, entire towns were targeted as well. The most destructive and incisive massacres happened in El Canelo and Nahuilzalco. The point of the operation was to annihilate “communists,” but less than 10 percent killed were actually participating in the communist party.15 Extrajudicial executions continued for weeks and Martí was assassinated on February 1st. The official count of deaths is unknown, mostly because the crime was so shocking and the military and the wealthy elite scrambled to hide the truth. Some historians claim that at least 12,000 people were killed, others estimate that 40,000 lost their lives.16
Many historians have remained fixated on the events that occurred before, during and after the “matanza,’ because of the horrendous tragedy but also for its overall impact and long-term consequences. A year before the “matanza” President Romero’s successor, Arturo Araujo was inaugurated and General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez was his VP. Araujo was a wealthy landowner who strived for an equipoise in governing on behalf of both the working class and the wealthy elite, but the oligarchy insisted on a governance hierarchy solely for themselves. Araujo’s selection of General Martínez as VP was a strategy to assuage their discontent. Within a nine month period, the oligarchy’s support for the military grew stronger which led to the eventual ousting of President Araujo, and General Martínez was allowed to take control of the government. The coup d’état was cautiously accepted by Martí and the organized protestors and supporters, but with a military official at the helm, they realized that their demands would never be heard. General Martínez proclaimed that “free elections” would take place in early January (1932), but his deception became obvious when he refused to certify the winners of the elections of the PCS (Communist Party of El Salvador) candidates. After the “matanza” there was little doubt that the military and the wealthy elite had created a bond of indisputable force.
The tragic events of 1932 marked a compelling chapter in the downward spiral of a history marred with extreme violence. At that point in history, revolution was not a viable solution for people who struggled with feeding their families, but there were signs that portended a massive revolt. First, despite their differences, the military and the wealthy oligarchs recognized their inimitable strength when they combine their forces against their common “enemy,” which fueled their authoritative, fascist rule. There were eight coup d’états within a five decade period (1931-1980); coups were commonly used by the military to select a new leader amongst themselves. And, Salvadoran voters became increasingly frustrated with frequent election fraud.17Second, killing unarmed, innocent civilians was of no consequence to either the military or the wealthy elite; the massacres were intentionally planned to “cast a wide net” in order to kill a few guerrilla, and “scorched earth” tactics were meant to unabashedly bolster the deaths of civilians for their own distorted purposes. Third, the cumulative effect of the massacres could arguably be described as genocidal.18 The military force overly extended its destruction of entire indigenous communities, which not only resulted in catastrophic deaths but also created a culture of fear and silence amongst the survivors. The emotional pain, the trauma was a constant part of the victims’ suffering, and to erase the memories also meant to eradicate identity, language, and customs. The 1932 “matanza” set into motion a hatred for “everything indigenous,” and the systematic racism had the effect of engendering a slow but eventual death of language and culture. As in most cases of cultural contact there is arguably a certain amount of endogenous language loss and a decline in the use of customs among indigenous people; it is a tragic consequences of colonialization.19 However, the tragic horror, and shock wrought by the “matanza” had a collective impact on the Nahuat-speakers, and what linguist call “language death” clearly exemplifies what happened to their language and culture.20 And fourth, in the intent to “kill off the Indians,” the perpetrators opened up pathways to planting the seeds for a revolution. The immense poverty, the persistent exploitation of the worker, the huge economic gap between the oligarchs who lived in luxury and the peasantry, that struggled every day and demanded nothing more than the opportunity to live a dignified life, all led to the fomentation of rebellion, and ultimately, to the revolution.21
“I was a woman who was never afraid.” Gumercinda “Chinda” Zamora.22
Chinda learned not to be afraid. Throughout her life she witnessed the brutal killings and mutilations of so many innocent people, and her clandestine lifestyle was due to the military repression that had steadily increased since the “matanza.” In the summer of 1974, in what is known as (the first) La Cayetana massacre, an organized group of peasants rebelled against the government’s refusal to support their negotiations for leasing land to cultivate corn and beans. They seized the land in protestation but the group’s leader was shot and killed by the soldiers. Four months later, National Guardsmen descended on the small town of La Cayetana (in San Vicente) and began killing the unarmed civilians. They captured the group behind the land occupation protest and corralled each member into a local church. The guardsmen proceeded to torture the men: they were ordered to lie down, face down, naked while the soldiers stomped on their backs. Six laborers were shot dead and their mutilated corpses were scattered in the streets. The Cayetano massacre sent shock waves among labor organizers because it was the first massacre that involved an entire community.23 Now, more than ever, the solidarity amongst campesinos was strengthened, and by joining the UTC (Union de Trabajadores Campesinos) they recognized their strength in numbers.
Chinda experienced a deep, profound and tragic loss when her dear friend, co-founder of the UTC, and brother-in-law, Justo Mejia was tortured and assassinated on November 9, 1977. Mejia was captured by the paramilitaries in San Fernando, near Chalatenango. The torture was an inexplicable horror; he was beaten, and with his eyes gouged, and bleeding, the men forced him to walk until he collapsed. As they buried his body, the men told the crowd of onlookers that he was a thief. Two weeks later his body was exhumed and prepared for a proper funeral in his hometown of La Ceiba. Thousands of people – families, friends, acquaintances, and activists from Chalatenango and beyond attended the funeral to offer their respects, and to honor the man that was best known as a caring, dedicated teacher. Chinda remembers him in this remark: ‘He was such a helpful [colaborativo] and wise [alcanzativo] man. Nobody told him what to do. He knew the work that needed to be done. He came to my house often and said, I have a task [una tarea]. God willing we will be able to complete it.”24 Eight months later, in August, 1978, the paramilitaries led another massacre in the area, known as, La Ceiba massacre, which resulted in the killings of six children and two women, all relatives of Justo Mejía.
The Paramilitaries and the Role of the United States
By the end of the 1970s, the Salvadorans felt the extreme intensity of the repression. The ubiquitous paramilitaries had increased in size and their brutality was overwhelming. Chinda lived among communities where families were torn apart because of their allegiances to either the state paramilitary or the revolution. As many as 150,000 campesinos joined the Nationalist Democratic Organization (ORDEN), the military’s rural component of El Salvador’s counterinsurgency unit. They were outfitted with U.S.-provided equipment and automatic rifles, and their training was based on guerrilla warfare imported from the Green Berets, known for their extremist tactics to annihilate the dangerous and armed communists.
ORDEN was a major paramilitary unit created in 1963 under the auspices of General Médrano, the head of the National Guard and the Armed Forces High Command.25
Special funding was provided by the United States as part of the Alliance for Progress (ALPRO), a regional initiative by the Kennedy administration in response to the threats posed by the Soviet Union under the specter of the Cold War. El Salvador received generous U.S. funding, and the aid was stipulated for modernizing and economic restructuring as well as for labor and education reforms.26 And although the ALPRO support was also earmarked for the development of a counterinsurgency apparatus as a contingency, the military/oligarch government of El Salvador relished the opportunity to use the funds to create a U.S.-style, world class military force. The United States State Department, including the CIA, had a direct influence on its development, providing specialized training, military equipment, and funds to maintain its operations. It was part of the Salvadoran Armed Forces, a complex, broad network of military units and intelligence agencies. The intelligence branch was the Salvadoran National Agency (ANSESAL), which collected personal data on individuals deemed as the subversive or communist leaders. The Security Forces included the National Guard, Treasury Police, National Police, and the Customs Police, which carried out the abductions, tortures, and assassinations, at first with cautious deliberation, but eventually these evolved into the “death squads.”27
The death squads’ murderous activities were sustained largely by the wealthy oligarch families and military personnel, representing the extreme far-right political faction. Their targets varied, but they clearly sought to eliminate the leadership amongst the religious and lay members of organizations such as the Christian Based Communities.28 With every tool of warfare at their disposal, and together with guerrilla warfare battalions such as Atlacatl, the death squad machine, committed the most brutal, heinous, and extreme violence against non-combatant civilians and entire communities and towns.29 The Salvadoran government denied its people agrarian, labor, and education reforms as stipulated and agreed upon by the ALPRO. And one of the most disconcerting facts is that death squads continued to terrorize Salvadorans after the Peace Accords of 1992. Their targets expanded to include gang members without substantial evidence of crimes committed; some were killed as part of a “social cleansing” mission.30
The question remains on why the Salvadoran government agreed to the ALPRO terms, and whether the intent was to first and foremost benefit from the United States’ generous support and funding, and then, to deny culpability or responsibility for any wrongdoing.
Guerrilla Organizations and the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMNL)
While Chinda and other UTC leaders worked indefatigably to organize their efforts in Chalatenango, guerrilla groups began to emerge, especially in response to the intense military repression. Salvador Cayetano Carpio, a former communist party leader, studied “the revolution” in the Soviet Union for a couple of years and later, in 1970, founded the Popular Forces of Liberation (FPL). The FPL guerrilla eventually recruited 1,500 to 2,000 troops, and enjoyed the support of tens of thousands of campesinos in the Chalatenango Department.31 Carpio, also known by his nom de guerre, Marcial, believed in the North Vietnam revolutionary example of a prolonged war with camp bases established in the guerrillas’ mountainous strongholds, while other guerrilla organizations preferred the alliance with the Cuban revolution (1953-1959).32 Between 1979 and 1981, in a crucial moment of dire need, and in order to counter the forceful and powerful attacks by the U.S. backed Salvadoran forces, the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMNL), established an alliance with the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR), the umbrella of a broad network of organizations, as well as Cuba, the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, and México. The FMLN also harnessed the support of the European community. The integration of the existing five guerrilla organizations into the FMLN completed the consolidation process. On January 10, 1981, the FMNL-FDR launched its initial offense from its military stronghold in the Department of Chalatenango. The five guerrilla organizations united in solidarity were: the Popular Forces of Liberation (FPL), Revolutionary Popular Army (ERP), Salvadoran Communist Party (PCS), National Resistance (RN), and Party of the Salvadoran Revolution (PRTC).33
Chinda was among the thousands that believed in revolutionary change. And although Chinda did not use any armed weapons, she was nevertheless arrested, detained and interrogated by the security forces for alleged subversive behavior. But the next generation of women took bolder steps in their participation as revolutionaries.
The Gendered Guerrilla Movement
As early as 1962, a few Salvadoran women were integrated into the “feminine column” of the guerrilla organization, the United Front of Revolutionary Action (FUAR), coordinated by Schafik Handal and Castellanos Figueroa.34 FUAR was the first of its kind to promote an armed revolution after the 1932 “massacre.” From 1951 to 1964, the leadership of the Salvadoran Communist Party created networks in the rural communities that worked in harvesting coffee in the western regions, and in the cotton plantations in the eastern region. The campesinos tried to set up unions, but their attempts were swiftly deterred by paramilitary troops. Instead, many chose to join FUAR. The popular guerrilla organization generated a couple of thousand followers within a two-year period, however, the leadership was split over whether the group should take up an armed insurrection. Marcial (Carpio) criticized the leaders for creating a scenario that he claimed would fail because a revolution requires much more than one guerrilla organization.35 FUAR did not evolve as the leaders planned, but the decision to grow a revolution from the Left had planted the seeds of determination.
At the core, front and center of the Salvadoran Civil War was the phenomenal social movement that amassed thousands of people from almost every corner of the country. Indeed, the long-standing, dire deficiencies in the social and economic conditions in a country governed by the super wealthy and a military infatuated with power created the revolutionary climate: ripe, where just about anyone could become motivated to participate. The leaders that emerged from the New Left movement were deeply critical of the injustices perpetrated against the campesino families that consistently experienced land insecurity and the essential basics for a dignified life. The economic hardships pushed some women to urban migration, especially single women with children. The new leaders rejected the constant lies of politicians that mostly represented the wealthy elite and the military bourgeoisie, the numerous electoral frauds, and the utter absence of basic democratic freedoms. And as the gut-wrenching war dragged on for years and with brutal intensity, everyone was deeply affected by the horrendous killings of thousands of innocent people. Although the communist ideals of Marxism and Leninism initially formed the guerrilla organization framework, the ideas and thoughts emanating from internal consciousness-raising processes eventually gave way to the transformed peoples’ revolution.
Stepping Into the Revolutionary Role
The women’s voices featured herein are selected from the scholarship of researchers that witnessed first-hand the testimony of former female guerrilla members. Without their rigorous and dogged investigations, historical accounts of this and other revolutions would certainly comprise an incomplete and biased narrative. And of course, our scope of understanding would be limited in regard to the contributions by women and the impact of their work on our lives.
By and large, many authors allude to their findings that women joined the guerrillas because they believed it was an act of doing social justice, of performing a duty based on their principled beliefs, and that their specific actions would lead to a society that serves everyone, especially the historically marginalized, poor people.36 There were other reasons, of course, such as to be with family members or to escape repression. But the women’s testimonies exclude the notion that their gender was a reason for participating.37 Before, and even during the Salvadoran War, women’s issues were politically framed within the broad context of societal needs and struggles, and the term “feminism” did not hold a functional key toward equality. It was in the post-war 1990s that women gained a collective vision of gender equality, and began to successfully roll out a social and political discourse on feminism.
Organizing the Women in the Guerrilla
Researchers Vasquez, Ibañez, and Murguialdy worked out a scheme by which to organize the former guerrilla female members that they interviewed.38 They identified five groups as the following:
1) The young revolutionaries from urban sites. These women were under twenty years old when they enlisted in the guerrilla fronts, living in the clandestine camp sites.
2) The young revolutionaries from rural sites. Like the women from the urban areas, they were under twenty years old when they joined the guerrilla front.
3) The adult revolutionaries from urban sites. The women in this group were from urban sites. They were over twenty years old when they enlisted and they had one or more children.
4) “Comandos urbanos.” These revolutionary women participated in the urban commands in San Salvador.
5) Collaborators of the guerrillas. These revolutionary women collaborated with the FMLN in control zones. They lived normal lives as citizens but carried out guerrilla activities in secret.
Karen Kampwirth provides a strong research basis by which to deduce that the female revolutionaries entered into the guerrillas via student and/or social organizations.39Kampwirth’s extensive interviews with former female revolutionaries in El Salvador and Nicaragua focused on social and educational backgrounds.40The Salvadoran guerrilla women tended to have more educational experiences then their male counterparts, and although many originated from the rural areas of the country, some chose to migrate to the urban areas. Educational opportunities played a major role on whether the females had attended school, and the women had greater access in urban centers.
Many of the “pre-existing networks,” as author Karen Kampwirth refers to the social/educational organizations, where the revolutionaries’ aspirations were developed and nurtured, were sponsored by the Church, i.e., the Archdiocese hierarchy, priests, religious, and laity. At the public university, the Salvador University Catholic Action and the Catholic Student Youth organizations spearheaded some of the major groups that served to educate revolutionaries, including the women: Christian Democrat Party (Partido Democrático Cristiano, PDC) – 1960; Committee of Representatives of General Studies (CRAC) – 1967; and the People’s Revolutionary Movements of the 1960s and 70s.42
Many student activists that turned insurrectionists, became actively involved through the University of Salvador (UES), the country’s national (public) institution. Since the 1918 reforms at the University of Cordoba in Argentina, many Latin American universities, including in Central America, sought to follow a similar path of democratization of the academic curriculum, essentially creating an autonomous university. In 1963, the UES’s rector, Fabio Castillo, a proponent of educational reform and later in 1976, served as Minister of Education, administered a four-year plan that included the substantial improvement of the quality of the university curriculum, and a huge boost in student enrollment, enhanced with the availability of scholarships for students who needed them.43 The student enrollment jumped exponentially. The 1960s era was a unique moment in the university’s history; thousands of students, many of whom would not have had the opportunity to attend, were not only learning about democratic ideals, but practicing democracy within their autonomous learning environment. However, within a decade, the repressive state of the Salvadoran government, with callous and indifference, retaliated with brutish force.
The October 1960 (Double) Coup D’état
After President Lemus was overthrown in a coup d’état in October 1960, the transitional power of the Governmental, Civic-Military Junta was used to pre-establish conditions for the next government. Among the proposed guidelines were the renewed emphasis on the democratic process of holding free and completely open elections, and on the development of a stronger social program aimed at suppressing illiteracy and raising educational levels for all students. These and other similar ideals were immediately questioned by the military leaders, particularly because they perceived the unusual membership of civilians amongst the junta members as threatening, namely Fabio Castillo, a Cuban Revolution supporter.44 As predicted, in just three months (by year’s end in 1960), the military officers in San Salvador took charge of a revolt that essentially proclaimed the ousting of the current junta and the replacement of a military junta led by Col. Rivera. The assertion was that a military intervention was necessary to maintain a control on communists and supporters of the Cuban revolution.
The PDC: A Groundswell of Support
(El Partido Democrático Cristiano – Christian Democratic Party)
Against the background of the military revolt by a junta and its leader, Col. Rivera, in November 1960, was the emergence of a new political party whose party members shared a strong bond with Catholic Action, an international movement that embraced “Social Christianity.” The Partido Democrático Cristiano, or the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), was founded by three broad groups: a) Salvadoran students in the University’s Catholic Action branch, Acción Católico Universidad or ACUS; b) Catholic intellectuals that had turned away from the “old conservative guard” of the Catholic Church; and c) the Confederation of Latin American Christian Trade Unions (CLASC).45 Catholic Action represented a radically unique, positive and progressive vision of a social reality unlike the dominant conservativism espoused by the Catholic Church for decades. The Christian Democratic Party’s broadly-based composition of students, Catholic intellectuals, priests, teachers, and middle-class non-communist populace produced a threat amongst the military and the wealthy elite, and also among members of the Communist Party (PCS). As a major political party, the PDC achieved the phenomenal task of creating an inclusive attraction rarely experienced in the country’s history. Students that adhered to the Catholic Action principles actively engaged in the PDC to promote an agenda for a nonviolent social revolution in El Salvador.
In 1972, the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) and two other political parties (MNR and UDN) rallied their support around a popular San Salvador mayor running for president, José Napoleón Duarte. After the election, a fiery argument erupted over the counting of votes. Although Duarte and his opponent, the right-wing favorite, Col. Molina, each declared victory, the National Assembly ruled that they would call the election. However, the Assembly declared Col. Molina the winner, and two days later, a revolt ensued led by Col. Mejía and a group of rebel soldiers. Col. Mejía claimed a short-lived victory by declaring that the San Salvador capitol city’s military guard was supporting him. In fact, he grossly miscalculated the aggression by the Salvadoran government’s military force. After a bloody battle, Mejía gave up on the coup d’état, and Duarte was exiled, as were Mejía and his collaborators.46
The New Left Student Movement
The Salvadoran president, Col. Molina, targeted the University of El Salvador (UES), claiming the students were Marxist and as such, revolutionary and subversive. But what Molina perceived as subversive rebellion was actually part of the New Left led by students throughout the world, protesting in solidarity with each other and calling for revolutionary change. It was during the1960’s era of television and radio when the New Left student movements created repetitive shock waves as people watched and listened to the violent confrontations between police and student protesters in México, Spain, North Vietnam, and France. Student activists in Latin American countries such as Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil brazenly touted their New Left revolutionary rebellion. The Salvadoran university student activists were enrolled in a specific degree program known as General Studies and thus, formed a cohesive group with common views about the New Left revolution in their country.47
President Molina proceeded to deal with the students’ activism in the usual repressive manner. Much to the dismay and horrified student body, he ordered government troops into the university campus to control all student protests. After a year, the troops were finally retired. But two years later, in September 1975, more than 2,000 UES students marched peacefully from the university to the downtown Plaza Libertad, where they were met with military-style gun fire by the National Guard, killing thirty-seven students and “disappearing” dozens more.48 Specifically, the UES students were furious over the government’s decision to spend an exorbitant amount ($30 million) in hosting the Miss Universe Pageant. But as a result of the massacre, the reasons for the protest faded as more and more student voices clamored for an armed insurrection.49
Both Col. Molina’s fraudulent election and crackdown on university students were fodder for activism that continued on a rapid spiral toward an armed insurrection. The unintended radicalization of students had consequences that the Salvadoran government would respond with even more repressive tactics.
“There will never be a deep change
in the country’s structure until we devote ourselves
to educate in all aspects our men from the countryside.”50
In the rural towns and communities, the Archdiocese of San Salvador sponsored the Escuelas Radiofónicas (1960s & 1970s), a grassroots educational network of volunteer teachers/community leaders that taught daily literacy classes to adults; “radio students” that attended daily classes; and specialized subject teachers that taught primary children. In the same period, the Salvadoran Catholic Church developed “Peasant Universities,” or “Centers for the Promotion of Peasants,” with the goal of graduating hundreds of students from nine rural areas (in Chalatenango, 1967-77, a total of 15,000 students had attended). Social organizations multiplied as a result of the grassroots networks, allowing people access to education and for many, it was their first time to set foot in a classroom. A collective vision had emerged; education as key to a greater societal change was a belief that the populace readily embraced. This quote, by the priest, Martin Barahona, in charge of a school in Chalatenango expresses the popular sentiment: “There will never be a deep change in the country’s structure until we devote ourselves to educate in all aspects our men from the countryside.”50
Schools were the prime socialization hubs for the communities. Part of the educational change processes were literacy campaigns that engaged hundreds of volunteers as teachers. Many women from diverse backgrounds joined the literacy/political movement. One of them was Lil Milagro Ramírez, a member of “El Grupo,” the predecessor of the guerrilla, ERP (Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo).
Lil Milagro Ramírez was among a handful of female university students at UES (University of El Salvador) that created La Masacuata, (Nahuat for deer-serpent), a group of revolutionary-minded, Social Christian activists, and poets. La Masacuata eventually evolved into El Grupo in 1969. El Grupo laid the foundation for the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP) guerrilla organization in 1972, in the relatively same period that Cayetano Carpio and others founded the FPL guerrilla (Fuerzas Populares de Liberación) in 1970. Lil Ramírez’ story is not well-known, in fact some sources of information lack consistency in her date of birth, either in 1945 or 1946. Some sources indicate that she was assassinated by the Salvadoran military in 1979, after having been detained and tortured since she was captured in 1976. Although Ramírez was not known as a “feminist” she was described as someone that was an intelligent poet, and loyal to the revolutionary movement. She was also the “traditional” woman that cooked welcomed meals for her fellow comrades, or the consoling mother that offered compassion and understanding.51
Ramírez and others in El Grupo were among the first to not only promote an armed insurrection but also to create alliances with the burgeoning groups of activists in the countryside.
Ramírez witnessed the state repression first hand when she participated in the 1968 ANDES (teacher union) strike. She helped her fellow comrades to safety during the violent milieu when the military opened fire at the crowd. Several were killed. She wrote the following letter to her father before she went into hiding:
Do you remember we were there during the first ANDES strike? I was one of the most committed to that struggle and my feelings of frustration and impotence began to take shape when I saw the helpless people who were asking for justice and got repression and death in response. I will never forget the morning when we took the dead bodies of the workers killed by the Guard to the cemetery … those were the first times that I reflected on this country and its political conditions … at that point I thought we had to find another way.52
The threads that compelled the urban and the rural alliances toward coalescence were constructed by three transformative events that occurred during the same time period. First, as described above, the success of the Christian Democratic Party with its Social Christianity emphasis and the support of the Catholic Action demonstrated that the Salvadoran people from widely diverse segments of the population were eager to collectively participate in a the establishment of a democracy, without the determent of the power regime pushed by the military and the wealthy elite. Secondly, the renewed identity of the Catholic Church created a unprecedented opportunity for the poor and marginalized populace to become fully integrated into the democratic process, and be able to participate in shaping theirs and their children’s future. And thirdly, the adoption of Paulo Freire’s philosophy and method for teaching literacy, especially to adults, was highly compatible with the delivery of homilies promoted by liberation theologians, combining learning to read and write with an understanding of self in society and becoming liberated from oppression.
A Major Political Event of the Century
Known as the Second Vatican Council of 1962 and the Second Episcopal Conference of 1965, it was called, as a religious entity, the major political event of the century and its consequences could not have been greater than in all of Latin America, including of course, Central America.53
The proclamations in the Second Vatican Council documents of 1962 framed the Church in a very different historical perspective: the Church’s role, it declared, belongs within the community and its entire mission is contextual, not only spiritual. The Church exists in a communal environment and the sacrament of baptism deems every member as “equal.” At the Second Episcopal Conference in Medellín, Bogotá in 1965, the bishops took a bolder step and asserted the actions that were at the core of their proclamations: “the call to defend the rights of the oppressed; to promote grassroots organizations; to announce the unjust action of the world powers that work against the self-determination of the weaker nations.”54
The extraordinary transformation of the Church must have seemed ultra-revolutionary to many Salvadorans that were already contemplating the need for drastic change in their society. But, of course, those that were rigorously opposed to the Church’s new role were the conservative military, oligarch sectors that perceived the change not only as antithetical to their religious beliefs, but as a threat to their power as an authoritative regime. Although the Church had consistently worked against the incorporation of secular ideologies such as socialism or communism in the 1930s and 1940s, the Second Vatican Council chose not to condemn communism, but instead stood firmly in favor of the critics of capitalism abuses. In 1979, Archbishop Romero expressed his sentiments concerning the disunity that existed among Catholics in Latin America: “I believe that the path to unity lies in a ‘preferential option for the poor.’ …-we found Jesus Christ among the poor and there was no problem-… .”55
In the late 1960s, Lil Milagro Ramírez participated as a volunteer teacher of adult literacy classes in Cojutepeque, a city just East of the capitol city of San Salvador. At the time, the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP) had yet to be formalized. As a member of El Grupo, she was keenly aware like everyone else that the education of the masses was a prerequisite for a successful revolution. The collaboration with the campesinos in the formation of a combined urban/rural front guerrilla was an imperative undertaking by the student activists. With extremely high illiteracy rates among the campesinos, an effective educational process had to address the urgency to educate as many people as possible within a limited time frame, and at the same time help them construct a meaningful knowledge base that allows for critical thinking and the building of self-confidence. Additionally, volunteers had to be trained on a wide scale in order to carry out this campaign.
The renewed identity and function of the Catholic Church was vigorously accepted by the poor and marginalized populations in the rural areas of the country. Within a few years starting in 1968, Christian Base Communities, known as CEBs, were organized and developed through the pastoral work of religious clergy. Dozens of CEBs cropped up in several areas, across various departments. The initial team usually consisted of a priest and a nun, but once they began their work, community members took on leadership roles. Education was at the center of their mission. The Bible was at the forefront of every lesson, but oral discussions dominated the mostly illiterate groups of adults. Certain messages resonated more than others; amongst these was the meaning of “liberation,” not the kind of being liberated at the time of death, but the liberation that anyone can achieve (with God’s blessing) during a lifetime. Liberation is within reach if one is willing to struggle for it.56
The literacy work that Lil Ramírez and other student activists engaged in were part of an extension of the pastoral mission by the Church. They joined the Center of Social Studies and Popular Promotion (CESPROP), founded by a sociologist, Father Juan Ramón Vega and Catholic students, and were trained on how to help adults become literate using the pedagogy popularized by Brazilian Paulo Freire that integrates consciousness-raising (conscientização) with literacy development. The pedagogy is student-centered; beginning with an understanding of their reality and through “problematizing” and didactical conversations, the learners acquire a different perspective of how the power structures result in inequality, and most importantly, how and why they are victims of long-standing and debilitating poverty. The learners continuously generate familiar words and expressions as they learn to read and write. Gradually they build meaningful frameworks for literacy development. Rather than a dispenser of information, the teacher assumes the role of facilitator/observer, challenging learners to think critically and independently.
Ramírez and dozens of other university and high school students associated with Catholic Action were highly active in CESPROP. Many of their students became activists and some later joined the armed insurrection. The government authorities became suspicious of their work, and in some municipalities, the Catholic Church was prohibited from teaching protest songs to their students.57
The Teacher’s Revolution (and Casualties)
While the children of the wealthy elite and military hierarchy enjoyed pricey educational schooling such as in private schools in San Salvador, the United States, or Europe, the majority of children, many living in extreme poverty, attended state-run schools in deplorable conditions. Newly graduated teachers were assigned to these schools unless they had some connection with a high ranking military official, or were affiliated with the correct political party. The Salvadoran government’s regard for the teachers’ services was evident in their low-paying salaries (about $80. per month), without benefits. A few teachers took issue with the government’s ineptitude and decided that the best option was to organize themselves. Within a two-year period, the teachers had their own organization, becoming the first autonomous teacher union in the El Salvador’s history.58
The organization was called the Asociación Nacional de Educadores Salvadoreños (ANDES) (officially recognized on June 21, 1965) and among the leaders was a teacher, Mélida Anaya Montes. The organization drew from its collective strength of fourteen thousand primary school teachers to demand that the government protect their legal rights and improve their working conditions with decent salaries and medical care.59 Beyond the essential stipulations that addressed their working conditions, the ANDES members established proposed curricular changes which were specific to working with children and their families in marginalized contexts. Their proposal called for specific instructional approaches, such as Paulo Freire’s liberation pedagogy, the teaching of critical thinking skills; a renewed focus on El Salvador’s history and on the construction of democracy.
The government’s lack of an adequate response compelled the ANDES members to deliberate their next steps with bold strategies.
In ANDES’ first confrontation with the government of President Sánchez Hernández in 1968, nearly four hundred teachers, mostly from the Department of Chalatenango, participated in a two-month strike as they camped outside the Ministry of Education building in the country’s capital. The message inherent in their narrative was a call for dignity: “la dignificación del magisterio.”60The government’s concessions were woefully inadequate, and ANDES organized a larger strike in 1971. Thousands of teachers, students, and supporters protested in the capital and throughout the country. Military, security forces, and ORDEN (paramilitary) forces attacked the demonstrators in different locations, including Chalatenango, Santa Ana, and Chalchuapa.61 Many suffered mild and severe injuries, while at least one university student, an engineer, and two university professors were killed, including a Mexican professor, Luis Quezada, who had survived the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre in México.62
Mélida Anaya Montes was appalled at the disastrous and egregious assaults on teachers, and speaking on behalf of herself and ANDES she declared that their only option was to counter the repressive forces with violence since words were not sufficient or powerful against a viciously armed regime.63 Many teachers joined the guerrilla as did Anaya Montes, who eventually became a high ranking member of the Fuerzas Populares de Liberación (FPL), while others chose a path of stability by becoming affiliated with the national political party PCN (the Partido de Concilación Nacional).64
The Church’s Revolution (and its Casualties)
By the late 1960s, the repressive forces of the Salvadoran military had affected thousands of non-combatants, but by and large the targets were students, teachers, labor and social movement leaders, even government officials. The memory of thousands killed in the 1932 “la matanza” still haunted those that had been most affected such as family members or close friends. The people killed by the Salvadoran regime were deemed the subversives, the “internal enemies.” But the shock value was elevated to new heights when members of the clergy were assaulted and killed, as if they were “enemies” as well, and were no longer protected by their religious affiliation.
The first targeted priest was Father José Inocencio Alas who was abducted by ORDEN (or similar paramilitary force) shortly after he had given a speech at the Agrarian Reform Congress in 1970. Fr. Alas was a member of clergy that had strong connections with the campesinos in rural areas and fully supported agrarian reform that would bring much needed aid to the families. The response by governmental, military and business representatives was predictable – the least of concessions was most acceptable to these stakeholders, and Father Alas stood in diametrical opposition to their positions. He was eventually released and left for dead on a mountain cliff south of San Salvador. The archdiocese’ radio station, YSAX, had broadcasted his abduction around the clock, and listeners were asked to pray for Father Alas. To everyone’s relief, their prayers were answered and Fr. Alas was found, injured but alive.65
Father Nicolas Rodríguez’ dismembered body was found days after his abduction by the National Guard on January, 1972. Incredulously, the Church accepted the military’s explanation that Rodríguez had been killed by unknown assailants.66
Father Rutilio Grande’s assassination was particularly impactful because of his work with the CEBs and his relationship with the Archbishop Oscar Romero. Upon his arrival to San Salvador as the newly elected Archbishop, Romero was welcomed and briefed by Fr. Grande. Just three weeks later, Fr. Grande and another priest, Fr. Alfonso Navarro, were assassinated while traveling with other parishioners to celebrate Mass in a nearby town. Archbishop Romero recognized how Fr. Grande had been instrumental in organizing the community of Aguilares (in the department of San Salvador), developing thirty-seven CEBs and training 326 catechists. Within an eight-month period, the community had created their own grassroots leadership, mobilizing laborers to join with the Christian Federation of Salvadoran Campesinos (FECCAS) in 1973. The organized group had considerable success in May, 1973, when workers at the Aguilares’ La Cabaña sugar mill set up a peaceful six-hour strike, demanding the promised salary increase that the management had reneged. Although the strikers were able to recoup some of their earnings, not all of the salary increase, the strike was nevertheless considered a success. The infuriated oligarchs and their government supporters attributed the development of the labor organization and its outcome to the work of Fr. Grande and his grassroots leadership, despite the fact that he and all clergy members worked within the confines of a strictly pastoral agenda. The Aguilares example, along with other similar developments, attained an historical commendation in Latin America for its collaboration with the Church, touting its evangelizing efforts’ direct influence on the community and grassroots organizations.67
The persecution of priests and laity continued: between 1977 to 1981 eleven priests were assassinated and at least sixty priests were exiled, some forcefully. What was once considered the assassination or even the mistreatment of a priest as an anomaly, was now a systematic, deliberate strategy perpetrated by the military and wealthy elite.68
The 1980 assassinations and attempts of religious clergy were particularly impactful and tragic. In January, 1980, two Mexican nuns were abducted and taken to the National Guard barracks. They were released several hours later, only after Archbishop Romero had intervened and demanded their release. In June, a Salvadoran nun was severely beaten with a machete, receiving blows and cuts to her face and neck.69 Then, in March, 1980, the unthinkable and tragic assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero while saying Mass sent the entire country into total disarray. Archbishop Romero had deepened his connection with the Salvadoran people, especially the marginalized masses afflicted with poverty and social injustices. His sympathizers clung to his every word; his Sunday sermons broadcasted on YSAX were rarely missed since everyone was tuned in. At the same time, he symbolized “the internal enemy” by the powerful Salvadoran military regime and wealthy elite.70
When four American “churchwomen” were reportedly raped and murdered on December 2, 1980, the international community expressed horror and disbelief that this could possibly happen to the women who were in the country to fulfill their missionary duties. The case was investigated because family members of the women insisted, and although the government tried to cover-up the crime, the findings revealed that the military was involved in the planning and execution of the murders. The Commission on the Truth report concluded Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clark were returning from Nicaragua to return to Chalatenango, and Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and lay missioner Jean Donavan, staying in La Libertad, went to the airport to pick them up. After the four drove away from the airport, they were stopped by Sergeant Colindres Alemán and four National Guard members. They forced the women to an isolated area, where they were raped and shot execution-style. The next day they were buried in shallow graves in a nearby municipality and their vehicle was torched. A day later, the U.S. ambassador discovered the graves and ordered their bodies exhumed and taken to San Salvador.71 Needless to say, the religious community was particularly saddened but angered over the murders of the four women. But the U.S. government was not sympathetic according to Raymond Bonner, who quoted Ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick upon learning of the women’s heinous murders: “They weren’t just nuns. They were political activists on behalf of the Frente.”72
Please see the iMAGE gALLERY for background information on each of the four women.
The eventual convictions of the perpetrators and the international attention on El Salvador’s human rights violations did not deter the military from committing more assaults against the religious clergy. A case in point was the execution style murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter by the Atlactl battalion in 1989.73 One of the priests, Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria, had been an advocate for social justice; his voice particularly significant since the assassination of Archbishop Romero in 1980.74
The Catholic Church’s transformation during the critical period of the revolution throughout El Salvador impacted the lives of the entire populace. Faced with the stark inequalities wrought by abject poverty and opulent wealth, the Church fittingly decided to work alongside the people who most needed their help. Liberation Theology and its core message of advocating for change for the good of the parish and its parishioners, was subject to a wide array of opinions. Although the message of justifiable use of violence was not explicit in Liberation Theology, it was nevertheless part of the messaging inherent in the fight for liberation. Author Gustavo Gutiérrez discusses the Liberationist’s responsibility to support the revolutionary efforts of Christians “in spirit at least if not in action.”75 His book, A Theology of Liberation, published in 1971, introduced diverse and controversial topics that at the very least, highlighted the challenge of the Church’s renewed identity. For the revolutionaries seeking to fight in the frontlines, the call to action was a call to an armed insurrection.76
‘The Other Matanzas’ – Massacres in the Countryside and More Human Rights Violations
The United Nations report: From Hope to Madness: Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (2001) detailed some of the egregious assaults on the non-combatant civilians that highlighted the patterns of human rights violations which the Salvadoran military regime was deemed largely responsible. But it should be pointed out that without the immense and consistent (or persistent) support by the United States government, the Salvadoran military would not have had the means by which to commit the military actions on such a massive and destructive scale.
El Salvador was perceived by President Reagan as being critical to the security interests of the United States. In his first year as president (1981-82) he allotted $82 million to El Salvador, almost five times what the country had received from the United States in a thirty-year period (1946-1979). From 1980 to 1982, the Salvadoran government received $354 million, and between 1984-85, another $312 million. President Reagan understood somewhat the inhumane reign of terror that the military regime inflicted upon its non-combatant civilians, and although the Salvadoran government promised to halt human rights violations, he insisted on demonstrable proof in order to certify the allocation of additional aid. In 1982, Salvadoran President Magaña’s assurances on land reform progress satisfied President Reagan, however after the six-month certification was signed and the aid was distributed, the Salvadoran government continued committing the violations. After the fourth time that the certification was issued to the Salvadoran government, and then, again finding the claims of progress to be false, it became clear to the United States that the certification process was a complete farce. However, President Reagan insisted that the United States continue its military support to El Salvador. In a joint session of Congress in 1983, President Reagan praised the Salvadoran government for “making every effort to guarantee democracy, free labor unions, freedom of religion, and a free press…”77
During the first six months after the inauguration of President Reagan, 7,152 Salvadorans were killed, over half were unarmed peasants, some of them taken from their homes and killed.78
In all, approximately, 75,000 Salvadorans lost their lives; 85 percent of the killings were committed by the Salvadoran government forces. As many as a million people were displaced throughout the 12-year war. President Reagan allocated billions of dollars in helping the Salvadoran government fight the guerrilla forces.79 The U.S. government provided El Salvador with the very best, world-class military equipment and training, but to the great dismay of many, the resources were used for the worst reasons. A case in point is the massacre in El Mozote, a rural community in the Morazón Department, where up to a thousand non-combatant civilians, entire families, women and children included, were murdered between December 11-13, 1981.80
Despite the aid, the Salvadoran government could not declare a clear victory, greatly frustrating the Reagan administration.81The Salvadoran armed forces increased from 10,000 to 1979 to 24,000 in 1982 to 56,000 in 1987. And although the FMLN insurgency had the capability of defeating the Salvadoran military, the United States’ intervening arm prohibited this possibility through its enormous support that enabled El Salvador to sustain a war indefinitely.
The Tragedy of the Honduran Partnership with the United States
The chart below, “Massacres During the Salvador Civil War,” includes the information on assaults perpetrated against non-combatant civilians by both the Salvadoran and the Honduran military forces.82 But some in this list were not included. Specifically, the “River Massacres” detail how civilians caught in the crossfires of the Salvadoran military forces attempted to flee to the Honduran border, and upon crossing the river that delineates the boundary, were attacked by Honduran troops. The Honduran government played a supportive role in the Salvadoran Civil War because of the aid received from the United States. Raymond Bonner writes about top secret information shared with the National Security Council on 1983, which revealed CIA operatives in Honduras that included patrols into El Salvador for the purpose of destroying guerrilla bases.83 The Reagan administration supported the Honduran military in 1983 with $31.3 million dollars along with generous amount of military hardware: “helicopters, counterinsurgency planes, mortars, howitzers, communications equipment, and patrol boats.”84 Bonner describes the United States’ intervening role in Honduras as the case of transforming a “banana republic” dominated by the United Fruit Company into a military base developed by the United States and ruled by Ambassador Negroponte and the Honduran Minister of Defense, General Gustavo Alvarez.”85 Mercenaries were bankrolled to perform military services such as piloting planes to ferry soldiers to their posts. Clandestine jails with torture chambers were set up in Honduras to “give Honduras the ugly face of El Salvador.”
The revolutionaries who felt any hesitancy in joining an armed insurrection became angry and embittered over the atrocities executed by the Salvadoran government forces. If ever there was a reason to fight, to pick up a weapon it was then, and the more the killings, massacres, disappearances, and assassinations unleashed by the repressive regime, the greater the likelihood that women would become compelled to participate in the revolution.
Massacres During the Salvadoran Civil War
March 1981 (Note: investigation incomplete)
El Junquillo, Morazán
At least 55 mostly women and children, few men – killed execution style
Military operation consisting of Cacaopera civil defense and soldiers attacked the inhabitants on night of March 11th, killing each in execution style, raping some of the females, even the little girls. Then, they burned their homes and stole their food. They had full knowledge that the guerrillas were not present in the area.
El Mozote, Morazán; and five surrounding villages/towns
In El Mozote 200 killed execution style; investigations led authorities to conclude that in all around 1,000 civilians were assassinated.
Atlacatl Battalion entered El Mozote on Dec. 11th. Men were tortured and executed, then, the women, then children. In the next two days, the military continued killing civilians in nearby areas: La Joya, La Ranchería, Los Toriles, Jocote Amarillo, Cerro Pando.
River Massacres May 1980
Chalatenango on Sumpul River border
About 250 Honduran soldiers stood guard on their side of Sumpul River; when hundreds civilians attempted to flee across the river to Honduras, Salvadoran soldiers shot and killed 600 civilians; Honduran soldiers, collaborating with Salvadoran government pushed the civilians back to El Salvador.
Department of Cabañas bordering Lempa River with Honduras.
20-30 killed; 189 reported missing
4,500-5,000 campesinos forced to flee their homes and cross the Lempa River to Honduras for safety. Air assaults by U.S. helicopter gunships targeted the civilians during their flight.
Same area as above.
147 killed, including 44 children.
Civilians attempting to cross the river to safety.
Same area as above – Department of Cabañas bordering Lempa River with Hondurans.
50-100 civilians killed.
Another counter-insurgency operation by the Salvadoran military kept 1,000 civilians under attack for 13 days.
Eastern Chalatenango, Sumpul River
Belloso Battalion unit of Salvadoran military fired at civilians crossing the Sumpul River as they fled toward Honduras for safety.
El Calabozo, San Vicente, alongside the Amatitán River
Over 200 men, women and children
In a military operation meant to hunt down guerrilla members, some 6,000 Salvadoran troops swept through an area inhabited by civilians. The families, fleeing from the military, tried to hide in El Calabozo but were discovered by the Atlacatl Battalion and taken prisoners. They were assassinated.
Around the Countryside May 1982
Throughout Chalatenango Department
Hundreds of civilians
In military operation using scorched-earth tactic, soldiers kill habitants and burn their homes and destroy their crops.
Nueva Trinidad and Chalatenango
150 civilians killed
Government forces in land and air military operations sought to regain control of populated areas where the guerrilla was stationed.
300-400 civilians killed
Military operation in a campaign for “pacification” purposes.
Las Hojas – Department of Sonsonate
16 non-combatant civilians killed execution style
Salvadoran military unit, Jaguar Battalion and a civil defense unit sought members of Las Hojas cooperative of the National Indigenous Association, who were beaten, bound, executed.
Throughout the Country; Guazapa received the most intense attacks.
Various deaths due to bombardments, mostly indiscriminate attacks on towns where guerrillas presumably were hiding.
Consistent, regular bombardments on civilians, including air attacks by U.S. A-37 jets, Huey helicopters, Cessna spotter planes.
Cerron Grande, Chalatenango
68 members of the Christian Base Community, including 27 children.
In a 3-day operation, Atlacatl Battalion and other military units used land and air power to attack and kill civilians, where presumably guerrillas were hiding.
*Not enough data to provide an approximation.
Women Join the Guerrilla Forces
One can argue that the majority of women living in the embattled zones throughout the country were part of the twelve year civil war. The revolution was the bonding agent, however, the extent to which women participated, and under what circumstances were decisions made by the individual woman.86 The underage children had less leverage in the decision-making, especially if their entire family joined. As described by Vásquez, Ibañez, and Murguialdy (2020) and Kampwirth (2002), the women who joined the guerrillas were organized into five categories: 1) Women originating from urban sites and under age twenty; 2) originating from rural sites and under age twenty; 3) originating from urban sites and had at least one child and was over the age of twenty; 4) originating from rural sites and had at least one child and was over the age of twenty; and 5) women that collaborated with the guerrilla and lived in the FMLN-controlled zones.
Kampwirth describes the former guerrilla women that she interviewed as having had substantial contact or had participated in relevant organizations which she labels as “pre-existing organizations.” Their participation in these organizations included key moments in which the women became convinced that joining an armed insurrection was the right choice. If there’s a pattern in this decision-making process it’s that each decision was complex and personal. Kampwirth’s research reveals that young women made very difficult choices, and many opted to put aside their ambitious goals to fulfill what they regarded as their “calling.” But at the same time, in taking on tasks that they never imagined before, some of the women were able to find pathways toward new futures. For instance, among the new opportunities that allowed women to learn were grassroots organizing, how to advocate for human rights nationally and internationally, leadership skills, and many others. Some women became feminists and proudly lent their voice to women’s rights and calling an end to the myriad of injustices long perpetrated by a patriarchal system and judicial practices that deterred the advancement of women.
The table below, FMLN 1980, lists the guerrilla organizations, and the approximate year that each one was formalized; the organization(s) that were closely aligned with the guerrilla that served as its armed body; and the approximate numbers of women in each organization. The data also include some information about the roles that the women held. All information and data is based on approximations for lack of a systematized collection process.
1992 – 1993 United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador (ONUSAL) Data: 30 – 40 percent were female **
Guerrilla (Year Founded)
Major Organiz. connected w/ Guerrilla
Numbers of female members*
FPL – Fuerzas Populares de Liberación, 1970
BPR – Bloque Popular Revolucionario; (1975) FTC – Federación de Trabajadores del Campo
696 (Had most political cadres.)
PRS -Partido de la Revolución Salvadoreña (Armed Forces: Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo – ERP, 1972)
LP-28 – Ligas Populares Febrero 28
RN – Resistencia Nacional (Armed Forces: Fuerzas Armadas de Resistencia Nacional -FARN, 1975)
FAPU (1974) – Frente de Acción Popular Unificada
1,549 (Had the highest number of women in the ranks.)
PRTC – Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores Centroamericanos, 1976
MLP – Movimiento de Liberación Popular
1,056 (Had the lowest numberof women in the ranks.)
PCS – Partido Comunista Salvadoreño (Armed Forces: Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación – FAL, 1979)
UDN – Union Democrática Nacionalista
*The numbers changed during the course of the war.
** Note: this is not a comprehensive list.
Total number of FMLN members in 1984, 10,000; in 1994: 15,000;
Grand Total number of female members: 4,402
Ages: 90 percent between ages 14 and 40
Demobilization data: 8,552 total processed: 2,485 females (29.1 percent)
The Lacuna in the Chronicles of the Revolution
The alliances between the urban sector (the New Left) and the peasant movements in rural regional areas of Chalatenango, San Vicente, and Morazán formed the extraordinary strength of the insurgency, and if it constituted the “backbone” of the movement as posited by Chávez,then the women’s roles were at the heart and soul of the revolution.87Several sources have documented that the number of women in the guerrilla was at 30 percent of the total members. However, the exact numbers of women that participated as combatants compared to non-combatant brigadistas, or members of the rearguard, working in various combatant and non-combatant roles is next to impossible to discern.
Women’s roles in the guerrilla evolved from a “liberation” ideology rather than a “revolutionary” structure.88 Front and center of the much touted “liberating vision” was the goal of creating the alternative society that constituted the proposed Revolutionary Democratic Government (GDR, Gobierno democrático revolucionario). But liberation was a national concept inclusive of the entire family: women, men, children. The consensus amongst the populace was that the struggle for liberation included the eradication of hunger and illiteracy, the development of basic economic structures such as decent housing, access to clean or potable water, and the establishment of democratically run government. The grassroots organizations that civilians had developed and maintained for decades were part of the organizing efforts and practices of the communities in the control zones of the FMLN. In the task of “normalizing civic life,” women were central to the administering of these social and economic needs as stated in the description provided by María Caminos:
“There are literacy campaigns and clothes-making. There are councils of elders who know all about popular and traditional medicines and who are teaching university-education doctors how to cure certain illnesses. This is one example of how the revolution recovers the values of its people. A ‘glass of milk’ campaign intends to give every child under seven one glass of milk per day – something that has never been done in El Salvador.”89
Guazapa: The Stronghold
Constant bombardments from A-37 planes and Huey helicopters that enveloped the small town of Guazapa rendered the lives of the inhabitants in an absolute survival mode. Guazapa, in the department of El Salvador, just twenty miles north of the capital, was targeted by the Salvadoran military between 1983 to 1985 because it was considered a guerrilla-controlled zone. Journalist Raymond Bonner recalls that in the spring of 1983, the elite U.S. trained Atlacatl batallion terrorized the Guazapa Volcano area, killing residents and destroying everything in its path. The remains of people buried in shallow graves revealed the atrocities committed by the troops. Men, women and children had been executed with guns and machetes. On the bare adobe walls were graffiti scribblings by the troops, congratulating themselves for their anniversary work.90
As in other guerrilla-controlled zones, Guazapa inhabitants organized their communities in the most practical and efficient manner. Chalatenango followed a structured organizational plan per the encouragement by the FPL guerrilla commanders, facilitating the development of a Local Popular Power (PPL) whereby residents created their own local government. In San Vicente, Cuscatlán, and Usulután, the PRTC organization encouraged a well-structured local revolutionary government that included a ‘self-defense’ section that helped the residents employ emergency security measures.91 Guazapa men and women campesinos formed collectives and cooperatives that led to greater assurances that everyone had the basic essentials, at least as much as possible.92
The cattle cooperative provided milk for the vulnerable members of the community. The agricultural cooperative addressed food insecurity. Civil disputes were managed by an elected commission. Literacy classes were organized and children attended school. Medical care became available, and, alcohol and illegal drugs were banned.93 Women created novel inroads in their involvement. In 1981, an all-female battalion was organized in Guazapa. There were support roles such as doctors, medics, nurses, cooks, radio operators, and farmers, but women were also combatants. Women assumed tasks and leadership roles that had never been available to them. It was ‘liberating’ to a certain extent, compared to stifling experiences in their previous life. However, their struggle for equality within the context of a deeply-entrenched, traditional patriarchal society was ironically, a steep, uphill battle.
Regardless of how much the women in the guerrilla tried to convince the commanders that gender equality should be upheld and administered, their pleas were in vain. The guerrilla organizations were primarily concerned with the revolution agenda, and women were encouraged to participate because they were needed to fill in the numbers.
Women in the Rural Areas: To Join or Not to Join
The twenty-two Salvadoran women interviewed by author Ilja Luciak shared their personal stories that reflect profound sadness and even tragic circumstances by which they were compelled to weigh the decision on whether to join the guerrilla.94 The table below: “Women’s Stories on Joining the Guerrillas” lists the women and a brief excerpts or descriptions of their (selected) stories. Many women were beyond their combatant years, having had children who served in the guerrilla and killed in combat. They chose to participate in the rearguard, as cooks, for examples. Some women felt they had no choice because they were driven by the threat of being killed by the government forces. Others like Rosa, Mirta, and Vasilia were young enough to participate in the frontlines as combatants, medics, or radio operators. Whatever their circumstances in sorting out their decisions, the women shared a life of great suffering and the inescapable sentiment that their lives would never be the same again.
Women’s Stories on Joining the Guerrillas in the Rural Areas -1970s-1980s (Luciak, 2001)
San José Las Flores, Chalatenango (p.70)
Reasons for Joining
Having lost her husband and young son while they were fleeing from their home as government military soldiers attacked them, and after four brothers and four nephews were killed in the war, Doña Avelina joined the guerrilla as a cook to help out the troops.
Doña Antonia joined the guerrilla because of the repression – and she had no land. Many women in the guerilla believed that after the war they would be granted the right to own land.
Doña Amparo joined because she wanted change: “The people didn’t have jobs, and organized we could effect change.”
(The war gave the women few choices.) “We had no other alternative than this one.”
“I joined out of fear that the armed forces were in the area persecuting people. Many people died. This made one afraid.”
Doña Rosa joined the guerrilla movement at the age of seven. She felt it was her obligation: “Since my father joined, so did I. If my father had been part of ORDEN (a right-wing paramilitary organization}, I also would have been part of it. “
Doña Mirta joined “to follow my brothers. There were three of them, and all died in the war.”
Doña Raquel joined, she “was part of a massive incorporation. They said it would be only for three months but it became more.” (Sometimes entire villages were integrated into the guerrilla.)
“Well, they told us that if we didn’t go voluntarily, they would take us along by force. So I joined voluntarily.”
“We organized because the FMLN told us to, We didn’t know why. They told us that those who did not join – who knows what would become of them? At best, they would be killed by one group or the other.”
Doña Reyna worked as a cook in the guerrilla. She was very ill and by joining the guerrilla she was able to get healthcare. “I was only bones. I joined, and I cured myself.”
Meanguera, Morazán (p.71)
“The party [FMLN] told us that they were joining forces to improve the situation and that if we won, there would be a government with the participation of all, and there would be equality.”
Doña Purificación wanted to “help and support the muchachos in their just war.
Doña Dora wanted to help the guerrillas. She cooked and fed the FMLN fighters starting in 1979 and continued to serve throughout the war.
Doña Bartola joined to escape the army’s repression, particularly “the massacres and bombardments that happened in the community.”
“The army killed my family, and they threw bombs. One of them fell on my house, and I was left with nothing. They burned everything.”
Doña Angela joined because she was afraid and, “because they forced us.”
San Esteban Catarina, San Vicente (p.72)
“We were recruited by force. And yes, my husband stayed with the FMLN and he was killed. “
Doña Felicita joined “because there was so much suffering and because they killed my two brothers in cold blood – they hanged them.”
Doña Romilia joined “because they were fighting for us – the poor – and to escape the poverty, but things got worse.”
(cooked for the guerilla troops for 13 years) – “ I loved my people, and this is the only reason for me. There was no clothing nor money or anything, only love for my people.”
Doña Vasilia was a combatant in the guerrilla forces. She joined in 1977 at the age of 12, “because I wanted to fight and because of my mother who had been killed by the army.”
Young Women in the Urban Sites Join the Guerrilla
Karen Kampwirth’s research on former female guerrilla members reveal a particular pattern of lived experiences that she believes predisposed them to become involved in the armed struggle.95 Research conducted around 1996 of thirty-five Salvadoran women tell their personal stories; many women’s names are pseudonyms. The table below, “Women’s Stories on Joining the Guerrillas,” lists four women whose lives illustrate the specific background experiences in Kampwirth’s research. Sonia Aguinada was raised by her grandmother who was politically involved, and would take little Sonia with her to political events.96 In her late teens, Sonia became actively involved in organizations such as the Young Communists and eventually, joined the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP) guerrilla organization. Bianca was also in her late teens when she joined the guerrilla underground. As a high school student, she had been a member of the Revolutionary Brigade. Ana Guadalupe Martínez became politicized while participating in the student movement at her university. She was a medical student for four years and then, made the decision to join the guerrilla organization for humanitarian reasons. She was one of the few women in the guerrilla to achieve rank, and in post-war politics was elected to the Legislative Assembly. Finally, Gloria was deeply affected by the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. She was a university student when she decided to join the guerrilla organization.
Initially, a few young women joined the guerrilla. But the numbers steadily increased as the struggle escalated and women began to find their niche in the guerrilla organization. As previously mentioned, by the end of the war, a third of the total number of guerrilla members were women.
Women’s Stories on Joining the Guerrilla – (Kampwirth, 2002: pp. 59-81)
Soñia attributes active involvement in the guerrilla to her grandmother’s influence. Her grandmother “raised her” from the time she was an infant since her mother was sixteen when she was born and her father passed away before her birth. As a little girl she participated in demonstrations with her grandmother who was a founding member of the Communist Party’s Women’s Fraternity (Fraternidad de Mujeres). Her grandmother, who read the daily newspapers, knew what was happening in the country’s politics, and related to Soñia her experiences and knowledge about the 1932 Matanza, Farabundo Martí and Communist Party founder, Miguel Marmol. One of her uncles, a union activist, was killed in 1968; she continued to demonstrate alongside her grandmother in support of the teacher’s union, and she joined the Young Communist’s Organization (Juventud Comunista) at the age of thirteen. Soñia joined the ERP guerrilla organization when she was seventeen years old. This was a momentous decision that caused a rift between her and her family. The 1972 electoral fraud that cost (candidate) Duarte the presidency greatly affected her decision to join the guerrilla.
At nineteen year old, Bianca was active in the Revolutionary Brigade of High School Students (Brigada Revolucionaria de Estudiantes de Secundaria), and when her parents found out, they were extremely concerned. At the time, death squads were terrorizing communities, instilling fear in families. Bianca’s parents pressured Bianca to leave the organization, but instead, Bianca left home and joined an urban guerrilla cell, and engaging in dangerous activities such as “distributing literature and making bombs.” She eventually became a combatant. (Kampwirth p. 62)
Ana Guadalupe Martínez
Ana was born in an agricultural community on her grandparent’s farm. She was the oldest daughter of four children; her father was a retired military officer. The family moved to the city of Santa Ana so that the children could attend high school and college. While in high school, Ana learned about the teacher’s strike because one of her teachers was part of it. Going on strike to protest inequality or unfairness was the first lesson that Ana learned on the meaning of engagement in the democratic process. Although her parents discouraged her to participate in the teachers’ strike, her aunt’s involvement in the Teacher’s Union exemplified the kind of engagement that Ana wanted to follow. In1969, she began her studies in medicine at the University of El Salvador. She participated in various demonstrations as part of the university student movement, and then, began to participate in the ERP guerrilla organization activities. After four years of medical school, Ana decided to pursue a path of humanitarianism, to help others like her mother had encourage her to do so. She went underground and became dedicated to the revolutionary struggle in the ERP. Fast forward several years and Martínez eventually achieved the rank of second in command in the guerrilla, and then, in the post-war era she was elected to the Legislative Assembly.
Gloria was eleven years old when Archbishop Romero was assassinated in 1980. His murder profoundly affected her and her family. It was tragedy that she could not forget and years later, as a college student, Gloria went underground and became an active ERP guerrilla member in late 1980s.
‘La Montaña’ Social and Political Experiment
Life in the guerrilla encampments was extreme and dangerous. Besides the violent assaults emanating from the state military, the constant maneuvering through the mountainous terrain presented many environmental hazards. A large percentage of the organizations included young men and women. Kampwirth’s research suggests that at least one fourth of the women were students at the time they joined, and, more likely, women were on the average more educated than the men.97 Although the diversity amongst the groups was staggering, the revolutionary agenda required the same standards of performance for everyone. Women took advantage of the opportunities afforded to them to engage in novel activities where they could excel. Educated women had a greater advantage over those that had not attended school or were poorly educated. Thus, the women who emerged in the ranks were generally better educated. The guerrilla commanding units made an effort to promote the message of “equality” between men and women, however, in reality, women experienced the kind of discrimination and machista attitudes that was prevalent in Salvadoran society.
Many reports from the related research point to the discrimination that women experienced, although the complaints on gender-based mistreatment were non-existent.98 The interview data show how some women rejected the fact that discriminatory practices were based on gender. Even ranking females in the guerrilla dismissed women’s gender-based concerns. Women who persisted in filing complaints were reprimanded, sometimes re-assigned elsewhere. Clearly, the women had not reached a level of consciousness that allowed them to analyze how they were being discriminated against based on their gender.
Kampwirth relates the story of how women’s organizations inside the guerrilla promoted female empowerment, which produced unexpected positive results for the women but created tensions amongst the male comrades. The story was told by one of Kampwirth’s interviewees, Yamilet.99 One of the male commanders suggested that women form their own organizations as a way to reduce the stress levels caused by strained relationships between men and women. Eventually, the women learned to use their collective strength to acquire certain products specifically for them such as sanitary napkins and woman’s underwear. They gradually gained self-confidence and in one case, the women were so bold as to call out one of the commanding officers that constantly used his privilege to “use” women for his pleasure. The commander that had insisted that the women form gender-based organizations claimed that the women were using the organizations against “them” and ordered the dismantling of the groups. But, women used their experiences in “la montaña” to understand about sexual harassment and other ways that discriminate against them, and how they could remedy their situation. But their gender-based agenda was sidelined as the guerrilla organizations became more militarized and vertically hierarchical, especially right before the final offensive in 1989. The common sentiment was that the situation would change after the revolution, and the women would be able to stay the course and pursue their feminist agenda. Nevertheless, the revolution was the portal of opportunity, transforming the lives of women as they advanced novel ideas, creating a political and social space for feminist thought and action.
The Road Toward Feminism – One Step at a Time
The war raged for eleven years until the Peace Accords, signed on January 16, 1992, marked an ending to the violent confrontations, although not the killings. But the struggle continued for women who believed that the liberation process was far from over. The women that took initial steps to organize themselves around issues and concerns sought to accomplish goals that were relevant to all of Salvadoran society, not specifically addressing gender issues. For example, CO-MADRES, an organization founded by women who had lost a relative, presumably a victim of the repression, and most likely killed, disappeared, or incarcerated by the State. This organization, founded in 1977, continued to be active beyond the war. Many other groups were founded for particular purposes and functions, and by mapping out the trajectories of these within a time frame, we can draw certain conclusions about how feminist organizations evolved, despite the obstacles and hurdles that impeded their progress.
The table below is based on the research archives that Lynn Stephen and others have analyzed, from the First Wave of Salvadoran women’s movement (1957-early 1970s) to the Second Wave (1975-1992).100 During the First Wave, the Women’s Fraternity was active from 1957 to 1969. The organization boasted a membership of 1,500 women, mostly market vendors, professionals, teachers, and nurses. The women organizations active in the 1960s to early 70s focused on issues that were of interest to labor and professional sectors.
Stephen’s list of organizations is divided into three phases: First Phase, (1975-1985); Second Phase (1985-1989); and Third Phase (1990-1992). The First Phase organizations continued in the similar vein as those in the First Wave, except that in the mid-1980s, the focus turned toward topics related to women survivors of the war such as economics, human rights, health, and literacy.
In the Second Phase, starting in 1985, the organizations featured two important characteristics. In the first instance, there’s an expansion in the scope of the organizational goals and objectives. CONAMUS (1986) delivered on the creation of clearinghouse, setting up a broadly based information center that includes a variety of women’s groups. Secondly, the emergence of an organization that exclusively addresses the interests and issues of indigenous women marked the beginning of a new approach to feminism. The women behind these organizations worked in conjunction with feminist groups from other countries in Latin America and Europe, and gradually, a confluence of ideas and thoughts evolved and were incorporated into the organizations’ missions and goals. A series of conferences were instrumental in bringing women together to share ideas and advance creative ways for achieving their goals. For example, in 1985, the United Nation’s Women’s Conference was held in Nairobi; three Latin American and Caribbean Feminists ENCUENTROS were held – in Bogotá, Colombia (1981); in Lima, Peru (1983); and Bertioga, Brazil (1985).101 Women like Norma Guirola de Herrera, a founder of IMU (Institute for Research, Training, and Development of Women) were well-versed on feminism, and their work contributed to the foundation of a burgeoning feminist movement. Norma Guirola was assassinated in 1989; her family and supporters, feeling indignant over the killing, were even more determined to carry out her work. In 1991, they founded CEMUJER (Centro de Estudios de la Mujer “Norma Virginia Guirola de Herrera” ) to offer training and grassroots organizing assistance to women’s groups.
Finally, the emergence of CONAMUS (Coordinadora Nacional de Mujeres Salvadoreñas) played an important role in the opening of the first women’s shelter in the country in 1989, which was perceived as a formidable accomplishment that addressed the social and legal aspects of gender-based violence.
The Third Phase (1990-1992) in Lynn Stephen’s research was a critical period of development, characterized by the influence from the strong feminist waves and movements throughout the United States, Europe, and even in Latin America. As more women became involved, their voices and self-confidence gained strength. Women were empowered and demanded change, but they also attracted rebuke from a broad range of critics. Salvadoran social attitudes toward women hardly changed after 1989, and the most vocal anti-feminist critics came from the dominant conservative and traditional sectors of a patriarchal and homophobic society. Women leaders that became feminists received the brunt of the backlash, but were undeterred in their determination to institute changes. The language and messaging were focused on the tenets of feminism. The CEF (Centro de Estudios Feministas – Center for Feminist Studies) proudly focused on “feminist” issues and themes; MAM (Movimiento de Mujeres “Mélida Anaya Montes” – Mélida Anaya Montes Women’s Movement) named after the leader of the powerful teacher’s union in the late 60s and 70s and later a ranking member of the FPL guerrilla organization, and adopted the term, “feminist autonomy”; and in 1992, the Colectivo Lésbico Feminista Salvadoreña de la Media Luna – Half-Moon Salvadoran Lesbian Feminist Collective was organized as the first self-proclaimed lesbian organization in the country.
SECOND WAVE PHASES—(Stephen, L.1997, pp. 67-84)
FIRST PHASE 1975 -1985
CO-MADRES – 1977Comité de Madres de Reos y Desaparecidos Politicos de El Salvador Monseñor Romero
Grassroots organization, founded in 1977 in response to extreme levels of repression and in defense of human rights. CO-MADRES was one of two organizations that remained active throughout the war and beyond.
AMES – 1979 Asociación de Mujeres de El Salvador
Its work was directed toward market vendors, maids, and urban slum dwellers. Emerged from FPL; was greatly affected by deaths of Anaya Montes and Carpio.
CUMS – 1980sComité Unitario de Mujeres
Founded by Salvadoran women exiled in Costa Rica.
ASMUSA – 1983Salvadoran Women’s Association
Organizations that focused on issues related to women: economics, survival in the war, human rights, health and nutrition, literacy, and housing. ORMUSA remained active after the other two were dismantled in the 1990s.
FMS – 1984Federación de Mujeres
ORMUSA – 1985Organización de Mujeres Salvadoreñas
SECOND PHASE 1985 – 1989
CONAMUS – 1986Coordinadora Nacional de Mujeres Salvadoreñas
Originally set up as a clearinghouse for other organizations, it opened up the country’s first women’s shelter in 1989.
IMU – 1986Institute for Research, Training, and Development of Women – Instituto para la Investigación, Capacitación, y Desarrollo de la Mujer
IMU facilitated the development of grassroots organization in the areas of communications, legal rights, and education. Its founder was Norma Virginia Guirola de Herrera, a well-known pioneer on feminism, assassinated in 1989.
AMIS – 1986Association of Salvadoran Indigenous Women – Asociación de Mujeres Indigenas Salvadoreñas
First organization of its kind to address the concerns and issues of indigenous women in El Salvador.
COM – 1989Coordinación de Organismos de Mujeres
First national coordinating organization of its kind that included five women’s organizations.
THIRD PHASE 1990 – 1992
CEF – 1990Centro de Estudios Feministas – Center for Feminist Studies
CEF was focused on the dissemination of feminist materials.
DIGNAS – 1990Mujeres por la Dignidad y la Vida – Women for Dignity and Life
The organization was founded by members of the National Resistance (Resistencia Nacional – RN) as part of a strategy to broaden their support for women and to be able to receive international funding. RN was one of the five political parties/guerrilla organizations (FARN) that constituted FMLN and had the highest number of women in the ranks. In 1992, DIGNAS broke away from their affiliation with the RN and became an autonomous organization.
CEMUJER – 1991Center for Women’s Studies – Centro de Estudios de la Mujer “Norma Virginia Guirola de Herrera”
Founded with a feminist agenda that provided technical assistance to women in legal aid and on training in grassroots organizing.
IMC – 1991Iniciativa de Mujeres Cristianas – Christian Women’s Initiative
Theme-based feminist agenda.
MUES – 1991Mujeres Universitarias de El Salvador – Salvadoran University Women
Theme-based feminist agenda.
CMPDI -1991Concertación de Mujeres por la Paz, la Dignidad, y la Igualdad – Women’s Coalition for Peace, Dignity, and Equality
Originally formed in association with the RN, the CMPDI became an organization that welcomed groups seeking an identity independent of their political party affiliation. It focused on coalition-building efforts. It served as an umbrella for 24 organizations.
MAM – 1992Movimiento de Mujeres “Mélida Anaya Montes” – Mélida Anaya Montes Women’s Movement
The founders (Lorena Peña and others) maintain that MAM is an autonomous organization even though Mélida Anaya Montes was a ranking member in the FPL guerrilla organization. They adopted the term, “feminist autonomy.”
CLFSML – 1992Colectivo Lésbico Feminista Salvadoreña de la Media Luna – Half-Moon Salvadoran Lesbian Feminist Collective
El Salvador’s first self-proclaimed lesbian organization.
Nosotras, las mujeres (We, the Women): Las Dignas Organization and the Salvadoran Feminism
Mujeres por la Dignidad y la Vida or Las Dignas was formally introduced at a summit, el Encuentro de Mujeres por la Dignidad y la Vida on July 14, 1990. It was at the end of the twelve-year civil war and one of the FMLN guerilla organization, Resistencia Nacional (RN), proposed the idea of a woman’s organization to bolster the guerrilla’s political party appeal, and even attract international funding. A group of former combatants including Morena Herrera, started their organizing efforts with the immense networks of the RN’s Concertación de Mujeres coalition that included 24 women organizations. These were organizations in departments controlled by the RN, mostly in rural and semi-rural areas of Cuscatlán, Cabañas, La Libertad, Santa Ana, and San Miguel.103 The initial charge was to unite the women, but remain well enough independent to initiate their own agenda. The women leaders, accustomed to combat in the front lines soon realized that to take on such a responsibility they would need to follow the “militant’s bible” and stay loyal to the principles of the ‘revolution,’ adhere to the rigors of discipline, concretize the information to carry out the mission in exact terms, practice the ultimate sacrifice, and fight to the death. But instead, they discovered that by applying the principles of feminism for which they ascribed, their lives would be utterly transformed. As feminists they learned to think critically, to analyze their experiences against a feminist theory in order to understand the inequality and hierarchical relationships between men and women. They realized how the political institutions subordinate women, and about the power relations that perpetuate inequality. By confronting their past political practices they created possibilities for the construction of a new reality, more “horizontal and democratic.”104
The following statement from Gloria Castañeda de Zamora exemplifies the incredible journey of discovery, for most of the women:
When I first heard the word feminism, it was like speaking about the devil. I didn’t know what it was about, but they had told me that it was bad…. Now we have been learning that there are different currents of feminism and that feminism is simply the revindication of women… It’s still very hard for us women to have the ability to speak openly about ourselves. It’s a process. There are still a lot of individual interest, political interests, party interests…. 105
The historical account of the first decade of LAS DIGNAS chronicles the difficulties in the process of uniting a very diverse group of women at a national level. One of the first challenges the group encountered was the decision to break away from the Resistencia Nacional, the guerrilla organization, and become an autonomous body. Without the organizational and financial support of the RN, LAS DIGNAS had to find a new identity and support base.106 Not all women wanted to join LAS DIGNAS unless they would receive something in return. The different sectors, urban and rural, each had their own unique situations and specific needs. It was an enormous challenge and almost impossible to conquer. But, the group persisted in working with the women; at every turn of events, LAS DIGNAS re-grouped and tried yet another approach. They realized that a “strategic” approach to addressing the issues and problems was not enough; the circumstances of women who were drowning in poverty and lacked sufficient literacy skills, for example, required a “practical” approach that allowed women to work and learn simultaneously. Eventually, LAS DIGNAS decided against the division of strategic vs. practical, and instead opted for the creation of a wide-ranging platform whereby women can organize and take on their own projects.
The Women’s Revolution (Continues)
The wide array of issues and problems related to extreme poverty and other social factors persisted after the war.107After the war, the poverty rates decreased slightly from 65 percent in 1992 to 59 percent in 1998; extreme poverty fell from 34 percent to 26 percent. Adult literacy and life expectancy rates remain the same or worse than before the war. During the same time period, rural farmers or campesinos experienced declining wages and the price for agricultural goods declined, worsening poverty levels. Between 1994 and 1995, the crime rate soared to 138 per 100,000, exceeding the rate at the height of the war – 55.3 per 100,000. No doubt these and many others served as obstacles in the work of LAS DIGNAS during their initial ten years, but in their own practical terms, the organization worked out a plan based on their specific criteria. Their vision was global, connecting with the international community of feminists, as well as local, building on grassroots organizing by key members of the communities. Their ideas and recommendations were (and still are) inclusive of all women, of all ages. The platform that they developed and disseminated as a result of the series of coalition-sponsored events and debates in the “Mujeres ’94,” which led up to the 1994 elections, included issues that overlapped with the United Nations Beijing Platform for Action of 1994-95.108
The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)
The United Nations General Assembly adopted CEDAW in 1979 with specific guidelines that focus on action plans to end discrimination against women.109 It’s framework includes definitions of discrimination against women as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex.” Additionally, its major work includes the development of assessment protocols on various countries’ progress in the areas that constitute the Convention’s articles. The most recent periodic report submitted by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to El Salvador (“Concluding Observations on the Combined Eighth and Ninth Periodic Reports of El Salvador”) elaborates on the progress and achievements of the Salvadoran administration, as well as some of the most pressing areas of need. The document specifies the acceptability of the action plans that the government has committed to develop and implement, e.g., areas in institutional and legal framework, as well as access to justice. The report considers recommendations of major importance, such as the following: 1) the need to provide women who were victims of the armed conflict with reparation measures; 2) to improve the quality and speed by which to investigate and prosecute acts of harassment, discrimination, violence, and assassination of women human rights defenders, and offer remedies and reparation to the victims; 3) allocate sufficient resources to the implementation of policies and action plans to ensure a violence-free life for women; 4) to improve an action plan to prevent and combat trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and girls, particularly in gang-related situations; 5) to improve efforts to eradicate illiteracy, especially among women and girls in rural areas; and many others.
Salvadoran women who seek abortion care do so through clandestine circumstances, and are often exposed to unsafe procedures. Women are at great risk of suffering blotched abortion procedures, and if they seek emergency care, the hospital staff is required by law to report the women to the authorities. Women are prosecuted and imprisoned if found guilty of having an abortion or even a miscarriage if the judge is convinced that an “abortion” was committed. It is the absolute criminalization of abortion and is perceived to be extraordinarily unjust for Salvadoran women.110 Clearly, the Salvadoran authorities reject the charge that criminalizing abortion is discriminating against women, or if they acknowledge the injustice, then women are blatantly denied justice.
Feminists understand the politics of injustice. As long as the revolution exists,
the question remains: when will the women finally win the revolution?
(…we were women, women-mountains, the mountains with the memories of women).
In post conflict El Salvador, a new chapter of suffering and chaos ensued. Despite the Peace Accords of 1992, demobilization and reintegration efforts into civil society, the women that participated in the guerrillas were left behind: as a social group they received the least benefits in war reparation and compensation, and suffered deteriorating health consequences.112
Las Dignas recognized the need to address the mental health issues that burdened women who had experienced profound loss of a loved one, and psychological trauma. They developed a program of support groups, allowing women to begin the healing process by making “the pain visible, what the war had made invisible” (“hicimos visible el dolor invisible de la guerra”).113 At first, the participating women hesitated to even attempt to recall their painful lived experiences during the war. The process was gradual; the women created their own narratives to help them release the emotional pressure. The mountains where they had spent so much time and endured the torturous explosions of war evolved into a metaphorical symbol of “mother earth” protecting and nourishing their struggle: “las montañas nutrientes de la lucha, no fueron entes abstractos, fuimos mujeres, las mujeres montaña, las montañas con recuerdos de mujer.”114
The mental health program (programa de salud mental) achieved considerable success in its first few years. Not all of the participating women adopted the feminist ideals encrusted in Las Dignas’ philosophy but there transpired an overwhelming perception that the riveting women’s stories are essential to our understanding on how the revolution impacted women. Norma Vásquez, Cristina Ibáñez, and Clara Murguialdy (and Morena Herrera) organized the research project and published their work, titled Mujeres-Montaña: Vivencias de guerrilleras y colaboradoras del FMLN. 115
The women’s stories included in the Mujeres-Montaña are organized by themes. In the following section are twelve stories (selected) from the publication to illustrate a sample of the collection. The stories are written in the original Spanish language. However, to facilitate the English language reader, an English translation is provided by the bilingualfrontera.com author.
Female Child Soldiers. Following the stories from Mujeres-Montaña are narratives of two women – “Griselda” and “Digna” collected from the research work of Alan Henríquez Chávez.116 These stories represent the harrowing experiences of young girls that entered the guerrillas as children.
Their life experiences are marred with the kind of unbearable suffering that any adult can possible endure, yet as children they had to face the consequences. The war took away a part of their life that can never be regained; if amongst the groups that were victims that bore the extreme consequences of war in scale and depth were women, then female child soldiers were doubly victimized. And yet, in the post conflict era, research reveals that the needs and rights of child soldiers were largely ignored.117
STORIES from Mujeres-Montaña: Vivencias de guerrilleras y colaboradoras del FMLN
1. Gloria Castañeda, Resistencia Nacional – (RN)
No quedaba ningún chance de reflexionar, era la euforia, un contagio, un ir haciendo y hacienda acciones y no pensar, simplemente te dejas ir y vives ese instante con gran fuerza y te entregas a él sin medir consecuencias. Dejábamos a los hijos en cualquier lado, entrenábamos de noche, hacíamos cualquier cosa, no había limites ni condiciones en la entrega, queríamos hacer cuantas cosas se pudiera, no importaba qué ni cómo. La reflexión vino cuando ya estábamos bien zampadas y no había camino de regreso.
We got caught up in the euphoria, a contagion, to take immediate action without considering the consequences. We would leave our children with family or friends. We would train at night. There were no limits. We wanted to do everything we could. It didn’t matter how. When we realized what was happening, there was no point of return.
2. Margarita Villafranco, Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores Centroamericanos – (PRTC)
A mi me reclutó una compañera muy buena y me entró con el discurso de que teníamos que sacar al imperialismo yanqui de El Salvador, me comenzó a generar conciencia antimperialista y clasista y me atrajo; también por mi conciencia religiosa yo era muy sensible al aspecto del sufrimiento humano.
My girlfriend who recruited me told me that we had to get rid of empiricist yanqui. I reflected upon my conscious against imperialism and inequality. And insofar as my religious consciousness I thought logically about the aspect of human suffering.
3. Silvia, orphaned at a very young age; enlisted in the guerrilla at age 18
Yo desde muy jovencita estaba en grupos de la iglesia y ahí estudiábamos, hacíamos muchos cursos de lo que llamábamos realidad del país y me acuerdo que Monseñor Romero nos explicaba cómo teníamos que vivir la Biblia en la vida real. Así aprendíamos, los pasajes de las Sagradas Escrituras los aplicábamos a la realidad y entonces era que entendíamos de política. Fue por medio de la Iglesia que decido meterme en la vida política y cuando me incorporo plenamente al partido, todas las reflexiones que habíamos hecho en ese grupo me ayudaban a entender lo que se decía. Era más bonito y la gente entendía más si le hablabas de la palabra de Dios y de cómo estábamos cumpliendo con la lucha sus mandatos.
When I was growing up, I participated in church sponsored youth groups. I had many classes where we discussed the reality in our country. I remember Monsenor Romero explaining to us that we had to live the Bible, in real life. That’s how we learned, by applying the sacred scriptures to reality and that’s how we understood politics. It was through the church that I decided to enter into politics. And when I became part of the political party everything we had discussed in that group helped me better understand the political discussions. It was beautiful the way people understood when we talked about the Word of God and how we were accomplishing the mandates.
4. Milagros enlisted at age 24 through her church
Había unos seminaristas en la parroquia que nos hablaban de las injusticias y los problemas que había en la sociedad, de los niños que no asimilaban en la escuela porque estaban mal alimentados….Nos decían que en América Latina estaban ocurriendo grandes cambios, hablaban del Che Guevara y de la revolución cubana, decían que en El Salvador se podría dar una situación igual porque había mucha injusticia y desempleo, porque no había respeto a las personas. Me invitaron a participar en seminarios con el enfoque de la Iglesia y después dijeron que en el país se iba a dar un cambio social, que era para construir una nueva sociedad y un nuevo hombre con un pensamiento diferente y me dijeron que era importante que yo participara en ese proceso.
There were some catechists in our parish that would talk to us about the injustices and problems in our society that children could participate in school because they were malnourished. They would tell us that Latin America was going through some big changes; about Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution, that the same could occur in El Salvador because of so many injustices and unemployment and the lack of respect for the life every human being. I was invited to discuss the role of the church and then, I was told that there would be a social change in our country so we would be able to construct a new society, the New Man with a different perspective. And they told me it was important for me to participate.
5. Lorena, a medic, enlisted at age 27
Mi mama, como muchas mujeres de esa época pese a que eran muy tradicionales, se metía en cuestiones políticas. De ella fue que escuché que teníamos que estudiar y prepararnos, pero no para ganar dinero solamente sino para ayudar a la gente que no tenía nada. Los ricos siempre pueden comparar salud o lo que quieran, nos decia, pero los pobres son los que necesitan y no tienen cómo.
Even though my mother was very traditional like so many others during her era, she was nevertheless interested in politics. She told us that we had to study and prepare ourselves not only so we can maintain ourselves but so we can help the people that don’t have anything. The rich can buy healthcare or whatever they want, but the poor are the ones in need and they don’t have the means.
6. Alejandra, se incorporó a le edad de 14, y a los 21 años como combatante
Nos incorporamos porque mis papas se metieron en eso, como ellos se metieron también nosotros. Yo tenía 9 años. Mi mamá daba catequesis y decían que ella era guerrillera, que la iban a matar y entonces ya no vivíamos tranquilos porque ella estaba con ese miedo. Primero murió mi papa, después en un operativo mataron a mi mamá. Yo vine a San Salvador porque me mandaron a reunirme con mis hermanas y para que diera testimonio de lo que habían hecho en ese operativo, pero ese no era mi lugar. Al fin en el ’86 dije me volvía a la zona y me fui.
We got involved because of our parents, and just like them we got involved. I was nine years and and my mother taught catechism. They said she was a guerillera [revolutionary] and she was going to get killed. Then, we lived in fear just like my mother. First, my father died. Then, in a military operation they killed my mother. I came to San Salvador because I was told to reunite with my sisters and that I should give testimony about my role in that military operation. But that wasn’t my place. Finally, I left at the end of 1986; I returned to the zone.
7. Elvira, se incorporó en un frente guerrillero a los 18 años 1989
Lo que pasa es que la vida de ellas giraba alrededor de la guerrilla y la guerra y vivían una situación tremenda porque la gente no hallaba ni siquiera cómo mantener a sus hijos, entonces las muchachas, niñas de 10 o 12 años, en vez de estar aguantando hambre en su casa, o tal vez ya ni casa tenían, se iban a los campamentos donde por lo menos tenían la comida asegurada y los zapatos y su vestido y ahí estaban seguras aunque les tocara trabajar un poquito.
Some little girls as young a twelve years old joined the guerrilla refugee camps out of necessity. They came from very poor homes where a parent or both parents were gone. The lack of food was a dominant problem. At least in the refugee camps the young girls had food, a pair of shoes, and clothes, even if they had daily chores.
8. Rosario, joined the student movement in 1985 and eventually served as part of the guerrilla’s urban command.
Cuando me incorporé a la lucha ya había pasado por un proceso de cambios enmi manera de pensar y veía las diferencias entre los ricos y los pobres, entre los trabajadores y los que no trabajan; luego, la repelladita que me dieron en la iglesia me ayudó bastante. Me incorporé de manera consciente y creo que si no lo hubiera hecho no me lo hubiera perdonado en toda la vida.
Era distinto el caso de otras que se incorporaron porque sus papas os sus hermanos ya lo habían hecho porque vivían en el frente o en el refugio y ahí las reclutaron, quizás con 12 o 15 años. Ellas se comportaban distinto a quienes habíamos entrado por conciencia … nos dolía mucho cuando malgastaban las cosas que les mandábamos desde aquí, pero uno pensaba qué se les puede pedir a esas cipotas que en realidad su vida ha sido la guerra….
By the time Rosario had joined the struggle her way of thinking and perceiving had changed dramatically, which she acknowledges was due to the influence by the church. She understood inequality that existed between the poor and the wealthy. She alone experienced a level of consciousness that transformed totally and if she hadn’t she would not have forgiven herself. Rosario joined as a result of conscious-raising unlike the young girls who sought shelter in the refugee camps because their older siblings and/or parents had joined out of necessity.
9. Elizabeth enlisted at age 18 and spent 8 years in the camp, she never attended school but learned to read and write while in the guerrilla
¿Por qué me animé a participar? Bueno, ellos nos daban bastante charlas, nos decían que esto iba a cambiar, que ya no íbamos a estar sumergidos por los yanquis, a nosotros nos hacían ver eso y dijimos, ‘vamos a morir o a vivir mejor’, porque esa era la consigna, además nos decían que eso iba a durar un día o lo más una semana y que después podíamos regresar a seguir estudiando y que la educación iba a ser mejor, gratis. Bueno, nos presentaban un montón de oportunidades y yo me la creí, mi familia también.
Why did I decide to participate. Well, we had many discussions and they told us that we would not succumb to the yanquis; we would ask ourselves: are we going to die and live better? And, they would tell us that it [revolution] would last a day or a week and afterwards we could return and continue our studies. And our education would be better and free. Well, they presented at lot of opportunities and I believed them and so did my family.
10. Esther, age 27, began as a collaborator with the guerrilla when she found out her husband had deceived her.
A mi, lo que hacía que siguiera participando es que nos decían que ya no iba a existir el guaro (licor), que lo iban a tratar de erradicar un poco, porque en mi comunidad a cada paso se encontraban las ventas de guaro y no se podía vivir con los hombres bolos (borrachos). Yo por eso trabajé con muchas ganas, éramos cinco los que ellos pusieron de directivas, pero solo las dos mujeres nos mantuvimos.
For me the reason I continued to participate was because they told us that they would eradicate the guaro (liquor) because in my community you can find a liquor store in every block and no one can live with drunk men. That’s why I worked so hard.
11. Ana, collaborator in the rearguard front for 14 years; six of her children died during the war.
Usted sabe que uno por los hijos da la vida así que cuando ellos me dijeron ‘mama, nosotros no queremos morir con los brazos cruzados ni masacrados, nosotros nos vamos a la lucha y al lado de usted se queda el pueblo,’ yo me di a la tarea de ir a los campamentos a moler. Como mis hijos estaban en diferentes organizaciones, yo me iba un mes donde el campamento del ERP y otro al de las FPL y luego al de la RN. Mi corazón de madre no entendía de divisiones.’
You know that when children are your life, when they tell you Mama, we don’t want to die with our arms crossed, or in a massacre. We are going to fight and by our side are the people; I decided to work in the guerrilla camps to grind corn and since my children were in guerrilla camps, I would go to the ERP camp, the FPL camp, and then, the RN. As a mother my heart could not distinguish between the divisions.
12. Alma was active in the guerrilla for 14 years and was a combatant for a time until her partner was killed, and she remained in communications.
Yo quise especializarme en el manejo de armas y aprender el arte militar, ese era mi objetivo, pero no me dejaron, me pusieron en comunicaciones. Yo estaba convencida de que podía ser una buena combatiente, de que podía llegar a ser jefa de un pelotón, pero me cuentearon sobre la importancia estratégica de las comunicaciones y no me quedó más remedio que pasar 10 años en eso.
I wanted to specialize in the use of weapons and learn the military arts. That was my objective. But they didn’t let me. I was assigned to communications. I was convinced that I could become an effective combatant and eventually achieve the rank of squad leader. But they pointed out the important strategy of communications and I didn’t have any other option so I stayed there for ten years.
STORIES from “De la locura y a la esperanza truncada: memorias de desarme, desmovilización y reinserción de excombatientes en El Salvador posconflicto.”118
According to Beth Verhey’s research, a follow-up survey completed by UCA/UNICEF includes the data on the ages of the young recruits in both the FLMN and the FAES (Salvadoran Armed Forces). The median age for FLMN children recruits is 12 years old, while the FAES reported a median age of 15.8 years. The majority of the children in FMLN guerrilla were in the “less than 10 years-old and between 10 and 14 years old” brackets, which adds up to 93.4 percent. The majority of the children in the FAES were “15 years or older.” Both armed forces recruited children but the FMLN had the younger ages. About 92 percent in the FMLN group reported that they joined voluntarily, compared to the FAES group’s responses that only 47 percent joined on their own volition. Considering all age groups in both armed forces, 60 percent of the children that joined were between 7 and 13 years old. Reportedly, the FMLN had more female soldiers, all ages, than the FAES.
Griselda and Digna
When I didn’t have my family anymore, a friend of my mother, Albertina said, I’m going to take her with me. But- I thought she was taking me to her house, but she brought me here, for the war. She dropped me off here in Las Vueltas, with the guerrilla. I was ten. I was introduced to the comandante who told me: you’re very young but here you will stop growing up. It was around 1987 or 88 and I was here. What was sad for me was that I had to attend this school for 6 months. It was so hard going to that school because we would practice all day long, and then also at night. The exercise was very heavy. It got to the point where I couldn’t bend down to go to the bathroom because I was sore all over. After we finished school in 6 months we had to decide what job we wanted: to cook, to help as a brigadista or a combatant. But since I’ve never been to school I couldn’t sign up to be a radio operator or a medic, so I was either a cook or a combatant. And I don’t like to cook because those poor cooks would walk around with pots on their heads. So, that’s why I decided to become a combatant.
The first time I was in combat to prove myself according to them, they would order us to go fight. No more than 5 of us and I remember that time when I stood by a tree and started to cry. I said, here I’m going to do it, here they’re going to kill me. What should I do? And one of my compañeros told me either you fight or they kill you. He pushed me down to the ground and that’s where I started to feel brave. Time went by. And when I was twelve I started to fight because at 12 years old you are a combatant. When I was twelve we spent days in this little mountain, here in the frontline, looking out all day long. The ‘posta’ we called it. And one day I stepped on a mine. It felt as though something had exploded like I had flown away up in the air. But I acted quickly and I stood up and I couldn’t see any of my compañeros. Then, I saw them come out from hiding in the tall grass, they thought the soldiers had attacked us. They just kept looking at me.
They had to carry me for eight days, then, we came up against the Atlactl battalion and they decided they couldn’t carry me anymore; that they would be killed. So, they found a tunnel nearby and left me there for four days. They left me a bottle of water. After four days I heard my compañeros returning. One of them said that they would probably need to bury me in the tunnel. But then, they saw that I was still alive and were very surprised. They said, she’s alive, she’s alive! But my wounds were like molded cheese with little worms coming out. It was full of worms. They cleaned up my wounds and I felt better after two months,. Then, I went back to the front lines but when they ordered me back to the little mountain I started to tremble. I just couldn’t go back. I was afraid I would step on another mine. They got mad at me because I wouldn’t go there. I was twelve at the time.
WHEN I was 13 my friends would tell me “look now you’re really pretty and it’s time that you find a boyfriend to get together because maybe here we’re going to die. You don’t know if you’ll be alive the next morning. When I had my period for the first time I was 13 yrs. old. I didn’t know what it was. Then, they explained it to me but I didn’t know until then. Well, that happened and then I had a boyfriend who was the father of my daughter and I was with him. Then, my period stopped and I thought maybe it was supposed to come once a year. Then I found out I was going to have a child. I was happy because I felt that I wouldn’t be alone anymore. I was pregnant, I didn’t know how many months. I didn’t know anything. I would still go on patrols with him, fighting even though I was pregnant. He was happy but when I was seven months pregnant he was killed. I had left to go stay at Los Ranchos cabañas. I was seven months pregnant when he was killed. And eight days later, my daughter was born.
I enlisted not because I wanted to, well I did but because I had to. We started to organize ourselves in 1979 because my sisters were killed in 1980. So I was eleven years old when they killed my sisters, After that my father started to organize and I went with him. I was in the guerrilla because I was twelve but afterward I started going with the father of my two daughters. He was a combatant. We were all there with him, then I returned to Chalatenango with him. Then, I was fully enlisted in the guerrilla. I didn’t enlist to fight as a combatant, I joined to work with the militias, preparing their food. My husband organized the militias. It was dangerous because we were with the troops. I helped out taking care of the wounded soldiers because there was a hospital in a tunnel where we could all hide from the aerial bombardment. When they wounded the compañeros I would cover their mouths because they were screaming with pain.
I was a medic. I saw that my compañeros needed the help. Perhaps, God gave me the strength and I learned how to give injections to heal. I would treat the wounded because there were so many accidents here and I ‘m not afraid to treat the wounds. But I don’t like to be in hospitals. I don’t like it. It’s that I suffered because I was a medic in the front lines. But I also worked in communications for several years. But then I went back to being a medic, that’s always been my main function. But I was a combatant first, but then I saw how someone needed help. So being a medic was the most for me. Being a combatant is fine also because you’re defending but maybe being a medic is the most important job because you’re saving a lot of people’s lives. Also a radio operator because if you’re treating a wounded compañero you can use the radio to call for help. The two jobs are the most important because you’re saving lives. But being a combatant is important too. Maybe the best work I did was when I laid down beside a wounded compañero with bullets flying all around us. But maybe God gave me the strength because I was not afraid. What motivated me to stay in the guerrilla, I think like I said, I saw how they killed two of my sisters all at once. I was eleven. And maybe that gave me the strength because its incredible to see that they’re killing your family and there’s nothing you can do at the time. Maybe that’s it. I didn’t feel hatred but I felt so badly because they killed my family. And almost killed me. But maybe that’s what motivated me to keep fighting.
Ana Guadalupe Martinez Menéndez served as ranking member of the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP) guerrilla organization. She became involved in politics while a student at the University of El Salvador and after the electoral fraud of 1972, joined the ERP. She was captured by the Salvadoran military in 1976 and spent nine months in clandestine prison, enduring painful, humiliating torture. She chronicles this experience in her book: Las cárceles clandestinas (see below). She was released in a prisoner exchange between the military and the guerrilla. She rejoined the ERP in 1978, and toward the end of the war, travelled throughout Europe on a mission to inform others of the Salvadoran war. After the war, Martínez returned to her medical practice and also, was elected to the National Assembly with the Partido Demócrata Cristiano (PDC). You can listen to an interview conducted by Jean Krasno (translation provided). (Also, Karen Kampwirth interviewed Ana Guadalupe, included in this volume.) Listen to interview by Jean Krasno
Books: Las cárceles clandestinas de El Salvador 1978 and A Woman from the Liberation Front Testifies
Nidia Díaz was studying Psychology at the University of El Salvodr in 1975 when she joined the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores Centroamericanos (PTRC) guerrilla organization. She had been part of the social movements opposing the military government, and was influenced by the Partido Demócrata Cristiano (political party). As a commander, she directed guerrilla units between 1981-85 in San Vicente and San Miguel departments. She was captured by the Salvadoran forces in April, 1985 and detained and tortured for six months. In her testimony concerning her detention and torture, she recalls the presence of CIA agent Felix Rodriguez. This information is also documented in the work by researcher/author Ilya Luciak. The matter of CIA agent Felix Rodriguez and his conduct deserves scrutiny, and he should be punished accordingly. Rodriguez took into possession a piece of clothing from Nidia Diaz who at the time she was being detained and tortured; he took her brassiere and displayed it in this home, as if to display a trophy. This reveals Rodriguez’ disrespect, misogynism, and unprofessionalism. FMLN Reflections, 20 Years Later: An Interview with Nidia Díaz by Esther Portillo-Gonzales. Books: Nunca estuve sola and I Was Never Alone.
Lorena Guadalupe Peña Mendoza enlisted in the Fuerzas Populares de Liberación (FPL) guerrilla organization at the age of 17. She was a ranking member of the FPL and directed two fronts between 1980 and 1990. Lorena, also known as “Rebeca,” was part of the Comisión Polítco Diplomática (CPD) between 1990 and 1992, and participated in the peace negotiations of the Peace Accords of 1992. She served as president of the National Assembly (Asamblea Legislativa de El Salvador) in 2015-2016. Known as a feminist, Peña was instrumental in forming the Movimiento de Mujeres Mélida Anaya Montes (Las Mélidas). See Los Retos de la mujer dirigente, interview by Marta Harneker, July 1994. Her book is titled: Fragments from My Life: Testimony of a Salvadorian Revolutionary
“Political activist, mother, ex-guerrilla commander, and architecture student” – is how Lynn Stephen describes Morena Herrera in her interview, a chapter in her book entirely dedicated to Herrera’s life. (“Morena Herrera: Women for Dignity and Life” in Women and Social Movements in Latin America, 1997.) Herrera and other women founded the feminist organization, known as Las Dignas in 1992, right after the war’s demobilization and reintegration process began. Morena was a child when she would go with her mother to political demonstrations such as the teachers’ strike in 1968. As a high school student she participated in Catholic youth group activities and then, joined Revolutionary Action of Secondary Students (ARDES). At this time, the Salvadoran military repression against civilians increased, and Morena witnessed first-hand the brutality. She remembers the shock in learning about the 1977 massacre that took place after a huge demonstration downtown San Salvador.
Then, the first time she was physically involved in a milieu; she and her school mates yelled at the National Guard who chased them with tear gas. She joined the Resistencia Nacional (RN) guerrilla organization and became a leader as a military and political strategist. Her life changed dramatically with Las Dignas. She embarked on a journey of self-discovery, and realized her passion in working with women and feminism. Her participation in the women’s conference in Argentina (1990) was particularly transformative. She enthusiastically shared everything she had learned with women, who in turn, shared their newly found awakening with other women.
Mélida Anaya Montes – 1929 – 1983
Mélida Anaya Montes, known as Comandante Ana María, was second in command, after Salvador Cayetano Carpio, of the Fuerzas Populares de Liberación (FPL). She was also a commanding officer in the FMLN. Montes was an educator and is best known as the founder of ANDES-21, the national teacher union that was a powerful force in the social movement during the war. After the 1972 national teacher strike, Anaya, who had witnessed the brutality of the repression against teachers, declared that she would be personally involved in the armed insurgency, since there was no other option. She joined FPL. Anaya was murdered in Managua, Nicaragua on April 6, 1983, and soon afterward, Carpio was accused of ordering her killing, and committed suicide. Her book is Ana María, combatiente de la vida.
Norma Virginia Guirola de Herrera – Assassinated in 1989
In 1986, Norma Guirola founded el Instituto para la investigación, capacitación, y desarrollo de mujer (the Institute for Research, Training, and Development of Women, or IMU). Guirola is a pioneer in the feminist movement in El Salvador. IMU provided support and training to women’s organizations in the areas of communication, legal rights, and education. She was killed in 1989, but supporters and family continued her work with the opening of Centro de estudios de la mujer “Norma Guirola de Herrera’ or CEMUJER. The organization is rooted in feminism and continues to support women’s efforts in the areas of technical assistance, legal aid, and training for grassroots organizations.
Febe Elizabeth Velásquez – Killed in 1989
Febe Elizabeth Velásquez, secretary general for the trade union, Federación Nacional Sindical de Trabajadores Salvadoreños (FENASTRAS) was an outspoken leader and advocate for trade union activities, which the Salvadoran military fiercely opposed. The federation had become a very powerful, organized labor front since its inception in 1974. The headquarters were bombed twice in 1989, but the last one, on October 31, claimed the life of Velásquez and nine others. The October bombing occurred under President Cristiani’s watch who at the time was in the middle of peace negotiations with the FMLN. As a consequence of the bombing at FENASTRAS and COMADRES headquarters, the FMLN suspended the peace talks under the protestation that the government was insincere and deceptive. The courage and bravery of Velásquez and her colleagues serve as a testament to the dedication of the federation to protect and advance the rights of the working class, especially the campesinos, in the country.
On July 30, 1975, Alicia Panameno de García, a nurse at a maternity ward in a hospital, witnessed the brutal massacre of students peacefully protesting on the street in San Salvador by the National Guard. Afterward, her brother, amongst the student protestors did not return home that day; the family learned that he had been “disappeared.” In the course of searching for her brother, she encountered other families who had also lost their loved ones. She never located the remains of her brother, but she and others organized COMADRES, the Committee of Mothers for People Who Have Disappeared. Her remarkable story is available here (scroll down), in English with a Spanish translation.
Marianella García Villas, an attorney, served in the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly for two years (1974-1976). In 1979, she began to document the human rights abuses and disappearances that were reported by families of the victims. Her documentation included photographs and archival information, which she presented to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. She was conducting field work with displaced refugees when she was assassinated by the Salvadoran Armed Forces. She was posthumously awarded the Bruno Kreisky Prize for Services to Human Rights in 1984.
Clara Elisabeth Ramírez (Eva) was born in 1949 into a middle-class family. According to Chávez (2017) Ramírez was a university student activist, who along with two other classmates, José Alejandro Solano and Andrés Torres, were co-editors of the notorious Red Star (Estrella Roja), a publication that advanced the ideology and strategy of the Fuerzas Populares de Liberación (FPL) guerrilla organization. The three students were part of the first generation of armed militants (early 1970s) in the FPL to engage in guerrilla warfare in urban sites. They were committed to the armed struggle because, according to Eva’s sister, Victoria, “that was the path; there was no other path” (p.166). On October 10, 1976, the three activist/militants were cornered by the military forces in San Salvador’s neighborhood of Santa Tecla. A gun battle ensued, and clearly outnumbered, the three made a suicide pact rather than face the inevitable capture, detention, and torture.
Lil Milagro Ramírez1946 – 1979
Ramírez was a student at the University of El Salvador when she became involved with a student group of poets and activists. She was one of the few female students involved, but she was committed to the revolution and was willing to risk her life. She was captured, detained, and tortured in a clandestine prison, where she died. You can read about her life and her writing here.
Sister Maura John Clarke 1931 – 1980
Sister Maura was 19 years old when she joined the Maryknoll Order. After graduation from the Teachers College and teaching in the Bronx for five years, Sr. Maura was assigned to Nicaragua on a mission to help people in the aftermath of the 1972 earthquake. She left in 1976, and after an absence of three years, she returned to Nicaragua. After Sr. Carla’s death she decided to join Sr. Ita in her ministry in El Salvador. The two sisters had attended a regional meeting in Nicaragua, and upon returning to El Salvador were met at the airport in San Salvador by Sr. Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan.
Jean Donovan 1953 – 1980
Jean Donovan was 26 years old when she traveled to La Libertad, El Salvador (1979) to work as a Caritas Coordinator, in the distribution of food for the needy. Her passion for working as a humanitarian was noteworthy since she gave up her (well-paid) accountant job in Cleveland to dedicate her life to helping others. One of her dreams, along with Sr. Dorothy Kazel, was to open up an orphanage/clinic to care for the children victimized by the war.
Sister Ita Ford 1940-1980
Sister Ita Ford was 21 years old when she joined the Maryknoll community in 1961. Sr. Ita worked in Chile from 1973 to 1980, then, responded to Archbishop Romero’s call to serve in El Salvador. She arrived in El Salvador in 1980 shortly after his assassination, and worked with the Emergency Refugee Committee in Chalatenango with her colleague, Sr. Carla Piette. In a tragic accident, Sr. Carla Piette died in August, and four months later, Sr. Ita was killed.
Sister Dorothy Kazel 1939 – 1980
Sister Dorothy Kazel joined the Ursuline Sisters Order in 1960 in Cleveland, Ohio, where she was born. In 1974, she joined the Cleveland Diocese’s mission team in El Salvador where she participated in the development of CEBs (Christian Base Communities).
Madeleine Lagadec – Killed in 1989
Madeleine Lagadec was an international volunteer (French) working as a nurse for three years at a mobile FMLN hospital in the eastern El Salvador front. Celia Díaz was a radio operator and literacy instructor, María Cristina Hernández was a radio operator and nurse, and José Ignacio Isla Cásares was a doctor from Argentina. When the air strikes began, everyone evacuated except for the individuals including Lagadec who refused to leave their patients behind. All five were killed including one of their patients, Juan Antonio. The Truth Commission report details the attack and includes an autopsy summary report on Madeleine Lagadec, probably because it was demanded by her family in France.
The Truth Commission report indicates that on April 15, 1989, two U.S. made A-37 aircrafts bombarded the hospital, which initiated the evacuation of the area. In addition to the A-37, the following military vehicles participated in the attack, all made available by the United States: three UH IM helicopter gunships, a Hughes-500 helicopter and a “Push-Pull” light aeroplane. The bombardment lasted for 15 minutes. Then, six helicopters carrying unknown number of paratroopers armed with M-16 rifles arrived on the ground. Lagadec was shot six times, twice in the head, two in the torso area and one bullet in each thigh. Her left hand was amputated, probably while she was alive. The report concludes that the State failed in its responsibility to investigate the case and punish those responsible for the heinous killings.
Dra. Begoña García Arandigoyen Killed in 1990.
At 24 years old, Dra. García had worked as a doctor for the FMLN for a year. According to the Truth Commission report, Begoña García Arandigoyen, a medical doctor from Spain, was captured along with other survivors of a unit of the ERP guerrilla. The circumstances surrounding how she was among the guerrilla is unknown but she was unarmed and not in uniform. In fact, the report states that the Salvadoran military soldiers that captured her and others knew that she was a “foreigner” and a non-combatant. The autopsy performed by the Salvadoran forensic doctor omitted in its findings that Begoña had been shot close-range in the head. The military report had falsely concluded that she had been shot from a distance as if to suggest that she was caught in the cross-fire as the soldiers and the guerrilla engaged in a gun battle. The cover-up of Begoña’s death was part of a pattern that the Salvadoran military devised to obfuscate their problems with human rights, which they frequently violated.
1. Pierre Bourdieu, In other words: Essays towards a reflective sociology. (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 137.
2. Julia Denise Shayne, “Gendered Revolutionary Bridges: A Feminist Theory of Revolution,” (Prepared for delivery at the 1998 meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, The Palmer House Hilton Hotel, Chicago, IL, September 24-26, 1998), p. 32.
3. The quote was originally published in Omar Costa, “Los Tupamaros,” (México: Colección de Ancho Mundo, 1971), re-quoted in Jane S. Jaquette, “Women in Revolutionary Movements in Latin America,” (Journal of Family and Marriage Vol. 35, No. 2 [May 1973]), p. 351.
4. Thomas W. Walker, Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle. (Boulder: Westview, 2003).
5. John Foran, Taking power: On origins of third world revolutions. (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
6. Ilja Luciak, After the revolution: Gender and democracy in El Salvador, Nicaragua,
Guatemala. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).
8. David Carey, Oral history in Latin America: Unlocking the spoken archive. (NY: Routledge, 2017).
9. Joaquín M. Chávez, Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (NY: Routledge, 2017).
10. See Jeff Goodwin, No other way out. (UK: Cambridge, 2001).
11. Armed conflicts have erupted in the following: Chile, 1973; Argentina, 1966; Bolivia, 1969; Peru, 1968.
12. Cate Buchanan and Joaquín Chávez, Negotiating disarmament: Guns and violence in El Salvador peace negotiations (Geneva: Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, 2008); Raymond
Bonner, Weakness and deceit: U.S. policy and El Salvador. (NY: Times Books, 1984) .
13. Joaquín Chávez, Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (UK: Oxford University Press, 2017).
14. Marti was born on May 5, 1893 and died on Feb. 1, 1932; Sandino was born on May 18, 1895 and died Feb 21,1934; both were assassinated.
15. Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), p. 37.
16. See “Scar of Memory,” Documentary (Cicatriz de la memoria), (San Salvador: Museo de la Palabra y de la Imágen).
17. Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), chapters one and two.
18. Jeffrey Gould and Aldo Lauria-Santiago, To rise in darkness: Revolution, repression, and memory in El Salvador 1920-1931. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), p. 219.
19. See discussion on Rappaport’s research in Jeffrey Gould and Aldo Lauria-Santiago, To rise in darkness; Revolution, repression, and memory in El Salvador 1920-1931.(Durham, NC: Duke University Press), p. 258: (“What is unique about the Salvadoran experience is that the decisive cultural changes took place against the backdrop of the massacres of 1932.”); and Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995), p.37: (“Anyone in Indian dress or anyone running from the security forces was fair game.”).
21. See Raymond Bonner, Weakness and deceit: U.S. policy and El Salvador (NY: Times Books, 1984), p.52.For example: 90 percent of the wealth of the country is held by about one half of one percent of the population. Thirty or 40 families own nearly everything in the country.
22. Joaquín Chávez, Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (UK: Oxford University Press, 2017)p. 84.
24. Joaquín Chávez, Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 162.
25. Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995),p. 54.
26. See Raymond Bonner, Weakness and deceit: U.S. policy and El Salvador. (NY: Times Books, 1984). In 1960 adult literacy was at 49 percent and 30 percent in rural areas; World Bank reported that only 8 percent of rural children, ages 13-15, were in school in 1970s.
27. See Richard C. Haggarty, El Salvador: A country study, (Library of Congress, [November, 1988]). The Anticommunist Wars of Elimination Liberation of Armed Forces (FALANGE) emerged in 1975. The exact number of death squads is unclear, but one group took the name of the former dictator/president, General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez Anticommunist Brigade. The General admired the fascist leaders of his era and sent his officers for training in Germany, Italy, and Spain. The consequences of this alliance could not have been more tragic: twenty years later when, between 1979 and 1983, the U.S. supported the Salvadoran military’s brutal crackdown on mostly non-combatant civilians, and was largely responsible for the killing of 30,000 people,. The right-wing, death squad terrorism peaked during 1980-1982 when murders numbered about 700-800 a month. (pp. 32-36; and p. 235).
28. Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995).The most notable assassinations were Catholic priests Nicolás Rodríguez, Rutilio Grande, and Alfonso Navarro; Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980.
29. For example, see Mark Danner, The Massacre at El Mozote. (NY: Vintage Books, 1994).
39. Karen Kampwirth, Women in guerrilla movements: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chiapas, Cuba. (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002).
40. Ibid., Kampwirth notes that 25.5 percent of her respondents were students.
41. Julia Denise Shayne, “Gendered Revolutionary Bridges: A Feminist Theory of Revolution,” (Prepared for delivery at the 1998 meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, The Palmer House Hilton Hotel, Chicago, IL, September 24-26, 1998), p. 24.
42. Joaquín Chávez, Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (UK: Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 63.
43. Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995),p. 60.
64. Mélida Anaya Montes was murdered on April 6, 1979 in Managua, Nicaragua. The “war economy” consequences included: Between 1980 and 1984, 4,500 teachers left El Salvador; over 1,200 primary schools were shuttered; illiteracy rate grew to 65 percent and in some rural areas – 90 percent. See Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From
civil strife tocivil peace (Boulder: Westview Press, 1995),p. 169 and p. 190.
65. Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace.
79. See Cate Buchanan and Joaquín Chávez, Negotiating disarmament: Guns and violence in El Salvador peace negotiations. (Geneva: Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, 2008).
Approximately six billion USD spent by the United States on the Salvadoran Civil War.
80. It was known as “Operación Rescate” and the Atlacatl Battalion, the elite, highly trained and equipped by the United States with machine-gun helicopters and heavy artillery, stormed into the area, destroying everything in their path.
81. Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace.
(Boulder: Westview Press, 1995),p. 149.
82. See “Madness to Hope: Report on the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador.”
83. Raymond Bonner, Weakness and deceit: U.S. policy and El Salvador. (NY: Times Books, 1984), p. 478.
115. Norma Vásquez, Cristina Ibañez, Clara Murguialdy, Mujeres-Montaña: Vivencias de guerrilleras y colaboradoras de FMLN. (San Salvador: Centro Cultural de España en El Salvador, 2020). NOTE: In their analysis, 60,000 women participated in the war; out of the 13,000 men and women mobilized in the guerrillas, 30 percent were women. The number of women reportedly killed in the war is a staggering 5,293.
116. Alan Marcelo Henríquez Chávez, “De la locura a las esperanza truncada: Memorias de desarme, desmovilización, y reinserción de excombatientes en El Salvador posconflicto.” (México: Instituto Mora, 2018), Tesis.
117. Beth Verhey, “The demobilization and reintegration of child soldiers: El Salvador case study.” (World Bank, 2001). Verhey acknowledges gratitude to José Simeón Cañas Universidad Centroamericana, UCA, specifically José Miquel Cruz, Rubi Esmeralda Arana and María Santacruz Giralt. Also, UNICEF El Salvador, Ximena de la Barra and Jean Gough, and Rädda Barnen, and Jon Skurdal; and ACISAM, Ernestina Chávez, Ilene Cohn, Father Jon Cortina, Suleyna Durán, Marcelo Fabre, Homies Unidos and Andrew Russell.
118. Alan Marcelo Henríquez Chávez, “De la locura a las esperanza truncada: Memorias de desarme, desmovilización, y reinserción de excombatientes en El Salvador posconflicto” (México: Instituto Mora, 2018), Thesis.Author conducted interviews in 2017 and 2018.
1. Alvarez, S., et al. 2002. “Encountering Latin American and Caribbean Feminisms.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28(2): 537-579.
2. Baldez, L. 2004. Why women protest: Women’s movements in Chile. UK: Cambridge University Press.
3. Binfold, L. 1999. “Hegemony in the Interior of Salvadoran Revolution: The ERP in Northern Morazán.” Journal of Latin American Anthropology 4(1): 2-45.
4. Bonner, R. 1984. Weakness and deceit: U.S. policy and El Salvador. NY: Times Books.
5. Bourdieu, P. 1990. In other words: Essays towards a reflective sociology. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
6. Buchanan, C., and Joaquín Chávez. 2008. Negotiating disarmament: Guns and violence in El Salvador peace negotiations. Geneva: Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.
7. Carey, D. 2017. Oral history in Latin America: Unlocking the spoken archive. NY: Routledge.
9. Chavez, J. 2017. Poets and prophets of the resistance: Intellectuals and the origins of El Salvador’s war. (UK: Oxford University Press.
10. Danner, M. 1994. The massacre at El Mozote. NY: Vintage Books.
11. Foran, J. 2005. Taking power: On origins of third world revolutions. UK: Cambridge University Press.
12. Goodwin, J. 2001. No other way out. UK: Cambridge, 2001.
13. Gould, J., and A. Lauria-Santiago. 2008. To rise in darkness: Revolution, repression, and memory in El Salvador 1920-1931. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
14. Haggarty, R.C. 1988. El Salvador: A country study. Library of Congress.
15. Henríquez Chavez, A.M. “De la locura a las esperanza truncada: Memorias de desarme, desmovilización, y reinserción de excombatientes en El Salvador posconflicto,” Thesis, Instituto Mora, México City, 2018.
16. Jaquette, J. 1973. “Women in Revolutionary Movements in Latin America,” Journal of Family and Marriage35(2):351.
17. Kampwirth, K. 2002. Women in guerrilla movements: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chiapas, Cuba.University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
19. Las Dignas. 2000. “Una década construyendo feminismo.” El Salvador: Las Dignas. http://www.lasdignas.org.sv Web page accessed on January 1, 2021.
20. Luciak, I. 2001. After the revolution: Gender and democracy in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
21. Manewal, B., and D. Stark. 2007. “Religion in the Trenches: Liberation Theology and Evangelical Protestantism as Tools of Social Control in the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996).” McNair Scholars Journal 11(1):49-62.
22. Martín Alvarez, A., and E. Cortina Orero. 2014. “The Genesis and Internal Dynamics ofEl Salvador’s People’s Revolutionary Army, 1970-1976.” Journal of Latin AmericanStudies 46(4):663-689.
23. Montgomery, T.S. 1995. Revolution in El Salvador: From civil strife to civil peace. Boulder: Westview Press.
24. Pedraza Fariña, L., S. Miller, and J. Cavallaro. 2010. No place to hide: Gang, state, and clandestine violence in El Salvador. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
25. Shayne, J.D. 1998. “Gendered Revolutionary Bridges: A Feminist Theory of Revolution,” Prepared for delivery at the 1998 meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, The Palmer House Hilton Hotel, Chicago, IL, September 24-26.
26. Stephen, L. 1994. Hear my testimony: María Teresa Tula, human rights activist of El Salvador. Boston: South End Press.
27. ____ . 1997. Women and social movements in Latin America: Power from below. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
28. Vásquez, N., C. Ibañez, and C. Murguialdy. 2020. Mujeres-Montaña: Vivencias de guerrilleras y colaboradoras de FMLN. San Salvador: Centro Cultural de España en El Salvador.
29. Verhey, B. 2001. “The demobilization and reintegration of child soldiers: El Salvador case study.” World Bank Org.
30. Walker, W.W. 2003. Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle. Boulder: Westview.
31. Wood, E.J. 2003. Insurgent collective action and civil war in El Salvador. UK: Cambridge University Press.
“It is El Salvador, 1989, three years before the end of a brutal civil war that took 75,000 lives. María Serrano, wife, mother, and guerrilla leader is on the front lines of the battle for her people and her country. With unprecedented access to the FMLN guerrilla camps, the filmmakers dramatically chronicle María’s daily life in the war.”
María Ofelia Navarrete, aka María Chichilco, currently the Minister of Local Development, spent 12 years in the guerrilla. She was a labor union organizer prior to joining the FMLN in 1980.
A Cultural Spaceis where we grow up: our life experiences, identities, languages, the social spaces we inhabit – our ROOTS; and in my story, my heart and soulareNOT FAR FROM THE BORDER; it’s a life from cradle to grave.
A Cultural Spaceis where we grow up: our life experiences, identities, languages, the social spaces we inhabit – our ROOTS; and in my story, my heart and soulareNOT FAR FROM THE BORDER; it’s a life from cradle to grave.
Introduction: Circles of Cultural Knowledge
Not Far from the Border: My Bilingual Journey is a collection of songs and poems combined with a reflective narrative to describe certain life-changing moments in my life, and how being bilingual and bicultural shaped my identity and guided my work and study.
In a large state such as Texas, communities are diverse in multiple ways. While some community members relish experiences with people in culturally diverse environments, others favor a less connected life with folks that they perceive as starkly different. Within our democracy that allows extraordinary freedoms and liberties, so many of us choose to live exclusively within the barriers of our cultural norms. Of course, economics and social attitudes are some of the factors that constitute our reality, and only a few expect any major changes to the issues that address the myriad of social and economic inequalities. Based on my personal experience, it seems that as we engage with others, in dialogue and interaction, for instance, we learn about others’ cultures, and in the process, we tend to acquire a perspective, not only of understanding, but also of self-awareness. This “circle of cultural knowledge” strengthens our perspective of the uniqueness of culture, and how as a society we shape our community, in the most profound, authentic, and essential sense of the concept.
The circle of cultural knowledge is not only about keeping our culture alive in our own particular way(s), but it is also about participating in sharedcultural experiences, or what some individuals would say, “giving back to your own culture.”
My parents were born in México and they met in Nuevo Laredo (across from Laredo, Texas), where my mother had lived for most of her life. I was born in 1949 in Ciudad Juárez, across from El Paso, Texas. I was number three and the first daughter in a family of five brothers and a sister. My parents migrated to Texas when I was five; we lived in Alice, El Campo, and Lampasas before eventually settling in Fort Worth, Texas when I was in the sixth grade. Prior to crossing the border we lived in three border towns or cities: Juárez, Reynosa (across from McAllen), and Nuevo Laredo. My father was an experienced bootmaker and was employed by a boot company in the “Cowtown” center of North Fort Worth. My parents and three siblings born in México received naturalization or citizenship papers in 1967, the year I graduated from Northside High School.
My father specialized in custom-made boots, but he held his job mainly to bring food to the table to feed a large family. His real passion was music. He could play the saxophone and piano (and probably other instruments); he taught my two older brothers everything about music, and they each learned to play an instrument, saxophone and trumpet. I wasn’t included in his “band,” but I was a very attentive observer. I learned to appreciate and love music in a profound way at a very young age, as if it were a third language added to my Spanish and English.
I wanted to pursue an education but I was undecided on my major. I didn’t pursue a music degree. I don’t have any professional music training, although I have a deep respect for others that have dedicated their lives to the study of music. I learned to play violin in a school orchestra when I was fifteen, and soon afterward, I “picked up” the guitar. I started writing songs out of frustration, both because I couldn’t play very well and I wasn’t satisfied with the songs I was trying to learn. The guitar became my constant companion throughout the years, in the best and worst of times.
The song, This Train Wreck, is based on a poem, Along the Border, which I wrote about living in a fusion of two worlds – two languages, two cultures. I was living in Edinburg, working at the University of Texas Pan American. After being there for a couple of years, I began to acquire a different perspective of the “border.” What was once a blur in my understanding of the dynamics of a river boundary, became the focus of an epiphany that led to an exploration of identity, in self and as a community member. Most importantly I realized that I wasn’t alone, that there was a world of people that had distinct commonalities and differences, but all living a life in two worlds. But, it is the manner by which each person combines the worlds, and then, navigates through the diverse complex situations, that presents a uniqueness in the expressions of culture and language. I often wonder to what extent border-life duality attributes to authentic creative expression, and thus, one of the reasons why so many inspirational poets in Texas come from “el valle” or the “border,” regardless of where they live today.
In the poem, Along the Border, I juxtapose the sentiments of happiness in living in a Spanish and English language world, with the uncertainty and anxiety of border life. People live and work on either side of the border and the act of crossing is the only reminder that there are two immense countries that share a river, the Río Grande, which serves as the border. There are many differences between the two countries, but the people that live along the border share certain similarities, as expressed in the last lines of the poem:
In El cruce conmigo, the lyric’s voice is that of a parent of a young child on the eve of his/her departure, reassuring the child that crossing the border (from México to the U.S.) is a sacrifice for the benefit of the his/her future. I know this voice from my childhood experience of migrating to the United States and since the time I was teaching third and fourth graders in early 1970s in Edgewood ISD, in San Antonio. I chose to teach in Edgewood, one of the poorest school districts in Texas, because I felt I would be needed there, mainly because I was bilingual and I would be able teach children in both English and Spanish, and because I could relate to the children’s experiences as first-time English learners. This elementary school teaching profession was not one of my original choices when I attended college.
When I transferred to Texas Woman’s University (TWU) in Denton from a community college in Fort Worth, I had chosen the Performing Arts in Theater as my major. However, my life took on a very different turn when I met a professor, Dr. John Reilly, from TWU, at the grocery store in Denton where I was working as a part-time cashier. He was on a mission to recruit students for a new program, the Teacher Corps, specifically to teach in bilingual education. The program included tuition and salary for part-time work as a teacher aide. I accepted the offer mostly out of convenience. Upon graduation, our Teacher Corps was one of the few undergraduate level programs in the country. Dr. Reilly recruited me in the summer of 1969 and in the fall he was killed in an automobile accident. His memory lives forever in my heart. He was the first person that I’ve ever known to utter the words, bilingual education.
After graduating from Texas Christian College (part of the TWU-TCU Consortium), I started teaching at Gardendale Elementary School in Edgewood, and after a year of teaching, I knew that I had made the right choice, not only because of the joy and intrigue in working with young children, but also for the opportunity to teach exclusively in Spanish, along with ESL. I saw myself in the children I taught: their first language was Spanish like in my case, and school was their only resource for learning English. As their teacher, my immediate reaction was one of pride and determination. I wanted to make a difference in their lives and teach them in ways that they could feel proud of their language and heritage, and of course, conquer the world. I barely made enough money to pay for rent and expenses, but nevertheless, I felt incredibly fortunate.
When I attended elementary school in Alice, Lampasas, and El Campo, I had to learn English on my own, without any kind of second language instruction. I learned to read and write in Spanish when at fifteen I attended a Catholic boarding school and convent close to Chicago, and the only way to communicate with my mother was through letter-writing. And, with my mother, our communication was completely in Spanish. Fortunately, the Spanish language has a fairly strict letter/sound association, even so, I imagined my mother’s amused expression when reading my letters. I went to the school with my dear friend, Cruz Villanueva, for whom I’m forever grateful for being so kind to me. We had to take Latin courses.
After four years of teaching at Edgewood, I decided to leave the classroom and pursue advanced degrees, mostly because as bilingual teachers, we were in constant need of resources and assistance in improving our programs. Bilingual education was practically brand new since the passage of the Bilingual Education Act in 1968. My focus shifted from teaching children to educating the community and training future bilingual educators. I knew I had a lifetime of work in front of me, and after my Master’s degree from the University of Texas at San Antonio, I continued at the University of Texas at Austin where I received my doctorate’s degree. The move from San Anto to Austin was a huge leap of faith; my heart was both sad and content. San Antonio was a cultural arts haven (and still is) where my creativity blossomed in full, and I felt a strong sense of belonging. But I loved teaching, and I continued to work in my profession for the next forty-five years. I believe that I learned so much from my children; we learned from each other. The bond between and amongst us was strong; we seem to instinctively understand the challenges we face today and for the rest of our lives; we shared this common understanding to the core.
This sentiment is expressed in the refrain ofEl cruce conmigo:
Una tristeza se vuelve a un llanto
Cada vez que cruzo al Río Bravo
Si es el infierno o el cielo, no importa
El cruce es una infinita tormenta.
Ya no se ni pa’ donde me voy
Porque tengo el cruce conmigo.
A sadness turns into madness
Each time I cross the Río Bravo (the Rio Grande)
It may be difficult or easy, it doesn’t matter
The crossing is always an infinite torture
I don’t know if I’m coming or going
‘Cause I have the border within me
Related poems:Their Dreams, Chameleon at the Border, For Every Bridge There’s a Wall, River Rain
3. El Sentido (Desnudar)
The double title of the song, El Sentido or Desnudar, reflects an English/Spanish language issue. The original title, Desnudar, was meant to describe in multiple meanings the process of “becoming,” one who is in a state of loss and hopelessness, and vulnerability, which is implicit in the description: “corazón desnudo” (literally, a naked heart). However, El sentido, (the purpose), seems to better describe the song through a Spanish language filter. Additionally, the song includes lyrics “borrowed” or influenced from English language songs, such as “el movimiento de la tierra,” from Carole King’s song lyrics, “I feel the earth move under my feet,” and “lágrimas de ríos,” from the song, Cry Me a River (“I cried a river over you”) by Arthur Hamilton.
The song refers to a period of time when, as a young adult I felt pressured to find purpose or meaning in life, and to make life-long decisions that I had very little understanding about. I was in middle school, high school and college during the social revolution of the 1960s, and the little that I understood about life was turned on its head.
My parents were struggling to keep their marriage together, and my two older brothers enlisted in the military and fought in the Marine Corps in the Vietnam War. There were many circles of our friends that were soldiers in the battlefields of Vietnam, a country we knew nothing about, and were clueless as to what they were fighting for and what they were enduring. Many young men from our community were killed in the war, but both my brothers survived. But my brother, Beto, had injuries from exposure to Agent Orange, a defoliant chemical, which complicated his health that led to a premature death in 1996. He wasn’t yet 50. The poem I wrote, the Warrior Planet, was meant to honor his memory and say good-bye to my brother, whom had been my closest sibling when we were children, and who had faced the monster of war, and fought bravely:
Where you died a thousand deaths,
And you came back on borrowed time,
For one more look, one more sigh, one more kiss.
While the Vietnam War raged on like a burning house, on this side of the planet, I felt I was fighting my own war. I had so many questions about life in general and specific to being female, as in the expression in this line of the lyrics: “Buscando señas de verdad, detrás la pared de la vida.” (“Looking for signs of truth/meaning behind the walls of life.”) On the one hand, I had a strong desire to be a mother, a sentiment acquired from age 12 when I took on the role of my mother’s helper, taking care of my siblings, fraternal twins, Johnny and Annie. But I also realized that motherhood alone could not fulfill my other dreams or aspirations. I watched as my mother struggled to find contentment and happiness in her role as a wife and mother. She had completed six years of school in Nuevo Laredo, and had yet to learn English. My father had a basic English competency. They had been married for about 23 years and had struggled continuously to stay afloat economically, and deal with changes that they never anticipated, at least not in the U.S. One day I arrived home from either work or school. I was nineteen. When I entered the house I found my mother sitting on chair, crying unconsolably, holding her hand over what seemed to be a cut on her head. I noticed a broken rolling pin on the floor. All I could do was to hug her as tightly as I could. I felt like I knew what had happened. I never saw my father again. He left without saying good-bye; I didn’t realize the true nature of grief until months and years after he had left. To this day I don’t know why they had such a fierce argument, perhaps, my father wanted to leave but my mother didn’t. It was a very emotional time for my mother.
I felt as though my father abandoned me and my siblings; I try to express the sentiment in the last lines of the song:
Y tú, desapareciéndote con una bolsa, llena de corajes,
Pasión,y mi corazón, mi corazón
Corazón desnudo, desnudo
And you, disappearing with a bag full of anger,
Passion, and my heart, my heart
My innocent and hurting heart.
My father’s departure was a constant reminder that I alone am responsible for the choices I make in life, and in many situations my decisions were based on the desire to follow my instinct, urging me to stay on course, and look forward.
These are some of the lines in a poem (Papá) I wrote for my father:
I can’t feel your pain, Papá
Your falling curtains shut me off,
And I’m left with your soulful fears
That burden you in the cloudiest nights,
That hurt you without telling you,
That silence you to a wailing, yelling mess.
If you could talk to me from your cold and
I would hear your anger forever gnawing at my heels,
I would feel all over again what I see in my dreams,
A young girl crying to her father that
She is the orphan and he, the ruler of her life.
Although I believed that having a family was a tangible option, I also saw myself as part of the Women’s Liberation Movement. At the time, women of color were mostly silent as White women took the center stage, demanding rights for equality in the workplace. It was in the 1970s, and the role of women was changing, and I believed that I could be part of that movement, even though I realized that as a woman of color, I had to over-achieve and work as hard as possible to fulfill the roles of a mother, wife and a career woman. Throughout the history of this country, women have always been at the forefront for change in our democracy, and this time the groundswell for support was broad and deep-rooted. I realized the challenges in overcoming the obstacles, even so I wasn’t deterred; I had more to lose if I didn’t make the effort.
At the same time, the Chicano Movement was gradually gaining strength and momentum, where community leaders rallied support to demand justice and equality, in tandem with the protestations and demands of the civil rights movement. I was a Chicana in the movement and wholeheartedly supported the main principles that guided our struggle against inequality and for action to change. But, within the Chicano Movement structure, women played secondary roles that I felt were relegated to the kinds of inferior treatment that the Women’s Movement was fighting against. My priorities were different, and I believed then (as I do today) that I wanted to be part of a wider struggle against injustices for all kinds of people.
In the song, La luna está de luto, the moon is a metaphor that describes a grieving widow that has lost the “night” because of the gang violence and killings of so many innocent people on the Mexican side of the US/Mexico border. I wrote the song during the time between 2008 and 2012 when I was living and working in Edinburg, a border city, close to McAllen and Reynosa on the other side of the border. Just a few miles further west, the border town of Cd. Mier, once a beautiful city that had been drastically transformed due to the damages from horrific gun battles, some of these shown on local news stations. I also heard these kinds of stories from my students at the university (UTPA) where I was teaching education classes. The University of Texas at Pan American (UTPA) is now the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Another incident occurred south of Matamoros, across from Brownsville, that struck terror in the hearts of those affected. One of my students and her family were trapped during a gun fight on a trip to visit a doctor. Terrified and confused, they were able to escape the area during a lull in the fight. I wrote about it in the poem, Close Your Eyes. I also visited Nuevo Progreso, a border town known for its high attendance of tourists, on the day after a fierce gun battle where at least two persons were killed. Most of the people were unwilling to talk about the incident, and most seem unnerved by it as if they had become accustomed to these violent outbursts. There was one man, a food vendor that told me his story, which I retold in a poem, ¡Qué viva la paz!
The Mexican newspapers published other stories, at least as much as they could since journalists were under the constant threat of being killed by the drug cartels. One story was about a young couple going home one Friday evening when they inadvertently drove their car into the crossfire of a gun fight. The song lyrics expresses what I imagined happened when the husband, who was driving the car, was shot and killed. His wife in the passenger seat, reached over to him and touched the blood on his body:
Esa noche te dije adiós
Como nunca lo esperaba
Tu sangre quedó en mis manos
Y sentí tu vida dentro la mía
That night I said good-bye to you
I never would have expected;
Your blood was on my hands
And I felt your life inside of mine
Related poems:The Children of Porvenir, Cierren los ojos, The Red Book, ¡Qué viva la paz!, A Different World
5. La iguana
The song, La iguana, begins with the general voice of a migrant attempting to illegally cross into the United States. The background is part of a vast, semi-desert brush area in South Texas (“bajo el sol imperdonable, espinas de sangre, piedras de fuego“). Thousands of undocumented or irregular migrants have attempted to make the dangerous journey, seeking a new life. Although many originate from México, the majority of undocumented migrants in recent years have come from the three countries, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, also known as the Northern Triangle Countries in Central America. The lyrics speak to the harshness of their journey, and that even as they leave their old lives behind, in reality, their dreams for the new life may not be as fruitful as they believe. Many migrants perish in the South Texas labyrinth of death, yet very little if anything is done by the federal government to address this tragedy.
Bajo el sol imperdonable
Espinas de sangre
Piedras de fuego
Trás las huellas de sueños rotos
Under the suffering hot sun
Thorns of blood
Stones of fire
Leaving behind memories of shattered dreams
The next lines refer to the migrant experiences of violence, frustration and indignities that have compelled them to make the decision to leave and journey northward, despite their understanding of the difficulties and the possibility of losing their lives.
Te dejo mis anhelos
Ya no los quiero
Aquí el camino termina
Los ojos cerrados, los oídos no quieren oir
I leave you (referring to their home country) everything I’ve ever dreamed about
This is the end for me,
I accept my destiny, my eyes are closed, my ears cannot hear
The line about the “eyes closed, ears deaf,” also refers to the common expression used by gang members in their pursuit to extort, control and manipulate the residents that live in the gang-controlled neighborhoods. Gang violence that contributes to extremely high number of deaths among inhabitants in the Northern Triangle countries is one of the major reasons for the migration waves. Many migrants with irregular documentation (no passport) make the decision to leave their homes because they believe that their lives are at risk, and that they don’t have other options.
In the final lines, the lyric’s voice shifts to an expression of protest: for the inhumane treatment of undocumented migrants by U.S. government officials, for the lack of compassion and understanding on behalf of many Americans, for lack of policies or decisions that address the root causes of migration, and the unwillingness by our government to develop an effective comprehensive immigration policy to eliminate undue suffering and deaths among migrants.
Ya me voy, ya me voy
Con la iguana al cima de la montaña
En busca de las palabras
Que me dejastes en llamas
Me quemastes las palabras
Y me dejastes nada
I’ll take this injustice to the top of the mountain
Wherever I need to go
To continue the fight toward justice
No matter how long it takes
Even if my protest falls on deaf ears
I will keep fighting,
I have nothing else to lose.
Related poems:No Picnic, Water (The River of Life in a Desert of Hell)
This song is based on a story of women during the armed conflict in Guatemala, and how they struggled to survive. It was known as the 36-year Internal Armed Conflict between the State military and the counterinsurgent forces, which caused the lives of 200,000 people and some of the generals were charged and convicted in crimes against humanity and the act of genocide. The most affected groups of people during 1980-83 massacres and assassinations were the indigenous groups from the northern regions in the states of Quiché and Huehuetenango. The Maya Ixil suffered the most casualties and were subjected to horrendous torture and death, where 90 villages where they lived were completely destroyed, and at least 80,000 men, women, and children were killed or died while hiding in the mountains from starvation, the cold, or sickness.
Stories of survival amongst the refugees surfaced after their return from the places of refuge in the mountains. Some families had been in hiding there for years. In the lyrics of this song, expressions of the bravery and strength against all odds speak to the harrowing journey of how women were able to survive and keep their children and others alive. What they experienced as victims is beyond comprehension because they were treated inhumanely, having to endure the most abominable, evil, and heinous torture. The army used violence against the women as part of their arsenal of weapons. The horrendous violence against the women was reprehensible, but the torture didn’t stop there. They saw their children being tortured and killed, and they were completely helpless.
I’ve reported on the history, experiences, and challenges of the Maya Ixil and others in Guatemala as a volunteer/writer since 2012. My experiences and expertise as a bilingual educator have opened up a world of diverse perspectives, languages and cultures. The unique way(s) of becoming bilingual and bicultural is as complex as it is fascinating. I’ve gained an enormous respect for people across different borderlands; and for every learning moment that I experience in their presence, I gain a life time of joy and gratitude.
This song is written from my mother’s point of view; from what I imagined she was thinking during the final phase of the debilitating effects due to the Alzheimer’s disease. The title is in reference to the simplest sensation, “to feel the heat of the sun,” which I noticed in my last visits with her. She couldn’t see or hear me; she was in another world. I wasn’t emotional then because I was too engrossed in her world and in trying to put myself inside of it. I recall several years before the complete onset of the disease that she was aware of the loss of memory, and would tell me that her time to die was near, which I try to express in the line: “donde el círculo comienza mi vida termina.” Writing and singing the song is a way of re-visiting my mother’s memory without the emotional strain that usually follows in moments of remembrance. She is with me, always.
Donde el círculo comienza
Mi vida termina
Donde la luz despierta es ciertamente el sol
El sol intento en quemar
Where the circle (of life) begins
So my life ends
The light that shines (on us) is the sun
The sun that radiates heat
Los recuerdos de ayer son como
Fantasía de una mirada cristalina
Tu voz, tu voz, que antes la escuchaba
Es solamente un sonido en la distancia
The memories of the past are
Like fantasies through a crystal ball
Your voice, your voice that I once knew
Is now a sound from the distance
Cuando me pongo los aretes
Que vi en una fotografía
Me hace sentir quien era esa mujer
Quien solo quería vivir.
When I put on my earrings
The ones I saw in a photograph,
It reminds me of a woman like me
That just wants to live
Si vivir es matar
Será como el agua en mis labios
Si vivir es matar
Será como el arma que disparo
If living is dying
It’s like water on my lips
If living is dying
It’s like killing with a gun
Para poder correr y llorar
Y sentir de nuevo el sol que me quema
Y sentir el sol que me quema
Then, I can run, and cry
And feel the heat of the sun again
The sun that radiates heat
In the poem, My Mother’s House, what stands out as “remembering her house,” is not so much about the physical contents, but it was the way we shared love: the indescribable mother-daughter kind of love:
Every love you leave behind
Intensifies within me a raging fire.
The love you have to teach me is worth more than this earth;
That the only thing living for is to live only once,
Soñando (Dreaming) is a song about following your heart and dreams. I think about my own dreams and how grateful I am to have had the opportunity to realize some of these, even if they were short-lived. When we were growing up in Lampasas, Texas, we didn’t have many role models to follow. I remember wanting to be an actress or a nun because we watched television and went to church. I was intrigued by the idea of being an actor and pretending to be someone else. I’m very fortunate in that I loved reading as a child and would often prefer to get lost in my book rather than play with my friends.
As a budding actress, I had a bit part in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was staged at the Casa Mañana Theater in Fort Worth. I was somewhat bored because I was sidelined during rehearsals but I used my off-time to prepare lessons for my students in the Teacher Corps program. In San Antonio, I was a member of the Teatro Chicano. We staged a street theater version of the Alamo, a play that centered on the ”truth” behind the siege of the Alamo, which is one of San Antonio’s main tourist attraction. In Austin, I had a pretty good major role in a play with the Austin Community Theater.
We started the Teatro Reflexiones group in San Antonio in the early 1970s, and chose to perform Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll House because of its gender inequality theme. However, to improve on its relevancy for our community we had to adapt it and translate it into Spanish. The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center wasn’t yet around so the Our Lady of the Lake University allowed us to use their theater-in-the-round stage. The play became La casa de la muñeca; I played the role of Nora and directed it. The poster was made by César A. Martínez.
The lyrics in Soñando express how inspiration can be acquired by believing in yourself and staying focused on your dreams and passions. This truly is not so easy to accomplish. But it’s the creative process that is the most important. Fulfillment is achieved when you’re sufficiently satisfied and have no regrets for what you accomplished, as in the last lines of the song:
La canción romántica follows a traditional, old-fashion Mexican song style. As in many of these kinds of songs, there is a message or lesson about life. At some point in life, we are inclined to make difficult choices and in most cases, these are guided by the most practical reasons, the kind that have the best consequences on the long-run. The lyrics in La canción romántica emphasize that to achieve our life-long goals, we alone must own our journey; we are solely responsible for the outcomes.
Y vivir la vida,
Y seguír con corazón
El camino solitario
Como solo entré en este mundo
I realized that to live my life
I had to follow my heart
And take the solitary path
Like I came into this world
The lyrics in the refrain reflect a reverential perspective of our world and by being humble and compassionate, we recognize that the simplest gifts in life give us the most fulfillment.
I’ve tried to express in my writings the ways that music has played an important role in my life. All I Want to Hear is my latest piece, and the same or similar message seems to emerge: that no matter the chaos or conflicts that we live in life, music is the salve that relieves the pain, no matter where it comes from. I owe my passion for music to my father, and although I didn’t get to know him as an adult, my childhood memories of love remain strong.
Finally, Cuánto cuesta la memoria is a torch song in the Mexican tradition. It’s not a “ranchera” or “mariachi” but it has a familiar theme: falling in love and out of love, cheating, and picking up the pieces, etc. As in most cases with song lyrics, the meaning is lost in the literal translation. The awkwardness in the English translation points out how this song, and frankly, any Spanish language song, is meant to be sung onlyin Spanish.
Cuánto cuesta la memoria de tu amor
Si todo lo que he soñado fue un error
Cuánto cuesta las lágrimas que perdí
Y las noches que pasé sin tí
Sin saber de la maldita razón
El fracaso me costó todito mi corazón
How much does the memory of love cost
When everything that I’ve dreamt about has been a mistake
How much do the lost tears cost
And all the nights I’ve spent alone without you
Without knowing the reason why you betrayed me
The mistake cost me all of my heart
En un descuido tu amor se desapareció
Sin darme cuenta te alejastes de mi
Tenías que saber que estaba ciega
Tenías que ver el dolor que me causabas
In a fleeting moment your love disappeared from me
Before I realized it you were gone from my life
You’ve had to have known that I was blind to what you were doing
You’ve had to have known the pain that you caused me
Ahora el tiempo sigue como un buen amigo
La memoria firme de los engaños que me hiciste
Al fin de cuentas yo te amé
Mucho más de que tu tuvistes la fé
Now, time is on my side like a good friend
But I won’t forget that you betrayed me
At the end I think I loved you more
Than the faith you had in our love
Cuánto cuesta la memoria de un amor
Si todo lo que he soñado fue un error
Sólo la vida tendrá que mostrar
Que el amor nunca se puede olvidar
How much does the memory of love cost
When everything that I’ve dreamt about has been a mistake
Only time will tell
Whether love truly cannot be forgotten
For the broken-hearted, this is the kind of song that is easier to listen to over a glass of wine or shot of tequila. ¡Salud! Cheers!