The civil war the engulfed the small Central American nation of El Salvador from 1980-1992 caused the deaths of over 75, 000 people. The violence, heartache and oppression felt by millions of El Salvadorans has reverberated over the years as a reminder of dark times for the country known as the “Pulgarcito” (Tom Thumb of the Americas). The conflict forced millions of people to flee, many of them settling in the United States. For those that remained, they faced years of more turmoil but also slow and steady healing. The nation still has a long way to go and for the youth, there is much to tell about growing up in one of the most violent countries in the world.
Jim Winship is a Professor of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewate and was once a Fulbright Scholar in El Salvador and Colombia. By his own admission, he has traveled to El Salvador well over a dozen times. It has become a second home for him and his fondness for the country is evident in his words. This book by Winship takes a different approach to El Salvador and in comparison to Joseph Frazier’s El Salvador Could Be Like That, the story here is about the youth of the country and what it means to come of age in a place without many sources of hope. The book is set in two parts, the first tells the history of El Salvador, introducing or re-introducing facts to the reader. I believe many Americans will be surprised at some of the things that can be found in the book. And I will go a step further and say that there may be some people who could place the small country on a map. To some, it is an afterthought or just another Latin American nation plagued by corruption and violence. But to take a such narrow-minded view disregards the complicate and tragic history between El Salvador and the United States. In fact, El Salvador’s existence for the last forty years is directly related to U.S. foreign policy. The truths are uncomfortable but necessary in understanding the decline of a beautiful country with some of the nicest people who I have met.
The second half of the book moves on to the stories of young people who have grown up in El Salvador, some of them through the civil war. This is the crux of the book and drives home the author’s points about coming of age in El Salvador. The words are sharp and the stories moving, leaving readers to question what they thought they knew. Person after person, we learn of the despair and income inequality faced by young men and women making life in El Salvador perilous. Unsurprisingly, nearly a third of El Salvadorans live in the United States. Some are legal, others illegal, but they all have their stories of how and why they left the only home they knew. Some will go back either on their own accord or by deportation. What they will bring back to their home nation could be a blessing or a curse. As Winship relays in the book, the deportations carried about the U.S. Government helped set the stage for one of the largest crime waves in El Salvador’s history. And that same crime wave is now spreading across American cities. I believe many readers will shake their head in bewilderment at the revelations in that section. The old adage holds true that we do reap what we sow.
No book about El Salvador would be complete without a discussion about violence there. Winship discusses this to give readers an honest analysis of violent crime. Latin America is a hotbed of revolution and has been for over a century. The late Simón Bolívar once said “when tyranny becomes law, rebellion is right”. Across the continents of Central and South America, violent protests and removals of presidents sometimes by military force, have etched into the fabric of the many nations found on both continents, a lingering distrust of government and vicious cycles of corruption that may never be broken. Whether El Salvador can leave both of these in the past completely, remains to be seen. The future for some is bleak but others never give up. And one day they may reach their goals of prosperity, health and happiness. But their stories will always remind of days past when there was no shining light.
The evening of March 24, 1980 marked a changed in the course of the history of El Salvador. In the evening of that day, Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot and fatally wounded as he conducted a mass for his followers. He is rushed to a nearby hospital but quickly succumbs to his wounds. His death plunges the nation in mourning and earns widespread condemnation across the globe. On May 23, 2015, thirty-five years after his death, he was beatified. In El Salvador his grave site is destination for visitors curious about the martyred priest. On the silver screen, he was brilliantly portrayed by the late Raul Julia in the 1989 film ‘Romero’. Following his death, the country fell deeper into civil war and chaos resulting in the deaths of thousands of El Salvadorans. And to this day, the country continues to heal itself from the brutal system of tyranny and murder that plagued the nation for decades.
It is fair to argue that Romero is more popular in death than in life. Today he is faintly remembered but during his time, his voice was one of the loudest to be heard from Central America. James Brockman takes another look at the life of the mythical figure. The book clearly is a biography of Romero and traces his origins to his hometown of Ciudad Barrios. The day-to-day experiences of his life are included in detail but more focus is placed upon Romero’s later years as he struggles to maintain his place as Archbishop among dissidents and seeks to have the government investigate and subsequently punish those responsible for the wave of murders of clergy that gripped the country. Disappearances, assassinations and other crimes of unspeakable horror surrounded Romero forcing him into a position that would earn him praise and bring about his demise.
Brockman creatively uses Romero’s own words in parts of the book to highlight his thinking and clarify the positions that he took. As we follow Romero’s last few years on earth, we are periodically reminded of the endless number of priests that fell victim to gunfire as they spoke out against the crimes destroying their country. We travel with Romero on his two trips to Rome where he seeks guidance about his role in El Salvador and back to his native land as he attempts to steer the congregation and nation towards a better path in the face of an administration infiltrated by corruption and incompetence. As a member of the clergy and voice of the people, the selflessness displayed by Romero in his frugal way of life and tireless efforts to help those in need, exemplify the highest character that a Christian can seek to possess. Not without his faults, he remains an icon for those who advocate for love, prosperity and the messages of the Catholic Church.
For some readers, parts in the book may be hard to accept. The stark truth as exposed by Brockman is that during the 1970s and 1980s, El Salvador found itself at the doorstep of anarchy. The accounts of murders, kidnappings and disappearances of common people is alarming and tragic. The crimes and the victims force us to ask ourselves why people can commit those acts towards each other. Someone very close to me was born in this small Central American nation and has told me stories of the fragile state of the nation and her family’s escape from a life that was a living hell. Today her parents have since returned to the land they call home but it is much different from the nation that they left many years ago. The country is no longer in a civil war but struggles to combat the rise of gang warfare that centers around the notorious MS-13. But there was a time when El Salvador was one of the most dangerous places on earth and a priest tried his best to salvage what was left of it. This is his story and the truth about his words and actions.
El Salvador Could Be Like That: A Memoir of War, Politics and Journalism on the Front-Row of the Last Bloody Conflict of the US-Soviet Cold War- Joseph B. Frazier
It’s often said that everyone comes into your life for a reason. Fairly recently, I became acquainted with a lovely young woman who has since become a very close friend. She was born in El Salvador and forced to flee her home with her family during one of the worst civil wars in modern history. Because I was quite young at the time of the conflict, my knowledge of the situation and the experiences of the survivors was severely limited, making it difficult for me to offer any meaningful comments to her story. However, I listened thoroughly and have never forgotten what she’s told me and it was through her stories that I began to further understand the turmoil that continues to plague Latin America to this very day. Recently I read the autobiography of retired marine Oliver North. Most readers will remember him from the Iran-Contra scandal in the mid 1980s during President Regan’s administration. Forced to be the scapegoat following congressional hearings into the intelligence activities to free hostages in Libya and fund the contras in Nicaragua against the Sandinista National Liberation Front, North faded into the background and now lives a quiet life far removed from his former activities. It was in this book that I began to understand the events that occurred in El Salvador, why they happened, who is to blame and why they should never be forgotten.
Based on my reading of North’s book (my review of which can be found here), Amazon recommended this short book by Joseph B. Frazier, a correspondent for the Associated Press and Vietnam veteran who covered Central America extensively during the 1970s and 1980s. These are his memories of his time in El Salvador during the country’s bloodiest era. Caught in between a fierce battle between a U.S. backed government and rebel forces led the by FMLN, civilians, missionaries, journalist and even clergy would be murdered, the most notable of which is the late Father Oscar Romero, played by Raul Julia on the silver screen. The war raged for 12 years before both sides agreed to a truce in 1992 at The Chapultepec Peace Accords in Mexico, City. Twenty three years have passed since the treaty, and today, not much is said about the small Central American nation. American has long forgotten about the contra scandal and news from El Salvador barely makes it on to American television. Gang violence has surged and the nation finds itself in a battle against crime almost as deadly as the battle between the Duarte administration and the FMLN. Second to Honduras, it has one of the highest murder rates in the world and the battles between far-left and far-right political parties continue making the future of the small nation uncertain. While steps toward improvement have been made, there is still much work to be done. But as long as there are those willing to make it happen, it gives hope and inspiration for others to follow suit.V While it may be easier to forget the civil war that nearly destroyed a nation, doing so would be an incredible injustice to the many innocent victims who gave their lives in an effort to promote peace and change. It is through books such as these and the testimonials of survivors that their lives are never forgotten.