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.