Visiting El Mozote: behind the scenes of my reporting

I had read a lot about El Mozote, about this horrible chapter of Salvadoran history and U.S. complicity. Then, I went — and felt the bullet holes, smelled the earth, saw the tears. Here’s what it felt like.

I glared the at the Google map as we got closer.

I stretched and shrunk my screen, checking the estimated arrival time again. I tapped my notebook and looked out the window. The surrounding pueblos faded to pastures and morro groves. The mountains of Morazán looked gray in the distance.

I was anxious.

I was high up in the hills of El Salvador, but I was heading toward a piece of my history. Well, both of our histories. My companion Luis and I were nearing the site of the greatest civilian massacre in modern Latin American history — a three-day horror in which his people were killed … and my government helped.

Live Inspired: at last, los farolitos and magic

• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates

As the sun settled into the hills behind the twin bell towers of the broad, white Iglesia Santa Lucia, the town came alive.

Candles, encased by glass lanterns in all shades of color, alit the adjacent park and town square, casting golden highlights on strolling silhouettes, on a child’s bouncing coif as she frolicked, on the underbelly of the almond tree branches.

It was Día de los Farolitos — that is, day of the lanterns — and I was not where I was supposed to be. Actually, nothing about the weekend had gone as planned.

Live Inspired: first impressions in El Salvador

• In partnership with John Reamer and Associates

The shrill, happy notes reverberated through Plaza Libertad, drawing a crowd of a couple dozen, and me — invited by the music and the gleaming red upright bass.

A woman, wearing a bright pink apron and holding a matching ladle, spooned atol — a sweet corn drink — into styrofoam cups to serve. Two other women had staked out territory in front of the little five-piece band and were dancing as though it was their jobs (it might have been; they later worked the crowd for tips). 

I whipped out my iPhone, as I always do, with a wave of reluctance. The nature of my job, these days, is to record what’s around me, but documenting other people in other places, especially as a white person, isn’t always popular. I’ve often stopped photographing because I absorb the glares around me. In more than a handful of cases, I’ve actually gotten visceral rebukes.

But on this glorious Friday afternoon, as I eyed the assembly, all I caught were smiles.

Why El Salvador

After three months in the U.S., I’m continuing my travels in Central America. The next long-term destination? El Salvador. Here’s why I wanted to go.

On April 12, somewhere in between my cold brew and lunch, I found myself in an odd position: crying in a bathroom at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. 

A year earlier, I would have never been able to imagine myself here because, well, I didn’t even have the groundwork for the tears. And yet here I was, wedged between a couple of industrial-sized toilet paper rolls and a hand dryer, slobbering into my clay-caked jacket sleeve.

I had just participated in an exhibit meant to challenge the collective U.S. consciousness about our history in El Salvador, as part of a performing arts festival I had stumbled into. 

First, there was a short film on El Mozote, a sleepy village near the Honduras border and the site of the horrific 1981 massacre by U.S.-trained-and-funded Salvadoran troops during the country’s civil war. When the film was over, I was instructed to walk into an adjacent room. 

There, strewn across the floor, were tubs of red clay and ripe orange-and-yellow mangoes, culminating in a tumbling mass in the middle of the room, where a young woman sat on an upside-down crate armed with a tall stack of paper. 

Each sheet bore a single name.

Taking my hand, she sliced a knife through a bit of the mango she held and gave it to me to eat. She pressed red clay into my wrist. Then she handed me a piece of paper from the stack. 

Maria Santos Claros Marquez, it read.