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.
I had begun studying the Salvadoran civil war, in earnest, about a year ago. One of the first stories I read was of El Mozote, the tiny village where the Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran military — which was armed by, trained by and took orders from the U.S. government — murdered nearly 1,000 civilians, many of whom included children and infants.
It was a difficult history to read, to understand. I knew it would be even harder to see, hear, and smell it. As we pulled into El Mozote, tears were already welling in my eyes.
At my feet, in my wallet, was a crumpled piece of cheap paper. In big, black letters, it read: “Maria Santos Claros Marquez.”
She was someone I knew nothing about. I had been given that sheet of paper six months earlier, at a Salvadoran exhibit about El Mozote in Cincinnati, Ohio, of all places. I folded Maria into 16 squares and took her with me. I spent a long time thinking about her, staring at the letters that made up her name.
Maria Santos Claros Marquez. Who was this woman? And how did she handle that day?
We rolled into town, finally.
In some ways, El Mozote looked like so many other small Salvadoran villages. Laundry hung from chain link fences outside modest homes. Kids, more than one to a bicycle, zipped by. An astute church rose from a sprawling plaza filled with trees and benches.
It was beautiful.
But adjacent to the church was a memorial — a stone construct as wide as the iglesia, but with dozens of black placards affixed to the walls.
There, I found almost all of them: the names of those that died on that horrific day.
A woman, sitting outside a vacant, closet-sized store of war texts and idle trinkets came to greet us as we walked up, the only visitors in a town where only songs in the church, a handful of folks lingering outside the main tienda, and a couple kids on bikes betrayed signs of residency.
We interviewed her for 30 minutes about the massacre. Then, I recklessly broke from our agenda: I asked about her personal experience.
Suddenly, Maria nearly collapsed. Stoically relating facts and details just seconds before, it was as though I had pierced through a shield and reached her skin. Her voice dropped out. Her face twisted in pain. She was crying. No — she was grieving, she was bleeding, through her eyes.
In that moment, I tell you, you do not know what to do, you will never know what to do. Nothing in journalism school, nor in practice, prepares you for responding to the resurgent memories of the mass, organized death of everyone a person knew.
I stared at my shoes, eyes dripping. Unsure of any appropriate way to convey my shared humanity, I grasped her hand, wanting to hug her, wanting to run, wanting to hold some of that heaviness for one minute, so she could breathe, and knowing no one ever could.
It occurred to me that she had been sitting there, on a plastic chair beside the square, waiting for strangers such as us, waiting for the next passing faces to whom she would recount the agony of her lifetime. What strength that took.
It was her job. A job she had volunteered for. She had a script. She had practiced, for more than a dozen years, strategies in which to pull her organs out of her body and continue to stand — and suddenly, she was gutted.
“I can’t,” she choked, in Spanish. “I can’t talk about it.”
As quickly as she broke, she regained herself.
“Come,” she said, and showed us the shells of homes that still lined the worn main streets. Evidence of heavy artillery fire pocked the exteriors. Wildflowers grew where families once did.
But its her face that I think I will always remember.
A while later, a young man named Eduardo took to us and told us his story. He was born after the El Mozote massacre, but moved back with his family members who fled just before, when he was two years old.
He showed us the community center that USAID had come to build a few years back.
“It’s a debt from the United States to El Salvador,” he said in Spanish. “They destroyed this town, so they had to repair it. It’s not equal. It won’t bring them back.
“But we need the help.”
Inside the community center were a handful of computers, a TV, a few jugs of drinking water, and two elliptical machines. A young girl — the age of so many who were killed that day — sat at a table, working on homework.
The rain had become thick and heavy as Eduardo took us up the hill from the church, where the mountains framed its peak and mango trees dotted the red clay path. I had seen this painting, once. It was as if the books I read had come to life.
Eduardo pointed to crumbled stone foundations where a house once stood, where people once cooked and slept and laughed, and where one day, a dozen were piled inside and executed. Along the edges of the bedrock, goats grazed. The rain turned puddles to stony pools. Weeds grew up over the top, threatening to bury it forever.
“They killed them all,” he said.
We were all saturated from head to toe — Eduardo in flip flops and a t-shirt, me in jeans and a corduroy jacket, Luis, the only one with proper rain gear, but eventually it, too, relented to the downpour. When the hopping rocks grew far between in the muddy quagmire, we gave in and trudged through it. It couldn’t have mattered less. Beyond the overgrown frames, the clearing broke, exposing a tumbling valley below and the shaded layers of the Morazán mountains behind.
“What a beautiful place,” I said to Luis. “For such a horrible thing.”
Back down by the monument, I studied the names. Next to each was a number. The age.
There were so many zeroes.
“Those,” Maria told us, “were the babies who were killed inside their mother’s wombs.” Some of them killed before the mothers themselves.
A glance at the black granite was enough to understand the fabric of the community.
Marquez. Marquez. Marquez. Marquez. Marquez. Marquez. Marquez. Marquez. Marquez. Claros. Claros. Claros. Claros. Claros. Claros. Claros. Claros. Claros. Claros. Claros. Claros.
Diaz. Diaz. Diaz. Diaz. Diaz. Diaz. Diaz. Diaz. Diaz. Diaz. Diaz. Diaz. Diaz. Diaz. Diaz. Diaz. Diaz.
Argueta. Argueta. Argueta. Argueta. Argueta. Argueta. Argueta. Argueta. Argueta. Argueta.
Maybe half a dozen more.
They were families. El Mozote was a tiny village of families.
I began to look for my Maria. Maria Santos Claros Marquez, the name I carried all the way from Cincinnati. I studied each plaque, feeling more uncertain with each. I had looked at lists of the victims names online and had never found her. It was my vague link to this fuzzy piece of history, something tangible I wanted to find.
Then, on the last one, there she was. I punched Luis by accident.
Maria Santos Claros Marquez.
Next to her name was a number, too.
The number was eight.
She was eight years old when she was killed.
I felt like I was going to drop.
She was eight. She was eight. She was eight.
I felt dizzy.
I had tried to imagined the life and death of this woman, but she wasn’t a woman at all. She was a child, surely barely able to process the events around her, terrified and bewildered at why those in charge of protecting the country had come to hurt everyone she knew.
She was eight.
Everything I imagined about what she must have gone through transformed. She died inside a convent next to the church with the rest of the children, separated from their parents. Bullets were fired through the walls, and then the entire structure was set aflame.
She was eight.
She was eight.
There could be no witnesses, though that mission failed by three people — one would eventually alert the world to this genocide.
She was eight.
On the wall, there was another prominent name: Chicas.
Chicas. Chicas. Chicas. Chicas. Chicas. Chicas. Chicas. Chicas. Chicas. Chicas. Chicas.
That was Eduardo’s family.
He pointed out one name, then another, then another. Then another and another. And another.
He kept going. Then there were the Marquez’, the other side he lost.
Marquez. Marquez. Marquez. Marquez. Marquez. Marquez. Marquez. Marquez. Marquez.
How many family members did you lose,” I gasped.
His eyes betrayed the sadness of something he hadn’t even experienced.
“Thirty,” he said. “Almost 50 if you count my relatives who couldn’t be born.”
My heart ached. And already it was time to go.
When you talk to other humans about something like that, it’s hard to know what to do at the end.
How do you leave? Do you say thank you and just take off? Do you shake their hands and say it was nice to meet them? Do you touch them? Do you hug them? Do you keep a respectful distance?
We said goodbye to Eduardo and started for the car. Talking with Luis, I returned and pressed two $5 bills into his hand. I didn’t know what to do. Eduardo didn’t have a phone at his house. He wore flip flops amid the torrid rain. Was it worse to give him something so trivial? Was I USAID all over again, paying pennies for pain?
I walked away, I know, with some some small piece of his soul. He, like Maria, reached in, dislodged it and handed it to me as a souvenir. For that, I paid $10.
I have thought, over and over, about the way he looked, standing still in the rain by the memorial as we walked away, staring at the money in his hand.
On the road out of town, the sun broke through and kissed the tops of the cornfields just before the clouds engulfed it again for the night. A rainbow emerged, hanging over the gray mountains of Morazán, broad and strong.
It was beautiful.
I silently cried, off and on, throughout the four-hour trip home to San Salvador.