Why I came to 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.

She was one of the nearly one thousand civilians — mostly women, children and infants — who were murdered that day among the mango groves and red clay hills.

“Take this with you,” the artist, Lorena Molina, told me after allowing me to read Maria’s name aloud, twice. 

“This is your history.” 

By this point, I had already studied, on my own, El Salvador’s civil war and El Mozote and so many other horrors committed over the gruesome 12-year war that represented the U.S. government’s greatest counter-insurgency campaign after Vietnam and before Afghanistan. Reading about El Mozote was particularly gut-wrenching — tales of troops systematically raping young girls, bayonetting babies, killing off an entire village save for a handful of survivors. The village had been suspected to harbor guerrillas, and secrets. The price was the largest single massacre in recent Latin American history. 

And that was only the beginning.

It was an education that left me crushed and ashamed. The truth was that before I embarked on this research, I had only the fuzziest awareness of the U.S. government’s extensive involvement in El Salvador during those years. If we learned anything about it at all in school, it must have only been a paragraph or two, tucked into a fat textbook of “unpatriotic” things we don’t like to talk about much. 

This realization was crushing — because in El Salvador, that history is impossible to forget.

The conflict, bolstered by material and financial support from the U.S., killed off nearly a fifth of the country’s population, cost over $2.2 billion in infrastructure damage and trade losses, reduced profitable crop output by at least a third and pumped weapons into a chasm of poverty and desperation. The human rights atrocities, the earth-scorching, the culture of denial and minimizing — all of it left painful wounds and agonizing memories that will never fade. 

To Salvadorans, because of all that, we are inextricably linked. The U.S. was integral to both escalating and perpetuating this half-a-generation event that turned the country upside down. But many U.S. Americans would likely have trouble even pointing to El Salvador on a map, much less reciting any shared history.

For El Salvador, it’s a maimed limb — a bruised and beaten body part they’ll carry forever. For us, it’s a fuzzy cognizance, a sentence or two in a crowded textbook.

Of course, the rest of the story — what came AFTER the conflict — is less out of focus for most of us today.

After the lengthy war created a massive unemployment crisis, scores of migrants — many of them young men whose only real skill was combat — fled their homeland, with many of them settling in Los Angeles. It was there that the now-notorious MS-13 gang was formed. In the years since, the core of MS-13 has returned to El Salvador, creating havoc for a new generation of young men and desperate migrants. 

There, on the streets of San Salvador and beyond, our history is written, too, even if we don’t remember it or care.

Stumbling into this exhibit was a gift because it gave me and others a chance to taste and smell a piece of our history; to viscerally come in contact with a lesser discussed part of our story.

For me, traveling is a way to further explore that history and the far-reaching hands of my own homeland.

El Salvador’s civil war was an incredibly complicated affair filled with hard decisions, unpredictable blunders and questionable motives, at times, on both sides. But it’s important to remind others, to remind myself, that we were THERE, that we, in great part, are culpable. To acknowledge that at least some small fraction of this pain should be ours to mourn. That at the very least, we should KNOW that this history of ours exists, that this bloody burden is in part on our shoulders, too.

Perhaps if we did, we’d all spend a little more time crying in random museum bathrooms.

For the last three months, I’ve carried Maria Santos Claros Marquez with me — I folded her into 16 squares, and tucked her into my coin purse.

Here and there, I unfold that paper and try to imagine how Maria lived and how she died. I wonder how old she was, if she had any kids — or maybe was a kid herself? — and if she was killed quickly, or if her final hours were marked by torture and fear. 

I wonder if the mango trees still grow from the red clay, the earthy soil and its sweet fruits surely sending a distinctive scent swirling into the hills. 

These aren’t easy things to think or feel. They clash with how we feel about our role in the world. Sometimes it’s hard to work up the concern and the emotion for a place and a time that feels so far away.

But I don’t want it to feel remote. I want to go there. I want to hear the stories and share them. I want to let it all sear itself into my brain, as it should have been long ago. I want to know. 

This is my history, too.

8 thoughts on “Why I came to El Salvador

  1. I very much respect your response and feelings to the exhibit in Cincinnati; in fact, I am a little envious. These kinds of things have minimal effect on me not because I don’t have feelings or I don’t care, but for a much different reason. I am a natural empath and media/information freak. I am acutely aware and have been for many years, the horror and destruction that has been brought upon the people of many countries, by the US in their efforts to control the world around them. Yes, other countries are doing the very same thing as the US but to a much lesser degree.

    I store the sadness and anger away because if I don’t, it overwhelms me. The brainwashing of the populous that occurs within the US, and to a lesser degree, the other superpowers in the world are beyond my wildest comprehension. The superpowers could do so much more with their wealth to relieve the suffering and anguish of the people in the world yet choose to use their power to kill, crush and defeat them. Leaving them in a constant state of torment and misery!

    1. So true, Francis. And yes, I get that overwhelming thing. Just feel like the little good I can do is in choosing to learn and talk and write about it anyway.

  2. Great post. I’ve been to El Salvador twice now, and hope to go back as often as possible. The people are wonderful. Be sure that you visit the Museo de Imagen y Palabro in San Salvador which is a museum dedicated to preserving the history and memory of the Salvadoran Civil War. I’m still working on a video and write up of my 2019 trip, but have a post up about my 2018 visit, if you’re interested:


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