Anna L. Peterson and Brandt G.

Peterson Martyrdom, Sacrifice, and Political Memory in El Salvador
a month before his death, oscar romero, archbishop of san Salvador, El Salvador told an interviewer, “If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people. . . . May my blood be the seed of freedom and the signal that hope will soon be a reality” (Romero, 1987: 461). Romero was shot through the heart as he said Mass, killed on the orders of a Salvadoran military colonel who organized both clandestine death squads and the far-right political party that has ruled the country since 1989. The archbishop became a martyr for Catholics and other believers throughout the world. Romero died in the early days of the conflict between the Salvadoran government and the revolutionary FMLN (the Spanish abbreviation for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front), a conflict that eventually consumed about 80,000 lives. The vast majority of the dead were civilian victims of the Salvadoran army, whose brutal counterinsurgency war was heavily supported by the United States. Twelve years after the death of the archbishop, as the peace accords that ended the civil war were beginning to go into effect, an enormous banner with an image of Monseñor Romero was draped from San Salvador’s cathedral: “Monseñor, you came back to life in the people.” These words were intended to mark the end of the violence of

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the war and to inaugurate a period of peace, democracy, and national reconciliation that would honor Romero’s mission and his sacrifice. Yet the years since the end of the war have hardly been peaceful. El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the western hemisphere, and violence associated with street crime in particular has emerged as a central preoccupation for many Salvadorans since the war’s end. Income inequality and poverty rates remain high, particularly for those in the countryside, where traditional agricultural production has declined precipitously. In the western coffee-growing regions, decimated by the worldwide drop in prices, poverty and hunger have risen to levels unseen in decades. The economic problems and violence contribute to an enormous flow of migrants out of the country, most to the United States via Mexico, but others headed to different parts of Latin America, Canada, Europe, and Australia. In these conditions, we ask in this paper where we might locate Romero’s return and, more generally, what is the place of martyrdom, so central to the discursive organization of the civil war, in the present. We trace the themes of martyrdom and sacrifice across two distinct periods of Salvadoran history: the civil war of the 1980s and the postwar era since 1992. As the situation in the Salvadoran civil war shows, themes of martyrdom and sacrifice can help to organize political struggle by providing frames for interpreting social and political landscapes and addressing issues of violence, loss, and mourning. We highlight several distinct functions of martyr narratives in Salvadoran politics since the late 1970s. First, conceptions of martyrdom and sacrifice provide meaningful frames for agency, orienting and motivating individual and collective action as political struggle. Through risk and sacrifice, people are connected to a common good. This connection places individual sacrifices into a context in which they are painful but meaningful as part of a struggle that transcends any particular individual. Notions of martyrdom also position people in relation to history. They situate the present in narratives of past and future and locate people in relation to sacred history, inserting current events into a reli-


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giously and morally meaningful narrative of sacred time. Martyrdom identifies divine power and intentions as acting in human history, at the same time it provides a goal or horizon toward which history is moving: the kingdom of God. For progressive Catholicism, this is given additional resonance by associating Jesus with individual actors, such as Romero and other assassinated priests, and with the collective “people” (pueblo) that acts out God’s will in history. Because they provide a sense of meaning and context to particular deaths, popular understandings of sacrifice help organize people’s relations with loss and with the dead. Martyrdom narratives locate individual and collective experiences of suffering and injustice within a particular historicity. They anticipate the deaths of those who struggle against unjust power, and so anticipate loss, while simultaneously marking death as something other than loss as such. The martyr remains; death is continuous with the life of the martyr. The martyr is mourned; her loss is felt and suffered, yet she is not let go. This process recalls Freud’s investigation of two distinct responses to the loss of a loved one, mourning and melancholia. Mourning in this formulation is the necessary and healthy path, in which loss is recognized and the living “move on,” eventually releasing their investment in the lost person or object. This contrasts with melancholia, the pathological form of dealing with loss in which the mourner refuses to relinquish her attachment to the dead or the lost, instead incorporating the loss within her ego. Melancholia constitutues a form of “mourning without end” that leaves the living virtually immobilized (Eng and Kazanjian, 2003; Freud, 1986). The complicated dynamics of martyrdom defy this classic Freudian contrast. In the context of martyrdom as it was elaborated in liberation theology, the living move on, and do so accompanied by the martyred dead. The refusal to relinquish attachment to the dead motivates continued activism as well as the emotional survival of those who remain. Finally, martyrdom is tied to particular conceptions of power. The worldly forces that persecute and kill martyrs are specific, locatable, and identified with structures of sin and injustice. These relationships under-

Martyrdom, Sacrifice, and Political Memory in El Salvador


The theme of martyrdom is most politically and morally resonant. although conditions of suffering remain high for many.line the association of the martyrs and their allies with divine causes and intentions. Specifically. the deterritorialization of the poor. in other words. when people identify unjust power and experience those injustices as the source of their own suffering and oppression. parallels a global shift from the centralized power of sovereign rule to decentralized modes of inciting social subjects to govern themselves. For the purposes of this paper. We understand this dispersion of power as part of more general transformations in practices of governance in much of Latin America. The shift in strategies of domination under conditions of military rule to the operations of power in conditions of formal democracy. when the powers that kill are dispersed and difficult to identify. or more narrowly because coups and dictatorships diminish investor confidence (Weyland. the most significant aspects of this shift are the dispersion and decentralization of power. 2004). fate. particularly the agricultural workers who previously grounded. identifiable source of negative power. the projects of liberation theology and revolution. and even the agents of violence. Whether seen as part of a long-term historical movement characteristic of late modernity (Foucault. 514 social research . Since the war’s end in El Salvador. martyrdom and sacrifice are less persuasive. the structural sources of inequality and suffering. we associate both the new modes of rule and new conditions of suffering with the establishment of neoliberal economic policies beginning in the 1980s and the formal processes of democracy with the peace accords. Rose. quite literally. it is difficult to identify the locations of injustice. 1978. however. most often understood today as problems of nature. although never as neatly distinct as the language of “shifts” and “transitions” suggests. Under other conditions of suffering. and help make their struggles and sacrifices meaningful. both their identification with sinful forces and their victims’ identification with God’s cause become more tenuous. and the concomitant loss of a central. or criminality rather than part and parcel of patterned and structured systems of injustice. and the depoliticization of violence. 1999).

HISTORICAL ROOTS As in much of Central America. In this paper we track the transformation of martyrdom and sacrifice in popular and religious discourse in El Salvador. A regular pattern of agricultural booms and busts developed that continued into the twentieth century. and finally coffee production saw periods of very high profitability that were often accompanied by the displacement of subsistence farmers and the concentration of land (Lauria-Santiago. indigo. At various times. and in different parts of the country. soon after independence. and Political Memory in El Salvador 515 . Today. When the rebellion failed.We find martyrdom in these new conditions to be articulated most typically as a discourse of commemoration. indigenous people led by Anastasio Aquino attacked Spanish installations in various parts of the country to protest government repression and the tribute demanded by local authorities. 1999). stories of individuals sacrificing for family and individual attainment often linked to entrepreneurial goals. balsalm. henequin. In 1833. a repressive apparatus was created in the last decades of the nineteenth century alongside changes in labor and property relations and agrarian reform that tended overwhelmingly to benefit larger landholders while forcing many of the poor to rely on sharecropping and day labor as they lost access to land (Alvarenga. 1994). the military executed Aquino and displayed his head in a cage. political rule in El Salvador has long been marked by the use of violence by the state against workers and peasants. performing a relationship to history very different from that evident during the war. cotton. Martyrdom. As Patricia Alvarenga documents. Sacrifice. We dedicate our attention to the meanings and practices of martyrdom and sacrifice during the civil war of the 1980s with an eye toward presenting an account of the conditions of political uncertainty and dispersion facing Salvadorans today. Protests against agrarian reform and dislocation of peasants in the 1880s and 1890s encountered state security institutions increasingly empowered to contain workers. themes of sacrifice emerge most consistently in narratives around migration.

516 social research . 2008: 6). one of the sites of the most horrific violence of 1932 because.000 hectares to 100. Economic and government leaders have believed that “if necessary. an elite whose wealth was grounded in agriculture and finance established itself. a military junta overthrew recently elected reformist president Arturo Araujo. launched an uprising centered in the western provinces of Sonsonate and Ahuachapán. as one ARENA president put it. in shocking and horrific proportions. national guardsmen. ARENA begins its national electoral campaigns in Izalco. The military government responded by killing not only the insurrection’s participants and leaders. By the early 1920s. organized by the Communist Party. including landlords. and a retired general. has ruled El Salvador since 1989. Formed most fundamentally by the anticommunism of traditional elites.000 mostly indigenous people.000 hectares (Gould and Lauria Santiago. The matanza has powerfully shaped Salvadoran political culture. Ten thousand people died at the hands of the government. but also huge numbers of people who had not participated in the rebellion. In December 1931. serious commercial production began to grow in the 1880s and expanded dramatically in the first three decades of the twentieth century. while the population of rural poor with little or no access to land expanded significantly. The loss of subsistence farmland created an itinerant rural population that provided seasonal labor on large estates. The rebels took over and destroyed several town halls and killed 15 to 20 people. they could repeat the ‘lesson’ of 1932” (Baloyra. 2001: 138). including Communist Party founder Farabundo Martí. founded by army colonel and death squad organizer Roberto D’Abuisson.In the case of coffee. “it is here that we buried communism” (Gould. The next month. ARENA). The right-wing Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (Republican Nationalist Alliance. 1982: 31). in the 1932 massacre known as la matanza. about 5. Between 1916 and the early 1930s the amount of land dedicated to coffee increased from 61. The pattern of protest and repression was repeated.

even though the majority killed had not. and Political Memory in El Salvador 517 . regardless of one’s political actions. and communities. Joaquín Méndez’s Los Sucesos Comunistas en El Salvador (1932) and Jorge Schlesinger’s Revolución Comunista (1946) were fantastic in the psychoanalytic sense. The first booklength accounts. the poet and revolutionary Roque Dalton would re-read the events of 1932 through the lens of heroic revolutionary organization. This directive implicitly assigns responsibility to the victims of the terror. threats to the national body (B. Children and grandchildren of the generation decimated by the massacre grew up hearing of the massacre as a lesson not to engage in potentially subversive activities. painful memories of the massacre were confined to private spaces. There were no spaces in a national public sphere for commemoration or the articulation of counternarratives. For survivors of the massacre and their children. Peterson. 2007). and to a large extent were silenced or marginalized. Dalton’s Miguel Marmol.For survivors of the 1932 massacre and their descendants. in fact participated in the uprising or been affiliated with the Communist Party (Suárez-Orozco. In the wake of the 1932 massacre. labor leaders. 1992). tales of savage violence and disorder perpetrated by communists and their dupes. explicitly political violence was an ever-present threat for most Salvadorans. this official repression may have contributed to psychological repression among individuals. Sacrifice. Throughout the twentieth century. For decades after 1932. and opposition intellectuals have understood that repression may return at any moment. Early journalistic and academic accounts of the massacre were oriented toward elite consumption and committed to refining a narrative of the military saving the nation from a cancerous communist menace. families. la matanza was narrated primarily in accord with the needs of an elite nationalist project. and the political spaces opened in the 1920s were effectively shut down (Gould and Lauria-Santiago. political opposition in most of El Salvador went underground. Much later. presented as the testimonio or Martyrdom. especially poor people and activists. 2008). Generations of peasants.

One of Christianity’s distinctive features. for reasons including the political culture of both left and right during that period and. as Mexican theologian Carlos Bravo notes. 1987). somewhat abstractly. Notable in both right. RELIGIOUS ROOTS The deaths of Archbishop Romero and thousands of other Christians killed by the Salvadoran government and death squads gain meaning because of narratives. and resurrection. a disease against which the body politic must be inoculated (Candelario. For the right. This history resonates with activists who face uphill battles against more powerful enemies. . 2003). Most important is the story of Jesus’s life. the subjects of what in the 1970s and 1980s would be understood as national liberation.and left-wing versions of la matanza is a shared evaluation of the victims as having died— having been sacrificed—for a national cause that would continue. of course. perhaps most important. the people. positioned the rebellion as a foundational moment in a left-nationalist narrative that set the stage for the revolutionary project of Dalton’s generation (Dalton. 1990). the victims of the massacre were rendered. values. The right-wing understanding of national order and progress would be constructed against communism as a threat. “If the world hates you. as el pueblo. . . mass death in 1932 was not described in terms of martyrdom. that national cause was order. is that it worships a god who dies in apparent defeat (Bravo.memoir of one of the Communist Party organizers of the 1932 uprising. following in fact the trajectory of Jesus—who told his disciples to expect difficult times. death. which provides a lens for making sense of subsequent violence.1 However. know that it has hated me before it hated you. A servant is not greater than his master. For the left. It enables them to view setbacks and painful losses not as evidence that their cause is either unjust or ill-fated but rather that they are on the correct path. the absence of a progressive religious discourse that could link historical events with divine purposes. and expectations with deep roots in Christian history. If they perse- 518 social research .

Their deaths served as signs of the last days.” they concurred about several main points. The value given to sacrifice helped make persecution inevitable and even desirable for early Christians. Sacrifice. The sacrifices of early disciples. a meeting of bishops called by Pope John XXIII. but as a sign of the new age. produced a wide range of documents addressing internal and external issues. interpretations of human rights. “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus can expect to be persecuted. and even transformed suffering into a mark of true faith. reinforced the association between true faith and persecution. they will persecute you” (John 15:18. and ecumenism. and. to be accepted with stoicism and even joy. 1966). During the second and third centuries CE. especially whether those who used violence could be termed “martyrs. the writer goes on to suggest that in fact believers can attain the kingdom of God only through affliction. believers came to understand persecution not as a threat to avoid. including Central America during the 1970s and 1980s. favorable. including new.” asserts the second letter of Timothy (3:12). Vatican II also encouraged regional and national churches to consider the Council’s conclusions in light of their own circumstances. This went along with the redefinition of Christianity that took place in much of Latin America following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Christian definitions of martyrdom have been expanded at various times and places. martyrs were those on the side of social justice and against the military and powerful classes. First. 20). which it defined not as the hierarchy but as the “people of God” (Abbot. While setting a new tone and emphasis for the global church. not least. The council. following the crucifixion of Jesus. and Political Memory in El Salvador 519 . as witness to the true faith. The council also called for changes in pastoral and liturgical practices and for increased lay participation in the church. Worldly success does not correlate with moral righteousness. as imitation of the model of self-sacrifice set by Christ himself—imitatio Christi. political democracy. While popular narratives disagreed about some issues. Martyrdom.cuted me.

The bishops denounced the “institutionalized violence” of poverty throughout the region and affirmed the church’s commitment to work for the political and economic transformations necessary to achieve the social justice demanded by the Bible and the Catholic tradition. “The documents [of Vatican II and Medellín] were like the air that we breathed at this time” (Vega. 1990). first under the leadership of Archbishop Luis Chávez y González. A group of young priests formed in 1970 to discuss their work “within the historical movement forward of the poor in our country. who served from 1939 to 1977.” and that same year Chávez organized a “National Pastoral Week” to discuss and strengthen pastoral innovations (Archdiocese of San Salvador. In El Salvador. 1976. 1979). with greater attention to poor neighborhoods and rural villages. Colombia. the Latin American Bishops’ Council (CELAM) met in 1968 in Medellín. 1981). and after Vatican II he issued pastoral letters applying the council’s goals and concerns to the archdiocese. They also called for new pastoral methods. the progressive Catholic vision was embraced most fully in the Archdiocese of San Salvador. Erdozaín. the practical implications of these developments varied in different countries. or CEBs) as a more democratic and participatory form of pastoral organization in which laypeople discussed biblical texts in light of their own experiences. recalls a Salvadoran diocesan priest. Medellín also gave momentum to the emerging theology of liberation. However. 520 social research .Following that suggestion. Chávez had promoted early reforms during the 1950s and early 1960s. which provided a biblically grounded critique of social injustices and economic inequities in Latin America. Because of Chávez’s efforts. This encouraged the growth of comunidades eclesiales de base (grassroots Christian communities. to reflect on the church in “the present-day transformation of Latin America in the light of the council” (CELAM. The pastoral and theological innovations inspired by Vatican II and Medellín helped shift Latin American Catholicism toward a new emphasis on social justice and popular participation.

and local progressive initiatives were crucial to understandings of martyrdom for two reasons. in imitation of Jesus’s ministry. so contemporary Christians are at risk of persecution by powerful people who benefit from the unjust and un-Christian social order. peasants. Salvadoran politics was characterized by authoritarian rule. This meant that for the first time in Latin American history.” These experiences of repression provided “data” in need of interpretation by both laypeople and Christian intellectuals. largely organized by students. Second. Sacrifice. Resistance was rarely open. And the deaths of these martyrs. and the military forces that defended them. Just as Jesus was persecuted and ultimately killed by the oppressors of his time. and trade unionists and fueled by economic problems that made life increasingly difficult for the poor majority. and armed revolutionary movements began gathering steam. political democracy. like the death of Jesus. and Political Memory in El Salvador 521 . in turn. Progressive Catholicism asserted that true Christianity demands defense of the weak. many opposition activists turned away from hopes for peaceful paths to change. Support for these organizations grew as the military junta intensified repression. After blatant electoral frauds in 1972 and 1977. First. Not until the late 1960s did a new cohort of opposition movements emerged. this interpretation was provided by precisely the ideology—progressive Catholicism—that had helped spark the violence. pushed even pacific opponents of the regime into alliances with armed revolutionary Martyrdom. contribute to the ultimate realization of the reign of God on earth. and crushed brutally when it erupted. Medellín. MARTYRDOM AND SACRIFICE IN EL SALVADOR: THE LATE 1970S AND 1980S Following the political crisis of 1931-1932 and the matanza. especially in the countryside.Vatican II. in which economic elites determined policies enforced by an obedient military. a growing commitment to human rights. Catholics became targets of political violence for their work “on behalf of the faith. This violence. and economic equality brought Christian activists into conflict with political and economic elites.

that is from Chalatenango to San Salvador. many of whom had been forcibly recruited and who valued surviving more than winning the war. The government attacked civilians in part because they were easier targets than the well-trained and canny fighters of the FMLN. the FMLN could not survive—let alone operate as widely and freely as it does—without a substantial civilian base of support” (Peltz. “stood in a metonymic relationship with murdered nuns. Repression of civilians and increasing political polarization helped radicalize many Catholic activists.S. as anthropologist Leigh Binford writes. headless bodies. whom the U. Salvadoran officials. along with their U. terrified peasants being hauled away by helmeted National Guardsmen. or FMLN. whom the military government increasingly saw as a major threat.groups. with the expulsion of Colombian priest Mario Bernal. producing well-known images of soldiers machine-gunning unarmed demonstrators. and mutilated cadavers in body dumps. government recognized as the most effective guerrillas in the hemisphere. Salvadoran Jesuit Rutilio Grande declared: I’m afraid that if Jesus of Nazareth came back. In response. army units and paramilitary death squads killed. and “disappeared” thousands of activists. 1986: 116). recognized the left’s strong popular backing. Salvadoran government soldiers.-Latin American Relations wrote in April 1990. and mangled corpses” (Binford. This meant that the only way to eliminate the guerrillas—the “fish”—would be to drain the “sea” in which they thrived: their dense network of ideological and logistical support. sponsors. Open repression of Catholic activists began in early 1977. often avoided confrontations with the guerrillas.S. which united in 1980 as the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation.S. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. coming down from Galilee to Judea. 522 social research . As an analyst for the Commission on U. 1990: 36). A certain strategic logic also justified attacks on civilians. captured. “Given the army’s vast superiority in numbers and firepower. I daresay he would not get as far as Apopa. El Salvador in the 1980s.

that is. to organize. Grande’s killing. and God. who had been named archbishop of San Salvador a month earlier. . The killing had a special impact on Oscar Romero. a close friend. increasingly. . Ideas against God. one confusing people with strange and exotic ideas. They would accuse him of being a rabble-rouser. against democracy. By making reference to the story of Jesus’s life. Grande’s murder prompted Romero to re-evaluate other acts of political violence and. They would stop him in Guazapa and jail him there. especially the story of Jesus’s life and death. Grande linked contemporary activists to the “rabble rouser” Jesus and the government to Cain. One of the most important Martyrdom. . along with an elderly man and young boy who were riding in his jeep when it was ambushed on a country road near his parish of Aguilares. Grande also placed contemporary Salvadoran events into sacred history—Galilee and Judea become Chalatenango (an impoverished rural area in northeastern El Salvador) and San Salvador. These interpretations rested heavily on biblical references. As political violence intensified in the months and years following Grande’s murder. They helped ordinary people make sense of the killings of popular leaders and beloved pastoral agents as part of a larger historical process in which good.” Less than a month after he gave the speech quoted earlier. 1984: 120-21). to “tell the truth. and Political Memory in El Salvador 523 . against the minority. Grande was assassinated. but in a speculative way. since the reality of widespread political killings had not yet shaken the opposition. The speech raises the theme of crucifixion. martyrdom and sacrifice became prominent themes in opposition political discourse and values.with his preaching and actions. would ultimately triumph. In February 1977. a foreign Jew. to defend opposition activists as martyrs rather than terrorists. Sacrifice. They would undoubtedly crucify him again (quoted in Berryman. because they are a clan of Cains. the first murder of a priest in Salvadoran history. marked a turning point in Salvadoran political discourse. Grande’s primary concern was the freedom to criticize.

they will also persecute you’” (quoted in Brockman. Again. I will rise again in the Salvadoran people. “If a Christian has to die to be faithful to his or her only God. which Archbishop Romero summarized thus: “Jesus Christ said it: ‘If they have persecuted me. 1989: 32). “If we’re persecuted like Christ.themes was the notion that the “true church” will always be persecuted. Just as Jesus’s death was followed by his resurrection. 1987: 461).”2 The widespread belief that political repression was a consequence of correct faith and action encouraged activists to understand their suffering as both a political necessity—the cost of achieving their goals—and as a religious good: participation in Jesus’s travails. moral sense. I should tell you that as a Christian. similarly. But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life. . progressive Catholic activists asserted that their sacrifices would contribute to a rebirth.” he asserted. “God will resurrect him or her” (La Iglesia en El Salvador. Archbishop Romero crystallized popular understandings. This 524 social research . not in individual bodily terms but in a collective. If they kill me. Martyrdom is a grace that I do not believe I deserve. . This notion was reinforced by biblical passages such as John 5:20. . Laypeople frequently made similar claims. 1982: 68). may my blood be the seed of freedom and the signal that hope will soon be a reality (Romero. there’s peace. Romero elaborated this notion in the interview cited earlier: I have frequently been threatened with death. such as a participant in a parish event in 1990 who asserted. Salvadoran activists embraced Romero’s conviction that sacrifices would contribute to the realization of their hopes for a new society. I do not believe in death without resurrection. that “If the church is alive. it’s because we’re doing what’s right and we’re not mistaken.” Another man argued. there are always problems. If it’s stagnant. Contemporary sacrifices paralleled Jesus’s also in leading to the same end results.

“Today many are unjustly condemned to death. which Christians have long understood as a celebration of Jesus’s martyrdom and a preparation for their own. Even though we fall a thousand times. participants walk a path marked by various stations. 1990: 17). At the seventh station of the vía crucis. Sacrifice. a thousand times we have to raise ourselves up to follow our commitment to give life and happiness to our brothers and sisters (Vía Crucis. ritual reenactments of the last supper in Central America have helped deliver the message that sacrifice. Another important ritual for the spread of popular understandings of sacrifice is the vía crucis. 1990: 5). at the first station. where Jesus is condemned to death. held in many parishes every Friday during Lent. and other convictions associated with the discourse of martyrdom. the guide provides a clear message for activists: despite losses and defeats. the re-enactment of Jesus’s path to the cross. suffering. the real evil is in not getting up. one popular vía crucis guide asserts that like Jesus.hope. in no small part because of their sacrifices [Jesus] doesn’t feel defeated. . (The presence of government soldiers at many of these events reinforced the parallels. . More recently. “If we daily drink the cup of the blood of Christ.) For example. when Jesus falls for the second time. 1987: 47). One of the most powerful was the eucharist (Lord’s Supper).” wrote Cyprian. were diffused in a variety of ways. and temporary defeat are inevitable parts of struggles for justice. “it is in order to be ready to shed our blood for Christ as well” (quoted in Lesbaupin. and Political Memory in El Salvador 525 . Jesus knows that what’s wrong isn’t falling. During a vía crucis. In addition to rituals such as the mass and via crucis. each representing a stage in Jesus’s passion. and he doesn’t abandon his commitment. Many are accused for telling the truth” (Vía Crucis. their cause will prevail. popular understandings of martyrdom were articulated and diffused through Martyrdom. . Celebrations of the ritual during the 1970s and 1980s often made parallels between Jesus’s fate and contemporary political events.

folk songs written to accompany the mass. “You are abandoned on the cross / massacred by the powerful / Today you also spill your blood / in the blood of our fallen. as do sacred and mundane histories. . not only do they kill people like Jesus.d: 159). . The misas and other popular religious songs. n.” for another murdered priest.d. assassinated in 1979. n. powerfully conveyed central images and values of the political opposition.” A song called “Father Rafael Palacios. holding firm in the face of danger 526 social research . including many written by parishioners in honor of murdered priests or layworkers.” asserts the Misa Salvadoreña (Salvadoran Mass) (El Pueblo Canta. Just as contemporary believers enter into sacred history. claims that “Catarina [Macías’s church] is the new Calvary / on its lands a cross is raised / together with the body of Father Macías / who died because he followed Jesus.000 years ago. This dialectical relationship between sacred and secular history reinforces the power and significance of each. Protest became a sacred struggle. but they crucify Jesus himself again. The dialectic between sacred and secular history flows in both directions. 551). Connections to Jesus’s passion endowed political killings with a transcendent meaning and provided compelling justification for political opposition. A song for Father Alirio Macías. Not only do activists repeat Jesus’s death. Thus popular rituals affirm the continuity of the struggle between good and evil: the battle for social justice in Central America today involves forces that were at work in the death of Jesus 2.misas populares. Old and new sacrifices blend together. When the powerful attack activists today. Although the locale and the weapons change.: 542. abandoning the cause meant abandoning one’s faith. the meaning for believers remains the same. which were in wide circulation throughout Central America in the 1970s and 1980s. includes the following lyrics: “Like Christ they beat you with a ferocious rope / with insults they whipped you to silence your voice / You walked to the Calvary like Jesus walked . divine events and characters “irrupt” into present events. but Jesus himself continues dying in their struggles. these rituals suggest. / the machine gun was your cross” (El Pueblo Canta.

Rivera answered. found that people with wellarticulated political commitments recovered from imprisonment. and Political Memory in El Salvador 527 . and countless other victims of the Salvadoran military. Asked who had killed the priests.. for example. and had the hardest time coming to emotional resolutions regarding the death or disappearance of the loved ones (Weinstein et al. This interpretation served not only political but also psychological purposes. Similarly. or the death of loved ones more rapidly and completely than their apolitical peers. torture. which in Central American narratives of martyrdom had little to do with individual bodily resurrection but rather focused on a collective rebirth through the creation of a better society. in the wake of a major FMLN offensive. Romero. activists asserted. “It was those who murdered Archbishop Romero and Martyrdom. therefore. 1976: 121). Terrence DesPres argued that a sense of political purpose helped concentration camp survivors to endure during World War II: “Political consciousness and contact with others in the struggle against Nazism were necessary conditions of success. it was this that gave people a sense of purpose in life behind barbed wire and enabled them to hold out” (DesPres. Similar convictions helped many Salvadorans survive and continue struggling despite the brutality of the civil war. placed the killings of the Jesuits in this larger context. activists drew on frames of martyrdom to make sense of and use.guaranteed divine rewards. people without a political context suffered more when relatives were imprisoned or killed. and their deaths formed part of a continuous project leading toward the ultimate triumph of God’s cause. Sacrifice. 188). Studies of the effects of political violence have shown that victims with a clear political or religious interpretive framework and value system recover more quickly and with less lasting damage. politically. They were killed for the same reasons as Grande. 1987: 82. the murders of six prominent Jesuit priests in November 1989. The most important reward is a future life. who succeeded Romero. Even Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas. Research in Chile. Conversely. Even after over a decade of intense political violence.

The war formally came to an end in December 1992. one of the Jesuits. or because of.000 dead” (Sobrino. that reproduces itself very quickly after being cut. MARTYRDOM AND SACRIFICE SINCE 1992 The peace accords sought not only to end the armed conflict. stubborn in its intent to continue living” (Radio Venceremos. as the FMLN’s Radio Venceremos underlined when it compared the dead Jesuits to a tough flower. Obviously. wrote him a letter that asserted: “People like you never last in this life. the sacrifices of its best (most Christ-like) representatives. For example. however. when the last guerrillas and targeted government soldiers entered civilian life.who are not satisfied with 70. According to this narrative. stubbornly reluctant to die. asserted the radio. 1992. “are like the flower of the izote. the same persons did not kill all the war victims. the same agents of power ultimately caused their deaths. where Ignacio Martín-Baró. After intense negotiations. under United Nations sponsorship. For Rivera and many other Salvadorans.” As the report of the UN Truth Commission for El Salvador 528 social research . 1990: 90). with everything that has happened. The murdered priests. ultimately this church would triumph despite. but to structure a new El Salvador. We are going to continue your example because God wanted it that way” (Canton de Jayaque. stubbornly reluctant to stop existing. 1990: 51). But we know very well that. to build what UNCESCO called “a culture of peace. an agreement was announced on December 31. even though the same forces continued attacking the true church. 1991. the church will never give up. The killing of the Jesuits sparked international outrage and helped push the Salvadoran government to negotiate with the FMLN. and the cease-fire began on February 1. had often celebrated Mass. in April 1990. Representatives of the guerrillas and the government signed the peace accords on January 16. laypeople from Jayaque. 1990: 30). The inspiration to continue struggling had continuing political import. the izote.

The restructuring of the institutions most overtly linked to the war took place within the context of longer-term restructuring of the economy. less often. many leaving the countryside to work in Salvadoran cities (often as maids and security guards or in construction). the wealthy moved their capital into other sectors. Key to this process were the demilitarization of the FMLN and its incorporation as a legal political party. The war has been the measure against which postwar violence and suffering are registered. and frustration (Hume. violence. deregulation of finance. working. or leaving El Salvador altogether to seek work in the United States or. 2003).and middle-class. followed by the adoption of the US dollar as national currency (Segovia. and possibly the largest single source of foreign income for the nation (World Bank. while the rural poor become poorer. 2002). 2004). the democracy and peace promised by the end of the war is lived as a world of uncertainty. For many Salvadorans. and Political Memory in El Salvador 529 . Mexico. the end of the war would be a transition “from madness to hope” (Betancur et al. and the fixing of currency’s value to the US dollar. The remittances sent home by Salvadorans residing abroad are a major source of income for many of those who remain at home. which has in general involved the decline of the agricultural export sector. Canada. Europe. supportive of the FMLN and not. privatization of state and public enterprises. With the decline of the agrarian sector. Sacrifice. both rural and urban. The accords also called for the “purification” of government forces. increasing dependance on dollars from Salvadorans in the United States and elsewhere outside of El Salvador. Some former combatants joined the National Civilian Police force while others returned to civilian life with the help of land-transfer program and educational opportunities.. including the disbanding of several especially notorious units and the removal of over 100 officers associated with human rights violations. it remains a touchstone for personal memory for those who survived it (a rapidly Martyrdom. in maquiladoras or foreign-owned factories.proposed. or Australia. notably finance and transportation. 1993).

Irina Carlota Silber chronicles a sense of “disillusionment and deception” in the former FMLN-controlled territory of Chalatenango province. Yet many Salvadorans who lived through the war feel that conditions in the present are actually worse than during the war. ride the bus. for so long. 2006). the negotiated settlement was not a clear victory. 2006.” For those who had sacrificed so much. and was the sentiment of United Nations General Secretary Boutros Boutrous-Ghali. sit at local tiendas. who declared in 1995 that El Salvador has taken “giant strides away from a violent and closed society” (UN. whose average age today is 21). This was certainly the hope of the United Nations mission that oversaw the settlement of the war. in the name of the radical transformation of the national order. They force us to ask. 1995: 7). The sense that the revolutionary struggle lost its meaning appears to have spread in the years since the accords. This is in large part attributable to a sense of frustration and disappointment among FMLN fighters and their supporters. One might imagine that when measured with reference to 12 years in which more than 75.diminishing part of the population. as Ellen Moodie puts it.” Silber writes. it is not rare to hear discussions on how they have received nothing but sadness and loss from their wartime participation” 530 social research .000 people were killed. or participate in events. during which hundreds of thousands were displaced. and uncertainty continue to prevail for most Salvadorans (B. “what kind of ‘peace’ was agreed to” (Moodie. While joy at the end of the fighting was widespread. frustration. in which conditions of poverty. The FMLN slogan in the weeks following the signing of the accords was “we won the peace” (ganamos la paz). 2006: 66). Peterson. suffering. and disappearances were regular tactics of counterinsurgency. 2000: 290). an area where both of us have lived and worked as well (Silber. for many the slogan implicitly suggested the rejoinder “but we didn’t win the war. “In conversations of daily life. the postwar period could only be understood as a massive improvement. torture. in which extrajudicial assasinations. Moodie. “when people visit their neighbors and kin.

2000: 291). 2002).” The settlement.(Silber. this sense of disappointment is acute. judicial reform. a campesino from Usulután poses an ironic question: “We shed blood all these years in order to buy land at market prices?” (Wood. They participated in order to overthrow institutionalized power and put in place a socialist project” (Silber. “fell short in relation to [our] dreams.”3 That dream—the utopian horizon for which so much blood was shed—was a new society. much more than free elections. it would protect the most vulnerable. Most important. 2005). which went beyond just getting to legalize the FMLN. Silber cites an organizer and former activist who reasons that this sadness stems from the unsatisfactory resolution of the armed conflict: “it is because folks did not join or support an armed struggle for a negotiated peace. 2000: 209) In the rural villages and working-class barrios that sacrificed so much during the war. after the peace accords many of us were left disillusioned. Peterson. it would be egalitarian. and Political Memory in El Salvador 531 . or new political parties. Another former combatant expresses her disappointment in a postwar collection of testimonio: Martyrdom. Sacrifice. an indigenous rights and human rights activst and lawyer. The contrast between this utopian dream and the hard reality of postwar society shapes the way Salvadorans think about the sacrifice and death that preceded. As one former combatant put it. “People struggled for 12 years for a different society. “When the peace accords arrived. and former FMLN organizer and clandestine militant. “we were all going to be equal” (“todos íbamos a ser iguales”) (Rivera et al. and its members would be unified around their shared values. because we knew that we weren’t fighting to institutionalize a party but for our objectives. define the vision for which thousands of Salvadorans fought and for which many died. Echoing Martínez. Well then. This sentiment was echoed by Amadeo Martínez. “The Peace Accords don’t fulfill those yearnings. 1995: 39.” a peasant leader in Chalatenango province explains.” Martínez recalls. one of his neighbors adds. “a lot of us didn’t want that. Because really this wasn’t our objective” (Martínez. 2000: 289). A. which would be politically democratic and free of repression.. This solidarity.

I feel frustrated. I mean I am frustrated. yet remains high. especially for the nearly half of the population living in conditions of poverty. revenge killings. likewise are pervasive risks. The homicide rate for 2006 was 55.000. Unlike martyrs during the war. In fact. This figure has declined significantly in the decade since. .The war didn’t bring me any profit. and traffic events. . car-jacking. and death from malaria and dengue fever. kidnaping. I don’t have a house. The overall rate of violent death in El Salvador grew during the first years after the peace accords to reach 130 deaths per 100. The homicide rate has consistently been among the highest in the region. where you would have water. from gastrointestinal and respiratory ailments. The news is full of stories of robberies turned violent. murders of bus drivers who refuse to pay protection money. I don’t have anything. I expected that for what they had done they were going to give us something.ocavi. and death that remain commonplace in postwar El Salvador.>). unmappable and so unavoidable. so I can’t work there. . and/or with happenstance. I don’t have a way to pay for the land. often with gangs. just losses. or fate. nature. That you wouldn’t lack a house. matching the wartime average. furthermore. and land where you could plant your corn. those who die in these conditions do not knowingly choose a path whose likely end is death.and middle income countries. Because only the dead aren’t worried about anything (Rivera et al. Salvadorans associate violence today with criminality.3 per 100. often involving pedestrians. pervades everyday life. Traffic deaths are higher in El Salvador than the average for low.. 1995: 246).000 in 1996. the highest in Central America (see <http:// www. Frustration in the postwar period also reflects the reality of continuing experiences of violence. 532 social research . the rate of violent deaths has been higher in the postwar period than it was during the conflict. The sense that violence is an omnipresent and arbitrary threat.

” home to the six priests killed by the military in 1989. One needs only to read the newspaper. orienting their work in the present. the powerful continue to abuse their power. to speak truth to power. is the same as it was during the war: to denounce injustice. but as bearers of utopian possibility who remain with the faithful. However. remains present everywhere. 1995). suffering today is often experienced as a by-product or side-effect. In El Salvador. The answer. The present is likened to the peace of Constantinople. and Political Memory in El Salvador 533 . to watch television. What do we Christians do when faced with this situation? What do we do when confronted with so many human rights violations? (Castillo. to listen to the radio. in the fourth century CE.000 families without homes. to maintain a fundamental alliance with the poor and suffering. Priests and laypeople associated with the Jesuit-run Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas. to give only one example. according to some. as the official religion of the Roman Empire— and the loss. [The] martyrs must be something always present in the Church. an accident. 120). This is how the Church maintains its confrontation with the world. of the prophetic and communitarian character of the early church. have produced a large body of written work on the meanings of martyrdom in times of peace and on “what to do in times of neoliberal disenchantment” (Carta a las Iglesias.Liberation theology has continued to provide a critical analytical voice in these conditions. They are invoked not simply as heroes of the past. most often. Sacrifice. a false peace of accommodation following the establishment of Christianity. The rich continue to prosper at the expense of the poor. 1994. and the arrogant continue crushing the crucified of this Earth. Because the fact is that the Satanic spirit of the world remains present in Latin America. while unjust Martyrdom. there are more than 280. The martyrs of the Salvadoran conflict remain fundamental figures in this work.

Typically. Those who leave El Salvador to work in the United States without documents make large sacrifices to pay for the difficult and dangerous trip. Women and girls have been forced into prostitution. but rearticulates them with a different vision of the good and a different temporal frame. Salvadorans have lost limbs riding freight trains and have been robbed and killed by gangs in Mexico. they may spend their first years in the host country working to repay this loan. today the horizon is at once more concrete and mundane. a challenge heightened by the fact that. The hazards of the journey are figured in narratives of sacrifice for the family. for el pueblo. retains some of these features of martyrdom.power is difficult to locate. an option chosen by thousands of Salvadorans every year. martyrdom figured the sacrifice of one’s life for the national good. it is the possibility of emigration to the United States. both Salvadoran and Mexican. While essentially utopian possibilities animated the sacrifices made during the war. that of the migrant. individuals pool funds from family members. within a temporal frame oriented to a future of justice and peace for all. Salvadorans exercise popular sovereignty in a democratic system. Salvadorans currently pay between five and six thousand dollars to coyotes who provide transportation and other logistical help. often in the United States. It is perhaps exacerbated as well by the radically refigured horizon of possibility for most poor Salvadorans. Migrants face risks on the road ranging from electrocution in freight yards and assault by gangs to deportation from Mexico or the United States and dehydration in the desert of the border region. During the years of government repression and war. This is an enormous sum for those who wish to migrate. formally if superficially. A good example is a friend of the 534 social research . famously in the southern Mexican border town of Tapachula. who usually make the journey because the feel they do not have enough money in the first place. of the poor but resilient Salvadoran fighting to get ahead. One of the most prevalent discourses of sacrifice since the war’s end.

Jesús El Buen Pastor is the name of a shelter for injured Central American migrants in Tapachula. the shelter embodies a vision of Christian charity that is basically apolitical.authors. Sacrifice. This young man. In a similar vein. and Political Memory in El Salvador 535 . and many employ the language of martyrdom directly. However. popular discourses of martyrdom and sacrifice focused on the heroic struggles of those who had made peace possible. It has been lauded by Mexican President Vicente Fox (who awarded the shelter’s founder the Mexican National Prize for Human Rights in 2004) and Maria Shriver. among others (La Prensa Gráfica. Most of these engage in forms of commemoration. 2005). La Jornada. for example. to pay back the loan for the coyote. who urgently need concrete assistance on their journey north. Sacrifice here is organized around two keywords of neoliberal values—family and enterprise—in contrast to the liberation theology values of el pueblo and the Kingdom of God. the image of Christ as a model for sacrifice. THE DEAD WALK WITH THEM During the early postwar years. The shelter has received financial support from foreign governments including the United States and Canada. in sharp contrast to the image of Christ as martyr to injustice elaborated in Salvadoran liberation theology. Indeed. murals refer to popular struggle. the Martyrdom. and then to bankroll a small store or other business. who left two grade-school children with his parents. plans on spending two to three years in the United States to make enough money first. Similarly. Salvadoran revolutionaries and progressive Catholics strove to keep the martyrs’ sacrifices alive in various ways. Mexico. wife of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. 2007. Throughout the campus of the University of El Salvador. now working in residential construction in the Midwest. one who fought injustice and suffered with and as the people during the civil war has been displaced in narratives of sacrifice associated with migration by a more common and traditional understanding of Christ as the Good Shepherd. Jesús El Buen Pastor provides a crucial service for Central American migrants.

heroes and martyrs continue to provide authority to progressive discourse and organizations. as natural. “an enormous chasm. always proclaiming its own retreat as a social good. In these circumstances. as peripheral to the project of politics. 2007: 147). but is instead dispersed through social phenomena that are recorded as accidents. and give it meaning. 1973). it becomes hard to orient toward the future or understand the present in terms of an historical trajectory. In both settings. This culture of loss—the experiential and interpretive spaces of death—is organized not with reference to locatable power. There is a distinction. in Foucault’s terms. authorized within a rationality of extending and confirming the power of the sovereign. make sense of it. Although this discourse of memory is evocative. Now suffering is no longer part of a collective struggle. replacing the call to arms of the war years. but in ways that differ significantly from earlier periods. as Ellen Moodie puts it. The problem for activists is to find a narrative can take up this death. between the state that kills—an act of sovereign power. Here the liberationist Catholic notion of structural sin—of social ills that are caused by clearly identifiable responsible agents—no longer holds (Gutiérrez. Thus the neoliberal state. their agents are no longer identifiable oppressors. subjective choices made in a calculus of costs and benefits. home to the Jesuits killed in 1989 and a chapel dedicated to their memories. to neoliberal practices and strategies of rule. continues to invoke martyrdom in its engagement with struggles for human rights and social justice. of risks. its power to motivate activism and inspire hope has waned in the present conditions of insecurity and death in El Salvador. on the other hand. is co-produced with a reframing of death as accidental. or as the results of individual conditions.Universidad Centroamericana José Simeon Cañas. 536 social research . and death is most often rendered as simply what is. as well as the Monseñor Romero Pastoral Center. A culture of loss” (Moodie 2006: 66). Salvadorans today confront. of the state—and. Martyrdom in the postwar periods can be characterized most often as a discourse of memory. a state that lets die (Foucault.

January 5. without clear meaning or a message that Salvadoran activists can take up. tied specific events to larger historical frames. narratives of martyrdom and sacrifice ably performed these tasks (A. Rather. Martyrdom. and identified particular agents of loss and suffering. These quotations come from a meeting attended by Anna Peterson in the parish of San Antonio Abad. mestizo national subject as well. In the postwar situation.During the war. the dead walk with them. 2002. the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas. and Political Memory in El Salvador 537 . and other events of the 1990s. Sacrifice. And even the most disillusioned Salvadoran would be quick to insist that the martyrs help keep that history open. in March 1990. in the words of the title of Jorge Castañeda’s book about the Latin American left in the 1990s. death and loss do not fall so clearly into the religiously and politically meaningful category of martyrdom. a reading that contemporary indigenous activists have worked to undermine (Gould. As Jeffrey Gould notes. according to Castañeda. conceptions of martyrdom and sacrifice framed survivors’ relations with their dead. linking sacred and secular history. El Salvador. it is hard for Latin American activists to conceive even “the very notion of an overall alternative to the status quo” (Castañeda. San Salvador. 1997). 2. After the fall of the Berlin Wall. 2001). NOTES 1. Interviews conducted by Anna Peterson. should be that history is open: surprises and new things are indeed possible. however. for left and right alike the deaths of the victims of the 1932 massacre were read as sacrifices to the creation of a racially unified. Theirs is a utopia unarmed. they appear as random and arbitrary events.1994: 240-241). They are not part of a larger purpose-driven narrative. that even if the road ahead is not clear. however. These concepts connected individuals to larger collectivities. 3. In so doing. Chalatenango. Guarjila. giving them meaning that made the losses more bearable. Peterson 1996.4 The outstanding lesson of Latin American history.

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