Argueta’s El Salvador

“…I looked into her eyes, but saw no tears…an Indian grief, which

would not visibly lament…” – The Piazza Tales, Herman Melville.



Manlio Argueta’s novel, One Day of Life (banned by the government), is about a peasant family, the Guardados, living in the village of Chalate, in El Salvador. The narrator is their grandmother, Lupe, who awakens at 5:30 A.M. in her wooden hut to the shrieks of the clarinero bird’s call.  The Guardados are farm workers employed by the local coffee plantation, or wherever there is seasonal work available.  At the beginning of our story – as Lupe rises to her daily chores – she cannot help but recall the murder of her son, Justino. At its end, she bears silent witness to the torture and death of her husband, Jose. Both dared challenge “the oligarchy” and its “national security state”, by organizing a farm workers’ federation to improve their lives. For this, their family paid dearly. To so much as lift a finger in aid of workers and the poor in El Salvador, is to incur the wrath of the terrorist state. And, as with the clan in the American South, brown shirts in Fascist Europe, or Greece’s Golden Dawn, today – the difference between the state’s enforcers, in and out of uniform, is no more than the exchange of a cop’s blue cap for a clansman’s white, pointed hood (and the state’s “plausible deniability”). Let us follow Lupe through a day in the struggle to feed her family:


“When I get up, I go straight to the well; I draw ten buckets of water – for bathing, for pig feed and corn, and to water some plants in the yard…The chickens have already jumped down from their perch and are begging for corn…Inside, the children jump out of bed…Coffee and hot salted tortillas for breakfast.


This is our life; we don’t know any other. After what happened to my son Justino, I prefer to stay closed up inside myself…I go from plant to plant, watering the little chili peppers…I prepare mash for the pigs...I do all this while the youngest children are at school and the older ones are at work with their father in the fields…I would like all our children to learn to read so that they won’t have to live as hired hands and suffer as we have…The children are our only hope (p. 7-12)…”


As Lupe imagines the future of her children, she remembers her own childhood, long ago. Her parents could only afford to send her to the first grade class. Her father and brothers had labored long hours, chopping and hoeing in the fields. There were fourteen in their family – Lupe, her parents and eleven brothers. Three more children had died of dehydration. Her father had held the last one by the feet so that blood would run to his head; despite this, it had died. Each had suffered from diarrhea; then their foreheads sank, caving in:


“Our only concern was that they might die suddenly, without having been baptized…children have original sin. If they die…they go directly to purgatory…a site of punishment…That’s what the priests told us (p. 13, 14)…”


The Catholic Church and its priests played an ambivalent role in their lives. In the past, they would tell them not to worry about want and suffering; after all, they had the next life to which to look forward. And when their children died of worms, the priests said to pray and be resigned. The villagers knew only medicine could save them, but the priests refused to provide it. They were told to keep the faith, as the priests sprinkled holy water on their dead babies. Be patient, they were told, but the villagers knew better:


“…worms eat the children from within and have to be expelled through their noses and mouths…One of my children died on me that way – from dehydration and from being eaten up by worms (p. 20)…”


They must accept their deaths – it was God’s will – they were told. Sometimes they failed to cry: death was a prize God had given their babies; better than for them to suffer. Then the old priests were replaced by younger ones, and things began to change.


They helped them organize cooperatives – to aid each other and share their profits.  They stopped saying the Mass in Latin, employing Spanish; and the priests finally began to address their needs. To get to heaven, they were told, they must first struggle to create a paradise, here, on earth. And most important of all, the young priests had helped save their children from disease. Unlike the old ones, who had threatened them with hellfire, the young ones were here to help:


“…religion was no longer the same. The priests arrived in work pants…They even formed the first cooperatives and we made a little profit. They taught us to manage money and how to get a good price for our eggs, chickens and pigs (p. 25, 26)…”


Then the Civil Guard suddenly appeared in their village. They warned the men against carrying machetes. If they walked around with machetes tied to their wrists, they said, they would chop off their hands. The guards claimed these young priests were putting “communist” ideas into their heads. And they accused them of being “homosexuals”, as well. Then a young priest was found dead on the road:


“They had disfigured his face, had brutalized him all over…They’d stuck a stick up his anus…A little further up the road, his robe was hanging all ripped…They found the priest’s jeep farther up the road, burned (p. 30)…”


Having received death threats, some young priests went abroad. But others stood their ground; taught them they had rights. The peasants learned not to bow their heads when the boss would scold them: to look him straight in the eye. But the guardsmen continued to warn against the priests who helped them organize cooperatives. They said they were “Reds”: mixed politics with religion; filled their heads with “communist” ideas. But the young priests replied that the peasants had rights. They “stuck it” to the landowners; encouraged them to protest and to demonstrate. What Christianity really meant, they said, was helping the poor. The landowners hated the priests, so they sent the guards to intimidate them. Then the first demonstration had occurred in San Salvador.


A group of peasants went to the bank to get a loan for their cooperative. It was closed, so they staged a demonstration. Eight radio patrol cars arrived, and the police began to fire. The demonstrators ran to where their buses were parked, but the police had driven them away. So they rushed to the nearby San Jacinto Church. But before they had arrived, it had already been occupied by police.  Desperate, they boarded a bus to Chalate. As they pulled away, however, they noticed a helicopter following them. They later arrived at a police checkpoint, where they were ordered to get off the bus to be searched. But when they left the bus, the police opened fire. They aimed a machine gun at them, blazing away. Some hid under the bus; others got on the bus and lay down, flat, in the aisles. Finally, the police stopped shooting, and some of them were allowed to get off the bus. Then the police threw bombs and tear gas canisters into the bus.  As the people burned inside, the police again opened fire.


Lupe’s granddaughter, Maria Romelia, aged thirteen, had participated in the demonstration. She was wounded, and later hospitalized. Another demonstrator, her cousin, Arturo, was “disappeared”, never to be seen again. Maria’s father, a migrant worker, had been kidnapped by the guard for organizing farm workers. And her grandfather, Jose – Lupe’s husband – had been threatened, once again, for organizing the federation. He had been forced to sleep in the hills, far away from his beloved wife. So that an entire family – three generations – had been enmeshed in the struggle against the “death squad” state. And, along with this ordeal, there was their daily struggle to survive:


“From the plantations we get work but also misery…the plantation has prospered thanks to us. We’ve made it work…without our hands, there’s no sowing, no weeding, no harvesting, no clearing the fields (p. 52)…”


 Lupe had learned much from her son, Justino, and from her husband, Jose, as well. Jose had the patience to explain their struggle to her: he had opened her eyes to the necessity to organize and fight. And others in their community recognized that he was looking out for their interests. But now he was forced to hide out in the hills at night, so Lupe slept alone. She prayed that nothing bad would happen to Jose: remembering what had happened to their son, Justino. His death had nearly destroyed her – had turned her into a creature afraid to feel – except for constant fear. She remembered the murder of her beloved son, Justino.


She had thrown on her shawl and hurried off to where they had found his body. It was hardly recognizable. There were tears in her eyes; her heart began to pound. Early that morning, on their way to work, one of the villagers had seen a ball on a post in the distance:


“…A person dressed as a civilian had taken him…Justino’s wife told me…(He)…had been organizing the people of Chalate who were going to the bank for a loan…they didn’t have him for more than three minutes when I heard a thud that penetrated my soul…With only one machete chop they did it…sliced off his head…A little later shots were heard…He had more than seven bullet holes in him…when Dona Lupe reached the road where her son lay, she only shut her eyes…didn’t shed a single tear…Anyone could say that it was hardness of heart, but if you know these people, you know it’s not that…It’s a way of gaining courage to live what remains of life (p. 106 – 108)…”


Justino’s body was found in one place and his head in another:  stuck on a roadside marker. But those guards who had perpetrated this infamy were known to the people of the village. And the villagers were outraged. He had risked his life for them, to help improve their lives. So a group of men, armed with clubs and machetes, was formed to find the killers. They went from house to house in the village, until they finally found them.


Before them, the killers stood, trembling. They were forced to dig a grave for Justino, as the heat of the sun beat down on them; then to kneel before it, and ask his forgiveness. And, all the while, they were surrounded by machetes held high above their heads. But the murders were finally set free. The villagers didn’t realize that this act of mercy was their own death sentence.


The Civil Guard retaliated – sending loads of armed guards, a helicopter and an airplane. Houses were burned; women raped; children beaten to death. And they slaughtered chickens, oxen and pigs, as well. Some escaped to the mountains, where they went hungry, and suffered attacks of mosquitoes. Almost all the houses in Justino’s village were destroyed. And nothing, whatsoever, had appeared in the newspapers. But the villagers of Chalatenango would not submit. They decided to occupy the Cathedral of San Salvador.


A group of over a hundred villagers joined teachers and students to attend the morning Mass. When the priests ordered them to leave, they refused, saying that they were protesting the brutalities committed at Chalatenango. The priests refused to give them the keys to the doors, so they cut the bolts and locked them from inside. The main door of the church was left open, as a few of them delivered a speech through a microphone to those gathered outside. Soon, the Cathedral was surrounded by policemen and squad cars. Some of the women, in the market, gathered food, clothes and water for them. And they hung handmade banners from the Cathedral’s white stone walls.


After an hour, one of the priests pleaded with them to leave. He said that the Cathedral was El Salvador’s most sacred place. “That’s why we’re here, Monsignor.” was their reply. Then the Senior Archbishop, Monsignor Romero, appeared before them. They applauded him, having heard that he was a defender of the poor. He told them he was aware of the massacre, and that he would be meeting that same day with officials to discuss their problems.


The demonstrators organized themselves to procure food and water, to cook and prepare the food, and for clean-up and security. They remained for eight days in the Cathedral of San Salvador. Then Archbishop Romero returned, to tell them:


“…If you want to leave you can do so without fear, because there are orders to respect your lives; no one will be persecuted if you leave here.”


…the one in charge answered him, “…you guarantee our lives here but not when we return to our homes in the country…the guardsmen are still in the villages, and as long as they remain there we’re not going back.”


Finally, they learned that the Cathedral would be evacuated under the auspices of the Red Cross. The buses arrived and they returned to their village. But, despite the assurance of the archbishop, nothing had changed; so many were forced to sleep in the hills. Then Lupe was paid a visit by the Civil Guard to fetch her granddaughter, Adolfina.


They claimed to have found a wounded man, who could only be identified by Aldofina. But Lupe stood her ground:


“…Adolfina is not leaving this house, is not going to take even one step alone…she’s my granddaughter…Take me…I could recognize the man…I’d rather that you shot me…but my granddaughter will not budge (p.167, 8)…”


Then the guard made a call on his portable radio, asking that they bring the wounded man to Lupe’s home. A jeep arrived with the wounded man. Four guardsmen got out, dragging him. He was so disfigured, that you could hardly recognize him with all the blood. Then Lupe saw him: it was her husband, Jose. One of his eyes was hanging by a thread from its socket. They asked Lupe if she knew him, as she thought to herself:


“…My body turns to ice as I see you transformed into a piece of meat bitten by dogs…I could see your body through the rips in your clothes, looking as if they had grabbed you…pulling off chunks of flesh…Then I said no…without any quavering of my voice, without the least trace of hesitation. And at that moment your good eye opened…Jose…And God illuminated my mind…because I remember your saying…”If at any time you detect danger to yourself or to our family, don’t hesitate about denying me.” (p. 191, 92)…”


Lupe realized this was the only way out. That’s why Jose had opened his eye to thank her, to tell her he was proud of her. The Civil Guard had brought him to demonstrate what happened to anyone, like her granddaughter, that dared to organize farm workers. They would parade Jose’s body through the village, as an object lesson to those who fought back. Then they left, dragging Jose away, forever. And Lupe remembered her beloved Jose telling her about “conscience”:


“If I’m called on to shed blood, my blood, it doesn’t matter because it is for the good of everyone else…Conscience …is to sacrifice oneself for those who are exploited (p. 172)...”


In addition to his dedication to organizing the farm workers’ federation, Jose had been an affectionate husband, and father to their children. After a grueling day at work, he would always come home, tired and perspiring; but he never failed to play with their children. Lupe confesses (with a genuinely Marxist appreciation of the oppression of women):


“You can’t expect more from the men…we peasant women are slaves, but it is not their fault…we help produce the wealth of the landowners when we take care of the children by ourselves, because we are also giving men the time to work in peace from sunup to sundown…we are giving our time to the landowners so that our husbands can produce more, can be better exploited (p. 204)…”


With her son Justino, beheaded and murdered, and her husband, Jose, tortured to death – Lupe is left to bring up her three small children all by herself. Even with all of them alive and working, they had barely been able to afford beans to eat. But, like so many courageous people of her village, she will not fail them. Lupe and her children will endure.        



Armstrong and Shenk’s, El Salvador: The Face of Revolution, will provide the historical background for our discussion. El Salvador is a tiny country in Central America in which plantation crops – coffee, sugarcane and cotton – are sold for export.  With 5 million inhabitants, and the highest population density in the hemisphere, its land yields a bare subsistence. 2 percent of the population – the oligarchic “Fourteen Families” – own 60 percent of the land. Per capita income is the lowest in Central America; and malnutrition, lack of potable water and sewage facilities, illiteracy and unemployment continue to ravage the countryside.


In 1881 (as in the England of Marx’s, Capital), the government of El Salvador privatized “the commons”, which forced the landless peasantry to become an “industrial reserve army” of farm laborers on the plantations of the wealthy.  In time, this separation of the rural workers from their means of production, resulted in a series of peasant revolts. The landlords, in turn, created an army and a special security force, the National Guard, to enforce their rule.


In the late nineteenth century, coffee became the major cash crop, providing 95% of the nation’s income. But this wealth was confined to only 2% of the population.  In response to this impoverishment of the peasantry, Augustin Farabundo Marti created the Central American Socialist Party in 1931, and led the peasants and indigenous people in rebellion. Death squads were created by the government to kill anyone suspected of supporting the rebels. This mass murder, known as La Matanza (the Massacre), left more than 30,000 dead. Marti was later arrested and executed.


Since that time, the country has been ruled by 17 military governments. The Cold War “Alliance for Progress” was created by President Kennedy in 1961. He claimed that “Governments of the civil-military type of El Salvador, are the most effective in containing communist penetration in Latin America.” In the 1970s two movements, in particular, had influenced the social struggles of El Salvador. “Liberation Theology” had arisen in the 1950s and 60s, as a moral reaction to the poverty and social injustice of Latin America. And the success of the Cuban Revolution caused Salvadorans (and others throughout the continent) to adopt the strategy of guerilla warfare. During the 1970s guerilla organizations formed in cities and the countryside.


In 1980 El Salvador’s civil war officially began. The United States government supported the oligarchy with financial and military aid.  It trained its military and police at its own School of the Americas (SOA). Established in 1946, the SOA has trained 46,000 military personnel in counter-insurgency, psychological warfare and torture techniques. The SOA was expelled from Panama in 1984, where its president called it the “biggest base for destabilization in Latin America”. Since then, it has been re-named the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, but is popularly known as the “School of Assassins”.


During the height of the civil war, U.S. aid averaged $1.5 million dollars a day. The “security state” targeted anyone they suspected of supporting the guerillas or social reform. Union organizers, clergy, journalists – thousands of civilians were murdered. Private paramilitary groups (i.e. death squads) were employed to wipe out entire villages. Between 1980 and 1992, 75,000 people died as a result of the civil war, most of them innocent civilians.


But for people like Lupe and her family conditions have remained the same. A recent article reports that:

“ A staggering 3,400 people were murdered in the first seven months of this year – the bloodiest period since El Salvador’s brutal, 12-year civil war in 1992 – with 80,000 people dead and one million displaced…In 2014, almost 300,000 people abandoned their homes to escape threats or violence…No one knows how many have left the country, but in the first half of 2015 almost 24,000 adults and children were deported back to El Salvador after being caught trying to reach the U.S….El Salvador may well be the most dangerous country in the world outside of a war zone…” (“El Salvador: Flight for life from the world’s most dangerous country” by Nina Lkhani, The Independent). 


© 2015 By Mark Dickman