Home > Uncategorized > Carolyn Forché and How We Remember El Salvador – posted 5/10/2020 and published in the Concord Monitor on 5/23/2020

Carolyn Forché and How We Remember El Salvador – posted 5/10/2020 and published in the Concord Monitor on 5/23/2020

I had not planned to write about El Salvador. But then I read Carolyn Forché’s memoir What You Have Heard is True. Forché’s book is a riveting account about her time in El Salvador in the late 1970’s when the country was on the verge of civil war.

The book is also about a young woman growing up as she learns about a world far different than anything she knew existed.

As a 27 year old student living in California, Forché is approached by a mysterious man, Leonel Gómez Vides, who shows up at her door. After three days of non-stop talk, Leonel persuades Forché to go to El Salvador to learn about life there. He knew war was coming to his country and he hoped Forché, as an aspiring poet and writer, could explain his country to the American people.

Leonel called what he was doing his “reverse Peace Corps”. Forché would be going to El Salvador not to help the Salvadoran people but to educate herself about Central American realities.

The realities Forché discovered were brutal. The overwhelming majority of the people were desperately poor. Houses were made of mud and twigs and things you would find in a dump. There was no decent sanitation. One in five children died before the age of five, mostly of dehydration caused by dysentery. Life expectancy was about 47 for men, a little higher for women.

Salvadorans typically worked from dawn until dusk but average household income was about $400 a year. On the other end of the spectrum, 30 or 40 super-rich families owned nearly everything in the country. They lived in a regal style, utterly disconnected from the lives of the majority. There was no middle class.

Once in El Salvador, Leonel took Forché all over the country, introducing her to people from all walks of life including high-ranking officials in the Salvadoran military. For Forché, it remained unclear who Leonel was and what he was up to. Leonel owned a small coffee farm, was an expert marksman, was a motorcycle racer and he had an interest in Formula-One racing cars. He knew people all over the country and was consistently warmly received.

Forché and many others wondered if Leonel was with the guerrillas or with the CIA. No one knew. Leonel cultivated mystery, explaining that El Salvador was “a symphony of illusions”.

Leonel taught that the cultivation of mystery was centrally important in such a dangerous place. Ambiguity about identity could save your life. Death squads disappeared many as Forché saw with her own eyes. She saw prisoners confined and tortured in small wooden boxes about the size of washing machines. She herself had to run on one occasion to escape from a death squad.

This was Forché’s education in oppression. During her time in the country, more and more Salvadorans were disappearing with mutilated bodies later found on road sides. The U.N. Truth Commission established as part of the peace accords after the war found that 85% of the killings, kidnappings and torture were the work of government forces including paramilitaries and death squads.

Forché learned about the role of the United States in supplying, supporting and training the Salvadoran military. Both Presidents Carter and Reagan poured billions of dollars into propping up a military dictatorship that misappropriated huge sums for its own corrupt purposes.

U.S. military advisors trained many Salvadoran officers in the methods of torture at the co-called School of the Americas. The role of the United States in training torturers remains little known. As Leonel told Forché:

“I promise you that it is going to be difficult to get Americans to believe what is happening here. For one thing this is outside the realm of their imaginations. For another, it isn’t in their interests to believe you. For a third, it is possible that we are not human beings to them.”

The civil war that came claimed 75,000 lives with 8000 disappeared and it lasted over twelve years. 500,000 people were internally displaced and another 500,000 became refugees leaving El Salvador altogether. Within a week after Forché left El Salvador in 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated.

In December 1981, soldiers from the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion massacred 1200 civilians at El Mozote. Although the U.S. trained the troops that carried out this atrocity, no U.S. government official has ever apologized for our role. El Salvador was the largest U.S. counterinsurgency effort after Vietnam and before Iraq.

You might ask: why was the U.S. siding with a handful of oligarchs and their fascistic goon squads rather than the masses of poor peasants, students and workers?

Now 40 years later, we hear almost nothing about El Salvador. We evince little interest in countries outside America. We know Trump called it a “shithole country”. We know many families and individuals have tried to make the incredibly dangerous journey to the U.S. Sometimes we hear about MS-13 and the criminal gangs, born in U.S. jails, who got deported back.

No context is ever provided. All the Salvadoran refugees and asylum seekers can only be understood as a direct consequence of the war that ravaged El Salvador, a war the American government largely financed. Bad conditions were then further complicated by the devastating earthquake in 2001.

We Americans forget or remain uncomprehending of our responsibility in providing money, arms and training for the death squads who propped up Latin American authoritarian rulers. We were the imperial power behind the scenes, often calling the shots. We should at least understand that our country bears a high degree of responsibility for creating the circumstances that made it necessary for migrants to seek shelter here.

Carolyn Forché did not forget what she saw. To address immigration here, solutions must reduce poverty and inequality there. A wall on our southern border is a simpleton non-solution. Forché’s book exposes rot and it should force a re-examination of conventional assumptions both in our government and among the American people.

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