I Don’t Want to be a Salvadoreña Cachimbona

By Elena Salamanca

El artículo original en español está disponible aquí: Yo no quiero ser salvadoreña cachimbona

Translator’s Note: The term cachimb-ón/ona is a Salvadoran caliche meaning good, excellent, strong, fierce, courageous, good-looking, the best there is. 

The nationalist, political, and economic publicity which appeals to “our people” and pretends to show the communal spaces (including the miserable ones) in Salvadoran identity is in reality a repetition, in full color and beautiful imagery, of an oppressive structure, and the repetition of everyday hierarchies. What the cachimbón Salvadoran does is construct itself as miserable myth.

Video Caption: (I must confess that I really did like “El Salvador happy” the first time. However, on a second review, my heart began to wrinkle, thinking about how all these scenes of everyday misery are being happily depicted: how many ambulatory and sub-employed workers are there in El Salvador who have no access to the most basic of rights, and who work more than 12 hours? The truth is that I feel more like weeping than dancing.)

A few years ago on Twitter, a television presenter uploaded a photo of an old lady selling candies on the street. The photo was taken from the presenter’s car with her cell phone. The caption that accompanied the image said something like this: “How lovely! I’ve been driving through here for years and she is always here from 5am in the morning selling her little candies.” The end. Applause from the Twitterverse for the beautiful struggle of our people. What a marvel it is for someone who is 80 years old to wake up before 5am to sell her candies! Of course, if she doesn’t sell them, she doesn’t eat that day. There are many more Salvadorans who don’t have access to social services and basic rights, much less a pension.

The phrasing of that presenter and from her fans repeats itself in other spheres, with a discourse that appeals to pride in poverty and an eternal necessity to work. Both advertising and entertainment programs tell us this, and far away from honoring actual work and workers, they put a pretty face on structural oppression and the hierarchies we live with every day.

Over the last decade, many commercials for Salvadoran brands have become inundated with a tendency I call nationalist advertising, and which consists of speaking about “our people” as if the population who have no say in the discourse–that is to say, the poor—were a belonging, as if the country were a finca (an estate), or being Salvadoran meant that one was a possession of those who call us “our.”

That is why I can’t stand advertising that appeals to what is “Salvadoran.” Not because it’s trying to tell me what it means to be Salvadoran, someone who was born in El Salvador, raised in El Salvador, who is a migrant academic, etc., or because I am trying to banalize a problem we’ve been trying to answer for many years in all possible languages, whether it be visual, or literary, or even language itself; no, it’s because advertising tells me that a cachimbón Salvadoran, the badass, is the one that suffers and is conformed with their suffering.

The problem with this nationalist advertising (Digicel, Marca país, Super selectos, TCS) is that a Salvadoran is considered a cachimbón(a) because they make pupusas starting at 4am, or does heavy lifting without “throwing in the towel” at La Tiendona (largest outdoor market in San Salvador), all the while fucking up their spinal cord, or laughing despite not even earning a minimum wage. It’s advertising for social stratification without any inkling of social mobility, almost promoting a stagnant society.

The problem is that the Salvadoran in that advertisement is a Salvadoran without a political culture, without any knowledge of history, and who cannot demand access to their most basic rights, and who believes that the boss is almost a saint for giving them work, but no security; the one who is born to be a flowerpot but will never leave the corridor, but what a lovely corridor it is. Or do you need more proof about social stagnation?

So then, the Salvadoran people are a people who are in need of rescue, anxious, and miserable. It is that Salvadoran who dares to travel undocumented to the North, putting their life in danger because the Salvadoran state–who should be fulfilling its social contract and providing all Salvadorans with their most basic rights, identity, and even work and edication–has for decades been forcing its own citizens to put their lives at risk.

Advertisements register hierarchies in everyday interaction, ones that are evidently vertical. These advertisements are precious because all of us love to see some really old woman wearing colorful clothing (especially if it is indigenous) who hails from Nahuizalco or Santo Domingo de Guzmán, regions where the Salvadoran indigenous population survives on less than a dollar per day, according to the International Labor Organization. Or, we love to see a smiling shoe shiner, or vigorous day laborer. But what these advertisements are really showing are the saddest portraits of Salvadoran society, ones that we only recognized when prettied up. Here, there are personal stories of struggle and poverty that we prefer not see because it’s better to think that [poor people] must eternally work so that the rest of us can someday retire and go on vacation. And maybe not so much. Have you the miserable pensions we will have in 20 or 30 years?

I am passionate in my studies on Salvadoran identity and nationalism, sometimes to the point of stubbornness. And I and grateful for and admire all the effort in trying to define what means to be Salvadoran that surges out of this nationalist advertising. But there is a small detail that it at once both simple and complicated: there is no substantive effort to research and rethink and sincerely ask ourselves questions about our identity. Because year after year, commercial after commercial, we receive the same message: we are good being poor; what beautiful sights we have in country, even though behind the camera there are malnourished children–like at the beaches of La Libertad. And what dignity is there ns a woman working on the street for 70 years of her life without access to the basic things some of us have?

The problem with the construction of this cachimbón Salvadoran is how to we affirm them? Roque Dalton said in his Poem on Love that Salvadorans were do-everythings, sell-everythings, and eat-everythings within a deep wound in the country he loved. He didn’t say this so we could applaud, 40 years after the poem, for the Salvadorans who were still doing everything, selling everything, and eating shit.

P.S. If you are in advertising and you believe in and defend this cachimbón(a) Salvadoran, I congratulate you, but do not try to convince me that I have to “support what is ours,” or swell with pride in the search for “our people.” I have my own political culture and sufficient knowledge of history to back up my opinions, which took great sacrifice to obtain them.

Translated by Víctor Interiano

Note from Translator: For those wondering, the featured image is of the Monumento a la Reconciliación (Monument to Reconciliation), which was unveiled by the Salvadoran government to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords. The entire garish and ostentatious display, in particular the female figure, which colloquially referred to as “La Pitufina” (Smurfette), rather than being symbolic of peace and prosperity was exemplary of a desperate government attempting to use national pride as a means to obviate acknowledging the violent reality the country has been experiencing in the postwar period.

Please follow and like us:

2 thoughts on “I Don’t Want to be a Salvadoreña Cachimbona

  1. I felt the wind knocked out of me a little. As an American born Salvadoran I could never put words to the feeling of “be grateful that the man has given you an opportunity” sort of thing. It is like ingrained in my parents sometimes and is something I’ve struggled to overcome. Reading this triggered so many emotions sadness , frustration, rage. But I am so happy, ironically, to read your take on how advertising manipulates people to believe this is what being happy should mean. Wish nationalism and salvadoran pride really came with some movement and change there.

  2. Thank you for writing this. I clicked on the video before reading. It saddened me to hear the song juxtaposed with some of the images. I thought of their lives and their work. The video seemed ironic and unauthentic. Poor people are often depicted as happy and that’s probably a coping mechanism because how else would one survive, or wake up every morning to do it over again and again. I’ve done a lot of research for a play about the 1980’s Sanctuary movement that started in Tucson. Compassionate Americans stood with Salvadorans when the US government didn’t. After reading about the stories of surviving the war or fleeing and hearing some of them from my family it was sad to watch that video. Because reading those testimonies was heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. The brutality of some and the strength and courage of others. Salvadorans carry so much trauma how do we move past it? And the inequities are still there. I think of Salvadorans as resilient and loud and fierce. I want to hold on to a Salvadoran identity that is real, that I can be proud of.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *