La Matanza of 1932 and Partisan Appropriation
by Elena Salamanca
The original Spanish article can be found here: La matanza de 1932 y la apropiación partidaria
“We were all born half-dead in 1932” writes Roque Dalton in one of his poems, a figure that has been appropriated by the Frente Farabundo Martí para La Liberación Nacional (FMLN) party, and who despite the contradictions and impunity over his assassination, surged from the bosom of that same left that murdered him.
My abuelita Iya, my great-grandmother, who was born in 1904 in Piedras Pachas, Izalco, would have the habit of telling me stories about “La Matanza,” what she would call “the war,” or “the coming of communism.” In January of 1932, abuelita Iya, while carrying my months-old grandmother, descended from her home toward the road deviation that led to Sonsonate in search of milk as she could no longer produce her own milk to feed her infant. When they reached the town of Asunción, they saw trenches filled with people, dismembered people; eyes, intestines, livers, viscera. Grandmother Iya told me all this and I believed it to be one of her folk tales–the kind she would tell me before bedtime.
One day in 2000, at a vigil for the martyrs of the University of Central America (UCA), I entered the Ignacio Ellacuria auditorium: there, Santiago Consalvi was presenting the documentary, 1932 Cicatriz de la memoria (1932: Scars of Memory). Grandmother Iya had died in 1992, and what she had told me had been true. After that first encounter with the memory of 1932, I went on an obsessive personal and bibliographic search, such that one of my graduate projects through UCA was precisely on the manipulation of the Salvadoran press around La Mantanza in January of 1932. After a fifty year wait, the post-civil war period fostered an environment where academic production and the interests in national memory and oral history could finally dedicate themselves to displacing the shadows that mythology had created around the massacre of indigenous peoples in January of 1932 in the western region of the country. Moreover, this academic flowering unleashed fertile gardens [of discourse] around the concept of the emotional, a national discourse which was then utilized by individuals and institutions for less than academic ends. 1
La Matanza of 1932 has a great symbolic component and this symbolism transforms into the emotional. And that is what moves us to appropriate an event, to feel empathy for those that suffered and disappeared, to feel for an identity that was stolen from us, and in some cases, that emotionality is one that moves us in some cases toward the necessity to struggle against impunity in one of the most justice-free countries in Latin America.
Every anniversary of La Matanza, throughout social media I read opinions that are far too ideologized to properly explain this historical event. And although my great-grandmother saw La Matanza first-hand, which moves me because it is part of my family history, I nevertheless must examine the particular uses of this history by different parties, and more than anything, to understand how fortuitous it is for a political party to appropriate that tragedy in order to establish a tragic genealogy.
The foundation of this tragic genealogy has transformed 1932 into a mythology. By introducing the term of mythology into this discourse, I do not deny that La Matanza occurred–to the contrary, it exposes the sediment of varying narratives. Mythology is precisely a constructed narrative, and the ways in which the narrative of 1932 has been constructed have been in a mythological manner, not a historiographical one.
From the point after La Matanza, several maxims were formulated that sought to establish themselves as the absolute truths regarding the historical processes of El Salvador. Two of these processes in particular call my attention: the first being that of language-identity, “nahuat was lost and indigenous peoples lost their nahuat surnames;” the second is linked to the martyr-like persecution of the communist militants who would then become the political caste of the FMLN.
There is something important to point out in this discourse: the 1932 revolt had a large ethnic component, those who rose up were indigenous peoples, who for the most part worked like peons on coffee plantations in the western region of the country. A discussion about the ethnic component of the uprising necessitates a discussion about the political aspects [attributed to it]. According to Marxist theory, a revolution had to be carried out by the proletariat [of an industrialized nation], however Central America in the 1930s (much like in China), found itself with a different scenario: a nascent proletariat from systems that were almost pre-industrial and which broke away from the traditional model. These discussions over the labels of indigenous-peasant-proletarian were not only important in the circulation of ideas at the time, but they remained important in the construction of leftist discourse in El Salvador, particularly given the progression of an indigenous ethnic identity with which the FMLN party does not affiliate with in reality. 2
When I worked as a journalist, I upheld the notion that 1932 had eliminated all traces of our ancestral identities. But in one of my assignments about the cemetery in Izalco, I researched burial records; in another assignment I did on cofradías (religious brotherhoods), I looked over their list of members; and still in another report, I researched birth certificates. In both the documents and in the crosses at the cemetery, I found entire families who all along had been using their náhuat surnames; I also found náhuat speakers living in extreme poverty as I had reported in the publication El Informe in 2004. I found resistance and honor among the indigenous communities who had been ignored by national politics. At that moment, that myth of disappearance began to fall apart [for me.]
As a historian, I am constantly examining historiographic works. Despite the rigorous production over the last fifteen years, the period of Hernández Martínez is still nebulous for historiography as a discipline, still embellished with the myths of theosophy, the blue waters, and the extreme wickedness of the fascist general, which some researchers like Rafael Lara Martínez have attempted to problematize.
At the same time, there has been much research, both in El Salvador and throughout Central America, that has followed the trajectories and itineraries, the circulation of ideas and political actions, generated by the militant Salvadoran communists. Before the watershed moment of 1932, the Communist Party of El Salvador was able to participate in elections in the decade of the 1920s. Moreover, the works of Ricardo Melgar Bao and Arturo Taracena have demonstrated that Salvadoran militant communists had also been meeting in Guatemala with other Honduran and Guatemalan militants, with the intention of founding a Central American communist party.
The anti-communist fervor in Latin America was a reality, as was their political persecution thereof; these elements are the trend in the political processes of the continent, to be sure, but let us say plainly what needs to be said: since the establishment of the FMLN as a political entity, La Matanza of 1932 is a construction of after-the-fact narratives written in the language of the Cold War.
La Matanza of January 1932 is a TRAGEDY, but it has also transformed itself into a myth that had been taken advantage of by political parties, above all by the FMLM.
The [conservative] ARENA party, in its anti-communist Cold War fever, initiates its campaign season traditionally in Izalco, precisely the most emblematic site of La Matanza and which coincides with the violent discourse of ARENA’s party anthem: “El Salvador will be a tomb where all reds will end up.” The FMLN on the other hand, particularly in the last few years, has been utilizing La Matanza to consolidate its own political mythology. These posturings has been criticized from various perspectives, from activists to academics.
Beginning with La Matanza of 1932, the genealogical construction of the left became a mythology. In this sense, the term mythology does not imply a lack of truth, rather, it is utilized to explain [the FMLN’s] conception of the world.
As it was commented to me in social media, there is no denying that a constant element between the uprising of 1932 and the beginning of armed conflict in 1981 was the participation of the Salvadoran Communist Party. While I am in agreement, we have to consider that between 1932 and 1981, there is a historical progression that renders a response that is not only teleological, but rather, artificial.
A study of the conditions of El Salvador during the 1930s by Alejandro Dagoberto Marroquín demonstrated that there was indeed not only the presence of communist ideas and organizations in the country since the 1910s, including the participation of the Salvadoran Communist Party in the 1932 elections, before they were intervened upon by the government of Hernández-Martínez.
Moreover, just as the circulation of communist ideas did not cease in 1932, the efforts to preserve náhuat culture also did not end, as demonstrated by the research of Lara Martínez on the Salvadoran writer Salarrué, the painter José Mejía Vides, and the ethnomusicologist María de Baratta, on top of a period of neo-Mayan architecture with which had several followers in El Salvador in the decades following La Matanza.
What I would like to point out and draw out for discussion is that in the construction of its own narrative, the FMLN has assumed a genealogy based on the tragedy of La Matanza, and has done so through the political use of the event, that becomes popular fact and fiction, but one that remains far away from the revindication of the rights of indigenous peoples who gave rise to the organizing, the uprising, and subsequent massacre in 1932.
Contrary to everything we may think, the genealogy that the FMLN party has created is bourgeois in nature, since it is based on the martyred figures of those who were executed in the capital, and the universities, Farabundo Martí, Mario Zapata, and Alfonso Luna. But this genealogy is very much distanced from the indigenous component that made up the revolts in the western region of the country.
The revindication of indigenous rights by the “governments of change” have been symbolic and minimal. To sing the Salvadoran national anthem in náhuat in a few official government events does not have the same importance as finally ratifying Convention No. 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples by the International Labor Organization. All of Central America, with the exception of El Salvador, has has ratified the convention. I can understand how in the spirit of oligarchy, a right-wing ARENA government would reject the agreement considering its enormous political and economic weight, but I fail to understand why a left-wing FMLN government would not ratify it either.
The myth of the disappearance of indigenous peoples in El Salvador is a double-edged sword, one that is more convenient for some than for others. To believe blindly that all indigenous peoples died in 1932 is to invisibilize other ethnic groups such as the Kakawiras and the Lencas, and further, it is to perpetuate the lie the right-wing believes in its homogenizing and anti-mestizo desire: that there simply are no indigenous peoples in El Salvador. This blind belief is also convenient in a political sense: if there are no indigenous peoples. then there are no revindication of rights to fulfill, and existing indigenous communities would be excluded from all national politics, solely to be utilized for governmental protocol, as you can read in this chronicle by Valeria Guzmán y Malu Nóchez. These acts of protocol resulted from negotiations with the FMLN.
The issue is not about leaving the Left without symbols, it’s about understanding its uses. The questions of history do not correspond with the questions of ideology. I am interested in how the Left. and in particular, the FMLN, narrates, tells its story, and fictionalizes itself–and all narration has elements of fiction. These questions and others that I have previously formulated, come from an sincere worry over the history of El Salvador. I hope that the intellectuals and activists do not confuse the questions about history with questions about ideology, and worse still those that are partisan. The nation does not deserve sterile intellectual debates, especially now, in the post-war period.
Translation by Víctor Interiano
- “El dolor sobre el 32 no fue nacional, al contrario, ha tenido usos políticos específicos y polarizados. En 1994, los primeros libros de texto de la reforma educativa de la ministra Cecilia Gallardo publicaron la matanza de 1932 como un capítulo de la historia salvadoreña. En este sentido, se trató de un parte aguas historiográfico y además, el reconocimiento del Estado. Esos libros fueron coordinados por el historiador Knutt Walter. El frente usó investigaciones historiográficas para crear su genealogía. les dio usos de la ideología y no de la historia, que eran el verdadero uso por el que se realizaron las investigaciones.” (The pain over 1932 was not a national one, to the contrary, it has had its specific and polarize uses. In 1994, the first school texts that came out of the post-civil war educational reform from minister Cecilia Gallardo had published about La Matanza as a chapter in Salvadoran history. In this sense, it was a historiographic watershed moment, and more so, recognition from the state. Those textbooks were coordinated by the historian, Knutt Walter. The leftist front used all the historiographic research to create its own genealogy, which served the function of ideology and not history, which was the primary reason for the research.) ↩
- “La discusión del marxismo en américa latina se encontró con estas categorías que no respondían al modelo, precisamente campesino e indígena. Por eso digo que es importante esa conceptualización en los debates porque no respondían al modelo del marxismo europeo. Ya en américa latina se hicieron interpretaciones sobre la conceptualización y aún más fueron otros grupos los que realizaron las revoluciones, como la mexicana, que fue una revolución agraria y no proletaria y fue antes que la rusa (que tampoco fue modélica). El componente étnico era importante en el 32 pero la discusión estaba dirigida a otros conceptos como el de campesino. Es decir, se habían interiorizado los procesos de ladinización del lenguaje liberal del xix.” (The discussion of Marxism in Latin America found itself with these categories that did not correspond with the traditional model, precisely, peasant and indigenous. That is why I say that this conceptualization is important in the debates because they did not respond to the model of European Marxism. Interpretations over this conceptualization were made in Latin America, but it was other groups that realized revolutions, for example, the Mexican Revolution, which was an agrarian revolution and not a proletarian one and which took place before the Russian Revolution (which also did not follow the model). The ethnic component was important in 1932, but the discourse was toward other conceptual categories, such as the peasant. That is to say, the processes of ladinización from the liberal language of from 19th century had been internalized.) ↩