Izalco, El Salvador and the Way Beyond the Silence

March 12, 2009


Mystical Izalco portends the end of Salvadoran silence.

To understand the current presidential elections in El Salvador, you have to understand the cities, towns and the campo, El Salvador’s countryside, located outside the capital of San Salvador. What follows is my attempt to provide further context for the media’s description of the horse race between the FMLN and the ARENA parties. A good starting point is the fact that both parties trace all or some of their political roots to Izalco, a relatively small town in the western, coffee-growing part of the country. Izalco is also home to one of the largest concentrations of El Salvador’s small (less than 1% of the population) indigenous population.

For strange, tragic, even mysterious reasons, Izalco, which in the racist popular national lore (ie; one way to call someone ugly is to say they look “indio”) is home to witches, is also home to what, in my opinion, is the ever-present, but unspoken political and cultural spirit of the country. And this region also concentrates large numbers of volcanos, some of which are also quite alive (see above) , as are the narrow and crowded streets of Izalco (below).


If we want want to take the political pulse of a country as poor (50% of the population lives in poverty) as El Salvador, speaking with people who are not just poor, but a small, indigenous poor minority living in such an enchanting and dark land will give us a unique read. Not all people here in Izalco identify as native people, but all recognize and live indigenous reality like few other places in this country of 7 million.


You can see the indigenous presence in the sublime faces of the kids here.

You can also find it in and on the nahuatl textbooks and notebooks:


And you can find the indigenous presence in the deep, dark soil of Izalco’s history. Almost all of the children from Izalco’s Mario Calvo school pictured above are descendants-great, great and great, great, great, grandchildren- of the 20,000-30,000 indigenous people who rebelled against deadly poverty and abuse and were then slaughtered in 1932 by General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, the dictator who perpetrated what is known as “La Matanza” (the Great Killing). Martinez and his troops did all this in less than a month, according to scholars like my friend Aldo Lauria-Santiago, whose book is pictured below with a cover of the Izalco volcano.


Recent research like Aldo’s and that of other scholars reveals that the idea that the rural insurrection in the west was led by urban communists of the period like Farabundo Marti is wrong. In fact, these scholars tell us, it was led by the ancestors (below) of the children pictured above. Below is the picture of the real leader of the insurrection, Jose Feliciano Ama.


The spiritual reality behind images such as these inspired revolutionary Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton to say in his oft-quoted poem,

Todos nacimos mitad muertos en 1932

Sobrevivimos pero medio vivos

(we were all born half dead in 1932

we survived but half alive)

Despite recent research, many still blur the differences between the communists and the indigenous rebels of the period. Even many members of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) make the mistake as do members of the governing ARENA party, which was founded in Izalco by Roberto D’abuisson. D’abuisson also founded El Salvador’s notorious death squads, one of which was named for the old dictator, Hernandez Martinez.


I actually have no idea who the group of Izalco Areneros pictured above are. I visited the office and spoke with the directores of Arena’s campaign in Izalco, who told me why their message of “democracy,” their message of “freedom” from the threat of El Salvador becoming a “Hugo Chavez satellite” moves Izalco’s voters.; The directores also lauded D’abuisson, whom they met, and Hernandez Martinez, whom they admire. The events of 1932, they said, saved the country from comunismo and laid the foundation for the later formation of the ARENA party. For these and other reasons, they said , ARENA always begins its presidential campaigns in Izalco, as they did when this year’s presidential candidate, private security mogul and former head of the national police, Rodrigo Avila, came here to kickoff his campaign.

The directores also showed me a copy of the ARENA anthem which hails El Salvador as the “tomb where the reds will be terminated.” I thought it odd that, rather than let me take their picture, the directores told the people pictured above to stand outside the ARENA office, where I took the picture. Less than half a small block to the right of the ARENA office is the large (1.5 blocks) field where most of the indigenous people killed in 1932 are buried in an anonymous mass grave (see picture of plaque and smoky Izalco volcano in background below) excavated by forensic scientists from Argentina in 2007.


The fact that this is the only commemoration of La Matanza in El Salvador, a country where surveys tell us that 75% of the population knows nothing about the events of 1932, provides an object lesson in the dangers of institutional and political amnesia; It also tells us why ARENA has won every mayoral election in Izalco since it was founded here in 1981; Every mayoral election until this year, that is:


Pictured above in the blue shirt is Roberto Alvarado, a member of the FMLN and Mayor-elect of Izalco whose stunning victory last January reflects the depths of the changes here and in the entire country. “They sang that stupid song about “the tomb of the reds,” Alvarado,a former teacher who was pursued by death squads, told me adding, “Now we are going turn Izalco, the cradle of ARENA, into the the political grave of the ARENA party.” Alvarado’s coalition-students, indigenous communities, Catholics and evangelicos– provided the FMLN with a major spiritual and political victory -and a model to be emulated across the country.

Streets reddened and silenced for several decades by the blood of the indigenous martyrs are now red with the hope voters are placing in the FMLN and its candidate , the multi-mediagenic former journalist, Mauricio Funes:




The unprecedented openness expressed in the shoes, shops and streets of Izalco has many, many reasons and thousands of people to thank for it. Together, these forces ended the silence that cast a permanent cloud over Izalco -and El Salvador-after the events of 1932. One of today’s most vocal and effective breakers of the silence is Juliana Ama, director of the Calvo school that teaches nahuatl. She is also the great, great granddaughter of rebel leader, Jose Feliciano Ama (above). Since 2001, Juliana has organized commemoration ceremonies every January at the site of the mass grave near the ARENA office in Izalco, ceremonies that draw conflict and controversy.

Despite the tensions, despite the threats she has received, Ama soldiers on in what she defines first and foremost as a”spiritual act” because, she says, “we have no choice; we can’t remain and suffer in silence.” Juliana also believes that there is a direct link between the commemoration ceremonies and the defeat of the ARENA party. “Those ceremonies made it normal and acceptable to be open about the loss of long ago, the loss that still lives with us,” she said. “Nothing like this was ever possible before and I think that the ceremony made it possible for people to start being more open about political feelings too.


Finally, as the son of the 10 year-old boy who witnessed and survived la Matanza and then went on to become my father, I want to thank Juliana and the people of Izalco for their example, their courage and their great wisdom.


15 Responses to “Izalco, El Salvador and the Way Beyond the Silence”

  1. […] last 20 or so years at the expense of “minority” populations like indigenous peoples. Roberto Lovato from Of America gives us some historical context: To understand the current presidential elections in El Salvador, […]

  2. kyledeb Says:

    Reading this left me speechless and nostalgic for Central America. I hope this message from the South, from the Majority World, reaches those, even our allies, that are confined by the nativism that blinds people to what’s happening outside of the U.S.’s borders.

  3. Hectpr Garcia Says:

    As usual, Roberto provides an eloquent, progressive reporting which demystifies mainstream reporting.

    Now that he shared a piece of his sotry, it makes sense his strong sense of justice.

    As a famous salsa singer said “Prohibido olvidar” Forgetting is prohibited.

  4. Joanna Says:

    Thank you for sharing this story. I just sent someone Claribel Alegría’s poem, “Tamalitos de Cambray” today, and I sent her this as well.

  5. Tim Says:

    Outstanding essay. There is so much writing going on covering all the same themes of this election, but by focusing on La Matanza and on the FMLN’s capture of the alcaldia in Izalco in January, you get at some real truths. Thanks.

  6. Rosa M. Garcia Says:

    Me encanta la foto de las ninas y los ninos de Izalco. I really enjoyed reading this piece. Felicidades!!!


  7. Guillermo Yanes Says:

    Los Salvadorenos, we have the opportunity to redeem our history by using the power of the vote. And finally to have a goverment elected by the pueblo por el pueblo para el pueblo. However, it is clear that the opposition of bourgeois and elite ARENA would not respect the decision of EL PUEBLO and they may steal the vote and use it to keep the proletariate in slavery. It is a dirty reality, but certainly the truth that in the past 20 years the hope of one nation has become the source of wealth of the elite and bourgeois Areneros.

  8. Hi,
    Im really enjoying this site and am looking forward to more of your posts.
    Keep up the good work.

  9. el-Visitador Says:

    «this country of 7 million»


    5.7m, per the 2007 census data published in 2008.

  10. el-Visitador Says:

    «the picture of the real leader of the insurrection, Jose Feliciano Ama.»

    So José Feliciano Ama led a simultaneous insurrection across Ahuachapán, Santa Ana, La Libertad and Sonsonate, from Izalco?

    Dude, there is very little doubt Ama was one of the local leaders in Izalco, but you are stretching it a bit, don’t you think?

    • robvato Says:

      Most credible scholars-Aldo Lauria, Hector Lindo-Fuentes & others- point to Ama as the most prominent leader of the insurrection. R

  11. Juan carlos palma Velasquez Says:

    Nos debemos poner a trabajar no solo las nuevas autoridades de nuestro querido y recordado Izalco, si no cada Izalqueno en el mundo, les propongo el reto de hacer algo juntos utilizando este sitio como enlace… independientemente de las ideas politicas que despues de una eleccion deben hacerle a un lado y ver hacia el futuro, no dudo que los nuevos funcionarios tendran mejor vision y proyeccion hacia las clases menos favorecidas hasta hoy…hagamos real el cambio uniendonos a uno de los mejores presidentes que esperamos sea mi colega Mauricio Funes y de un maestro ahora alcalden y su grupo de trabajo al cual debemos acompanar … adelande Izalquenos…

    Juan Carlos Palma velasquez
    Concord, california

  12. jeremy Says:

    el salvador’s claim to having 1percent indigenous population is all part of the past right wing State machinery. Don’t be tricked by State manipulation of already dodgy census’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: