This year marks the eighty-three year anniversary of the 1932 insurrection in El Salvador, the largest in Latin America during the Great Depression. On January 22, indigenous and non-indigenous peasants declared themselves the rightful owners of the land, and alongside leaders such as Julia Mojica and Feliciano Ama, occupied villages and military barracks in the western departments of El Salvador. Margarita Turcios remembers how the rebels declared: “[we’re] going to be the owners of the properties of the rich…To have freedom, to have a place to work.” In response, President General Martínez, and the National Guard massacred 10,000-30,000 people in a country with a total population of 1.5 million; the exact figure is debated due to the scarcity of sources and the absence of a body count.
On February 28th, the Museum of the Word and Image (MUPI) in San Salvador inaugurated a new exhibition titled, “1932” which is composed of photographs, letters and objects from labor leaders, paintings and artistic installations, and the testimonies of elders who survived the repression. “1932” explores the socio-economic inequalities of early twentieth-century El Salvador, including the labor conditions which women workers faced on coffee plantations, and also introduces a new gendered focus: the impact of terror on indigenous women.
Coffee: “the seed of discord”
I recently interviewed Juliana Ama, the great niece of Feliciano Ama, an executed indigenous leader of 1932. She describes the coffee economy as the “seed of discord” because it increased inequalities in land and wealth distribution. For example, landowners in 1920 earned 500,000 colones a year, while workers earned .50 cents a day or 168 colones a year (in the best of cases). Landowners often paid workers with coins redeemable at plantation stores.
Peasant organizations such as the International Socorro Rojo (SRI) and the Regional Federation of Salvadoran Workers (FRTS) arose to improve working conditions. They condemned sexual exploitation at the hands of landowners and demanded equal pay for young people and women (1). In Nahuizalco, women constituted a third of the federation’s membership. In their 1930 report, the federation denounced how “the young daughters of the workers can only have relations with the workers once the boss or their sons have abandoned them” (2). Ama adds that women were often forced to have “intimate relations with the overseer” in exchange for employment.
In late 1930, workers launched a historic wave of strikes on coffee plantations to demand salary increases. Political uncertainty intensified due to the December 1931 military coup of General Martínez and the suspension of municipal elections, which undermined the local electoral victories of the Communist Party. Rural workers pushed towards insurrection. The Communist Party was internally divided about the proper course of action but nonetheless supported the revolt.
“No one can revolt on their own land”
Ama implicitly questions the wide-spread usage (including my own) of the term “insurrection” to describe the events of 1932. The elders “made legitimate use of their rights. No one can revolt on their own land.” Ama reinterprets 1932 as the just recuperation of stolen lands and in turn challenges the moral authority of legal landowners.
The exhibition provokes viewers to rethink the dominant narrative which dismisses the rebels as apolitical looters. Behind a large photo of a detained elderly woman, a text reads: “It is legal for a landowner to pay wages that do not cover the cost of food. But it is a crime for a worker to steal food. Is this just?”
A “profound silence and solitude”
The exhibition also highlights the scale of the repression and its genocidal nature. Through guided tours, the exhibit invites viewers to imagine a model of justice and reparations for the victims of 1932 and their relatives. The United Nations defines genocide as the intention to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. These acts include: the massacre of members of a particular group; serious attacks on the physical or mental integrity of group members; and deliberately submitting a group to conditions that can result in their physical destruction, entirely or in part. With this definition, the repression of 1932, particularly its initial phases, constitutes a genocide; a point which has been largely debated.The murder of boys over the age of twelve is a common theme in the testimonies of survivors. According to the dominant narrative, men were the only victims. However, it is important to question who is remembered (or forgotten) as a victim of state repression. Sexism probably shaped the response of the state; elites most likely viewed men and not women as a fatal threat. And although men constituted the majority of victims, this should not erase women as participants in the revolt or as victims of repression; the exact number of executed women remains unknown.
Sympathizers of the revolt mentioned the use of violence against women and minors, including the documents of FRTS and Community Party leaders (3). Survivors also recalled how “women and children fled from their huts only to face death [at the hands] of the enraged soldiers” (4). Opponents to the revolt also documented similar incidences. An anti-communist reverend testified to the torture of women by authorities who hoped to locate the whereabouts of their male relatives and spouses (5). In another case, a military official described a massacre in the village of Juayúa in which soldiers “gunned down those innocent masses” (6).
Ama argues that to massacre a woman “is not only to take her life but to leave her with life and to rape her, to violate her rights.” Indigenous women endured their pain in a “profound silence” for fear of being exterminated. Ama’s own mother witnessed the death of her father on a nearby street corner. Most families did not bury their dead because the authorities threw the bodies into unmarked graves like “sacks of sugar cane”, in the words of Ramón Esquina, a survivor from Nahuizalco.
State repression heightened existing gender, ethnic, and class inequalities. The exhibit features accounts of land dispossession; a widow of one of the 1932 victims, surrendered her land-title to a wealthy landowner in exchange for a sack of yucca in order to feed her family after a cyclone. State terror also had long-term cultural impacts, including the decline in use of the refajo, a woman’s clothing item and an indigenous “symbol of identity.” In order to avoid being discriminated against, indigenous women abandoned their “dearly loved” refajo for a “ruffled skirt.” The exhibition displays a refajo to visualize this form of cultural violence and also asks: what happened to the thousands of women that survived the massacre?
“The Resistant Woman”
While demanding that women be acknowledged as victims, Ama also highlights the specific ways that indigenous women resisted, even if they did not resist in the same ways as men. Oftentimes resistance is imagined in purely militaristic terms, such as armed revolt, ignoring the spectrum of resistance that enables and links individual survival and collective action. According to Ama, “the resistant woman” also “conformed out of the necessity to survive.” As government soldiers “persecuted their elders”, indigenous women were forced to become “vivanderas”: the cooks and laundresses of the troops. In the aftermath of 1932, indigenous and peasant women also worked to rebuild their communities. Decades later, a new generation of women assumed the same task during the civil war (1980-1992) in which U.S.-trained and funded death squads (some named after General Martínez) continued to hunt down “communist peasants.” Maria Eduviges Pérez comments: “In 1932 they killed my grandfather and in 1980, the death squads came to my home and tortured and killed my husband.” This new wave of repression aimed to demobilize increasingly militant peasants.
To this day, indigenous women like Ama struggle against intersecting forms of oppression that marginalize their role in remembering the past. She argues “because of sexism [,] they don’t think I should lead” commemorative ceremonies for 1932. Recognizing her commitment, the MUPI invited Ama to inaugurate the exhibition with a ritual and altar dedicated to the elders, including her great-uncle Feliciano Ama.
A gendered perspective on 1932 highlights how sexual violence helped to maintain the coffee economy and shape the demands of workers. A gendered lens also illuminates the landscape of indigenous survival and resistance. Indigenous women have struggled against erasure in all its forms. They have rebuilt their communities in the aftermath of a massacre and have fought to be recognized as agents of history: as labor organizers, victims and survivors of state repression, and weavers of memory. The history of 1932 produced scars across generations. But collectively, indigenous women continue to heal these wounds in order to build a foundation on which justice can be made.
Diana C. Sierra Becerra is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan in the departments of History and Women’s Studies. Her dissertation examines the role of Salvadoran women in transforming the praxis of the political left, from 1965-2015. She is a curator and researcher at the Museum of the Word and Image in San Salvador.
(1) “Informe de la Industria Textil en C.H.” Cominterm 495.119.1, 1930.
(2) “Informe del VI Congreso Regional Obrero y Campesino Constituyente de la Federación Regional de Trabajadores de El Salvador,” Mayo 1930, Comintern 495.119.10, p. 92.
(3) Mayor Otto Romero Orellana, “Génesis de la Amenaza comunista en El Salvador,” apéndice: “Manifiesto del Comité Central del Partido Comunista a las Clases Trabajadoras, 20 enero 1932” (San Salvador: Centro de Estudios Estratégicos de la Fuerzas Armadas, 1994), 97.
(4) Rodrigo Buezo, Sangre de Hermanos, (Habana: Universal, 1936), 94.
(5) A. Roy MacNaught. ‘‘Horrors of Communism in Central America’’ Central American Bulletin 15 (March 1932).
(6) Gregorio Bustamante, Historia Militar de El Salvador, (San Salvador: Talleres Gráficos Cisneros, 1935), 107.