The Civil War in El Salvador began in 1980, but its roots go back much further to the Pipil Indians who inhabited the land since the 11th century. To them, the country went by the name of Cuscatlán, meaning the “Land of Jewels.” Their cultural influences came from the Mayans and the Aztecs, and were a primarily agricultural society with interests in mathematics, astronomy and hieroglyphic writing. The Pipils were organized into two major states divided into smaller principalities, with some urban centers as well. Pedro de Alvarado, a Spanish conquistador, arrived in 1524 changing this land forever. Looking for riches, Alvarado sought to subdue the Pipils who were determined to resist, causing the first effort against them to fail. However, two more expeditions in 1525 and 1528 were enough to defeat the Pipil population and bring Cuscatlán under Spanish dominion. The country was renamed El Salvador and pretty soon it became clear that the most valuable resources to be had were the land itself and the people in that land.
Under the encomienda and later repartimiento systems, the indigenous people were exploited through forced labor in the production of balsam, indigo and cotton throughout various plantations. Agriculture became more and more prominent in El Salvador, with indigo being the number one export throughout the 1700’s. An elite known as the 14 families ruled and controlled most of the wealth in the country and although in 1821 El Salvador gained independence from Spain, the situation remained unchanged. In the later part of the 19th century, coffee became the number one crop for export, but still the wealth in the country was confined to the few, with 2% of the population holding 95% of the wealth. A combination of this kind of inequality, alongside a number of military dictatorships that did not make things any better for El Salvador’s people, left them exhausted, disillusioned, restless and thus with a need for change. The 20th century marked a point in time when many movements started to rise in opposition of the establishment, but unfortunately, the call for changes came at a price.
I was born in 1995 without any idea of this history, but it was still there, being felt in the hearts of many. Even though I only lived in El Salvador for five years before moving to the United States, something that I have always kept with me from back home is a portrait of “El Sagrado Corazon de Jesus,” or the “Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.”
The portrait has ever since been next to my bed and is a constant reminder of Dulce Nombre de María Chalatenango, where I was born. It is a reminder of waking up on cool mornings to the aromas of quesadillas, orchata, and nature all around me. It is a reminder of the sights of vendors and campesinos starting out their days at the break of dawn, of playing in the park with my cousin, and getting caught in the rain while playing soccer on the streets with friends. The portrait reminds me of my grandmother, Mama Chila, and aunts making tortillas and pupusas on a flat griddle for the family’s meal. It reminds me of feeding the chickens, teaching my dog how to shake hands, and watching the Teletubbies in my grandmother’s living room. It is a reminder of my raising up in the Catholic religion and of the values and traditions of Chalatenango, such as Las Fiestas Patronales or annual celebrations. The Sacred Heart signifies the love that Jesus has for all humanity, and much in the same way I translate this love to the memories and beliefs that I still hold on to from the place I first grew up. My childhood was a generally peaceful childhood, spared the incidents that occurred between 1980-1992.