Diego Mulato-Castillo, San Francisco State University
In the following paper I will argue how during the civil war in El Salvador texts were created to serve as counter-narratives in order to challenge the state sponsored narratives perpetuated by the Salvadoran government. In addition, I will explain how Un dia en la vida (One Day of Life) by Manlio Argueta and Joan Didion’s Salvador, can be viewed as examples of Testimonio that challenge state hegemonic power. I utilize the framework of Michel Foucault and his theory of discourse to better explain how different narratives vied for the attention of individuals—both in the United States and El Salvador—in order to manipulate how the violence of the Salvadoran Civil War was broadcasted to a larger audience. Also, both Un dia en la vida(One Day of life and Salvador are texts which are significantly differently. Didion, an outsider, is writing for a foreign audience who are separated from the violence of the civil war by thousands of miles. On the other hand, Argueta, due to his place as an insider is writing for an audience who is not alien to the violence of the civil war. Both authors employ particular techniques and literary genres to construct counter hegemonic realities that challenge those perpetuated by the Salvadoran state, and its close ally the United States. The Salvadoran Civil War was a time of violent state terror in the small Central American nation of El Salvador; nevertheless, despite the strict state control over language and discourse an effort was made by both Argueta and Didion to dismantle the master narrative perpetuated by the state.
Conflicting Discourses: Un dia en la vida (One Day of Life) and Salvador as Counter-Narratives
Language is powerful precisely because of the great lengths individuals or governments will go to stunt its proliferation. For instance, the Salvadoran government during the 1980’s waged a war against the rural population of the country, vehemently suppressing language and discourses that did not coincide with the war effort. As animosity continued to boil the Salvadoran government’s response was terror and an iron clad grip on self expression. Manlio Argueta in Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life) documents the seemingly mundane life of Guadalupe, a resident of a hamlet named el kilómetro in rural Chalatenango. Alongside her community, Guadalupe sheds light on the oppressive circumstances she must endure under the watchful eye of the Salvadoran military. In addition, Joan Didion captures in Salvador her two week stay in El Salvador during 1982, one of the most violent ridden years of the Salvadoran Civil War (1980-1992). Didion documents the blatant disregard for human life with which the Salvadoran military operates and the atmosphere of terror looming over the country. Both Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life) and Salvador are texts deeply rooted in the genre of testimonio, thus functioning as counter discourses which challenge the entrenched and subjugating state power structures of the Salvadoran military government and its financial backer The United States.
Both Argueta and Didion utilize a form of narrative testimonio, or testimonial writing, in order to create a body of work that exists outside the predetermined “truth” that is broadcasted by state power structures. Testimonio as explained by Claudia G. Cervantes-Soon is a “theory of the flesh,” in which counter-narratives are constructed that challenge pre-existing master narratives.Among one of the most widely know, and impactful testimonios is Rigoberta Munchú’s I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, in which Elizabeth Burgos-Debray writes in the introduction to the book:
The voice of Rigoberta Menchú allows the defeated to speak. She is a privileged witness: she has survived the genocide that destroyed her family and community and is stubbornly determined to break the silence and to confront the systemic extermination of her people. She refuses to let us forget. Words are her only weapons. (xii)
Rigoberta Menchú, at the time twenty-three years old, dictates her testimony in order to expose the genocide experienced by her Mayan community. As a result of Menchú’s memoir being published in 1983, the world was made privy to the cruel violence faced by her community, thus challenging the master narratives of the Guatemalan government and its financial supporter the United States. In a tragically similar fashion, master narratives in the context of both Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life) and Salvador, are those narratives that are perpetuated by the Salvadoran government and its military ally the United States. For example, Didion in Salvador mentions the preoccupation with certification on part of the United States—detailing sufficient gains in the area of human rights and land reform—thereby justifying the flow of military aid to the Salvadoran Armed Forces. President Reagan, Salvadoran politicians, and Right Wing media outlets all paint a war that is becoming more humane, thus creating a landscape of terror shrouded in silence. Nevertheless, Both Didion’s and Argueta’s texts interrupt the master narratives of the Salvadoran government, and do so by depicting the lived experiences of individuals. Argueta utilized the testimonies of his fictional characters in Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life), to create counter narratives that originate from the experienced of those who are most impacted by the conflict. Meanwhile, Didion relies on her own experience traveling through El Salvador during the heated year of 1982, at the onset of the conflict. Indeed, Argueta’s fictional characters and Didion’s voice, because of their nature as testimonio, are able to utilize, like Menchú, words as weapons, as tools to dismantle the master narrative of the oppressive Salvadoran regime.
By framing Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life) through the unique female perspective of Guadalupe, Argueta brings to the forefront a voice that is commonly silenced. Guadalupe’s voice is one that is tied to the poor urban population of Chalatenango, which experienced an unprecedented amount of violence during the war. Beginning with waking up at 5:30 in the morning, Guadalupe begins narrating her life: “No hay día de dios que no esté de pie a las cinco de la mañana. Cuando el gallo ha cantado un montón de veces ya voy para arriba. [Not a given day goes by when I’m not up by five. Already when the cock has crowed several times, I’m up]” (3). Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life) takes the form of an internal monologue that is focalized through Guadalupe. The civil war in El Salvador is increasingly framed through the master narratives perpetuated by the Salvadoran state. As such, Guadalupe’s perspective and language disrupt the master narrative of the state by giving voice, authority, to Guadalupe whose community is the most impacted by the terror perpetuated by the state. As the account of her seemingly ordinary day unfolds, testimonies from members of her community, and Salvadoran soldiers, interrupt her monologue. Argueta creates a narrative that is not linear, encompassing events that have occurred in the past, present, and future. Jumping back and forth in time, Guadalupe presents a specific timeline that is unique, yet embodies the events that impact her community on a larger scale. Systemic poverty is a main focus of Guadalupe’s narrative as she describes the societal conditions she must endure. She critiques the notion of happiness, and proclaims that happiness is an emotion that is removed from her current emotional state: “Así es nuestra vida y no conocemos otra. Por eso dicen que nosotros somos felices. Yo no sé. En todo caso esa palabra ‘felíz’ no me cuadra nada. Ni siquiera sé lo que significa verdaderament. [This is our life; we don’t know any other. That’s why they say we’re happy. I don’t know. In any event, that word ‘happy’ doesn’t say anything to me. I don’t even know what it really means]” (10). Guadalupe’s narrative illustrates her particular reality, a reality shared by the peasant population of Chalatenango in its entirety, a population who is silenced due to their economic and social marginalization. She explains that “dicen que nosotros somos felices[they say we’re happy]” however it becomes evident that happiness alludes Guadalupe. Clearly Guadalupe is challenging common held notions about her community, breaking through the silence and exposing her lived experience to shed light on her oppressive circumstances.
In a similar way toArgueta, Didion’s Salvador acts as a testimonial narrative that documents the ubiquitous violence that can be found throughout El Salvador at the time of her arrival. Salvador begins with Didion arriving at the Salvadoran national airport, and describes the scene in which “Immigration is negotiated in a thicket of automatic weapons” (13). What follows is a detailed account of how she perceives the dramatic state of fear that has befallen the country: “Terror is the given of the place, Black-and-white police cars cruise in pairs, each with the barrel of a rifle extruding from an open window. Roadblocks materialize at random, soldiers fanning out from trucks and taking positions, fingers always on triggers, safeties clicking on and off. Aim is taken as if to pass time” (14). Didion is taken aback by the systemic terror that seems to paralyze the population of El Salvador—soldiers, weapons, roadblocks—a constant reminder of the conflict. What Didion makes apparent is the implementation of a system of repression whose sole purpose is to sow fear in the population as a method of control. Sandy Smith Nonini in Healing the Body Politic: El Salvador’s Popular Struggle for Health Rights from Civil War to Neoliberal Peace, illuminates how the Salvadoran Government, with military aid from the United States, adopted a method of counter-insurgency measures that relied on fear as a method of societal control: “Col. John Wagelstein, former head of the U.S. military team in El Salvador, referred to intervention as a ‘laboratory’ for development of a post-Vietnam LIC strategy [. . . .] he called LIC warfare ‘total war at the grassroots,’ involving ‘political, economic, and psychological warfare,’ with the military having the least important role” (115). Low Intensity Warfare, as it was waged in El Salvador, ultimately resulted in state sponsored terror. It is precisely the state of terror produced by Low Intensity Warfare that Didion captures in Salvador, and which takes center stage in her recollections from the two weeks she spends in the country.
Although both Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life) and Salvador are examples of testimonial writing, Argueta’s narrative is framed through the experiences of the peasants of El Salvador who are directly impacted by state violence; while, Didion is reacting and documenting that same violence but from the point of view of an outsider. Argueta in Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life) vividly captures the vernacular of the poor peasants of Chalatenango, thereby telling the story of their struggle through the use of their own language. By describing their suffering and resilience in the language of the countryside, Argueta is able to capture a unique perspective of the conflict, one that is not favored by the Salvadoran government. Therefore, the experience of Guadalupe and her community becomes a new representation of the Salvadoran Civil War. For instance, in an interview in Hispamerica by Zulma Nelly Martínez, Argueta elaborates on the importance of writing using the vernacular of the poor peasants of Chalatenango: “Es un tema tan importante esto de que el pueblo es su lenguaje, y de que una forma de reivindicar al pueblo es dejarlo que hable con su propia voz ¿verdad? [It’s something that is important because the people are their language, and one way to allow the people to exert their demands, is to allow them to speak using their own voice, right?” (pp 49). Indeed, by utilizing the language of the poor of Chalatenango, Argueta is allowing the characters to tell their own personal stories while capturing the spirit of their language. Here Argueta is borrowing from a trope that is pivotal to Testimonio, because by utilizing the language of the poor, Argueta is cementing their experience in a particular time and place—Chalatenango during the onset of war.
Didion, unlike Argueta, does not rely on the language of the poor to document the societal terror throughout the country; rather, she relies on her own troubling observations and a sense of dark irony to interpret the terror perpetuated around her. Salvador is focalized through Didion’s point of view as she recounts the dead that seem to spring up throughout El Salvador. She writes, “The dead and pieces of the dead turn up in El Salvador everywhere, every day, as taken for granted as in a nightmare, or a horror movie. Vultures of course suggest the presence of a body” (19). For Didion, the dead are faceless individuals that are reduced to mere objects of terror. Indeed, Didion herself becomes desensitized towards the faceless dead and she begins to take their appearance for granted, a coping strategy that is seemingly employed by the population as a whole. The terror that surrounds Didion, a terror that is all too common for the Salvadoran population, becomes overwhelming. In an effort to make sense of the terror, Didion adopts a stance of dark irony to distance herself from the dead. Noel Valis in “Fear and Torment in El Salvador,” explains that: “For Didion, only irony befits the lucidity of an outsider. And it is in the ferocious dissection of details where this irony holds sway” (120). In other words, for Didion as an outsider, the terror inducing climate of El Salvador can only be understood through the irony that is omnipresent. Didion’s dark irony can be seen in how she describes a prominent location known for the dumping of dead bodies: “Others turn up at Puerta del Diablo, above Parque Balboa, a national Turicentro described as recently as the April-July 1982 issue of Aboard TACA, the magazine provided passengers on the national airline of El Salvador, as ‘offering excellent subjects for color photography’” (19). Didion points at the irony of La Puerta del Diablo as being broadcasted as a tourist destination, while for many Salvadorans it has been the site of their own personal hell. Clearly Didion exposes the difference between the reality on the ground, and that being broadcasted by media outlets such as the magazine provided aboard El Salvador’s national airline. Didion’s irony is a realization between what is being said and what exists; she is able to perceive the blatant falsehood of the master narrative, one that attempts to erase the wide spread terror throughout El Salvador. By capturing the state of terror that continues to paralyze the country, Didion is able to illustrate the reality of Salvadorans during the early years of the civil war.
Unlike Argueta who relies on the language of the poor to tell their story, Didion, as an outsider, foregoes the Spanish language all together and instead documents the violence of the Salvadoran conflict from her own U.S. influenced perspective. Although that is not to say that Didion does not perceive that the violence in El Salvador is horrific, but that in her narrative it is apparent that she exercises a particular level of distancing brought on by her situation as a white woman from the United States. Didion’s distancing manifests itself in two particular ways: the first being a physical distancing, the second being an emotional distancing. Didion is in close vicinity to the violence around her, she constantly writes about the dead bodies that are ever present throughout El Salvador. Besides the dead bodies that litter public spaces, Didion only interacts with military personnel. She dedicates no narrative breaths to describe or document the life of the Salvadoran population, the same population that is being most impacted by the violence. Her physical distancing from the Salvadoran population ultimately leads to her emotional distancing. Didion, talks about the dead, not the living. Furthermore, Didion opens her book with an excerpt from the Heart of Darkness, in particular the instance when Marlow finds Kurtz’s diary that begins with high hopes of civilizing the native Congolese, only to curtail his noble intention with the last lines from his journal that proclaim “Exterminate all the Brutes.” Didion draws a parallel between herself and the protagonist of Heart of Darkness, Marlow. Didion, like Marlow, becomes the outsider detailing the terror of a foreign nation to her compatriots back home. As such, Didion describes the Salvadoran conflict as yet another failed Latin nation, a “political tropic alien to us” (96). Didion clearly show her unfamiliarity with the culture of El Salvador, which in turn hinders her perspective on the Salvadoran conflict. She perceives Salvadorans as a foreign people, and distills their suffering into a neatly packaged catch-phrase. As an outsider, Didion’s observations at times take on a hue of ignorance for the culture of the people of El Salvador, creating a narrative that exposes suffering and nothing more. Indeed, Didion is influenced by her position as an outsider, and unlike Argueta does not possess the same cultural familiarity with the Salvadoran population.
For both Didion and Argueta, their narrative testimonios serve as discourses that directly challenge the hegemonic discourse perpetuated by the Salvadoran government and its military ally the United States. Both Salvador and Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life) function as particular discourses, creating a different avenue for the understanding of the conflict. Michel Foucault brilliantly constructs a “theory of discourse” in which discourse, or language, can be manipulated by societal structures such as government to subjugate a people. According to Foucault “The growth of a capitalist economy gave rise to the specific modality of disciplinary power, whose general formulas, technique of submitting forces and bodies, in short, ‘political anatomy’ could be operated in the most diverse political regimes, apparatuses, or institutions.” (221, reader). El Salvador throughout the latter part of the twentieth century, had been ruled by a social elite whose influence was legitimized by the force of the Salvadoran military. Lynn V. Foster in A Brief History of Central America, illustrates the vast inequality of resources that ultimately led to the break out of civil war:
[In the 1970’s and 80’s] The ’14 families’ of the oligarchy (extimated by this time to actually form an extended dynastic network of 254 families) had long concentrated the most valuable lands in its hands and owned 95 percent of the land, none of it used to grow subsistence crops. At the same time El Salvador had the densest population in Central America. (244)
Therefore in order for the Salvadoran government and the elite to maintain their dominance over the rest of the population as explained by Foucault, the power structure utilized by the state to discipline and regulate the bodies of the population permeated into every facet of the country. For instance, universities became military bunkers; police became executioners; and most importantly, the armed forces whose sole purpose is to protect the population against outside threats began pointing their guns towards Salvadorans themselves. Yet another way that the Salvadoran government attempted to maintain their power, their dominance, over the civilian population was through the control of discourse, or language. Foucault’s theory of discourse and power is useful in analyzing the pervasive violence throughout the country, and his insight into discourses is incredibly applicable to the Salvadoran government’s methods of manipulating the public, and international, discourse in regards to the Civil War. Both Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life) and Salvador, act as counter discourses that challenged the discourse perpetuated by the Salvadoran State, thereby exposing the existence of state terror throughout the country.
Argueta illustrates how changing discourses had the impact of politicizing a vast number of the peasants in the country side. In Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life) it is evident that religion, Catholicism for Guadalupe, plays a pivotal role. Indeed, religion serves as a moral framework for the peasants of Chalatenango, and they readily apply what they are taught by Catholic priests. Guadalupe explains how she had grown accustomed to the death of her young children, as a result of the poverty created in the country side, a symptom of what Foucault label’s “The growth of a capitalistic economy.” Guadalupe illustrates the profound level of indoctrination she experiences from the Catholic teachings of the priests who visit “el kilómetro”: “Tanto nos enganchaba el padre que hasta corazón de piedra nos estábamos haciendo. Ni siquiera lloré a mi hijo pues la muerte se me hacía tan natural que dábamos gracias a dios por llevárselo, convencidos de la razón del cura que venía cada quince días al kilómetro a reconfortarnos por nuestras penas. [Well, the priest had so enthralled us that even our hearts had turned to stone. I didn’t even cry for my son when he died, because death had become so natural that we thanked God for taking him away—persuaded by what the priest who’d come very two weeks to our part of Chalate would say to comfort us]” (22). Guadalupe, like her community of “el kilómetro,” has been driven to accept their societal circumstances, even led to believe that their situation as poor land tenants is justified by God. What little hope Guadalupe and her community possess is grounded in the hope that death will only bring them closer to God. The Catholic Church, as described by Guadalupe, functions as a tool of the oppressive elite and maintains the status-quo by engendering in the peasant population a degree of fatalism. Fatalism, and the hopes to attain a better life in heaven while suffering on earth, is but a discourse that serves the power structure of the government and the oligarchy. It is not until the priests visiting “el kilómetro” start to perpetuate discourses that counteract the discourses of the government, that the residents of “el kilómetro” begin to question their impoverished circumstances.
As depicted in Un dia en la vida(One Day in the Life)¸ a younger generation of priests begins to disseminate a different discourse among the residents of “el kilómetro” regarding structural sin, or the sin of poverty caused by the unequal distribution of wealth. Guadalupe explains that once the younger priests began to arrive in “el kilómetro” they spoke of a different way of addressing the rampant poverty experienced by the poor peasants. The newly arrived priests begin to instruct the residents of “el kilómetro” in a new way of thinking, contrary to what they had been previously taught: “Uno de ellos nos repetía siempre: para ganarnos el cielo primero debemos luchar por hacer el paraíso en la tierra. Fuimos comprendiendo que la cosa estaba major así. Y les preguntábamos por qué los curas anteriores nos obligaban a conformarnos. Olídense de los curas anteriores, nos decían estos curas jóvenes. [One of them would always repeat to us: ‘To get to heaven, first we must struggle to create a paradise on earth.’ We began to understand that it was better this way. And we would ask them why the priests before them forced us to conform. ‘Forget the previous ones,” these younger priests would say]” (23). Nevertheless, social equality, which was at the root of the revolutionary teachings of the new priests, did not coincide with the structural domination imposed by the Salvadoran government. Argueta describes the efforts of the Military police to undercut the peasant population’s adoption of a new discourse differing from that of the state. Seeing that the peasants are becoming aware of their societal subjugation, the Guard quickly attempts to curtail the influence of the priests. Guadalupe describes how the Guardsmen bar anyone from attending mass: “Sí, vamos a misa y viera señor agente lo bueno que es este curita, no es como los otros. Y que si esos hijos de puta aquí y esos hijos de puta de allá, culeros con sotana [‘Yes, we’re going to Mass and you should see how good the priest is, Officer, he isn’t like the others.’ And were those sons of bitches here and those sons of bitches there, faggots in robes]” (28). The Guardsmen view the new priests with increasing disfavor and describe them as “hijos de puta [mother fuckers]” and “culeros [faggots]” for their role in disseminating a new discourse among the peasant masses of “el kilómetro.” Moreover, the Guardsmen resort to the draconian measure of not allowing the peasants to attend mass: “[Y] si nos tenían catequizados para que les desobedeciéramos, apunto so el cañón del fusil, y era mejor nos retirársnos de la capilla. [Were the priests] giving us religious instruction for the purpose of disobeying them? And they’d point the barrels of their guns at us, and we’d better stay away from the chapel]” (28). The scene at the church depicts the extreme actions of the Guardsmen as they attempt to enforce the official discourse of the Salvadoran government. The peasants are drawn to the teaching of the new priests for they advocate for structural change, a type of change which counters the subjugation of the Government. By way of the new priests, the peasants of the “el kilómetro” become increasingly aware of the subjugation they face, a dangerous circumstance for those who hold absolute power.
By focalizing the early politicization of the people of “el kilómetro” through the intimate perspective of Guadalupe, Argueta provides an account that is rooted in the experience of those who live in the countryside, thus communicating the experience of the poor of Chalatenango. Argueta is capturing the moment in which religion was paired with a discourse of societal change. Through the character of Guadalupe, Argueta is documenting the change that occurred in rural communities as soon as liberation theology began to make its way into areas like Chalatenanago. Ignacio Martín Baró in Writings for a Liberation Psychology, explains how the process of concientizacíon led to the awakening of the conscious of the poor though open dialogue, thus granting rural communities the ability to denounce the power structures that dominated them:
[T]he process of concentizacíon assumes an escape from the reproductive machinery of the relationships of dominance and submission, for it can be realized only thought dialogue. The dialectical process that allows individuals self-knowledge and self-acceptance presuppose a radical change in social relations, to a condition where there would be neither oppressors nor oppressed. (42)
By engaging in diologue not only with the priests, but with themselves, the community of “el kilómetro” is able to analyze their particular social subjugation. As such, Guadalupe and her community see themselves as agents of change and are finally able to see that the Guardsmen are mere agents who enforce the will of the government. Argueta in Un dia en la vida(One Day of Life) focuses on the new consciousness of the peasants of Chalatenango, thereby crafting an account, a testimony of how the peasant population came to be involved politically. Not only that, Argueta documents and exposes the violent reaction of the military, as they begin to exercise a level of fear and control in order to maintain the peasants of “el kilómetro” subjugated.
Argueta does not only speak to the internal struggles of the peasants in the country side, but also delves into the psyche of the Guards in order to expose the degree of hatred they possess towards the rural population. Argueta shows that the Guards who enforce the will of the oppressive government are themselves poor peasants. In the chapter titled “Ellos [The Authorities]” the perspective shifts from Guadalupe to an unknown narrator who speaks about the social mobility that occurs when one joins the ranks of the military: “Viera que nosotros nunca habíamos comido con tenedor, ni cuchara, no se imagina el lujo, brillan como si fueran de plata, o de oro [. . . .] Bueno, todo es paraíso. ¿Qué más podemos pedir? [We’d never eaten with knife and fork; the luxury is unimaginable—they shine as if they were of silver or gold [. . . .] As far as everything else is concerned we live like kings]” (73/90). Clearly, the speaker is a member of the same poor community that he is terrorizing. Furthermore, the speaker mentions how he must defend the country even at the expense of his countrymen and defend the “Western” world. Argueta sheds light on how the individuals belonging to the military police and the armed forces are enticed by the promise of luxuries and a noble cause. The speaker describes how a foreign advisor from the United States engages in a harrowing exercise with those who he trains: “El profesor nos pone a gritar: ‘¿Quién es el peor enemigo de nosotros?’ y nosotros respondemos a gritos: ‘El pueblo.’ Y así por el estilo: ‘¿Quién es el peor enemigo de la democracia?’ Y respondemos todos: ‘El Pueblo.’ [The trainer shouts, ‘Who is our worst enemy?’ And we shout, ‘The people!’And so on and so on, “Who is the worst enemy of democracy?’ And we all respond, ‘The people’]” (92). Argueta is illustrating how the authorities are subjected to a particular form of discourse, one that is repeatedly communicated to them. The speaker is constantly told that “the people” are his enemies and thus internalizes hatred, a discourse of violence geared towards the prosecution of the peasants of El Salvador. Argueta’s blending of narratives of both the poor of Chalatenango and the authorities who oppress them, creates a text in which the collision of discourses can be seen in clear relief.
Didion creates a counter discourse to document a reality that comes into conflict with the official reality that is perpetuated by both the Salvadoran government and the United States. In Salvador, Didion sheds light on the constant conversation surrounding the arrival of military aid from the United States, she illustrates the effort of the Regan administration to paint the Salvadoran government as making strides in respects to human rights, only months after the massacre that occurred in El Mozote, a small hamlet in rebel occupied territory:
At the time I was in El Salvador, six months after the events referred to as the Mozote massace and a month or so before President Reagan’s July 1982 certification that sufficient progress was being made in specific areas (‘human rights,’ and ‘land reform,’ and ‘the initiation of a democratic process,’ phrases so remote in situ as to render them hallucinatory) to qualify El Salvador for continuing aid, a major offensive was taking place in Morazán, up in the mean hill country between the garrison town of San Francisco Gotera and the Honduran border. (38-39)
Didion’s testimony describes the harsh reality in El Salvador, one that is alien to the U.S. president who continues to provide aid to the Salvadoran military. Mark Danner’s The Massacre at El Mozote, documents how the United States refused to acknowledge the massacre that occurred in the remote hamlet in an effort to continue aid to El Salvador: “[T]he United States had no choice but to go on supporting a ‘friendly’ regime, however disreputable it might seem, because the alternative—the possibility of another Communist victory in the region—was clearly worse” (9). It is evident to Didion that the United States refuses to acknowledge that it is supplying military aid to a regime that is enacting violence on a mass scale, and against civilians. As illustrated by Danner, the massacre at El Mozote was forgotten by the government of the United States; however, Didion holds the United States accountable for the violence that she experiences around her. Didion claims that the illusion that El Salvador can be managed—can be controlled—is pervasive in the rhetoric of U.S. politicians and diplomats who are in favor of intervention. Didion’s account stands as a stark contrast to what is being announced by President Reagan; therefore, creating a reality that challenges the dominating discourse perpetuated by both the United States government and the government of El Salvador.
Didion also focuses on the language that is utilized by the Salvadoran government and the United States to expose how language serves as tool of manipulation. Didion explains how there are particular words that fill the air waves in El Salvador, particular catchphrases that have come to acquire a mysterious, and, yet, concrete meaning in the country. She writes, “Language has always been used a little differently in this part of the world [. . .] but, ‘improvement’ ‘perception’ and ‘pacification’ derive from another tradition. Language as it is now used in El Salvador is the language of advertising, of persuation, the product being one or another of the soluciones crafted in Washington or Panama or Mexico, which is part of the place’s pervasive obscenity” (65). Didion touches on how the conflict is given shape by the use of language. She explains that the war in El Salvador is constantly being framed by those in power, in the attempt to broadcast the conflict as justifiable. Language is arranged, put together, constructed, outside of the country then shipped within its borders. Didion explains that no discourse regarding the human toll of the conflict, or the Salvadoran Force’s brazen disregard for human life, permeate into the public discourse. Foucault, once again sheds light on the notion of language and in particular, language that is prohibited: “In appearance, speech may well be of little account, but the prohibitions surrounding it soon reveal its links with desire and power” (216). For Didion, it is evident that the power of words does not escape the Salvadoran government. In addition, the “official” government discourse is so pervasive, and absolute, as to prohibit any other counter discourses from permeating into the public sector via media outlets. Didion exposes the Salvadoran government’s reliance on terror and the prohibition of counter-discourse in order to maintain its legitimacy.
Didion calls the language that attempts to shape the Salvadoran conflict deceitful and removed from reality. Didion call the refusal of the United States government to accept the reality of the conflict an “American delusion.” Didion demonstrates how the war effort in El Salvador has become more than an effort to undercut communism, but a terrible effort at redemption, a redemption proving that years of costly wars in Central America produced one ray of success—a U.S. supported victory in El Salvador. Didion writes, “I experienced the official American delusion, the illusion of plausibility, the sense that the American undertaking in El Salvador might turn out to be, from the right angle, in the right light, just another difficult but possible mission in another troubled but possible country” (88). Didion unmasks the hubris with which the United States operates in nations like El Salvador, and Latin America in general. By depicting the violence and overall deterioration of Salvadoran society due to the ongoing war, Didion communicates how disconnected Washington’s politicians are from the reality of El Salvador. Didion in Salvador, presents a “truth” that is documented through her own testimony in order to lay bare the reality of the terror that has gripped El Salvador.
In closing, Un dia en la vida (One Day of Life) and Salvador are two testimonial texts that function as counter-discourses which challenge the hegemonic discourse perpetuated by the military regime of El Salvador. However, both take starkly different approaches to challenging the hegemonic discourse of the Salvadoran government. Argueta voices his critique of the oppressive Salvadoran government through the internal monologues of a peasant woman, whose community is undoubtedly the most impacted by the violence in the country. Argueta humanizes the rural poor of El Salvador, and presents the experience of the most vulnerable members of Salvadoran society to challenge the Salvadoran state. Didion, on the other hand, performs the role of careful observer relaying the pervasive terror that riddles civil-war stricken El Salvador—a ubiquitous terror that is denied by both the U.S. and Salvadoran government. Although it should be mentioned that Didion as an outsider lacks the cultural background necessary to humanize the victims of terror, which Argueta does masterfully. Both texts, nevertheless, function as counter narratives, and while examined in tandem posses the added advantage of exposing the subjugating master narrative of the Salvadoran government from different points of view. Both Un dia en la vida (One Day of Life) and Salvador are examples of literature with a purpose which seek out to dismantle the subjugating master narrative perpetuated by the Salvadoran Government, with the hope of securing justice and dignity for the people of El Salvador.
Argueta, Manlio. Un Dia en la Vida. 26th edition.UCA Editores, San Salvador, El Salvador, 2017.
Argueta, Manlio. One Day of Life. Translated by Bill Brow, Vintage Books, New York. 1991.
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