Javier Villafuerte, San Francisco State University
Revising and Rewriting History: Historiographic Fiction of Central America
“It is true that we [Central Americans] are not just trauma and sad stories. It is also true that trauma and sad stories are a crucial part of our histories and struggles.” –Polemicist, Twitter
Whether it be in fiction or non-fiction, it is no surprise that the conflicts in Central America have generated a great response in the form of writing, especially fictional prose. From non-fiction testimonios to historical and historiographic fiction, there are a multitude of texts in a variety of languages that deal directly with the Central American wars. I will be closely looking at two distinct, yet related texts: The Weight of All Things (2000) by Sandra Benitez, originally written in English, and Insensatez (2004) by Horacio Castellanos Moya, originally written in Spanish. Both texts create a dialogue that speak to the same type of violence that was funded by the United States in similar capacities—they actively rewrite and contradict the realities (truths) that have been created by hegemonic narratives (state-approved truths) of events during their respective civil wars in the late half of the twentieth century.
Sandra Benitez fictionalizes two major events in the Salvadoran Civil War: The Massacre at Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero’s Funeral in San Salvador and The Sumpul River Massacre on the border of El Salvador and Honduras. This narrative follows nine-year-old Nicolás as he attempts to flee the violence around his homeland with the protection of the Virgen Milagrosa, the Salvadoran image of the Virgin Mary. Nicolás in many ways becomes a proxy for the children that lived through (or even the children that were robbed of their chance at life because of) the violence and were seen with no recourse but to immigrate to the United States—the very country that funded their tragic and violent upbringing. The reader witnesses the brutal loss of innocence as Nicolás goes from not completely understanding the significance of death to being completely surrounded by it.
In parallel, Horacio Castellanos Moya writes as a Honduran-Salvadoran citizen and fictionalizes a moment in time after the Cachiquel genocide in Guatemala and before the publication of the book. Although the novel refuses to give a clear timeframe, the events depicted roughly places the book in the mid-to-late 1990’s. In this narrative, a man has been hired to edit a testimonial ethnography of sorts that brings together the fragmented experiences and memories of the indigenous survivors of horrific acts of violence. The man in charge of collecting all the documents slowly deteriorates in mental and emotional health because of the testimonios and the gruesome and inhumane tactics described in them. Even though the country Insensatez takes place in remains unnamed, it becomes self-evident by the description of the surroundings and the placement and mention of two presidents belonging to Guatemala. The narrative ends with similar violence and terror to that which The Weight of All Things speaks to.
Both novels in question are acting as historiographic fiction—fiction that attempts to rewrite or revise otherwise accepted, solidified, historical moments. History often requires and relies on fiction to fill-in the blanks left by the destruction and erasure of primary sources. While both texts are and should be considered what is known as “historical fiction,” they take the genre a step further by using moments in time that have conflicting “official” narratives by the people and by governments and solidify the truth as they know it by placing their imagined characters in the midst of the events being contested; the fictional text begins to function as its non-fiction counterparts in attempting to rewrite, remedy, and supplement the hegemonic historical narrative.
While the term “historiographic fiction” has not been very critically studied in academic writing, Polly Detels writes about “historiographic novels” in the chapter, “Geryon’s Tail: Historiographic Novels and Their Essential Selves:” “Historiographic novels may be set in any time period including the present, but they invariably explore, through elements such as style and structure, but chiefly through plot, characterization, and theme, the problematic relationships between past, present, and future” (35-36). The Weight of All Things interrogates the past through the use of its plot as it linearly follows Nicolás from one massacre into the next. The past is also used as a way to inform El Salvador in the 21st century and its current status as a nation that continues to experience high levels of violence and political instability. Insensatez similarly explores the past. It uses a present-tense narrator that is attempting to recreate—re-piece—an incredibly fragmented collective memory of the Cachiquel that were massacred in the 80’s. Similarly to The Weight of All Things, Castellanos Moya’s text elaborates on Guatemala’s hereditary, generational cycles of violence that make it part of the Northern Triangle, a region in Central America that is known for its high levels of murder and violence. Both texts are intervening with the understanding of the events and attempt to give a different perspective in an otherwise misrepresented history. They both attempt to explore the legacy of the violence in both countries as both protagonists carry the impact of the past with them into the future.
It is even more important that historiographic fiction, such as both novels in question, is being produced in different, hegemonic languages. Benitez writes in English while Castellanos Moya writes in Spanish—the two languages that largely dominate the continent. Benitez uses English, which is not the current national language of El Salvador, as a method to connect and convey her message to an audience based in the United States as it was the country opening its doors to Salvadoran citizens at the time, something that at this moment in time might have been forgotten by many United States’ citizens. In this manner, The Weight of All Things attempts to further explain and elucidate the reason for Temporary Protected Status being offered to them by allowing citizens of the US to sympathize with citizens of El Salvador by and through the novel. Castellanos Moya uses Spanish, the national language of Guatemala, and of the Northern Triangle, as an act of rebellion against the hegemonic historical narrative. He does little to disguise his thoughts and distaste of the way the Guatemalan government and the United States’ government handled the civil war. The fact that cultural production is occurring across languages in and about Central America illustrates how important the narratives become to the overall consensus of what really happened, or a more complete truth.
To illustrate the way in which these fictional narratives attempt to rewrite history, I will also be closely looking at some key historical documents: excerpts from Salvadoran President Funes’ speech on the massacre of El Mozote and CIA reports of the United States’ involvement in Guatemala as well as theory on the production of history by Michel-Rolph Trouillot. The president’s speech is an active revision of a part of the historical narrative of which both texts take issue. The CIA documents conflict with hegemonic beliefs at the moment of publication about the ongoing genocide in Guatemala. Both the Castellanos Moya and the Benitez texts tell histories in order to remedy and edit hegemonic historical narratives that otherwise do not acknowledge their existence. In other words, these texts are in dialogue with the hegemonic historical narratives that contradict the events depicted in the fictions. It is through this fictive representation that healing can occur for communities that have been directly affected—by imagining realities in which someone survived to tell the story; by imagining what reality could have been for those that lived these horrifically traumatic experiences. This is why I will be interrogating the ways in which these texts function similarly to the way Michel-Rolph Trouillot lays out the Haitian Revolution as “unthinkable” in Silencing the Past.
Central America is not alone in conflicting historical narratives. Before the wars in Central America, the Caribbean Islands were the ones undergoing revolutions for independence. Most notably, the Haitian Revolution connects to the disbelief of the reports of the massacres and genocide in Central America. Michel-Rolph Trouillot writes on the Haitian Revolution and the way it was brought forth into history during its time:
The Haitian Revolution entered history with the peculiar characteristic of being unthinkable even as it happened. Official debates and publications of the times…reveal the incapacity of most contemporaries to understand the ongoing revolution on its own terms. They could read the news only with their ready-made categories, and these categories were incompatible with the idea of a slave revolution. (73)
Unfathomable is the status of the Haitian Revolution as it occurs in its time. Just as it happened with Haiti, El Salvador and Guatemala were entering their unfathomable and unthinkable moments in history that would be discredited for decades. As Trouillot points out, “ready-made categories” are the way we read and process news and stories. If the genre or “topic” of the news is something incompatible or incomprehensible it would be really difficult to imagine or to even accept as believable. For these events to be understood by the world as audience, new categories had to made. Humans do not wish to believe that other humans are capable of such violence and inhumanity. This is the case with the events that were officially erased from Central America for decades: they were too horrendous to be believed, so people assumed that the government version of the narrative was the truthful one even though there were many sources claiming otherwise while it was happening. It is here where historiographic fiction can intervene and allow the fictive space of imagination to take its course. Novels like The Weight of All Things and Insensatez allow for unthinkable histories to become thinkable within the framework of fiction and as a reader-response. It is precisely because of this imaginative space that fiction becomes so important in relationship to history and historiography. History often doesn’t allow for the space for imagination to run wild in attempting to piece a very fragmented event with lots of missing points, but it should. History requires the use of imagination and fiction to complete itself at times—it requires historiographic fiction.
Trouillot provides further elaboration on the “unthinkable” aspect of the Haitian Revolution and in turn the “unthinkable” aspect of the Central American massacres, “some narratives cancel what happened through direct erasure of facts or their relevance. ‘It’ did not really happen; it was not that bad, or that important” (96). The voices of those living the violence were being canceled out by the withholding of official documents detailing the United States’ involvement with Central America. Again, it is because people do not want to believe such atrocities that the government is believed. With the idea of Mikhail Bakhtin’s heteroglossia in mind, one voice might be oppressive and silencing while the other is attempting to push back and revise. Both voices are attempting to be heard, but only one results in being accepted as the truth. These conflicting voices within the historical narratives of the neighboring countries are what paves the way for historiographic fiction to take hold and become a prominent form of cultural production in the region.
Coming back to Sandra Benitez and The Weight of All Things, the novel gives an English voice to those silenced during the civil war. The author reconstructs historical moments and the unthinkability behind them. In the very beginning of the novel, the main character, Nicolás, and his mother are attending the funeral of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero when the bombs and gunshots hit, “[Her mother] used rapid blows form her elbows to gouge a space around him. She dropped down upon him, draping herself over him as if she were a truce flag. She did it because she was his mother” (2). Benitez uses the third person in order to relay the experiences. The author is also the one attempting to connect the dots and fill in a chaotic and blurry time in El Salvador’s history. Nicolás’ mother, knowing more than her son, attempts to protect her son at all costs enveloping him with her own body as protection. Unfortunately for Nicolás, his mother is fatally shot at the funeral: “When the bullet found its mark, the impact caused her arms to flail upward for an instant before they flopped down…Years later…he would say, ‘Like water pouring over stone, that is how she slipped away from me” (3-4). The use of description and plot are being used in a historiographic way as they are retelling the occurrences at this massacre. The author depicts, through this little boy, how horrendous and confusing this event was in the moment. Even Nicolás cannot fathom that he has lost his mother as he cannot comprehend until “years later” when he finally reflects and accepts that this was the point in time at which he lost his mother to the senselessness of war and violence brought forth by tyrannical governments against its own people. This also suggest that history is something that is constantly being rewritten as Nicolás has to reflect “years later” on this very moment to understand the “truth” he was experiencing then. This, then, becomes historiographic in a personal sense to Nicolás as it first presents the confusion and misunderstanding of his mother dying, only to later rewrite his own history as, “Like water pouring over stone, that is how she slipped away from me.”
Moreover, as the novel progresses closer to the second and final massacre within the novel, Benitez sets up the intricacies necessary to take her narration and plot into the realm of historiographic fiction. Honduras being the closest neighboring country to El Salvador is the reason many refugees of the civil war attempted to flee there. They were in search of safety but were met with an equally violent border. Both the Salvadoran battalion and Honduran troops are getting ready to ambush the refugees of war:
[The Salvadoran troops] would wait until morning. Then they would pounce on these communist insurgents, for that was surely what they were. Why else would they be fleeing? If they were good honest citizens, they had nothing to fear and would have stayed in their homes….
[The Honduran troops’] mission: to prevent the thousands of Salvadorans camped across the river from invading their country. [Their] government held little sympathy for El Salvador and the turmoil taking place there. (221-223)
Neither government’s troops really understands the reason Nicolás and other refugees are attempting to flee. The Salvadoran troops are completely convinced that only rebellious individuals would have reason to flee, yet the reader knows and understands Nicolás’ truth as a person that simply wants to flee violence. He and those accompanying him believe that Honduras could be their saving grace. Benitez uses what are historical facts, the senselessness of each governments’ reasons and fuses them with this fictional moment she has created for Nicolás as he attempts to cross the river. Each government believes to be doing right by their own nationalistic standards and, for that, a lot of refugees become expendable—they even become a threat to the idea of the nation that each government has. Moreover, it shows how misunderstandings can have such dire consequences. The author allows for the plot to communicate with the past by including this passage in the novel that gives some context to all of the miscommunications surrounding this civil war.
From this image of each government deciding what to do with innocent lives, the narrative focuses on nine-year-old Nicolás again. The denial he lives in at the beginning of the novel is part of his innocence and incapability to understand the violence surrounding him; the case is no longer so at the end of the novel. In the penultimate chapter, the reader might realize that the promise of the final massacre depicted in the book has yet to actually occur. Nicolás wakes up to the sound of gunshots along the riverbank, “Tucked under the ledge, they witnessed everything…A mother holding a baby, the father in a straw hat, had almost made it to the top of the river slope when the bullets propelled them into heaps of blood and bone” (228). Again, Nicolás no longer witnesses events as a child, he is robbed of his innocence the moment he loses his mother and continues to be forced to mature and witness traumatic events such as these. In the short timeframe the novel takes place in, Nicolás has acquired the vocabulary and the forced maturity of understanding violence. He is no longer confused about those dying around him, he knows they are dead. Again, he is still just nine years old. The way the narrator processes the information for Nicolás is also different from the confusion he had at the beginning with the death of his mom. The description in this passage is clear and concise, unlike the confusion of the moment he lost his mother. “They [all] witnessed everything” and will continue to carry those images with them as long as they live. This idea is solidified on the next page when Benitez writes, “Under the ledge, the three witnessed what their memories would contain forever: River. Stone. Dust. Bone. These were the things they would carry. The things they would not forget” (229). Nicolás, as the protagonist of the novel, undergoes the most character development. In this case, Nicolás loses all traces of innocence as he is robbed of his childhood in essence. This is demonstrated through the difference in the way Benitez writes Nicolás’ emotions at the beginning and end of the novel. The constant state of war and violence his country is in does not allow him to develop and grow up as a child without these worries might—as a child here in the United States might grow up. The unthinkable in Nicolás’ case has become the norm. He is no longer phased by any amount of death and violence. He has been forcefully conditioned to constantly cope with death all around him.
Similarly, with Insensatez, Castellanos Moya attempts to reconcile conflicting narratives in his native Spanish. The novel deals with translation as the main character has to sift and edit an ethnography. The indigenous people interviewed for the project do not speak Spanish, so communication was an issue until their stories were finally able to be translated. The narrator is greatly affected by the level of complexity and the poetic nature of the testimonio given by the Cachiquel. In the very beginning of the novel, the first report the main character reads is given by a Cachiquel man that he tries to understand:
Yo no estoy completo de la mente, me repetí, impactado por el grado de perturbación mental…de ese indígena testigo del asesinato de su familia, por el hecho de que ese indígena fuera consciente del quebrantamiento de su aparato psíquico a causa de haber presenciado, herido e impotente, cómo los soldados del ejército de su país despedazaban a machetazos y con sorna a cada uno de sus cuatro pequeños hijos en palpitantes trozos de carne humana. (Ch 1)
(I am not complete of the mind, I repeated, taken aback by the mental perturbation…of the indigenous man that witnessed the assassination of his family, due to the fact that the man was conscious of his psychotic break due to having witnessed, wounded and powerless, how the soldiers of his country’s army used a machete to tear apart each and every one of his four young children and turn them into beating chunks of human meat).
The first sentence, “I am not complete of the mind” becomes a recurring thought going through the narrator’s thoughts. It becomes a recurring theme that encapsulates the fragmented memory of the Guatemalan people as a whole. Not surprisingly, the narrator is struck by how poetic and meaningful the words of the indigenous are. The reader, along with the narrator, both experience the veil of ignorance being removed at the same time. Just as Benitez does with the two massacres she pieces together into one coherent narrative, here the protagonist has the job of piecing together the Cachiquel testimonios and filling in the gaps with his imagination. He is literally piecing together a fragmented, broken memory that was almost lost to history. Through this form of indirect characterization of the indigenous, Moya attributes humanity to the Cachiquel that were massacred by acknowledging their pain and suffering through the protagonist of the novel. It is through this character that a new history, or a new truth, can emerge—a history born from both fact and fiction.
It is important for the collective historical memory to remember all of the wrongs in the world, however, this is not always the best path for healing damaged communities. Towards the end of the novel, in Chapter 11, the narrator finally deciphers one of the last texts:
Que se borre el nombre de los muertos para que queden libres y ya no tengamos problemas, lo que ponía en evidencia que hasta algunos indigenas sobrevivientes no querían ya recuperar la memoria sino perpetuar el olvido. (Ch 11)
(Let the names of the dead be erased so that they are freed and so that we won’t have problems, I attributed this as evidence that even some of the surviving indigenous did not want to recuperate their memory but would rather perpetuate forgetting it ever happened).
This illustrates how deep the wounds in the indigenous community are—so much so that some prefer to always forget rather than remember the horrible events. This could be because their collective historical memory is so far fragmented that it has become impossible to fill in any of the gaps with any amount of imagination. However, this is just one of many ways of coping with the tremendous loss they have experienced. In the final chapter of the novel the narrator remembers another entry, “Para mí recordar, siento yo que estoy viviendo otra vez (For me to remember, I feel as though I am living once again) (Ch 12). The phrase remains a bit ambiguous as to whether the person that wrote this wants to remember and live through memories, or if remembering causes the reliving of painful and traumatic moments in their life. In its essence, to remember is to relive and both sides of this argument have valid merit when it comes to those directly affected. This passage calls into question the ethics behind historical record and publishing against the wishes of a community to forget. Any type of work dealing with recording trauma needs to find a way to be respectful of the affected individual or community while remaining true to their work. There is no easy solution for any of this, but it is a conversation that must always be had between recorders and community members.
The last lines of Insensatez depict the mood of the author and perhaps even of the movement for truth. As the narrator opens an email he receives from a colleague back in Guatemala that was at the presentation of the ethnography that he worked on, it reads:
Ayer a mediodía monseñor presentó el informe en la catedral con bombo y platillo; en la noche lo asesinaron en la casa parroquial, le destruyeron la cabeza con un ladrillo. Todo el mundo está cagado. Da gracias que te fuiste. (Ch 11)
(Yesterday at noon the archbishop proudly presented the work at the cathedral; that night he was assassinated at his parish’s home, they destroyed his head with a brick. Everyone in the world is fucked. Be grateful you left).
A little nihilistic in ending, the narrator has escaped Central America and its violence for the time being, yet he carries the trauma everywhere he goes even though he is displaced from the genocide at least by a decade. It is through his own character development and the metafictional use of having him create an ethnography of sorts throughout the novel that allows the reader to understand the toll the testimonios have taken on the narrator’s psyche. The message only reasserts that Guatemala and Central America as a whole is still not safe from the violence the narrator spent the entire novel reading about. The archbishop being killed echoes the death of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero for his sermons in freedom and peace against the totalitarian regime of the government. Both of their deaths are examples of the silencing of counternarratives to the current historical one.
As time progresses, the truth does find its way out. In the last decade alone a lot of progress has been made in regards to the acknowledgement of Central America’s horrible past. In January 2012, President Funes of El Salvador traveled to El Mozote where he gave a speech that finally acknowledged the pain and suffering the Salvadoran government caused to its own people. The speech President Funes gave actively rewrote and revised the then-hegemonic narrative that erased any and all traces of pain and suffering at the hands of the tyrannical government of the 1980’s. President Funes says:
Quitamos un velo que nos encegueció durante tres décadas y nos sumió en dolorosa oscuridad…como Presidente Constitucional de la República…reconozco que en [el cantón] El Mozote [y a sus alrededores] los días y las noches del 10, 11, 12 y 13 de diciembre de 1981, tropas del Batallón de Infantería de Reacción Inmediata Atlacatl, de la Fuerza Armada de El Salvador, asesinaron a cerca de un millar de personas, la mayoría niñas y niños.
(Let us remove the veil that blinded us over three decades and plunged us into a painful darkness… as the President of the Republic…I recognize that in the town of El Mozote [and others neighboring it], on the nights of the 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th of December of 1981, battalion troops of the Atlacatl Immediate Reaction Infantry, of the Armed Forces of El Salvador, assassinated near a thousand people, the majority of which were children).
This entire speech is an example of active revision to history. To acknowledge the pain and suffering texts like The Weight of All Things and Insensatez have been attempting to convey is something that was beginning to be unthinkable itself. From this point forward is where the true healing begins.
Though the process of healing for the communities directly will not occur immediately, it will certainly begin with the official acknowledgement and belief in the events by the world. In a recent interview with AJ+, a web-based video-journalism news source, Daniel Alvarenga interviewed descendants of the victims of the massacre at El Mozote, El Salvador’s deadliest massacre that killed almost one thousand of its residents. In 2018 El Mozote was finally able to create a final resting place for the remains of the lives lost. A cemetery where descendants and family members could finally visit their loved ones was made. This is another instance of historiography in action. In the interview, Reina Claros, a daughter of one of the many victims says:
Y para mí esto es muchísimo porque ya es parte de dar un cierre. Ya tengo donde llevarle flores, dónde ir a platicar con ella [mi mamá]. Uno siempre tiene cosas que contarle a su madre. Yo nunca la tuve pero ahorita ya va a haber un lugar dónde llevar [sus restos].
(And for me this is a lot because it is part of giving closure. I have somewhere to take her flowers, somewhere to talk with [my mother]. One always has things to tell their mother. I never had her but now there will be a place where I can take her [remains].”
With the construction of this new cemetery and with the giving back of the victims’ remains healing can begin. This will not happen overnight, but it will eventually happen. There is still
much more in terms of justice that needs to happen, and, at the time of this writing, the United States has yet to acknowledge or revise its official stance on its involvement in any of the altercations in Central America. It is also the country that is now attempting to block entrance to a large caravan of migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
The Weight of All Things and Insensatez both do incredibly important work for history in their time of publication. They both function as historiographic fiction that attempts to rewrite and revise and reimagine the hegemonic narrative of history that conflicts with the truth each text is elucidating. El Salvador and Guatemala have acknowledged the atrocities of the nineteenth century, it is about time for the United States to step in and actually help these countries get back on their feet. The US needs to own up to the involvement it has in Central America and other developing countries around the world. As is repeated in the final chapter of Insensatez as the title of the never published ethnography, “¡Todos sabemos quiénes son los asesinos! (We all know who the murderers are!).”
Alvarenga, Daniel (_danalvarenga). “Mi video sobre la massacre de El Mozote, ahora en @ajplusespanol. Fue la massacre más grande en la guerra civil Salvadoreña y en la historia reciente de América Latina. Casi mil murieron y aún no tenemos justicia:” 21 December 2018, 7:50 AM. Tweet.
Castellanos Moya, Horacio. Insensatez. Tusquets Editores, 2004. Kindle Edition.
Benitez, Sandra. The Weight of All Things. Hyperion, 2001. Print.
“Designation of El Salvador Under Temporary Protected Status.” Federal Register Publications, signed by Attorney General John Ashcroft, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 9 March 2001.
“Discurso Presidente Funes en El Mozote.” Scribd, www.scribd.com/document/82577026/Discurso-Presidente-Funes-en-El-Mozote.
Detels, Polly E. “Geryon’s Tail: Historiographic Novels and Their Essential Selves.” When ‘the Lie Becomes Truth’: Four Historiographic Novels of the Twentieth Century, U of North Texas, 1999. ProQuest, https://search-proquest-com.jpllnet.sfsu.edu/docview/54354730?accountid=13802.
Farah, Douglas. “Papers Show U.S. Role in Guatemalan Abuses.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 11 Mar. 1999, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/inatl/daily/march99/ guatemala11.htm?noredirect=on.
Polemicist (PalmTreesnGz). “It is true that we are not just trauma and sad stories. It is also true that trauma and sad stories are a crucial part of our histories and struggles. #CentralAmericanTwitter.” 14 December 2018, 2:07 PM. Tweet.Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Beacon Press, 2015. Print.