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  Number 346 | Mayo 2010
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El Salvador

The Right to Memory

El Salvador’s Museum of the Word and Image is a pioneer in the struggle for the right to memory, which is also the struggle for the right to know the truth and to demand justice and compensation for the victims, which is actually the right to dignity and identity. The Museum has been one of the initiatives opening new ways to overcome oblivion and forgetfulness after the country’s long domestic war .

Ernest Cañada

The first enormous task of the Museum of the Word and Image was to safeguard documentary records from different origins and in a variety of formats (audiovisuals, photographs, manuscripts, artifacts…). This was followed by an intense program of research, public outreach and debate about El Salvador’s history and culture and the identity of its people.

Associated with the work begun by Radio Venceremos, the radio station of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in Morazán, the Museum opened in San Salvador at the end of the war, in 1992. The initial objective was to preserve the memory of the social struggles of the 1980s, but little by little its objectives and activities were extended. Today the museum is a fundamental reference point in the political-cultural panorama of El Salvador, a tool for the grassroots sectors to reconstruct their identity and place in history.

The guerrillas carried
memories in their backpacks

Between 1980 and 1992, during the armed conflict in El Salvador, some FMLN guerrillas who worked in communication, among them Carlos Henríquez Consalvi—alias Santiago—founder and voice of Radio Venceremos and the museum’s promoter and director, already recognized the importance of preserving the memory of the social struggle in which they were participating. They began to carry cassettes of all Radio Venceremos transmissions in their backpacks.

This created some friction with their military chiefs, who didn’t understand the future importance of these recordings, which were very heavy to be lugging around in the middle of combat. After three months of carrying all this material everywhere, and given the urgency of rapid mobilization to thwart the army advances, they decided to send the cassettes to Nicaragua for safekeeping every three months. “That’s why we still have this whole archive today,” recalls Santiago.

In addition to the radio transmissions they also began to store the tapes and 16mm videos they had produced in a farsighted attempt to keep a record of what was happening. This was the vision that led to what today is El Salvador’s Museum of the Word and Image.

As soon as the war was over, the preserved materials were organized into a constantly updated and improved archive, but very soon the Museum also started working to offer a better knowledge of Salvadoran history. It engaged in research and produced different resources: books, videos and exhibitions. The most visible aspect of the Museum became ensuring that all that work reached every corner of the country, even the most remote communities. Today, these three main lines of action (archives, research-production and public outreach) give each other permanent feedback and reinforcement.

With a better team
and more resources

Very few people worked in the Museum at the beginning. “We were very few, doing a lot of different things for a long time and with very few resources,” recalls Santiago. Later they received support for small projects from international cooperation. This allowed them to become more professional and increase the staff with university graduates from different disciplines (anthropology, journalism, the arts, graphic design). And so the Museum began to technically reinforce its staff. “It was a school for us all,” says Santiago.

Today the Museum has a technical team of 15 people. The financial needs have also increased, but thanks to the outreach and the national and international recognition of its work through participation in numerous scientific congresses, the Museum has managed to attract the interest of new sources of cooperation. For Santiago, it’s essential to maintain political clarity and work with quality and discipline. If this can be achieved, the resources will come: “One of the lessons learnt from this first stage is that resources aren’t the most important thing to maintain documentary sources. The political decision to do it comes first.”

What’s in the historical archives?

The Film Archive contains footage from the war, Salvadoran cinematic productions and various cultural productions. The Photo Archive contains more than 35,000 photographs from 1872 to the present, covering all subjects: expressions of indigenous culture from 1892, the 1932 uprising, the 1980-1992 armed conflict, natural phenomena and socio-environmental disasters (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, etc.), important events in El Salvador’s history and internationally known Salvadoran personalities such as Monsignor Romero and Roque Dalton. The Audio Archive preserves the Radio Venceremos transmissions as well as recordings of the voices of many historical personalities with diverse testimonies. And the Library specializes in social science.

Various thematic collections—on the war, Roque Dalton, Salarrué, Prudencia Ayala, Hugo Lindo and 1932—can be found in the Archives that group together diverse materials (manuscripts, photographs, audios, films, artifacts, posters and publications).

The Film Library began with rescuing and preserving hundreds of films taken on the battlefields during the war, some in 16mm but most in U-matic cassettes, an analogue video recording format in which over 4,000 hours of film are preserved. Many of these materials were safeguarded in Nicaragua while others were donated after the war by foreign and national journalists who worked for the international networks. Without these generous initiatives everything would have been lost, as happened with some US TV archives on the Salvadoran war that were recycled “to record the Persian Gulf war, while the rest were sold on the market as reusable cassettes,” as Santiago explained in the Ibero-American Cultural Congress held September 30-October 4, 2008, in Mexico City.

“Against the chaos
of forgetfulness”

In addition to the documentary collections preserved from the war, the Museum has undertaken various endeavors to increase its archives. It started identifying and rescuing diverse materials (photos, films...) scattered in cities all over the world. For example, with the collaboration of Roque Dalton’s family, the archives of that poet and political leader were brought back from Mexico, as were those of writer and painter Salvador Salazar Arrué, known as Salarrué.

Another outstanding initiative was the 1996 campaign, “Against the chaos of forgetfulness,” where the general public was invited to collaborate in the rescue of historical memory. Oscar Campos, head of the Museum’s Historical Archive, explained: “Many people have their own or their families’ documentary heritage (written documents, photos, videos, sound recordings…) but don’t know what to do with them because they’ve found that public institutions offer no support or interest to safeguard, preserve and disseminate them.”

The Museum was the answer. So many photographs and manuscripts came in that all initial objectives were surpassed. Santiago recalls: “We made the mistake of not telling people that what we wanted was from the social struggles of 1932 to the present. We started talking about memory and people began to bring us everything, even pre-Colombian memories.” It was this public reaction that broadened the Museum’s brief: “The general public sent us a clear message: It’s fine to keep an archive of social struggles but what about our earlier history? What about culture? What about identity? Society itself, through its contributions, was molding and giving shape to what this Museum is today.”

Similarly, in the absence of a National Film Library, the Museum has rescued what the few filmmakers have produced in El Salvador between 1940 and 1970. We found films by Baltasar Polío, Alejandro Coto and Guillermo Escalón that would have been forgotten or have disappeared without this protection.

Growing every day
and aiming at the internet

For years, the physical preservation of film material has been one of the Museum’s main concerns. Film requires cleaning, periodic rewinding and suitable accommodation. Finding optimum conditions has been a perpetual problem. “The archive grows every year with new donations,” says Oscar Campos. Recently they’ve been able to acquire a machine to clean mold off the U-matic tapes, a material that was being lost. Besides cleaning, they are also digitalizing and classifying hundreds of hours of film, which will guarantee their preservation and facilitate public access.

The Museum is participating in a shared initiative with other institutions to open a Website where all the visual archives can be uploaded using a meta-data program that allows users access to the exact minute or specific person they are looking for in any particular film. This project is being developed together with the Nicaraguan and Central American History Institute (IHNCA) in Managua’s Central American University (UCA) and with Mexico’s Center for Social Research (CIESAS). The University of Indiana’s Center for Latin American Studies in the US, creator of the computer program for the Website, is also collaborating. This center’s former director, US historian Jeffrey L. Gould, has collaborated with the Museum in different projects and has a friendly relationship with the technical team. Putting this system into action has been an enormous incentive for the Museum’s team. “It’s something new, exciting,” says Oscar Campos. “The goal is to create a video search, like YouTube, but with historical materials.”

Materials to be researched

“Without the physical record of documents, images, audio, we couldn’t do research; it’s vital,” says Santiago. “And more so in a country where there are no archives. It’s extremely important to preserve all this for research, to transform it into what we’re making: new books, new audio visual materials. This allows us to get closer to the communities’ symbolic world of representations and to how they own their heritage.”

Once organized, the Museum was opened to the public, particularly to researchers and journalists. And this resulted in numerous studies, books and documentaries. The Museum is consulted about 300 times a year. There are no
fixed charges. The cost of accessing its materials depends on the situation of the person making the request. In most cases there’s no charge but if someone has funding for their work, they are asked to make a voluntary contribution.

Because of the provenance of the collections, they had no great problems with authors’ rights. Most of the material was filmed on the battlefield and donated to the Museum or was made by Radio Venceremos.

The Museum team conducts its own research and produces its own publications and audiovisual productions. In the audiovisual field the museum has digitally restored some of Radio Venceremos’ cinematographic productions: “The Radio Venceremos Story,” “10 years taking heaven by assault,” “Morazán” and “Time of Audacity.”

1932: Scars of memory

One of the museum’s own documentary productions is “1932: Cicatriz de la memoria,” directed by Santiago. One of the largest research efforts taken on by the Museum, it focuses on understanding and rescuing memories of the 1932 indigenous uprising.

On January 22 of that year there was an uprising in the western municipalities of Salcoatitan, Sonzacate, Teotepeque, Tacuba, Juayua, Nahuizalco and Izalco. Thousands of people, mostly indigenous, took up arms in their demand for better working conditions. Within a few days the troops of President Maximiliano Hernandez Martínez, a general, repressed the revolt by indiscriminately murdering at least 10,000 people. The government tried to justify its actions ideologically by accusing the rebels of being communists.

For four years Gould and Santiago tried to get testimonies from old people who had survived this massacre. It was no easy task. “The culture of terror caused by the killing meant that for 70 years this subject would only be spoken of in the intimacy of the families,” recounted Santiago. It required getting closer to them and gaining their trust so this story could be told: “At the beginning it was hard because no one wanted to talk. We couldn’t do anything. We were met with silence. But, after being in the area for years, seeing, visiting, trust began to be built with the old people.” In the end they achieved their objective and people began to break a silence of decades and their testimonies were captured on film.

Other audiovisual productions were made as part of the effort to promote Salvadoran culture and identity, such as the series of inspired animated drawings in Salarrué’s work Cuentos de Cipotes (Children’s Tales), including “La Primeritita Comunión de Menchedita Copalchines” (The first communion of Menchedita Copalchines), directed by Ricardo Barahona and produced by Carlos Henríquez Consalvi.

“Fireflies in el Mozote”
and other books

The Museum’s research and production work has also led to printed materials. Luciérnagas en El Mozote (Fireflies in El Mozote) was the first work published by the Museum. Through the rescue of many and various testimonies, it reconstructed the story of El Mozote, when the Army massacred a thousand men, women and children in December 1981. After eight editions, it has become a compulsory reference in high schools and universities.

It published El Salvador: Unicórnio de la memoria (El Salvador, Unicorn of memory) by Michael Kramer, in 1988, in which the author offers a synthesis of El Salvador’s history from colonial times. The second edition, updated in September 2009, added documentation on the electoral triumph of Mauricio Funes in March of that year.

One of the books the Museum published for mass distribution is La Terquedad del Izote. La historia de Radio Venceremos (Izote’s stubbornness: The Radio Venceremos story), related in the form of a diary by Santiago, one of the clandestine guerrilla radio station’s main protagonists. The book first appeared in 1992 and has been reissued five times, the last in 2008, with 13,000 copies put in circulation.

The Museum published the work of Jeffrey L. Gould and Aldo Lauria-Santiago, 1932: Rebelión en la oscuridad (Rebellion in obscurity), product of their research into the 1932 uprising and massacre. It has also published Sagatara Mio, Salarrué, el último señór de los mares (Salarrué, the last lord of the seas), De mi jardín sin cultivo (From my uncultivated garden) and Morazán, recuerdos del futuro (Morazán, memories of the future).

History “from below”

Over the years, the Museum has mounted many different exhibitions: some dealing with the life and works of Salarrué, the movement from war to peace, the person of Roque Dalton, natural phenomena and, most recently, Monsignor Romero.

Interest in all these literary expressions by authors such as Roque Dalton, Salarrué, Alberto Masferrer, Pedro Geoffroy Rivas, Francisco Gavidia, Claudia Lars and María de Baratta; and the history of the silenced sectors, with women such as Prudencia Ayala and Amparo Casamalhuapa, or indigenous peoples, responds to the political desire to reconstruct history from a perspective that helps us understand the experience of the subordinate classes. “When we can feel what we call historical consciousness in a manuscript, a photo, an oral account,” explains Santiago, “when a poem or a novel rewrites the story of anonymous people and their lives, contorted by the collective history, we’re interested and we explore it. This is how history is made from below, a micro-history springing out of the layers of oblivion, giving us basic themes and people so we can understand ourselves and re-imagine ourselves; so we can reinvent ourselves.”

Museum without walls

From the beginning, public service has been fundamental to the Museum. As Santiago recalls: “Before we had a building, our strategy was to create the concept of a “museum without walls.” We had materials and produced exhibitions, but we didn’t have a place to show them. This concept of a “museum without walls” led us into using public arenas. Practically by assault, we took over the International Fair, the schools... During the early years we were a mobile museum, on tour all over the country.”

The first increases in the Museum’s technical team were three or four people who began organizing a range of itinerant activities. The idea was to travel through the country, presenting videos and organizing video forums, holding various exhibitions at the same time in different places, responding to various requests. The objective was to develop what the Museum called “Memory and social action.” This meant becoming part of the communities’ process of recovering their historical memory and identity, of reconstructing a project for the future with them.

From private silence
to public leadership

One of the campaigns that had the greatest impact was the series of public presentations of “1932: Scars of memory. This video has been shown to thousands of people in public debate and reflection events. Old people, who did not want to talk before, went through an extraordinary change on seeing the documentary; on seeing themselves recognized and becoming aware that the documentary and the events of 1932 were being talked about, even in the newspapers, “a previously taboo subject manipulated, by both the Left and the Right.”

Santiago recalls: “On seeing the documentary, people wanted to talk, wanted to tell their story, they felt heroic. The old people began to be recognized for their courage as transmitters of memory. We had fabulous cases of old people who, through this process and from the desire to talk, passed from oblivion to being well-known personalities in their towns.” Through the documentary, the people who gave their testimony could place that personal experience in the collective history. This allowed for “the transition from a domestic memory linked to a private arena, to a memory that occupies the public arena,” explained Santiago.

This film has been reproduced and presented in many places (schools, universities, cultural centers), even in activities not organized by the Museum. “Pirated DVD versions are now sold in the center of San Salvador. And, since the triumph of Funes, it has been shown on the government’s TV channel, something unimaginable in years past.”

The experience has convinced the Museum’s technical team of the enormous potential for communication and social empowerment made possible by video, “because people here read very little or are illiterate,” says Santiago. The combination of a specific audiovisual product, sensitive to the socio-cultural particularities of the population it’s aimed at, followed by public presentations and debate in their own communities, their own places, has allowed people to take on a cultural proposal and opened arenas for reflection about their identity and their history, about what’s worth remembering and how.

Three dimensions
to the audiovisuals

Santiago sees three dimensions to the role of audiovisuals. On the one hand, video gives “a sense of collective visualization” to a shared experience by helping in the transfer from private to public. In mutilated societies like Salvador’s, shattered by the systematic violations of human rights, this reconstruction of the collective memory acquires a restorative dimension. And if the event viewed becomes a public act, accompanied by collective debate and reflection, this experience becomes even more powerful.

On the other hand, the audiovisual “is like proof of what happened.” In wartime, many things that happened and were filmed were not common knowledge. Many of the videos made during those years were used by international solidarity for propaganda purposes rather than to inform the Salvadoran public. This is why seeing the materials filmed at that time is a “reencounter with history, whose magnitude some of us haven’t managed to grasp. It allows us to position ourselves like new spectators in a parallel reality to the one we’ve built.”

Finally, the use of audiovisuals acquires another perspective for the younger sector of the population. For years, history was hidden, fragmented, prohibited. We’ve lived with the consequences without really understanding the underlying causes. Audiovisuals help young people put images to different social processes. “They encounter a dispersed history.”

The power of the video forum

The methodology of the video forum or cine forum isn’t limited to this film. Activities of this type are the normal work of the Museum throughout the country, carried out by request, mostly from teachers and the heads of cultural centers. As Santiago explains: “One of the biggest successes happened spontaneously: the creation of a broad network of teachers and cultural promoters connected to the Museum. It has permitted us to leap forward. People come and get interested, they come once or twice with their students, then they call us to go and show the videos.” Like cultural centers, churches have taken on the Museum’s productions and use and circulate them in their parishes.

During 2009 about 4,000 students visited the Museum, not counting those who saw the exhibitions on tour. Because young people are accustomed to such technological products, audiovisuals of this type especially connect with their visual culture. Their positive response gives hope of being able to influence the “formation of a cultural citizenry,” explains Oscar Campos.

Restoring memory:
A social movement

For many years, the Museum’s publicity work has deeply connected with the Salvadoran people’s aspiration to recover its memory. When the Museum was being formed, the country had just come out of war and the human rights’ violations committed during that time remained unpunished. The social fabric had been shredded by political violence; and later by the climate of insecurity. The government didn’t deal with this situation and Salvadoran society’s demands for truth and justice met no response. Proposals like the Museum—to give meaning and a relevant public place to the historical facts being denied—found an echo at that special moment the country was passing through. “We went into the communities to learn. What did they want remembered? How did they want to be remembered and what did they want forgotten? This community work is what has enriched us most and opened up our eyes,” explains Santiago.

During the last few years El Salvador has created a monumental phenomenon that concerns the effort to recover the memories of the communities and of diverse social sectors throughout the country, particularly in the conflict zones . “There’s a very particular, special force that has a lot to do with Salvadoran identity,” explains Santiago.

Diverse initiatives across the country

Mario Sanchez was director until 2009 of Pro-Búsqueda, an association for the child victims of forced disappearance during the armed conflict, with whom the Museum has collaborated on various occasions. “Rather than one joint social movement,” he explains, “there are different collective initiatives promoting sustained action to rescue and foster historical memory at the community, local and even national level. This thirst manifests itself in different ways in parishes, committees and other civil initiatives: commemorating the assassination of important figures like Monsignor Romero or of massacres such as those in the Sumpul River or El Mozote. The names, data and information about the victims of human rights violations during massacres or forced disappearances are documented and recorded. Testimonies are collected from the survivors, exhumations and funeral rites are conducted with the remains of victims of massacres and executions. There is now a proposal to start legal proceedings for human rights violations both inside El Salvador and before the Inter-American legal system and US courts.

“Publications of testimonies by survivors of the armed conflict have appeared. A Monument to Memory and Truth was built in honor of civilians who were disappeared or killed during the armed conflict. There’s a movement to declare March 29, a day dedicated to the children disappeared during the armed conflict.’ Recently March 24 was established as ‘Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero Day.’ And there’s even a wide-ranging community tourism package, including activities related to the history of the armed conflict, basically aimed at El Salvador’s grassroots sectors and Salvadorans living abroad who come to visit their homeland.”

The initiative behind many of these activities to recover the historical memory is extremely local, initially coming from victims and survivors, who have never received recognition from the government of El Salvador and have had to make their declarations in a totally adverse climate. These are community actions, rooted in the places where the massacres were committed, and the forms of commemoration are deeply religious: Masses, ecumenical events and pilgrimages, where, as Sánchezo points out, the places of memory take on an element of sacredness.

This “movement” is also apparent in initiatives that, like the Museum, have tried to encourage cultural projects involving the restoration of historic memory. Initiatives that stand out include Imágenes Libres (Free Images), which is working to restore memory using photographs in the Photo Cafe Bar. The Central American University has made an enormous contribution to the documentation of national reality from different perspectives, with special emphasis on the audiovisual.

The movement to restore historical memory being developed in El Salvador in recent years “is built on the premise of ‘history from below.’ It is integrating subordinate histories that want to legitimize their voice and presence in order to prove that the past can’t be silenced,” says Santiago.

Democracy needs it

For the communities, the reconstruction of their history after the war has become part of a new identity linked to solidarity, dignity and respect for life. “There’s a deep-felt respect for human rights in the collective consciousness of the Salvadoran people, and the efforts to recover historical memory are linked to a debate on human dignity that connects to the words of Monsignor Romero, widely felt by the communities,” explains Mario Sánchez.

“Recovering historical memory from the victims’ perspective has the goal of declaring the right to truth when faced
with falsehood imposed by the power structures, and is linked to the vindication of other rights such as justice and full reparation,” he adds. The transition to democratic regimes that fail to incorporate these means of recognition and reparation ends in perpetuating false and unjust conditions.

The Museum of the Word and Image is linked to these distinct expressions of the movement to recover historical memory, both in an active role with its own cultural activities that give encouragement and force to broad sectors of the population, and by supporting other initiatives such as that of the Pro-Búsqueda Association to establish the Jon Cortina House-Museum in Guarjila, or helping the committee for the Monument to Victims of Human Rights’ Violations, built in San Salvador’s Cuscatlán Park.

“We trust people more”

The tremendous impetus for all these initiatives is that they come from peoples’ own organization, from civil society. For Santiago, the movement for memory represents the perspective of a third element involved in the armed conflict: civil society. It’s a voice that emerges from an experience of exile, of refugees, of citizens who lived with horror for many years. Civil society has taken a fundamental role in these processes.

For years the Salvadoran government didn’t want to know anything about the historical memory debate. It wasn’t to
its advantage to do so. With the political dynamic of the new government, new perspectives can be opened and certain positive steps have already been taken. Despite this, the civil organizations haven’t lowered their guard and are maintaining clear demands for authentic victim reparation, which still seems far away. Santiago takes a strategic view: “There’s a new government asking for forgiveness, beginning to offer some signs of recognizing the victims. This changes the perspective we’ve held for the last 20 years. But I continue to trust more in people and civil society as the driving force behind this movement .”


Ernest Cañada is a researcher and social communicator, and coordinator of the Catalonian NGO Alba Sud.

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