El Salvador Presente

On March 16, 2009, Mauricio Funes won the presidency of El Salvador as the candidate of the former rebel guerrilla army, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). The electoral victory is a momentous event for El Salvador, representing the culmination of a long and often exceedingly gruesome struggle to shape the nation into a functioning democratic society - yet, there is still a long way to go; the bitter wounds of war are just now beginning to heal.

"El Salvador Presente" (El Salvador is Present) Mark Vallen 1994. Lithograph - 14" x 18" inches

"El Salvador Presente" (El Salvador is Present) Mark Vallen 1994. Lithograph.

I have not, over the decades, been a dispassionate observer of El Salvador’s people and their tortured steps towards emancipation. I feel a blood kinship with them. In the 1980s the war in El Salvador was headline news in the U.S., and its savagery brought tears to the eyes of anyone who bothered to pay attention to the affairs of the tiny Central American nation and its long suffering people. My own life was altered in 1979 when I began to come into contact with those Salvadoran refugees who were fleeing their war torn homeland for the safety of Los Angeles.

The horrific war stories from El Salvador that shaped and influenced a variety of responses from the American public were overwhelming and unfortunately in great abundance, and I personally heard many harrowing tales from the mouths of refugees in Los Angeles. While it is beyond the scope of this web log to recount the intricacies of Salvadoran history and politics, there are some news stories that simply can not be ignored or brushed aside - even until this day.

El Salvador’s brutal civil war started in 1980, continued for 12 years, and took the lives of some 75,000 Salvadorans. Paramilitary right-wing death squads terrorized the nation - kidnapping, torturing, and murdering untold thousands. In February 1977, Oscar Arnulfo Romero was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador, and during his archbishopric the Church came under direct military persecution for administering to the nation’s poor campesinos. From 1977 to 1979, six Catholic priests were assassinated by right-wing death squads. In March of 1980 Romero himself was gunned down by a death squad assassin while giving mass. The day before he had called upon government troops to stop carrying out repression and human rights violations against the Salvadoran people. Some eight months later three American nuns and a lay missionary visiting the country were kidnapped, raped, and murdered by the Salvadoran army, who suspected the nuns of being guerrilla sympathizers.

Profoundly moved by these heartrending stories I created a number of artworks in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, documenting the war and its impact upon the people of El Salvador. It is no exaggeration for me to say that the conflagration in El Salvador, indeed, the wars that raged all across Central America during that decade, were a major focus for a great number of American artists. From New York City to Los Angeles, artists organized exhibitions and auctions with proceeds going to Central American refugee organizations. Artists tirelessly produced posters and flyers calling for an end to the war, and more than a few big name artists contributed works or statements to the cause of peace and justice in the region.

Two years after El Salvador’s civil war ended in 1992, I would create my drawing, El Salvador Presente, a visual summation of my attitude towards that Central American nation’s long conflict. “Presente” (Present), can be a word called out after the name of someone deceased is mentioned, it is a way of acknowledging that the person’s spirit is still with us. My drawing carries a reference to the slain Archbishop, whose name is seen emblazoned on a cross carried by the demonstrators I depicted. In 1994 my drawing was published as a front cover for the independent political journal, CrossRoads, along with the following statement from me:

“Over the years I have learned many invaluable lessons from the Salvadoran people - lessons concerning what it means to love and sacrifice for a community, about the indispensability of culture in that struggle, lessons regarding faith and irrepressible human spirit. This work expresses the gratitude and indebtedness I feel for receiving these gifts.”

Without a doubt the war in El Salvador changed the face of America, some 2 million Salvadoreños now live in the U.S., with most of them calling L.A. home. It may appear that my drawing portrays a scene from a Salvadoran city like Chalatenango, Soyapango, or Zacatecoluca, but in actuality all of my models were Salvadoreños found on the streets of Los Angeles. The two Americas are inextricably bound together, and the ideas I expressed in my ‘94 statement seem more relevant than ever. El Salvador has entered an entire new phase in its search for social justice and equality - we have all crossed that threshold together.

Comments are closed.