I came to El Salvador as a volunteer with Art Corps, an organization that places artists in residence with Central American communities. Art Corps’ mission is to share art as a tool to engage participation and raise awareness of social and environmental issues. Using theater to restore historic memory affirms the dignity of personal experience, enables people to view their lives in new ways, demonstrates compassion and social nurturing, and draws people closer as they witness their common humanity. It is a model for building empathy and peace in a fractured world. For the survivors at Quesera, their families, and their supporters, popular theater opened a space for the community to remember together, to heal and commit to creating a world where this would never happen again.
Tierra Arrasada: Scorched Earth
The La Quesera massacre, which took place between October 20-24, 1981, was part of the Salvadoran government’s Tierra Arrasada, Scorched Earth, policy. Besides committing widespread acts of rape and torture, the army burned everything to the ground: crops, homes, animals and people. The government initiated the policy, inspired by their US sponsors, as a means to uproot popular dissent.
The Army strategy was to "quitarle el agua al pez" or "drain water away from the fish." Under "Scorched Earth," villages were systematically wiped out for harboring potential "guerilla sympathizers." Children were specifically targeted to eliminate the risk of becoming future guerillas. In the process, between 70,000 and 80,000 civilians were killed between 1980 and 1992. A United Nations-sponsored Truth Commission found that the Salvadoran Armed Forces were responsible for 95% of the human rights violations committed during that period.
In La Quesera, the survivors did not talk about what happened during those four fatal days. The government certainly did not talk about it. Memories were buried under the scorched earth for 20 years until 2001, when a local priest, Padre Pedro, was preaching about the importance of commemorating the martyrs of the better-known El Mozote massacre.
"When are you going to speak about our martyrs? When are we going to talk about our massacre?" asked one woman, bravely interrupting the mass.
"What massacre?" Padre Pedro responded, and the truth of a buried history was unearthed. Since then, a support group of survivors has been meeting to process the trauma. Survivors have exhumed mass graves to rebury remains and restore dignity to the dead. The support group purchased land on the Loma de Pájaro, one of the hills where the massacre took place, where they constructed a small monument and a painted mural under a dove-shaped roof. For the last five years, they have returned to this land to pray and commemorate their loved ones. In conjunction with the Legal Protection Office of the Archbishop of San Salvador, survivors recently filed suit to force the government to recognize the massacre and hold military personnel accountable.
Using Theater to Restore Historic Memory
My residence took place in the rural flatlands of the Bajo Lempa, where I worked to form popular theater groups with youth and develop their skills as community leaders and actors. Through theater, we engaged our audiences in reflection and dialogue about important issues such as global warming, climate justice, gang violence, the impacts of CAFTA, the prevention of AIDS and youth pregnancy, disaster preparedness and the importance of a unified community.
The youth were finding their voices and honing their skills as artists and activists. Using community-building and trust exercises from Theatre of the Oppressed along with creative writing, acting, movement and improvisation, they learned to work together as a team and lose their fear of expressing themselves in public. Their self-esteem grew and they began to see themselves as capable and active members of their communities. Through the pre- and post-performance reflections, the young actors learned to think critically about the problems they confront, analyze the causes and engage in dialogue about possible solutions. These skills are important in a region in which one third of the population has immigrated due to high unemployment and scarce resources.
The day that the Quesera survivors piled into our truck, there were new faces: a group of youth from Teatro de Jóvenes Luchadores or Youth-in-Struggle Theater. The youth were meeting with the surviors to develop a piece that would be performed at a special event commemorating the 25th anniversary of the massacre. The young actors’ faces were pensive and observant as they rode in the back of the pickup, their eyes full of questions as the survivors talked and laughed amongst each other.
We arrived and sat down in a circle. As Luisa spoke, her hands and voice shook. "We lived in conditions of extreme poverty. We didn’t have any rights, not even to education or health care. Although we were illiterate, we knew the word of God. We worked long hours to feed our families. They were killing people in the streets. We were so afraid that we couldn’t leave our houses. We thought, "Things are going to pass" but they only got worse."
They killed our animals. They burned our crops. The National Guard would arrive at our doors with a list of people to kill, interrogating us.
And the words continued to spill along with the tears .
We found my brother’s body without his head. We could only recognize him by the pants he was wearing. The air was filled with a horrible smell because the river was full of bodies.
We saw the bodies being eaten by dogs.
Chici shared her courageous story of refusing to leave her injured comrades, even though it meant risking her own life. If they kill me, they kill me. I’m not going to leave them.
She carried her wounded friends into a doubled-over cornfield where they hid for 8 days. She scrounged for roots to eat and sang revolutionary songs to keep their spirits alive.
Elsa broke her silence publicly that day for the first time. She talked about what it was like to live for so many years without telling a soul, of the fear of persecution, of the isolation and fear that she had suffered. I couldn’t trust anyone, not even my husband or my kids. They didn’t know what I had lived through. Vicenta told us what Elsa could not yet share directly, of seeing her mother and sister killed in front of her. And the other horrors, we were left to imagine.
I asked them why they had decided to break the silence after twenty long years. We heard many responses.
We couldn’t allow for our people to be erased from memory.
We have to name the injustice.
We never want it to happen again.
This was echoed many times throughout the room.
We never want it to happen again.
We never want it to happen again.
The phrase became the name of our theater piece:
¡Qué No Se Vuelva a Repetir!
The youth listened to their elders with respect, awed by what they had survived through. So many of these second-generation youth carry similar legacies. Most of them are the sons and daughters of guerrilleros and have family members who have also been tortured, disappeared and killed.
The rehearsal process was both challenging and transformative as the youth learned to trust each other and meet the demands of working with such horrific stories. They began to assume responsibility of the sacred task they had been given and allowed themselves to open to the pain and the struggle that the survivors had shared. Step by step, the piece began to take shape.
The Big Day
Shortly before the event, we met again with the survivors so that the youth could look into the eyes of those they would be representing. Through the artistic process of honoring the stories of their elders, the youth would find their own voice in claiming and creating history. Art would become their weapon to demand justice.
The day of December 28th, the Feast of the Holy Innocents, had arrived. Amidst a crowd of 500 people, the survivors were seated directly in front of the stage and the air was thick with anticipation. The youth were nervous and we quickly formed a circle backstage to do our warm-up exercises.
Their performance was powerful and the message rang out over the blood-soaked land. The survivors watched their suffering transformed into an act of creation and witnessed their own courage and dignity with tears in their eyes.
To bear witness to the truth can shake us to the core. There are powerful forces – personal, social, and political – urging us to suppress the real story. Yet these communities recognized the need to face the truth of the past in order to imagine a positive future. As the youth claim in their production: "Un pueblo que recuerda, lucha." People who remember [their past], fight [for their future]."
By establishing a culture of remembrance, the voice of the people is awakened once again. The youth cry out in the name of the survivors: "¡Declaramos que tenemos una voz! ¡Y vamos a usarla!" "We declare that we have a voice and we are going to use it!"
Aryeh Shell is a repatriated ex-pat and former Art Corp volunteer and currently live in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The theater project is touring the Quesera performance nationally as a means to reconstruct the country’s historical awareness and call for a peaceful future. If you would like to support this project financially, please contact La Coordinadora through the Foundation for Self-Sufficiency in Central America: http://fssca.net