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Ex-Guerrillera Offers Memory of Women’s Struggle During El Salvador’s Civil War

October 9, 2013

I spent a long weekend in Morazán among compas, ex-guerilla members of the  FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) who are mostly now in their mid 40’s or older in age. The eastern part of El Salvador is where many leftist participants of the Civil War reside as it was also the birthplace of strong campesin@ movement that supplemented the revolutionary armed force to overthrow a capitalist oligarchy that to this day, reigns power in the small country. Here in Morazán many people continue to work the land growing coffee, maize, güisquil, and other crops for their families and to sell to local in small pueblos like Osicala and Perquín.

Men were the most vocal about the very recent history of violence and daily life as combat fighters and logistical workers in the FMLN. Trauma pain and romanticism wrestled in their eyes with every account they shared with me. I found that women were usually more reserved about their experiences. In the case of Irma, stony manners in which some of the male compas spoke about the violence they witnessed triggered traumatic feelings for her to the point where she would become disturbed and excuse herself from the room. I quickly sensed that recalls of violence, which often dominate discourses of wartime, would not be a center of focus for our interview.

Irma, an ex-guerrilla from Morazán, offered intimate memories on the challenges she and her compañeras, or female comrads, endured during the first years of El Salvador’s Civil War that lasted from 1979-1992. “When I joined the struggle, I started training to be a nurse. When I finished, the time came for me to work on a wounded person, I hesitated. I didn’t like the blood and wounds. I just couldn’t get myself to do it! They (the guerrillas) told me “You are no good for this.” So they moved me to the kitchen. I would spend my time grinding maize, cooking, and washing. Then I said, “I didn’t join this struggle to work in the kitchen!” I said I wouldn’t do it anymore. Luckily I already knew how to sew so they agreed to let me be a sewer. I got a sewing machine and I would sew clothes and make backpacks for them. Everyone had to carry their own equipment so I hauled my sewing machine everywhere we went.” Eventually she took the role of community organizer in several pueblos and moved away from the combat environment.

Irma grew up as a campesina and learned an array of domestic and agricultural skills by the time she joined the armed struggle in her late teens. Irma, like many, learned quickly how to survive in the mountains and trenches of the war.  “The men never wanted the women to be on the frontlines of combat. They didn’t like when women got hurt but some women really insisted and didn’t let anyone stop them. Some women I knew would be right up there with the men with their guns. Some were even better than the men.” Some women walked the frontlines but Irma also recalled that even more women partook in the logistical organizing and the “behind the scenes” jobs.

 Irma (right) and her younger brother, Chiyo (left) in Morazan, El Salvador, 2013. Photo by Arlene Mejorado

Irma (right) and her younger brother, Chiyo (left) in Morazan, El Salvador, 2013. Photo by Arlene Mejorado

Irma discussed more intimate challenges with a slight grin of relief that it was over.  “We looked for places to bathe in the rural areas. I would sneak away when I would find water to bath but we would only get a small piece of soap and when it finished we suffered.” She added, “Women and men helped each other. When we got our period, it was really hard because sometimes we would cross deep rivers and the water went up to our chest. Our clothes would get dirty and people could notice. We wouldn’t have anything to change into. The men would let us use their clean underwear or their pants. Sometimes even then men would wear our underwear when they didn’t have any. We had to switch clothes all the time! There was a lot of trust that grew between us all.” This type of personal solidarity was key to establishing what they call compañerismo, or comradism, where everyone supported each other through hardships of all kinds and create a family in the mountains bounded by a shared ideology for a better life and an effort to eliminate the powers of marginalization and oppression.

I asked her about how these young women dealt with pregnancy and how the issue was treated in a militant environment. Irma explained “It was really difficult when women got pregnant during the war. They had to leave. The guerrillas would send them to the refugee camp in Honduras until they had their baby. Sometimes they wouldn’t leave the war until they were already five months along and showing. They would have their baby in the Mesa Grande Refugee camp and leave behind to be taken care of. They would come back because the guerrillas needed them but they would be so sad because they had to leave their little baby behind. You couldn’t take your kids with you. It was too dangerous and difficult. Someone else had to take care of them for you and you had to return to El Salvador.” Irma added that no one had the right to walk away from the guerilla war and that it was difficult to express a contrary opinion because there was surveillance within the FMLN to this. This concluded to be the most serious criticism she had 30 years after her participation in the movement.

Today, she lives comfortably in her home in Morazán and though she has no children, she proudly takes on the role as the mother of many helping family and community members by offering food or housing when needed. Her mother and six of her eight siblings were killed in the Civil War. The traumas of her losses still breath like fresh wounds but I observed how her acts of compassion and bits of humor served as medicine as she continues to be visited by loved ones and international peoples that look forward to learning from the wisdom and social analysis she gained through her experience.

Arlene Mejorado