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By Phil Hall | September 29, 2003

On January 22, 1932, thousands of peasants in the western part of El Salvador launched an insurrection that resulted in the capture of four towns and unprecedented attacks on several local military garrisons. The insurrection only lasted three days, but the response of the El Salvador military to the uprising was brutal. For a month afterwards, military squadrons roamed the countryside and engaged in a wide scale massacre of peasants, regardless of whether they actually took place in the uprising. It is estimated that 10,000 peasants were killed by the military, the majority of them of indigenous Indian heritage.

The documentary “1932: Cicatriz de la Memoria” (Scars of Memory) provides an excellent historic record of this tragic chapter in Central American history. The incidents are barely known beyond El Salvador and for many years the story of 1932 could not be openly recalled within the country itself. The film is culled from four years of interviews that included more than 200 Salvadorans, including many elderly peasants who barely survived the carnage of seven decades ago.

The roots of “1932: Cicatriz de la Memoria” are wide and deep. The worldwide economic depression hit El Salvador hard with the drop in global coffee pricing, which in turn resulted in dramatically lower wages for the peasants working in the coffee fields of the country’s western region. Coupled with this was the 1931 military coup of General Hernandez Martinez, who squashed long-promised land reforms and instilled a fraudulent electoral process that kept his supporters in power.

At the time came Communist organizers who first pushed to bring social and economic reforms to the Salvadoran poor via the election process. When the Martinez fraud denied Communist candidates access to political offices which they felt they won, the push towards armed insurrection began. The January 22, 1932 revolt was relatively small in scope, with only 20 civilians and 30 soldiers killed. Yet the insurrection forces completely lacked the military power and funding to keep their revolution active and the demise of their rebellion was hardly unexpected.

What most Salvadorans did not expect, however, was the unparalleled brutality that followed when the government and military sought retribution. In several towns, all men over the age of 12 were taken away and shot to death. In other towns, anyone who even voted for a Communist politician or received an invitation to a Communist meeting was killed. Bullet-riddled bodies were so commonplace along roadsides that many were either dumped in mass graves or buried on the spot where they were found.

The retribution went even deeper, with concentrated efforts to wipe out the indigenous culture of the Indians in the region. The speaking of native languages and the wearing of native clothing was actively discouraged, to the point that these people nearly lost their heritage forever. And the few Indians who retained land titles had their property taken from them.

When the 1980 civil war began in El Salvador, it seemed like 1932 all over again with military death squads running amok through the country. But unlike 1932, the world was paying attention (particularly with the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero) and the rebels were well-armed and ready to fight back. A 12-year civil war followed, and it was only after the 1992 peace accords that democracy could finally be allowed to thrived in El Salvador and the truth about the past could be openly discussed.

No newsreel footage of these events exists, and the only photographic records are from a few gruesome photographs of the piled-up bodies of dead peasants. If any newspaper coverage of the massacres was produced by the Salvadoran media of 1932, it did not find its way into this film. Rather, the film intercuts footage of peasant labor and holidays to illustrate what peasant life in El Salvador was like, but a careful eye can detect that such footage was shot in later decades and thus seems more like padding.

The strength of the film, however, comes from those who lived through the horrors. The peasants interviewed in “1932: Cicatriz de la Memoria” provide an articulate and often harrowing tale of their nation’s bloody past and the political terror which destroyed their lives. The people on camera never get emotional or melodramatic, but provide a clear voice of lingering fear and unhealed wounds of that distant era. Anger (albeit of a muted tone) is leveled in equal parts at the privileged elite who ruled El Salvador at the time, the military for massacring their own people, and the Communist organizers for failing to lead the peasants into the Marxist utopia they promised. Surprisingly there is no rancor at the Catholic Church, especially since in several towns the local clergy assisted the military in identifying those who should be targeted for the death squads. If any soldiers who took part in the killings survived to the present, they were not interviewed for this film.

While El Salvador now enjoys a political freedom it long lacked, its socio-economic state does not seem to have changed much since 1932. Poverty is widespread and racially skewered, with the vast majority of the nation’s indigenous population living in conditions that could charitably described as wretched. The film ends on a somewhat strident tone by suggestion that another revolution could occur in El Salvador if the socio-economic disparity is not addressed soon. The film offers no evidence that any possible revolt is in the works, which makes this pronouncement seem a bit harsh and shrill, nor does it provide any clue regarding what the current Salvadoran government is doing to rectify this matter. This lapse is regrettable, as “1932: Cicatriz de la Memoria” is a well-researched documentary and the lack of obvious answers for the future seems a curious lapse.

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