Winter in El Salvador

Winters in Central America last from May to September. Though the very concept of winter is quite different in Central America than in most of North America, there are frequent storms during that time. They are usually brief and they are magnificent. In the late afternoon, thunderheads slide across the sky, towering thousands of feet upwards, then suddenly the heavens open up. Though the rain is almost as warm as the sea, drops the size of marbles fall, driven with such force they literally thump against your head.

During a tropical storm lightning bolts slice open the sky, unleashing a thundering crash. People on their way home from work take refuge where they can, holding sagging wet newspapers over their already drenched heads, clothes clinging to them tight. They huddle beneath awnings, in doorways, running across streets that quickly flood, workers enduring the downpour, unable to seek true refuge waiting as they are for their bus. (Despite such frequent storms, no one seems to own an umbrella nor a raincoat.) Then, as suddenly as the storm began, it ends. The air is fresh and clean and sweet, and the wonderful array of tropical plants that thrive in even the most impoverished areas seem refreshed. And in the morning, leaves appear to be longer and trees taller.

Three Brothers In San Salvador

While in San Salvador, we visited all of my wife’s three brothers. Two of them had made the long and difficult trip to the United States years before and during the war. They worked very hard while in the U.S. and sent money back to their families. One was arrested by la migra after just six months in the United States, deported after a sixty-day stay in a concentration camp for undocumented workers. The other returned to El Salvador after a year: he simply could not bear to be away from his home and family any longer. Besides, life in North America was very difficult: his employers had treated him poorly, and it was tough to make ends meet with the low wages he received and the high cost of living in the United States. The constant threat of detection by la migra also began to fray his nerves. But the main reason my wife’s brother returned was that he missed his family and his country.

My wife’s oldest brother, Chaca, never made the trip to the United States. His wife Marta died of cancer at the age of thirty-five, leaving him alone to raise three girls and two boys. If Marta’s disease had been detected at an early stage, she probably would still be alive today.

Though medical care is free in El Salvador (it was at the time this article was penned), Marta had postponed seeing her doctor when the first symtoms of her disease appeared. With five children, it was hard for her to find the time to go to the hospital. In 1980 it was also a dangerous trip to make given the fact that the war had began and one never knew if they might get caught in a battle’s crossfire or a sweep by the National Guard. Marta hoped that her symptoms would simply go away. By the time she went to the hospital, it was too late: she was dying. Chaca never recovered from the loss of his wife. Seventeen years passed since her death, yet the mere mention of her name still brings tears to his eyes. My wife had not seen her brother Chaca for twenty years. An emotional man, when the day arrived for us to return to the United States, he could not bear to see his sister leave.

Chaca’s Home

During our visit we spent an evening at Chaca’s home, a small, cement-walled apartment in San Salvador. His three daughters and two sons were there with him, all three daughters now with children of their own. While a tropical storm raged outside, indoors the apartment was full of adults and children, family that had gathered to see my wife, our children, and me. Though I had never met most of the twenty people gathered there that night, it did not matter: To them, we were all family. Their love for all of us was as strong and abundant as the rain that fell outside.

Throughout Latin America, the family unit remains strong despite outside pressures that seem bent on destroying it. Though there are a few beggars on the streets of the cities, most are young alcoholic men with no family ties, or others that for one reason or another are alone. The simple rule in Latin America is this: Take care of your own. It does not matter if family members are old, disabled, sick, or if they are dreadful human beings. As a general rule, all are cared for until they die. When someone is abandoned by the family, there is usually a damn good reason why.

But such traditional family values are under attack. The greatest threat to traditional family values is the same force that supported the military during the war — the North American ruling class. They have found a new weapon now, one that is far more effective than the land mines and helicopters and other military aid they provided the dictatorship during the civil war. This new and highly effective weapon is the television set.

More and more Salvadorean families watch TV now, viewing soap operas, talk shows filmed in Miami, and movies with subtitles or Spanish dubbing. When they are not viewing broadcasts that originate from the United States, they are watching Mexican productions, which tend to be Spanish-language imitations of North American programming, or Hollywood movies, often in English.

Television is beginning to have the same effect on Salvadoreans as it has on North Americans: many families no longer talk to each other in the evenings, or even during the day. They sit and watch and listen as they are bombarded with values that emphasize the importance of the individual and the merits of crass materialism. Other who watch are simply lulled to sleep, dreaming of riches and pleasures they can experience if only they learn to live and act and think like the movie stars and sports heros they see on TV.

A growing number of Salvadoreans now view the world largely through the lens of the North American media — programs that rain down upon them like propaganda leaflets dropped in a war zone. It is little wonder that many young Salvadoreans want desperately to learn English and to eat hamburgers at McDonalds; more and more young people think their lives will be infinitely better if they buy computers and CD’s, play rock and rap music, buy expensive athletic shoes, and own an automobile or a motorcycle.

In short, a growing number of Salvadoreans are learning what most North Americans already know, having been properly educated during a lifetime defined by television: They are learning that in order to be successful, one must think of his or herself as “number one,” and that there is nothing more glorious than personal and financial success. Yet in order to be a modern individual and to achieve such dreams, it is essential that one toss aside old ideas, outdated values, and anyone or anything that stands in the way of personal success. And perhaps the biggest obstacle confronting those who want to move ahead in Latin America are the “burdens” imposed by the family.

The Evangelical Movement in El Salvador

Prior to the civil war, North American evangelists sent missionaries to El Salvador to recruit new members for their movement. Although the vast majority of Salvadoreans have been devout Catholics since the Spanish Conquest, some, prodded in part by evangelists from North America, began to become disillusioned by the Church. Many were disturbed by the behavior of unscrupulous priests who took advantage of people by exacting gifts and other favors.

By the time the war started, there were other conditions that gave rise to the Protestant movement: When The Terror was unleashed, many Christians were frightened by threats made by the dictatorship against the Church, then led by Archbishop Oscar Romero (who was soon assassinated by the death squads due to his impassioned pleas for justice and peace). Others simply felt the need for a rigid faith that gave them the strength to endure the horrors of war.

There were other spiritual factors that opened the door for Evangelists as well. The Church never stressed Bible study, and prior to the war, delivered Mass in Latin, a language not understood by the poor, the peasantry, nor the working class. Prayer was not an individual experience and consisted primarily of repeating memorized tracts provided by the Church. Evangelists, on the other hand, preached in Spanish, stressed Bible study and a “personal relationship with Christ.” Given the horrors that existed during the war, many were attracted to this individual approach to salvation.

Evangelist leaders were also much more judgmental than Catholic priests and spoke out against what they characterized as “immoral lifestyles.” In this sense, many who were unhappy with what they considered to be hypocritical behavior by members of the Church were attracted to a form of Christianity that was uncompromising and, at least on the surface, demanded strict obedience to Biblical canon.

The Hidden Agenda of U.S. Evangelists

Many if not all of the evangelical groups that descended on Central America had their own agendas that had little to do with faith or salvation. Economic and political factors inspired them to launch “crusades” there. Backed by right-wing groups in the United States posing as religious movements, Evangelists traveled to Central America and stressed the importance of following “the Scriptures,” or at least the most important ones, which happened to back up their political agenda. While they continued to emphasize the need to develop a “personal relationship” with Christ, they also demanded that “good Christians” remain apolitical. In the context of the upheavals in Central America and the repression that existed, such views objectively translated into silent support for the dictatorship.

Render Unto Ceasar What Is Ceasar’s

The vast majority of Salvadorean Evangelists are from the working class and the peasantry. Prior to conversion, many were sympathetic to the rebels who were fighting for social change. But when evangelist ministers stressed that the faithful “must render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” what they meant was that Jesus Christ demands that one support one’s government unless, of course, it is controlled by “godless communists.” Since ministers and the rich depicted the rebels in just such terms, it was clear that Jesus had chosen sides.

There were a series of events that began to raise doubts in the minds of many Latin American evangelists about the honesty and integrity of the North American missionaries. A sequence of economic and sexual scandals rocked the world Evangelical empire. Jerry Falwell, once a beloved secular figure in El Salvador, fell from grace when it was learned that he had a particularly lascivious affair with a prostitute. Other protestant superstars were likewise discredited when caught embezzling church funds and committing a host of other crimes. Having lost confidence in their breathren to the north, many local pastors established independent congregations in barrios and villages with few or no ties to the North Americans.

The War Years

During the war most working class and peasant evangelists did not support the Salvadorean government. But they didn’t support the FMLN either. Though there were differences between congregations and sects, most advocated a strict apolitical position, believing that as Christians, they should not get involved in politics. However, something happened during the war which changed the view of many of those who were no longer under the direct influence of North American “missionaries.”

El Mozote

In December of 1981, the Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadorean Army, an elite fighting unit that was the first to be trained my U.S. military advisers, slaughtered nearly one thousand peasants at El Mozote, a small town in northern Morazán. It would not be until after the war that most Salvadoreans learned what happened there. When the truth was finally revealed, people across the nation were stunned.

The massacre was not the first nor the last committed by the Salvadorean Army and National Guard, though it was particularly gruesome. Most of the victims were women, children, and the elderly. Those who attempted to flee the search and destroy mission, one supported by heavy artillery and helicopter gunships, were slain as they attempted to cross the Sumpal River into Honduras. According to an account filed by the presbytery of the Copán Diocese and quoted by Raymond Bonner is his book Weakness and Deceit: U.S. Policy and El Salvador, “Women (were) tortured before the finishing shot, infants (were) thrown into the air for target practice.”

Rumors of the massacre circulated in El Salvador before the end of the war, but were not confirmed until the Peace Commission created by the Peace Accords established that the slaughter had indeed occurred. It also confirmed the ghastly details: In addition to butchering women and children, the army set their homes on fire. Bodies were likewise burned, including victims who were still alive. As columns of smoke rose up in the sky and the air was filled by shouts and the stench of burning bodies, soldiers laughed and joked among themselves.

Before the massacre, the FMLN had reason to suspect the army had plans to wipe out the villagers of El Mozote. An officer of the Salvadorean Army who had defected joined the guerillas, bringing along a sophisticated radio that enabled them to learn of enemy movements. The rebels intercepted messages that indicated El Mozote would be a target of a search and destroy mission, since the army believed villagers there supported the guerrillas.

Members of el frente, upon learning of the government’s plan, secretly rushed to El Mozote and urged the villagers to flee. At that time the FMLN did not have sufficient forces to defend the village. Most of the men followed their advice, many taking their families with them. However, many women and children remained behind, as did many elderly residents who assumed that government troops were only interested in exterminating potential guerrillas, especially young men. They were tragically mistaken. Among those who remained behind were many Evangelists who believed that since they had remained steadfastly neutral during the war, they would not be harmed. They were exterminated with the others.

When congregations of Salvadorean Evangelists learned of the bloodbath years later, it was a shocking revelation. Government troops had massacred their brothers and sisters, most of whom were women and children. For many, the revelations of the slaughter revived feelings they had buried deep inside for years. After a lifetime of being exploited by the wealthy, deep-seated feelings of resentment and anger began to reemerge. As a result, many Salvadorean evangelists now support the FMLN.

North American Evangelists

There are still groups of North American evangelists who make the trek to El Salvador, ostensively to save souls. One can easily spot them at the airport in San Salvador. Wearing “Jesus Loves You!” teeshirts, white, middle class youths chant and carry on like cheerleaders at a football game. But their influence now is generally limited to those who are desparate and forced to receive the gifts they bring. El Mozote was a turning point for the entire nation. Though most Salvadorean evangelists continue to cling to their faith, their political views have been indelibly shaped by the murders of one thousand innocent people in a small town in Morazán just before Christmas in 1981.

(J.P. Bone is the author of the novel Illegals.)