Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 403 | Febrero 2015


El Salvador

Progress, but still unpaid debts to the country’s indigenous peoples

“We want to be the first government to make an act of contrition in the name of the Salvadoran people, and ask the indigenous communities for forgiveness for the persecution and extermination suffered for so many years. From this day forward we’re officially ending the long denial of the diversity of our peoples…” That statement was made on October 12, 2010, and following it the government of Mauricio Funes initiated substantial changes regarding indigenous peoples. There has been important progress, but debts remain.

Elaine Freedman

January 22 marked the 83rd anniversary of the 1932 uprising and massacre of indigenous people and peasants. That year, three days after the capture of Farabundo Martí, Alfonso Luna, Mario Zapta and three other peasants, thousands of Salvadorans, the majority of them indigenous, carrying only machetes and pickaxes, a few Mauser rifles and one or two pistols, took control of a dozen towns in the west of the country: Izalco, Nahuizalco, Sonzacate, Salcoatitán and Juayúa in the department of Sonsonate; Tacuba in Ahuachapán; and Teotepeque, Colón, Armenia and Tepecoyo in La Libertad. They also attempted to take over the garrisons in the departmental capitals of Sonsonate, Ahuachapán and Santa Tecla, controlling the roads and cutting off communications. In these towns, the rebels installed Communist Party mayoral candidates who had been the victims of fraud or whose victory had been otherwise annulled in the elections held 19 days earlier. In Juayúa, rebel leader Francisco Sánchez collected all the land titles and drew up a plan to give the land to indigenous people.

The 1932 insurrection and massacre

The factors that led to this inevitable armed uprising included repressive legislation and the plundering of indigenous communal land over 50 years, turning the mostly indigenous peasantry into day laborers for the coffee plantations; the 1929 global crisis of capitalism; systematic repression of working class and grassroots organizing and action; and the electoral fraud in the municipal and congressional elections of January 3, 1932, in which the newly-formed Communist Party had participated and even won in the places mentioned.

Feliciano Ama and other indigenous leaders organized the uprising, which was then joined by the Communist Party. Jorge Arias Gómez summed up the moment this way: “The fast moving events led the Central Committee to fulfil its revolutionary duty to not abandon the masses through a resolute determination to participate in the armed uprising, regardless of the risks and painful sacrifices.” And Roque Dalton concluded, “Caught with their backs to the wall, the Communists made the heroic choice to take up arms, to die at the side of the people.”

The response of El Salvador’s President, General Maximiliano Hernández, was swift and brutal. In less than 72 hours the rebels were defeated. Although they had considerable support from ordinary people, they lacked weapons, training and military planning. In towns such as Nahuizalco and Tacuba, almost all the men who were unable to hide were murdered, young and old alike. More than 30,000 people died in the 1932 massacre.

The 1524 Conquest

That wasn’t the first decimation of the country’s native population. In June 1524, Pedro de Alvarado arrived in Cuscatlán from Guatemala, together with some 250 Spanish soldiers and 6,000 indigenous people.

The area they invaded was inhabited by several ethnic groups, principally the Pipiles, the Maya-Chortís and the Lencas. The Pipiles were the main group in the western part of the territory, while the Maya-Pokomames occupied small areas in the north and west and the Lenca-Kakawiras lived in the east and northeast. The four densest populations were the Izalcos, in the western region, the Cuscatláns in the central region, the Nonualcos in and around the central region and the Lencas in the east. According to historian Rodolfo Barón Castro, the indigenous population at that time was between 116,000 and 130,000.

In one of his first letters to Spain, Pedro de Alvarado declared, “As I wished to clear land and discover its secrets, so as to serve your majesty even more and so that you should have dominion over more territories, I decided to head out. In that place they speak a different language and the natives of that place were in fact different people.”

According to historian Santiago Barberena, the first town the invaders found was Nahuizalco but it was abandoned as the inhabitants (Mojicalcos) had hidden in the forest. The same thing happened when they arrived at Izalco. At “The Conquest Well,” which still exists in the outskirts of the town, Alvarado, who had yet to win a battle, nonetheless demanded that the inhabitants submit to Spain. The conquistadores encountered a series of abandoned towns before meeting the first armed resistance in Tacuxcalco, close to Acajutla. The Pipiles put up fierce resistance, causing significant deaths and injuries, including to Alvarado himself. Nevertheless, the conquistadores’ military power, including horses and guns, was far superior.

Three centuries of
plunder and dispossession

Battle continues to be an important symbol of dignity and rebellion in the face of domination, but it failed to stop the political, economic, social and cultural plunder that began in 1524, in which the Catholic Church played an especially important role. The historical alliance between the sword and the cross was at the heart of a domination and cultural plunder that was just as destructive as physical annihilation.

The Spanish imposed the encomienda system which placed groups of indigenous people, the encomendados, under the “protection” of a Spaniard for whom they worked without pay and to whom they paid tribute in kind. Cacao, cotton, indigo and balsam were cultivated with indigenous people’s labor and traded by the Spanish, who in this way began the appropriation of communal land to establish their farms.

Colonization led to the complete dispossession of the indigenous peoples and the creation of a new, racially-based order. The ruling class was made up of those who had been born in and arrived from Spain and their successors, the criollos, Spanish sons born in the colony. Parallel to that, the mestizos (the children of Spanish or criollo fathers and indigenous mothers) began to appear and increase in numbers. They were given the role of administrators or worked in skilled manual labor, although they did not have the right to own private property. Indigenous people made up the lowest class, working as slaves on the land appropriated by the ruling class.

The 1830 Nonualco rebellion

Central American independence in 1821 brought no improvement for the indigenous population. Their poverty increased, with extreme poverty becoming the norm. The government recruited them to suppress protests by the ladinos, mostly mestizo members of the lower classes whose language and culture were Spanish.

In 1832 Anastasio Aquino led an indigenous uprising. They began by trying to win over indigenous people recruited by the military but undesirous of fighting someone else’s battles. They put together an army of some 4,000 men who fought the •Nonualco Rebellion” with the rallying cry “Land for those who work it.” The rebels successfully disarmed several patrols, took over a number of towns and villages and received strong grassroots support but were overcome by the criollo government with its landowner-supported army. In April 1833, Anastasio Aquino was captured, shot and beheaded. His head was put on public display in a cage with a sign saying “An example of troublemakers” to terrify the population and make sure they knew the consequences of fighting for justice.

Capitalist accumulation
and more plunder

Capitalism began to take hold in El Salvador during a 40-year period from 1860 to 1900. Here it was based on the large, quasi-feudal estates dedicated to coffee monoculture while in some other countries it arose as a modernizing, industrializing system, promoting economic transformation.

Coffee production grew exponentially during that period. In Santa Tecla, for example, the number of coffee trees increased from 207,000 to 2.38 million during the first 20 years. This led to a wave of immigration by European families with experience in coffee production and trade. Together with some rich criollos, they used coffee to accumulate wealth, gradually investing it in other areas including production, industry and commercial and financial services.

Fulfilment of these families’ dreams, particularly coffee production for export, required ever larger areas of land. On February 26, 1881, during the presidency of Rafael Zaldívar, the Community Eradication Law was passed, which proclaimed that “the existence of communally-owned properties blocks agricultural development, obstructs the free flow of wealth and weakens family ties and individuals’ independence. Its existence is contrary to the economic and social principles that the Republic has adopted.”

According to Héctor Lindo Fuentes, 40% of communal land was soon expropriated and 73% of ejidal land was transferred into the hands of 5.68% of the new landowners. Soon afterwards, the Ejido Eradication Law widened and strengthened the process of dividing communal and ejidal land holdings, thereby allowing them to be transferred to criollo individuals and families.

The anti-idleness law

At the same time, a process began that the Jesuit martyr Segundo Montes called “the proletarianizing of indigenous people.” The Anti-Idleness Law was a legal tool used to guarantee the labor supply needed for coffee cultivation and harvest. Montes wrote, “People without land who weren’t permanently employed on a farm were considered ‘idle’ and forced to work on farms needing laborers, in the typical conditions of those times. To give the measures teeth, a special police force, the Rural Police, was created.”

As a result, continued Montes, “the indigenous communities lost their ancestral means of subsistence: the communal land that guaranteed their basic sustenance. By seizing their economic base, their ethnic, cultural, social and political decline became inevitable and progressive.” Montes considered that the transformation of the indigenous people into a rural proletariat, through “their forced entry into the coffee production labor force” further accelerated the disintegration of both indigenous communities and indigenous identity.

According to historian Virginia Tilley, there were more than 40 uprisings during the period of plunder and dispossession preceding the 1932 rebellion and massacre. Most of them were local and unplanned, so while they kept the flame of resistance alive none was capable of making any impact on the plunder of indigenous land, culture and identity.

After 1932

The 1932 massacre sealed indigenous people’s dispossession. Out of fear, men and women alike stopped speaking their mother tongue, wearing traditional clothes or following their customs. They stopped passing on their traditions to their children to protect them. In these ways, indigenous organization and identity were weakened even more.

Half a century later, when the armed liberation struggle became a civil war, many indigenous people joined the revolutionary organizations, thousands fought for the liberation of El Salvador and many again saw their families cut to pieces in massacres including those in El Carrizal (July 13, 1980) and Las Hojas (February 22, 1983).

A racially biased census

Even official statistics on the indigenous population are unjust and marginalizing. The most recent census conducted by the General Directorate of Statistics and Censuses in 2007, when ARENA was still in power, was severely criticized by the United Nations as well as by indigenous people themselves. Gustavo Pineda, the current head of the Indigenous Peoples Directorate, part of the Presidency’s Cultural Secretariat, recalls that “the questions had a strong racial bias. Some of them were badly phrased and the census takers often didn’t ask the people about their (ethnic) identity, instead just looked at them and, if they had fair skin, said to themselves, ‘This person is mestizo.’ The options given in the census were white, mestizo (mixture of white with indigenous), indigenous and black (racially). This is a phenotypic approach, based on skin color instead of the ethnic and cultural factors that should be used to define indigenous peoples” and that they use to define themselves.

Using these parameters, the census concluded that there were only 13,310 indigenous people in El Salvador, 0.2% of the total population, far below the estimate of 5-600,000 made by the Indigenous Affairs Secretariat of the Government of El Salvador in 1999.

Indigenous peoples, advised at the time by Pineda, made four appeals against the census but all were rejected by the Supreme Court.

A true census is
one outstanding debt

The 2003 World Bank report “Indigenous Peoples Profile” provides statistics closer to reality. With respect to social security, the study says that only 3.2% of indigenous people had social security in that year, compared with 17% of the total population.

The study reported that 61% of indigenous heads of family, both male and female, worked in agriculture, another 18% as housewives, 6% as day laborers, 2.8% as craftspeople, and the rest as drivers, porters, sugar cane workers and the like. This is the most recent information available but it is not only out of date, it also lacks sufficient credibility to be considered a true description of reality.

The categories “indigenous peoples” and “of African origin” will not be incorporated into the census until 2017. A true census of the situation of the indigenous peoples is an outstanding debt with them and with the whole country.

Change began under
the Funes administration

In the view of Margot Pérez de Cortez, a member of the Nahuizalco Nahua-Pipil Indigenous Peoples’ Council (COPONAPN), “The doors opened in 2009. Under Mauricio Funes’ government indigenous organizations began to be strengthened.”

Two important events the following year represented a turnaround in the situation of indigenous people.

In August 2010, El Salvador recognized before the United Nations for the first time that the country is multicultural and multiethnic, an important change in the vision of a State that, since its founding in the 19th century, considered itself mestizo, Spanish-speaking and Catholic.

That same year, the government convened the first Salvadoran Indigenous Peoples’ Congress to discuss proposals for public policy development in this area. President Funes asked the participants and their peoples for forgiveness, declaring, “We want to be the first government to make an act of contrition in the name of the Salvadoran State, the Salvadoran people and the Salvadoran family and to ask the indigenous communities for forgiveness for the persecution and extermination suffered for so many years. From this day forward we’re officially ending the long denial of the diversity of our peoples and recognize that El Salvador is a multiethnic and multicultural society.”

Indigenous peoples now
“exist” in the Constitution

Two years later, the legislature approved a constitutional reform that reflected this declaration. Article 63 was modified to say, “El Salvador recognizes the indigenous peoples and will adopt policies to preserve and develop their ethnic and cultural identity, worldview, value and spirituality.” It took until June 2014 for the reform to become law, given the requirement that all reforms of the Constitution must be approved during one legislative period and ratified by 56 votes in the following one. During those two years, indigenous people demonstrated in the streets on more than one occasion to press for ratification.

The issue was subjected to two votes in the legislature on June 12, 2014. In the first it only gained 52 votes with the support of the FMLN, GANA, PCN, PDC and CD plus three congressmen who had been expelled from ARENA in 2013 for having voted to approve the national budget. In the second, three other former ARENA members voted in favor, together with a PCN alternate representative who had been an ARENA member in the nineties.

ARENA opposed the reform

ARENA’s 28 congressional members refused to support the reform. Only Roberto D’Aubisson, Jr., ARENA’s current mayoral candidate for Santa Tecla, even spoke during the debate, and did so to explain that his concept of nationalism was at odds with recognition of the country’s indigenous peoples. “There is only one Salvadoran people. Having different peoples with their own laws who are going to demand autonomy would go against the rule of government,” declared “Robertillo,” as he is known by admirers of the son of Major D’Aubuisson, the man who led the death squads in the seventies and eighties, founded ARENA and masterminded the assassination of Monsignor Romero.

The position of the oligarchy’s party was consistent with its cynical tradition of starting its political campaigns in Izalco, whose streets were drenched in blood during the 1932 massacre. Some relatives of the party’s current leaders even took part in that massacre, for example the grandfather of ex-President Calderón Sol, while many others benefitted from land confiscated from indigenous people in the years before it.

But the constitutional recognition of indigenous peoples didn’t just fall into their laps. The initiative was introduced into the legislature in 2006, the fruit of persistent work by a number of organizations for over ten years. More than 25 indigenous organizations participated in this struggle, demonstrating their ability to join together to defend common elements of a national agenda. The support given by the Human Rights Defense Office (PDDH), which worked with the Permanent Bureau, was also very important.

More progress:
Municipal ordinances

In the same period, successful struggles for municipal ordinances began in Nahuizalco and Izalco. On July 6, 2011, the FMLN-led local government of Nahuizalco promulgated an ordinance on indigenous community rights in the municipality; it was the first time legislation of this type had ever been passed in the history of El Salvador. The municipality of Izalco followed suit a year later.

Margot Pérez de Cortéz recalls, “In 2009, we began to have meetings in the Nahuizalco Cultural Center. Gustavo Pineda, in his capacity as a friend and adviser, proposed the idea of creating a municipal ordinance and we brought together leaders of several communities around this initiative. At that time, not many people considered themselves indigenous so few joined us. Some others didn’t join because they feared that this type of demand could be a two-edged sword and would lead to reprisals.”

People used to be
ashamed to be indigenous

An awareness-raising process began in the Cultural Center, permeated the discussions to develop the ordinance and continued after its approval. “We visited the different parts of the municipality, going from house to house, explaining the ordinance and what it means to be indigenous. We brought together the old people and reflected on these issues. The process lasted about three years.”

According to Margot Pérez, “Once people began to assume their identity, the mayor’s office started showing more interest. We had a compañero in the Municipal Council who asked the other members to support the ordinance. We met the mayor several times to discuss the issue. At first, the Municipal Council thought it was a silly idea. Pedrito Rodríguez, the indigenous councilor, had a lot of difficulties but when we explained things to them, how we need our autonomy, they realized we were right. The drafting of the ordinance and the process to convince the mayor’s office went on in parallel. Now, only three years after the ordinance was passed, most people consider themselves indigenous, whereas people used to feel ashamed of that identity. Even old ladies with their traditional skirts would ask me, ‘Daughter, are there still indigenous people?’ We’ve gained a lot by proudly accepting that we are indigenous.”

Pending public policy debts

In 2013, following an initiative by the communities, the governmental Indigenous Peoples Directorate of the Social Inclusion Secretariat, now known as the Indigenous Peoples Office, initiated consultations and a shared process with 19 indigenous organizations to develop a public policy proposal that would begin the conversion of the constitutional reform into concrete policies.

In more than two years of meetings and workshops they have gradually developed a common agenda. As well as debating diverse demands and needs, they have reviewed existing proposals, including the 2010 congressional resolution; the proposal made that same year by James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; recommendations by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the PDDH (January 2012); the FMLN citizens’ consultation held in 2013-14; and proposals by the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights (CLADEM) in their document last year on Indigenous Women’s Rights. This is all now being studied by the executive branch with a view to its approval.

The proposal includes a strategy on social development and others on economic development, environmental rights and governance. It aims to translate indigenous peoples’ main demands into lines of action that put the discourse on interculturality and living well into effect.

As regards education, the proposal talks about permeating the curricula at all levels so as to include not only indigenous peoples’ culture but also their worldview. In languages, the aim is not only to include Náhuatl, which is still spoken by 300 people in El Salvador, but also languages that have been lost, such as Pisbi, the Kakawire language, and Potón, the Lenca language.

The inclusion of intercultural health in the Integrated Health Reform is a challenge. Despite the municipal ordinance in Nahuizalco, Margót Pérez de Cortéz says that “our customs are not respected in the health clinic. They don’t allow us to use natural medicine. In the past, people had their babies at home and they didn’t die. Now it isn’t allowed and they also stop us putting fajeros on our babies (a strip of cloth wrapped around the belly of newborns covering the navel).” Another outstanding demand is the incorporation of indigenous medical knowledge so that those who wish can have access to it.

The water war

Another outstanding issue is the need to generalize the holding of free, prior and informed consultations on matters that affect indigenous people and to respect the results, even when they conflict with political and economic interests.

The Nahuizaclo municipal ordinance institutionalized these consultations but the transnational corporations’ pressure on the municipality for approval of their projects has been stronger than the pressure the indigenous peoples can bring to bear. The question of water resources in Nahuizalco is a good example. The indigenous peoples in the area feel badly affected by the municipality’s ten dams, four of which were built illegally. Their rights have been violated in several ways: tree felling has affected the environment; reduced water volume in the rivers threatens their food security and survival; and sacred places have been desecrated.

Luis Alberto Rolin, the administrator of the Nahuizalco mayor’s office, recalls that when the Juayúa Hydroelectric Plant was built, members of the Salcoatitán, Juayúa and Nahuizalco communities were called to participate in a general assembly. “It was a community consultation and it showed that local people were unhappy and opposed to the implementation of the project,” but much to their surprise, the media reported that most of the population supported it. The report was sent to the Environmental Ministry with the backing of the mayor’s office.

Another outstanding debt
is ILO Convention 169

Another outstanding demand of the indigenous peoples is that El Salvador sign and ratify International Labor Organization Convention 169. This instrument of international laws specifically on indigenous peoples, which has only been ratified by 21 countries, could provide important support to overcoming the age-old discrimination against indigenous peoples.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Security has evaluated positively the feasibility of incorporating this convention into the nation’s legal framework. René Paniagua, a representative of the Salvadoran National Indigenous Coordinating Council, sees ratification as an important general measure to guarantee indigenous people’s rights.

But the main demand is land

In Margot Pérez’s opinion, the principal outstanding issue among all those that have accumulated over the years is land. “They have to give back the land they took from us, especially ejidal property that was affected by the laws of the Zaldívar government. Those are private properties now and many are not officially registered.”

It’s proving difficult to reach agreement among the different indigenous organizations on the details of this restitution. The Salvadoran Agrarian Transformation Institute (ISTA) has held some initial meetings with indigenous organizations to evaluate their demands. “Repeating the general demand ‘We want the land’ isn’t the same as dealing with the concrete issue of how to cultivate it with an indigenous worldview,” Gustavo Pineda points out.

The indigenous participants in the first meeting with ISTA President Carla Alvanes argued the importance of the right to land, caring for Mother Earth, cultivating native varieties and re-educating and recovering indigenous identity. Pérez de Cortéz’s proposal goes even further: “We want a truth commission on the land question to make clear what actually happened.”

Recovering historical memory

Without doubt, the indigenous peoples’ fight for recognition has increased in intensity since the FMLN took the reins of the executive.

Pineda considers that “this government is very clearly interested in promoting indigenous peoples’ rights.” Many of the approximately fifty indigenous organizations have taken advantage of this time to strengthen themselves and prepare for the coming battles. “But it isn’t easy to undo centuries of rejection and repression,” says Pineda. The dispossession and extermination of the indigenous peoples has undeniably been one of the foundations of the republic that the ruling classes constructed almost 200 years ago.

The key to dismantling this construction is the recovery of historical memory. The commemoration of the anniversary of the 1932 uprising and massacre has only been possible for little more than a decade. The fear and marginalization have been so great that the victims denied their own victimization and were converted into pale imitations of their victimizers.

This dark period is now reaching its end and, little by little, people are realizing that the history of conquest, plunder and genocide isn’t a question of indigenous identity only, but of the Salvadoran people’s identity in general. It’s starting to be recognized that Salvadoran identity is multiple and multicultural.

Elaine Freedman is a grassroots educator and the envío correspondent in El Salvador.

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