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El Salvador reclaiming its past

A weeklong series of multimedia events in downtown L.A. attempts to bring the country's murky history out of the shadows.

October 23, 2009|Reed Johnson

Collective memory in El Salvador has long been a fragile commodity. An infamous 1932 government massacre of mainly Indian peasants was officially purged from history books for decades afterward.

The country's brutal 12-year civil war of 1980-92 not only claimed tens of thousands of lives and razed entire villages. It also ravaged the country's heritage, fostering widespread amnesia about Salvadoran literature, music, indigenous culture and the performing arts.

Over the next week, an ambitious multimedia happening with the umbrella title "Preservacion de la Memoria Historica Salvadorena" (Salvadoran Preservation of Historic Memory) at the Los Angeles Theatre Center downtown will try to salvage some of that missing past.

Produced by L.A.-based Olin Theater Presenters, its centerpiece will be a half-dozen performances of a narrative dance-theater production, "De la Locura a la Esperanza: From Madness to Hope." The piece -- incorporating 30 actors and dancers, a children's choir, choreography by Saul Mendez Folkloric Ballet, spoken monologues and recordings -- attempts to address the civil war's haunting legacy while looking toward the future of Salvador's people, both at home and abroad. Its title comes from a report issued by the U.N. Truth Commission on the civil war.

The event, which begins today and wraps up Nov. 1, also will encompass a photo exhibition about the civil war years; a symposium on historic memory; a discussion of two of Salvador's most significant writers, the poet Roque Dalton and the all-around man of letters Salvador Salazar Arrue; and a show of manuscript facsimiles, photos and other artifacts examining the life and legacy of Arrue, known by his pen name Salarrué, whose most famous work, "Cuentos de Barro" (Tales of Mud), published in 1933, is regarded as an exemplar of the modern Central American short story.

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Strong backing

Two key supporters of the week's activities are Cal State Northridge, which claims to operate the only college-level Central American Studies Program in the United States, and the General Consulate of El Salvador in Los Angeles. Organizers say that "Preservacion" is easily one of the largest cultural events ever staged on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of people of Salvadoran descent living in Greater Los Angeles.

But William Flores, director of Olin Theater Presenters and the festival's prime mover, said the real measure of the event's success would be whether it reaches and speaks to Salvadorans who fled their country and have struggled to stay connected to it while assimilating to a new home. Many of these immigrants' children and grandchildren, born in the United States, know little or nothing of either their homeland's rich traditions or its darkest chapters, he said.

"Memory is something that mustn't be lost," said Flores, who also serves as LATC's program director. "To kill memory is to kill the human being."

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Internal strife

The Salvadoran civil war, pitting a U.S.-backed right-wing junta against internationally supported leftist guerrillas, was as divisive as it was catastrophic, and its polarizing effects continue to this day. More than 75,000 died in the conflict, and an additional 10,000 were "disappeared" and almost certainly murdered.

An estimated 1.5 million people fled the country, the majority relocating in Southern California and other U.S. cities. An accord was signed in 1992, ending hostilities but leaving many social and political aspects of the war's aftermath unresolved.

Roger Lindo, an author and reporter for the La Opinion newspaper here, said at a news conference that the dispersal of the Salvadoran population had diffused its collective identity. "It's a nation that's fragmentized, atomized in all parts of the world," he said.

In El Salvador, as in other parts of Latin America, artists and writers not infrequently have performed the work of historians and archaeologists, exhuming the skeletal remains of painful events and placing them in the light for public consideration. Both Dalton and Salarrue, for example, authored influential works dealing with the 1932 massacre, the memory of which the government was trying to ignore if not actively suppress.

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Making progress

Flores said that he had been trying for years to enlist the help of El Salvador's right-of-center ruling party officials to put together an event such as "Preservacion." It was only with the recent ascension in El Salvador of a new left-leaning political administration that the consulate here has agreed to participate, he said. A news conference announcing the week's events was held at the Salvadoran consulate on Wilshire Boulevard, with consulate personnel in attendance.

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