Mujeres Guerrilleras o Feministas del Siglo Veinte: An Examination of the Role of Mothers in the Salvadoran Civil War
Motherhood in Western culture often refers to the role of a female that is married, takes care of her offspring, cleans the house, cooks for her husband and whose life should primarily be a domestic one confined to the home. The Salvadoran woman’s role in her society is not too far from this Western image, especially within the framework of the patriarchal and machista social environment of El Salvador that has existed for generations. These women were looked upon as not being able to take care of themselves, prompting the society at large to deem them as dependent on men; consequently, women were to follow certain behavioral conventions in strict obedience. Although this kind of mentality still persists in more traditional communities like El Salvador, a woman’s role in society transformed when the country underwent a state of war. During the Salvadoran Civil War, women played a significant role throughout the conflict, serving as leaders and even military commanders – all the while functioning as mothers. According to different sources, many Salvadoran women held positions of power, authority, and leadership at the same time that they provided the moral support, military service, and strategies needed to fight the war. Female leaders fought the good fight against state repression and even managed to stay attentive to the needs of their comrades in the civil war. A person who particularly embodies these female fighters is Maria Serrano, a family woman and a guerilla leader. Her testimony serves as a model for what the ideal revolutionary leaders could and should be. Maria did an incredible job as a guerrilla leader, claiming that her motivation was “so the Salvadoran people [could] have access to free education, healthcare and food for the poor” (Maria's Story, 1990). These women performed incredible work as revolutionaries, yet it is heartbreaking to know why many joined the guerilla cause. The motivation behind many women in their decisions to join the guerrilla groups varied from avenging the assassinations of loved ones, to combating oppression, and ultimately the pursuit of a newer, safer El Salvador. Women, such as Maria Serrano, were community leaders, revolutionary soldiers, wives and mothers. The purpose of this paper is to examine the transformation in the symbolic perception of Salvadoran women that allowed their socially conditioned roles in the domestic sphere to be dropped in favor of positions of power and authority during the Salvadoran Civil War. Women were of summative importance within the scope of the Salvadoran Civil conflict to the guerilla forces; they served as invaluable military fighters and tacticians as well as symbolic figures.
With that said, the question remains: just how important was the role of women within the Salvadoran Civil War despite the fact that women were painted as the “weaker sex”? Salvadoran female intervention was crucial in a civil war that lasted 12 years and left more than 75,000 civilians dead. These women held positions of power and authority within the revolutionary movement, even within the machismo social system existent in El Salvador for generations. My ultimate goal of this paper is to show that female association with the civil war conflict was extremely important and beneficial towards the success of the guerilla movement through their service as great revolutionary leaders, community organizers, wives and ultimately, mother figures to the community.
Female guerilla leader Maria Serrano once stated that the purpose of the FMLN during the Salvadoran Civil War was to “[build] a new society in which the poor will have access to: Education, Healthcare and food” (Maria's Story, 1990). Serrano was one of the first in a long line of radical women who challenged traditional patriarchal societies (Boland, 2001) and the historically oppressive dictatorships that have dominated El Salvador for decades (Alegria 1998). Salvadoran women endured violence, oppression, discrimination and pressure under a male-dominated society, yet in spite of these major injustices, the role of the mother figure played heavily in waging guerrilla warfare. In a machismo-influenced society such as that of El Salvador, women are seen as the “weaker gender,” incapable of defending themselves and bound to the traditions laid by men. Obedience and conformity factored heavily in the manner in which women used to behave themselves in society. And yet, the Civil War drove the guerrilla forces to move past patriarchal notions into increasingly egalitarian viewpoints that women were just as capable of community leadership and military service as men. Given the great loss of life especially among younger males, and wartime destabilizing of society, women began to take on roles of influence in the guerilla movement.
The Salvadoran woman’s role as a mother became an integral component of the guerilla campaign. Since many women were losing their family members who were assassinated by the government, they felt like they had no choice but to revolt (Berajano, 2002, Carter 1989). Women in Central America were seen as symbols of love and nurturing yet without the capacity for leadership. As the war went on, however, guerilla movements began treating their female compatriots as if they were just as capable as men when it came to rally against the government. Breaking the patriarchal image of the loving mother chained to nothing more than strict obedience to her husband, this active role of women transformed as the guerilla community required more support for their military presence. Given the great loss many mothers suffered due to the pains of war, like the loss of their sons and husbands, it would seem that they had nothing left for them but to fight for an end to repressive government. These warrior women fought for the innocent men and women who disappeared and were killed because of the work of government-sponsored censorship tactics and death squads. Thanks to the work of women rising up against the disappearances of family members because of government repression, many other women started coming up with ideas and started making groups and organizations for women who had lost their family members, and only wanted the truth about what had happened to their children.
In El Salvador’s Civil War, women played an important part of the conflict. Since the very beginning, women comprised an estimated 40 percent of the total guerilla commanders, (Mason, 1992) and with the creation of all female battalions like the “Silvia Battalion” (Thompson, 1986) and the “Anti-Yankee Battalion,” ( Saywell, 1985) it became apparent that women were valuable to the guerilla forces. Most of them being distraught mothers with FMLN membership, these women epitomized the radical ideology of the guerillas. At the same time there were the social movements of the Comadres, the DIGNAS (Women with Dignity and Life), the MAM (Melida Anaya Montes Women’s Movement ), and the IMU (Institute for Women's Research Training and Development) ( Boland, 2001), an institute which offered support by distributing rebel literature and organizing protests calling for the Salvadoran government to cease political assassinations. In the context of the Salvadoran Civil War, women were invaluable to the guerilla efforts to change the world they knew. As a whole, women were trying to create a new society from the ground up and challenge the status quo of a patriarchal, sexist, machista, discriminatory, and oppressive Salvadoran regime through the lens of revolutionary discourse. These aims were pursued through female community and protest organization, tinged with the notions of revolutionary thought.
Maria Serrano as well as many other women joined the guerrilla path for personal reasons, (Maria’s Story 1990, Berajano, 2002, Carter 1989). In the documentary, Maria’ Story, she describes the assassination of her daughter under the hands of the “Guardia Nacional.” With lament, Maria revealed that “she was mutilated, they chopped her in pieces” (“me la descuartizaron, me la cortaron en pedacitos”). This horrific act pushed her to join the guerrilla cause. Maria's Story gives us an example of what mothers are willing to endure for the benefit of their offspring’s well-being. Renowned political scientist, Dr. Caron Gentry's article, "Twisted Maternalism: From PEACE to VIOLENCE," published in the International Feminist Journal of Politics, attributes this feminine sense of obligation to protect her children to something called maternalism. Maternalism is defined as a viewpoint where women have intrinsic desires, needs, and abilities that make them more suitable as mothers. The author explains how maternalism affects mothers in Palestine to become more politically active. The maternalism discussed in this source can be seen in the concept of the motherhood in Latin America. This source mainly explains how women as mothers stood up in order to protect their children—something that is definitely evident in Maria's Story, where Maria, a mother, rises up to become a leader in the guerrilla army’s fight to protect them and deliver the country they live in. It was also mentioned how women in El Salvador, Argentina and Mexico became activists even though they were considered as “mothers” or “wives” in the guerilla societies they found themselves in. The concept of motherhood goes beyond frontiers and sacrifices, especially when it comes to the wife's role, and is a bond so strong that it even pushes women to challenge Western ideals of motherhood where wives were merely supposed to look pretty and act lady-like, definitely not resisting government forces while dressed in military attire.
Forced into joining the guerrilla army by personal loss and the desire for the liberation of the nation, women became a fundamental component for the revolutionary movement, especially in the FMLN. The image of a woman dressed in a military suit and carrying a rifle with her was a phenomenon of the 20th century, revealing the shifting notions of what it meant to be a mother and the role of a woman at war. After the 1950s, the feminist movement gained more ground, eventually even changing the public perspective that the right to vote was essential to civilian rights. History reveals how females were marginalized in Latin America, specifically the women of Central America, yet these realities were reworked through the onset of war. In El Salvador, one of the three Central American nations which underwent an armed struggle, women were deeply involved in the fight against corrupt governments, a contrast to the nature of revolutionary movements in other regions. These women formed all-female battalions and even the names of these military entities identified the foreign influences they were fighting against. Examples of these battalions were the “Anti-Yankee Battalion,” most of whom were women that were under 30 years old. The “Silvia Battalion” was also another one ( Thompson, 1986).
Since women comprised an estimated 40% of the total guerilla commanders, (Mason, 1992), their role in the conflict was of paramount importance. Women participated in all the levels, from political positions, places of leadership, to militant roles, and to roles that mobilized the masses. The FMLN benefited from the leadership of two well-known women: Melida Anaya Montes (assassinated under unclear circumstances in Managua, Nicaragua, April 6, 1983) and Ana Guadalupe Martínez ( former FMLN leader and Salvadoran political analyst). Ana Guadalupe participated in bank assaults, factories and the destruction of police stations and she openly admits to killing five police officers. Concurrently, Martinez became a rebel commander in the country's eastern section ( Andriotakis, 1981). Another female figure was Comandante Nidia Díaz, who shared her survival story of being captured, tortured, and interrogated by the Salvadoran government (with the help of a CIA agent) for being a military and political leader in the FMLN. Comandante Nidia Díaz was released through an exchange of prisoners, for president Duarte’s abducted daughter (I Was Never Alone: A Prison Diary from El Salvador, 1992). Furthermore, these revolutionary women performed humanitarian tasks as well, such as preparing food, taking care of the wounded, and even raising orphaned children from parents killed in the battle zones. They also performed messenger duties through sending and delivering messages for the war effort. Salvadoran guerrilla women were forced to live a double life. At home, they were mothers, sisters, and daughters, but in the mountains, they lived military, political, and subversive lifestyles.
Returning to the conversation on the Comadres, the DIGNAS, the MAM , and the IMU (Boland, 2001) (an institute which offered support by distributing rebel literature and organizing protests calling for the Salvadoran government to cease political assassinations), all these organizations served to bolster the war efforts. In the context of the Salvadoran Civil War, women were invaluable to the guerilla efforts to change the world they knew. They protested against the government and demanded change in the system, a supposedly democratic system that descended into chaos in the wake of the need for liberation. Unfortunately, there were multiple reported cases that in the state of war, the rights of women were still undermined and their voices rarely heard. El Salvador, a nation that had been in a state of war for years, is a place where women’s rights were being ignored in many ways, in spite of their great support and contributions to the revolution and the country. It appears that perhaps women, those who sacrificed the most for the cause of revolution, also suffered the most. Collaboration among women of the international community has definitely helped the process of women’s rights. In Europe and in the United States, women started with arranging meetings and gatherings and organizing protests and supporting candidates who were willing to fight for women’s rights. Little by little, they have gained what they should have received long ago. Now, if women in developed countries like the United States or European countries have to struggle to gain their voice, the difficulty for women in Central America to fulfil their goals and to defend their rights amidst chaos is immense. Michael Clulow, in his writings regarding promoting effective participation in Central America, emphasizes the importance of female organizations that can be influential in the local level. The process might be very slow and exhaustive, but eventually a collective work will result in more representation of women nationwide and more specifically in the politics. More women who were part of the revolution took part in these organizations and tried to encourage others to participate.
All in all, the twelve-year war in El Salvador had a great impact on people’s lives. Many families lost their maternal and paternal figures, not to mention the children. Women in El Salvador were forced by society to conform to its patriarchal standards, part of which included behaviors acting in quiet submission and with motherly care. They were seen as not having the choice to stand up for their rights. Women who were carrying the sorrow of the loss of their disappeared children or husbands got together and the COMADRES was founded. Women fought against their government and demanded economic, social and political changes. Women in El Salvador were brave enough to fight against a machismo environment and patriarchal system, challenging the idea of Western motherhood.
Even though the government did not fully recognize women’s acts who joined the guerrilla groups and they still had to fight it, the Salvadoran women’s movement continued its struggle to spread the word of equality and justice. Through the evolution of gender roles and social changes brought on by the civil war in El Salvador, these strong women who sacrificed so much to get the truth from an oppressive government were able to engage in political life in ways that just a few years before would have been inconceivable. It is the actions, committees, and organizations like these that paved the way for future generations of Salvadoran women to have greater awareness of their political power, and their voices in social justice.
In the context of the Salvadoran Civil War and in light of today’s discussion of reproductive rights, women were monumentally changing the world they knew. As a whole, women were trying to create a new society from the ground up by challenging the status quo, which was a patriarchal, sexist, machista, discriminative, oppressive Salvadoran regime. As previously mentioned, these warrior women were the physical embodiment of the Salvadoran revolutionary spirit, and an integral part of Central American history as well as society.
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