Pre-Trip Reading: History of El Salvador

Students going to El Salvador have been assigned a handful of books to read before the trip and after the trip, each requiring a brief written reaction piece. Here’s one of mine:

History of El Salvador by Christopher M. White

Of all the assigned books for this trip, this may end up being the one I take with me for practical reasons. First, it’s full of context, both historical and present-day, which will likely serve as handy for reference purposes as we travel to specific locations or learn of specific events. Second, the six-page term glossary and nine-page topical index will indeed be helpful, for I not only do not speak Spanish but sometimes find it difficult to keep track of new acronyms and terms. Finally, as I wonder about what we’re going to learn, trying to anticipate how best to be prepared, this collection of information gives the widest birth of information compared to other books we’re reading for the trip.

I admit, I was a bit nervous reading the first chapter about El Salvador today, particularly the paragraphs on tourism. They mention how often tourists get robbed (often) and how guerillas are still prominent in public and some people even carry unconcealed weapons in public. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen this, save hunting rifles slung into the gun racks of pick-up trucks in Wyoming. I’m doing my best to be positive regarding safety issues and know if we watch out for each other and I keep my wits about me, there shouldn’t be (m)any problems.

The book is succinct and straightforward in explaining El Salvadorian culture today and how it came to be through its history. After that initial chapter about El Salvador today, it dives into time period after time period – starting with the Lithic Period (as you’ll remember from Professor Henry “Indiana” Jones’s lecture in Raiders of the Lost Ark, “lithic” means “stone”) and then detailing each and every struggle, war, and martyrdom to come ever since. This deluge of travesty is where the book is most effective for me. Reading about the series of seemingly non-stop oppression, the colonial domination, the near-wiping out of the indigenous peoples, the militarization of the government, revolts and guerillas, and the US-backed civil war which was selfishly used like a personal vendetta against the Soviets and communism, I can truly understand why theology is not just theology in El Salvador. When one’s people have been under the oppressive boot heel for hundreds of years, liberation theology is the only natural progression to viewing one’s relationship to God and a saving Christ.

The US involvement in the civil war was the most fascinating and frustrating portion of this book for me. I was just a child at the time, but to read how my government chose to let El Salvador serve as some sort of warning or metaphor to the Soviets during the Cold War is one of the worst sorts of callousness with innocent life. While the George H.W. Bush administration’s handling of the situation eventually helped pave the way toward peace talks, the Reagan years (ominously titled in the book as “Enter Reagan, 1981-1989) are reproachable. I wonder if in twenty years we’ll look back on our current actions in Afghanistan and other global hotspots, some might say instigated by a nation trading anti-communism for anti-terrorism and pro-patriotism, with the same amount of regret.

Finally, I sometimes skip prefaces and introductions when I read, preferring to get right to the work itself. It’s usually an arbitrary decision, sometimes predicated by time constraints, and in this case I went back to the preface after reading parts of the book and had a pleasant surprise. The writer, Christopher M. White, not only worked with Salvadorian refugees and immigrants in the US but also spent time living in El Salvador. To my recollection, White doesn’t delve into much (if any) first-person sections of the book, letting the history speak for itself. I was pleasantly surprised to read that White’s personal history with El Salvador fueled his desire to write about a nation’s history. I went into this book thinking it was simply another touristy collection of facts and came away learning about a people from a writer who was enraptured by their culture and history.


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