Social Education 58(1), 1994, pp. 31-35
National Council for the Social Studies

Children's Voices fromEl Salvador:War and Peace

Cynthia Szymanski Sunal, Maria Luisa Meza, and
Classroom "D" Fourth Graders
Although a tenuous peace seems finally to have arrived, El Salvador has endured a civil war for the past decade. The
children of El Salvador thus live in a country where war is a culture. They share the experience of war-as-a-culture with children in many places including Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Somalia, and the former Yugoslavia. Children in each of these places are surely experiencing war very differently from each other, yet the instability, death, pain, isolation, and fear that accompany living in a war-ravaged society are terrible commonalities they share.
Recently, a fourth-grade teacher, Maria Luisa Meza of the Escuela Americana in El Salvador's capital city, San Salvador, encouraged her nine-year-old students to write letters to the future, a future that all hope will be beyond war. Through writing and drawing, her students gave voice to their experiences and their hopes. By writing letters to the future, perhaps these children are beginning to look beyond today and realize that they might have an opportunity to live in peace.

There are many reasons why social studies teachers at all grade levels will find these letters of interest and of potential classroom use. These contemporary first-person documents give teachers and their students a uniquely personal glimpse into another culture. Teachers may wish to share excerpts with students, perhaps developing activities around the letters and drawings. Younger students might write imaginary letters to the El Salvadoran students, responding to the children's concerns or the points they raise. Elementary or middle school teachers might also have their students write letters to the future about their own lives, then perhaps compare those letters with the El Salvadoran children's. Middle or secondary level students might use the letters as springboards for a deeper examination of El Salvador; a compare and contrast with life in other countries, such as other war-torn cultures or the United States; or a study of how children respond to war, perhaps using also books or movies about other wars for research. For the latter type of activity, Robert Coles's The Political Life of Children (1986) may be a useful reference.

To introduce the El Salvadoran students' materials, this article begins with a background overview of the history of this country and the political framework within which these children live.

A peace accord was signed in El Salvador in 1992, ending a conflict that began in 1981 when rebels seized a radio station and issued a call for insurrection (Russell 1984). During this eleven-year period the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) evolved into the organization representing several rebel groups engaged in an intense conflict with the government's military forces. This long conflict was rooted in historical patterns that have developed since the beginning of Spanish colonial rule (Tulchin and Bland 1992; Russell 1984).

El Salvador is the only country in Central America without an Atlantic coast. Its population of about 5 million resides in an area about the size of Massachusetts, thus giving it the highest population density of Latin America (243/sq. km. or 630/sq. mi.). Many are poor: in 1975, 41 percent of the rural population was landless, an increase from 11.8 percent in 1950. The rich (0.7 percent) held 40 percent of the land (Montgomery 1992; Godfrey 1968).

These &Mac222;gures are important in the interconnected historical patterns that took shape during the three hundred years of Spanish colonial rule, continued after independence, and eventually resulted in the civil war. These patterns are: 1) an economic cycle of booms and depressions; 2) dependence on a single-crop economy as the primary source of wealth, leading to dependence on outside markets; 3) exploitation of the labor supply first with Indians and later with mestizo peasants; 4) concentration of the land in the hands of an ever-decreasing number of proprietors; 5) extreme concentration of wealth in a few hands combined with great poverty among the majority; 6) a laissez-faire economic philosophy and belief in the sanctity of private property as opposed to traditional Indian communal farmland; 7) a perception of the government's purpose as that of maintaining order; and 8) periodic rebellion by exploited segments of the population against perceived injustices. These have produced two persistent overarching trends: first, the unequal distribution of resources with cumulative effects as population pressures exacerbated the inequities; and second, conflict increased between communal lands and private property with the latter regularly gaining at the expense of the former (Montgomery 1992, 31-32; North 1985).

A Tumultuous History
El Salvador had a tumultuous history during the nineteenth century as the Central American nations established their boundaries. One of the legacies of this period was holding elections without regard for democratic processes including electoral processes. Dictatorial-type leaders came and went, by coup or invasion from a neighboring state. After taking power, they would stage elections so they could claim to be elected legally (Russell 1984, 22; Lindo-Fuentes 1990).

Coffee changed the country between 1871 and 1929. Influential coffee growers worked to tie the Salvadoran economy to the United States and Europe because they felt this would increase personal income, which would increase demand for consumer goods, leading to industrialization (Montgomery 1992; Lindo-Fuentes 1990). Coffee replaced indigo as the major economic crop when the market for natural dyes collapsed as a result of the introduction of synthetic dyes.

The north central region that had produced most Salvadoran indigo was left isolated, deforested, and eroded where a subsistence agriculture emerged with little access to modern technology, capital, or the market economy. This area later became one of the strongholds of the Salvadoran rebels. Indian communal farms were broken up and given to coffee planters, who hired Indian laborers at wages close to subsistence level. A coffee oligarchy dominated the government. A 1906 war between El Salvador and Guatemala led to the United States becoming the virtual guarantor of peace in Central America (Lindo-Fuentes 1990; Russell 1984). During the 1920s, the United States continued interventionist policies and pressured Latin American countries into providing tax breaks for U.S. investors, ending trade restrictions, and guaranteeing the convertibility of foreign currency.

The 1931 Coup
The military took over the government in a 1931 coup. It was the first coup in Salvadoran history that the oligarchy had not directed. All the coup members belonged to the same graduating class of the Salvadoran military institute.

During the decades that followed, junior military officers with close ties resulting from membership in the same military institute cohort would try to oust senior military officers who maneuvered to remain in positions of power as long as possible. Those in power would place members of their cohort in important governmental positions regardless of their ability in order to control power and prevent younger cohorts from taking power.

The last such power shift occurred in the late 1980s. This last cohort was widely accused of human rights violations, corruption, and an inability to defeat the rebels. It is likely that, in the mid-1990s, power within the military will shift completely to junior military members from more recent cohorts whose role in an elected civilian government is yet to be constructed.

Can a freely elected civilian government make changes in the historical patterns that resulted in the civil war? If the children of El Salvador are to have a chance to live in peace, beyond war, change must occur.

The thoughts of Ms. Meza and her students follow.

Beyond War
Maria Luisa Meza
While defining the word "custom" to my fourth-grade students, I asked them if they could name a Salvadoran custom. "Killing people," one boy answered, and the whole class nodded. "Kidnapping," another one said with a look of certainty in his eye.

The list of customs extended to bombings, curfews, and armed offensives. I listened helplessly, wishing that they were only joking. My students are children who have lived their entire lives in a country where war is a culture, where killing is a custom.

In the selections that follow, we have put together a series of thoughts and impressions written by my students. If we read about and listen to what they say, we might understand their plight. Only if we understand, will we feel obliged to show them that human beings are also capable of loving (not only of hating), capable of building (not only of destroying), capable of bringing joy and life to others (not only of killing).

We've Had Enough!
Cristina Nixon
Why? Why can't we live in peace? There is nothing better than peace or love. Everybody has a heart to care for one another. It's not fun for us to know that innocent people die. Some kids are sad because they never met their mother or father. Maybe guerrillas killed their parents when they were babies. It's very sad to hear about their life. It's sort of miserable. We people deserve to live in peace forever.

I was born in El Salvador. I love this country. It's a lovely place, but I'm afraid I will leave this country because mom can't stand living without light. She says that it's enough wasting money for candles.

The Offensive of 1989
Alejandro Martinez
The offensive of November 1989 in El Salvador was scary because there were a lot of bombs. But now, there will be no more guerrillas and bombs. We will be able to go alone in the streets and ride our bikes because there will be no war. We will be free people.

If God granted me a wish, I would wish that all the people in El Salvador would have a job, especially the poor people. During the offensive, I was very worried about the poor people. I wanted to tell the poor people to come to my house so that they would be safer.

I have a friend who is poor. His name is Juan. During the offensive, his parents and he came to our house so they would be safe. But we were not completely safe. A window of our house was broken by a bullet. We all screamed, and were very worried that the guerrillas would come to our house and keep us hostages. But God saved us from the war and we went to an uncle's house where we were safer.

When the offensive was over, we gave thanks to God. We went back to our house. The next day, my uncle came to my house and a rainbow came out. That was a sign from God that we were in peace.

And we were in peace only for a while because another offensive came and we were worried again. But the second offensive was not too long.

I found a gun broken in half, and on the gun there was much blood. Later, with my two brothers, we found a ruined car on the street with a lot of blood all around the car. Then, we went to a friend's house (one block away from my house) and we noticed that a bomb had exploded in front of the friend's house. The neighbor's house was all destroyed and the people were captured.

Juan spent the night in his school and he only ate beans and tortilla. If peace came Juan would be free. And he would be happy.

About War
Robert Palomo
The war in El Salvador has been going on for more than ten years. Guerrillas made poor, poor families dig ditches and it has been a very, very, very sad time.

But now the war is in the mountains. You can still hear bombs and guns. When the war was real, real bad, you could hear people screaming. It was real scary. I had to go to California. But now the war is almost over and peace is almost here. And I want peace to be here, but the guerrillas might win and I do not want that to happen. If that happens, we will be slaves of guerrillas and will have no peace. Everybody would be poor. Our houses, food, and valuables would be destroyed or stolen.

Opinions of a Child
David Bloch

THE JESUITS' CASEMilitary Chief Guillermo Benavidez and Yussi Mendoza send their soldiers to kill six priests and a woman with her daughter.
The Military Chief Guillermo Francisco Benavidez and Yussi Antonio Mendoza sent seven soldiers to kill six priests and a lady with her daughter at the Salvadoran university known as UCA. Benavidez, Mendoza, and the seven soldiers had to go to a jury after killing the six priests and the lady with her daughter. Benavidez, Mendoza, and the seven soldiers had to go to court with all their families.

Some important people like Roberto D'Aubisson were in the courtroom. There were the soldiers, Benavidez, Mendoza, a guy who asked questions, and seven people who decided if they were going to jail or not.

At last, they decided that the seven soldiers were not going to jail because if the seven soldiers had not killed the priests, Benavidez and Mendoza would have killed the soldiers.

One soldier, Jorge Abrego, escaped and went to another country. Most of the people in El Salvador felt sad about that.

I think that the seven who decided if the chiefs of the military would or would not go to jail did a bad job in sending them to jail for only thirty years. I think they should go for all their life because they killed the six priests.

It is bad to kill six priests because if they continue killing priests there will be no churches with no priests. People will not be able to get married or do their first communion. If they do not do their first communion, when they die they might not go to Heaven.

Not Fair!
Elizabeth Brito
In the future, there will be peace. We will not have bad people and we will not have any more war. That day will be exciting because we will live in peace. Almost every day people die and that is not fair for people. Guerrillas destroy the houses of poor people and then kill them, and that is not fair for the families of poor people. They kill babies and their big brothers. Sometimes, they kill sisters too, and the fathers and mothers stay alone with their other families.

When the war is over, I am going to scream all over the house because I will be so excited and I think other people will also be excited about peace.

A Look into the Future
Camila Ramirez
I think El Salvador will be at peace this year or perhaps next year. There will not be any poor people in this country. There will be cars that can only move by the sunlight, and can fly very fast from one place to another. No trash on the streets and sidewalks. Neat schools. Many public libraries so people can check out books to read. No classical music. Only rock music. No ruined things. No one with ruined and ugly things. Pretty flowers and trees. And most important, teachers will not give us homework.

My Dream of El Salvador
Claudia Ramirez
I dream we will have peace in El Salvador. People will not die or suffer. People will go to the mountains by themselves. They will run everywhere they want. There will be electricity at all times. People could go to the parks happily. There will not be more poor people. We will live as if we were in Heaven. People will not be scared any more by hearing bombs or bullets. The parks, streets, oceans will be clean. People will not get sick. No poor people will be dirty. That is my dream!

Roberto Mercado
Some people say that our country is going to be different from these days. Other people say that we are going to be the same country, but without war. They say that we are going to have flying cars, and streets that take you from one place to another. Other people say that this country will not exist in the future. Others say that we are going to be called "The country of the sky." Yet others think that we are going to live underwater, like the people in Atlantis.

But I think El Salvador will be like the United States of America today.

No More Guns
Lucia Martinez
And here is good news.
El Salvador will be at peace thanks to all Salvadorans and to all the children who do not fight.

Reporter: "Here is a person. What is your name?"

Child: "My name is Felipé."

Reporter:: "What do you think about peace in El Salvador?"

Child: "I feel happy because we will not have war and children will play. I think that when we live in peace, thieves will disappear too."

Reporter: "Thank you." (Another person comes.) "What is your name?"

Boy: "My name is Jesœs."

Reporter: "What do you think abut having peace in El Salvador?"

Boy: "Oh, I think that we will not hear bombs, guns, and rifles anymore. It would be great."

Work for Peace
Denisse Olivo
I dream of El Salvador at peace. All the people smiling. No more "trrrrrrrrrrrrrtc" and bombs. All the light-posts up. A happy country.

If El Salvador were not at war, it would be a wonderful place. It would be like paradise with all the trees green, all flowers like little pieces of gold.

The first thing we should do, if we want peace, is unite families. If families get along together, we will give peace to everybody because the basis of peace is love.

I cannot wait for peace to come here. Ever since I was born, we have been at war.

So let's help El Salvador to be at peace! STOP!!!! Do not fight, unless you want to get in war as we did in November of 1989. I think that you don't want to be at war, but if you say "yes" think about how this beautiful place will be if we lived in peace. Let's be positive, and say: "We will have peace and we will be working for peace."

If Only We Believed in God
Sofia Avila
El Salvador will be at peace only if we love each other. Peace is love and caring. And that is what I want as a future.

There would be no war if everyone believed in God. God makes peace and love and friendship, but there are some people who do not understand the meaning of those words.

I Wish
Erick Polanco
I wish El Salvador would be in peace forever. I wish all the people had everything they wanted. I wish that no one were poor. I think that if all the people had all they needed, there would be no war and no more bad people in the world. It would be great to have no more war in El Salvador. We would not have to build any more guns or invent any bombs. All the people in El Salvador would be happy. We would go outside in peace with no problems. There would not be more soldiers. Nobody should have to risk their lives protecting us. There would be more animals because they would not be killed by guns or bombs.

If war continues, people will have no more money for toys and for brushing their teeth and for paying the hospitals. The children or grownups will all die if we do not live in peace.

Excitement in El Salvador
Micheal Deal
The excitement of El Salvador is going to the beach and fighting the huge waves they have, and also body surfing in the waves and exploring the fishes and the coral.

There is also some fun on land. You can go hiking in the mountains and visit places. You can have perfect excitement by studying nature and Salvadoran culture.

Impressions of a Newcomer
Katharine Ostler
When I got here, everything was different from Panama. There were different kinds of plants, fruits, vegetables, language, and food. Everything in El Salvador is so exciting. There are lots of people, places, and statues like Salvador del Mundo. I like the beaches they have here. Some I like are Costa del Sol and Paradise. Those two beaches are very exciting because they have these big waves that push you down when you are standing up and because they have the most beautiful shells that you have ever seen.

A Great Country
Carlos Ghiringhello
El Salvador is different from many countries. It has a ßag that has two blue stripes and one white stripe. The typical foods are pupusas [a tortilla with an interior stuf&Mac222;ng of cheese or chopped meat], tamales, quesadillas [a sweetish bread], ostras [oysters], and horchata [chocolate]. Coffee is one of the crops of El Salvador. Independence Day is the &Mac222;fteenth of September. El Salvador has a statue, that is the symbol of it, called El Salvador del Mundo.

Some beautiful places are Lake Coatepeque, Lake Guija, and Costa del Sol. River Acelhuate passes through San Salvador. This is a great country.

Editor's Conclusion
These children express the many fears and sadnesses that affect life in the midst of a war. They also talk hopefully about peace. A few have ignored the war entirely in their writings. They have focused on the wonderful attributes of El Salvador: beautiful beaches and tasty food. Yet they are children who rarely have been able to enjoy their country's natural beauties. Marie Elena Alcala, another teacher at the school, tells us that she has been greatly saddened because her students have grown up in a society where they were not permitted to play freely in city parks or in the countryside because their parents always were alert to possible danger ranging from a random bullet to mortar fire. She says that this loss of the ability to wander freely investigating one's environment is a loss of something fundamental to childhood. These children have suffered this loss and the cost may be great. Those who write only of the beauties of their country and ignore the war may be feeling this loss most keenly.

Coles, Robert A. The Political Life of Children. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986.Godfrey, Henry F. Your El Salvador Guide. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1968.Lindo-Fuentes, Hector. Weak Foundations: The Economy of El Salvador in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.Montgomery, Tommie Sue. Revolution in El Salvador: Origins and Evolution. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1992..North, Lisa. Bitter Grounds: Roots of Revolt in El Salvador. 2d ed. Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hall, 1985.Russell, Phillip L. El Salvador in Crisis. Austin, Texas: Colorado River Press, 1984.Tulchin, Joseph S. and Gary Bland. Is There a Transition to Democracy in El Salvador? Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1992.Maria Luisa Meza is a fourth grade teacher in the Escuela Americana, San Salvador, El Salvador. Cynthia Syzmanski Sunal is with the College of Education, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama.