El Salvador Oral History Project

Sofia Jarrín-Thomas is a freelance journalist with a focus on social movements, U.S. policy in Latin America, immigration, and indigenous rights. Currently she is working on the El Salvador Oral History Project in which she interviews and records the recollections of Salvadorans currently living in the Boston area.

Her most recently published interview is titled "Urban Guerrilla":
In the late 1970s, Mario Dávila became an urban guerrilla in San Salvador after he was exposed to the country's poverty as a church youth worker. In college, he saw many refugees--entire families who had fled the military's repression in the countryside--living in the school's classrooms and using the university's facilities. He became responsible for the armed security during marches, which were regularly repressed by the National Police and sharpshooters from buildings. Deaths were common during public protests. Students were often picked up and disappeared, including many of Mario's college friends.

Like many others, soon Mario became clandestine, left his family for their own protection, and worked with the FMLN as the government armed forces and the guerrilla battled for control. At the end of 1982, he moved to the United States where he continued to work for El Salvador by mobilizing to bring the situation in his country to light and eventually, for peace.

You can listen to the interview of Mario Dávila at this link. The interview is available both in the original Spanish as well as in English translation. It's well worth a listen.


expatwizard said…
If you travel to El Salvador and visit Cinquera with us (review article and web pages, url's noted below)you'll certainly wish to meet Don Pablo, one of the few survivors of the civil war era in Cinquera. I myself have resided in El Salvador both before, a bit during and after the conflict days. Sometimes I meet older people (like myself) steeped in the oral tradition and history, like last Friday in the bank, long line, the half hour wait seemed like a minute, I was even sad to have to end my conversation. Also remember that in 2008 nearly 70% of El Salvador's population is under age 25 and few remember those dark days. My personal opinion: To remember the past, honor all who suffered and died, on all sides, I am a humanist, not a 'politico', but not to DWELL on the past and look forward to teh future. I like to see visitors and volunteers travel to El Salvador and work with others on SOLUTIONS. Nuff Said.



Don Pablo's story in English can be viewed on the web pages.
Anonymous said…
i wish respect for all, but i don't know, sometimes i feel like bringing back stories from the war and repression era hurts more than it does good. i mean as sad and terrible this experience has been for the entire country the wounds are still sore and open, i humbly suggest leaving it alone for a while, things have changed, times have changed...and honestly the country badly needs to shrugg off that polarization that is choking it. the war and the cold war era are in the past, now is the time to move on forward and build a new society and rebuild a poorly managed national economy. an overall change in deeply needed in el salvador. i do hope funes wins by the way, that should be the start of a fresh national mindset.
El-Visitador said…
«He became responsible for the armed security during marches»

Holy moly.

And heretofore the politically correct version of these "spontaneous" marches were just "concerned" citizens exercising their free rights to demonstrate.

And now you tell me that actual illegally armed Communist terrorists with firearms were there in an official FMLN capacity.

Wanna bet who actually started the shootings? Wouldn't have been the first time (nor last) that useful fools were used as bait by Marxists —to generate symphaty and propaganda.

- * -

Jeez, the guy says that Marxist nuns had guns in a chapel (ermita), but it was "nothing out of the ordinary."

- * -

Sheez! Then he becomes a propaganda agent in the USA, under orders from the Communists in El Salvador! They created the "movement of solidarity with El Salvador." Subverting the freedoms of the United States for Communist purposes.

Anonymous said…
This el-visitador is always posting pointless comments.

Read the history and inform yourself maybe then you could post something responsible and true.

You say the marxists guerrillas started the fire and the war, that is false as everyone in this blog knows, you and your comments cannot fool people in here.

If you take a little review in the history of our country you will find the most accurate info... the guerrillas were deffending themselves and the civilians of the "democratic" ARENARCONAZIS hueviernos... that is the freedom of the capitalist biggots you try to protect.

You have an exhausting task... to prove the common salvadorean that's still worthy to believe in this conservative system that excludes people and causes inmigration and poorness.

Good luck dude... you'll need it.

BTW... I must say I'm totally agree with inner-self's opinion, we must let the Amnesty to be considered later, now is time to fight the violence and inflation of prices.

Nace la esperanza y viene el cambio, vota FMLN en el 2009.
Anonymous said…
Gee willikers, El Salvador's 1962 constitution enshrined the right of the people to insurrection.

Gosh golly gee whiz, the military murderers and torturers of the Salvadoran armed forces, through fraudulant elections; erosion of civil rights and political liberties; and increasing extra-judicial assasinations, and mass killings offered the people of El Salvador little option but to rise up in righteous rebellion.

Shazam!! Imagine war crimes and human rights tribunals bringing to trial in El Salvador murderers and torturers as U.S. courts have done in the cases of Carranza, Vides Casanova, and Garcia.

Wowie Kazowie!!

If in Archbishop Romero's funeral procession you had been shot at by snipers posted in the National Palace on March 30th, 1980, shooting to death scores and causing the trampling to death of many dozens more Salvadorans, then you might have hoped that someone like Mario Davila would have responded in kind.

Jimminy Crickets!!!
El-Visitador said…
«shooting to death scores»

Are you sure?

Because Dávila freely confesses that once they got people run away from the "snipers" and seek refuge in churches, Dávila's henchmen trained the people in "self defense" and "Molotov bombing" inside the churches.

Sounds like Dávila's co-terrorists benefited mightily from the "actions" of the "snipers," don'tcha think?
Anonymous said…
Wikipedia's account of Romero's assasination and the killings mourners at his burial in front of San Salvador's Metropolitan Cathedral:


Assassination and funeral

Left to right: Archbishop Luis Chávez; his successor Óscar Romero; Romero's successor Arturo Rivera; and Fr. Rutilio Grande, pictured in 1970.Romero was killed by a shot to the heart on March 24, 1980 while celebrating Mass at a small chapel located in a hospital called "La Divina Providencia" following a sermon where he called on Salvadoran soldiers, as Christians, to obey God's higher order and to stop carrying out the government's repression and violations of basic human rights. According to an audio-recording of the Mass, he was shot moments after the homily, which he had concluded with an improvised pre-Eucharistic prayer thanking God (the homily in the Roman Catholic Rite more or less signifies the end of the Liturgy of the Word and the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist or Mass of the Faithful). When he was shot, his blood spilled over the altar.

It is believed that the assassins were members of Salvadoran death squads. This view was supported in 1993 by an official U.N. report, which identified the man who ordered the killing as former Major Roberto D'Aubuisson.[6] He had also planned to overthrow the government in a coup. Later he founded the political party Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), and organized death squads that systematically carried out politically-motivated assassinations and other human rights abuses in El Salvador. Álvaro Rafael Saravia, a former captain in the Salvadoran Air Force, was chief of security for Roberto D'Aubuisson and an active member of these death squads. In 2004, Mr. Saravia was found liable by a U.S. District Court under the Alien Tort Claims Act ("ATCA") (28 U.S.C. § 1350) for aiding, conspiring, and participating in the assassination of Archbishop Romero. Mr. Saravia was ordered to pay $10 million dollars for extrajudicial killing and crimes against humanity pursuant to the ATCA. Doe v. Rafael Saravia, 348 F. Supp. 2d 1112 (E.D. Cal. 2004) (providing an excellent account of the events leading up, and subsequent, to Archbishop Romero's death).

Romero is buried in the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador (Catedral Metropolitana de San Salvador). The funeral mass (rite of visitation and requiem) on March 30, 1980, in San Salvador was attended by more than 250,000 mourners from all over the world. Viewing this attendance as a protest, Jesuit priest John Dear has said, "Romero’s funeral was the largest demonstration in Salvadoran history, some say in the history of Latin America."

During the ceremony, a bomb exploded on the Cathedral square (Plaza Gerardo Barrios) and subsequently there were shots fired that probably came from surrounding buildings. While no one died from the bomb-blast or the shots, many people were killed during the following mass panic; official sources talk of 31 overall casualties, journalists indicated between 30 and 50 dead.[6] Some witnesses claimed it was government security forces that threw bombs into the crowd, and army sharpshooters, dressed as civilians, that fired into the chaos from the balcony or roof of the National Palace. However, there are contradictory accounts as to the course of the events and "probably, one will never know the truth about the interrupted funeral."[6]

Twenty-five years later, the BBC recalled the horror:

"Tens of thousands of mourners who had gathered for Romero's funeral Mass in front of the cathedral in San Salvador were filmed fleeing in terror as army gunners on the rooftops around the square opened fire. ... One person who was there told us he remembered the piles of shoes left behind by those who escaped with their lives."
As the gunfire continued, the body was buried in a crypt beneath the sanctuary. Even after the burial, people continued to line up to pay homage to their martyred prelate.[7][8][9][10][11]
Anonymous said…
Post correction:

In my penultimate post I wrote:

"...,shooting to death scores and causing the trampling to death of many dozens more Salvadorans,..."

the text corrected--comporting with the above wikipedia posting and the cited Washinton Post's Christopher Dickey's on the scene reporting,the above text should have read:

"...whose shooting deaths of mourners prompted a fearful trampling to death of many other mourners--total casualties of dozens of deaths and many scores more wounded--...,"

With that body count correction offered, I believe it is a misconstrual of Davila's account to say he got "the people to run away from the "snipers",; in fact one of those gunned down in Archbishop's funeral procession on March 30th, 1980--Tito--a University of El Salvador (UES) law student, called out to others in the line of mourners, "no corra, no corra" in the face of the gunfire from the National Palace. Tito was totally unarmed, as were, all of the others with my eye-sight-range in that section of university students, that had marched from Cuscatlan Park that brilliant, sunlit morning, to join with the many thousands of other mourners in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral.

Tito and I had conducted a number of conversations of a political nature at the UES prior to March 30th, 1980. Tito's shouts of "!No Corra, No Corra! amid the increasing gunfire and machin-gun rounds coming from the buildings around the plaza on March, 30th, were probably the last words he was to utter or that anyone was ever to hear.

He was shot down by one of those Salvadoran military "snipers" likely moments after I quickly departed the plaza, heading to the opposite corner from the Metropolitan Cathedral, toward Plaza Libertad. I passed an overturned burning car as I ran from la Plaza Gerardo Barrios, then past a barricade of National Policemen. El Independiente's Paulo Bosio photographed Tito's lifeless body bearing gunshot wounds, stretched out on the Metropolitan Cathedral's tiled, bloodstained floor, and the photo of his among a half-a-dozen other lifeless bodies was published on April 1st front page edition of thte newspaper.

I considered Tito my friend and I mourn his death, a death which was a homicide, a criminal act, since he was unarmed.

Apparently some would justify Tito's killing as acceptable in human rights law or humanitarian law (the law of armed conflict). They are wrong. His killing is acceptable in neither, and his killer will perhaps one day be brought to justice--hopefully.

Ad hominem attacks, straw man arguments, and red-herring accusations of "terrorist" offer no justification for Tito's murder or similar murders by the Salvadoran army/security forces/"death squads" of tens of thousands of others in the late 70s and 1980s.

The use of Molotov Coctails as a defensive tactic in an urban setting by Salvadoran rebels pales in comparison in terms of lethality to the indiscriminate use by the Salvadoran army of high powered assault rifles, artillery, and helicopter gunships, fixed wing aircraft on the civilian population, ie, those not armed combatants, recognized by the Geneva Conventions and protocols, and of course not under human rights law.

As for the Salvadoran Catholic church: Archbishop Romero recognized the people's right to insurrection enshrined in El Salvador's 1962 Constitution. On that interpretation, he was just following the rule of law.

Anonymous said…
Here is another eyewitness account of the events of March 30th, 1980, at Archbishop Romero's burial from Jorge Braud:

El Pueblo Unido Jamás Será Vencido

by Jorge Lara-Braud

Jorge Lara-Braud, a native of Mexico, has served as an assistant general secretary for the U.S. National Council of Churches and as director of the Council on Theology and Culture for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.). He currently teaches at San Francisco Theological Seminary. This article appeared in Christianity and Crisis May 12, 1980. Copyright by Christianity and Crisis, used by permission. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John R. Bushell.


There were about fifty of us church "dignitaries" from about twenty countries, including representatives from Latin America, Europe, and the U.S., flying into San Salvador on Palm Sunday weekend to honor our friend and mentor, Archbishop Oscar A. Romero, assassinated the previous Monday while saying Mass.

Despite the nature of the occasion, there was something of a nervous joviality as we greeted one another in the processional lineup. No one was unaware that the funeral posed its own dangers. There would be more than a hundred thousand people attending. The government, we knew, was not in control of its own military and security forces. The manner of the archbishop’s dying had shown once more that assassins were on the loose, professional killers for whom nothing was sacred.

Why go to such a country, to such a funeral, at such a time? I assume that as with others, many of whom, like myself, had become close friends of the archbishop during the three brief years of his leadership, the call to honor his memory was stronger than the hovering sense of possible mass violence. Perhaps some were simply "assigned" by a higher-up who chose not to go. In any case I had learned to treasure this gentle prophet who had brought faith and hope to millions in a country where resignation and despair had become a way of life.

And so, on a radiantly brilliant day, the Mass began in a bit of disarray. An altar was improvised at the top of the stairs leading to the main entrance of the old, unfinished cathedral adjacent to the National Palace, headquarters of the government. Archbishop Romero’s coffin had been placed at the foot of the stairs, protected by a six-foot metal fence. I stood at the altar beside the pope’s representative, Cardinal Ernesto Corripio Ahumada, archbishop of Mexico City.

The plaza was jammed with the archbishop’s flock -- mostly poor people on whose behalf his voice had been so compelling. They were there, I presume, for the same reason as we friends from abroad: The call to honor his memory was greater than the danger they perceived. Fifteen minutes after the Mass began, I saw an orderly column of some five hundred enter the plaza, marching eight abreast behind banners that identified them as representatives of the huge coalition of popular organizations called "La Coordinadora Revolucionaria de Masas." These were the famous "leftists" one reads about, whom the archbishop loved and sometimes rebuked. The crowds in the plaza cheered and made way for the marchers as they filed by and laid a wreath at the coffin. Then, still calm and orderly, the column withdrew.

As the Mass continued, Cardinal Corripio paid tribute to the martyred archbishop. Just as he was paraphrasing an oft-heard teaching of Archbishop Romero -- "Neither truth nor justice can be killed by violence" -- he was stunned speechless, as were we all, by the thunderous detonation of a bomb.

The explosion occurred at the far corner of the National Palace. I stared open-mouthed at the palace and saw leaping fire and thick fuming smoke as if the pavement were aflame. The crowd stampeded away from the palace. There was the immediate sound of some return gunfire. Like a massive wave, thousands headed for the only possible shelter, the empty cathedral behind us. Some trying to climb the fence were killed as others in panic trampled over them. The chief liturgist grabbed Cardinal Corripio and me by the arms and hurried us into the safety of the cathedral as waves of people thronged behind us.

Moment of Crisis

What does one think in such a situation? My first thought was of a radio or television news bulletin in the U.S. which my wife would hear in horror before I could phone her myself. I did, however, get hold of myself. I was going to need all the serenity I could muster. Because I was wearing a doctoral gown and a hood, I knew people might mistake me for a prelate as they searched to he consoled.

People continued to pour into the cathedral. It is relatively sma1l perhaps half the size of Riverside Church in New York. It cannot comfortably hold three thousand, standing, and by the end of a half-hour’s warfare outside, more than five thousand had packed into it, with more still pressing their way in. People were standing on every available surface, including the main altar. There was no room to bend; eventually, there was barely room to breathe. The building shuddered with bomb blasts. Its awful, reverberating acoustics magnified the sound of gunfire; and all of this was heard above a din of cries and prayers from every direction. The smell of war wafted in. I kept panic away by looking after my neighbors, praying with them and speaking calm words of comfort (some learned from the archbishop).

All my life I have been a pathetic "claustrophobic." Being trapped in a small space has been my private nightmare. And yet, in the cathedral of San Salvador at the funeral of the archbishop, though people were dying of asphyxiation, I was strangely calm. My lifelong dread had come true, and I was going through it feeling only a numb rage at the perpetrators of this violence.

Cardinal Corripio, at the right of me, and I were in the second row of humans from the side wall. To my left, in the row behind me, was a woman who had been pleading with God. She had also begun to die. I could just turn my head, but nothing else; there was simply no way to bring her relief. As a Presbyterian layman I improvised what I thought was the Catholic church’s rite for the dying. "Your sins are forgiven, go in the peace of God," I prayed. She did die, but there was no room for her to fall down. In some cases, people could manage to inch up the body of a person who had fainted or died and carry it on their hands overhead, but to where, one could not know.

All the dead in the cathedral, I later saw, were women: shorter, slighter women. Trampled or asphyxiated. I trust all of us in the U.S., especially the feminist, will not forget this group of San Salvadoran martyrs.

Then, suddenly, astonishingly, over the bombs and guns and prayers, we heard the sound of cheering. Something else was being carried by hands over heads. It took a while for this object to come into my view, but a chant that was joined by everyone in the cathedral announced its coming: "El pueblo unido jamás será vencido. El pueblo unido jamás será vencido." ("The people united never shall be vanquished. The people united never shall be vanquished.") What the chant was announcing, I eventually could see, was the coffin of the archbishop, held aloft by fingertips, making its perilous way into this sanctuary of faith and terror, to its final resting place. Despite the violence outside, a group from the cathedral had gone out and down the steps to retrieve the coffin.

Even in death, the archbishop transformed despair to courage. How he was honored! People died to give his body, his memory, his faith, room where there was no room. Indeed: "El pueblo unido jamás será vencido."

At long last the violence outside ended. It had lasted about an hour and a half. We waited long after the ending to venture out.

We dispersed, but not before pausing to honor the lineup of our cathedral dead. All women. Many other corpses were picked up off the plaza by the Red Cross. As I left with my hands over my head and a sick feeling, I looked at a terrified boy sobbing. His mother was one of the dead women.

Eyewitnesses Confer

That night, we church representatives from around the world met again at the chancery building of the archdiocese to talk over what we had seen. About thirty of us were still in the city. We all had a chance to describe what we had seen. Since we had been scattered throughout the cathedral and outside, among us we were able to piece out to our satisfaction what had happened. This was indispensable. Beginning at 4:30 P.M. the government had begun broadcasting its version of events over a radio network. According to the government the "leftists" of the Coordinadora Revolucionaria had begun the shooting upon arriving, with the intention of stealing the archbishop’s coffin and holding the dignitaries hostage in the cathedral. That official version also asserted that since the night before all military and security forces personnel had been confined to quarters.

Our own evidence pieced together as eyewitnesses was a total contradiction of the government’s falsehoods. We agreed to put that in writing. All still present signed the statement. Then, as we were about to adjourn, we received a request for an interview with the five top leaders of the "leftists" on whom the violence was being blamed. We agreed. We asked them to describe what they had seen. They did. I asked them if they had carried weapons to the funeral.

"Yes, some of us did," they answered, and named the kinds and numbers of guns they had carried and the kinds of bags of kerosene they used for firebombing. "We are the most sought-out targets now," they said, "and we do not go anywhere any more without being prepared. We will not willingly be killed without a fight." They also described a strategy they use of overturning cars and burning them by throwing their bags of kerosene, to set up smoke screens against oncoming attacks.

What was remarkable about all of this is that their account -- both what they volunteered and what they said in response to our questions -- differed in no way from what we had pieced together among ourselves previously.

Official Version Prevails

The next day we were to find a radically different account given in newspapers: Salvadoran and U.S. newspapers. Sadly, the Salvadoran junta’s account was evidently appropriated by U.S. Ambassador Robert White. Even more sadly, major U.S. newspapers apparently got much of their version from the same sources used by the ambassador, who was not present at the funeral.

One of the last things the archbishop did was to write President Carter pleading that no U.S. military assistance be granted to the Salvadoran Junta. I have just learned of the vote of the House Subcommittee on International Operations. By a vote of 6 to 3 it is recommending an appropriation of $5.7 million.

Can I be forgiven if I regard the majority vote as blasphemy? I hope other Americans will agree. Archbishop Romero literally gave his life for peace. A Mexican bishop said to me as we left the cathedral, "Christ has been killed again. But he will rise again." I believe that. If I didn’t I would despair.