Historias de El Salvador: De Violencia a Resistencia, a new exhibit at the Southwest Workers Union‘s Movement Gallery by community activists and artists Alvaro Rafael and Dany Romero, offers a compelling and challenging perspective on the ongoing violence in El Salvador.
Using painting and sculpture as well as poetry and photographs, Rafael and Romero provide a historical understanding of El Salvador’s current immigration crisis as well as the powerful resistance movements that are trying to heal the fractured country.
Some people know El Salvador from the years of Civil War (1980-1992), when death squads massacred people in the countryside in towns like El Mozote. The domestic altercations of this tiny country might have flown under the United States’ collective radar if the death squads had not also been killing priests and archbishops and raping and killing U.S. nuns. That got our attention.
Our angst increased when we discovered that the U.S. was supporting this repressive regime. Not only were we providing millions of dollars in support, but we also were training and arming their death squads, all under the guise of fighting communists, those radicals that wanted poor people to stand up for their rights.
El Salvador was in our backyard, and we couldn’t allow them to follow the example of Cuba or Nicaragua.
If you don’t know El Salvador from the ’80s, you probably know El Salvador from the photographs of tattooed gang members that accompany almost every post-war article about this tiny Central American country. By most accounts, there were more deaths in 2015 than there were during the El Salvador’s Civil War. The month of August alone registered more than 900 deaths.
In fact, El Salvador has been dubbed the most violent country in the Western hemisphere several times – the distinction is given annually – and has taken second prize in this dubious distinction in many other years. The current Central American immigration crisis is largely due to people fleeing this oppressive gang violence, which some consider another kind of warped Civil War.
Rafael and Romero’s exhibit connects the two faces of El Salvador and the violence of the Civil War to the violence of today.
Thousands of Salvadorans fled during the Civil War to El Norte and settled in Los Angeles, Calif., the second largest Salvadoran city after San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital. Seeking respite, they instead found themselves confronting discrimination and brutality, and in order to protect themselves, they grouped together.
Mass deportation then spread this U.S.-born gang culture and violence back to El Salvador and other Central American countries like Guatemala and Honduras, which have similar histories of nefarious American involvement. Once again, thousands are fleeing chaos and violence.
Even more sinister are the connections the exhibit makes about the response to the problem. U.S. policies that have created dangerously segregated cities like Chicago, blatant police brutality, and the largest prison population in the world are being exported to El Salvador with multi-million dollar ticket prices.
Responding with indiscriminate profiling and incarceration is especially iniquitous in an underdeveloped and impoverished country like El Salvador, where poor youth can be picked up and thrown in jail without recourse to any legal defense.
The profitability of gleaming facilities and fat budgets of military-style immigration centers as U.S. citizens debate the current immigration crisis also are scrutinized.
Some of the photographs in the exhibit from the Civil War and from the last decade are eerily similar: rifled and armored guards lining up citizens.
Rafael and Romero, however, do not just compel us to see generations of Salvadoran youth caught in a cycle of trauma. Through their powerful artwork, they offer us reprieve and show us resistance. Rafael, who immigrated to San Antonio more than twelve years ago, uses recycled material to create works that evoke political manipulation resisted by indigenous strength.
From San Salvador, Romero’s poetry speaks of incarceration and the indomitable human spirit. The story behind one of the pieces, a hanging wall of painted t-shirts, is forceful.
The original sketches about the inhumane conditions and degradation of incarceration by inmates in a Salvadoran prison were confiscated and destroyed. In retaliation, inmates repainted their art onto dozens of t-shirts, which visitors snuck out by wearing under their clothing.
Historias de El Salvador: De Violencia a Resistencia ultimately raises several questions: How can we destroy a country and then profit off its trauma and distress? Who besides the prison, weapons, and defense industries benefit from increased militarization and incarceration? Why is money not being spent on education, rehabilitation, and community development?
Through their work, Rafael and Romero ask the viewer questions that force them to see beyond the tattoos and prison bars to the betrayed humanity of El Salvador.
They pose questions that all U.S. citizens should ask themselves, not only about El Salvador, but also about their communities. By asking these questions, Rafael and Romero’s new exhibit asks us to join in the resistance.
Disclosure: The author of this review is married to Alvaro Rafael, one of the artists featured in the exhibit.
Top image: An art piece showcases the tense situation in El Salvador. Photo by Yon Hui Bell.