By June Carolyn Erlick
I had forgotten how beautiful El Salvador is. The fragrance of ripening rose apples mixed with the tropical breeze. A mockingbird sang off in the distance. Flowers were everywhere: roses, orchids, sunflowers, bougainvillea and the creamy white izote flower—all against the hovering presence of the majestic San Salvador volcano.
I had forgotten how hospitable Salvadorans are. On my most recent trip in November 2015, the lapping of the ocean and the sea breeze at La Libertad an hour from the capital revived memories of my first trip to the country in 1975. I was making my way through Latin America (without a backpack) on $10 a day. I would look longingly along the beach at the fish menus in tourist restaurants, much too expensive for my budget. One day, a local woman with two children suggested I buy fish at the market. When I protested that I didn’t have a place to cook, she invited me home and made delicious fried fish and plantains. I ended up staying with her family for a few days.
I had returned frequently as a reporter to El Salvador to cover the civil war, but I never saw the family again. I couldn’t reconcile the cruelty and pain with the warmth and kindness I experienced on an everyday basis. I had seen too many children’s coffins, interviewed too many grieving mothers. I had trembled too many times myself. When the bombs went off during Archbishop Óscar Romero’s funeral service, I happened to be standing in the church tower, next to a revolutionary priest, half-expecting a sniper’s bullet to end our lives. I had watched as the four murdered churchwomen were unearthed from their shallow grave. I will never ever forget the smell, the smell of death.
I will also never forget how I suggested to a nun friend that she get into a photo I was taking and the next thing I knew four nuns had dropped to their knees to pray and every professional photographer on the scene pushed me aside to get what became an iconic shot. I was a witness to history, a role I feel strongly today as I explain the war experience to the postwar generation.
I had come back once before to El Salvador after the war for a reunion of journalists who had covered the war. I wanted to go to La Chacra, a shantytown where I had visited with Archbishop Romero in 1979. Too dangerous, I was told; the gangs now controlled the neighborhood (see story on p. 78).
El Salvador now has the highest homicide rate in the world. When I told people I was doing an issue on the Central American country, the response immediately focused on gangs or violence. No, I would reply, we’ve already done ReVista issues on violence and organized crime. And I instructed the authors and photographers in these pages not to center their articles on violence, but to show how violence is transversal, how it permeates every aspect of the society.
But perhaps I shouldn’t say every aspect. During my November trip, friends, authors, photographers, people I knew and people I didn’t, organized parties and lunches and gatherings of fascinating people—and trips to the gang-dominated neighborhood. I always had the feeling people were looking out for me, taking care of me. The hospitality doesn’t change and neither does the country’s exuberant landscape. I am thankful for both and especially for the energetic collaboration of Salvadorans and others that made this issue a reality and, hopefully, a thoughtful and accurate reflection on El Salvador today.