Indigenous Rights in El Salvador

The Legacy of a Great Lenca Woman  

By Leonel Antonio Chevez

The last Lenca queen. Photo courtesy of Leonel Antonio Chevez.

The story I will tell you here is of a remarkable woman, the last in a centuries-long line of Maya-Lenca matriarchs and a living conduit of ancient traditions brought into the modern world. It is the story of a woman, a leader, a role model and a tribal person: the story of my grandmother Francisca Barbara Romero Guevara, the Comishaual (Jaguar Matriarch of the Maya Lenca).

My grandmother came from the Lenca people, a pre-Columbian group of allied tribes in Central America. They are considered the first inhabitants of what is today Honduras, most of the territory of El Salvador, parts of Nicaragua and small enclaves in Costa Rica. Some Lenca cave dwellings date back approximately ten thousand years, classifying the Lencas as existing since the Palaeolithic era.

The history of indigenous people in El Salvador has for centuries been one of dispossession, marginalization, persecution and murder. The Spanish invasions and colonization of the 1500s purposefully destroyed the structure of indigenous communities and tribes. What little autonomy and few lands had been granted by the Spanish Crown to the Lenca chiefs were then completely abolished after the birth of the Republic of El Salvador in 1821, whose leaders invoked the principle of equality for all and refused to recognize any ethnic diversity. 

Going further, the Republic had explicitly declared that the indigenous people who once existed in that land had disappeared and were officially extinct. This meant that from then on, no Salvadoran could be acknowledged as an indigenous person, and El Salvador could never be accused of ongoing mistreatment of indigenous groups within its borders. 

This was the world of my great-grandparents, the world of the 19th century that my grandmother learned about as part of the oral tradition, memorized and passed down to her by her parents and grandparents. 

Born in El Salvador in the first decade of 1900s, my grandmother Francisca was the youngest of a family of five. Her father was Gabriel Sosa and her mother was Margarita Romero. Both parents had an unusual heritage. Sosa was half-indigenous Lenca and half-Sephardic Jew from a small cluster of secret Jews who had lived in eastern El Salvador since colonial times.

Romero was also half-indigenous and half-European. She was from the noble clan of the Lenca tribe known as the Taulepa, which in pre-Columbian times ruled many lands. The Taulepa are known in the oral tradition of the tribal narratives as the Jaguar Clan, ruled by women who are celebrated as the founders of the kingdom and rich in ritual tradition.  

When my grandmother was in her teens, an economic crisis hit El Salvador because of the devastating effect of the collapse of world coffee prices. In response to this crisis, in 1932, the indigenous people of the western part of El Salvador rose up demanding the rights of access to their ancestral tribal lands. Our clan was unable to join that uprising due to our distant location in the east at the opposite end of the country. As a gesture of support, my grandmother’s grandfather gathered his militias and went across the country to support the uprising as a friend, not as a formal member of the Lenca tribe. Many of his men did not come back; he survived with multiple wounds and several pieces of shrapnel embedded in his body. 

For the tribal leaders of the western part, the outcome was more final. The soldiers of the Republic captured them, executed them and in this way, the last nobles of those tribes came to an end. After the uprising, on January 22, 1932,  forces of the Republic systematically killed between 35,000 and 50,000 indigenous people in a massacre called La Matanza. Persecution continued. Anyone wearing indigenous dress or having indigenous physical features was deemed guilty of participating in uprising and risked being murdered.

As a result, many indigenous people stopped wearing their traditional clothing or practicing their customs and culture for fear of death. Many did their best to assimilate into the general population. They adopted the mainstream language and Catholic religion, restricting traditional practices to the privacy of their homes. This was the virtual end of a distinctive indigenous culture.

Despite these prohibitions and fear of death, leaders like my grandmother and her parents kept their dual identity: a European way of life publicly and a blend of tribal culture and philosophy at home.

In her case, my grandmother embodied three cultural heritages: the indigenous Lenca, the European and the Sephardic. She never made a formal distinction among her traditions and values. Instead, my grandmother saw these three sources of wisdom as one, something she referred to as “the ancient ways.” 

Yet the indigenous traditions in her family were perhaps stronger than those of other members of the community, since she was never forced to attend a Catholic service or to become a Christian. In addition, to avoid political indoctrination she was never sent to school to receive a formal education. Today these two factors would be seen as a disadvantage for a child; in her particular context, these factors were exactly what ensured that our grandmother maintained intact most of her ancient practices, values and world view.

When she grew up, life gave our grandmother only one child, my father. They lived in a country where the prohibition of indigenous lifestyle was still in force and this meant that my father could not fulfill his role as a tribal chief, a right given to him by virtue of his birth in our lineage. 

Chief Chevez at the United Nations. Photo courtesy of Leonel Antonio Chevez.

When I was born in 1971, my grandmother was extremely pleased as she wanted me to grow up knowing our heritage and acting on it. When I was nine months old, my father separated from my mother and my grandmother took me under her care and stewardship.

Unlike my grandmother, who was kept away from schools and religion, I was obliged to attend school. However, I was not required to take religion classes or attend church services. My grandmother’s view on literacy was that reading and writing would help me survive in this other world where oral tradition no longer holds the same dignity and power as does the written word.

Growing up I remember her with a big basket on her head filled with all kinds of goods, going to the villages selling fruits, eggs, flowers, herbs and many other things. She tirelessly roamed the region, buying and selling local produce to earn the money needed to buy my school books and uniforms. I grew up clinging to her skirt as we walked up and down the muddy tracks or the dusty roads during the two seasons of the tropical year. 

Wider political events were to have another devastating impact on our people. During the 1980-1992 civil war, death squads and the army killed around 80,000 people in El Salvador. The civil war forced us to become internally displaced people. Suffering was not new to us; many indigenous families had been living under indentured semi-slavery since the birth of the Republic. The civil war was just another layer of instability and danger that would test our strength and survival instinct.

I will never forget those days when we had to flee the shootings in our villages. Our grandmother was brave and decisive. Some nights when the shootings took place very near our makeshift hut by the Pan-American Highway, she simply embraced us and reassured us that the world was going to be okay. 

In 1993 my grandmother heard that the United Nations had declared an International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People. Let’s remember that in 1993 a UN-mediated peace agreement had only just ended the 12-year-long civil war. Most of us were afraid, traumatized and unsure if the killings would restart if the UN observers were to leave.

Despite all this uncertainty and fear, my grandmother asked me to organize a plan. I was to gather members of the community to form a cultural committee in our village. She also requested my help in writing down as much as she could tell me of her oral tradition. Her vision during this time was extraordinary—she could see that this was the moment of transition, the chance to rescue our people’s cultural heritage and preserve it for the modern world.

In November 1994, in a small community gathering, we proclaimed her the living Comishaual. This title translates into English as Flying Jaguar, and was used by all her female predecessors who reigned over the Lenca people.

My grandmother asked me to craft a basic bill of cultural rights—an almost unbelievable idea for those of us who had lived for generations under prohibition. When I gathered our neighbors in the village and read the proposed bill to them, many were amused, others excited and some were challenged by the audacity of the indigenous family to act as a noble clan and enact cultural rights. 

The people most offended by our public display of indigenous pride and intention to declare our own rights were the ex-military men—killing machines sitting idle during the transitioning years from war to peace. With our small cultural charter, we had become a target of their unresolved anger. 

Multiple death threats and subsequent attacks against our family escalated during the very fragile peace process implementation. I survived several shootings because my grandmother advised me to sleep in different homes that she negotiated as safe havens among her contacts. I remember once after one of those shootings, I was crying and telling her how afraid I was of her being killed by these armed groups. She simply told me that this time we were not going to back down. 

I wrote a letter to the provincial governor reporting the attacks and my concerns. In it I highlighted our desire to celebrate our identity as part of the nation and not as separate groups. I wanted them to understand that we were not, as accused, a guerrilla group promoting communism. I never received acknowledgment of my letter—at least not formally. 

Instead, in September 1995, an armed group arrived in a car to our neighborhood and without warning gunmen opened fire on me and my nephew Ernesto. At the sound of the bullets, my nephew put himself in front of me, receiving eighteen bullets and dying instantly.

My grandmother then summoned a family gathering, ordering me to seek safety. I objected, arguing that my duty was to be there for her and to die for her if I had to. She quickly reminded me that the decisions of the Comishaual were not open to debate.

In July 1996 I arrived as a humanitarian refugee in Australia, leaving behind all that I knew, loved and lived for.

Living in exile as a refugee was a painful process despite all the help and support given by Australia. I lived with extraordinary pain and longing every day as I saw the sun set and felt no hopes of ever seeing my grandmother and extended relatives again.

In 1997, when I finally relocated the whereabouts of my grandmother, she directed me to never give up the cultural program. She reminded me of my duty to my people: “we are born noble, and nobles we die.” And so that year I established the Office for Lenca Affairs. Since then, my role at the UN sessions increased. 

Without the efforts of my grandmother, these  achievements would never have been possible. I can truly say that I am her product, and that I am in debt to her for all that she gave me during her life. Her brave example and rigorous teaching shaped me as a person in the new generation with skills and values to face the challenges at hand. 

From exile, I have been able to influence the successful reform of the constitution of El Salvador, which in 2015 acknowledged the indigenous people. I know that these landmark events can only happen when great leaders are behind the scene, adding their wisdom and strength to the local processes on the village level to affirm our rights and to add our voice to a global process of great significance to us. Today, there are well organized indigenous entities such as CCNIS, ASIES, ACOLCHI and many more.

My grandmother lived to see these great events before her death in August 2015. Never fleeing into exile in the face of danger, but choosing to stay in the land of her people, the last Comishaual now rests in the place that is once again acknowledged as the traditional land of the Maya Lenca people.

Our lineage is one of the last matriarchal clans of the Americas that has somehow survived to become the meeting point of the old ways and the modern world. Today, my sisters and I live scattered across several continents. Despite these vast distances of separation, we stay close and united by the values and traditions given to us by the last Queen in the Americas.

Leonel Antonio Chevez is the Ti Manauelike Lenca Taulepa (Hereditary Chief of the Jaguar House and the Lenca Indigenous People). He has served as strategic adviser to indigenous groups participating in the “Second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples” at the United Nations, and as a panel member in special sessions at the Permanent Forum on Indigenous People 2000-2014. He lives in Australia and can be contacted on