Forgotten El Salvador, Again

If you go to the room on the second floor of The Crimson, fondly called the Sanctum, you’ll find our archives. Decades worth of the daily print version of the newspaper line the walls of the room. Critical moments in which Americans learned to understand themselves are immortalized in its pages: South African divestment, the Vietnam War, the invasion of Iraq. But among the pages and pages of thin newspaper paper, one story has been remembered in the archives and forgotten by American memory.

Last week, I opened one of these bound books to find a story from December 14, 1981. It spread across an entire page of the paper, included two photographs, and had the glaring headline: Forgotten El Salvador. It rebuked the American public for ignoring the escalating state violence against Salvadoran citizens, even though Americans had just held protests in response to the killing of an American missionary and three American nuns by the Salvadoran National Guard just a year before. As the article claims, “It is an old axiom that only the threat of American deaths will arouse American concern; El Salvador seems a case in point.”

What the Crimson editor who wrote 35 years before me might have guessed, but couldn’t have known for sure, is that America would continue to forget El Salvador. The Reagan Administration continued funneling hundreds of millions of dollars towards a repressive El Salvadoran government that killed over 1,000 peasants in a single day in 1981, a fact that the Salvadoran Ambassador in Washington then falsely denied.

The final death toll of the conflict was over 75,000 Salvadoran men, women, and children and millions more displaced. Despite its heavy involvement in the Salvadoran Civil War, the United States government has not apologized for training murderers, and the American public has largely forgotten its repulsive involvement in the Salvadoran Civil War.

American forgetfulness spans much further than the 1980s, however. El Salvador’s 12 years of civil war forced people to leave their country for safety in the United States. Yet, the United States did not grant Salvadoran immigrants refugee status (even though most fleeing El Salvador during its Civil War met the conditions set forth by the United Nation Convention of 1951 and U.S. Refugee Act of 1980).

Instead of acknowledging its role in displacing millions of people, the United States has instead engaged engaged in a political rhetoric that criminalizes undocumented Salvadorans, speaks of short-sighted walls, and advocates for ripping families apart. American political consciousness views undocumented immigrants from El Salvador as part of an “immigration crisis,” but fails to acknowledge the role American foreign policy had in their migration.

There’s a moral argument to be made about our responsibility in handling the fallout of our involvement in El Salvador. When I spilled milk as a child, my mother made me clean it up. But apparently if it’s blood—and you’re the United States—it becomes someone else’s responsibility. But if the countless lives of people in the countries whose political systems we’ve tried to “shape” are not compelling enough, let’s make this about Americans.

There are more than two million Salvadoran-Americans living in the United States today, including the handful of us who study here at Harvard. Those who are second-generation, meaning that they were born and raised in the United States or who came as undocumented youth when they were children, know nothing but America. Our childhoods are held together by the sounds of the Pledge of Allegiance in the morning and PBS television shows in the afternoon. We grew up learning about the founders of our nation who, for reasons we didn’t understand, didn’t look like us. And we try tirelessly to be “American” enough.

But no matter how hard we try, we are still treated as an Other and are forced to live in the hyphen, cautiously straddling the link between the part of us that is Salvadoran and the part that is American. For those of us with connections to our parents’ home country, there’s an inexplicable conflict.

As Americans, we carry the burden of the United States’ military oppression and slaughter of thousands of people in the country where our parents took their first steps. As Salvadorans, we grapple with poverty, violence, and criminalization in the United States that stems from military involvement by the very country we now call home. As we embody both the oppressor and the oppressed, American collective memory forgets its role in fabricating the contradiction inherent to our identities.

By erasing our military involvement in El Salvador, America ignores a central part of who I am. My birth is the direct result of U.S. foreign policy, a military project in which I had no say. While certain Americans can afford to forget the various military projects we’ve embarked on abroad, there is a substantial number of Americans who don’t have that luxury. Those who make this country great, vibrant, and diverse are most damaged by its short memory span in remembering its imperialistic military history.

The United States continues to involve itself abroad, with missile strikes on Syria serving as just one example. When we attempt to shape political systems abroad, we inevitably begin the process of creating a new group of Americans whose lives fall between two nations. To reject these Americans, by refusing to settle refugees or immigrants, is to forget critical parts of American history and disrespect the hyphenated-Americans already living here. We have already forgotten El Salvador. We can’t afford to forget anyone else.

Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History & Literature concentrator in Leverett House.

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