Women, Culture, Power: New Views on Archival Evidence from 20th-Century El Salvador

AHA Session 284
Conference on Latin American History 71
Sunday, January 9, 2022: 11:00 AM-12:30 PM
Napoleon Ballroom C1 (Sheraton New Orleans, 3rd Floor)
Erik K. Ching, Furman University
The Audience

Session Abstract

Historians of twentieth-century El Salvador face chronic challenges when it comes to finding original source material. The challenge
is especially acute for those working on themes related to gender and culture. Each of the four scholars on this panel study the
intersections of gender, culture and power, and they do so by relying on previously untapped sources. Together they show the ways
in which previously understudied oppositional actors carved out autonomous space within El Salvador’s military-authoritarian

Roger Atwood focuses on a highly influential, but woefully understudied literary journal from the 1960s, La Pajara Pinta. A main
foundation of his work is materials in private collections, held largely by contributors to and editors of the journal. Private collections
like these are an untapped source in El Salvador. Their owners have been notoriously, and in light of El Salvador’s long history
of authoritarian violence, understandably reticent to make them available publicly. Roger cultivated personal relationships with specific individuals, to gain access to previously unseen original manuscripts and correspondence. He contends that La Pajara Pinta played a significant, and to-date, underappreciated role in creating an oppositional counterculture to El Salvador’s prevailing military

Stephanie Huezo looks at a distinct subset of the rural opposition population during El Salvador’s civil war (1980-1992), so-called
maestras populares—essentially unofficial, local people, almost entirely women, who undertook the task of educating local youth in
zones occupied by the guerrillas. Stephanie relies heavily on oral interviews, in particular in areas with which she has personal family
ties, as well as documentary materials held in private collections by families in these rural communities. Stephanie contends that
these teachers’ approach to activism changed when they migrated to the United States after the war.

Aldo Guevara seeks to understand the changing nature of honor and female sexuality in the first half of the twentieth century. To do
so he relies on a sprawling, underutilized and unclassified archival collection in El Salvador’s National Archive, the Fondo Judicial,
which contains transcripts from court proceedings. He sifted through the voluminous holdings to cull cases related to young women’s
sexuality. By following the changing nature of these cases over the span of fifty years, he contends that not only do the cases show
the patriarchal power that young women faced, but also the intuitive ways in which those young women used the legal system to
challenge patriarchy.

Heather Vrana looks at a very specific medical condition, goiter, in the early twentieth century, using it as a foil to examine the
intersection of scientific research, social welfare and eugenicist thinking. Heather relies on heretofore-untapped medical records in
church and hospital archives to explore the ways in which El Salvador’s highly unequal society negotiated public health problems.
She links the Salvadoran government’s response to goiter to international trends in medical care, showing that Salvadorans
negotiated universal meanings of progress through the lens of their local socio-economic conditions.

See more of: AHA Sessions