After Stories: Transnational Intimacies of Postwar El Salvador (Review)

Irina Carlota Silber’s second book is a meditation on ethnography, politics, and El Salvador’s post-insurgent generation.

February 24, 2023

After Stories, Stanford University Press, 2022

Irina Carlota Silber’s After Stories: Transnational Intimacies of Postwar El Salvador is, as the title suggests, a very personal work. Silber’s second book is a reencounter with the fieldwork that formed the basis of her first, Everyday Revolutionaries, an ethnography of gender and postwar disillusionment among former insurgents from a repopulated community in El Salvador’s northern mountains. Decades later, After Stories is a meditation on ethnography and politics at the intersections of “insurgency and migration” in the “longue durée of postwar” El Salvador. 

Silber’s return to her fieldnotes from the 1990s is enacted with and against more recent ethnographic work on what she terms the “1.5 insurgent generation,” or the “the now young adult children of the forgotten former rank-and-file Salvadoran revolutionaries” that populated the site of her first project. Like other comunidades repobladas, this Chalatenango town was collectively resettled by organized refugees who caravanned into El Salvador from Honduran refugee camps during the Civil War (1980-1992) that pitted the U.S.-backed military dictatorship against the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Many of these young people have migrated to the United States in the intervening decades, part of the exodus of Salvadorans displaced by postwar neoliberal restructuring whose remittances sustain the dependent Salvadoran economy. In this densely-sourced work, Silber traces the trajectories of postinsurgent “rank-and-file families” across generations and borders.

In 2019, Silber was one of the international anthropologists sworn in to provide expert witness testimony at the trial over the infamous 1981 El Mozote massacre, in which Salvadoran security forces killed more than 800 civilians in two days, most of them children. Positioning herself as a white, Argentinian-born U.S. citizen, she critiques the “historical elisions (and problematic whiteness)” of the international solidarity movement with Salvadorans resisting U.S. military intervention in the 1980s, seeking instead to craft a “protracted, intimate ethnography in solidaridad” towards a “politics of recognition, of love, and, I hope, of justice.” Impunity still shields most of those responsible for the U.S.-backed Salvadoran state’s wartime atrocities, and Silber is attentive to the shifting terrain from which “new calls for truth, reparations, and justice move” from one generation to the next.

The book’s core chapters are structured around notions of numbers, bodies, and things. Silber’s exploration counters the ways these categories are often deployed to flatten the discourse around postwar El Salvador. These musings weave together stories from fieldwork past and present, some rediscovered in unattended audio files or reread in a new light. She frequently transcribes the original Spanish in its entirety, a refreshing move that allows for a more textured analysis than could be otherwise gained through translation. Beautiful photographs, many from the late Ralph Sprenkels, punctuate the pages.

Her reflection on numbers centers migration and homicides. Here, Silber proposes the concept of “violencia encifrada” (encrypted violence) to signal how curated numbers come to represent a nation, and the violence behind what gets counted and by whom. In theorizing bodies, she turns to Jasbin Puar’s notion of socially produced “debility” to think beyond disability as identity politics and meditate on the endemic, chronic illnesses and injuries that inhabit her stories. Silber posits an “ethics of collective care” cultivated across El Salvador’s post-insurgent generations to contest these persistent structural violences.

On objects, Silber considers the souvenirs of ex-combatants, then turns to an “archive of the returned” through an encounter with a recently deported migrant in Chalatenango and the documents that accompany removal. Her consideration of migration and the “materiality of deportation” offer up generative lines of inquiry, including the mutation of “reintegration” on the national and international development agenda, first for demobilized combatants (then, we might add, for former gang members), now for deported migrants.

Silber finds a “foundational radicality of the 1.5 insurgent generation” born into the collective care ethics of a post-insurgent community. In her final chapter, she contemplates evolving aspirations and “1.5 insurgent dreaming” in the diaspora. This is where a book that otherwise resists a uniform reading draws some potentially polemical conclusions.

After recounting stories of Miguel, a young Chalateco building a family in the United States on the foundational legacies of radical politics and rural life, Silber counterposes Marleni, an early U.S. migrant whose legal immigration status and material success as a business owner set her apart from much of her cohort. Silber’s interviews with Marleni produce a series of declarations against socialism and revolution that extend to denying her parent’s (active) role in the armed struggle. Marleni’s retelling of the civil war depoliticizes that participation, casting her family and their neighbors as backward, ignorant victims caught in the crossfire of what was ultimately just a “political show” orchestrated by the corrupt leadership of both sides. “Can we read Marleni’s militant refusal as another side of the same Chalateco coin that demands redress and recognition for past injuries and the pain of war?” Silber wonders.

Silber stresses that Marleni’s revisionist discourse is grounded in war trauma. Like most of the 1.5 insurgent generation and their parents, Marleni was witness to unspeakable horrors and experienced great suffering. Silber situates her account within a “repertoire of Chalate co-insurgent multigenerational chronicles that honor the trauma of war, demand justice across actors, and reframe a history of collective action,” then claims that “the values and moral frameworks that underscore this recognition can make for a better world for all.”

For readers acquainted with Salvadoran politics, Marleni’s statements are all too familiar. They echo throughout the narrative pushed by President Nayib Bukele, whose “authoritarian populism” Silber cogently critiques. This discourse is exemplified by Bukele’s speech at El Mozote in December of 2020. In his remarks—mostly a diatribe against the FMLN—he declared: “La guerra fue una farsa, mataron a más de 75,000 personas entre los dos bandos, incluyendo los 1,000 aquí en El Mozote, y fue una farsa como los Acuerdos de Paz” (“The war was a farse, both sides killed more than 75,000 people between them, including 1,000 here in El Mozote, and it was a farse just like the Peace Accords”). The Mozote trial was effectively terminated in September 2021 after the judge overseeing the case was forced into retirement as part of a judicial purge enacted by Bukele’s party in the legislature.

Bukele’s rise to power was fueled by this discourse, which leverages popular discontent with the failures of the neoliberal peace and liberal democracy of El Salvador’s postwar political economy into a vengeful, messianic politics of fear and reaction. The traumas and dissatisfactions that undergird this support are real, as are the oft-cited shortcomings of the FMLN leadership. But the implications that unfold from Marleni’s “militant refusal” are embodied in Bukele’s project of remilitarization, political persecution, and authoritarianism. This is indeed the other side of the Chalateco coin, but it’s a very dark side.

On January 11, police arrested five community leaders from the repopulated community of Santa Marta, Cabañas that helped lead El Salvador’s recent, victorious struggle against metals mining. Under Bukele’s permanent state of exception, active since March 2022, the defendants’ rights to due process can be violated with impunity. These five former insurgents have been charged with a murder that took place during the civil war, in keeping with Bukele’s reframing of recent history to minimize the role of the armed forces in the bloodshed. Prosecutors added a charge of illicit association, aka gang affiliation, for good measure. 

Argentine scholar Claudio Katz, writing recently in Jacobin América Latina, warned that fascism is neither unique to the 20th century nor necessarily a response to a revolutionary socialist threat. Rather, “this virulent process is periodically generated by capitalism, in order to counteract the discontent provoked by the inequitable, impoverishing, and convulsive dynamics of the system itself.” Bukele’s apparently anti-systemic critique of popular struggle and the mobilizations for historical memory from places like Santa Marta are different responses to a common crisis. That does not give them common cause.

After Stories weaves its diverse narrative threads together loosely, leaving an ambiguous final form. Silber’s central contributions come via her insights into her own ethnographic practice across the decades, which will be valuable to researchers at any stage in their careers. Her rigorous engagement with a commanding range of scholarship on and from El Salvador, furthermore, make the book an indispensable reference. The political conclusions, however, risk a relativist reading precisely as the postwar movements for justice that Silber has steadfastly accompanied face their greatest assault. “Militant refusal” of insurgent struggle is now hegemonic in El Salvador, and it’s quickly making for a world much less equal, less just, and less free. 

Hilary Goodfriend is a postdoctoral fellow with the Latino and Latin American Studies Research Center at the University of California, Riverside (UCR). She is a member of the NACLA editorial board and holds a phd in Latin American Studies from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).

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