Maria’s Story: A Documentary Portrait of Love and Survival in El Salvador’s Civil War, a documentary film by Monona Wali and Pamela Cohen (1990, rereleased2010), DVD, PM Press, 60 mins.
In June 2009, Mauricio Funes took office as El Salvador’s first leftist president. With more than 51% of the popular vote, Funes won the election as the candidate of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the political party that was once a federation of guerrilla armies that fought the Salvadoran state to a bitter stalemate in the 1980s. María’s Story, a documentary filmed 20 years before Funes’s historic election, records a nationwide military and political offensive undertaken by the FMLN in late 1988 and 1989. This “final offensive” was a crucial step on the path to the peace accords signed in January 1992, ending the Salvadoran civil war. While many have heard the war’s gruesome statistics—which include more than 70,000 people killed, most of them by the Salvadoran military—few have had the opportunity to see what the war was like up close and personal. The power of María’s Story, now available on DVD on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, comes from the particular story of FMLN guerrilla leader María Serrano and her family, as well as the film’s innovative techniques.
The filmmakers spent two months in a provisional FMLN camp, capturing the day-to-day experience of the war as María and other guerrilla soldiers went from town to town. Under fire from bullets and mortars, the filmmakers used solar-powered, small-format video cameras to document the everyday struggles, violence, hope, and courage of FMLN fighters.
María’s Story, is a valuable documentary and teaching tool that will inspire audiences to discuss U.S. foreign policy, the reality of war, gender politics, and shared values of what constitutes justice and basic human rights. I have shown it about a dozen times to undergraduates, usually as a part of a general class on race, class, gender, and politics in Latin America. I often pair the film with María Teresa Tula’s book, Here My Testimony: María Teresa Tula, Human Rights Activist of El Salvador (South End Press, 1994). Both are compelling and moving testaments of the passion with which FMLN-aligned women struggled politically, militarily, and personally in the Salvadoran civil war and the atrocious strategies of repression that multiple Salvadoran governments used between 1975 and 1992 to remain in power.
A family story—that of María, her husband, José, and their two living daughters—provides the film with a conventional lens, bringing out the experiences of love, family intimacy and loss, struggle, and survival that are a part of the war. The film is carried by the incredibly charismatic persona of María, a practical and inspiring thinker who motivates not only her own family to get involved in the struggle, but many others as well. The family story is somewhat romanticized with the happy reunion of María, José, and their two daughters in San José de las Flores for the first time in three years. But María’s retelling of the death of Ceci, her middle daughter killed in an army ambush in 1987, returns viewers to the horror of the war, which has affected every family. After retelling how Ceci was killed, María adds that soldiers split open her body. She doesn’t blame them for killing her daughter “because we are making a war,” but “these are things that no one can be prepared for,” she says, referring to her daughter’s mutilation.
The film begins in a guerrilla camp catching up with 39-year-old María, who explains that they are planning a military offensive in order to “defeat the enemy militarily, politically, and diplomatically” in order to build a new society built on “food, schools, and health” for all. Shortly thereafter we meet 13-year-old Minita, María and José’s youngest daughter, who tells us that she likes being close to her mother.“ If we had stayed in our house,” she explains, “they would come and kill us.” This matter-of-fact statement underlines the fact that she has been on the move since she was three years old. We then meet José, Maria’s husband, who works in supplies. They have been married for 21 years.
The next scene leads us across the Sumpul River, the site of various massacres, including a notorious one in 1980, when the Salvadoran military massacred more than 300 non-combatants in 1980 as they tried to flee into Honduras. We follow María, José, and Minita into their hometown of Alcatao, where they visit José’s father. A town originally of 10,000, only 1,000 people remain. Here, María takes us to the house where she arrived as a newlywed, gave birth to her children, and worked as a rural housewife and for a campesino union.
While in her hometown of Alcatao, María takes viewers on a tour of the old National Guard headquarters, which is not far from her former home. In 1979, Alcatao was taken over by the military, which detained and tortured people in the headquarters. María and her family left in 1979 and, as they explain in the film, have not lived there since then. María explains that she joined the FMLN in 1987. Many people who fled Alcatao were living in the mountains of Chalatenango, where guerrillas with the Peoples Forces of Liberation (FPL)—the largest of the five FMLN guerrilla groups—were also operating. Since they shared daily necessities in the same place, María explains, it just made sense to join up.
From there the film moves to an improvised guerrilla camp where there is strong anticipation of Christmas celebrations. An FMLN soldier who looks about 13 years old at most can be heard talking excitedly about the milk, bread, and tamales that will be given out on Christmas Eve. But a surprise mortar attack ends the anticipated festivities. “Open your mouths when the mortals fall,” María tells the filmmakers, since the pressure can cause eardrums to burst. On the run again, María’s guerrilla unit finally sleeps and then walks into San José de las Flores, a repopulated FPL community that has managed to construct houses, plant and harvest corn, and begin to plan things like schools and health clinics. Sister cities with Cambridge, Massachusetts, San José was an important focus of solidarity work, receiving support from U.S. and European committees that were crucial in helping it to rebuild and resist further military incursions. There, María gives a short inspirational speech and meets up with her husband and eldest daughter, Morena, who tells us how she went into health work when she was 13 with a strong push from María. The last portion of the film provides an upbeat assessment of the final offensive the FMLN was preparing in 1989.
What might be billed as almost a music video within the film features shots of guerrillas preparing bullets, bombs, Molotov cocktails, and other weapons to the tune of a catchy ballad about insurrection and revolution. María provides a stirring narrative that compares “the insurrectional moment” to “giving birth to a baby.” The next shot moves us into an intimate look at one small piece of this plan as María’s guerrilla group moves into a town and attempts to hold it overnight after running out a group of government soldiers after an intense firefight. We witness a young girl related to one of the guerrilla soldiers in María’s unit getting hurt in the effort. The army retreats, and the evening is marked by an inspiring display of FMLN troops who shout slogans like “Revolution or Death” and “Chalatenango Heroico.” The parting shots of the film pan over nature scenes as María reads a poem she wrote about her rebirth through the revolutionary movement and its relationship to the changing seasons.
Viewing the film 20 years after it was made offers an interesting optic on where El Salvador is now and where it has been since the peace accords. A series of right-wing presidents who endorsed a neoliberal political and economic agenda have left El Salvador with ongoing inflation, increasing problems with violence linked to the expanding activities of Mexican drug cartels and gangs vying for control of trafficking routes, and a large portion of the country’s 6.2 million people of living outside of the country (estimates range from 14% to 40% of the population).
The new DVD version marks the passage of time by providing viewers with short updates on the film’s main characters. María ran for and won a congressional seat in 1997. After serving one three-year term, she got fed up with national politics and went to school. In 2002, she got her bachelor’s degree in social studies and since 2005 has worked as an elementary school teacher and education advocate. José returned to their home in Alcatao to work their small farm while Minita, the youngest daughter, finished a degree in 2006 to be a nurse practitioner. Morena is a teacher in Chalatenango. Now a grandmother, María has a granddaughter, Carmen Aída, who finished a bachelor’s degree at the University of El Salvador. Thus all of the women and girls featured in this documentary have completed higher education degrees and become professionals—a remarkable achievement for people who survived 10 years of fighting on the civil war’s front lines.
While María and her daughters are pursuing traditional paths for women—in teaching and nursing—their legacy is to help people on a daily basis in concrete ways that can change their personal situations. As such, the update provides us with hope that many more young women will be able to make such choices and others without the decade of pain this family went through. At a larger level, the update puts the film back into a space of hopefulness and anticipation with the first FMLN president taking office. Let us hope that he can help to make María’s dream of food, health, and education for all a reality in El Salvador.
Lynn Stephen teaches anthropology and ethnic studies at the University of Oregon, where she directs the Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies. Her most recent book is Transborder Lives: Indigenous Oaxacans in Mexico, California, and Oregon (Duke University Press, 2007).