The Importance of Oral Histories to the Master Narrative, Part I

During my initial research this summer on the intricacies of El Salvador’s Civil War, I stumbled upon historian Dr. Erik  Ching’s book,  Stories of Civil War in El Salvador: A Battle Over Memory. Within its 262 pages, Ching exposes a few significant patterns within published oral histories of the El Salvadoran Civil War. This post is an evaluation of his argument as well as critical background knowledge needed to understand Part II of this topic. Part II details strategies of how to insert relevancy and present-day links while teaching with oral history narratives.
In Stories of Civil War in El Salvador Ching surveys the oral histories published by Salvadorans since the end of the civil war, he assigns four groups of people which correspond to five distinct viewpoints with similarities in their narratives (Ching separates the guerrillas before from those during and after the war by chapter but links them together in the introduction, that is why there are five viewpoints but four groups) (1). Ching uses these divisions because there were five separate narratives that these oral histories represented. All in all, he arrives at these four groups:

  • Civilian elites– pro-government, “aggrieved minority,” distrusted the military, and blamed guerrillas for start of the war (2).
  • Military officers– pro-government, despised the guerrillas for upsetting the balance in their country, blamed civilian elites who provided inequalities that spurred revolution, and wanted to ensure order at whatever cost (3).
  • Guerrilla commandantes
    • Guerrilla commandantes before the war – staunchly anti-government, depending on the faction of FMLN either enthusiastic to start fighting or apprehensive, but overall optimistic following Nicaragua’s successful 1979 offensive (4).
    • Guerrilla commandantes during and after the war - still staunchly anti-government, but some melancholic realism sets in among members, although united in stance against government some bitter factional divides surface, became high-status government officials after FMLN became a political party, and according to faction lines within the FMLN they view it as a moderate success, moderate failure, or a complete blunder depending on their faction’s intended goal (5).
  • Rank and file soldiers– stuck in between government and anti-government forces, mostly peasants who chose either FMLN or military to escape poverty, describe atrocities committed by military and guerrillas, the most negatively affected group who saw either little or worse social change since the civil war ended (6).

All of that information is great, but you might be asking, “What does this have to do with United States history or even my high school Social Studies class?”

Well, for one, not only does Ching’s book include excellent primary and secondary source material, he gives the reader a method to organize and interpret oral histories. The El Salvador Civil War was a fact. Over 70,000 Salvadorans died in twelve years. This war involved Salvadorans fighting other Salvadorans. Besides that fact, little else is agreed upon by the Salvadoran public. Which party is responsible for the most atrocities? Which leaders tried to do the right thing during the war? And many others. With so many unanswered questions, combined with government oppression and issuing nationwide amnesty to many suspected war criminals, Ching wisely uses the oral histories not to create the master narrative, but to look at the similarities to find the master narrative through and in the cracks that were either left behind by memory or intentionally obscured. Within his book, I sought an answer to my most pressing question – Who is the “bad person” in this war? Throughout my ten days in El Salvador in 2015, I was frustrated that amid the death and chaos of the civil war history, I could not find one side to root for, one side to champion as the defender of the common El Salvadoran.
But that is what makes Stories of the Civil War in El Salvador intriguing; although it may have complicated my initial understanding of the El Salvador Civil War, at the very least I have more contextualization and knowledge to answer my question.
In Part II I will show how I used Ching’s book as a springboard to start my El Salvador Civil War research. This will change how you approach oral histories in our digital age and in your classroom! So keep your eyes out for that post in the coming weeks.
(1) Erik Ching, Stories of Civil War in El Salvador: A Battle Over Memory (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 10-11.
(2) Ching, Stories of Civil War in El Salvador, 11, 75, 77, 14.
(3) Ching, Stories of Civil War in El Salvador, 11, 77.
(4) Ching, Stories of Civil War in El Salvador, 11, 15, 159-161.
(5) Ching, Stories of Civil War in El Salvador, 11, 15, 164, 189, 192-5, 199.
(6) Ching, Stories of Civil War in El Salvador, 11, 15, 204-6, 216, 222-223, 227.
Ching, Erik. Stories of Civil War in El Salvador: A Battle Over Memory. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.
[The Monument to Truth and Memory, San Salvador, El Salvador, 2015. Photo credit: Patrick Basista.]