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

In part one of this blog post, I outlined historian Dr. Erik Ching’s book,
Stories of Civil War in El Salvador: A Battle over Memory. His book’s premise is that one can separate the oral histories by Salvadorans about the El Salvador Civil War into four distinct memory groups: the civilian elites, military officers, guerilla commandantes, and rank and file soldiers. These groupings illuminate real crises of memory and political tensions that are still present in El Salvador. Interestingly, Ching mentioned in the introduction that he was not interested in relaying what actually happened in the civil war, but in documenting how it is remembered. Therefore, when I picked up this book hoping for some concrete historical analysis I was taken aback. However, I evaded this snare by using Stories of Civil War as a means for further study. Let me explain.
Ching expertly quotes oral histories, provides background context, and includes his own thoughts into the mix. Thankfully, his first chapter includes the most comprehensive history of El Salvador I have encountered. This helps explain how the assorted circumstances before 1980 pushed the country to a civil war. That vital chapter of contextualization along with my time spent in El Salvador gave me crucial background knowledge to start my research. Therefore, before interacting with oral histories it is essential that educators ensure their students understand the historical context and ask relevant questions to discover the historical context. Some important questions include: When was the source created? What things were different back then? Or what biases might the author have? (1). Oral histories involve a transportation to the past via a first-person narrative. They have two parts – the person and the history he is describing. Therefore, one must study both the person’s history and the history that is discussed to reach complete historical conclusions and analyses. Consequently, I applied this same approach to Ching’s book.
Whenever Ching included quotations, events, or names of people who I did not recognize, my first instinct was reviewing the associated endnote or conducting a quick Google search. Unfortunately, his endnotes rarely include extra information elaborating on events or peoples. However, the internet is a wide-open encyclopedia for those who know how to use it. Once I located resources, I immediately checked for credible sources, then corroborated them against each other to ensure my research was of the best quality. This approach was invaluable because I found the United Nations’ website and oral history repository, various documentaries, RefWorks, assorted journal articles, or YouTube videos where I could study the content (English or Spanish) and look at the comments section. In fact, looking at the comments section in YouTube and using a quick app like Google Translate (along with my sparse knowledge of Spanish) helped me contextualize what Salvadorans – or those attracted to those political videos – thought about the different groups and how they remembered them. I must also mention that Chelsea Des Rosiers provided translations when necessary to provide the utmost accuracy in translation due to the writer using informal Spanish or idioms. By combining these strategies with other historical thinking skills like examining sources and close reading, even with videos entirely in Spanish I could predict the tone the comments section might have based on superficial observations (2).
In the video entitled “BATALLON BIRIA ATLACATL MEMORIAS POR LA PATRIA I CON DIOS”, which is translated as “Biria Atlacatl Battalion Memories for the homeland and with God” one can guess based on the title and the addition of the American song that the uploader had a patriotic intent (3). Furthermore, the video is a montage of the Atlacatl Battalion in action. While some debate Creedence Clearwater Revival’s intent of the lyrics and some say it contains anti-war messages, the views expressed in the comments and video captions illuminates the target audience and intent of this video (4). The uploader “DUENDE20003” includes several comments about how “dirty” and corrupt FMLN are. In the video caption section it translates, with regard to the Atlacatl Battalion, “Praise to the men who offered their lives and showered the homeland’s ground with their blood to prevent the red rag of communism that was replacing our blue and white flag that all the military men swore to defend even at the cost of our own lives. For the homeland and with God Charly Domingo Monterrosa Barrios ‘Carlos’” (5). Through this translation, it is abundantly clear that this video creator is on the pro-government and anti-FMLN side. The very first comment by the video creator from three years ago is “SUBVERSIVOS TERRORISTAS DEL FMLN AHORA EN EL PODER MATANDO AL PUEBLO DE HAMBRE Y SU GRUPO DE ATAQUE LOS MAREROS FMLN 18 13” (6). This translates to “Subversive terrorists of FMLN are now in power, killing the village of hunger and their attack group, the gang members FMLN 18 13.” If one understands the context of El Salvador since the civil war, one can easily cast this off as propaganda.

In the 1992 U.N. Chapultepec Agreement, FMLN was instituted as a political party in exchange for giving up their weapons and thoughts of the communist revolution (7). Moreover, that statement by DUENDE20003 is evidence people do not spare the FMLN (guerrillas) from negative rhetoric. Even though the Commission on Truth and Memory expounded on the atrocities that the military (especially the Atlacatl Battalion) committed and after the 2014 democratic election of an FMLN president in (after twenty-five years of ARENA presidency), some still hold the FLMN responsible for the start of the civil war, the gang problems, and economic disparities of today (8). This sentiment was not uncommon because during my ten days in El Salvador those in my traveling group (who were more versed in Salvadoran history than I) expressed dislike of both the military and FMLN.
Ultimately, my research began with some questions, but through rigorous source vetting and corroboration, I unearthed a cornucopia of information that was useful to my greater question from the first post – who was the “bad guy” in the civil war? Likewise, letting students use the means and medium that they are already extremely familiar with (the internet) to conducting background research is the key to successful oral history study in the classroom. Students should research while keeping in mind Historical Thinking Skills of sourcing, corroboration, contextualization, and close reading (9). I did not realize this during my research, but I utilized all of these skills. In essence, I was conducting my own Self-Organized Learning Experience (SOLE). Therefore, I would encourage other teachers to start their history lessons using any source that may be unfamiliar to their students to start with a provoking question. This question can start as a stand-alone stumper like “Why is Hitler viewed as responsible for the Holocaust when he never officially ordered any killings of the Jewish people?” Another approach may be starting with a mundane question like “What role did the FMLN play in the El Salvadoran Civil War?” From there, one can ask questions such as “Would FMLN have won if the United States was not backing the El Salvadoran military?” “What were the motivations of joining the FMLN or the military for El Salvadorans?” “Did either side (the military or the FMLN) ‘win?’ If so, explain how and any repercussions.” “Was it morally just for the United States to aid the military in the ways that they did?” As you see, the questions are endless, and contextualization can happen via SOLE’s after or before the source is shown. Within the context of the classroom, oral histories work best when the content is either light and easily understood or after students have substantial historical background knowledge. That is not say that one should not use oral histories in other circumstances – oral histories’ best strength is the unique first-person take on history and the person’s emotion, so if the clip is enticing or stimulates discussion one can use it as an introduction to a lesson.
Therefore, in a classroom setting, it is vital to encourage student research of key events and peoples mentioned in oral histories or audio clips. If possible, after adequate research, students should re-listen to the oral history and record how they approach the audio differently. This will train them for future instances that they can use their historical thinking skills because they will recognize parts that need more research, and they will engage with the material more through their personal participation.
(1) “Historical Thinking Chart,” Stanford History Education Group. Accessed June 30, 2018.
(2) “Historical Thinking Chart,” Stanford History Education Group.
(4) Mark Deming, “Song Review by Mark Deming,” ALLMUSIC. Accessed July 21, 2018; DUENDE20003, “BATALLON BIRIA ATLACATL MEMORIAS POR LA PATRIA I CON DIOS,” YouTube.
(7) General Assembly Security Council, “Chapultepec Peace Agreement,” United Nations, January 30, 1992, 40. Accessed July 30, 2018.
(8) The Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, “From Madness to Hope: the 12-year war in El Salvador: Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador,” United States Institute of Peace. Posted by USIP Library on: January 26, 2001; Unknown, “El Salvador Profile – Timeline,” BBC, (May 16, 2018).
(9) “Historical Thinking Chart,” Stanford History Education Group.
Ching, Erik. Stories of Civil War in El Salvador: A Battle Over Memory. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.
The Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, “From Madness to Hope: the 12-year war in El Salvador: Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador,” United States Institute of Peace. Posted by USIP Library on: January 26, 2001.
Deming, Mark. “Song Review by Mark Deming.” ALLMUSIC. Accessed July 21, 2018.
General Assembly Security Council, “Chapultepec Peace Agreement,” United Nations, January 30, 1992, 40. Accessed July 30, 2018.
Historical Thinking Chart.” Stanford History Education Group. Accessed June 30, 2018.
Unknown, “El Salvador Profile – Timeline,” BBC. May 16, 2018.
Finally, a very special thanks to Chelsea Des Rosiers for her assistance with all Spanish translations.
[The Monument to Truth and Memory, San Salvador, El Salvador, 2015. Photo credit: Patrick Basista.]

Comments are closed.