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Hispanic American Historical Review 84.2 (2004) 191-237

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"They Call Us Thieves and Steal Our Wage":

Toward a Reinterpretation of the Salvadoran Rural Mobilization, 1929-1931

¡Quien mandará aquí será el cambio!
—Campesino saying, 1931


The basic facts of the January 1932 uprising in El Salvador are well known and largely undisputed. Thousands of workers and peasants in central and western El Salvador rose up on the night of January 22 and occupied various towns in the departments of Sonsonate and Ahuachapán.1 The Salvadoran Communist Party (PCS) had planned the insurrection two weeks earlier, but its key supporters in the army and many of its leaders were already either dead or in jail when the revolt began. The response of regional elites and the central government was swift and brutal. The army reoccupied all of the towns within a few [End Page 191] days, and throughout the next month government forces and civilian militias killed thousands of peasants and workers, especially in the heavily indigenous areas of the west.2

During the past 70 years, four themes have dominated interpretations of the movement and the massacre. The first focuses on the structural causes of the revolt. In 1927, following six years of dramatic expansion, coffee prices and export volumes began to decline. This slump accelerated over the next few years, a devastating blow to an economy dependent on coffee exports. The western part of the country, which was hardest hit, became the principal site of the rebellion.3 The second focuses on the major political crisis that began when [End Page 192] President Romero Bosque (1927-31) broke with official continuismo and permitted relatively free and democratic local and presidential elections. As a result of this political opening, reformist candidate Arturo Araujo was elected and held office from March until December 1931, presiding over the deepening economic crisis and increasing social and political unrest in the countryside. Elites and their military allies moved to depose him, principally due to his inability to stem the growing leftist-dominated movement in the countryside but also because of the administrative chaos that plagued his government.4 The third line of analysis focuses on the role of the PCS.5 Within the Left, many have questioned the PCS's political line, and more recently, scholars have questioned the degree of PCS influence over the movement.6 The fourth theme, concerning the ethnic content of the revolt, relates to the third in that some scholars stress the remoteness of the PCS from the concerns and culture of the indigenous supporters who participated in the movement.7 The western region [End Page 193] boasted the greatest concentration of indigenous population and communities, and long-standing conflicts over land and local political control contributed to their mobilization.8 This history of ethnic tension also shaped the undeniably racist dimension of the repression.9 Scholars have argued that the indigenous leadership of cofradías played a critical role, but did so with all the tensions, ambiguity, and social distance implied by such an alliance with the movement's urban, ladino leadership.

The exploration of these themes has helped to elucidate the causes of the insurrection and its repression. Notwithstanding the great value of the existing literature, however, we feel it has privileged certain lines of inquiry and, with notable exceptions, failed to exhaust research possibilities. In particular, the literature has failed to offer adequate insight into the experiences, motivations, and origins of campesinos' resistance and mobilization.

William Roseberry's understanding of hegemony is useful in trying to grasp the ideological and cultural relations between elite and subaltern groups. He argues, "What hegemony constructs then, is not a shared ideology but a common material and meaningful framework for living through, talking about, and acting upon social orders characterized by domination."10 This article will attempt to explain why the Salvadoran elite, and its religious and political allies, had such an extraordinarily difficult...


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pp. 191-237
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Archived 2004
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