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  • To Rise in Darkness: Revolution, Repression, and Memory in El Salvador, 1920–1932
  • Paul Almeida
To Rise in Darkness: Revolution, Repression, and Memory in El Salvador, 1920–1932. By Jeffrey L. Gould and Aldo A. Lauriasantiago. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008. 400 pp. $89.95 (cloth); $24.95 (paper).

To Rise in Darkness offers a critical reassessment of the dramatic events leading to the 1932 rebellion and repression in El Salvador. These two political events (the 1932 popular uprising and state-sponsored massacre) offer key subjects of study because the popular revolt represents one of the largest uprisings in Latin America during the Great Depression and the state violence that immediately followed stands out as one of the most horrific acts of state repression witnessed in the western hemisphere in the twentieth century. This impressive monograph provides yet another piece of the puzzle that dozens of scholars have attempted to unravel over the past forty years in terms of which social groups participated in the revolt and their motivations as well as why the Salvadoran state and landed classes vehemently responded with a repressive force way out of proportion to the size of the rebellion.

The authors carried out more than two hundred interviews with massacre survivors and their families in western El Salvador. This alone acts as a major feat for those familiar with oral history research methods in postconflict settings in the developing world. The work also incorporates rare documents from the Comintern and other precious archival materials. Moreover, the two authors combined experience represents more than thirty years of historical research on El Salvador with Aldo Lauria-Santiago’s archival studies and Jeffrey Gould’s field and documentary work (not to mention his earlier studies on Nicaragua), resulting in an extremely equipped team to take on the daunting task of reconstructing and clarifying the fuzzy sequence of events that culminate in the 1932 insurrection and subsequent mass slaughter. Gould and Lauria-Santiago also practiced “public history” by producing a corresponding documentary film (Scars of Memory) based on sources from the book and immediately translated the work into Spanish for access to Salvadorans. In short, the authors should be commended for the sheer amount of intellectual labor invested in this volume.

One of the many contributions of To Rise in Darkness resides in the authors’ ability to highlight two class segments of the rural laborers, colonos and semiproletarians. This same section (chapter 1) also provides an excellent overview of the political economy of El Salvador in the 1920s involving a new race for cultivable land in western El Salvador and the squeezing out of many small-holding peasants. Hence, the study shows that a simple linear process of land dispossession at [End Page 612] the end of the nineteenth century did not provide the immediate economic grievances leading to rural mobilization (as some scholars contend), but a newer round of primitive accumulation in the 1920s at the height of the coffee boom that numerically expanded the colono and semi proletarian class segments that made them ripe for organizing. Another innovative framework presented here is that the state fails to form a stable means of hegemonic control or a unifying national ideology over the subaltern classes in the early twentieth century, where the political consequences manifest in the early 1930s during the Great Depression. The authors also demonstrate that a reformist political current existed in El Salvador since the early 1920s to pressure the state to democratize. Hence, once Pío Romero Bosque assumed the executive office, the new president did not simply liberalize the political system as a reformist visionary, but rather he felt pressure from mobilized workers, students, and middle-class groups before and after taking power to open up the polity and lift the state of siege.

Scholars working on these events knew from secondary sources that the Federación Regional de Trabajadores Salvadoreños (FRTS) organized simultaneously in both the cities and the countryside in the late 1920s, but the relationship between town and country in the labor union remained murky at best. This study resolves the perplexing question of how rural and urban workers coalesced into a unified labor movement...


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