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Anna L. Peterson and Brandt G. Peterson Martyrdom, Sacrifice, and Political Memory in El Salvador A MONTH BEFORE H IS DEATH, OSCAR ROMERO, A RCH BISH O P OF SAN Salvador, El Salvador told an interviewer, “If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people. . . . May my blood be the seed of free­ dom and the signal that hope will soon be a reality” (Romero, 1987: 461). Romero was shot through the heart as he said Mass, killed on the orders of a Salvadoran military colonel who organized both clan­ destine death squads and the far-right political party that has ruled the country since 1989. The archbishop became a martyr for Catholics and other believers throughout the world. Romero died in the early days of the conflict between the Salvadoran government and the revo­ lutionary FMLN (the Spanish abbreviation for the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front), a conflict that eventually consumed about 80,000 lives. The vast majority of the dead were civilian victims of the Salvadoran army, whose brutal counterinsurgency war was heavily supported by the United States. Twelve years after the death of the archbishop, as the peace accords that ended the civil war were beginning to go into effect, an enormous banner with an image of Monseñor Romero was draped from San Salvador’s cathedral: “Monseñor, you came back to life in the people.” These words were intended to mark the end of the violence of social research Vol 75 : No 2 : Summer 2008 511 the war and to inaugurate a period of peace, democracy, and national reconciliation that would honor Romero’s mission and his sacrifice. Yet the years since the end of the war have hardly been peaceful. El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the western hemi­ sphere, and violence associated with street crime in particular has emerged as a central preoccupation for many Salvadorans since the war’s end. Income inequality and poverty rates remain high, particu­ larly for those in the countryside, where traditional agricultural produc­ tion has declined precipitously. In the western coffee-growing regions, decimated by the worldwide drop in prices, poverty and hunger have risen to levels unseen in decades. The economic problems and violence contribute to an enormous flow of migrants out of the country, most to the United States via Mexico, but others headed to different parts of Latin America, Canada, Europe, and Australia. In these conditions, we ask in this paper where we might locate Romero’s return and, more generally, what is the place of martyr­ dom, so central to the discursive organization of the civil war, in the present. We trace the themes of martyrdom and sacrifice across two distinct periods of Salvadoran history: the civil war of the 1980s and the postwar era since 1992. As the situation in the Salvadoran civil war shows, themes of martyrdom and sacrifice can help to organize political struggle by providing frames for interpreting social and polit­ ical landscapes and addressing issues of violence, loss, and mourn­ ing. We highlight several distinct functions of martyr narratives in Salvadoran politics since the late 1970s. First, conceptions of martyr­ dom and sacrifice provide meaningful frames for agency, orienting and motivating individual and collective action as political struggle. Through risk and sacrifice, people are connected to a common good. This connection places individual sacrifices into a context in which they are painful but meaningful as part of a struggle that transcends any particular individual. Notions of martyrdom also position people in relation to histoiy. They situate the present in narratives of past and future and locate people in relation to sacred histoiy, inserting current events into a reli­ 512 social research giously and morally meaningful narrative of sacred time. Martyrdom identifies divine power and intentions as acting in human history, at the same time it provides a goal or horizon toward which history is moving: the kingdom of God. For progressive Catholicism, this is given additional resonance by associatingJesus with individual actors, such as Romero and other assassinated priests, and with the collective “people” (pueblo) that acts out God’s will in histoiy. Because they provide a sense of meaning and...


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pp. 511-542
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