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The fight to save The Nahuat Pipil People of El Salvador

By: Alejandro Ramiro Chan

The Nahuat Pipiles in the west and the Lencas and Cacaopera located in the east are the last three Indigenous groups to survive in El Salvador. They have been, not only in a state of resistance for more than 500 years, but also fighting for recognition. Only recently through reform legislated by article 63 of the constitution did the government of El Salvador recognize them in 2014 and establishing: “the Indigenous Peoples shall be recognized, and policies adopted for the purpose of maintaining and developing their ethnic and cultural identity, world view, values and spirituality.

It was a positive act, but it was late in coming. UNESCO’s 2008 Atlas of World Languages in Danger alerted that the language of the Nahuat Pipil was in a critical state: it registered only 200 speakers of the language. Meanwhile the Lenca and Cacaopera languages were already declared extinct. Loss of native languages is only one of many problems these peoples face while living in poverty. Calculations show that 38.3 % of the Indigenous population find themselves in extreme poverty and 61.1 % on its threshold. Only 0.6 % can cover basic living expenses without major hardship. Given these problems, it’s only fitting to ask oneself how did Indigenous people in El Salvador end up in such conditions?

A legacy of uprising and resistance

Cuzcatan or Cuscatlan was the capital of the Nahuat Pipil people. After the brutal Spanish Conquest and colonization it is where today’s capital of the Republic of El Salvador was established. Cuscatlan reappeared in 1985 when an ethno-historic and archaeological project discovered the city’s existence. The project found housing structures from that period proving the importance it had for various Indigenous people. The strength of evidence led the project to conclude the location was that of the ancient capital.

Not only were the Nahuat Pipiles found in this territory. According to a report written by Archbishop Pedro Cortes y Larraz in 1772 other peoples were also inhabiting El Salvador. Among those mentioned, “los Lencas, Chilanga, Matagalpa, Chorti and Pocoman, during that period of 132,092 inhabitants, 79,692 were Indigenous and represented 60.3 % of the population. By 1807 the Indigenous population was at 71,175 making up 43.07 % of the total population which that year was at 165,278”.

Throughout the twentieth century and into the 21st, the Indigenous population became a minority reaching only 10 % of the total. What were the causes of this decline? Primarily two things influenced the drop. First, the diseases and the war brought by the invading Spaniards, causing thousands of deaths of Indigenous Peoples during colonial times. During particular historic periods, physical and cultural elimination of entire populations was implemented. Although they fought against the plunder of their communal lands and their system of community-held land ownership, these war-time acts contributed to the extinction of original peoples.

But why was the elimination of Indigenous Peoples different from how that occurred in other countries? What interests were at play? There are two historic periods key to addressing these questions. First from 1821 to 1833, the nascent republic defined its economic policy through increased production of indigo and experimentation with coffee, an initiative that required much land which the state effectively acquired by taking their communally-held lands from the indigenous. This caused an uprising in 1833. Anastasio Aquino from the Indigenous territory of Nanualco would lead a resistance against those governmental policies. It was brutally suppressed. In 1881, by legal order, communal landholdings were abolished to avoid future uprisings and economic threat to new governmental policies being implemented. The reasoning can be found in the following citation:

The existence of the communities’ landholdings impedes agricultural development, obstructs the circulation of wealth and weakens family bonds and individual independence. Their existence is counter to economic and social principles which the Republic has accepted.

The second period spans the years 1881 to 1930, the period during which coffee demanded more land to increase its production. In 1930, during world crisis, coffee represented 90% of all exports from El Salvador. According to anthropologist Mac Chapin (from USA), Indigenous Peoples held only 25% of their communal lands yet were under full attack. As a matter of fact, in 1932 in the Indigenous territories of Juayua, Nahuizalco, Izalco and Tacuba they rose up resisting with pickaxes, shovels and machetes to try to prevent handing over their lands.

Before this insurrection, Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, then president of El Salvador ordered a stop to the mobilizations and uprisings, including assassination of anyone carrying a machete and all Indigenous wearing traditional dress or speaking their native language. It is estimated that thirty thousand persons were assassinated which was to become the greatest ethnic genocide recorded in El Salvador’s modern history.

Through these actions, Indigenous Peoples were brutally stripped, if not of all, surely a major part of their lands. And they were ripped away from their identity, socially and culturally. Those who resisted were assassinated, massacred and disappeared. Those who survived were only left with their strength to work. These atrocities turned Indigenous people into a minority which is noticeable in the number of their descendents present today. Those who perhaps are the last generation of Nahuat Pipil speakers. Policies of state-sanctioned terror and violence which characterized that period in history are still present in the individual and collective psyche of the people who were victims of the perversity.

I was able to speak with various men and women leaders during a trip to the Nahuat Pipil territory and asked them about why their language is being lost. Most of them were perplexed by the question, not because they didn’t have an answer, rather because they were transported to those times when their parents talked with them about the massacres, assassinations, disappearances and the repression against their people, against everything indigenous. Those times when their parents were hiding everything that was not from their own community, not indigenous, so as not to give away their identity, thereby preserving their lives. The consequences of terror and uncertainty are all present there and seemingly they, for a moment, lose themselves in it.

The state and current life of Indigenous Peoples

To contextualize the current situation of Indigenous Peoples in El Salvador is difficult as they face a combination of problems making it hard to describe and analyze all the changes confronting them. Perhaps above all, abandonment by the government and their insecurity are the two major factors which best achieve a context for their current status. Visiting the municipalities of Santo Domingo de Guzman, Nahuizalco, San Antonio (all in the province of Sonsonate) is sufficient to understand that life is difficult. One has to travel by truck some 30-40 minutes with minimal security. It is not suitable for public transportation but is the common means of transport from one municipality to another.

As my route in the truck advances, little by little I leave behind the racket, the traffic, and the characteristics typical of El Salvador’s cities. They are lost in another reality. Distancing myself, another Salvadoran face appears: the countryside, rural people and little by little the countenance of the indigenous. As I go deeper into the west of the country, the more I can make out the majestic Izalco Volcano. Throughout the trip I’m able to observe a considerable acreage of land for production of sugarcane. The only things that insert themselves in this expansiveness is the volcano, the mountains and the sea.

From Sonsonate to Santo Domingo de Guzman I notice that the land is no longer fertile and what stands out are corrals which pen in livestock–not in great numbers, but in a great stretch of land, vigilantly watched over by its landowners, perhaps local, perhaps absentee. At a bend in the road before arriving at Santo Domingo, precisely at a rise where a river runs, there’s a canal constructed to take advantage of the water level. There several women, men and children are washing clothes. All outdoors which makes me think that various families do not even have access to potable water. Or as tends to happen with the communities established in Indigenous territories, the systems that provide this liquid frequently fail.

Along the highway I also see housing, scattered one apart from the other. They were constructed by improvising and are located in places that are risky for the families who live in them. It’s not by chance that this precariousness is predominate here, for it is the cradle, the birthplace of the Nahuat Pipil people–as two elderly men proudly told me in Domingo de Guzman. I can attest to the results of a history of systemic and brutal plundering of lands, leaving this people at the mercy of its physical strength which they utilize to work the big coffee farms, or the sugarcane or cotton plantations, planting and harvesting, growing cycle after growing cycle.

When I arrive at the small plaza in Santo Domingo de Guzman where the Catholic church is located, I meet up with “Nantzin” (which in Nahuat means Mrs.) Anastasia Lopez Lopez who is approximately 55 years old. She arrives walking with the help of her cane because, as she said, “They just operated on my right foot and it’s difficult for me to go out… I’m very fearful. Here in El Salvador, drivers aren’t careful. Sometimes they pass by running over us and leaving the victim as if he were a dog. So it’s just better I don’t go out.” She’s worried the operation will leave scars. She has advanced stage diabetes. We make ourselves comfortable on one of three park benches. In spite of her illness, Nantzin Anastasia speaks with a strong presence, a powerfully motivating voice. She demonstrates non-compliance with the government and with a certain anger says to me:

“I want to take advantage of (the possibility) to tell the government not to abandon us. It should get its act together already! I remember that during the campaign, they said they would provide a pension of $450 (she laughs because the promise has not been fulfilled)… And I also tell the president he should support us Indigenous Peoples. This is the cradle of Nahuat civilization.”

Natzin Anastasia tells me that there are sick people in the municipality. Why? Two important elements stand out. First, in this municipality there aren’t the necessary means for providing adequate foodstuffs. Not only due to a scarcity of fertile land, but also there’s not the support necessary for securing agricultural loans to finance food cultivation. And, due to poverty, access to adequate food is not possible and the situation gets worse for someone who is sick. They can’t follow the proscribed diet nor purchase medicines. She relates in her own words:

“Here there is a health center, but that’s not like a hospital. We want a hospital here in Santo Domingo de Guzman … here we can only be sick between 5 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. because until 5 a.m. there’s nothing. Sometimes in the hospital there is no medicine. I have a bad foot and I buy all the medicine… Who does not suffer from diabetes, from heart disease, fatigue or broken bones?! Here there are too many sick people.”

Nantzin Anastasic is angered by the reality in which she finds herself. For her nothing changes whether the government is leftist or on right. Both have abandoned the people. The absence of the government is a typical characteristic in the majority of nation-states where Indigenous Peoples are found within their territories. Nevertheless, in most cases Indigenous Peoples find or create ways to continue their languages, their culture, spirituality, worldview, and to successfully achieve autonomy by standing up to the state. This is due to the existence of a system of communally held lands which permits them to put together a way of life.

In the case of El Salvador something else is going on. The Indigenous Peoples were dispossessed of their communal lands and territories, then persecuted, oppressed until they exiled themselves into identities that were not indigenous. Particularly among the youth, it caused an identity informed by an enticingly “magical” mainstream. The result is they live in extreme poverty. Having neither options nor opportunities for employment, they are victims exploited by the large coffee farms, the sugar cane and cotton plantations that have established themselves throughout the country. Additionally, the majority have no adequate, decent places to live.

“Here we are, abandoned… presidents come, and presidents go, and we are abandoned… What does this president think? That here we don’t eat. I see all the injustices.”

If that were not enough, racism and discrimination were devices implemented at gun point by the state during several periods of history and enduring for a long time. They were internalized into the indigenous’ own point of view, resulting in prejudice and negativity against its own population. Indigenous generally, and young people in particular, do not want to speak Nahuat Pipil and do not self-identify as indigenous. They view it as something of the past, not the present.

Jose Carlos Paiz Perez, Nicolas Sanchez and Ana Cecilia Garcia, leaders in Nahuizalco, dedicate most of their Sundays to meeting with their fellow community members who make up part of the Indigenous Unification Movement of Nahuizalco, or MUINA. They are the driving force behind a series of activities, mainly for youth, which address topics such as history and the importance of the culture of the Nahuat Pipil people. As a matter of fact, upon arriving at the MUINA site, the agreed upon place for doing some interviews, I encounter some 15 young people about to have lunch, and then participate in a workshop.

MUINA is located in a place where it’s easy to get lost, in a neighborhood with many people. Inside it one observes apartments that reflect the precarious living conditions; one also notices community clothes washing basins, a bathroom and a large patio that everyone shares. There is a large room, its walls adorned with photos of activities and events carried out by the elderly and youth during a commemoration ceremony for leaders executed in the massacre of 1932. On a table made of plastic there’s an old radio/recorder where they listen to Indigenous music. On another table there are plates and cups which the young people and the workshop organizers use for eating lunch. The main office functions as a storeroom where they keep, among other materials, Indigenous musical instruments for teaching young people how to play the ancient ancestral melodies.

Nicolas Sanchez, 65, from MUINA pays attention to my questions and with his fingers intertwined he responds to my interrogation regarding the interest level youth have for the Nahuat Pipil language:

“Let’s just say that there are situations where a counterpoint must be made at the family level.Today’s system steals the young away from their cultural roots. They see cultural topics as something of the past, something that has nothing to do with the present. And life goes on, evolving. More than anything, there ought to be a struggle at the family level, to create a consciousness among children that we come from a culture, a people, an identity which we must keep alive. The other is racism within our community, so when we identify as indigenous, our own don’t deal with it or just are not interested. To identify as Indigenous is seen as despicable. Along with that comes discrimination. The difficult situation we are in is the product of this same system. A system that pens us in, strangles us and discriminates against us…

Another problem is the lack of interest from communities and municipalities in organization. Nicolas Sanchez, an elder, leader from Santo Domingo de Guzman, sits back observing, taking his time to respond while he contemplates the passing motorcyclists, the footsteps of passers-by and then explaining with a certain sadness.

“…another thing that has affected us is that we are not organized. We must organize ourselves in order to gain the power of speech, get out where we are heard.There are problems among us, among speakers of Nahuat Pipil. We are the oldest ones and there’s the issue that we are illiterate, because if we are not able to read and write, it’s as if we are silent. And we do not have money to put ourselves out there. If we go not knowing how to…? If we go out and we are not listened to…? Here we are at the mercy of God. So there it is. No organization exists, no organized groups exist. For me that is a huge hole”.

Living in these conditions, in spite of recognizing the lack of organization, there are those who show hope of rescuing and revitalizing their language, their culture and worldview. There are those who have the willingness to live and share their culture, to provide knowledge about their culture both within their communities and to municipalities outside, which suggests a sense of resistance–despite everything–a wave of acceptance that little by little goes forward strengthening itself into a flood of Nahuat Pipil people.

The framework of resistance

Faced with a disheartening panorama, strength to preserve Nahuat Pipil identity and language, to rescue and practice the cosmovision of these original peoples continues almost without being perceived as a struggle. The Nahuat Pipil New Year celebration and saving its Indigenous music are perhaps the greatest expressions of the effort. “Identity and language are in the blood” as some interviewees mentioned. It is genetic and that makes a connection with ancestors possible, with young people and with future generations. Nicolas Sanchez of MUINA confirms this inspiring view:

“Among the young who participate in MUINA activities there is enough understanding about what we are trying to pass on. We see them as interested. We achieve a connection with them because when talking about history and identity, there is a connection with our ancestors. There is a spiritual and genetic connection between the young and the adults via the relationship with our ancestors. So continuing this process is to achieve creating a consciousness of their identity, to achieve a degree of conviction in order to say. I am indigenous, my parents were indigenous.We have a way of not allowing our identity to die, our culture to disappear. I have an expectation of those young people”.

Also, organizational initiatives exist for the implementation of workshops and trainings in history, culture and their own cosmic wisdom, i.e. that of the Indigenous Peoples of El Salvador. Although it has not been easy, as Ana Cecilia Garcia’s experience shows. She is the only young woman who has been in attendance and participating in a MUINA workshop. As she describes it, from an early age, together with her grandmother, she’s involved herself in Indigenous organizations, although that has led to discrimination and rejection by her family, her friends and her community. Frequently they ask with contempt, “why are you with them?” referring to her fellow MUINA participants who are much older than she. And they have denied her participation in the evangelical church because they think she practices witchcraft. Sighing and with a degree of sadness, Ana mentions that has not stopped her from working for the cause, the revitalization of the culture of the Nahuat Pipil peoples. Proudly she mentions that she’s achieved forming a youth organization because she considers that “it’s of great importance–that they be familiar with the situation Indigenous Peoples find themselves in and the importance of strengthening the organization and participation in it”. Cecilia emphasizes enthusiastically and hopefully that, “whether the culture is lost or not depends on the young people, but first awareness is necessary”.

Nantzin Anastasia Lopez also mentions having suffered discrimination and complains about the lack of support. Nevertheless and in spite of health issues she still has found strength and the motivation to teach the Nahual Pipil language to children, to inspire them to compose songs in the language, including recording a CD. She dreams of being able to create a school for Nahuat Pipil where children, young people, adults can go to learn. With great presence of mind and pride she says, “While I am alive, I am available to teach speaking and singing in Nahuat.”

Recently, the Calmecac Center for Indigenous Studies was founded in El Salvador. (Calmecac means house of wisdom in the Nahuat Pipil language). It’s a space for deepening and delving into Indigenous spirituality, where there’s an effort to save Indigenous music by working tenaciously with young people. These initiatives, intertwined in space and time, turn into concrete actions of resistance which impede the disappearance of the language and identity of first peoples.

What is left to do?

The Nahuat Pipil face many challenges which still exist. First, concern for securing health and better living conditions for elderly in the distinct Indigenous Peoples of El Salvador is emerging because the elders are the main source of knowledge, wisdom and their languages. And so, there is an emergent desire to increase their longevity. And in these times of CoVid-19, which has become a pandemic affecting elderly more than others, the question comes up: how to grow interest among young people and children, not only in learning about their culture, but also to actually live it. How to rebirth a new generation that would reclaim and revitalize Indigenous identity in El Salvador?

Other questions exist that still have no answers, e.g. how to introduce joining together in initiatives and joint proposals among the various Indigenous organizations that until now have not been organized under one umbrella group. Jose Carlos Paiz Perez, MUINA member, thinks three things are significantly important: decolonization, empowering of Indigenous identity and unifying Indigenous organizations. Taking serious personal ownership he declares.

“For the Indigenous Peoples what is left to do in the first place, is to advance the decolonization process, i.e. rid ourselves of the mind-set, of our lifestyle, all those counter values, those attitudes we have been taught and that have destroyed us, that divide us– all of these are why we fight among ourselves– even with our blood relatives. {And second} Each organization, each sub-group of Indigenous people would have to advance the empowerment of knowing our own identity, our own principles, and own values.

{Third} Work for unification of Indigenous organizations. We have to ignore our own the small interests, those of the small group, those specific personal interests. We have to think about development, change, the blossoming of our identity. Our ancestral knowledge, not merely being in touch with it, but living it, to be impregnated with it, that it passes deep into our souls, because it is best . . . . Clearly, this is a personal commitment and then a group one”.

Indeed, in El Salvador currently, the last generation of Nahuat Pipil speakers exist–where the elders are the main source of ancestral knowledge, wisdom and language restoration. But this can change. If the community takes interest in the survival of its culture and does not allow it to die. There are already important efforts by individuals and by Indigenous organizations that are resisting the disappearance of the language. Through their interest and motivation new generations of Nahuat Pipil speakers could flourish in El Salvador. Of course the government has the most responsibility, acceptance of which is still pending. And that’s a whole other topic for discussion.

***Special appreciation to each one of the interviewees for their contributions to this report, for sharing pieces of their lives, their daily struggles, so much about their daily life. And also, a thank you to Bessi Ramirez who lent her support and accompanied me in Sonsonate, to Santo Domingo de Guzman and Nahuizalco.

About the author

Alejandro Ramiro Chán Saquic is from the Pueblo Maya K’iche ’of San Andrés Xecul, Totonicapán, Guatemala. He is a political scientist, with an interest in helping to make visible and publicize the social, economic, political, and environmental problems faced by the Indigenous Peoples of Guatemala and Central America as a result of the accumulation of capital through dispossession.