After Stories
Transnational Intimacies of Postwar El Salvador
Irina Carlota Silber



Breathe in and imagine the soft sway to the left and to the right. Breathe out. We are packed in tightly, backpacks on our laps and two gallons of potable water between our feet. Our thighs, probably sticking to the vinyl upholstery, are pressed up against a neighbor—perhaps it is a young mother, like really young, fifteen years old, holding her infant daughter as she creates a little breeze by waving an embroidered handkerchief that she keeps ready on her left shoulder. She has a few colones in her brassiere.1 We learn this because that is where we now keep our forty colones for the week’s visit. Or perhaps we are seated next to an elderly man wearing a worn straw hat. The machete for the milpa tied to his hip, he moves out of our way. We say “con permiso” (with permission, or excuse me) as we scooch in. He is accompanied by his teen grandson, who is sporting jeans and a striped polo shirt. They are coming from doing a mandado (an errand) in the capital of Chalatenango. It is hot and the air sweet-sweat smelling. It is such a good smell. We’ll come to miss it. Crave it. It is a bit fetid, for sure, but we will conjure it to remind us of Chalatenango’s earth, the land erupting with corn, fresh beans, and flowers—deep red, fuchsia, violet, orange—all blooming. Such a beauty and bounty of commingled smells: homes with their wood-burning comal (griddle) and tortillas “toasting,” the hand-washed laundry drying on a line and wafting its perfume left by the big blocks of soap that we learned to handle. And that whiff of bus diesel. We are in what is called a microbus, a small passenger van that has been ingeniously refurbished on the inside to seat at least twice its original capacity. There are no seatbelts, and we are happy to have a spot and make the 10:00 a.m. ride. Otherwise, we would have to wait for the 1:00 p.m. pickup truck, where we would have to hold onto the side, hoping not to fall off on that bumpy curve where we know a curlytopped, adored toddler tragically flew from his mother’s grip. Some of the windows open, some do not. We start off on a cracked, sand-colored cement road, up an incline, through communities that line the way. There are new development-funded cinder-block homes—not yet painted, just the original standard gray—interspersed with others made of bahareque (often bamboo and adobe).2 It is not yet the turn of the twenty-first century, which will be marked by massive emigration to the United States and the resulting majestic homes in Chalatenango, with enormous wrought-iron gates and four-wheel-drive vehicles parked out front. We are young back then. My hair is plaited. We try not to romanticize and fall in love with a country and its people.

This book is about El Salvador, about the aftermaths of war, and about how generations of Salvadorans create meaningful lives. It is also, as a result, an indictment of US foreign and domestic policy, past and present. This is important to me, as an Argentine-born and US-raised anthropologist. I’ve been steeped in this work for a long time, and so this book also tracks relationships and intimacies “in the field” over time. The terrain of everyday life has shifted locally, globally, professionally, and personally for me and for many of the people we’ll meet in this book. In part, I offer my thoughts in an effort to engage with these shifts—small and large—speak truth to power, and step up and step aside with solidarity and a politics of recognition.3 Anthropology as a discipline continues to wrestle with white supremacy, its colonial history, and its relationship to “public scholarship”—how anthropologists develop, pursue, and present their research, with whom, to whom, and for what purpose. You’ll see, Reader, that I’ll be presenting an always partial, positioned, and reflective account with the aim to contribute in some way to the arc of justice. I write to you all directly, inviting you to join me as readers, thinkers, listeners, critics, and coconspirators, as world-makers in the beauty of our diversity. I do so in the same way that was modeled for me during my first trips to El Salvador in the early and mid-1990s.4 Back then, women and men in the Salvadoran countryside—in the Department of Chalatenango, the former war zone where I spent most of my time conducting doctoral research (in the summers of 1993 and 1994, and in 1996–1997) in a repopulated community comprised of recently transitioning insurgents and their community supporters—would instruct their listeners, including me, to really “imagine it.” “Imagínese,” people would often say to initiate their storytelling, asking me to imagine being a laborer like them on a cotton or coffee plantation in the 1970s, escaping in the 1980s through the mountains, in the dark, with just the stars for light, body walking behind body during a military bombardment or to imagine being a guerrillera in the FPL (Popular Liberation Forces), one of the five branches of the insurgent Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).5 Chalatecas and Chalatecos, which is what residents of Chalatenango call themselves, pushed me to understand, to feel, in the richness of their narratives’ sensorium, their lived experience and their theories of knowledge about macro- and microlevel social, political, and economic forces that contextualized the stories they shared.6 These are stories that they continue to share, decades later. When I write to you, Reader, it is to honor this invocation of “imagining it” and to extend a politics of recognition that goes both ways.7

This book fits into an ever-expanding body of work, most recently by a new generation of interdisciplinary Salvadoran scholars.8 To date, there are books and studies about El Salvador’s literary culture and political history, about the armed conflict (1980–1992) and insurgent politics, and about the postwar period and people’s wartime memories. Scholars, activists, and policy makers have written on the impact of transitional justice, on the power of electoral politics and gendered social movements, and of course, on the Salvadoran diaspora, couriers, coyotes, gangs, and unaccompanied minors from the Northern Triangle—just to mention a few topics.9 This book moves us across geographic locations, from the rural countryside of Chalatenango to the United States, to places like northern Virginia, New Jersey, and Los Angeles. It also moves us across time as I weave together stories from my early anthropological fieldwork that started in 1993 in El Salvador and that continues, with a different pacing, ebbing, and flowing even as I edit these words in 2022.

I hadn’t intended on writing this book, but I’ve been pulled to “imagine it” for more than twenty-five years because of the relationships born from fieldwork. As anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod reminds us, it is important “not to underestimate the devotion to others that fieldwork entails.”10 Reflecting on her own experiences in the foundational text Veiled Sentiments, she emphasizes the “give and take” required and the ways that “fieldwork is a (rare) form of respect and care for other people.”11 Abu-Lughod’s insights help me to share and to frame what I have come to think about as the intersection of insurgency and displacement and about my own anthropological responsibility with stories that started out as ethnographic and can now illuminate contemporary historical processes. Because this book moves back and forth in time and across locations, I offer some thoughts on intergenerational, diasporic Salvadoran lives in the making perhaps of a particular US-Salvadoran story.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the lives of young Salvadorans I first met in the early 1990s who were raised through a Chalateco everyday-radical politics and who many years later migrated to the United States after more than a decade of peace and democracy. They span age groups, from infants born in the early 1980s through those first years of postpeace in the early 1990s. Some children were born amid battle and flight in areas that would later become repatriated communities. Others were born in the Mesa Grande refugee camp in Honduras and recalled their early years of repopulation marked by the death of their kin. And still others were born in those very early days of peace. They constitute what I term the 1.5 insurgent generation—the now young adult children of the forgotten former rank-and-file Salvadoran revolutionaries—who are remaking transnational families in expected and unexpected ways. While I’m intentionally borrowing or playing with the sociological literature on the 1.5 immigrant generation—understood as youth who migrate from their land of origin to a new country at a young age, are raised in this new context, and straddle a series of cultural, linguistic, legal, political, and economic fields between their often first-generation parents and their second-generation siblings born in a new land—my project is not a conventional case study or sociological examination of generation.12 Reader, this is a book about the Salvadoran diaspora and about what Ralph Sprenkels theorizes as “postinsurgent” lives13 in the longue durée of a postwar full of struggle, possibility, and a living through it all in the everyday as generations redefine the very meanings of “posts.”14

Specifically, this is a book that tries to help us think through key themes that I argue are hegemonically leveraged in the “knowing” about “El Salvador.” I’ve organized the book, chapter by chapter, around three key tropes. We’ll explore assumptions around the following: (1) the alarming numbers of all things violent, (2) the traumatized, injured, débil (debilitated) and subversive criminal-migrant bodies, and (3) the things or objects, and their lack, of war and postwar. I’ll be suggesting that numbers, bodies, and things have come to define and flatten much academic and popular imagining around war, displacement, the migrant, and the refugee for El Salvador and beyond. But I’ll also be thinking about how these same three categories can illuminate other kinds of knowing and connections around El Salvador’s postwar. And so, while these three themes form the central chapters in this book, they are threaded through my focus on stories that circulate across and between communities through diverse audiences and that also form part of my own ethnographic archive. In offering them, often including the original Spanish to theorize along with my interlocutors’ words, I seek to underscore the long struggle of Chalatecas and Chalatecos for truth, justice, and accountability and expose the alternate narratives of postwar truth-telling that emerge in daily life and the kind of world-making these alternate narratives can inspire.15

In part, I’ve noticed how these stories create a before and an after, or rather, many befores and many unanticipated afters: before the war, before the influx of AK-47s when insurgents just had homemade bombs, before refugee camps, before the cease-fire, after the peace accords, after the 1994 “elections of the century,” after the historic FMLN presidential victory of 2009, after the surge of migration, and after the birth of a first grandchild in a distant, unknown land. These befores and afters call for the recognition of an everyday wartime heroism and for rescuing histories of violence, memories of trauma, and an abundance of loss. These befores and afters negotiate the ups and downs and persistence of transmigrant life. These befores and afters, replete with bodies, numbers, and things, entangle with my own anthropologist and personal paths of inquiry, curiosity, solidarity, acompañamiento, hope, outrage, and love. As a result, they bookend our narrative path.

The five chapters build on each other—peopled, storied, and generational. In some we’ll explore the ethnographic archive that we can now read as history, and in others we’ll think about how migrants curate their own archives. We’ll be attentive to the underbelly of things often exposed in the juxtaposition of the spectacular stories and the quieter ones, some told in a whisper and that reveal an affective radicality of making a life amid insurgency and the longue durée of dispossession.16 Throughout, we’ll see examples of what I’m calling an ethics of collective care, which responds to processes of debility that in the war and its after are key elements in the making of a Chalateca life. I’m careful of seeming too romantic, of eliding what we now know about the embodied experiences of intergenerational trauma, and of placing the burdens of utopic hope on youth amid the now established arc of disenchantment.17 Yet I do hope there is a truth in underscoring quotidian moments of dignity, of beauty, and of the intimate practices of reckoning and even forgiveness that erupt despite or alongside the lack of reintegration, reconciliation, and justice in El Salvador’s diasporic postwar. I’ll argue that this is a paradox lived across generations, embodied anew by the 1.5 insurgent generation.

Reader, I’m not alone in asking questions about generation.18 This has been a recent theme in the literature on Central America in particular, and I’m excited by what this focus can open up for us, what tensions and possibilities emerge across contexts and generations.19 Some, for example, have explored the supposed apolitical stance of youth that is matched interestingly by their increased “tolerance” for gender and ethnic justice and belief in democracy.20 Others are illuminating how new generations are questioning party politics’ sacred dogma and historical hierarchies and the binaries of Left versus Right that these reproduce.21 Work on migration, including Leisy Abrego’s Sacrificing Families, has explored the pain and longing across families and generations in the diaspora.22 Research has also highlighted the shifting subjectivities of returned youth and their “existential anguish.”23 This scholarship informs my own.

What I’ll be arguing about generation is quite ordinary: it matters. On the one hand, I contend that the 1.5 insurgent generation’s moral frameworks are born from their kin’s revolutionary participation, the radical political project they were reared in, and that this socialization paradoxically produces entrepreneurial, law-abiding—although mostly unauthorized—migrants.24 And on the other hand, the arguable moral clarity of those who remain in Chalatenango sustains a hegemonically leveraged politicized identity in the region that continues to fight against impunity. As we travel across temporalities and geographies, we’ll think about how these trajectories are entwined, about those who are absent, and about those who remain. We’ll also think about how labor and ideology are tethered through remittances and in the persistent invocations for memory, truth, justice, and repair. As such, my interest in generation offers a study at the intersection of insurgency and migration, attentive to numbers and bodies and to injury and agency, a study on all that was lost (and sometimes gained) as we explore histories that negotiate a continuum of violence with narratives of survival, strength, and persistence.25

There are many ways we could step into this book. There are, as I have indicated, so many befores to honor. Chapter 1 will bring us through a few as we chart out a positioned and partial course. The first chapter also sets the tone for the book by asking us to break apart assumptions that we may have about El Salvador. That’s why we’ll start by meeting a revered elder from the community that I call El Rancho in the municipality of Las Vueltas in Chalatenango, El Salvador. She shared a few folktales with me in 1996, and I have carried them with me ever since. Chapter 1 will also explain my research method and provide a brief review of Salvadoran history, postwar ethnographic context, and the impact of migration. Subsequent chapters will focus specifically on the book’s themes.

Chapter 2 offers my interpretation around the frenetic sense of numbers and analyzes, for example, the statistics of epidemic violence and waves of migration. Here we’ll explore my theorizing on violencia encifrada—codified, encrypted violence made possible by numbers that are entangled with storytelling and memory.26 Chapter 3 explores stories about the bodies of war and postwar to bring into the conversation theories of disability and what Julie Livingston and Jasbir Puar, among others, discuss as debility. Theorizing in Spanish, through the concept of debilidad, I’ll forward what I’m terming an ethics of collective care as central to El Salvador’s longue durée. Chapter 4 highlights both the act of carrying and the materiality of postwar. In part, it offers a reading of the things that Salvadoran retornados, those human beings who have been deported back to El Salvador, carry back with them. I term this an archive of the returned and ask us to hold in tension memories and futures.

Chapter 5 serves as the concluding chapter and plays with what I’m calling Salvadoran after-stories, about how El Salvador continues to be framed in that longue durée of postwar but how it shifts and shapes paths across generations. This too is the “afterlife” of revolution. I borrow from historian Saidiya Hartman’s theorizing on the “afterlife of slavery” in which she shows us that slavery still “persists as an issue in the political life of black America . . . , because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago.”27 And so, in this last chapter, I attempt to theorize “what comes after,” so to speak, these after-stories and the afterlives of revolution by bringing it all together—the everyday unfolding of diasporic lives rich with acts of labor, love, and renewed calls for memory, truth, and accountability.

Reader, we’ll be traveling back and forth in time and across borders, from that microbus ride in the mid-1990s to virtually accompanying the fortieth anniversary commemoration of the 1980 Río Sumpul Massacre in Chalatenango, during which approximately six hundred Salvadoran men, women, and children were killed. We’ll be thinking through anthropological responsibilities and transnational intimacies, and we’ll learn from generations of Chalatecas and Chalatecos who represent the raison d’être of the revolution and who were to be the fruits of struggle. We’ll be exploring the many alternate ways of knowing and what they can conjure for us all.

For now, let’s begin in November 1996, in Chalatenango, El Salvador, with an admired elder that I will call Nanita and her love of storytelling. Imagínese. Imagine it.


1. The colón was the national currency until El Salvador’s dollarization on January 1, 2001.

2 . Bahareque is an indigenous and historically deep mode of housing construction that uses local resources such as wood, rocks, and mud. See, for example, Martínez et al. (2009).

3 . See Thomas (2019) on witnessing and the politics of recognition.

4 . See also Ralph (2020), who offers an anthropological method he terms “ethnographic lettering” (192). His text is comprised of a series of open letters written directly to his interlocutors. As he explains it, the letters are the “embodiments of exchange that place the onus of analysis on the ethnographer as well as research participants. In this book, this onus of analysis is imperative from the beginning to the end of my work with Chicago residents” (198). For Ralph, the ethnographic letter is “a mode of ethnographic writing and research methodology that sheds light on the perspectives of both the insider and the outsider” (198).

5 . For a comprehensive analysis of what Ralph Sprenkels terms “political military organizations” (PMOs), see his book After Insurgency (2018). In it, Sprenkels walks readers through the historical and regional development of those clandestine organizations that would become the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, or FMLN. These PMOs include the FPL (Fuerzas Populares de Liberación/Popular Liberation Forces); ERP (Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo/People’s Revolutionary Army); FARN, or RN (Resistencia Nacional/Armed Forces of National Resistance); PRTC (Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores Centroamericanos/Central American Workers Revolutionary Party); and the historic PCS (Partido Comunista de El Salvador/Salvadoran Communist Party).

6 . In this book, I continue to work with the grammatically gendered Spanish terms “Chalatecos” (masculine) and “Chalatecas” (feminine) because they are used by my interlocutors in everyday speech. Readers should note that there are substantial regional and diasporic conversations regarding incorporating inclusive, gender-neutral language such as “x,” “@,” and “e,” as in the possibility of writing “Chalateces.”

7 . Circa 1993–1994 in Chalatenango, mimeographed pamphlets often circulated across repopulated communities from grassroots organizations and from the former insurgent political and military forces and recently established political party—the FMLN. Pamphlets announced such things as political rallies and the importance of women’s rights and provided analysis of the violence of neoliberalism. One pamphlet from the FMLN that I archived from this period reads as an introduction to the FMLN as a political party. The trifold document begins with an invitation to the reader, to an “amigo lector” (reader and friend) in the informal “you” (). I believe this invocation to the reader/listener reflects a larger narrative structure in regional storytelling practices. This book leans into this as a genre. I also point to Katherine McKittrick’s Dear Science and Other Stories (2021), which provides a powerful model of Black studies and anticolonial praxis that takes the sharing of stories as method and as critical to invention, collaboration, wonder, resistance, and so on in the making of knowledge.

8 . See, for example, Lara Martínez (2018), Martell (2020), Alas López (2021), Alas (2019), Cuéllar (2020), Osuna (2020), Hernández Rivas (2019), Maciel (2020), Velásquez Estrada (2015), and Guardado (2019).

9 . There is an ample literature, some of which will be addressed more directly in the subsequent chapters. Readers may be interested in texts such as Landscapes of Struggle (2004), Women and War (2013), Unraveling the Garment Industry (2007), Women’s Leadership from the Margins (2010), Broadcasting the Civil War (2010), Aftermaths of Peace (2010), Fragmented Ties (2000), Parcels (2019), and After Insurgency (2018). Readers could also turn to Burrell and Moodie’s Annual Review of Anthropology piece on Central America (2015).

10 . Abu-Lughod 2016, 275.

11 . Abu-Lughod, 275.

12 . Sociologist Rubén G. Rumbaut was among the first to coin the term. For an excellent text that addresses immigration and generation in the United States, see Portes and Rumbaut (2014). For El Salvador specifically, see the work of Suárez-Orozco and Suárez-Orozco (2001).

13 . Sprenkels 2018.

14 . Here and throughout the book, I am borrowing this historical term, longue durée, from Fernand Braudel and the Annales School because I want to make the claim that “postwar” in El Salvador has taken on this vast, multiscalar experience and knowing of time that stretches periodization and takes into account interconnected global processes. See Buchanan (2018), and Lee (2012) for a cogent analysis. Related to the Anthropocene, see Sawyer (2016). See also Enloe (2010).

15 . Throughout the book I provide transcribed excerpts from audio recordings from interviews or events. At times I include the original Spanish followed by a translation into English. At other times I just provide the English translation. Unless otherwise indicated, these conversations occurred in Spanish. If code-switching into English took place, this is noted.

16 . Here I am also thinking about Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, which recuperates through an historical and archival method of “close narration” the “radical imagination” and agentive historical city-world making of “young black women” who have been erased from historical narratives but who were key, everyday figures (2019, xii–xv).

17 . My first book explored gendered disillusionment in postwar El Salvador. Ellen Moodie’s work has been foundational in the discussion of democratic disenchantment (2010). Critical research underway in El Salvador by Grazzia Grimaldi explores the current authoritarian turn in El Salvador through an ethnographic research project on the supporters of President Nayib Bukele. See Grimaldi (2021). For a comparative case that theorizes disillusion in the everyday narratives of crises, see Muir (2021).

18 . This topic is gaining currency in anthropology and builds on the classic work of Karl Manneheim ([1928] 1952). For example, see “Generations and Change in Central America: An Introduction” in the Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, edited by Jennifer Burrell and Ellen Moodie (2021), which addresses a range of issues around social movements, the politics of memory, and social change. Generation is also key to this volume’s production of knowledge that seeks to decolonize the field via authorship and publishing. For example, each article is intentionally coauthored across generations and across the Global South and North. For other contemporary examples on generation, see Shalini Shankar’s Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal about Generation Z’s New Path to Success (2019).

19 . Burrell and Moodie 2021. This scholarship includes Alas López (2021), Bellino (2017), Bran Aragón and Goett (2020), Burrell, El Kotni, and Calmo (2020), Frank-Vitale and Martínez d’Aubuisson (2020), Guardado Torrez and Moodie (2020), and Rayner and Morales Rivera (2020).

20 . Zetino Duarte and Brioso (2012).

21 . See, for instance, Alas López (2021), Bran Aragón and Goett (2020), and Guardado Torrez and Moodie (2020). For a comparative study on framings of violence, see González, Rodríguez, and Urrutia (2019).

22 . Abrego 2014. See also Barrera (2013).

23 . Author’s translation from the original Spanish: “angustia existencial.” This article also includes the finding that one in four Salvadoran youth desire to emigrate (Chacón Serrano, Gómez, and Alas 2013, 511, 512).

24 . See also Steven Osuna’s work on generation and his project on second-generation youth from multiple Latinx backgrounds and their “transnational obstinate memories” (2017, 78) and the ways that parental narratives around fleeing repression, for example, impact the second generation’s political activism (2017, 89).

25 . Cosgrove 2010; Cosgrove et al. 2021.

26 . With this concept, I intentionally play with the Spanish words cifra (figure or number) and cifrar (code, encrypt, cipher). I add the preposition en to coin a new phrasing that aims to index processes of entanglement, embodiment, and time. This concept emerges from the particularities of my own bilingual/bicultural formation that involves code-switching between Spanish and English and the fluidity of linguistic borders and creation of terms that can result.

27 . Hartman writes, “Slavery had established a measure of man and a ranking of life and worth that has yet to be undone. If slavery persists as an issue in the political life of black America, it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygone days or the burden of a too-long memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment. I, too, am the afterlife of slavery” (2007, 6).