I looked out of the microbus into the black misty abyss, dozing in and out of a trance to a reggaeton song by Plan B. I remembered having read that the Salvadoran government had tried and failed to make it illegal to listen to reggaeton in 2015. The soundtrack to my journey in El Salvador was supposedly causing a spike in teenage pregnancy. I chuckled and thought how silly that must have been, to propose such a law. People are stuck in a cycle of poverty and gang violence, and they’re worried about what music the general public listens to. This law, like so many others in El Salvador, stank of foreign influence. El Salvador does not really belong to Salvadorans; it actually belongs to American interests, including social interests. This and many other thoughts continued swimming in my head, preventing me from taking a quick but necessary nap. Just a few hours before my pensive bus ride, Abel, the leader of a confederation of co-ops, had explained to our delegation that the US is planning to trick the leftist Salvadoran government into a technical coup. For almost two weeks we had been learning about Salvadoran politics and US intervention in the region, but it only took a few minutes on a bus to succinctly summarize the very real threat looming over El Salvador. Any time the US wants a coup, it usually gets it.
Our delegation got around everywhere on the microbus. The driver, Roberto, was always bumping all kinds of music, from bachata to pop-rock en español. The familiar music helped keep my mood light despite the serious reasons for why I was in El Salvador in the first place. I would feel sad getting off to go to our next meeting, but at least I knew that there was something to look forward to when I returned to the bus. We had meetings with the US Embassy in El Salvador and a US-backed task force in Guatemala. They said that anyone trying to migrate north was obviously a criminal and should be treated as such. A widespread tactic used to discourage people from thinking about migrating is a fear campaign consisting of posters and billboards listing, for example, the numbers of women migrants raped, kidnapped, or killed along the route. But the journey is only dangerous because of US policies that militarize borders in Central America and Mexico. People are forced to take uncommon and risky routes that endanger their lives. The excuse for militarizing borders is that it will help reduce narcotrafficking, and under this guise the task forces in Guatemala say that they require military-grade equipment to arm the civil police and to train them for their border posts. Not only is the US intervening in border policy beyond its own boundaries, but it also ignores long-standing free movement agreements between the Central American countries.
By contrast, there was no question that for the Salvadoran people and the leftist FMLN party (Farabundo Martí Liberation Front) it does not matter who is in transit or at the borders, they should be treated humanely. This might sound odd to people in the US, who have passively accepted a narrative that El Salvador is a violence-prone place. Economists, government officials, FMLN party members, social movement leaders, pastoral workers, all of these people have one hope: that migration become a choice and not an obligation. Everyone standing up to imperialist policies from the US is fighting for a dignified life in El Salvador, free from detrimental corporate and geo-political influence.
I already do not have an optimistic view of the US, but experiencing American diplomats and so-called representatives of my government speak with an undercurrent of racism angered me. I am ashamed to have been born and raised by a country that consistently seeks to undermine every attempt made by the people of El Salvador to make their country an appealing and peaceful place to live.
Salvadorans are effectively trapped. Those working in agriculture are forced to buy Monsanto agro-products in lieu of using native seeds and traditional organic farming practices. Farmers who once grew sustenance have been displaced from their land, their crops replaced by sugarcane intended for American consumption. They work in maquilas for transnational corporations, meaning that the money those goods generate does not stay in El Salvador but goes on to profit another country’s economy. The Salvadorans who arrive in the US become part of the cheap labor force that allows the US agriculture industry to function while generating 4 billion dollars of El Salvador’s GDP in the form of remittances. Hearing this information was heart breaking for me. How could greed reach such heights? It is no wonder people are feeling squeezed out of their own country. On top of having to leave sacred land and family members behind, they are further marginalized and mistreated in the US. With one third of El Salvador’s population living in the exterior, it is truly a fractured country. But corrupt government officials in El Salvador and the US profit from this model: the Salvadoran government needs people to migrate north so that it can collect fees off remittances and the US needs cheap labor from undocumented immigrants to yield the highest profits. The US has forced El Salvador into becoming dependent on the displacement of its own people.
Salvadorans are punished for being poor, but the people of this tiny corner of Central America have persisted in their fight to rightfully and peacefully regain true sovereignty of their country. Somehow, Salvadorans are able to put love for their people above everything else. They continue the social movement struggle for each other. The movement’s leaders have the wisdom and steadfast spirit to steer a transformative movement that could really bring about a positive change in the country. The genuine solidarity and camaraderie I witnessed between people, organizations, and FMLN politicians was something I have not seen in the US.
On one of our last meeting debriefs, we got off of our bus and walked into an FMLN political school. We went through to the backyard where we came upon a hidden auditorium surrounded by the tallest mango trees I had ever seen. The mangos were falling like rain, sounding like explosions when they hit the tin roof and rolled off to smash on the ground. We went exploring inside the auditorium and I had a thrilling sensation of amazement when I saw massive banners of Karl Marx, Ho Chi Minh, and the five leaders of the organizations that eventually created the FMLN party. When I looked up at these five icons of resistance against the US empire, I felt like someone’s fingers caressed my skull open and wrapped me up in a warm blanket made up of the heritage of my people. It felt like a cosmic homecoming, and I recognized the invitation for my generation to inherit the movement that these leaders started. There is no doubt in my mind that the Salvadoran struggle will lead to a lighter place soon. The situation right now is ripe for change, and the threat of a US-backed coup is very real and very strong. But after twelve years of civil war, and decades of suppression, I am confident that the Salvadoran people can resist against anything that gets in the way of constructing a dignified life for Salvadorans.
Let nothing demoralize me,
let nothing exasperate me,
a guerrilla fighter’s like a bull
in the midst of a raging storm.
They wounded me,
they killed me,
they captured me
and even gave me death.
But they never broke me…
- Nidia Díaz, guerrilla Commander of the FMLN during the war, sang this song while in prison. She was wounded and captured by CIA agent Felix Rodríguez in 1985. (Díaz, Nidia. I Was Never Alone: A Prison Diary from El Salvador. Melbourne, Vic., Australia: Ocean, 1992.)
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to email@example.com and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Sofia Canales is a filmmaker and arts teacher living and working in Los Angeles. A native of East Los Angeles, her work focuses on documenting shared experiences around topics of migration and hybridity of cultures. Her work has shown in Mexico, Slamdance Film Festival (Park City, UT), and galleries and cultural spaces in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City. She received her MFA in Experimental Sound Practices at the California Institute of the Arts.