This Art Exhibition Reflects On Lasting Impact Of Salvadoran Civil War

Twenty-five years ago, the Salvadoran Civil War came to a close, but the repercussions of the period are still being felt. 

Re:Construcción, a traveling multimedia exhibition, examines the lasting effects of the civil war. The exhibit, which was recently hosted at Casa Solidaria del Sur in South Los Angeles, will now have a three-month stay at Museo de Oriente in Santa Ana, El Salvador, starting early November.

Photo by Bianca Estrada

While the exhibit is supported heavily with artifacts, personal photos and interviews, documentary artist and Re:Construcción creator Sayre Quevedo said it’s not an oral history project. The exhibit was crafted to engage the public, and much of the work, especially the art, is less factual and more open to interpretation. A video piece by Verónica Vides, for example, shows 20 ex-combatants repetitively sweeping the ruins of the Aguacayo church.

“I have a hard time differentiating documentary and art because I feel they serve a lot of the same purposes despite being very different in presentation,” says Quevedo.

mitú spoke with Quevedo to talk about the project, his personal connection to this period, and its lasting legacy.

Portraits of disappeared and killed loved ones of Sofia and Delores, activists for those who disappeared in El Salvador during the civil war. Photo by Bianca Estrada

What is Re: Construcción?

It’s a multimedia project looking at the legacy and the impact of the Salvadoran Civil War 25 years after signing the peace accords. I call it a documentary art project because the first part of it is a series of multimedia tables that have photographs that I’ve taken and objects that were lent to us by various interviewees. Each table is dedicated to the story of an individual of family and each of those tables has objects that were lent to us by those interviewees, and then photographs that I took over the course of the last two years. Each of those objects and photographs has a number associated with it and those numbers have audio tracks associated with them. The idea is that a visitor can basically listen to the story of this person through their personal objects and these photographs of them. They can listen linearly or just pick and choose objects that they’re interested in or kind of skip around.

The second part of the project we have an interactive wall. We’re asking the Salvadoran community to come and add their own objects, drawings, memories, photographs, anything that they feel is related to the impact of the war. We’ve been basically collecting those since we began our summer tour in June, beginning in Long Island, then moving to Brooklyn, Maryland, DC and now L.A. The idea is that we bring everything that we collect on that wall to El Salvador in November. When visitors come to the places that we’re exhibiting they can get an idea of varied perspectives and experiences of the different communities that we’ve visited so far.

And then the third part is that we invited 10 Salvadoran artists to contribute work that speaks to the themes of the reconstruction period and the impact of the war. And those are video pieces. There’s sculpture, photography, zines; it runs the gamut of basically every medium of art. And those are artists that live in the country and are also part of the diaspora as well.

Photos of Carlos Osorio, a guerrilla, and his family. Photo by Bianca Estrada

How did you figure out who you wanted to invite — from the interviewees to the artists —  and what kind of stories were you looking for?

The process with that, it developed over a few years. When I began the project I visited El Salvador for the first time in my whole entire life. This was in the summer of 2015. I went down there and I didn’t really have a direction or an idea of what the work was going to look like. I knew I wanted to speak to people and that I wanted to record and document them through photography as well. So when I went down there the first time, I interviewed a bunch of different people: young folks, older folks. I was very intentional about trying to speak to folks of certain perspectives, so I wanted to make sure I spoke to someone who was a soldier. I thought it was especially important to include the LGBTQ community so I wanted to find someone who had experienced the war from that perspective.

When I came back and started developing the work and producing it, I hadn’t really focused on any one particular person. As time went on, I wanted to do something that was a little bit more in-depth. I focused on the people who I connected with on a personal level and who I felt I already started building a relationship with. One of the people who we focused on, Julio, I spent days and days with him, traveled around with him, went home with him, hung out with at work, hung out with him with his family. And that felt like somebody whose story I could focus on because the main thing for me was doing justice for the stories. I wanted people to be complex and I realized how that was going to take a long time.

I think the stories and the people who most interested me were not the ones who had a particular political ideology to push towards me or a particular view of what the war was or who was good or who was bad, but the people who are really open about all aspects of their lives outside of just the conflicts. Who they were during that moment in time and what their lives looked like outside the politics of that time. I think there’s a lot of work that goes into what was happening with the left and what was happening with the right and I was really interested in what do people’s lives look like in reality. You have to keep living your day to day life. The people who most naturally shared those parts were the people I was most drawn to in the storytelling.

La Mesa de Paty Hernandez. Hernandez grew up in El Salvador during the war and experienced harsh discrimination and violence around her sexuality and gender identity. She currently lives in Washington, D.C. and works at Casa Ruby, a nonprofit assisting LGBTQ immigrants. Photo by Bianca Estrada

What’s your personal connection to this story, and what set you on the path to do this work?

I’m half Salvadoran and half Irish, Salvadoran on my mom’s side. My grandparents are from Santa Ana and San Salvador. I never met my grandparents, my mom ran away from home when she was 15 and she never went back. My father left before I was born, so my whole family is my mom and my brother. My mom is a poet and she did this interview. I remember reading this interview and she called us orphans of history. For me, it’s been a helpful phrase to describe where I’m coming from in doing this work. I think I grew up in a very ahistorical sort of way in that I grew up around books about El Salvador and about the war but I didn’t grow up around stories about it because I didn’t have access to that. My mom left around the time any young person would begin asking questions about where their family is from and why they came, but she has a very limited knowledge of where my family is from as well.

Part of the reasoning behind starting the project is two-fold: I’ve always been interested in the history of where my family came from and the answers that were given to me were really limited as a result of the fact of my mom leaving. I started doing a lot of academic research about the war (and) every class that I had no matter what the subject was I found a way to make it about the Salvadoran Civil War.

Serendipitously, at the time I was beginning that research it was 2014. It was as the migration crisis was beginning from El Salvador to the U.S. Thousands of unaccompanied minors were being detained at the border. So I was doing all this research and I was learning about migration patterns and laws that went into effect both during and after the war. And to me, it was like these things are so obviously connected. The history in them and what’s currently happening in the country to me was like there’s no way these things are happening independent of each other.

I was seeing the migration crisis, the rise in violence on the part of gangs within the country and the state, and I was doing this research about the history. I was, like, ‘all of these things are connected.’ And there are people who’ve theorized about this in one way or another so I’m not going to credit that research to myself, but I saw all that stuff happening and I was really curious about what people’s lives look like now. The academic research was really unsatisfying in some ways. I learned a lot from a historic and academic point of view, but it didn’t really help me understand what does this mean. To me, 70,000 people being killed or disappeared over 12 years, how do you begin your life again after that type of loss? How does a country rebuild itself in the face of both the violence of those 12 years and the violence that’s followed since?

“Spoken Portrait” by Danny Zavaleta. This piece is part of a record of letters and documents that relate the life of Carlos Portillo, a Salvadoran, former member of the Armed Forces and of the MSS, a migrant and returnee. Photo by Bianca Estrada

With all the different ways you’re showing the impacts of the Civil War, what do you hope folks take away from the exhibition?

My role and what I’m doing in this exhibit is I want people to understand what that kind of violence means for people. That’s why I was interested in looking at individual stories and building those relationships and focusing deeply on people and families because I think we’re oversaturated with generalized stories about the way violence affects cities and families. I really want people to understand what it could mean for an individual even 25 years later. I think listening to the stories and looking at these objects and or reading the story you understand the way people have been impacted for the rest of their lives by politics and by that violence.

The U.S., especially, is involved in conflicts around the world. El Salvador is unique in terms of its particular context, but the story of El Salvador is the story of many other countries around the world and I want to drive home the fact that the consequences of these conflicts continue on and on in people’s personal lives forever. It’s not something you move on from and pretend didn’t happen, though many people try. The U.S. is involved in many more conflicts around the world and people will continue to have their lives, their children’s lives and their grandchildren’s lives changed forever.

That’s one of the big things that if you listen and read the stories, people’s relationships both to themselves and their community and families are forever impacted by the violence that they experienced. It really does change people in difficult to understand ways that I think a three-minute news report can’t get across. You can’t understand the ways people are impacted in those ways, you have to sit with them for hours to really unpack that stuff.

Julio Rivera, who lives in Nuevo Lourdes, El Salvador, was given this cooking pan when he was shuttled to the first foster home for children separated from their families during the war. His father and older brother were killed by the Atlacatl Battalion in the 1982 El Calabozo massacre. Photo by Bianca Estrada

How in-depth are the stories of the people you feature?

The work looks at both the past and the present and I thought that was really important because in the same way looking at the country you can’t truly understand what contemporary El Salvador looks like unless you look at the history. You can’t understand people unless you understand what they’ve gone through. The narratives look at the lives people led up until now and give a small understanding of what people are living with now.

Julio is the easiest to make the connection. Julio is a survivor of the El Calabozo massacre (the anniversary of the massacre was August 21 and 22). Hundreds of people were killed on the banks of this river. Julio lost his father and his older brother. His younger brother and he were sent to a foster home where his brother was adopted without him by this family that he doesn’t know where they’re from. But they decided they didn’t want two kids, they only wanted one, so they took his brother.

His story is pretty chronological in that it looks from the moment that massacre happened until now, with him raising his current family. It looks at the massacre, the homes that he was shuttled around to for kids who had been separated from their families during the war, and his relationship to his family now, specifically the relationship he has with his wife and kids having been someone who grew up without a family as a result of the war.

For me, he was one of the first people to open up to me without much hesitation, which surprised me given the heaviness of what happened to him. A large part of his narrative is looking at the relationship to his daughter and the inability to express affection to her as a result of what happened to him. His inability to express his love in a verbal manner and in many other ways. Him and his wife are very aware of this and it’s something he’s struggled with till today. So it’s about the war, but it’s about him. It’s not only him that is going to be impacted by it. His children, his daughter is going to be impacted by the violence he experienced. In turn, her children, if she chooses to have them, will be impacted by the way she was raised by the relationship she had with her father as well.

The school uniform of Juan Pablo Lopez Beltran, a tour guide in Juayua where he also lives. Beltran was a soldier with the armed forces during the Salvadoran Civil War and was recruited against his will as a teenager. Photo by Bianca Estrada

We’ve been talking about the connections between the past and the present, but what do you feel is the legacy left by the Salvadoran Civil War?

One of the big things that I’ll take away from this experience, and this kind of goes back to why I began the project in the first place, is the inability of the U.S. government to take responsibility for the violence that it allowed to be inflicted upon people in different countries and the deep consequences of allowing that violence to continue, and ignoring people in face of those consequences. Seeing the deep hurt that people face on a day-to-day basis in their relationships and their lives, to me, was incredible.

The fact that I didn’t learn about any of this shit when I was in high school or elementary school is a testament to the fact that we have an inability to take accountability for our action across the world and that has really big consequences. And if we chose to ignore it, then it grows. The consequences grow and then they bite us in the ass. We look at the migration crisis, we look at the violence on the part of the gangs, but also on the part of the state as well against its own people. Those are offshoots and consequences of what we’ve already done and what has already happened before, and if we’re unwilling to make amends and reconcile our actions we’ll only continue to see worse things happen and people will see the consequences of those actions.

A note left on the interactive wall, “Words of papá: The war is the dirtiest there is. The war didn’t have to happen. It is the worst that could have happened to humanity. If I could be born again, I would not have been in the military. I did it out of necessity. Because otherwise, they were going to kill me, and my family. It should never have existed.” Photo by Bianca Estrada

I think on a more individual level how important it is to document and share these stories. One of the worst things that can happen is to have an act of violence committed against you or someone that you love and to feel like nobody cares. I think that’s one of the largest injustices felt by every single person that I interviewed, the feeling of I’ve been wronged and it doesn’t matter to anyone. The impact on the way that people value themselves and the way that they value their own communities, or see the value of their own stories and their own lives is very deeply connected to that. For a long time, we turned our backs to those stories and I think there’s a lot of good work being done now that’s trying to turn towards them. But I think more needs to be done to actively show we’re listening and trying to do something, even if the U.S. government or the Salvadoran government is unable to take accountability we as a community should be able to proactively say we recognize you and we see you and we understand you and we’re here to listen to you.

READ: She Didn’t Know Her Rape Led To A Pregnancy. Now, Her Stillbirth Has Landed Her A 30-Year Jail Sentence In El Salvador

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