Part 2: Unfinished Sentences: A Collaboration to Preserve the Historical Memory of El Salvador’s Civil War

By Maggie Von Vogt

This is the second of three installments about the Unfinished Sentences Archive. In the previous installment, we learned about the historical context of the armed conflict in El Salvador, the community of Arcatao, Chalatenango, the emergence of the Historical Memory Committee of Arcatao, and their work to preserve the historical memory of their community and country as part of a broader struggle for truth and justice.

In this installment, we will hear about the different groups that came together to create the archive.

A Joint Effort

The committee began to coordinate with the Human Rights Institute of the José Simeón Cañas Central American University (IDHUCA) in San Salvador. The UCA is a historical Jesuit university that suffered reprisals during the war for its connections to liberation theology and Christian Base Communities. This is where the national network of victim committees formed, with representation from various communities that were impacted during the war.

Murals around Arcatao address current political issues, like the struggle against metallic mining in the area. Photo: Dalton Anthony

Murals around Arcatao address current political issues, like the struggle against metallic mining in the area. Photo: Dalton Anthony

“The network fought for the repeal of the Amnesty Law and participated in tribunals, bringing cases to international judges so that victims of grave human rights abuses would be listened to by a judge. And the Center for Human Rights in Washington supports the same ideals as our committee, which are that the truth be known and justice be done.” - Rosa

Angelina Snodgrass Godoy is the director of the Center for Human Rights of the University of Washington (UWCHR) and someone that the Historical Memory Committee mentions as key in the entire process. She shared how the center began working with human rights defenders in El Salvador:

The Center for Human Rights was founded by an act, which was passed into law by the Washington State Legislature, which gives us a specific mandate of working hand in hand with people on the front lines of human rights struggles, both locally and internationally. Many of them [the human rights activists in El Salvador] said to me, “You know, there are a lot of things that we can do together.” So that’s how the project began; listening to people from El Salvador talk about the ways that the kind of research that we could bring to the table as the University of Washington could help them in their general struggles for truth, justice, and reparations in El Salvador. - Angelina

The Unfinished Sentences project was born out of this collaboration between the Historical Memory Committee, the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights, and the Institute for Human Rights of the UCA. The Committee brought up the importance that this archive be used by youth as a way of preventing them from not knowing their history. They thought that making the archive multimedia could make it more accessible and attractive to young people.

It was important to define each institution’s role, prioritizing leadership by community members, making best use of each institution’s strength, and at the same time ensuring that the process strengthen the knowledge of everyone involved.

Phil Neff works with the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights and coordinates the Unfinished Sentences Project. He shares how they began defining roles:  

We worked with very talented film students from the University of Washington like Dacia Saenz, who was involved in the production of the video part of the project. The idea was that those of us from the University of Washington could contribute some of our experience with audiovisuals and that the team from IDHUCA could bring their experience providing psychosocial support, as well as their already existing relationships with the community. - Phil

Building Trust to Create the Space for Communities to Tell Their Own Stories

Both the Committee and the UWCHR placed much emphasis on the importance of establishing trust, utmost respect for victims, and consent from the very beginning of the process.

In addition to how hard it is to discuss personal and traumatic experiences, some people from Arcatao had already had difficult experiences with outsiders who had come asking about the war:

I felt afraid, but Santiago came up to me and said, “Hey, we are from the University of Washington Center for Human Rights. We’re working… and we are going to review documents to know more about how the United States justified the money they were sending to El Salvador and what that money had to do with the massacres that occurred in El Salvador.” When he said that to me, I felt like he was saying, “Hey, we’re not going to pull you out and make you go over what happened to you.” I’d had an experience in the past with that which had really bothered me, but we spent around two hours talking with them and Thank God one bad experience doesn’t have to keep you from trusting everyone else… and we’ve been able to come along quite a way in this work [together]. - Rosa

Click below to hear Rosa say this quote in Spanish.

In addition to building trust between the teams and members, Phil mentioned some other elements incorporated with the intention of participating in the interviews having the least negative impacts possible:

It was very important for us that there be an integral psychosocial component to this process, so there were additional community-based workshops and activities aside from the filming. There was also psychosocial support and workshops held with the entire Historical Memory Committee. There were also psychologists present during all of the interviews. Our approach with the interviews was that they would not be very rigid or directed. - Phil

They had a list of questions that the interviewer would use to guide the interviews in an open manner, without asking people to speak about their experiences with massacres or other difficult experiences in detail.

We framed it like, “You are going to tell your story, your experience during the armed conflict”, and we had some starting questions to open things up so that interviewees would tell us. The idea was never to interrogate people, asking specific details about the massacres and such, and well, you can see that the content of the archive reflects this. - Phil

The Process of Creating the Archive

The process began in 2012 with visits from students from both universities to Arcatao to meet with the Historical Memory Committee. There were other smaller meetings throughout 2012, with at least a year of smaller scale collaborations, building trust and relationships before beginning the process of recording the interviews for the archive. At the same time the audiovisual production team from the University of Washington held a series of workshops and technology sharing sessions with people from IDHUCA.

The first five interviews held with people from Arcatao were recorded and guided by the team from the University of Washington alongside the IDHUCA team, but the other forty-five interviews were fully led by the Salvadoran team. Those of us from the Center for Human Rights in Washington were in charge of building the website. - Phil

Arcatao "Voz de Historia Viva” / The Voice of Living History." Photo: Dalton Anthony

Arcatao "Voz de Historia Viva” / The Voice of Living History." Photo: Dalton Anthony

The majority of the interviews were recorded in 2013 over a period of about nine months. By the end of the process more than 30 hours of raw material had been recorded, of which seven hours were used in the final edited version.

The final presentation was held in the community in June of 2015 and the public launch of the archive was in February of 2016. Each participant received a DVD with their entire testimony.

The Committee talks about the process and the archive with pride and a sense of satisfaction:

People participated, and the individual history of each person has been registered. It’s not everything, but now there’s a part of it there…  - Nico, member of the Historical Memory Committee.

In the next installment we’ll look at more of the details of the process, including reflections on the lessons learned through the process and the challenges encountered during the process of creating and sharing the archive.

Maggie Von Vogt

Maggie Von Vogt is the Operations Coordinator at Groundswell: Oral History for Social Change. She is an independent media maker, popular educator, and activist from Maine. She lived in El Salvador from 2008-2017, working as a workshop facilitator on participatory video and community media focused on social and environmental issues. Since moving to rural northern California in early 2017, the focus of her work has been facilitating communication between (majority Mexican) immigrant and nonimmigrant members of her community and supporting resilience-building in the immigrant community. She co-manages the Anderson Valley Adult School and is working on an oral history and photography project with stories from Salvadorans who have immigrated from and returned to El Salvador. In her free time she loves hiking with her dogs Little and Ramona, swimming, looking for otter, exploring new places, and anything that brings about a laugh.