Part 3: Unfinished Sentences: A Collaboration to Preserve the Historical Memory of El Salvador’s Civil War

By Maggie Von Vogt

This is the last installment of the three-part series of articles about the story behind the Unfinished Sentences archive. In this installment, we will hear about some of the challenges, questions, and reflections that came out of this process, alongside final reflections on the significance of the archive.

The sun sets over the mountains of Arcatao. Photo by Dalton Anthony.

The sun sets over the mountains of Arcatao. Photo by Dalton Anthony.

Consent and Reconciliation: Lessons Learned and Challenges During the Process of Creating the Archive

We were learning as we went. I think that for everyone, this project ended up being much larger than we had initially thought. In the beginning we thought that it would be a pilot project. - Angelina

Many lessons and challenges came out of this large and ambitious project. For the Center for Human Rights, there were many ethical and professional questions that emerged throughout the experience, primarily the issue of consent and assuring that the participants felt completely sure and in agreement with what was going on throughout all parts of the process.

The topic of the participants’ consent was something we were learning a lot about during the process, but we could also say that it was a challenge… Consent was always a core value throughout the process, but the exact way that we were going to put it into practice went along transforming as time progressed. With some things, we had to make changes, and with other things we could stay firm. We would ask ourselves, for example, “Is a signature consent?” and I think a lot of the time if someone signs a piece of paper, in many cases that’s not enough to represent full consent. So we tried to use different techniques to ensure total consent from people throughout the process. We would ask for verbal consent at the beginning of the interviews, and then also again after the interviews, after selecting the part of each interview that would be published, and then there was another period of requesting consent in which people would see the part that we had selected to make public without having been edited, and they would say, “Yes, you can publish this part, but not this one”, or “I don’t want to use my real name”, or “I don’t want my face to be seen”, or whatever, and then there was another period of sharing the information spoken out loud and also on paper, Basically we tried to do everything possible to guarantee full consent from the participants. There was one person who participated but didn’t want the material to be made public. Each person would decide if they would put their name and have their face be seen. I feel like there was a very flexible dynamic with that, and that we only published things when we felt like the person gave their definitive consent. By the end of the process, we had interviewed 50 people and 48 of them were made public. We did not end up doing a transcription of the archive because we weren’t able to find an appropriate consent and confidentiality process. Only that which was given full consent by the interviewers was made public. - Phil

Another challenge that the Center for Human Rights has identified is how to make a digital, multimedia, and internet-based archive accessible to people living in the area of Arcatao, where very few people use or have computers and there is not regular internet access.   

I think that now this tool has been created, that the greatest challenge is how to make it so that people use it? For me, that’s the hardest part. After so much work—hundreds of hours—how to make sure that it is used, and I think we are still figuring that part out. And it’s another thing that wasn’t completely thought out from the beginning. - Angelina

The members of the committee all agreed about the importance of the emotional support and mental health processes before and after providing their testimonies. They also emphasized that individual and collective mental health care should be built into any type of process like this one. The committee has begun prioritizing mental health and emotional well being in its work.

As a committee, we feel there is still so much more work to do to provide psychosocial support within the committee and in the community. - Rosa

Along the way, the committee has also seen a great need to work for reconciliation on a community level.

Another thing that we want to work on this year is the search for reconciliation, because there aren’t just victims of the military, but also because the people were used and the social system tried to trick many people… we are trying to make the day of commemoration of the victims that is being celebrated in the community a day to commemorate all victims from the municipality [of the military and the guerrillas].-Rosa

The archive has also been a tool in the quest for justice in the United States. The Center for Human Rights did an investigation to show what can be done using the archive for research:

We took some testimonies from the archive and put them up next to some declassified documents from the U.S. government. It’s an example of the research potential that the archive has. - Phil

Another process underway in the United States is work being done with a group of teachers in the area of Puget Sound, Washington, who found out about the archive and took the initiative to develop lesson plans with material from the archive to use in their classrooms.

Everyone who has shared lesson plans with us, we have been able to support with some small funds from the Center for Global Studies from the University of Washington. We want to expand these tools for Spanish classes, lesson plans for AP classes, and Social Studies. It’s an ongoing project. We want to invite educators and community organizers to contribute lesson plans based on the archive. We have funding available and you do not have to be a teacher or professor in the educational system to do this. - Phil

The hope is to continue developing these methodological and educational tools to raise awareness in the classroom and other spaces in the United States about the Salvadoran civil war and historical memory.

The archive is not a tool for political or justice campaigns. It wouldn’t serve as proof in any kind of court case, but rather it serves as a tool for historical memory and awareness raising. We hope that the knowledge and experiences in the archive are relevant for learning about other issues like social conflicts and social change, the experiences of refugees, and more. - Angelina

Final Reflections

The Peace Accords were signed in 1992, but the impacts of the war are still very much present in the current social and economic reality of El Salvador. Many people attribute the current problems of social violence to what occurred during the war and remains to be healed as a society. The deportations of Salvadorans from the United States have also been a major factor in the foundation of organized crime networks in El Salvador.

An agreement was made that the rifles were going to be silenced, that there would no longer be an authority that would repress us, and that the entire war was going to end, but it did not end. After that, you didn’t see the soldiers anymore ... but the war didn’t end because they are still killing each other. Now it's a silent war. - Evangelina, testimony from the archive

We wrapped up the conversation with the Historical Memory Committee with the question of why it is important for the world to know the stories of the people of Arcatao.

“God did not create poverty; we create it when we do not share what we have”- A mural in Arcatao. Photo by Dalton Anthony.

“God did not create poverty; we create it when we do not share what we have”- A mural in Arcatao. Photo by Dalton Anthony.

For me it is important to share how hard it is to experience war, and we would like it to be known so that there will never be another war and so that new generations will not go through it anywhere in the world. You hear about how there is suffering and that the people who suffer most are the civilian population; they have to flee, endure hunger, endure sleeplessness, be without water, endure the sounds of bombs in their ears, shootings ... a lot of things ... planes ... it's very difficult ... and we would never want for something like this to happen again. - Tomasa, member of the Historical Memory Committee

The Center for Human Rights emphasized their gratitude for the generosity of all people involved in the archive’s creation.

There are so many people who contributed to this archive ... dozens of anonymous students, hundreds of hours of transcripts, people on our team who translated and subtitled. We are grateful to the people of Arcatao for their interest in building a relationship with us and building this archive, for sharing the stories not only of the most difficult days of their lives, but also the wisdom of people who have been in the first lines of social changes in the most difficult of circumstances. Look at Rosa, for example. Her thoughts about social change and her commitment, as reflected in the archive are the most beautiful and concise statements that I could ever hope to hear. All of this reaffirms that it is people who have personal experience in social conflict and social change who have the richest knowledge to share. When we do not put the voices of these people in the center of the discussion, we all lose a lot. - Phil

The last words shared in the meeting in Arcatao take us back to the beginning of our conversation about the importance of historical memory:

Since war is a business for those in power, and those that end up dying are the parts of the population who are civilians and defenseless--women and children more than anything-- our struggle is to say ... NO TO WAR, neither in El Salvador nor anywhere in the world; because for those of us who have experienced it, when people talk about war, we know what people are really going through. Those who are making war are the same people as always. They only give the orders to kill. That’s the reason why we fight for the truth to be known, so that there is justice, and we fight to really contribute something so that there is no war in this world. - Rosa

Click the link below to listen to Rosa speak.


There are so many people who supported this article series, which came from a desire to share part of the story of how the archive came about and the ethical and practical questions of creating it. Many thanks to the people of the Historical Memory Committee of Arcatao who took the time to share their personal experiences and perspectives regarding historical memory and the process of creating the archive, including: Rosa Rivera, Nico Rivera López, Tomasa López, Hermelinda Flores, José Aníbal Martínez and the other members of the committee who participated in the group interview that day in the church in Colonia Jesús Rojas of Arcatao.

Many thanks to Phil Neff and Angelina Godoy for their patience, communication and key contributions during the process of editing the article.

Thank you to Dalton Anthony for the photos, to Mario Guevara for his support with the translation, and to Anna Stitt for her support with the audios. Thanks to Fanny García and Sarah Loose for their support as Groundswell: Oral History for Social Change.

Maggie and Rosa after the interview with the Historical Memory Committee in Arcatao. Photo by Dalton Anthony.

Maggie and Rosa after the interview with the Historical Memory Committee in Arcatao. Photo by Dalton Anthony.

Special thanks to the compañeras who lent their voices for an attempt to create a podcast of this article. Unfortunately it could not be done, but many many thanks to Erika, Karla M., Ivonne, Marielos, Zoraya, Karla L., Marleny, Lea, Rina, Rosi, Ninel and Zoraya for giving their valuable time and lending their lovely voices because of a belief in the importance of  sharing information about these efforts to recover memory and fight for peace in El Salvador, and the importance of the world knowing these stories. 

Maggie Von Vogt

Maggie Von Vogt is our 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.