Jose Artiga – Part 1



Jose Artiga

Jose Artiga

Esta historia se escribe en Español = This story is also written in Spanish here.

“If you have a whole field that is destroyed, focus on one tiny corner to support a flower and water it with care and love. Support the dreams of the people even when they may look impossible; stay with the people for the long run. Focus on hope and eventually you will see the fruits of your work.

{C.H. Dodd’s definition of a parable: “At its simplest a parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”}

Editor’s Note: It is 6 AM for Jose; we are very cognizant that he gives 120% of each day to his work and are trying to be respectful of the time he has offered us for an interview. My notes and questions are in front of me. We are on a roll with conversation flowing and topics moving quickly. Then out of the blue Jose quite casually and naturally interjects one of his Christ-like parables into the mix, and conversation abruptly stops. His use of these precious illustrations is extremely effective. They force us to slow down the pace and ponder a point he is making.

Whereas most people celebrate their birthday, Jose celebrates “the day I died” which is that day the death squads came to his farmhouse searching for him when he was 23 years old. Jose found that day liberated him from his past and launched him into a new life. He has been a blessing to the Salvadoran people ever since by working in solidarity with them in various roles including his present one as Executive Director of the SHARE Foundation. See their impressive website to read the scope of their projects.

As Jose reflects on the startling details of his early life, my mouth is agape many times. In each segment he finds a positive thread linking it to his present life, fully aware and appreciative that if those events had not occurred, he would not be who he is today.

Jose is a visionary. Through his long-range foresight Jose invites SHARE’s participants to “feel uncomfortable” in pioneering efforts to seek justice and protect human rights of organized groups who are struggling or being exploited. He realizes only a fraction of his ideas will come to fruition. He recognizes that many of his ideas are controversial. He invites others to visualize and dream with him and to plant seeds that will grow into deep-rooted flowers.


Jose Artiga


One of SHARE’s diverse projects involves sustainability and biodiversity of its land; on a much smaller scale that is how I grew up living on a small, yet productive organic farm in San Martin, about ten miles from San Salvador. Our family of eight grew some vegetables and coffee and raised cattle. The cow manure fertilized the soil to grow the vegetables. We grew nearly everything we needed to sustain us. There was unlimited fruit available on the farm. By selling the coffee, milk, and extra crops, my parents were able to afford things we needed to purchase, such as shoes, and pay for our educational costs.   We were very frugal and saved whatever we could.

My father, Alejandro Antonio Artiga, was a fairly successful farmer in buying up small parcels of land to accumulate what became about forty acres surrounding our house and another two hundred acres in San Juan del Gozo, Usulatan, about three or four hours away where we moved the cattle twice a year. Our family was middle income. All our family members worked on the farm, and we also hired other workers such as bean pickers during the coffee harvest when we needed them.

My father was determined to work hard and save money to support his family. People say he worked from sunrise to sunset and harder than any three men. His work ethic probably resulted from his having grown up so desperately poor himself. His family was so poor that his own illiterate parents were unable to support him, and gave him away to the local priest to raise him when he was seven or eight years old.

Both my parents are from Suchitoto. My father was 39 and my mother was 33 when I was born on Saturday, May 25, 1957. By the time my dad was able to get my birth registered, it was two days later, so my official birth date on record is May 27th. I am the fourth of six children, the last boy, nicknamed “Son of the Sun”or “Zeus” for being blonde, and was considered the “baby of the house” for many years.

Being a farm kid, I think I broke every bone in my body. Our parents were too busy to supervise us, so when we fell out of trees or four of us got on a horse and it took off, it was normal for one or two of us to fall off. When I was eight, the bone healer, Don Pantaleon, came to the house to repair one of my breaks. It was very painful, and my dad was in the next room watching from the mirror while he shaved. When he saw my pain, he fainted and hit his head. He was told to rest in order to recover, but that is impossible to do when you farm. Six months later he died of complications from that fall. At the time I was unaware of the correlation to the previous event. In El Salvador the pure Catholic tradition was to mourn a death for nine years and that is what our family did after my dad died. I can remember the clothesline filled with nothing but black garments hanging from the line.

After my father died, we had to survive. The cycle of the farm had a natural rhythm which needed tending. I joined my mother and my uncle in being in charge of the farm. That meant preparing the soil, planting the crops, milking the cows, and hiring the workers. I was eight years old.   My mother asked neighbors for advice on things like pruning the coffee trees. Out of necessity I learned management responsibility and conflict resolution at a very young age. That skill set transferred over into my adult life.


Jose Artiga


As a result of losing my dad when I was so young, I was raised in a household filled predominately with women. My mother, Lucrecia Antonia Escobar, was at the center; my sisters Blanqui, Hilda, and Margarita, and other women lived with us. I deeply admired and was highly influenced by my mother. I feel I have received much of her personality. She was a very quiet, soft-spoken, gentle person. People recognized her ability to negotiate and handle conflict and often came to the house asking for advice. She never took sides but would offer a solution. She was also extremely generous. My mom had a jar she put her savings into. Any time a person in need dropped by the house, my mom told them to hold out their hands and she emptied the entire contents of the coin jar into their cupped hands. She believed that though a situation may be bad, it could always be much worse. My mother was able to attend school only through the third grade yet placed a high value on education with her own children.   She was revered not only for her generous spirit, but for her clairvoyance such as the death of a relative. (She died at age 65 on May 5, 1990 after breast cancer spread to her brain.)

I attended the local elementary school, Escuela Jorge Larde in San Martin from 1964-1970.   As a rural school it was not very challenging. I was very bright; however, I probably would have been diagnosed as learning different if that had been known about in those days. I ended up repeating third grade. I discovered that certain styles of learning, such as taking notes and study groups, benefited me greatly, especially for group projects. From 1971-1973, during my seventh through ninth grades, I graduated with honors as the best in my class. I wasn’t an athletic kid, but I scored a goal in the one and only soccer game I played in.   I had plenty of pick-up games and attended all Sunday games at the field near my house.

From 1974-1976 I attended high school in San Salvador.   Initially I had wanted to go to agricultural school but that did not materialize. Instead I attended the Salesian Instituto Tecnico Ricaldone. My mom signed me up for the electrician curriculum instead and said it is as good as agriculture. Each day I left the house at 5 AM to go to Mass at 7, took my academic classes in the morning and electrical technical workshops in the afternoon, left school at 5 PM, and returned home at 7 PM.

While I was traveling back and forth on this daily bus schedule, I began noticing dead bodies of young people who were probably students and union leaders from other areas dropped off on the mayor’s porch. I didn’t react to this; I was on track to be an engineer in college.

Another situation I observed during the 70’s when I was 15 began with tension between our priest, Father Rutilio, and the mayor, Lino Guzman. There was a large water source, a pila publica, in the central plaza which many citizens relied on. The mayor destroyed the pila publica. The people were very upset about it and protested his action. The military surrounded the whole plaza to guard it and then began beating people and taking protesters to jail.   It was the first time I saw hundreds of national guardsmen ready to shoot the people.

Increasingly, we noticed the military saw our church youth group as a subversive threat even though our group gathered only for the purpose of community service projects such as cleaning the streets and distributing for people in need. The military viewed any organized group as a potential threat to become guerrillas.

My dream for college was to get back on the agricultural track and become an agronomist. I already had the practical knowledge from farming. I simply wanted to earn the degree and learn how to improve the farm’s productivity. By the time I was ready to go to university in 1977, the military had closed the National University. With the help of sliding fee scales, I was able to attend the UCA (University of Central America), a private Jesuit-run school instead which remained open. The UCA did not offer the same degree program, so I decided to major in Economics and agricultural engineering. To be admitted to the engineering department students were required to pass a test following a three- month qualifying course.   On Friday the auditorium was packed with students and no place to sit. Father Jon Cortina, head of that department, announced that on Monday there would be a test that you could take only once. If you passed the test, you could stay enrolled in the engineering program. If you failed, you would go to the business and social sciences program. I passed. The curriculum was very demanding, but I excelled always with the aid of a study group. There were plenty of seats for the rest of the semester.

The force of the military was becoming more dramatic as we saw people being killed. But I became immune to it.

Various subgroups of military were forming such as the Treasury Police whose uniform was designed to replicate the Nazi uniform, and the National Guard. They were trained to intimidate. I grew up on the farm with small hunting guns, but it became illegal to carry any kind of weapon. The paramilitary group, ORDEN, invited youth to join, and if you did not join, you were labeled. Members of that group spent weekends and evenings looking for any potential subversives.   ORDEN later became associated with death squads most of which had direct ties to the military and the Military High Command.

Our family always had a good relationship with our parish priest. He and the Alas brothers, priests in Suchitoto, held progressive ideas. They worked together organizing a cafeteria co-op that allowed those who worked in it to receive free food.   To some this was seen as a communist project. The same priests supported the mobilization of thousands of people to protest the construction of the El Cerron Grande Dam in Suchitoto that would ultimately displace thousands of peasants. The military intervened by capturing the people, committing violent acts of aggression against them, and repressing them.

In 1978 ORDEN carried out a massacre against the peasants in San Pedro Perulapan two miles away from our house. About 200 survivors came to our house seeking shelter and food in our barn and house. My mother agreed to provide for their needs. They stayed for a couple of weeks. I remember Fidelina trying to quiet a woman giving birth, which was impossible, of course. The priest was coming and going from our place. The military was aware of what was happening and perceived us as aligned with the left. Our house became labeled.

My college girlfriend, Ivonne Chavez, and I had a difference of opinion about that situation. She felt the innocent people were attacked by the military without provocation. My point of view was the guerrillas should not be involving poor people in their fight and then not protect them from repression. I was blaming the victims and later came to see my girlfriend’s argument as the more valid viewpoint.

Ivonne and I did many things together including taking packages of clothes and food to her cousin who was a National leader in the Bloque Popular Revolucionario (BPR). I was unaware at that time that the military had us under surveillance to get to the National leader of the BPR.


An artist depiction of bodies that were being found during this period.  This appears in the chapel of UCA

An artist depiction of bodies that were being found during this period. This appears in the chapel of UCA


The grave situation in the country continued to escalate with Monsignor Romero’s assassination on March 24, 1980. Until that time my defense system told me to endure and keep studying and stay on track to become an engineer. That all changed when the beloved head of the Catholic Church was gunned down in cold blood at the altar of his church. The university was closed. More people were disappeared.


Jose Artiga


Three months later on June 27, 1980, at 10 PM, the death squad came to my town with the names of five students. Four of them studied at National University, and I studied at UCA. We were the pride of the town! Each of us were the first in our family to attend college. Our plans were to serve our community by becoming a teacher, doctor, engineer, agronomist, and lawyer. The National University was once again closed, and those students were home. The members of the death squad wrongfully assumed all five of us were home from classes. UCA was still in session, and I, scheduled for a Saturday test the next morning, had spent the night in the city at Ivonne’s house studying in order to be closer for the next day’s test. There were often roadblocks slowing traffic and making timing unpredictable, which you don’t need on the day of a test. That test saved my life!

The first thing the death squad did was to explode a bomb outside our house to scare away the dogs and other animals. Then they machine-gunned down the doors to get into each room. They interrogated my family for information on me.   When they saw I was nowhere to be found, they took my youngest sister, Margarita, a few blocks away and pressed her for details on my whereabouts but got no information. When they left, my family literally escaped with the clothes on their backs and went to hide in the bushes and later into San Salvador leaving behind generations of a way of life for the whole family. My four friends’ bullet-riddled and cut bodies were later discovered beyond recognition.

(The June 15th story will pick up from here.)


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