MIRNA ANTONIETA PERLA DE ANAYA JIMENEZ
“We just felt with certainty, though, that things needed to change. We also understood that we did not have a choice but to act.”
Editor’s Note: The terms “accompaniment” and “advocacy” intertwine as part of the fabric that weaves Mirna’s life from the time she was a small child to the present. The details she both lived and observed early in life left an indelible mark on her mind as to what she felt compelled to address and improve upon once she grew into adulthood.
She has never strayed from her goal. Now as a magistrate in the Supreme Court, she is able to accompany her people by lobbying and rendering decisions on legislation on their behalf. This position also affords her opportunities to serve as an advocate for special interests by being a voice for the oppressed.
What is especially impressive is that Mirna is one of those rare elected officials who is both compassionate and extremely approachable. She is a people’s person. You see her march in the streets side by side with persons whose causes she rallies. She visits and sends personal notes to those who need support and encouragement. Mirna has never deviated from her purpose, nor forgotten those who chose her for this position, those whose rights she defends.
It is a special privilege to have the opportunity to interview this compelling and effective leader who clears not only the tall stacks of files off her table, but her schedule, not once, but twice, to allow us to interview her in her court chambers as well as over dinner.
The honorable judge Mirna shares: two things have always been big motivators that drive her life:
First, I love my people and have always wanted to be part of the struggle to improve their situation whether it be living standards, family dynamics, health care, work environment, or human rights. Second, I know poverty having been exposed to it and lived it as a child. I know what it means to live without a house, without clothing, without health care. But my own poverty was not at the extreme level I witnessed.
Born on January 8, 1954, in Nueva Esparta in the department of La Union, I was the fourth of five children. When my family came to the central part of San Miguel, we lived in a low- rent apartment overlooking a house of prostitution. It saddened me to watch the small children living in very bad conditions. At some point my family was able to afford to rent a house.
It didn’t take long for me to begin to realize that things within my world were not going well. Educators are prevalent within my family, and I often accompanied my grandmother and two grand-aunts to their rural schools to teach. I observed the children in very bad shape. It saddened me to see none of them owned a pair of shoes or a notebook. The children frequently would faint from hunger in school because there was no food in their homes. (As an aside, my grandmother had a great deal of respect for President Kennedy’s sensitivities to social issues. Her students may have benefited from some of the programs he initiated such as U.S. Aid distributing milk, corn, and wheat. She was very shaken by his assassination.) My one grand- aunt taught in the Morazan department which was hit especially hard during the civil war by many massacres. I remember my grandmother working hard to collect butterflies and take other interesting items into her classes to appeal to her students’ interests. She would fold paper into notebooks and draw a design on the cover for each child to color in order to give each child his or her own notebook. Seeing my caring grandmother and grand-aunts address the needs of their students served as a wonderful role model to me.
Observing persons in my family take on roles to help others fueled my desire to carve out a role within my own life to follow suit. My father, who later separated from my mother, had worked at the mayor’s office, and he too always tried to help the illiterate prepare their papers in order to defend their rights. These family members would also share many stories with me further increasing my awareness of the great needs of my people. I began to internalize the values I was being taught, and the inequities of the people resonated within me.
Father Oscar Romero, who was still a Roman Catholic parish priest in San Miguel prior to becoming the archbishop, did much more than teach church doctrine and perform the necessary church duties. He expanded my perspectives on religion beyond what I was originally taught which was basic moral teachings and charity. Father Romero was quite involved in many outreach community programs, including the youth and the elderly. He instilled in the laity of the church the need to participate.
When I was young learning to be in solidarity also came as a result of an awkward family situation. My mom was shocked to discover divorce papers among my dad’s other papers. He had never broached the subject with her. All we kids knew was he was away during the week and would return on weekends. My mom was so angry that when she confronted him about her discovery, she ended up moving out of the security of our home with all five of us kids in tow. Our only recourse was to move in with my grandmother, who was suddenly thrust into having to financially support us. As a result, we kids found ways to be in solidarity with one another to keep our family unit functioning. The other important lesson I learned from that experience is how vulnerable children can be. I remember thinking, “When I grow up, I’m going to earn a lot of money and give it away to people who need it!”
Although we children did have the basic necessities, it did not stop us from being humiliated in front of our peers over the things we were unable to afford. I have vivid memories of times when we kids would be standing in line for prayer at our Catholic school and the nun would announce in front of everyone, “The Perla girls are unable to take their test today because their mother did not have the three colones (which is really nothing at all) needed for it, and until she comes to pay or comes to explain why she can’t pay, they cannot take their tests.” In high school I would not have the 10 colones needed to buy a book for my studies and had to go without. It was very embarrassing.
Whether it was a result of my childhood instability or simply my genetics, I tended to be somewhat hyperactive and not a very good little girl. I remember climbing to the top of the bell tower of Father Romero’s church and ringing the bells with as much disruption as I could possibly cause. They would lock me in my grandmother’s house in town, and yet I managed to jump off the wall on the back side of the house in order to go outside to play. At my other grandmother’s house in the country, I tended to enjoy running off to the river and climbing the trees, so my grandmother began tying me up with a rope! She was a very hard woman! I could be very determined, however, and never lost that trait.
The military began to view the university as being a cradle of subversives about the time I entered in 1973. The National University had just been re-opened after a year of being closed due to military interruption. My older brother, who was on scholarship, was a student leader at the time it had been closed. He was being persecuted and had to run away in order to remain safe. My sister Edith and I both entered the same year on scholarships because our family had no financial resources. The situation at the university was extremely unstable, and it would periodically close after we started also.
My scholarship was for 50 colones a month. Sometimes we got paid and other times we did not. We needed that money to live. One of the things we students organized for was consistent pay. I was forming a social awareness, and I joined a student revolutionary movement. I began to understand that the structure of society should not be that only a few people have everything vs. many people having nothing.
As a law student, I studied economy, sociology, and philosophy. We began to think of ways to solve our country’s problems within the social economic structure we had. My priority was to turn around the entire military regime. The student movement was a very important movement with a lot of revolutionary thoughts. It was a spring of revolution at this time. I had no career plans to become a lawyer.
We were all definitely afraid for our safety during those years. We knew of the dangers and lived with the knowledge that the military could torture us, disappear us, and kill us. We maneuvered ourselves to take precautions. But we also made the decision that if it meant losing our lives, that was a risk we were willing to take. At the same time we also understood that we did not have a choice but to act. If we really loved our people, the only way to change things was through organizing. I had learned from my Christian formation that Jesus himself renounced the forces around Him in order to set an example during His time.
Herbert (Anaya) and I met during this time at the university. We had both come from impoverished backgrounds, although Herbert’s was more extreme than my own. During our university years we worked together constantly within the student organizations. Early on I thought I would die at any time. He and I both thought we would give up our lives. I never considered marrying or having a family. I was fearful OF everyone and FOR everybody. We just felt with certainty, though, that things needed to change.
To tell you the truth, I found Herbert to be a ridiculous man at the beginning with all his poems, thoughts, “up there” things, and glasses. He was just a companion for all the work in the student movement. I thought he would make a great revolutionary. In the midst of a crisis, he would come up with one of his great poems, and I would think, this is NOT the appropriate time for this.
When the 1975 massacre at the university happened, things quickly turned very serious and grave. We students in the march became decisive to get to the center of San Salvador. It was only because two persons hid me carefully after I fell from the bridge and I broke my leg that prevented me from ending up among the disappeared. I was unaware what happened until Herbert came to the hospital two days later to explain the whole scenario. He brought me 75 colones to cover the cost of my medical expenses and taxi. He then followed up by serving as my personal bridge to communicate the information of what was happening on the outside and my reality of convalescing inside my home while healing. At that point I began to appreciate his poems more, find him less ridiculous, and shift my thinking about him. Rosa was born nine months later. (See daughter Rosa Anaya’s account for details of the university massacre story)
I was in my third year at the university when I broke my leg and had Rosa. There were closings at the university that year. Six months later I was able to return. I worked as a secretary at the peace court in 1977. It was difficult due to the large volume of arrests of young people. Herbert and I had five kids all between the years 1976 and 1982. I just tried to continue to work full-time to earn an income as well as study.
Herbert was working in a court in another city and would have to pick up bodies and take testimonies of people who were tortured. We continued to work full time as well as on weekends when we supported people with talks and conferences on how to defend their human rights.
In 1980 Herbert decided to renounce his job and quit in order to work full time with the Human Rights Commission. That group had expelled their president, and it was common to find dead bodies at their doorstep. Two months later one of their female workers was disappeared and then discovered assassinated on a beach. A couple of days later another employee was shot and killed. From then on, events escalated, and life was very hard.
On October 26,1987, Herbert was assassinated outside our home as he attempted to walk all the children, but Rosa was the only witness. The other kids had not come out of the house yet to go to school. The investigation has never been complete. The government fulfilled the requirement due to international demands; and they came up with a show and convicted someone who was absolutely innocent of the crime. Because I was being implicated of some blame, I needed to take the children out of the country to protect all of us. It would never have been my choice to leave my country were it not for the imminent danger we all faced at that time. (Again, read Rosa Anaya’s story for details of locations of she and the children during those subsequent years.)
Were it not for the prayers of my mother and grandmothers, I probably would not be alive today. I have managed to survive much more than the 1975 massacre. When I was pregnant with Rosa in 1976, I was held in isolation in a dark room with many insects and tortured with electric shock for 24 hours until my mother talked to a friend who was able to get me out. Otherwise, I may be disappeared by now. In 1979 a professor and I were returning from Costa Rica only to find the police waiting for us at the airport. Fortunately, his wife was there along with friends who were airport workers and able to intervene. Our plane’s arrival coincided with that of another plane filled with U.S. dollar dealers to exchange colones for dollars, thus causing much confusion at the airport. Had it not been for those two events happening simultaneously, again, I could have ended up among the disappeared. When Herbert and I were together, we were constantly the focus of the police, and I don’t know how I managed to remain alive. Somehow the protection of God did not allow any of my mother’s children to be harmed despite all the violent persecution.
Fear did not abate even after the Peace Accords. Many struggles led to that negotiation (not that I personally was there for the negotiations) that were signed in 1992. I thought it was safe to return home with the children at that time and was driving with two of my sons, a friend, and Sister Peggy outside Suchitoto when my car was stopped. When I saw the lights, I first thought it was police. Then I noticed two people with scarves over their faces with blow holes at the eyes ordering me out of the car, so I just stepped on the gas and gunned it driving like “McGyver.” I knew those roads from having been a judge in Suchitoto for three years and wasn’t watching where I was going. I just drove. They started shooting and hit my one son who announced he’d been hit, but I told him, “I can’t stop or they will kill us all.” We just kept going until we reached the hospital. His injuries were only to the skin and muscle and not to internal organs. Not knowing if this was a death squad attack, I again packed up the children and left the country. Once again, my family and I were fortunate. After the Peace Accords were signed others met their fate including three former guerrilla commanders. One was shot in his place of business in Santa Tecla. One who was involved in a teachers’ movement was killed. Another was killed in a very similar situation to Herbert in that he was walking his little kindergarten-aged daughter to school when he was shot.
We as a family feel there has been no justice in Herbert’s case as well as many others from the war. We need to break the country’s impunity surrounding these cases.
A way for us as a family to grieve Herbert’s loss is to share the story with many people both within the country and outside the country. This has afforded me an opportunity to see how valuable and strong the work outside the country is by helping to establish organizations such as the Central American Commission on Human Rights. It has been a joy for my family to see the results of the product of our struggle.
My years at the university working cooperatively within student organizations may have been good training to help prepare me for some of these challenges I’ve had to deal with during my adult life. Transitioning from a country of war to a country of peace holds its own unique set of problems. How do you reinsert the group of people who were fighting for you but are seen by some as fighting against you? It was a civil war. Getting resources from the government to help ex-combatants with agriculture and small businesses which will benefit everyone is a big issue. Many persons returned from the war with permanent injuries and no resources. There needed to be institutions established for orphans, veterans, direct victims of war, and those with psychological traumas. As a result of torture and severe trauma, many people have become abusive and violent in their families, in their work sites, in their communities. We need to learn and deal with all these issues.
However, on the plus side, the fact that in this country we are able to elect people to positions is a positive direction for us. My position on this court is proof that the people are able to choose or at least propose persons for these positions we were unable to do in earlier times. This position I hold is considered the highest grade in the judicial system.
There was another woman before me (Marina de Aviles) who served as the first woman Supreme Court magistrate to be elected in El Salvador. I was elected in 2003. The way I came to this court is through the struggle of the people within the system. The people allowed me this job knowing that Mirna is here because she is Mirna and her position has not changed because she is a Supreme Court judge.
There are four chambers of the Supreme Court and 15 magistrates. I serve within the civil court chamber covering the areas of family, labor, commerce, and civil cases. The process to become elected involves a number of names being selected by the lawyer organizations within the country who vote, as well as being proposed by social organizations. Those names are then voted on and offered to the legislative assembly. From that roster of names, the legislative assembly decides who comes to the court. I received many votes because of my popularity among both of those groups of people. I literally want to retain this space I hold to be open for the people.
We justices are responsible to appoint judges, discipline judges, and dismiss judges when necessary. I supported the organizing of a section of the court specifically for the rights of children. I pushed the law to protect against family violence and environmental protection. Now I am proposing labor reform so people can have a quicker response to their needs in the work environment. Within the labor area, for example, I support the issues of labor rights involving persons with unjustified firings, vacation issues, and compensation for time when fired.
Another facet of this position requires involvement in various commissions. For example, I am part of the women’s commission to push laws toward their protection and empowerment. This is a difficult job because there is a whole judicial system in a court that is totally machismo by its culture.
It is not only me; I am part of a whole group of judges who are being straight with their values and keeping the struggle. Those things I learned as a child, those values I learned as a child, are the same ones I hold today, and I will keep them forever. It doesn’t matter where I am.
Sometimes my peers, the other judges, and I disagree on cases, of course. Examples are when some of them may tend to be more traditional in their thinking and decisions they render than I. When I disagree with a decision, I try to explain to the other magistrates within chambers and write up my reasons for disagreeing on an issue. It may not be enough to win the case, but at least it is recorded, nonetheless.
It is a requirement of the job that you must be hypertensive, but then I alluded to having that trait as a child. It is definitely a high stress job involving many, many hours a week and weekends. I do need to watch my health and diet carefully which is why I play basketball and practice yoga. Besides my job, I have five children and six and a half grandchildren to give attention to.
My views are sometimes unpopular among the administration. For example, when he took office, I presented to the President that he cut his salary in half and place the other half into social justice. Our staff salaries were all cut in half. That didn’t go over too well, and he has been unable to establish any real difference between his policies and those of the past president. I suggested he accompany the Marcello Rivero family, the environmentalist who struggled for the rights of his country who was recently assassinated in the Cabanas area, by sending them a letter at least. That was never done, and I found out later the President instead was living the high life on a yacht that weekend.
I fully realize this happens in other countries, too. You in the U.S. are certainly aware that your administration involves itself in foreign affairs in order to exploit resources from those areas justifying their involvement abroad by saying they go to protect the people. It is the U. S. citizens themselves, the military, who are the first ones being sent in to die in those wars. The Middle East is more important than smaller countries like Honduras, for example, which has nothing in terms of resources to offer. Meanwhile, the people in Honduras are suffering from total and absolute repression, being tortured, persecuted, and killed because no one is doing anything to protect them from the coup that took over, concessioned off their entire forests belonging to their indigenous peoples, gave away their mining to international operations, and exploited them. It is shameful and outrageous to me to know that we Salvadorans have been accomplices in the repressions in this situation as well.
Top three priorities U.S. citizens could help El Salvador with: 1) The U.S. holds a great deal of information it could share to bring down the impunity on the massacres from our civil war in terms of responsibility. 2) CAFTA has done much harm to the people. To undo that treaty would do a great deal of good. The migration through Mexico to the U.S. to find work is proof that these treaties are doing no good. As a result our general culture and society are being destroyed. Another problem is when our people return home because the U.S. economy cannot support the workers; they return with a consumerism mentality. Someone who left from a campesino community does not wish to return to that same community. 3) Respect our culture and identity.
Citizens can pressure the U.S. government to change its repressive policy against money coming for more oppression rather than better alternatives. Financing designed to address the roots and causes of the problem is best. Countries such as ours need more support in the form of opportunities for families and youth to develop themselves.
We need to strengthen the police so that they can persecute the crimes. Right now it is collective blame when someone is killed and they say, “It is THE GANG.” So a crime is not investigated and no specific person is charged, but rather a group is pulled off the street. That creates impunity. Because there has to be a petition filed as to the unconstitutionality of the action to the court to do a reversal of the action, people are fearful of the capability of the police and the manipulation of the media. Many people have a dictatorial mindset; we’ve lived under dictators for so long that they think only repression works and solves things. So in some people’s minds, having weapons is justified in order to defend oneself. It can be very frustrating to be in the middle of the top of the government.
We are coming up to the 30th anniversary of the 1975 university massacre that I remember only too well. At that time we suspected that the military had infiltrated the university. We found out later that the military was selling drugs to discourage the struggle by organizing students. Now I am hearing the same thing happening with the police providing weapons and drugs to the gangs in an effort to split them up against one another even between high schools. I didn’t want to believe it was true until I heard it from enough different sources. This same phenomenon happened in Spain and probably other countries. Sometimes I don’t even want to open a newspaper because the characteristics of these crimes sound so familiar to the death squad crimes from the civil war which still give me nightmares.
Much remains to be done to overcome poverty. The situation involving the mining in the Cabanas area going on right now is so frighteningly reminiscent of the death squads. I have been trying to accompany the persons involved by making contacts on their behalf. It is disappointing to see that repression continues within the prison system; and changes need to be made in criminal policy. Persons within that system need to be given a chance to change their attitudes. Little by little we need to accompany communities in their development projects. The rescue of historic memory serves us all well by remembering our past in order to move us ahead. Our planet is in a very difficult situation, but I also have much hope in knowing that many people including myself, are willing to try to save it and humanity.
Much has been accomplished through the efforts of many committed persons and groups working together. The whole movement surrounding our last Presidential Election Day, for example, has been a victory in that we have been able to organize and coordinate national and internationals to defeat electoral fraud.
I recognize and value the fact that I currently hold this position because of the struggle of the people. It is a beautiful thing to see that in education children now have uniforms, shoes, notebooks, and at least one meal a day. Through the combined efforts of various ministries in our country, we are building a road where there has never before been one.
All this and she is only 57 years old! I am humbled by this brave, focused marvel of a woman. After meeting her, I understood why when we initially asked Rosa to share her story, she immediately responded, “ONLY if you talk with my mom also.”