“If we listen to one another’s stories, we may have common ground to bring down the borders.”
Editor’s Note: Rosa has been in the public eye since age 10 when she witnessed the assassination of her father, Herbert, famous human rights activist during the civil war. She often writes a tribute to him close to the anniversary date of this event. Rosa’s vivacious personality and drive to continue his legacy in the same area are contagious.
It is probably more than a coincidence that I happen to be born on December 10th , the anniversary of our country’s Human Rights Declaration which was enacted December 10, 1948. My life has evolved around that whole issue with a large part of it revolving around the story of my parents and their fight for human rights in El Salvador. When my family celebrates my birthday, we also celebrate this historic event in our country’s history.
My dad’s family originates from Chalchuapa, which is in the Santa Ana department in northwest El Salvador near the Guatemalan border. There he grew up picking coffee near a Mayan ruin. My mom’s family is from the opposite side of the country. Both my parents were poor, and both earned scholarships to National University, where they met. They studied law and discovered some [laws] in the Constitution that were not being followed. Since it was in the 1970’s when social movement was becoming popular, they helped organize the university students in social movement against injustices and with a group of human rights activists founded the CDHES, Human Rights Commission of El Salvador.
By 1975 they were becoming good friends and helped organize a student protest. There was a huge demonstration by both high school and university students trying to rid the National University of the army which had taken over one of its campuses. The goal was to put pressure on the army to get out. The day before it was scheduled the army came out with pamphlets warning families not to let their kids out or they would be considered subversives, communists, and that something would happen to them.
On July 30 of that year, my parents, who helped organize this student protest, were at different places in the march as it approached a bridge. Army tanks were located on one side and soldiers were on the other side with students in the middle much like a sandwich. Tanks rolled over the students; my mom was near the front but on bridge; my dad in back. They knew in advance that tear gas would be used, so brought water to be handed out. My mom had a handkerchief but couldn’t see. When she realized she needed to leave, she jumped off the middle of the bridge. She broke her knee in four places. Her friends hid her under a truck for several days. They were unable to take her to a hospital because the soldiers were going into hospitals pulling people out of beds and taking away anyone, such as gunshot-wounded victims, who appeared to have been in the demonstration. Some were never to be seen again. Many days later my uncle took my mom to a hospital for treatment; he fabricated a story that she fell off her bike. My dad came to her house to report who was missing or killed and brought her poems and . . . . . .I was born nine months later. It was a case of love and war at the same time.
However, the story WE (as children) heard regarding my mom’s knee was that she fell off a motorcycle. We heard the real story from other people. Also, the story my dad told us about his leg, which had been shot at one point, was that his brother put a fork in it. Even to us kids that seemed bizarre. Perhaps our parents were trying to shield us from the truth.
I am the oldest of five children. In the book, 50 Years and Beyond, which was written to celebrate our human rights declaration, a segment was devoted to various voices. I was asked to contribute an article from the perspective of rights of a child I titled “The Right to Dream,” p. 389.
Although I have no memory of it, when I was 3 or 4, I was involved in a serious car accident which occurred on the first day of the offensive during the curfew of martial law as we were coming out of church. It resulted in my needing a prosthesis for my arm in the long-term. My Aunt Edith, as well as Kate Bancroft, a friend of our family who lived in California, helped intercede on my behalf to arrange for a Shriner’s Hospital in the U.S. to provide annual prosthesis fittings and adjustments as I grew. This necessitated much travel to and from the U.S., where I periodically stayed with my aunt within a Salvadoran community. One time I returned home and discovered my mom had a new baby. I asked who that was and she explained, “This is your sister, Edith.” That was only the beginning of what was to become a lifestyle of travel during my early life. (Bill Hutchinson’s When the Dogs Ate Candles includes numerous references to the Anaya family, including Rosa and the incident here about the beginning of her relationship with Kate Bancroft which she shared on p. 31).
As kids we always had various responsibilities that maybe other kids didn’t have. They tried to keep the ugliest part of the war away from us. They taught the romantic part, the solidarity part: ie. we are going to stop injustice. We knew about death, but somehow we didn’t see the ugly part because we thought it was very normal. We called the freedom fighters all “uncles” and “aunts.” We heard stories that some people were captured or tortured, but they never revealed any names. They showed us the part of the war that was a strength that allowed them to do amazing things. Yes, we saw corpses out in the street and pictures of the missing, but we saw beyond those pictures and heard the stories of why it was important to organize. Maybe it was our own filter system as kids, and we saw things in a different way.
My dad, Herbert Anaya, always the human rights activist, was and remains, a big influence in my life. He stopped belonging to us in 1987 when he was assassinated. I was only 10 years old when I witnessed this tragedy on the parking lot outside our home. It was a very confusing time for me.
I learned about my dad through people who knew him when he was alive and through my mom. All of my siblings have taken on his legacy of working within the field of human rights advocacy. I can meet him again and again through so many different people. It’s always nice to find out new things about him.
I never knew my father had a name until his funeral. My parents had no names to us kids, nor did my aunts or uncles; only we kids had names. They never told us their names so their safety could not be compromised. We couldn’t retain names as kids, and to this day I have much difficulty retaining names, addresses, and phone numbers which may go back to those days and the necessity of NOT knowing. I now understand this is a common trait of war trauma.
After my dad died, my first reaction was to become a rebel. I didn’t understand his legacy. I decided not to try to be a substitute of my mom or dad when they weren’t there. I rebelled for lots of years. I wanted to be a normal kid yet at the same time wanted to be a revolutionary. I wanted my mom to notice me. My sister and I would make banners to our mom with things like, “We want hamburgers” and “We want a mom at home” printed on them.” It was hard for me to understand that because of the times, I also needed to make sacrifices.
As a child starting to learn why my dad did what he did rather than staying with the family was hard at times. I didn’t understand why he gave up his life for others and didn’t stay with his family. Why use all your energies for others?
My people taught me why you have to love others so much to give up yourself for them. Giving your life on behalf of people every day is something many are inclined to do. It’s just that my dad happened to die in the process. That essence about him was not something I learned in one day. For me it was learning to meet my people through my father’s actions. History demanded that of him at that time, and he was aware of what his role needed to be. He loved his people too much to turn his back on them. His people have many faces/thoughts/multiple cultures. They are not simply poor people. Among them are marginalized people who choose to form a community which has individuals, but these marginalized people are marginalized because of the flawed system. They don’t choose to be marginalized.
After my dad was killed in 1987, the situation required that our family move around frequently. We had to keep moving because the authorities were constantly following our family. We could never stay in one house for long, and I felt like a turtle wearing my home on my back. Because my dad had been such a public figure, it wasn’t hard for our family to get political asylum, which we were granted in Canada in December of that year. My mom thought it was unsafe to remain here in El Salvador because even she was being blamed for issues surrounding my dad’s death. We kids didn’t want to leave. My youngest sister was 5 and I was 10 with our other siblings in between us; we wanted to stay and be guerrillas too. We can’t betray our dad, we thought. My mom insisted we leave, and we stayed in Canada for eight months. Our sponsors, Solidarity in Canada, were extremely generous, and since it was December, each one of us received boxes of Christmas gifts and two Christmas trees, a TV, etc. We were overwhelmed with the presents and yet we felt guilty. It was unfair to our people back in El Salvador who were getting nothing but guns and bullets for their Christmas.
Besides speaking out in Canada, our mother was invited to speak out about what happened to our dad and thousands of others like him on behalf of human rights abuses. She addressed the United Nations.
Our next move was to Marin County, across the bay from San Francisco. The move was coordinated by Kate Bancroft, who had worked with my dad on the Marin Interfaith Task Force in human rights. (At one point years earlier she had served as a human body shield when my father was released from prison.) Kate was able to find various families to care for us there.
The Salvadoran refugees came to the U.S. where they were given sanctuary by churches. Over 500 churches in the U.S. offered sanctuary. It was dangerous for a church to accept them. A whole congregation had to vote to do so which was a vote to commit civil disobedience. It was a clear moral decision to those who did so that they could not allow them to return to a country where their lives were in danger. (from the documentary Return to El Salvador)
Although I was exposed to an affluent area in California, I can’t say I was that impressed by the commercial piece of it such as the large stores. What did grab my attention was the lush vegetation and things like the huge redwoods which were so unlike the deforested mountains in El Salvador.
As an aside, while living in the U.S., we met another face of its citizens. Before living there, we had a vision of the U.S. as the supporter of the Salvadoran military which was a monster for their role in the war in our country. What we learned was to separate the role of the government from the actual people. That was a revelation to us. We ALL are deceived by our governments in power. It may be distressing, but that was healing for us to not see a nation as an enemy. This discovery helped me to see soldiers in the military as individuals who also have different stories. We are all in the same boat in the end. We need to listen to everyone’s stories to have a picture of what happened. We saw the concept of power differently; perceptions became misperceptions. The U.S. government was doing monstrous things true, but not all its individuals, just as ALL Salvadorans are not acting in the same way. And then you become my people because we all become people who have been denied a full picture. We can then learn to listen to one another’s stories, and we may have common ground to bring down the borders.
In moving around I experienced more diversity in educational settings in terms of style and composition. In Canada, classes were very formal, whereas I attended an open classroom in California. If I didn’t want to go to math class, I didn’t have to, but I loved the art room and was permitted to stay there all day if I chose. In Central America there was little race or cultural diversity, but in Canada there were a great many Portuguese; and, of course, in the U.S., there were all kinds of cultures and races in California.
In Costa Rica my mom served as the general coordinator with Codehuca (Community for the Defense of Human Rights in Central America – begun in 1978). We stayed there for four years. During this time my radical sister, Gloria, always reminded us kids to do the right thing and remember what our dad died for when we would forget. “Remember we have to help our people” was her mantra. She was the anchor of us kids. She now serves in Central American Parliament and in the “Women and Youth” movement. From Costa Rica we moved to Nicaragua for a short time.
In 1992, soon after the Peace Accords were signed, we returned to El Salvador thinking it would be safe. However, while my Mom was driving near Succhitoto with my siblings and Sister Peggy, her car was stopped by “military”. She quickly realized that she was in danger and sped off as fast as she could. My brother was shot in the hip. I happened to be in California at the time for one of my prosthesis fittings when I heard the news in the car with Kate Bancroft. Having been taught to always confirm what we hear before reacting, I called home, and none of my family in San Salvador had heard the news before I did in California. My mom called me, downplaying the whole event and reassuring me “Oh, we are fine.” But she did gather the kids and leave the country once again.
I finished high school in El Salvador and went on to National University majoring in international relations. I graduated as a mom before graduating from the university. I’ve been working now on my thesis for my Master’s for two years and hope to finish soon. I consider myself to have a specialty in international law and politics with human rights’ interests.
Faith, to me, is not a formal, religious thing; rather, it is more powerful. I am multi-faith-based. My spirituality is guided more by human rights’ declaration. When I see anyone who does not approve of those or follow those basic human rights, it’s not good. I struggle with organized religion because I have seen priests give the benediction to soldiers going out on a massacre. I struggle with religions that do not encourage their members to question or allow them to struggle just like as I did with the U.S. political policies regarding massacres. I admire those such as Gandhi and Romero. I embrace the concept of Gaia. I admire Jesus for the radical he was in his time. He stepped up against those in power and questioned the system (ie. the role of women). He challenged the basic dogma/doctrines of his historical faith. Questioning is basic because that is how we evolve and our faith becomes stronger. Without questioning we remain static.
My husband, Juan Carlos, and I can give our three children the biological explanation of how they came into the world, explaining the sperm and ovum, but that does not begin to capture the amazing people each one of them is in terms of unique personalities. A sense of wonderment in all of nature around us has a spiritual element that can’t be defined in concrete terms. I am in total awe of the wonders of life.
My family, friends, and others have established a semi-formal organization that do incredible things called Colectivo de Derechos Humanos Herbert Anaya, which is an NGO operating at two different levels. The students within National University have organized a movement that makes up one branch of this group. Their alumni, our family, and friends compose the other branch. We provide human rights education and an annual human rights conference. We are advocating for historical memory rescue, that is, to encourage young people in their communities to document/record older members’ stories before they are gone and lost much like you are doing with your project. The part of historical memory rescue which involves looking into my ancestor’s Mayan religious past, for example, is a way of exploring my own faith. We take delegations from universities into the marginalized communities like CRISPAZ does with North American delegations.
Our whole family is committed to human rights’ advocacy, but in different ways. My youngest sister, Edith, graduated from medical school in Cuba. She and her husband, who is a dentist, do medical brigades in the communities. My one brother is a lawyer; another is a psychologist. And as mentioned earlier, my other sister is also a lawyer and deputy with Parliament for Central America. My mom has her own story, but I will tell you that she was one of the first women Supreme Court justices in our country and currently serves as one of 14 magistrates in the country. My focus has been with the prison population. This past year we began to recognize the sacrifices of the survivors of massacres in three different locations from the perspective that we are free because of the losses they or their loved ones endured on our behalf. It was very well- received.
To read Rosa’s mother’s story, see this link for Mirna Perla: https://www.embracingelsalvador.org/mirna-perla/
I have not lost my hope for El Salvador. Sometimes you see a brightness in the eyes of people of hope to come. I still see a lot of what was happening in the war with a path changing. In one sense it can be frustrating; with all that was accomplished during those twelve years and what we gained, we expected immediate change. Yet, with a history of 500 years of oppression, the struggle had only begun. We need to remind ourselves that every generation has a step to take. My father and his generation did much, and every subsequent generation has to have a new idea of how to take the past and improve upon what was done earlier. Changes have to evolve based on a link from the past generation’s efforts to the present generation and then into the next one.
We need to tell the story of what happened in order to sort out the good stuff that happened, evaluate the things that did not work, and proceed in a positive direction from there. We are starting to see that happen, but it is very slow. For one thing there are far more distractions in this generation with all the electronic devices such as the passion for Facebook, that sometimes get in the way. Even in some of the poorest communities of extreme poverty you will see individuals so absorbed in these devices that it takes away from the sense of community. They need to be reminded to work together and to confront reality.
On the positive side, I have seen people so infected by the inspirational examples of people such as my father who struggled for human rights, that their attitude changed from “I can do nothing about my situation” into “I can choose not to be a victim and start contributing to my society.” That message is stronger than anything they can get from mass media.
My instincts will not allow me NOT to have hope. There are lots of efforts going on in this country to change things for the positive. I’m not willing to give up. There are just cycles of despair we have to be willing to go through in order to really move people toward action. Our greatest hope is our family. We have the tools we need to move ahead; we just need to commit to use them. My hope is that my children will continue to work for positive change and that change won’t stop with them, but that they will pass on the tools of change to the next generation. My fear is that we may kill Mother Earth before those changes happen. Mother Earth may not disappear but she will get rid of the human violence and it will be sad that some parts of the human race will be disrupted. It is my fear that we won’t be able to make those necessary changes for humans to survive.
We need to heal collectively as a country because it is as a country that historically has been so savagely beaten as a people. For human rights this involves respecting the dignity of others. Part of my frustration with the U.S. intervention in this country, as well as in other countries, is my feeling that the people of a country need to solve their own problems and engage in their own struggles. People need to understand that poverty does not exist because people do not work. Poverty exists because the structures exist to take advantage of people illegally to suppress their rights. This is why the war happened. And we need to find non-violent ways to work at solutions to our problems.
Working within the human rights area can be extremely draining. At the same time constantly needing to be cautious about one’s safety when you are in the public eye can also lead to anxiety. There are times when our family needs to make collective decisions regarding our security. But it is important to maintain a healthy balance in life, and for fun I enjoy watching movies. In El Salvador there is no shortage of pirated movies. I also love salsa dancing. Going out to eat with a large family like mine is too expensive, so these are cheaper forms of entertainment.
My focus now is in the struggle to help bring opportunities to the youth that for one reason or the other are involved in violence, gangs, and drugs. I believe everyone deserves a second chance.
Editor’s Note: The interview for this story took place several years ago; therefore, a few facts are outdated. However, the basic substance remains intact. Energetic Rosa is proud of her heritage and culture and is working tirelessly as an advocate not only to preserve it, but also to be a visionary in what she sees ahead for her country. She is a member of one of El Salvador’s most talented and remarkable families. It will be curious to read what her own children’s banners will someday say.