Refuge and Return : Stories of a Resettled Community in El Salvador

Refuge and Return: An Introduction

Joseph Wiltberger
Oscar Castillo

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For Spanish text click here

Refuge and Return: Stories of a Resettled Community documents the history behind a rural community in northern El Salvador that was repopulated by refugees of El Salvador’s (1980-1992) civil war. The community of Guarjila, along with several other surrounding communities in the department of Chalatenango, was resettled in 1987 by thousands of Salvadoran refugees who had been living in the Mesa Grande refugee camp in Honduras since the early 1980s. The refugees had fled from the brutal violence of Salvadoran military operations in northern El Salvador. The return to El Salvador of more than 7,000 refugees from Mesa Grande in 1987 was among the largest refugee repatriations in Latin American history. It was extraordinary for two reasons: it was autonomously organized by refugees themselves and it took place during an active conflict. By offering a collection of oral histories and photographs contributed by former refugees who resettled Guarjila, Refuge and Return contributes to efforts to document, make visible, and commemorate historical memories of the civil war, the Mesa Grande refugee camp, and the repatriation and resettlement of refugees in Chalatenango.

Refuge and Return consists of two digital books, one in Spanish and one in English, along with a digital collection held by the California State University, Northridge Library. They showcase a collection of oral histories, historic photographs, and a narration of community history. The project was initially the idea of youth in Guarjila who identified the need to document the stories of elders and community leaders during the civil war period to preserve collective and individual historical memories. A team of young people from Guarjila proposed and led the project, working together with students from California State University, Northridge (CSUN) to produce, edit, translate, and prepare the contents of the collection for publication. Former refugees of Guarjila, who were video interviewed by the team of young people from the community, generously offered oral histories of their experiences of the civil war, their return to El Salvador, and their resettlement of Guarjila. Anthropologist Joseph Wiltberger and CSUN graduate Carlos Baltazar Flores served as supervisors and coordinators of the project teams and as co-editors of the digital books and collection. The contents of the exhibits include a narrative of community history co-authored by the team of young people from Guarjila and Wiltberger, ten video-recorded and transcribed oral histories of community elders and leaders who are former refugees, and more than a hundred photographs that were donated by community members to document important events and memories of community history.

Each project team, in El Salvador and in California, worked together to the best of their abilities to provide accurate interview transcriptions, translations, and summaries. They took into account local knowledge of places and names, local dialect, and reviewed each work product. Ángel Serrano, a long-standing community leader, offered his knowledge of local history to inform the descriptions of the historic photographs. The team of young people from the community used trauma-informed practices to conduct the oral history interviews. All of those who were interviewed consented to contributing their oral history, and each contributor reviewed and approved of the content of their recorded oral history to be published. Some may find certain content of the stories to be disturbing, as some violent events are represented. However, oral history contributors emphasized that they were sharing the truth about past events and that it was important that these stories are recorded and documented. 

This project is particularly meaningful to its contributors, the community of Guarjila, and El Salvador. It registers individual and collective memories of events that are in need of preservation. To date, there is scant documentation of stories surrounding these former refugees’ flight from northern El Salvador at the start of the civil war, the collective actions of refugees in Mesa Grande, and the 1987 resettlement. For the community of Guarjila, this project connects younger generations with an earlier generation’s knowledge of historical memories in an effort to keep them from fading. Like communities throughout El Salvador, many people have migrated from Guarjila recently, and so this project also reconnects migrants with community history, helping to restore a shared sense of identity and rootedness. 

For the CSUN students, the experience of working on this project connected them to El Salvador and its history. Most of the students had an interest in the project because they had taken coursework in Central American studies and had close ties to peers, friends, or relatives from El Salvador. Many hailed from a Central American or some other immigrant family background. The project presented an opportunity to hear the kinds of stories that may be remembered, but are often kept silent among Salvadorans today. Refuge and Return puts on the historical record first-hand memories of events surrounding the civil war and the remarkable struggles, agency, and collective action of refugees of the war. The project’s collaborators believe that by better understanding this history, we can also better understand the deeper roots of migration from El Salvador today.

Oral histories are a valuable tool to capture these memories, and the open access, multilingual digital format of these exhibits make the stories and photographs widely accessible. As a digital collection of the CSUN library, the content is permanently preserved and searchable in library databases. The two digital books are viewable on a smartphone, tablet, or computer. Visitors can use the table of contents on the left to navigate through the narrative of community history, which has five sections; the ten oral histories, which contain both the video and the transcript of each of the ten oral histories; and the historic photographs, which are arranged into categories according to different historical periods. When viewing an oral history video, one can select to view the captions in either Spanish or in their English translation by clicking the captioning tool at the bottom of the video screen.

We would like to thank and recognize those of Guarjila who generously shared their stories, knowledge, and photographs to create this historic archival collection. We also thank and recognize all of the CSUN students and graduates, and the team of collaborators from Guarjila, who generously contributed their time and talent to bring it to fruition. We are grateful for the support and funding from the CSUN Library, College of Humanities, and Center for Digital Humanities. We would also like to remind visitors that this project was thought of and led by community members of Guarjila for whom it serves as a virtual museum that preserves local historical memory and reconnects community members across generations and national borders. We would like to encourage its wide dissemination so that students, educators, researchers, libraries, museums, organizations working in El Salvador, and any others interested can benefit and learn from the stories and historical events recorded here.

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