Thursday, January 15, 2009

A very short history of El Salvador, Part I

As someone addicted to words, I can't help thinking that naming this very small country "Provincia De Nuestro Señor Jesucristo El Salvador Del Mundo" (the Province of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the World) was asking for trouble. That's not a safe name, and this has never been a safe place.

It's hard to understand El Salvador today without understanding something about the Civil War of the 1970s-1990s. It's hard to understand the Civil War without understanding something about the long history of the Spanish colonizers, the landed families, the generals. And it's necessary to begin even further back, with the Pipiles and the Lenca.

The Pipiles, speaking Nahuat, an Aztec-related language, came from what is now Mexico and settled to the southwest of the Rio Lempa; the Lenca lived north and east of the Lempa. The Pipil, about whom more seems to be known today, lived in well-organized communities, with each family assigned a piece of land to cultivate (the origins of the current milpa or corn field). Both peoples cultivated corn, beans, root vegetables, squash, cacao, and a great variety of fruits; smoked tobacco; made pottery and wove textiles from cotton, palm and bamboo. They practiced slash and burn agriculture. They lived in a class-structured society, with few privileges for the laborers at the bottom of the social order. Some things have not changed much. The principal community of the Pipiles, near present-day San Salvador, was named Cuscatlán, which means "the land of precious things"

The Pipil and Lenca were on the outskirts of the great indigenous civilizations of the Americas, the Inca, Maya and Aztec. Today only a few communities in El Salvador shelter a handful of Nahuat speakers, and there are no Lenca speakers. Both languages are essentially extinct. The knowledge, stories, histories and jokes of the Lenca and the Pipil have been lost, and not through any natural process, but through centuries of fierce repression. But that's the next part of this story.

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