A view of the Lempa River from Piedras Coloradas, the area where thousands of refugees crossed through on March 18th, 1981, fleeing war and a barrage of bullets and mortars launched by the Salvadoran Air Force. On the left bank of the river is Honduras.
Every year on March 17, residents of Santa Marta make a pilgrimage from their community to Piedras Coloradas, along the banks of the Lempa. They commemorate la guinda and pay homage to the victims of the massacre—an estimated 200 men, women and children. “La guinda,” in El Salvador, means “the escape,” and refers to situations in which a community flees an imminent scorched-earth attack by the military to seek safety and survival.
The pilgrimages are accompanied by a military escort. Residents of Santa Marta say that today’s young men, these soldiers, have nothing to do with the men who murdered dozens of their relatives years ago during the armed conflict.
A young man from Santa Marta bathes in the Lempa River, cooling off after the long anniversary walk. An estimated 200 people died in this river during the massacre. Today, these acts of remembrance also serve as a kind of paseo, or social outing, for members of the community.
An offering of flowers floating in the Lempa, in memory of those who lost their lives while attempting to cross the river between March 17 and 18, 1981.
Gerardo Arturo Leiva was born on September 10, 1954. By 1979, he was a member of the Unified Popular Action Front (Frente de Acción Popular Unificada, or FAPU) and later became a guerilla fighter in the ranks of the National Resistance (Resistencia Nacional, or RN). “At that time in ‘81, we had just a few guns, and we were fighting against the soldiers,” says Leiva. On the day of the massacre, he was helping people cross all day, as helicopters rained down gunfire from above.
Gerardo Leiva on the banks of the Lempa River, at the site where he helped dozens of people cross on March 18, 1981. He remembers that to get to this point, his “compas” had to fight off the army as people made their way toward Honduras.
Santa Marta is part of the municipality of Victoria, in the department of Cabañas. Today, it is a calm and quiet community: During the first 11 months of 2019 there was not a single homicide in the municipality, according to data from the National Civil Police.
Every year on October 10th, residents celebrate the first mass return of community members to Santa Marta. They set up a wooden stage in the community soccer field and hold festivities that last all day. Each time the Marcha de la unidad is played, elders raise their left fist and chant along in unison. After the massacres, many of the survivors joined the ranks of the guerrilla.
Julia Ayala was born on February 21, 1948. “It was huge, the crossing of the Lempa,” she says. She still remembers the noise of the planes and the “brutality of bullets.” Julia’s eyes fill with tears as she remembers: “In Los Hernández, in Honduras, when the people arrived they were naked and covered in blood.”
A group of women who survived the crossing of the Lempa River perform a folk dance on the day of commemoration of the return to Santa Marta. At first, the festivities were simpler: people would gather at a house and dance to the radio.
On the night of October 10, Santa Marta is transformed into a street fair and the community center into a dance club. In the streets, there is food and beer for sale, as well as other vendors, games, and carnival rides.
Youth from Santa Marta play a target shooting game during the festival of the return. One dollar buys three shots at hitting the target with a toy gun. The prize: a stuffed teddy bear.
Francisco López was 32 years old when he crossed the Lempa River with his wife and two daughters. “There were some people who couldn't make it across. They couldn’t swim and some of them hung onto others and when they let go they sank down into the water and were never seen again. It was so terrible," says Francisco. "When the helicopter would pass by and barrage us with gunfire, people would dive under the water and some never came up."
In Santa Marta, murals make it impossible to forget the past. Houses, the bus stop, streetposts, and the community center are redecorated with paintings that recreate the escape and the return. Youth from the community help organize the annual commemoration.
The generations of Santa Marta reunite. Children, adults, and the elderly enjoy the inaugural dance on the night of October 9, 2019. The community organizes two celebrations. One is geared toward adults and features a band playing Los Tigres del Norte cover songs. The other is for the youth, who prefer more modern music, like reggaeton.
Gerardo Leiva and his wife, Dolores, hold each other as they dance to banda music during the celebration for community elders. 38 years ago, Dolores held on to her husband as they crossed the Lempa River to escape the Salvadoran Army.
On the night of October 10, 2019, Santa Marta celebrated life. To close out the night, a DJ played romántica music from the eighties. “¡Qué viva Santa Marta!,” the DJ yells, while couples dance in each other’s arms.
*Translated by Max Granger