Educational Activism: Resistance Through Teaching During El Salvador’s Civil War

By: Amara Overmyer

Dr. Stephanie Huezo of Fordham’s History department is focusing her current research on tracing community-based popular education during revolutions, specifically the Salvadorean Civil War, and immigration activism in the United States. Her goal is to understand how Salvadoreans organized to resist state oppression during the country’s civil war and the way that that resistance was reflected in the United States through immigrant activist work. She began researching her current work in 2015 but had been exploring the history of organization in El Salvador two years prior, in 2013. Huezo’s interest stems from her personal connection to El Salvador, her family’s country of origin. She identifies as Salvadorean and hopes to learn more about her own culture by delving into the more obscure history of the country. She was not exposed to these lesser-known aspects of Salvadorean history until college, where she learned about the Salvadorean Civil War for the first time. Inspired by the stories of activists during the War, she began her more detailed research and turned it into the project it is today. 

The Salvadorean Civil War started in 1980 and ended in 1992. Schools were shut down in rural El Salvador, where Dr. Huezo’s family is from, during the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the war entered its initial stages. The absence of schooling left Salvadorean children without any form of formal education. The residents of these rural areas were also faced with the danger of constant bombings, often resorting to fleeing the scorched earth strategy followed by the Armed Forces of El Salvador to eradicate insurgency in the countryside by targeting civilians. Due to this massive displacement, most rural communities lacked the structure to educate children and adults. According to Huezo, the literacy rates among these communities ranged from 40–60% during the late ’70s and early ’80s. The professor describes her work as “a project of political consciousness and class consciousness” in that it revolves around understanding the root causes of Salvadorean poverty in wartime as well as the process used to teach children and adults how to read and write. She is interested in investigating how underground teachers in El Salvador used their ideas of liberation to teach people how to read and write and envision a new society after the revolution was won. Huezo makes a distinction between her use of the word teachers and what these people were at the time; called maestras populares (popular teachers), they were “just people living in these communities who knew a little bit more about reading and writing” than other members of the population. This teaching was a subversive operation during the War, so when military forces entered a town, they were forced to conceal their workbooks. 

When Huezo began officially researching in 2015, she found herself most intrigued by immigrant worker Pablo Alvarado, who worked as a literacy teacher in El Salvador. He now lives in Los Angeles and is a director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which works predominantly with undocumented Latin American immigrants in the labor market. His story sparked Huezo’s interest because many of the adults he now works with came from a time and place in which they could not receive schooling. Huezo notes that while the low literacy levels in these particular immigrant communities mostly make it difficult for undocumented people to navigate the legality of their U.S. residency, it also heavily impacts their day-to-day survival. Alvarado is using his knowledge of literacy to implement change in the U.S. through education. Dr. Huezo sees Alvarado’s activism as decolonizing; it challenges the hegemonic idea that modernization “flows from North to South.” In other words, the United States as we know it has long considered itself to be the “teacher,” whereas Latin American countries are expected to be the “students.” In her research, Huezo explores the way that Alvarado contradicts that idea by taking his experiences from the Global South and bringing them to the U.S., effectively changing the labor movement and the lives of immigrants today.

Huezo’s process has recently been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which bars her from traveling to El Salvador and out-of-state archives and conducting in-person research. To remedy this, most of her current research is taking place online, which, while limiting, has not stopped her journey. She also encountered difficulties acquiring the original books used by Salvadorean educators because so many were buried, hidden, or destroyed by soldiers. Many books were simply lost with the passage of time. In order to overcome this barrier of lost information, Huezo has turned to oral histories, now relying on information that has been passed down verbally to capture these moments. This includes interviews with teachers and people who were active during the war.

This research is crucial to our understanding of Latin American influence on the United States, when so often it is overlooked in favor of the idea that U.S. influence moves downwards to the Global South. Huezo plans to write her first book about her findings during this project, making known the untold truths of El Salvador’s civil war, the plight of uneducated laborers struggling to make a life in the U.S., and the activists at the forefront of the labor movement. Huezo is an advocate of self-discovery, especially regarding personal history and cultural background, and encourages all to learn about themselves this way. As she enters her first year of teaching at Fordham University, Dr. Huezo is sure to inspire students with her connections to her culture through research and dedication to education and activism.

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