“Why is it worth it to continue?,” Patricia Garcia, President of CoMadres in El Salvador, is asked. Paty responds as a survivor of abduction, rape, and torture. She speaks as someone who had to flee from the threat of death even as a child, and as the citizen of a nation still bearing the wounds of horrific violence; someone who has lost family, friends, and fellow members of her community along the way. Yet there is more to her story. From her tender years she was also nurtured in a different way of life, a path of fidelity and love, and she grew to become a key leader in an unquenchable movement for justice and healing in her beautiful and broken land.
In this gentle and powerful interview, Paty humbly reveals key elements in the journey of trauma healing, for the individual and for a people together. These include:
The Freedom to Mourn
Welcoming a “Third Factor”
Acting to Break the Cycle of Violence
Manifesting Psychosocial Hope
Additionally I want to suggest that Paty and CoMadres incarnate the radical meaning of true forgiveness in the face of impunity.
But first, some essential background.
The Advent of CoMadres
In February of 1988, on my first visit to El Salvador as a United Church of Christ Mission Partner, my colleagues and I attended a Sunday worship service at the downtown cathedral in San Salvador, where the body of martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero was buried in one of the transepts. Standing in the midst of a large crowd, I felt a tug on my sleeve. A diminutive woman quietly asked me if I was a North American. When I replied that I was, she placed a folded piece of paper in my hand: “Please take this with you.” She smiled at me and departed. I opened the paper and found on it a list chronicling the murders and disappearances perpetrated by the government “security forces” during the previous month. I had been humbly entrusted with sharing these truths when I returned home.
The Committee of Mothers (CoMadres) in El Salvador was formed in the late 1970’s and included family members of those who had been disappeared, assassinated, and imprisoned by the armed forces, police, civil defense, and the escuadrones de muerte (death squads). For some time, organized movements to improve situations in work and daily living in El Salvador– among campesinos, students, laborers, and people of faith– had been met with violent repression. Government forces viciously attacked demonstrators. Those labeled as “subversives” were subject to extrajudicial imprisonment and assassination. Citizens were abducted from buses, workplaces, and homes. Each morning bodies, often bearing signs of torture, were left in the street or at notorious body dumps like El Playon and Puerta del Diablo as a warning to others. Many of those taken were never seen alive again.
Mothers of victims went to Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero for pastoral guidance and received encouragement to join together. The Mothers tirelessly searched for the captured and disappeared, interceded for those they found incarcerated, held public witnesses and demonstrations, documented human rights abuses, and educated people about the Salvadoran reality. Along the way they, too, became targets, and over the years several dozen of the mothers were abducted and at least five were assassinated. Their encourager, Monsenor Romero, was killed by a death squad while officiating at a mass in 1980. At his funeral, solders opened fire on mourners, slaying 42.
A civil war lasting twelve years erupted in 1980. More than 75,000 people died. There was a negotiated end to the war in 1992, resulting in more political space and leading to reformation in the army and the establishment of a civilian police force. But there was little accountability for the widespread atrocities of the era and their sustained impact on a people. A United Nations Truth Commission in 1993 documented gross violations of human rights during the previous years, overwhelmingly committed by forces linked to the government. However, the Salvadoran congress quickly passed an amnesty law shielding offenders from prosecution. The people were expected to “forgive and forget.” There was to be an enforced amnesia, in essence, the legal prohibition of any authentic healing and reconciliation process. This meant the compounding of trauma for those who has already suffered terrible losses.
In the face of this injustice, CoMadres continued their work. They kept receiving testimonies, eventually documenting thousands of forced disappearances. They demanded that the government take public responsibility for actions like those outlined in the Truth Commission report. They sought the establishment of a registry of victims and the development of public sites of remembrance. They advocated for reparations for victimized families. And they taught nonviolent peacemaking skills to schoolchildren.
Patricia Garcia, whom you can see and hear in the posted video interview, was a recent president of CoMadres until her death from cancer in 2014 at the age of 47. Paty became a part of CoMadres when she was quite young. She grew up in the San Antonio Abad neighborhood of San Salvador, from which there was considerable resistance to the country’s unjust feudal order. The Catholic base communities were instrumental in empowering people of faith to gospel witness in the face of injustice. A member of the Catholic parish there, Paty was twelve years old when Archbishop Romero, still relatively new, visited the community and reprimanded the people: “I am here because you are confusing the gospel and violence. Rumor has it that you are storing weapons.” Paty reported standing up and saying,”Look here, Mr. Priest, I have something to say to you. You tell us not to combine weapons with the gospel. Well (and I picked up my little bag), I want you to look in here and tell me if I have a weapon.” Romero apologized and as he left touched her head, saying, “I want you to prepare yourself well.” (Mackey, A Life Committed)
Within the next year, Paty had to flee to exile in Mexico with family when government repression fell heavily upon her community. Twenty five youth from her neighborhood were taken by the military. Upon her return, Romero encouraged her participation with CoMadres. Paty cared for younger children of the members, received testimonies, and over time accompanied her mother Alicia Garcia in the search for missing loved ones, including her uncle. When she was sixteen, she was abducted and warned to discontinue her activities. In 1990, when she was 24, she was taken off the street, forced into an army vehicle, and held for twenty one days during which she was interrogated, tortured, and raped repeatedly by soldiers. The intervention of U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy helped to save her life. Eventually, she followed her mother Alicia as president of CoMadres.
The unholy “forgive and forget” mandate has been revealed for its counterfeit nature, as Paty and CoMadres have incarnated the radical meaning of true forgiveness in the face of impunity. As stated before, the interview begins with an essential question: “Why is it worth it to continue?” My trauma healing professor, Al Fuertes, asks the same question this way: “Why are you still here?” ( It is worth noting that the question is paired with another essential one: What are the most important things in life?)
Paty’s testimony speaks more powerfully than anything I could write. Still she inspires me to identify key elements of hope and healing that can encourage future generations of God’s beloved.
To “re-member” is to re-unite, to bring together (even make whole) that which has been dis-membered. When the mothers of the disappeared and assassinated first went to Archbishop Romero for pastoral care, he counseled them with a startling commission: “You must struggle to make your children re-appear.” He was encouraging them to join together in their grief and love saying: “Re-member your children. Give testimony to the meaning of their lives, to God’s immeasurable love for them, and to your own. Embody the beloved community to which they belong.”
In El Salvador (and in other countries like Argentina and Chile) the intent of such violence and traumatization was calculated. It was meant to destroy or paralyze any opposition. What the perpetrators did not count on was the deep need of parents to mourn and to care for their dead children. “It as at this intersection of the political and domestic domain that parental trust and protection became mobilized.” (Robben, in Robben and Suarez-Orozco, 2000, p.71)
The mothers, in their humble and steadfast witness, invoked the ongoing presence of their children and gave fuller expression to the family of God in the face of the repression. The woman who tugged on my sleeve in the cathedral was committed to the principle that no one is disposable, and that amnesia enforced at the barrel a gun would not prevail. Because the worst of their brutality failed to prevent resurrection of the truth, the amnesty following the war then attempted to legally obliterate it. Victims like Paty would be expected to carry the burden of “moving on,” while the forces of destruction would be held to no accountability. But their witness is an antidote to the amnesia.
I think of this as “re-memberment.” She reconstructs a life narrative that includes not only the traumatic events but the life that preceded it, and now, the survivor’s response (“We are still alive!”). Broken and missing pieces are recovered. This is true not only for individuals but also communities.
In the wake of Jesus’ crucifixion and the traumatization of his community of followers, the Resurrected One commissioned them: “Re-member me.”
Judith Herman calls truth-telling “a restorative practice.” Testimony is critical; it is a “ritual of healing.” Giving voice. The person tells the story of the trauma “completely, in depth and in detail. The work of reconstruction actually transforms the traumatic memory, so that it can be integrated in the survivors life story.”
In the interview, you hear Paty emphasize, “We’ve always fought for the truth.” The truth includes all that happened to the loved ones at the hands of government forces, and the whereabouts of those who have been disappeared. These painful details are part of the larger story. The truth that Paty demands also includes
respect for and the dignity of all people: “We have always demanded respect for life and to be respected as women.”
So CoMadres not only demanded truth–they enacted truth , becoming evidence of another reality. Their commitment has been both a protest and a call to accountability. It is individual and collective. Watch and listen as Paty reflects: “After the war, nothing is the same.” Her silence that follows is narrative as well.
“Every person tortured is one more proof of what has happened here” And also living proof of something more. They are the first-fruits of that alternative future.
3) The Freedom to Mourn:
There are a couple of very poignant moments where Paty pauses to mourn openly.
“Reclaiming the ability to feel a full range of emotions, including grief, must be understood as an act of resistance rather than submission to the perpetrator’s intent. Only through mourning everything she has lost can she discover her indestructible inner life.” (Herman, p. 188)
4) Welcoming a “Third Factor:”
Paty invokes God’s presence and power remarkably and repeatedly. “Every time I made it through being tortured, I said, “Thank God, I made it!” And: “The truth is, we are alive, thanks to God. God gives us life, he protects us.”
Her faith is an indispensable source of strength; she perceives God as the transcendent power who works to liberate her from enslavement to fear and to deliver her (and the people of El Salvador) to new life. She is freed to interpret the meaning of her life and the life of the movement in terms of promise and deliverance. This is what Eileen Borris calls the often “triadic nature” of forgiveness.
4) Breaking the Cycle of Violence:
This is one of the core characteristics of what is called forgiveness.
The Salvadoran government’s version of “healing” has commanded victims to “Excuse and Forget.” But for-giveness involves neither excusing or forgetting! Rather the forces of death will not be allowed to recast the past nor to author the future. The Co-Madres are an assertive break in a murderous cycle perpetuated for decades. Honoring of the children and of God-given life. Mourning. Imagine if,in the wake of 9/11, America had mourned instead of rushing to vengeance. Imagine if America might have been an alternative to terror.
“After war, nothing is the same.”
5) Manifesting Psycho-Social Hope:
Flora Keshgegian writes: “The authenticity and effectiveness of Christian witness is to be measured by the capacity of the Christian story to be faithful to those victimized. In other words, the truth of the Christian story is manifest in whether and how it makes a difference to those who have suffered. Adequate witness is tested by the ability to hold together the experiences of suffering, survival, and life connection. Together, these make up the tapestry of life. The type of remembrance that reveals redemption is a faithful witness to the complexities of suffering and survival, life connection and wholeness, shown to us in Jesus Christ. Such remembrance is being revealed today through the struggle for life of all those who suffer from violence and oppression.”
Paty states:”It is important for people in other cultures, for future generations who continue to grow, to know everything that has happened here so that it does not happen again.”
Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and Recovery. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Keshgegian, Flora A. (2000). Redeeming Memories. Nashville, TN: Abingdon.