Refugees redefined


Molly Todd aims to introduce
El Salvador’s displaced into historical narratives neither as refugees, rebels or victims – but as protagonists


Beyond Displacement: Campesinos, Refugees, and Collective Action in the Salvadoran Civil War
Molly Todd
2011, University of Wisconsin Press
306 pages, plates

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

HISTORY, for refugees, becomes a resource to be preserved and protected at a time of war and instability, much like essential rations.

In a letter to the Honduran minister for public education in July 1987, refugees from El Salvador living in camps just across the countries’ shared border, respectfully attempted to turn down United Nations funds for their children’s education – and suggested that the monies be better spent among Honduran campesinos.

“As refugees,” the letter concluded, “we aspire to neither wealth nor privilege at the cost of the Honduran people, and our only desire is to return to a new El Salvador filled with peace and love.”

The letter was a response to concern among the Salvadoran refugees – who had fled political violence and the descent into civil war in the early 1980s – to a memorandum of understanding between the Honduran government and the UN about education in the camps, and in particular a decision to put education in the hands of Honduran teachers. It reveals a central theme running through Molly Todd’s Beyond Displacement about the ways in which displaced and dispossessed peasants define themselves, often in contradictory ways to the narratives that relief agencies and host countries construct about them.

Narrative challenge

Beyond Displacement seeks to challenge both the state-centric nature of studies of the Salvadoran civil war – in which the focus of explanations of the cause and resolution of the conflict has been almost exclusively on national governments, the military, the Frente Farabundo Martí para Liberación Nacional (FMLN, Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) and external actors such as the US – and the narratives that these tend to employ from which emerges a picture of rural dwellers – if they are visible at all – who lack control over their actions and are manipulated by others.

By contrast, this comprehensive study based on extensive interview and archival data seeks to introduce the displaced into the historical narrative neither as refugees per se nor as rebels or victims, but fundamentally as protagonists with a history of community organisation, civil action and interlocution with state and non-state actors who self-consciously construct and manage their own understanding of national identity and history. As Todd writes:

“Rural dwellers, when included in the picture, lack control over their own actions; they are instead manipulated by external forces: radical priests, communists, international organizations. More often than not, however, the rural population simply does not appear… Displaced populations have been further displaced from this historical record. Even studies that chronicle the repopulation of once-abandoned rural villages continue the same narrative of nonagency: they presume that the tools necessary for rebuilding society were not innate to rural folk.” [p. 5]

One explanation for this invisibility is the sheer scale of displacement that took place in the small Central American country during its civil war between the late 1970s and 1990s, combined with the limited academic focus on the country in comparison with larger neighbours. According to Todd, at least a fifth of El Salvador’s population was displaced by the fighting. She likens this in US comparative terms to the entire population of the states of California, New York and Minnesota.

Yet as the tension over refugee education reveals, displacement can deepen collective sensibilities and heighten political mobilisation, enhancing self-conscious identities and expanding the reach of interpretations of identity and nationalism beyond geographical boundaries.

The physical detachment of communities from their homes can enhance this phenomenon: public education in the Salvadoran refugee camps, for example, noted and addressed the prior lack of public education in rural areas at home, drawing attention to the failures of the state and the educational rights that citizens ought to have enjoyed. Illiteracy became a powerful motif of teaching, allowing refugees to understand that this was not a natural condition of the campesinos, but fostered by regressive forces in their homeland – imposed on rural inhabitants by the rich and powerful.

Todd’s conclusions offer valuable insights into the political and social perspectives that sustained the Salvadoran refugee communities, and complements a corpus of material on peasant mobilisation and protest, nation-state formation and democratisation from elsewhere in Central America, Mexico and Peru. Just as the peasantry is only “hypothetically isolated”, she concludes, the displaced are only hypothetically displaced – they remain political beings that make considered decisions and have histories.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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