It wasn’t until Kathryn Smith Pyle GrS’78 had been working in El Salvador for a couple of years that she began to hear unsettling references to that nation’s bloody civil war. Not that she was unaware of the subject. During the 1980s and early ’90s, while the war was going on, she had attended protests and organized meetings about the US government’s involvement in that and other Central American conflicts. But she was immersed in her work and family issues, and El Salvador gradually slipped off her radar.
Then, in 2001, after more than a decade in Brazil working for the Inter-American Foundation (a grant-making agency of the US Government), she decided to go to El Salvador and continue her grant work there. She saw it “as kind of a debt,” she says. “I felt like I should have done more there, but I really couldn’t, so this was a new opportunity.”
Pyle says she found herself initially impressed by “how much the country had moved on from the war,” which ended in 1992. “There was so much economic activity going on, small-scale, and that’s what I was funding. I was traveling around every corner of the country, visiting these small communities—cooperatives and farmers and women’s organizations doing crafts and all kinds of projects. It was really impressive to see this economic everything bubbling up, and the people all just seemed so focused on the future.”
Then one day Pyle went to evaluate a proposal for a community-training center in a rural area. Some walking was required.
“We walked past this little river, and there was a monument there with names on it,” she recalls. “I asked them what it was, and they told me that there had been a massacre there during the war, and hundreds of people, women and children mainly, had been killed by the army.
“Then I started asking around, and I learned that more than 150 massacres had been carried out during the war, and that that was still very present in people’s lives. So they were building monuments, and they were having annual commemorations on the dates of these massacres. And because it had never been fully resolved—the government never recognized that massacres had occurred, for example—the past was still very much present.”
She became fascinated by what is known as “transitional justice,” whose elements “are recognized as important to close that chapter and allow a country and a society to reconcile and really move forward.”
One of those elements is memorialization, which would include monuments and other commemorations. But there are living memories, too, including the hundreds, possibly thousands, of children who survived the massacres and were taken away by soldiers, says Pyle—“and, in the most egregious situations, turned over to their military bosses, who were in collusion with unscrupulous lawyers who were selling these kids abroad into adoption in the US and Europe.”
From that, a film was born: Niños de la Memoria (“Children of Memory”), which tells the story of the search for the children who disappeared during the war (www.ninosdelamemoria.com/). Made on a modest $500,000 budget, with considerable help from the Sundance Institute and other grant-making organizations, the film tells the stories of several El Salvadorans whose families were killed, and weaves together threads of search and discovery. It also probes the more universal issue of how post-war societies can repair the wounds of the past.
Pyle, whose interest in documentaries was sparked by a showing of Titicut Follies when she was working at the old Philadelphia State Hospital at Byberry and earning her doctorate in social work at Penn, was the film’s producer. She chose the director, María Teresa Rodriquez.
One of the biggest challenges for the filmmakers involved finding people willing to tell their stories and selecting the ones that looked the most promising for their purposes.
“We don’t have a family reunification in the film,” she notes. “So in terms of drama, it’s very subtle. There are some documentaries that are only about a reunification, and it’s very heartrending, and it just pulls you in.” She and Rodriquez “debated a lot about whether we should be going for that—which is kind of a magnet—or something more subtle and more political, in a way, to show what typically doesn’t happen, as a way of saying, ‘Here, this is a reality.’”
The war and its casualties constitute a “hidden history, a forgotten history, an unknown history,” says Pyle. And the secrecy extended to segments of Salvadoran society as well.
“Within El Salvador, the woman who had been working as the lawyer for Pro-Búsqueda—the nonprofit organization that searches for children—grew up in San Salvador in an upper-middle-class family. She said that while she was growing up, she didn’t know anything about what was happening in the countryside. There were some ‘little battles’ out there going on. That was all she knew because the newspapers were controlled by the government and the powerful elite.”
At one point in the film, Margarita Zamora, an investigator for Pro-Búsqueda, is seen looking at a newspaper article. “It reported on the massacre where her mother was probably murdered and her four siblings probably taken from the battlefield by soldiers—and she’s hoping that they’re alive somewhere,” Pyle explains. “She’s looking at this newspaper article that was the official report, and it was called a ‘battle’—the army went in to clear this area of supporters, and there was a ‘battle.’ No reference at all to what actually happened.”
Niños de la Memoria also follows Margarita as she tries to help Jamie Harvey, a Salvadoran who had been adopted by an American family in 1980. But because they can’t examine the Salvadoran military archives—which may or may not still exist—there is little hope of finding her birth family, despite DNA testing. Pyle describes Harvey as “kind of a guide to the North American audience, because she goes there knowing nothing about El Salvador, the war, her own family roots, even though she was adopted from El Salvador. Filming her was a process of watching somebody be confronted with a difficult history.”
The film’s third thread follows Salvador García, a farmer in rural Usulután who discovered the bodies of his wife and three children after they were killed by the army in 1981. But he never found his daughter Cristabel, and though he has remarried, he can’t stop wondering what happened to her. For many, the truth of the past remains elusive.
“Truth is a huge piece of anything moving forward,” says Pyle. “There was a Truth Commission in El Salvador, but the amnesty law [for those who committed the massacres] was declared days after the Truth Commission report was issued. That gives you a sense of what the government and the ruling community in El Salvador thought of the Truth Commission.”
But it turned out that the amnesty law “covered everything except kidnappings, because the government at that time wanted to reserve the right to prosecute former guerillas for kidnapping businesspeople and other people during the war for ransom,” Pyle notes. “By leaving that out of the amnesty, Pro-Búsqueda was able to [bring] the cases of the kidnapped children before the Inter-American Human Rights Court.”
Then, in 2009, Mauricio Funes, the candidate of the left-leaning Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), was elected president.
“One of the exciting things about making a documentary film is you don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Pyle. “And I would never have predicted that the FMLN was going to win the presidency because they have been trying since 1992. [Funes] appointed a government search commission and has empowered that commission to do the investigation,” along with the nonprofit Pro-Búsqueda.
García, Harvey, Zamora, and others in the film attended the premiere of Niños de la Memoria at the Ambulante Film Festival in San Salvador this past May (the same month it was screened at International House at Penn). Pyle called it a “tremendous experience” for all involved.
“Ambulante selected Niños de la Memoria to be the press-conference film, which meant that all the major press, television, online media were there,” she says. “There are three major publications in El Salvador—one very right-wing, one sort of to the right, and one very left—and we had stories in all of them.” She was pleasantly surprised by the one in the right-wing paper. “It was a wonderful interview and a really good article. The reporter was very skilled and didn’t slant it one way or another.”
Discussions took place after each screening, and the film team signed a two-year agreement with a public-television station in El Salvador to show the film and to “bring people in for interviews before and after the screening,” she adds. “Our main aim with the film is to promote debate and dialogue among the US and Salvadoran communities.”
In the US, Niños de la Memoria won a prize at the Latin American Studies Association Conference in San Francisco, and Pyle says the film will be aired on public television sometime this year.
“It is a little piece of reconciliation that they can feel, and they can see,” says Pyle. “And it validates their experience in a way that nothing else has. We see it as a contribution to things that are already happening and things that can happen in the future.” —S.H.