Latinas in the U.S. come from a long line of influential, barrier-breaking, rebel Latin American women. Through Remezcla’s Herstory series, we introduce readers to the women warriors and pioneers whose legacies we carry on.
It’s difficult to be a woman in El Salvador. Despite its history of strong and liberated women, El Salvador has one of the highest femicide rates in the world. Meanwhile, the country’s strict abortion ban has led to women, who have either undergone abortions or simply suffered miscarriages, to serve long periods of prison time — of up to 40 years. All these factors, plus the threat of gang violence, are turning women to commit suicide and sending masses northbound to find a better life.
While the outlook seems grim, history shows that Salvadoran women have faced their dark circumstances to light beacons of hope. In this installment of our Herstory series, we look at the women who survived war, colonial rule, dictatorships and other bleak episodes in Salvadoran history to create change. They led guerrilla groups, defied abortion laws, laughed in the face of the patriarchal restrictions of their times and championed the rights of women. Often erased from history, these women are today heroines.
María Feliciana de los Ángeles Miranda
María Feliciana de los Ángeles Miranda is one of the most recognizable female leaders of Salvadoran history. Following the first cry of independence on November 5, 1811, she and her sister Miranda disseminated the news that an uprising against Spanish rule had begun. After taking siege of Sensuntepeque’s barracks and main square, María Feliciana and other revolutionary leaders were arrested. The 27-year-old died as she took her punishment of lashes. In 1976, the government recognized María Feliciana as a national hero.
Antonia Navarro Huezo
At the young age of 19, Antonia Navarro Huezo became the first woman to graduate from a PhD program in El Salvador and Central America in 1889. Navarro, who grew up in a family of intellectuals, applied to the University of El Salvador in 1886. After she successfully defended her thesis on the illusions of the harvest moon for 10 hours, Navarro was celebrated worldwide for her discovery and by the president. Despite her achievements, Navarro was restricted from practicing her profession and teaching at the university.
Two decades before all Salvadoran women won the right to vote, Prudencia Ayala, an Indigenous single mother, ran for president in 1930, sparking national debate over women’s political participation. She was the first female presidential candidate in El Salvador and in Latin America. Ayala’s platform called for women’s rights, support for unions, free expression, honor and the restriction of the use of firearms in Congress, among other points. Critics dismissed her as “crazy.” Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that women could not run for office. Ayala accepted the decision, but in an open letter, defended her choice to run, saying she had only intended to defend the rights of women.
On January 22, 1932, the Salvadoran people revolted against the rich in a popular uprising that called for sweeping labor and agrarian reforms. One of the leaders was Julia Mojica, who commanded troops in Sónzocate. Not much is known about Mojica, but she is remembered as a hero who died in the fight for workers’ dignity and equality. In response, the National Guard, following executive orders, massacred more than 10,000 people.
Matilde Elena López
A Salvadoran poet, essayist and playwright, Matilde Elena Lopez openly challenged the dictatorship of Maximilian Hernández Martínez with fiercely critical publications in prominent newspapers and magazines of the day. She joined the League of Anti-Fascist Writers, a movement of leftist young writers in El Salvador. She is also remembered for opening the doors for subsequent generations of female writers at a time when men dominated the world of literature. Prominent works include Masferrer, alto pensador de Centro América, Cartas a Grosa and La balada de Anastasio Aquino.
Mélida Anaya Montes
In 1970, Mélida Anaya Montes co-founded the Fuerzas Populares de Liberación (FPL), the first guerrilla group in El Salvador that would go on to form the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Before she adopted the pseudonym Commander Ana María and fought as second-in-command, Mélida was an educator at a teacher’s school and later organized teachers’ strikes across the country. As the Sandanista Revolution ignited in neighboring Nicaragua, the rebel fighter moved there in 1980. Three years later, she was murdered on the streets of Managua, the Central American country’s capital city.
Marianella García Villas
Marianella García Villas, a lawyer and politician, served as representative or the left-of-center Christian Democractic Party from 1974 to 1976 before she resigned to found the first independent human rights commission in the country. García documented 3,200 forced disappearances, 43,337 murders and more than 700 imprisonments of political dissidents over the course of three years. After living in Mexico to escape death threats, García returned to El Salvador in 1983, where she was captured, tortured and executed by the military.
María Ofelia Navarrete
In 1981, as the FPL took over rural towns and cities, the rebel group founded the Popular Local Powers (PPL), an organization intended to establish new forms of local government that directly challenged the state violence of the day. María Ofelia Navarrete served as the first president of the PPL. María Ofelia, known by her nom de guerre María Chichilco, would also lead guerrilla forces of the FPL as commander. Following the 1992 peace accords, María Ofelia became part of the first group of ex-combatants to transition to life as legislators. She currently serves as minister of local development under President Nayib Bukele.
María Teresa Tula
When municipal police disappeared María Teresa Tula’s husband in 1980, the long-time activist joined the Committee of Mothers and Relatives of Prisoners, the Disappeared and the Politically Assassinated (COMADRES), an organization founded by the late Archbishop Oscar Romero, full time. Despite the dangers, COMADRES would visit dumps to photograph the corpses of the disappeared. The political activist eventually fled to Mexico, traveled to Europe — where she developed her feminist ideology — and returned to El Salvador in 1986, where she was tortured and raped. In 1994, she finally found political asylum in the United States and continued her activism with a sister organization.
In December 1981, Rufina Amaya lost her husband, son and three daughters during the El Mozote Massacre, one of the most bloody episodes of state violence in Salvadoran history. As the sole survivor, her testimony was crucial in spreading the news of the Army-led attack that resulted in more than 800 civilians killed. Reports in The New York Times and the Washington Post, both questioned by the U.S. and Salvadoran governments, cited Amaya as a witness. A United Nations-sanctioned investigation that followed the 1992 peace accords confirmed a massacre took place in the village of El Mozote, but those responsible went unpunished.