Antonio is a former member of the El Salvadoran Bahá'í community. He now lives in Los Angeles as do over 300,000 Salvadoran refugees from his war-torn country. Antonio is a poet and is active in Central American affairs. Because of the continuing danger presented to Central American refugees and their family and friends back home, Antonio’s true name, the names of his friends, and that of his literary circle have been changed or withheld. In July of this year, death squads made their presence felt for the first time in the United States and have threatened members of the Central American refugee community of Los Angeles.
What was your life like in El Salvador?
Antonio: I come from an agricultural area in the central province of El Salvador. Custacan, a small town. I have very beautiful memories of that town and my youth. Later, we moved to San Salvador, to a little farm that was very close to the downtown area. We have a large family; I have six sisters and five brothers. It was just beautiful to be living on this little farm. I helped my father with the agriculture, picking fruits. I remember going in the mornings to pick up the mangoes that would fall. Just beautiful memories of that time. Our family was Catholic; a very strict, conservative, and orthodox Catholic family. I remember there was a period of time in the family that almost every night we’d say the rosary over and over and over and over. I managed to get a little pillow because we would be kneeling. I remember going to church, and there was the solemnity of Catholicism. They almost made me believe that Jesus Christ would be alive in the church, and so I kept a close watch on the altar. They also made us pay much reverence there, especially to the archbishop.
dialogue: How did you become interested in writing?
Antonio: My grandfather on my father’s side left some things to his family. Among them, he left some books that my father got. Father didn’t pay attention to them, so I grabbed them. I must have been about 10 years old at the time. I was lucky because they were beautiful books of literature and biographies of great persons, such as Simon Bolivar and all the people who fought for the independence of Latin America. And there were also biographies of different world leaders like Lenin. So, I knew about Lenin. I became fascinated with the life of Vladimir Lenin. You see, in South America they have excellent publishing houses and they pay attention to culture, particularly in Buenos Aires and in Chile. I got hold of some of these books and then I started writing little things. I was lucky that one of the first persons I met in San Salvador was a poet. To most people he was just a drunkard, but, for me, he was a poet. He was published in the papers, and I kept a book of all his poetry that came out in the papers. He was sponsored by a Nicaraguan intellectual. We became acquaintances, friends, and then I met his brother and their friends, artists and poets. In 1970, I gave some of my poems to my friends. They published them and introduced me to the intellectual community in San Salvador. That was the beginning of my literary activity.
dialogue: Was it difficult for intellectuals to meet and circulate in El Salvador?
Antonio: Very much so. We had to form small groups out of fear. Usually five members. We formed a group, a literary group called The Green Tangerine. Our leader, Augusto, was killed in a café in 1980. He was sitting inside a café and a death squad came and killed him. He was the brother of an attorney and colonel of the National Guard. I had a lot of friends among the Salvadoran intellectuals, novelists and others. Now they are all working in the Salvadoran struggle, the revolution.
dialogue: How did you learn about the Bahá'í Faith?
Antonio: I went to a fair. It was located in a very rich, posh place. Colonia San Benito, a residential area of San Salvador. It’s a little Beverly Hills in San Salvador. Huge houses, huge walls, and they have guards everywhere. So, this fair was located there. It was 1969. I was looking at the different booths and came across this impressive booth with pictures of buildings. I asked some questions. I was captivated by the architecture of the Bahá'í buildings; their shapes, the nine entrances and nine doors. I liked the people and decided to attend some of the meetings at the Bahá'í Center. Immediately, I met a lot of American Bahá'ís in El Salvador, pioneers who were living there. And, of course, many Salvadoran Bahá'ís. I got to know some of the Bahá'ís in San Salvador. Some were working for the Peace Corps, others were at the British bank. One American pioneer was the president and chairman of the U.S. cultural center in San Salvador. My friends asked me, “Aren’t these guys CIA?” They were so suspicious! “Look at their affiliations Look at the places they work,” they said. Another American pioneer worked for the Agency for International Development. Her office was just in front of the U.S. Embassy. My friends kept questioning me about the foreign Bahá'ís. I gave up. I said, “Who knows?”
dialogue: What Bahá'í teachings attracted you? Why did you become a Bahá'í?
Antonio: It was the concept of unity; unity among the religions. I think that if Bahá'í has a special quality it’s that quality of introducing other religions to those who may have had little or no exposure to the world religions. I knew a little about Buddhism, but I had never really been exposed to other religions. The Bahá'í Faith introduces you to the history and beliefs of the different religions by comparing the different teachings and theologies. And I remember the drawings used to explain the teachings. They were very clear and compelling. The lamp, for example, to explain the concept of unity among religions and prophets. One light, many lamps. Bahá'u'lláh is not just the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, but he is fulfilling a prophecy. Also, the concept of universal education, world government; all those things. Yes! They could be achieved. Why not. Let’s have that!
dialogue: Was it hard for you, as a Catholic, to change your religious affiliation?
Antonio: No, because the clergy, the Catholic clergy, they take for granted that you belong to the Catholic religion and that you cannot quit Catholicism.
dialogue: But in your own mind, was it difficult to become a Bahá'í?
Antonio: No, it was not difficult, because in those days the church didn’t offer very much. Now, the situation has changed. They offer a different interpretation of the social reality. Catholicism now speaks of liberation and grassroots organization of the poor, this has attracted a lot of Salvadorans.
dialogue: But back in 1969, when you became a Bahá'í, was that type of Christianity being practiced?
Antonio: Not really. It was just beginning, but on a small scale. Not like in the ‘70s when it blossomed all over the country and there was a lot of participation. But back then, for me, the Bahá'í Faith was something new. I learned more about the teachings of the Bahá'í Faith. I think there are concepts of social justice that I—there is a sympathy in the writings of Bahá'u'lláh and ‘Abdu'l-Bahá that caught my attention, that I was impressed with. But also, there was a problem. On one hand, I attended the Bahá'í meetings and I went home to my family life, but I also saw the poverty of El Salvador, the social injustice in El Salvador. And my friends, the poets and artists, they were all leaning toward Marxism. They were the ones who inclined me to Marxism, the poets. So, I had this dilemma here, because there was this visionary ideal that I had from the Bahá'í Faith and there was the social reality of El Salvador. There was an ongoing struggle for me because of this situation as a Salvadoran Bahá'í.
dialogue: What was the Bahá'í community of El Salvador like? What was the economic background of the Bahá'ís and were there many indigenous Bahá'ís?
Antonio: I can speak of the time I was a Bahá'í in El Salvador and my recollections of that period. There was a cross section of all classes. Upper classes, some peasants, a lot of peasants. I remember that after I became an active member, we used to go on occasional trips into little towns, travel teaching. There was one woman, Susan was her name. she bought a land rover, so it would be possible to go out to this small town. The mayor was a Bahá'í and so were his family. The people were very receptive to the Bahá'í teachings. In the cities, you had students and all kinds of people represented in the Bahá'í community.
dialogue: Were the Bahá'ís well integrated? Were Bahá'ís from different class backgrounds friends with each other?
Antonio: Oh yes; the social interaction, yes. It’s more than friendship, it’s a union. People are so connected with each other in the Bahá'í Faith. Rather than a spiritual service going on, it was like a party happening. I remember the spiritual assembly, the feast, with its three parts. The social part allowed you to know your fellow Bahá'ís. So, there was a close relationship. No one would be isolated from the rest because he was a peasant. There was a real sense of brotherhood among the Bahá'ís.
dialogue: How long were you active as a Bahá'í?
Antonio: I would say about four years. In 1971, I attended a large conference in Panama for the dedication of the Bahá'í House of Worship there. We went through all of Central America to Panama. When I returned to San Salvador, I became an employee at the Bahá'í Center, on staff. I was in charge of developing and running the newsletter. I would send the newsletter out to all the Bahá'ís. There were so many beautiful people there.
dialogue: During this time, were you having an inner struggle as a Bahá'í?
Antonio: Yes. I was getting better acquainted with my friends. And in 1972 the situation in El Salvador started to get worse. [See Phillip Berryman’s article in this issue for background on the rise of militant opposition in El Salvador.]
dialogue: What was it like at that time for you, caught between all these forces?
Antonio: In San Salvador, there was the daily tragedy of the drunkards. Every where you walked there would be a drunkard lying in the street in a very horrible condition. People without land to work and no place to go. I would pass by the beautiful churches and wonder how much money it took to build them. I thought to myself, “No, don’t build churches, use the money to help the poor and feed the people.” As I got closer to my Marxists friends, they told me that there is another way to change reality. Revolution. It was very difficult for me as a Bahá'í under these circumstances. To watch my government, with the help of the United States government, make war on its own population. My friends were hard core Marxist-Leninists. Up to the point of dying. A few of them took up arms. I probably would have done the same, but my health was not so good. I have always been in poor health. I don’t know why, but that’s the case. At the time I left El Salvador, there were only two options: either exile or the hills. And I was not physically fit for the life in the hills. I knew what that life was like. You give up your own life, and you give your life to the struggle for liberation. There is no more Antonio. Antonio is giving everything to the struggle for liberation. It is a very harsh life. Forget about regular hours; forget about food. I mean, a lot of sacrifices. I was not fit for that. Ideologically, I was ready, but physically I was not. So when my father presented me with the opportunity to come to the United States, I took the option of exile.
dialogue: Was your life in danger?
Antonio: I believe that if I had stayed in the country and not gone into the hills, I would be dead today. Three members of our literary group have been killed by death squads. I was not part of any revolutionary group, although I did participate in some demonstrations and rallies. But it was my participation in the literary group that would have gotten me in trouble.
dialogue: Some analysts have posited that the purpose of death squads is to destroy every kind of organization, whether it’s a revolutionary group or not.
Antonio: Yes, that is close to it. The death squads kill at random sometimes, but they also select their targets carefully. When they identify someone who is an enemy, they go after them and kill them. with the help of the U.S. government, they work to identify who the leaders are in every single organization they possible can, in the human rights groups and the labor unions especially. I’ve been told that my name is now on the death lists. My understanding of how I got onto that list is that it was a result of my activities here in the United States. My participation in the Salavdoran struggle has been mainly here. I speak out loudly on the situation in Central America and I was a member of several solidarity committees here. I was also a founder of one of the refugee committees and I have published two pieces in The New York Times. That has called some attention to me (laughter).
dialogue: What was it that changed for you and led you to withdraw from the Faith?
Antonio: Well, my friends knew that I was a Bahá'í, and they were telling me that it was okay, that they respected my beliefs, but that I should look at their books. They gave me a book on Marxist-Leninist philosophy. I was living at the Bahá'í Center at this time. So, there I was, one night, in my room at the Bahá'í Center reading this book. I believe it was Elementary Principles of Philosophy by a French Marxist. I can’t remember his name. But the book was unsettling. It set out a materialist conception of our social and economic reality and was very persuasive in demonstrating how we humans created God and not vice-versa.
dialogue: And the Marxist philosophy that man created God made sense to you?
Antonio: Yes. It made sense because of the way they explained it. That night in the Bahá'í Center I said good-bye to my idea of God. It was very emotional for me because, since then, I have had problems working out my personal beliefs. After being so very religious, then this. It was a horrible night for me. I was living at the Bahá'í Center and reading this book. And so, about a week later I said good-bye to all of it. I left the Bahá'í Center. How could I believe in the Bahá'í Faith? How could I? I remain a friend of Bahá'í, but I could no longer believe in it.
dialogue: Did you talk with the Bahá'ís about all this?
Antonio: Yes. We had discussions. I remember at some firesides, drinking tea and coffee, we talked and talked and talked and talked. Lengthy discussions. There were knowledgeable Bahá'ís there, but they didn’t give me the answers.
dialogue: How did they respond to your doubts and questions?
Antonio: Always the reference was to go and read something in the Bahá'í writings, particularly the writings of Shoghi Effendi. I was told that it was just a matter of time until things would change. There would be a time of peace and justice, not just in El Salvador, but in all the world. The idea was to look forward to the fulfillment of all the Bahá'í teachings. In the end, there would be a better distribution of wealth, there would be a social change, there would be a spiritual transformation and everything would change. The economic system, everything.
dialogue: What changed for you?
Antonio: Let me put it this way: In the very beginning, I was very impressed, very devoted, a true believer and everything. But, as I was getting closer to Marxist teachings, I saw in them a more practical means for working for social change. Not only in El Salvador but throughout Latin America. I felt there was a need for social revolution to create a new reality.
dialogue: Was it your growing commitment to creating a new order that led you to leave the Faith?
Antonio: Yes. That’s correct. I was always looking for something that would improve my mind and my country’s culture. I was always looking for something that would give answers to the social problems in Latin America. And that’s why I liked the Bahá'í Faith. But, as time went by, I thought, “No, it doesn’t meet the requirements; that it is just ideals and that it doesn’t bring about practical changes.” I awakened to that reality and I figured, “Well, there are spiritual people here, but there is this vast majority of people in El Salvador—peasants, illiterate and impoverished—and all these other social ills. There was the economic destruction of El Salvador. And, because I felt the need to get involved in something that would really make a difference, that’s why I left the Faith.
dialogue: Did you feel the Bahá'ís could have been doing more in El Salvador?
Antonio: That’s difficult to answer. All the Bahá'ís I met were committed to the Bahá'í Faith. But, I can tell you something. They were separated, in a sense, from the social reality of El Salvador. They would accommodate the reality of El Salvador to the Bahá'í Faith and think in terms of the future. They would always emphasize making a spiritual change but not deal with the need for an economic change. And then, in 1972, General Arturo Molina came to power, you see, and the government has become oppressive and oppressive and oppressive. [For more on Molina’s activities, see Berryman’s article, pp. 24-25.] The Bahá'ís didn’t deal with this. I mean, they were not for social change in El Salvador.
dialogue: You mentioned that when you were younger the Catholic Church seemed to be more on the side of the rich than the poor, but that in the 1970s there was a change in the Catholic Church with the rise of the Christian base communities. Do you think the Bahá'ís could have undergone a similar change?
Antonio: Oh, yes, the local assemblies could have become seeds for change in El Salvador because they had the means to go into the villages. If they had done what the base communities have done in changing the way of thinking and interpreting reality, that would have been an excellent thing.
dialogue: Is it true that many of the base communities started out doing politically neutral social projects—digging wells, opening schools, creating irrigation projects—only to have the government suppress them?
Antonio: Oh, yes, yes. Particularly an organization called FECCAS (Federation of Christian Peasants of El Salvador). The landowners started believing these peasants were their enemies and blamed some of the clergy for infesting their minds with revolution. One of the members of the oligarchy came to the United States. When she was asked about the conditions of the peasants of El Salvador, her reply was, “Oh, you’re talking about those animals with names.” Animals with names! That was her response. There was no way the ruling elite would allow for change in El Salvador. They didn’t want improvements for the peasants; and they certainly did not want the peasants to think for themselves, to start questioning the status quo, to challenge authority. That’s why they instituted violence in El Salvador and made the army and the security forces the guarantors of this social order. That’s why the oligarchy blocked the actions of the Christian base communities. At first people believed in action, believed in democracy and went to the polls, in election after election. But there was fraud and the ballots were stolen or the elections rigged. People in El Salvador no longer trusted the results of elections and looked for change outside of party politics.
dialogue: Over the last five or six years, the Bahá'í community has started a number of development projects in the Third World—agriculture projects, a lot of schools, radio stations for the indigenous population. What results would you foresee from these activities?
Antonio: It seems to me that it is important for the Bahá'ís to be instilling in the people, through these projects, the very important concept of human dignity, and that they do not have to be oppressed; that they can be free and that they can become a factor for change. Not just that they should convert to Bahá'í and become members of a new religion, but rather that they should speak out and fight for change of their conditions. If the Bahá'í development projects spread this vision, then I would say Bahá'ís could become a force for change.
dialogue: The Bahá'ís were saying that by changing the spiritual condition this would eventually change the social structure. How do you respond to this?
Antonio: (Laughs) That is an interesting question. As time passes by and from my own experience of living in the United States, I have been able to see things in a different way. We only need to look at life in Cuba or the Soviet Union. How happy are the Russians? How true is socialism in the Soviet Union? How humanistic is their system? And then look at the United States. The quintessential capitalistic society. Look at the problems, the suicides, the homeless, the unhappiness here. And so you see there is this struggle, this quest in the human soul that makes me think of the spiritual power. Yes, indeed, you can change an economic system, but if there are no spiritual principles, then there is nothing. There is this suffering. So, I have to tell you, yes, socialism brings help but there are some things that it doesn’t address. You see, there is this Orwellian reality everywhere. In the East and the West, North and South. It’s hard to find a liberated human being who is not suppressed by the powers that be. Because of this, I would say that we need to address that spiritual part of human existence. I don’t know; that may be God. It may be what the Bahá'í Faith is teaching, or what Buddhism is all about. Where is the part of Marxism that deals with the spiritual enrichment of the life of man? Yes, we need social movements, armed and unarmed, but we also need a spiritual revolution in the concept of man. I do recognize there is a Marxist ethics; it is sad that it is not put into practice.
dialogue: Do you consider yourself a Marxist today?
Antonio: Yes, in a sense, yes. But also I can say I am a Christian.
dialogue: Do you believe in God?
Antonio: Yes, I still believe. One way or another there is God. I think the question is not if man created God or God created man. That’s just not the proper question. The question is that there is this beautiful reality here, today, now, all the world, the galaxies. All this had a beginning, and that beginning is the most fascinating story on earth and it will ever be there for us to ponder; it will continue to be for it is an ongoing story. It may be that in the end of all Marxist theory, they will find that there was God behind the story of human history.
dialogue: Can the Bahá'ís in this country do anything to help remedy the situation in El Salvador?
Antonio: Well, there is a lot to do. Just education. Educating the American people or, in this case, Bahá'ís can learn about Central America and how there is a need to change the reality of Central America. Americans need to realize that this is not an East-West conflict; the Soviet Union is not the issue here. Bahá'ís can also help by working on the refugee issue. You must not turn your backs on the refugees. As a former Bahá'í and as a refugee in the United States, to the best of my knowledge, I do not recall, in the six years that I have been in this country, one single instance in which members of the Bahá'í Faith have been in support of Central American refugees or in condemnation of your government’s policies toward Central American refugees. Why? Is it that there are no Bahá'ís in this country? Or, is it that they do not know what’s going on in Central America? Where are the Bahá'ís on the Central American conflict? Where do they stand? So, here is an invitation to the Bahá'ís of the United States. I think it is time for the Bahá'ís to act. If they do, it will be greatly appreciated. Also, I think there is an important issue here for the Bahá'ís. This wave of change is sweeping through all of Latin America. Of course, Bahá'ís are represented all over Latin America. So, there is a need for the Bahá'í Faith to recognize the legitimate rights of the people of Latin America for social change. And the Bahá'ís would be wise to stand up for this change, rather than oppose it, be neutral, or do nothing about it.
I suggest that Bahá'ís look at what some other religious groups are doing for Central America. The Lutherans and Presbyterians are very active and supportive of refugees and educating the American public. What I’m trying to say is that if the Bahá'ís support social change and movements of liberation, chances are Bahá'ís will be welcomed and respected in Latin America. But, if you do not do anything about it, it’s like in a quiet way supporting the incredible oppressive reality of the vast masses of Latin America. You cannot stand by these murderous and repressive governments. The government of Guatemala has killed close to 100,000 of its people. The same goes for El Salvador: 30,000 massacred in 1932 plus another 60,000 since the 1970s. and you’re not going to do anything about this? This is horrible, the human suffering. If you were a Christian, you would feel compelled to stop it. So you Bahá'ís need to speak up; you cannot remain silent. The same, of course, applies to South Africa. It’s just unspeakable. Apartheid in South Africa is a terrible reality, as are the death squads and military dictatorships and lack of freedom in El Salvador and Guatemala. There is a challenge for the Bahá'ís of the United States to address these issues.
Eileen Estes, Richard Hollinger, and Steven Scholl live in the Los Angeles area and serve on dialogue’s editorial board. Antonio works in Los Angeles as a counselor, assisting Central American refugees adjust to their new life in the United States.
"Human Rights Workers in El Salvador Suppressed," by Steven Hall-Williams, in dialogue 1:3, pp. 50-51 (1986)
The government of El Salvador last May began a summer offensive against reporting on human rights in an effort to discredit the few remaining critics of the effects of the eight-year-old U.S.-backed counterinsurgency war.
One skirmish in the campaign was the mid-July arrest and forced deportation of a group of U.S. religious activists attempting to assist displaced Salvadoran citizens. United States Embassy officials in El Salvador cooperated with the Salvadoran security forces in the involuntary expulsion of the religious delegation.
The offensive began on May 20, when Salvadoran security forces initiated a series of arrests leading to the detention of ten activists belonging to independent human rights groups. Following their arrests, three of the Salvadoran human rights workers made public denunciations of church-related human rights groups and relief organizations.
At press conferences and television appearances coordinated by the Salvadoran government, the three human rights workers accused several human rights groups and church relief agencies of being directly or indirectly related to the insurgent Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).
On the basis of the televised denunciations, and without further proof, seven of the human rights workers remain under arrest in Salvadoran prisons. They are charged with membership in “subversive organizations.”
The three human rights workers who made the denunciations were Luz Yaneth Alfaro Pena, her sister Ana Vilma Alfaro Pena, and Dora Angelica Campos Segovia. All three had been held by the Salvadoran Treasury Police for more than a week before making their accusations.
The widely publicized charges included accusations that Catholic Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas of San Salvador “partially supports the armed insurgency”; that 95 percent of the resources distributed by the Catholic Church goes directly to the guerrillas; that leaders of the Salvadoran Lutheran Church are secretly members of the Communist Party; and that Diaconia, an ecumenical relief project sponsored by the Catholic, Baptist, Episcopal, and Lutheran churches, is actually a “bank of the FMLN.”
Charges were also made against the principal human rights groups still working in El Salvador: the Human Rights Commission of El Salvador (CHDES), the Committee of Mothers (COMADRES), and the Committee for the Displaced (COPRODES). The two Pena sisters, who worked for CHDES until their arrest, both claimed that the human rights were fronts for the FMLN guerrillas.
The U.S. Embassy in El Salvador, supporting the unproven charges made by the three detainees, stated that “[Luz] Alfaro’s confessions were not extracted by torture and [the] allegations are certainly credible enough to warrant the detentions [of the other human rights workers]....We have long believed that CHDES and COMADRES have been influenced and manipulated by the FMLN.”
Church workers in El Salvador have claimed recently that one aspect of U.S. strategy for the ongoing war involves discrediting independent agencies working with refugees, as well as human rights monitors. They believe that the United States hopes to unify all relief work through U.S.-backed agencies and thus consolidate government control of the relocation of hundreds of thousands of Salvadoran peasants.
On June 15, Archbishop Rivera y Damas said that the workers were tortured into making the confessions. In a sermon delivered in San Salvador, the archbishop defended both Catholic and Protestant churches against accusations that they supported guerrilla organizations. World leaders of the Lutheran Church made similar statements in defense of Lutheran church workers targeted in the accusations.
Americas Watch, the independent U.S. human rights watchdog, scored the procedures used in the arrests and pointed out that highly irregular judicial methods were followed by the Salvadoran government and the U.S. Embassy in making unproven accusations in press releases and television broadcasts, amounting to a “trial by television.”
On June 28, five social workers for the Salvadoran Catholic Church received an anonymous telephone death threat: “We’ll give them a week to get out of the country. If they don’t go, they can consider themselves dead.” The five workers decided to continue their work.
On July 16, an ecumenical delegation of nineteen U.S. religious activists attempted to accompany a group of several hundred displaced Salvadoran refugees returning to their rural homeland. The delegation was sponsored by the San Francisco-based Office on Human Rights in El Salvador.
The refugees were attempting to return to areas previously cleared by the Salvadoran government. These areas have been subjected to intense counterinsurgency sweeps by the armed forces and the forced relocation of the civilian population in an effort to eliminate any possible civilian support for FMLN forces.
According to the U.S. State Department, the refugees detained in Aguacayo “had failed to receive permission to enter this zone. Some of the displaced persons were unwilling to register with the local authorities, and this unwillingness prompted some kind of confrontation.”
U.S. church activists see close connections in these recent events. They point out that fact-finding visits by foreign delegations to El Salvador were often organized by the human rights groups and relief organizations denounced by the U.S. and Salvadoran governments. They expect further repression for independent human rights and humanitarian relief workers if they continue to report the effects of the war on the civilian population.
Reprinted with permission from Sojourners, Box 29272, Washington, D.C.