Grassroots International

Your Voice in My Memory

That death of yours, Nacho, so savage and cowardly, at the hands of the Salvadoran military, left your body lying on the lawn of the garden of the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas (UCA), next to the bodies of your companions and those of the two collaborators of the Jesuit residence, mother and daughter. It was an individual and collective death that composed a macabre puzzle of scattered bodies. From your skull, pierced by a bullet, still came a stream of fresh blood. Your face was hidden by your arms that showed their last signs of strength. An inconsolable family tenderness spread from them: you wore the same blue polo shirt that, days before, we had ironed for you at home. That image traveled unexpectedly around the world, as one more sign of human barbarism.

Today, thirty years later, my memory has been dissipating that horror and now, in the midst of the confusion of having aged, I only seem to hear your voice, serene and vital, summoning me to an impossible new existence without limits of time and space.

What was your voice like, Nacho, in that childhood and adolescence we both shared? An uncontrollable physical force arose from your lungs and it became a gale in your throat, filling all the rooms of the house. Your voice did not fit in your body as a child. It was thundering and clear, with clear Castilian resonance. One day you abruptly pulled yourself up from the big table on which all of us siblings were eating with our parents and you shouted without thinking: “We must stop coddling this girl; nothing of ‘nena,’ we must call her by her name: Cristina.” All of us brothers chanted your cry with a cowardly boo directed to our little sister. Cristina had no choice but to take refuge in our mother’s lap. “Wow,” said mother sadly, “you’ve managed to make her cry.” But since that meal, Cristina stopped being “the baby,” becoming Cristina.

If your voice was impetuous, you also knew how to modulate it with persuasive nuances. In the evenings of your early childhood, you whispered to Lucero, the largest cardboard horse the Three Wise Men found on January 6. And you said patiently and seriously, “Let’s go to bed, Lucero, it’s too late.”

Your voice also picked up the echo of the street vendors. The pineapple vendors arrived in the city and stopped their cars, nets full of their produce, on the cobblestones of Simón Aranda Street, on the near south side of our house. They shouted in the air “Pineapples!” At that time, you opened the windows of the balcony and mockingly repeated: “Pineapples!”

In the summer garden, the voice of the town crier of El Espinar, seemed to suddenly stop the air, to launch his cries: “Announcement, the person who has found…” the words erupt- ed in shorter or longer bursts. You waited for the proclamation to end. You put your hands as a loudspeaker around your mouth and repeated the municipal announcement. On one occasion, your voice surprised our grandfather Fernando, who was walk- ing among the acacias of the garden with shorter, quickened paces. He stared at you and with a certain Granadian charm he restrained himself, saying: “Wow, Nacho, what a voice!”

But that powerful voice of yours suddenly began a long silence when you embarked on the adventure of reading Just William, Jules Verne’s novels or the comic books of the Masked Warrior. Nothing could interrupt your silence. Even your head seemed to become bigger with pure joy. What an ability you had to concentrate!

Later in your childhood, you decided to become a magician, but a real magician. Your voice settled into a happy silence, while you spent hours in solitude rehearsing tricks and learning to shuffle cards like a master. Between your hands, the cards opened and closed as if they were an accordion. In a few months you started to perform magic shows at birthday parties of the young children of our parents’ friends and within a year, you became a member of the Spanish Society of Illusionism. Your voice already possessed the complicity of children’s illusion. You smiled full of satisfaction when you took the card you were looking for out of a child’s ear or, as a final number, pulled letters from the deck of cards, colorful handkerchiefs or paper streamers from our father’s hat. I don’t know if you ever pulled out a white rabbit …

But your plans were different from your work as a magician. You entered the Society of Jesus and went to El Salvador, a country that would become your true home. Your voice reached us in recordings, sweetened by the sounds of the tropics. You sang and recited your own poems and spoke to us about your daily chores.

You completed your Jesuit studies and became a professor. Your voice began to sound with a clear depth of thought in American and European universities. You received your doctorate in social psychology from the University of Chicago and began to write. It was your same old voice now focused on writing that brought to life the pressing problems of the peoples of Latin America.

At the same time as you wrote, you taught and served as vice-rector to the students at UCA. And on weekends, you took your gear and a guitar and went to Jayaque to share the lives of the peasants. Your voice became action and was warmly poured on people who had nothing more than their own existence to count on.

After many years you came a few times to Spain, on short trips, invited to social psychology conventions or meetings. You came home and, like a big boy, you took our little children in your magician’s hands and threw them into the air laughing with them while calling them in Salvadoran slang cipotes [children] or cachimbones [awesome].

The war definitely made you real. From the Salvadoran UCA, your presence and your work — your voice! — spread to American and European universities. You gave lectures in Boston, Chicago, Bogotá, Havana and Madrid. Your thought was centered on the helplessness of the children of war, so distant and yet so close to those other happy children of your sessions as an illusionist.

You created the first university institute of public opinion in El Salvador. The reach of your voice multiplied, as if you felt urged by the premonition that your time was running out.

In what would be your last stay in Madrid, your voice, without losing its vitality, had acquired an apprehensive tonality. Any sound seemed to you to be an alarm. You told us about that brutal and unjust war. It was hard for you to fall asleep. Did you already sense the nearness of your death?

In the early morning of November 16, 1989, the Salvadoran military surrounded the house you shared with your Jesuit col- leagues and violently entered all of your rooms. They forced all of you into the garden while stabbing you and began shooting at each of you at point-blank range. You were given time to raise your voice, the most surprising and accusing, to say to those military commanders: “This is an injustice, you are carrion [dead meat].” Your voice could be heard in the neighboring houses.

Then, the lieutenant who was directing the massacre, unloaded several shots at you. Immediately after, the total darkness and a final silence were accompanied by the irony that the soldier who ended your life had been a student at the Jesuit high school in San Salvador.

As a result of your death, your ideas spread. People were interested in your vision of the problems and the methodology through which you noted that action is an essential prerequisite for thought. Endowed professorships were created with your name; professional meetings were focused on you as a person, scholar, priest.

As time unfolded your voice was displaced by the voices of other people who added hasty labels motivated by ill-intentioned motives, or worse, pure ignorance.

Yet, today your voice is a splendid reality in institutions like the The Ignacio Martín-Baró Fund for Mental Health and Human Rights, created in Boston, or the Guernica 37, a group of attorneys who continue to fight for justice from San Francisco and Madrid and to ensure that those military murderers, no matter where they may be, appear before international tribunals.

Every November 16, the people of El Salvador raise their voices and those of their comrades along the wide avenues of San Salvador, in a unanimous procession with lanterns.

Meanwhile, dear Nacho, in the backward gazing that accompanies aging, my memory continues to search for that voice of yours from our shared childhood. Are we children again in the loneliness of the world? Is everything yet to be discovered? Perhaps in that voice of yours is found the last mystery of being alive.

And, as in the nights of childhood, I still hear your voice, persuasive and somewhat tired, saying to your cardboard horse while you take him to the edge of your bed: “Let’s go to sleep, Lucero, it is already very late.” This is enough for me.

Carlos Martín-Baró, Ignacio’s brother, is a professor of English. Together with his sisters he has been supporting the judicial processes in Spain and the USA to bring those intellectual authors of the assassinations to trial in search of justice. He is the author of “Memoria de tu muerte” (Spanish, 2002, “Memory of Your Death”). This text was translated from the Spanish by Nelson Portillo. The collage was designed by Meredith Hawkins with photographs from MBF members and the Martín-Baró Family and the drawing of Ignacio is by Suzanne Ouellette (