Breaking Many Taboos Julie Meyer tells the story of women's roles and struggles in the El Salvador solidarity movement. When a recent CISPES women's delegation arrived in Chalatenango to meet with Maria Serrano, FMLN peasant leader and one of the most inspirational women to emerge in modern El Salvador, she said in greeting: "Welcome on behalf of the Lesbian Committee of Chalatenango!" How could a Salvadoran peasant woman have the openness to make such a joke in public in an extremely homophobic society? The incident is a testament to the degree of evolution of the solidarity relationship between Salvadoran and North American women. But first, some history. The story of women in the El Salvador solidarity movement is a story of women activists of the left in the U.S. of the 1980s and their roles and struggles within grassroots organizations, the church, lobbying organizations, and other arenas. It is also the story of the relationship between people fighting a revolutionary struggle and those working to support that struggle; between natives of the oppressor nation and refugees from the dominated land residing within the monster of the North. The El Salvador solidarity movement, then, embodied issues for women typically confronted in the U.S. left. It also contained issues confronted by women working in the religious sector. Not least, the solidarity movement was distinct in the close relationship between North Americans and Salvadorans, facilitated by the great number of political refugees from El Salvador residing in the U.S. That relationship brought a complex set of issues created by the intersection of race, culture, gender, and class issues, but it also spawned incredible evolutions by both parties created by the cross-fertilization. In the religious sector, the explosion of liberation theology in Latin America, including El Salvador, reverberated profoundly in the U.S. The religious sector was a key element to the impact of the El Salvador solidarity movement, and women dominated among church activists even more than among secular activists. Women also filled the majority of leadership roles among church activists, yet the more visible leadership were the men, as happened in the sanctuary movement. And, of course, dealing with the male hierarchies of the church is always a difficult context for feminist church women. At the same time, the impact of liberation theology was profound, and included sensitivity to class and gender issues (though expressed in different language), sometimes greater sensitivity than that found within the left in the U.S. or El Salvador. Ironically, women playing strong roles within the religious sector found immediate acceptance and trust among Salvadorans at the grassroots level, yet had to struggle to be accepted as politically-capable leadership among Salvadoran left leaders and U.S. secular leftists. WHO'S IN LEADERSHIP? In CISPES, which was and is the largest, best-organized expression of the secular, grassroots El Salvador solidarity movement, women were always the majority of the workers. During the initial phase, they were also a majority of leadership. When the movement reached its peak, men were a majority in leadership, particularly at the regional and national levels. Women did not become the majority in leadership again until they asserted themselves and demanded greater representation. Why did men dominate in leadership in the middle years? Because they felt more self-confident, they were more likely to exhibit the qualities most valued in leadership -- above all else, political analysis skills - - and they were cultivated for leadership more than women were. Women, on the other hand, often exhibited equally important leadership skills -- organizing and program development skills, management and administration skills, for example -- but these skills were not valued the way political analysis was. As a result, the women who did rise to leadership positions tended to have a more complete set of leadership skills, as they had to learn political analysis, as well as bringing their other skills to their directorial positions. At the base level, local committees varied greatly, but most often women were the majority yet men were more likely to fill leadership positions. Women were always those who guaranteed all the detailed, organizing work. The men dominated political and strategy discussions. There were many exceptions to this rule, and many women developed from the committee level into regional and national leadership. Yet women usually felt they had to struggle for recognition as leadership, particularly for recognition of analytical skills. There were several developments which enabled women to assert their demands for leadership positions in CISPES. One was a long process of democratization, begun in earnest around 1985. More open and democratic structures are always necessary for all voices to be heard, especially those challenging the status quo. The development of caucuses, especially a women's caucus and a gay, lesbian and bisexual ("queer") caucus, and the subsequent commitment to "undoing oppressive behaviors" within CISPES opened up discussions of racism and sexism within the organization and empowered women to make demands. This process also helped women analyze what forms of sexism operated in the solidarity movement, and how we women sometimes contributed to it by adopting male styles or criteria for evaluating activists, for example. The (white) men in CISPES responded in a variety of ways, but many were supportive and themselves grew with the process. The El Salvador solidarity movement was also notable for the extremely high level of commitment activists made, identifying with the Salvadoran revolution as their own. For many years, a work ethic predominated in which the more hours you could put in, the better -- there was nothing in life except work for the Salvadoran revolution. While this ethic fit well with women's socialization (which tells us that we've never done enough, and some of the most extreme cases of overwork were women), it was also women who led the drive to "humanize" CISPES. This occurred partly because key women activists were becoming mothers and therefore had major demands for their time outside of political work. Another element to the commitment was flexibility, with activists willing to move across the country, change job descriptions, or do whatever was needed. While this ethic prevailed, it was ultimately the women who were more flexible, as men rarely took new positions which technically represented demotions, while women did this all the time. Essential to the character and strength of the solidarity movement was the role that Salvadorans living in the U.S. played. The relationship of the politically active Salvadorans with all elements of the solidarity movement was close and in most respects very positive. North Americans took leadership from the Salvadorans and were conscious of all that we learned, particularly in political analysis skills. But what did the relationship mean in gender terms, especially since the vast majority of active Salvadorans in the U.S. were men? The Salvadorans certainly cultivated men more than women in the solidarity movement; after all, weren't white men the power brokers in U.S. society? And these Salvadorans came from experiences in an authoritarian society and authoritarian left political parties dominated by male leadership; the tendency was to reproduce those methods. That meant that white men were more frequently chosen for cultivation as leadership and trusted with the role of communicating the political analysis the Salvadorans had. It took years for the Salvadorans to adapt to working under completely different conditions in the U.S. And, despite the closeness of the relationship (we were all "compa¤eros," equals), it took years to develop a politically equal relationship in which the North American activists felt comfortable criticizing the Salvadoran compa¤eros. THE "HIPPO" PAPERS This development could be seen in the publication of two internal discussion documents by women in CISPES in Chicago, the celebrated "hippo" papers. The first paper dealt primarily with the more typical problems of sexism in the left and therefore focused more on problems with white men, such as men being given more attention for their political ideas and dominating discussions, and the like. The hippo analogy referred to the largely hidden, but immense nature of sexism in the movement, like a hippo under water with his nostrils sticking out. The first paper was written to foster discussion on oppressive behaviors within CISPES at the organization's 1990 national convention. By the time the second hippo paper was written, about a year later, the Chicago women were far more willing to tackle more difficult and sensitive topics, which included problems of sexism with the Salvadoran men, sexual harassment and even instance of rape (several instances of rape had occurred by Salvadoran men of both Salvadoran and white women in the solidarity movement, both in the U.S. and in El Salvador). They also addressed the double standard whereby white men were criticized and sometimes punished for misbehavior, yet there was a taboo against criticizing Salvadoran men for their behavior. There was controversy within CISPES about the publication of this article. Was it a security problem to put into writing and have open discussion about things like rape involving Salvadoran men from the left visiting or residing in the U.S., even with the names left out? While this had long been a rationale for keeping such incidents quiet, the atmosphere had changed and the relationship between the Salvadorans and U.S. activists had overcome a certain politeness, a politeness that meant, for example, that we never explored the complicated interplay of racism and sexism in the relationship between the Salvadoran men activists and the many white women in CISPES. Many saw the hippo two paper as a product of a more mature and reciprocal relationship, a relationship which could allow for criticism both ways and which could admit that revolutionary Salvadorans could also learn things from their U.S. compa¤era/os, that revolutionaries were not always more advanced in every regard. This evolution was evident as well in CISPES' politics, as CISPES, while still taking leadership from the Salvadorans regarding the situation and needs in El Salvador and certainly still focused on El Salvador as an organization, became more independent in defining its relationship to membership in the U.S. progressive movement. This affected CISPES not just internally, or activists personally, but also impacted CISPES' alliance strategy and recruitment policies, for example, and was closely tied to the above-mentioned processes of tackling sexism, homophobia, and racism. CISPES, for example, began to cultivate relationships with gay and lesbian organizations and to recruit a more diverse membership. What impact did U.S. activists, particularly the women, many of whom had strong feminist backgrounds, have upon our Salvadoran compa¤ero/as? Salvadorans in the U.S. often attribute a greater personal openness on many social issues, including the role of women and tolerance for gays and lesbians, to their residency here. There was also political and organizational impact. For example, the continued requests for a woman FMLN representative by CISPES chapters influenced the decision to recruit and develop women FMLN representatives, when for years they had almost all been men. Recently, CISPES has developed a greater commitment to support gay and lesbian struggles in the U.S., and has a large number of lesbian and bisexual women in leadership. CISPES has also been more open about the issue of homosexuality in El Salvador, with CISPES delegation members, for example, being out among progressive Salvadorans. It has had a positive impact within the Salvadoran left and women's movement, helping to open up discussions of homosexuality. But recent controversies surrounding the Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Conference held in El Salvador, instigated unintentionally by CISPES' plan to send a gay and lesbian delegation, made clear that it must be Salvadorans, not U.S. activists, who decide when and how to raise the issue more broadly in Salvadoran society. SALVADORAN WOMEN'S IMPACT Given that the vast majority of Salvadorans we worked with in the U.S. were men, it is surprising how important Salvadoran women have been to North American women. For many of us, Salvadoran women we met in the early years, and women martyrs, were important inspirations to our commitment. Many Salvadoran women who live in the U.S. say that the support and feminism of the "gringa" they worked with was important to opening their thinking, though the feminism seemed strange at first, and the relationship with the more aggressive North American women was not always easy. Since the Peace Accords were signed almost two years ago in El Salvador, and the women's movement there has blossomed, women solidarity activists have been able to develop new and stronger relationships with women, women leaders, and women's organizations in El Salvador. Previously, CISPES delegations met primarily with men, as they were the leadership in most popular organizations as well as the FMLN. The rapid development of a feminist consciousness among progressive women in El Salvador has been impressive and has reverberated among solidarity activists, giving us new grounds for solidarity and sharing of experiences. Many women in El Salvador are struggling with "double militancy" -- their equally important commitments to the new women's movement and to their political party (or other "mixed [gender] space"). Their political sophistication is instructive to U.S. feminists and solidarity activists -- it is not necessary to subordinate one form of struggle to another, rather we must learn to simultaneously wage both struggles. And so the solidarity relationship continues to evolve, and we learn never-imagined political and human lessons from each other. Women in El Salvador and women in the U.S. will continue to lead struggles in their own countries, and continue to work together for the liberation we all seek.