Breaking Many Taboos: Women in Solidarity
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.
     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
     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.
     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.
     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.