Mármol, Miguel: 1905-1993: Union Activist
Miguel Mármol: 1905-1993: Union activist
A shoemaker by trade and a revolutionary by avocation, Miguel Mármol devoted his life to organizing the peasants and workers of El Salvador and Guatemala. He was a founding member of El Salvador's Communist Party (CP) and the Young Communist League. The Salvadoran National Guard called him the "Red Phantom," because he repeatedly avoided capture and disappeared, only to return again, most notably after surviving his own execution.
Raised in Poverty
Mármol was born on July 4, 1905, in the San Salvador suburb of Ilopango. His grandmother, a native Indian, had evicted her unmarried daughter, Santos Mármol, at the first sign of her pregnancy. Mármol's mother refused to reveal his father's identity and he was left in the care of his half-sisters while Santos Mármol carried bales of tobacco on her back to San Salvador, ten miles away, twice a day. The family lived in a mud shack, surviving on donated corn. When Santos Mármol was able to work as a cook or servant in San Salvador, the family ate well; however she often was unemployed, so the children fished and stole food from farms to eat. Mármol's sisters left school to collect boxes and rags from garbage cans to sell to cardboard factories and wash-erwomen.
Mármol eventually learned that his father was Eugenio Chicas, a successful farmer. Chicas was also the mayor of Ilopango. In addition to his legitimate daughters, Chicas had fathered so many children that, as a young man, Mármol discovered that a woman he was considering for marriage was his half-sister.
Mármol enjoyed school, attended his grandmother's catechism classes, and became an excellent swimmer. However at age eleven, just as he was starting the fourth grade, he quit school to work as a fisherman's apprentice. Mármol also cleaned the local National Guard barracks. Soon he became official assistant to the commander of the National Guard. He exercised with the guardsmen and dreamed of a military career. When he became a soldier at age 13, Mármol's first mission was to help quell a civilian and army uprising against the hated Salvadoran dictatorship. After witnessing the vicious torture of prisoners, Mármol requested an immediate discharge. That night—the first time in months that he had not slept in the barracks—the earthquake of 1918 collapsed the buildings, killing all of the guardsmen and officers. It was the first of Mármol's many escapes.
At a Glance . . .
Born on July 4, 1905, in Ilopango, El Salvador; died on June 25, 1993, in San Salvador; son of Santos Mármol and Eugenio Chicas; married Carmen-cita Mármol; children: Hildilita, Hilda Alicia (Angelita), Oscar (deceased), Francisquito (deceased), Antonita (deceased), María Elena, Berta Lilliam, Miguelito, another son. Politics: Communist. Military Service: Salvadoran National Guard, 1918.
Career: Fisherman, 1916-18; shoemaker, late 1910s-44; political and trade union activist, 1921-93; Claridad School, Guatemala, teacher and writer, mid-1940s; Trade Union of Guatemalan Shoemakers, organizational secretary and publisher of The Unionist, mid-1940s; bread baker, early 1960s; National University of El Salvador, lecturer, late 1970s-80.
Memberships: Constitutional Party, local secretary, 1921; Regional Federation of Workers of El Salvador, 1920s; Salvadoran Communist Party, 1930s-93; Young Communist League, secretary, 1930; National Alliance of Shoemakers, president, 1940s; National Workers' Union, 1944; Guatemalan Workers' Party, 1940s; General Federation of Guatemalan Workers, 1940s; Political Bureau of the CP Central Committee, 1950s; National Peasant Commission, general secretary, 1960s; Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, 1980s-93.
Learned Shoemaking and Politics
Santos Mármol was determined that her son learn a trade rather than become a farm laborer. Unable to afford the teacher's training school, he apprenticed as a shoemaker. First in small shops in Ilopango, and then at the largest factory in San Salvador, Mármol received a simultaneous education in shoemaking and politics.
Soon he was making specialty shoes and living in the factory owner's home, where he read adventure novels and communist propaganda to his illiterate employer. Secret political meetings at the shop and home raised his political awareness. In 1921 Mármol became active in the liberal Constitutional Party in the town of San Martín, where his mother was a cook for the National Guard. When his political activities endangered both Mármol and his mother, the local National Guard commander protected them until the crisis passed.
Mármol opened his own shoe shop in San Martín, working on an egalitarian basis with his operators. The shop served as a front for both political activity and community recreation. However, this peaceful period came to an abrupt end when Mármol's enemies had him arrested for rape, charging that he was living with his first cousin, Carmencita. Rescued through his father's intervention, an embittered Mármol returned to work in a San Salvador shoe factory, where Carmen-cita joined him and became his wife.
Joined the Workers' Movement
Mármol threw himself into the organized workers' movement. He read voraciously and studied at the People's University and at schools run by the Communist International. Dividing his time between San Salvador and San Martín, Mármol organized meetings and distributed The Hammer, a newspaper published by the Regional Federation of Workers of El Salvador.
Mármol helped organize the Ilopango Society of Workers, Peasants, and Fishermen. The group cared for the sick; built and repaired roads; established a People's University and cultural center; launched a campaign against alcohol; and built a loan fund so that the women fish sellers could borrow money at reasonable rates. The Society initiated a cooperative movement among the fishermen to create beach access and stop the use of dynamite and poisons. However, when Mármol began organizing similar unions in other communities, government persecution intensified and he was forced into hiding.
With other members of the Regional Federation, Mármol organized strikes against landowners and construction companies for better wages and improved working and living conditions. In 1930 they founded the Salvadoran CP and Mármol was elected secretary of the Young Communist League. His family shared a tiny rented room with another family—seven people in all. While the men organized, the women sold fruit and tortillas to survive.
Mármol traveled to Moscow in 1930 as the Regional Federation's first official delegate to the World Congress of Red Trade Unions. However, as a recognized communist, his return to El Salvador was difficult. After hiding in Paris for almost a month, he sailed for Cuba where he was arrested as a Japanese spy. He talked his way out of prison and returned to Guatemala where, after a month, he was able to enter El Salvador despite a warrant for his arrest. As he began relaying his Moscow experiences to large audiences, the authorities forced him underground. In hiding, he organized and directed the Young Communist League and local committees.
Survived His Execution
As the worldwide economic depression hit poverty-stricken El Salvador, coffee and sugar prices plummeted and peasants were thrown out of work. Popular unrest reached new heights, with mass demonstrations and strikes. The government retaliated, the jails filled with political prisoners, and a military coup placed General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez in power. In January of 1932 the CP decided to organize an armed insurrection, but before they could act, the communist leaders and their military supporters were arrested and executed. Over the next few weeks, some 30,000 men, women, and children—2.5% of the population—were massacred by government forces.
Mármol was arrested and faced a firing squad along with 17 comrades and innocent bystanders. It took many bullets for the nervous soldiers to complete the executions. Mármol was felled with four bullets and a Russian salesman died on top of him, making it appear that Mármol had been shot in the head. After the soldiers left, he managed to crawl to safety, eventually making his way to San Salvador.
With his comrades dead, in prison, or disappeared, Mármol moved to the eastern part of El Salvador where he eventually found work in shoe factories and formed a new communist cell. After more than a year, he returned to San Salvador, living underground and moving every few days. He helped reorganize the CP and the underground worker's movement, laboring in a shoe factory to feed his family, and staying one step ahead of the police. Once he was saved by a former lover, Adelita Anzora, with whom he had a daughter named Hildita. Later Mármol was arrested as he prepared to flee to Honduras. Shackled and held incommunicado, he was finally released in 1936 after staging a hunger strike.
Lived in Exile
Mármol, whose wife had left him, remained enmeshed in the internal conflicts of the weak and fragmented CP until the early 1940s. He eventually established his own shop, specializing in cheap sandals, and he became president of the National Alliance of Shoemakers. His opposition to the Nazis and fascists helped him develop relationships with the American and British ambassadors to El Salvador.
The 13-year reign of terror under Martínez came to an end in May of 1944 and Mármol joined the national organizational committee of the National Workers' Union. However, in October of 1944, another military coup forced Mármol to flee San Salvador. Hiding in a cave, he produced propaganda for the opposition. After serving as a delegate to the founding congress of the General Federation of Guatemalan Workers, Mármol stayed on in Guatemala. He worked with the Claridad School, a center for political and union education, and wrote for their newspaper. Mármol was elected organizational secretary of the Trade Union of Guatemalan Shoemakers and ran the newspaper The Unionist. He began organizing the textile and other industries and became a salaried professional within the union. He also was a founder and leader of the communist Guatemalan Workers' Party.
Over the next few years, Mármol traveled to Mexico and Cuba and worked with indigenous peoples in Guatemala and with the CP in El Salvador. In 1954 he found himself fifth on the Guatemalan execution list and clandestinely made his way back to El Salvador. During the populist movement of the 1950s, Mármol was a leader of the resurrected Salvadoran CP and a member of the political bureau of the party's central committee. Late in the decade he traveled to the People's Republic of China for a course on political and trade union leadership and peasant organizing. Mármol served as general secretary of the National Peasant Commission during the 1960s, with responsibility for rural organizations and the editing of publications. He supported himself with a bread business. In 1963 he was captured again by the National Guard, held incommunicado, and tortured for many months. When the workers' movement demanded his freedom, he was exiled to Mexico, where he requested political asylum before secretly returning to El Salvador.
Interviewed by Roque Dalton
In 1966 Mármol traveled to Moscow for the Soviet Communist Party Congress. In May he attended the Czech Communist Party Congress in Prague, where he met the Salvadoran communist poet Roque Dalton. Dalton interviewed Mármol daily and nightly for several weeks. The result was a testimonio, Dalton's transcription of Mármol's dictation. This remarkable first-person account of Mármol's life is regarded as a classic of Latin American autobiographical literature. Mármol declined to speak of his most recent 12 years, out of fear of identifying comrades or providing his enemies with information. Although Mármol's writings, including poems and memoirs, have been lost, several of his letters and an interview are included in the English edition of Miguel Mármol.
Mármol was detained by the Salvadoran authorities in 1968 and in 1970 he was forced underground. Between 1974 and 1976 he traveled to the Soviet Union, returning to El Salvador as a lecturer at the National University. He tried to join the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), which was fighting a guerilla war in El Salvador, but was told that, at age 76, he was too old. The CP ordered him into exile for his own safety. Mármol left for Cuba in 1980, just a step ahead of the National Guard.
During the 1980s Mármol traveled to Europe, Mexico, and Nicaragua. He also made his only trip to the United States in 1988. He spoke to university audiences and gatherings of activists, and promoted the English-language edition of Miguel Mármol.
Mármol returned to San Salvador in August of 1992, as the 12-year-long civil war ended. He signed the document that transformed the FMLN from a guerilla army into a legitimate political party. Living with his niece in the back of a tiny store, Mármol watched the fall of communist regimes around the world. He told the Seattle Times, "They aren't real revolutionaries anymore like we were. They're orthodox."
Left a Legacy
Mármol died of pneumonia on June 25, 1993, at the age of 88. Hundreds of people turned out for his funeral. Although he had fathered a number of children with different women, at the time of his interviews with Dalton, his only surviving children were a daughter, Hilda Alicia (called Angelita), and two boys, Miguelito, age two, and another born in the summer of 1966 while Mármol was in Prague. Among his other children, Oscar and Francisquito died while he was underground and Antonita died at age five while he was away. Another daughter died in 1954, leaving him a grandson.
Miguel Mármol was a central figure in the final book of Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano's fictional trilogy, Memory of Fire, Century of the Wind. As a character who escapes death many times, only to re-emerge stronger, he is Galeano's metaphor for the history of Latin America. In his introduction to Miguel Mármol, Dalton wrote: "Comrade Mármol is the prototypical incarnation of the Latin American communist worker and peasant leader of what is usually called 'the classical period,' 'the heroic era,' of the parties that … sprang up and developed in nearly every country on the continent." Curbstone Press awards an annual Miguel Mármol prize for a first book-length fictional work in English by a Latin American author that reflects inter-cultural understanding and respect for human rights and civil liberties.
Dalton, Roque, translated by Kathleen Ross and Richard Schaaf, Miguel Mármol, Curbstone Press, 1987.
AP Weekend Entertainment and Arts, July 24, 1987.
Associated Press, June 29, 1993.
Boston Globe, May 16, 1988, p. 2.
Latin American Perspectives, fall 1991, pp. 9-21, 79-88.
Monthly Review, January 1989, pp. 22-34.
The Nation, September 12, 1987, pp. 240-2.
Newsday, June 23, 1988, p. 49.
Seattle Times, January 31, 1993, p. A2.
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