Gasteazoro, Ana (1950–1993)

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Gasteazoro, Ana (1950–1993)

Political activist in El Salvador during the late 1970s and early '80s, the most violent period of a 12-year "dirty war" waged by the Salvadoran military against the population. Pronunciation: Gas-tee-azoro. Born Ana Margarita Gasteazoro Escolande on October 10, 1950, in San Salvador, El Salvador, Central America; died in San Salvador of breast cancer on January 30, 1993; daughter of Ana Marina Escolande (an antique dealer) and José Agustin Gasteazoro Mejia (a civil engineer); attended primary through high school at the American School in San Salvador; studied briefly at Bay State Junior College in Massachusetts and University of Central America in El Salvador; never married; no children.

"Tell Mother I'm in paradise," Ana Gasteazoro said to the woman at the Ilopango women's prison receiving desk who asked her if she wanted to send a message to anyone. It was May 11, 1981, and she had just endured 11 days in a clandestine jail of the Salvadoran National Police. After spending three days blindfolded and tied to a bare metal cot, she had been brutally interrogated, repeatedly beaten, threatened with death, and groped by the guard who brought her food. Ana fully expected to die, as had so many of her friends at the hands of the paramilitary death squads in the past two years. Someone would "disappear" suddenly, just as Gasteazoro had disappeared, and a mutilated body would be found a few days later along a country roadside or in a city garbage dump.

Tied to the cot in her crude cell, Ana had listened to the screams of those being tortured in nearby cells. She had been told that no one knew where she was or had inquired after her. She had been told again and again that she was going to die. Finally, after a particularly terrifying beating, she had signed a false confession of terrorist activity.

Now, safely installed at the women's prison, having survived the horror of the "death squad" jail, Gasteazoro knew that she would live, that the most dangerous time was over. So the message she sent to her mother was optimistic. Though she was bruised, sore, and traumatized, the past 11 days had not broken her resolve. If the government saw fit to throw her in prison without a trial or due process, so be it. She would make Ilopango her trench from which to continue the war. As she would soon find out, the other female political prisoners had begun to plan a remarkable campaign of resistance in which Gasteazoro would become a key player for the next two years.

In 1981, El Salvador was still in the early years of a bloody civil war which, before it ended in 1992, would result in 75,000 deaths and over one million refugees. The smallest country in Central America, El Salvador is about the size of Massachusetts. The causes of its civil war were not hard to understand. At the time Gasteazoro was imprisoned, 40% of the country's five million people were landless, while 2,000 large landowners held over 80% of the usable land. The majority of El Salvador's wealth was held by an oligarchy known as los Catorce, 14 families who had built cattle and coffee empires in the 19th century, while over half the population remained illiterate and with a daily caloric intake that was the lowest in Latin America.

By the 1970s, all avenues for peaceful change in El Salvador had long been blocked, beginning with an electoral process traditionally marked by fraud and coups. Demands for social and economic reform by trade unions, peasant organizations, human-rights commissions and land-reform agencies had been met with heavy-handed repression. As a result, a revolutionary process begun in the countryside in the late 1970s, with small groups of young guerrillas, spread to the urban areas. By 1980, a war had started in earnest. The United States chose to see the situation in El Salvador as a Cold War conflict. During the 12-year war, the U.S. contributed over four billion dollars to the Salvadoran government and its armed forces, despite well-documented evidence of the army's massive, unrelenting, human-rights abuses.

Ana Margarita Gasteazoro was an unlikely participant in such a war. She had been born on October 15, 1950, into an upper-class family who had long ago learned to live with and largely ignore the socioeconomic contradictions which would give rise to the civil war. As members of the Salvadoran elite, the family lived in a villa on the outskirts of the capital, surrounded by gardens, a swimming pool, and a coterie of servants. Ana described her father, a civil engineer who had been educated in the U.S., as a liberal-minded, gregarious man with interests ranging from photography to ham radio. Her mother, in contrast, was conservative, tradition-bound, and deeply religious. Both parents were strong-minded; even as a young child, Ana was aware of the irreconcilable differences and bitter conflicts between her parents. She always felt a great affinity for her father and was inspired by his subtle methods of undermining his wife's strict household and religious rules.

From childhood, Ana rebelled against the rigid social and moral conventions that circumscribed the upbringing and education of girls of her class. The only girl among three brothers (her sister was born much later), Ana shared their interests and pastimes, and fiercely resisted when, as school age approached, her mother directed her to wear dresses and engage in "proper" activities with girls from her own social class.

Ana's mother wanted Ana to attend a convent school where she would be under the watchful eyes of nuns, but her father insisted that all his children attend the American School, where they would learn English and benefit from a progressive curriculum and an international environment. In this conflict her father was immovable, and Ana and her brothers began their education at the elite American School in San Salvador.

By age 15, Ana had confirmed all her mother's fears about liberal education. She smoked and danced, dressed "improperly," went out with boys, and stayed out too late. It was 1965, and Ana argued that she was acting no differently than her classmates at the American School. She also argued that the same restrictions did not apply to her brothers. Her mother, concerned that she was ruining her chances for a good marriage, again insisted to her husband that Ana be sent to a convent school. Ana's father was determined that his daughter continue her education in English, however, so her parents finally compromised on a boarding school in Guatemala run by American Maryknoll nuns. Little did they realize that the year Ana would spend in Guatemala would initiate her into a world of political awareness and activism that would change her life forever.

Instead of the religious-based education her mother assumed she would receive at the Monte Maria school, Gasteazoro found herself in a school run by politically active nuns who considered it essential to instill in their students a sense of social responsibility. Under supervision, Ana was sent into the shanty towns of Guatemala City to distribute food, work in clinics, and give literacy classes in a community center. She saw poverty at close range for the first time, and her teachers were eager to answer her questions about the underlying causes.

One of Gasteazoro's major influences during her year in Guatemala was Sister Marian Peter, an American nun who lived at the school but had given up teaching the year before to devote herself to the poor. Sister Marian Peter had become involved in the liberation theology movement that began with the Catholic Church reforms of Vatican II in 1962. In Guatemala, she was secretly supporting the guerrilla movement, along with two radical American priests, the Melville brothers. After they were all expelled from the country for their political activities, Sister Marian Peter left her order and married one of the Melville brothers. As Marjorie Melville , she, her husband and brother-in-law became renowned in the United States as antiwar activists in the 1970s.

What you can do in the United States will have more effect on the future of El Salvador than anything we can possibly do here now.

—Ana Gasteazoro

But Ana's most significant friendship was with "Titina," a young Guatemalan psychologist and social worker named Maria Cristina Arathon , who had graduated from Monte Maria but still lived in the school dormitory. She took Ana to work as a volunteer dishwasher at The Crater, an inner-city drop-in center that sold cheap meals to poor university and high school students. Gasteazoro later discovered that The Crater was a meeting place for future leaders of the guerrilla movement, and that Titina was living a double life as a member of the Guatemalan revolutionary forces. Both Sister Marian Peter and Titina were careful at the time not to let Ana know about their double lives, but they provided the impressionable young woman with a glimpse into a new world of political activism.

Ana returned to El Salvador to finish high school at the American School, but she was changed by her year in Guatemala:

[It] had awakened my social conscience. Since I had got used to walking in the poor barrios and sitting at the same table with working class people, I couldn't understand why we had to have such gulfs between rich and poor in El Salvador. It made me quite belligerent in school. I didn't have the historical or political background to know what I was talking about, but I was quite vocal.

Still, I had no sense of what was really going on in El Salvador. That may seem strange, but you have to take into account that through the strict control of the media, Salvadorans had been kept ignorant of the political reality of their country for many years. It was only with the birth of the popular organizations and with their activities in the 1970s that the degree of social injustice became widely known, and that the political situation was volatile. We young Salvadorans were very ignorant of recent history in El Salvador, and most of us remained so as adults.

After graduation in 1967, Gasteazoro was sent to Boston for secretarial training. Although she had hoped to study landscape architecture or psychology, her family considered it more important to educate their three sons, who would eventually have to support their own families. Ana was expected to pick up a few skills and work as a secretary until she married well and was supported by her husband. But even her meager secretarial training came to an abrupt end in 1968 when a war between Honduras and El Salvador caused Ana's father to suffer considerable losses from business investments in Honduras. She was told to come home and continue her studies in El Salvador.

Infused with the new social and sexual freedoms of America in the 1960s, Gasteazoro returned to El Salvador and studied briefly at the University of Central America. But when she began to date a young acquaintance of her father's, an African-American Marine guard at the U.S. Embassy, Ana's mother decided it was time for her to embark on another education abroad. She arranged for Ana to study at the University of Nevarra, a conservative Catholic university in northern Spain, and live with an upper-class local family. Though unenthusiastic, Gasteazoro was still under age and had little say; she packed her bags and flew to Spain.

It was 1968, the height of the Franco regime under which Spain had become the most reactionary country in Western Europe. With her long hair, mini-skirts, dangling earrings and makeup, Gasteazoro felt like she had landed on another planet. She described this year as the unhappiest of her life. By spring, she had been expelled from the university for repeated infractions of their rules. She negotiated with the university to grant her a diploma to teach English as a second language (ESL) and pressured her mother to allow her to stay on alone in Spain another year.

At age 20, Gasteazoro was eager to be out from under parental control. She promptly landed a job as a secretary with a property management company in Madrid, then in May 1969 moved to the island of Ibiza, where she lived almost four years, working as a secretary to a wealthy Germany developer. Reveling in her independence, she supported herself with her work, lived with a lover, and went for long periods without contact with her family.

Ana spent the beginning of the 1970s in Ibiza. From 1974 to 1975, she became involved in politics while living in Jamaica with a government official, a member of the social democratic People's National Party (PNP), then Jamaica's government party. Gasteazoro's political apprenticeship opened her to the possibility of working for change in her own country. When her relationship ended, partly as a result of her political evolution, she returned to El Salvador. "Jamaica opened my eyes to the reality of my own country," Gasteazoro recalled, "and I returned with a very strong commitment."

It was 1975 and El Salvador was shaken by several ominous events. At a peaceful protest demonstration in July, the military shot and killed 25 or 30 high school students. Several months later, Roberto Poma, the director of tourism from one of the richest families in El Salvador, was kidnapped. A new armed group called the Army of Popular Revolution (ERP) claimed responsibility. Their demands for ransom and the release of several ERP members from prison were met, but Poma was returned to his family dead. Ana felt touched personally by the escalating violence in El Salvador. Roberto Poma had been her father's godson.

She enrolled once again at the University of Central America where, at 25, she was older than most students. She rented a small house in a working-class neighborhood and supported herself giving English lessons and working with educational television.

Feeling she was at last in a position to contribute to the political process in El Salvador, Gasteazoro began to look around for an organization to join. Since she did not believe in armed opposition at that time, she had to choose from among the legal opposition parties: the Christian democrats, the communists, or the social democrats. Guillermo Ungo, the secretary general of the social democratic party, the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR), was one of Ana's professors at the university. When she appeared at his office and announced she wanted to work for his party, Ungo was skeptical of this young bourgeois woman. Though he doubted the strength of her commitment and her grasp of the very real dangers, he allowed her to join.

Gasteazoro was soon heavily involved in MNR work, organizing a women's group, helping publish the party's newsletter, and arranging meetings. "Since we were such a small party it was not hard to advance quickly in the ranks. After not very long I was elected Secretary of Youth. Then I became a sort of glorified political secretary, doing much of the party's administrative work." Since she spoke English, she was often sent out of the country for international meetings and conferences, especially those of the Socialist International. Being young and attractive, and often the only woman at such events, Gasteazoro had to make her position clear early on: "I was fighting to be taken seriously by all these men around me, who related to me partly as a good friend and partly as a political colleague. I had to walk a careful line. I couldn't start sleeping with political acquaintances, because then I would lose my status as a colleague—that's part of the machismo."

In the summer of 1978, Gasteazoro was sent as one of two MNR representatives to the International Youth Festival in Havana, Cuba. Held every four years, this gathering of all the progressive youth movements of the world coincided with and helped celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Cuban revolution. "I picked up a huge feeling of solidarity in Cuba that was crucial to me as a Latin American," she remembered. "I arrived back in El Salvador feeling as though nothing was going to stop me in my political work or in my commitment to my country's struggle. I was ready to take up arms, and I knew that we could do it."

By 1979, the repression by state security forces and the brazenness of the paramilitary death squads escalated to the point of daily disappearances of student leaders, trade unionists, human-rights and political activists, journalists, and many whose only political act was to be a member of a community organization. Gasteazoro recalled the horror that had become daily life: "I'll never forget one morning when I left my house in Santa Tecla at 6:30. I went by an underpass and there was a body hanging from the bridge, a man in only his underpants. A placard signed by the death squads was stuck to him, saying 'death to the traitors of the country.' Further on, in the area of the American embassy, I saw another body. It had what was supposed to be the flag of one of the popular organizations on it. Then I saw a third body, this time on the sidewalk of the underpass by the Social Security buildings. This was a little bunch of bones that had been tortured and crushed. That was our daily routine."

It was also a year of demonstrations by popular organizations and strikes by the trade unions. In the countryside, peasants were occupying churches and government ministries, demanding land reform and better wages. All these actions were met with a murderous response by the authorities.

Gasteazoro increasingly felt that the state repression and death squads had effectively put her party, along with other legal opposition groups, on the political sidelines. Even though the MNR activities were legal and conducted openly, several of her colleagues had "disappeared" during her first two years working for the party. Many others were in exile. She realized the only useful work was now with the guerrilla organizations, and she determined to join one of the four or five armed groups while still carrying on her MNR responsibilities.

Through contacts at the university, Gasteazoro made it known she was interested in joining a particular group, the Popular Liberation Front (FPL); soon, she was receiving directions for tasks to carry out around San Salvador: locating safe houses for meetings, working on propaganda, and writing scripts for clandestine radio broadcasts. With her MNR connections, she was able to move around the city in her old car doing work considered legitimate. As she proved herself reliable and efficient, Ana's jobs for the FPL increased in responsibility but always concerned unarmed, support work based in the capital. Although the FPL, like all other guerrilla groups, had a military arm waging war in the countryside, it was of strategic importance to the organization that Ana remain in San Salvador and lead a double life. "Despite differences in ideology and strategy," Gasteazoro recalled, "the guerrilla groups realized the importance of an alliance with a legal party of the left. The MNR had a very solid reputation internationally, and excellent connections with the progressive governments of Europe through the Socialist International."

The 1979 triumph of the rebel Sandinista army in Nicaragua gave great hope to revolutionary movements throughout Latin America. The lessons of Nicaragua were not, however, lost on its neighboring right-wing governments, and the year 1980 marked new heights of repressive violence in El Salvador. The popular archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, who had spoken out against the government and defended the demands of the poor, was assassinated while saying Mass. Four American churchwomen working in El Salvador—Maura Clark, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel, and Jean Donovan —were raped and killed by National Guardsmen. Five leaders of the newly formed Democratic Revolutionary Front, an alliance of legal opposition parties on the left, were kidnapped by the military while meeting at the Jesuit university; they were tortured, assassinated, and their bodies dumped outside the capital. Gasteazoro was sent to identify and claim the barely recognizable body of a beloved colleague, the representative of the MNR party.

With the disappearance of so many of her party colleagues, and with most of the leadership in exile, Ana was forced to assume more and more responsibility in the MNR. In April 1981, she was sent to the Socialist International Congress in Madrid, where the focus that year was the struggle in El Salvador. To protect her identity so she could return to El Salvador, Gasteazoro gave her keynote speech to the Women's Conference under a pseudonym and in disguise.

Back in El Salvador, Ana continued her double life, working underground for her guerrilla group while carrying on her "legal" work with the MNR. She had maintained close contact with her family throughout her years of political work, and though they suspected and disapproved of her involvement with the guerrilla movement, she was still expected home at least once a week for the traditional mid-day family meal. Gasteazoro arrived home on April 23 to find that her father, who had been seriously ill with emphysema for years, had died of a heart attack earlier that day, at age 62.

Less than three weeks later, on May 11, 1981, Ana was arrested, along with two members of her clandestine group. They had recently moved into a house in San Salvador that was supposedly "safe" but in fact was already under surveillance by the security forces. In the early morning darkness, a large group from the National Guard surrounded their residential block. When Ana and the two men were awakened with a loud banging on the door, they knew immediately what was happening. A group of uniformed men rushed in, began ransacking the house, and tore the phone out of the wall as Ana attempted to make a call. Other security forces captured one of Gasteazoro's colleagues as he attempted to escape over the roof. He was brought back, beaten, and tortured with electrical shocks while the search of the house continued. Gasteazoro, restrained and forced to listen to her friend's groans, recalled thinking she might have one chance to save their lives. She identified herself to the captain in charge with her real name and stated her six-year association with the MNR social democratic party. She insisted that the two men in the house had nothing to do with her or her party. Thinking they had someone important, legal rights notwithstanding, the Guardsmen tied Ana and her two comrades up, blindfolded them, and transported them to the National Guard barracks in San Salvador.

Thus began 11 days of terror. Given Gasteazoro's experience of recent years and knowing she was being held in one of the notorious clandestine jails of the security forces, she had no expectation of surviving. She said later that she only hoped to die with integrity, without revealing any information that would bring harm to her comrades. After withstanding an initial interrogation, a beating and "mock execution" late the first night, Ana was handcuffed to a wire cot and not allowed to move or sleep for three days. Repeated abuse at the hands of the guards, violent interrogations and more mock executions followed. She was constantly threatened with death and told that no one knew where she was. On the tenth day of detention, Gasteazoro endured a particularly brutal beating, after which she finally broke and signed a false confession, admitting to several "terrorist" activities, from brainwashing foreign journalists to killing the chief of the national lottery. The next morning, she was presented to the media at a National Guard press conference as a "confessed terrorist."

Later that same day, she was taken to Ilopango Women's Prison. "The first night, after the lights were turned out," Ana remembered, "I lay in bed looking up through the iron bars of ventilation space in the wall…. After eleven days in the National Guard barracks that tiny bit of the sky above my heard was beautiful. There was life out there beyond the wall, and even if I was locked in this room at least I was there in the company of other women. And even if some of them were criminals, there was this chance of communication, maybe of building something together. We were here, we were alive."

Ana knew she was safe, but only later did she learn she owed that fact to a strange convergence of influences: her contacts within the Socialist International had brought international pressure to bear once her arrest was known (someone had apparently witnessed the early morning raid and contacted an MNR official), and her family had wielded their influence with government officials and officers high up in the military. Pressure from these two sources had forced the National Guard to admit they had Ana in her first few days of detention, and once they acknowledged she was being held in one of their clandestine jails, they had to produce her alive. Perhaps because of their connection to Ana, her two colleagues also survived and went to prison.

Ana Gasteazoro spent two years in prison, without charges or a trial. When she entered Ilopango, in May 1981, she was one of only seven women political prisoners. Until then the conflict in El Salvador had been largely a war without prisoners. The numbers of political prisoners soon began to swell, however, and Gasteazoro joined with the others to form a women's unit of the Committee of Salvadoran Political Prisoners (COPPES). The women's section of the prison had previously been run by nuns, who had left the country in protest after the assassination of Archbishop Romero. The organizational legacy of the nuns remained, however, and Ana recalled that the prison felt rather like a Catholic boarding school. The women prisoners were allowed to go about organizing every aspect of their daily lives. Among their many projects, COPPES established a prison store for personal supplies, a bee-keeping project, and a vegetable garden. With the help of the Red Cross, they negotiated to be allowed to cook their own meals, to increase visiting hours with families, and to set up a sewing workshop to earn money. To support their demands, the women managed a 33-day hunger strike. Despite internal power struggles and external repression, COPPES became an effective force in publicizing the Salvadoran struggle and the cause of women prisoners.

Gasteazoro was released under a mass amnesty for political prisoners in May 1983. She went immediately into exile, briefly in Mexico and Cuba before settling in Costa Rica, where she lived until 1992. In her years in Costa Rica, she worked at various jobs, from teaching English to owning a successful restaurant on the Caribbean coast. As the 1980s came to a close, the Salvadoran government was increasingly under pressure from the United States to clean up its abysmal human-rights record and make a peace agreement with the rebel forces. In August 1991, as the war was winding down, Gasteazoro was invited to return to El Salvador as a delegate to the first open congress her MNR party had held in many years. To her surprise, she was honored with special recognition at the congress, along with others who had given distinctive support to their party and the revolution. Invited to run as an MNR candidate in the 1993 elections, Ana was considering a return to political life in El Salvador when her breast cancer, which she assumed had been successfully treated in 1991, recurred in mid-1992. She died in El Salvador at age 42 on January 30, 1993.


Manuscript: "Tell Mother I'm in Paradise: Memoirs of a Political Prisoner in El Salvador," by Ana Margarita Gasteazoro with Judy Blankenship and Andrew Wilson.

suggested reading:

Baloyra, Enrique. El Salvador in Transition. NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.

Bonner, Raymond. Weakness and Deceit: US Policy and El Salvador. NY: Times Books, 1984.

Hochschild, Adam. "Inside the Slaughterhouse," in Mother Jones. June 1983, p. 18 (includes an interview with Ana Gasteazoro inside Ilopango prison).

Ross, Oakland. "Politics Splits Salvador Siblings," in Toronto Globe and Mail. May 31, 1983 (article about Ana and her brother, Javier Gasteazoro).

Shulz, Donald E., and Douglas H. Graham, eds. Revolution and Counter Revolution in Central America. Westview Press, 1984.

Tula, Maria Teresa. Hear My Testimony: Maria Teresa Tula, Human Rights Activist of El Salvador. Ed. and trans. by Lynn Stephen. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1994.

related media:

Romero (film), fictionalized account of life and death of Archbishop Romero, directed by John Duigan, starring Raul Julia, Richard Jordon, Ana Alicia , and Eddie Vélez, screenplay by John Sacret Young, a Paulist Production.

Salvador (film), directed and produced by Oliver Stone, 1986.

Judy Blankenship , photographer and writer who lived in Latin America from 1985 to 1993