May 28, 2015 § 2 Comments
1934 – 2015
In more than 3 decades of living in the United States, Salvadoran national Maria Lorenza Guardado never learned English.
Not that she didn’t try. But speaking the language summoned memories of the January day in 1980 when a Salvadoran death squad kidnapped and tortured her under the direction of a man with an American accent.
That same experience did not deter Guardado’s political activism, however. She was “so militant, so omnipresent, you think there are four or five Marias because everywhere you go, she’s there.” (This from the late Don White, who was himself no slouch when it came to standing up for justice.)*
Born January 15, 1934 in La Union, El Salvador, Guardado began working at 13 to help support her ill mother and 8 orphaned nieces and nephews the family had taken into its household. Stirred by her country’s pervasive poverty and injustice, and despite increasing persecution that put her at risk, she worked with and organized campesinos, teachers, students, and market vendors, joining leftist political movements agitating for change.
As conflict in El Salvador escalated towards civil war, death squads targeted activists of all stripes—teachers, priests, labor organizers, even students—disappearing, torturing, assassinating.
When kidnapped, Guardado was blindfolded, bound, and driven to a secret location. Her captors offered her a bribe to name names, which she would not do. Guardsmen then beat her, applied electrical wires to her breasts and genitals, raped and then sodomized her with a wooden rod, leaving her in a pool of blood.
“I thought I had died,” she said in recounting her ordeal between pauses to quiet the agitation these memories engendered.* Guardsmen revived Guardado only to continue torturing and interrogating, breaking multiple bones and burning her across her body.
Three days later, her captors dumped her naked body on a city street; she had to beg a taxi driver, fearful for his own life, to take her home, “so I could die in my own house.”*
Friends took Maria to San Salvador for medical care, though not to a hospital where she would again be detained. When able, she made her way to Chiapas, Mexico, living for a time with nephews who had fled El Salvador in fear. With Mexican authorities threatening repatriation to El Salvador, Guardado was persuaded by Sanctuary activists to emigrate to the United States where First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles offered refuge. She was granted refugee status after a protracted legal struggle and eventually received treatment for post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Her therapy of choice, however, appeared to be political action. A partisan of El Salvador’s leftist Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), she could also be found at meetings, protests, and vigils for any number of human rights issues: immigration, Palestine, labor rights, School of the Americas. I first heard her speak at a gathering that addressed on-going affects of Agent Orange in Vietnam. For Guardado, all such issues were linked to an over-arching cause: capitalism and imperialism.
Guardado brought realities of U.S.-financed Salvadoran civil war home to thousands of Angelenos, a generous gift given her psychological scars. So much easier to move on, forget, build a new and different life. Instead, she showed us how an indomitable spirit lives and leads.
* Quotations are from the documentary film by Randy Vasquez, Testimony: the Maria Guardado Story, portions of which can be accessed on YouTube.com.