Genaro Guardado Cartagena lost his father, two siblings and many more relatives and friends to violence unleashed by government forces during the Salvadoran Civil War. He survived three massacres during the 12-year period that claimed the lives of more than 75,000 people between 1979 and 1992.
Now he’s part of an effort to commemorate the sites that tell their stories.
“Those who forget their story are doomed to repeat it,” he said in an interview from El Salvador, paraphrasing famous Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana.
“My children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren will understand what happened. There’s an importance to documenting so we don’t forget. All the experiences should be documented, or even better, recorded, so the next generation can understand what we lived through is not just stories, but reality.”
As a key collaborator of Surviving Memory in Postwar El Salvador – a project spanning countries, years and fields of study – and a survivor himself, Guardado is intricately connected to the mission to remember the horrors and honour the victims.
For Guardado, the project is deeply personal. He was the only one to emerge alive after a house he was in came under siege by the military in 1980, a mass murder that claimed seven of his friends and cousins. Two years later, a bomb fell on his family’s home, killing two of his brothers. He later lost his father in another massacre.
Directed by information and media studies professor Amanda Grzyb, the project is wide-ranging and collaborative. There is international support from hundreds of survivors, scholars, architects, artists and community organizers, among many others.
It has built upon local efforts already underway to memorialize sites and commemorate important moments in the Salvadoran war.
Now, experts from Western Libraries are also lending their skills and state-of-the-art equipment to document survivor stories and pinpoint exact locations for their memories. Each coordinate will be featured on an interactive map with key sites, photos, video testimonies and other historical details.
Western’s geographic information systems (GIS) specialist Liz Sutherland and map librarian Zack MacDonald trekked to remote areas through the jungles of El Salvador earlier this year.
They battled overgrowth and extreme heat to hike alongside survivors sharing personal reflections on the horrors they had witnessed during the war.
“Working with community members and seeing the devastation on the ground – standing in a ruined flour mill where four children were killed in a rocket attack, hearing the story from one of the victims’ mothers – there are no words,” MacDonald said.
“You’re caught between the rigorous academic process and dealing with something so emotional.”
He’s poring over field maps from the United Nations, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and organizations like the Red Cross that tracked El Salvador during the brutal war. MacDonald also uses air photos to better pinpoint sites now rebuilt or overgrown. Even in just 30 years, some locations have been “reclaimed by the jungle,” he said.
The goal is to uncover and remember. Western Libraries’ contribution includes $56,000 over eight years, plus staff hours donated in-kind.
“The library isn’t just books,” Sutherland said.
Grzyb said Western Libraries’ partnership allowed the project to expand exponentially.
Additional funding for the map initiative comes from a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council partnership grant, a Canadian Foundation for Innovation/Ontario Research Fund grant, as well as Western Research and the Faculty of Information and Media Studies.
Asociación Sumpul, an organization of massacre survivors, is the key Salvadoran partner on the mapping project.
Sharing survivors’ stories
It’s a massive endeavour, with a large team of graduate students in Western’s Faculty of Arts & Humanities transcribing and translating survivor videos.
Though the digital reflections haven’t yet been circulated or advertised, some of the YouTube videos have already been viewed more than 10,000 times.
“We can speculate it’s probably migrants from El Salvador living in the U.S. who are watching testimonies. We suspect it is not just the generation of survivors, but their children,” Grzyb said, noting a few have even reached out with offers to collaborate.
She called that a “foundational” element – and win – of the project.
“It’s about justice, it’s about preserving memory, but that intergenerational education is really critical. It’s not something that is included, for example, in the school curriculum in that country, because El Salvador remains so polarized,” Grzyb said of the war’s history.
That ripple effect, inspiring new generations and community members, propels Western’s contributions even further.
“When I see that, by contributing to one initiative, it will create two or three more in the communities, bring people together and keep the memory alive, that is the key sign the project has been really successful,” Grzyb said.
MacDonald and Sutherland are putting a high-tech spin on the collection, using specialty photography, GPS data and satellite imagery to piece together 3-D landscapes, stitch together air photos and preserve historical locations.
The power of their contributions is clear.
Sutherland mapped the site of a violent massacre already located three years prior. Thanks to the data from the Arrow Gold GPS unit, it became clear the area was actually kilometres away from the recorded location.
“That’s the difference of a three-hour hike down a steep terrain into a valley,” she said. “This kind of map could be used by the family members of the survivors who want to hike the route in a commemoration event. If they had the original point, they would have hiked to the completely wrong location.”
She captured 98 points during the 2023 trip.
A growing effort
A key tenet of the project is creating a community-driven history, providing survivors and other Salvadorans skills and equipment to maintain and update the map after Western researchers leave. Eventually, the unit Sutherland is using will remain in the community so they can continue capturing locations for the project.
The team also runs capacity-building workshops to teach skills and share electronics such as scanners and computers with local collaborators.
“It’s building capacity and building on the projects that are the dreams of the survivors,” Grzyb said.
She recalled the first trip back to the small Central American nation after the pandemic. One of the founding partners in El Salvador spent 10 days visiting communities and new sites with Canadian researchers.
“When we left the village where he lived, he came out to say goodbye. He survived four massacres, he’s always very stoic and calm. I’ve never seen him shed a tear. As we got in the van, he just started to sob,” Grzyb said.
“He wrote to us later that after doing this work for so long and getting older, he was so worried during the pandemic that we wouldn’t ever be able to come back, the project would come to a halt. For so long, he felt responsible for keeping the memory. By building these permanent memorials and incorporating so many youth in the project, he felt he could finally hand it over to the next generation and just cry. That was a really powerful moment for me.”
It will take multiple journeys to complete the GIS work and build up a digital map featuring locations, data and details shared by survivors.
“It’s not just one conversation, one hike; it’s hikes all over the entire country with many different people who all have different memories and remember things differently as they’re walking through the space,” Sutherland said.
“It’s almost jogging your memory as you’re seeing the landmarks. It is so interesting. As soon as you’re in the place, you remember more than you would compared to recounting it by memory.” – Liz Sutherland, GIS specialist
Western has played an important role, with Guardado saying the university’s involvement has brought awareness, practical help and even encouraged additional Salvadorans – especially the younger generation – to come to commemorations. Those events originally began with just two families, he added.
“When Western got involved, I could see the immediate support when it comes to finances and motivation and morale in the community. Western helped with building up the understanding of the reality of what happened,” Guardado said.
“It has been growing and it is a very beautiful reflection of the work put in, because the survivors feel supported and cared for.”
Sutherland said merging emotional conversations with ultra-accurate data – her equipment is precise down to the millimetre – “puts the human into the data.”
“A lot of these massacre stories and sites of violence weren’t captured in UN reports,” MacDonald added.
“These stories that have been buried and we’re bringing to the fore, it’s really important to change people’s understanding of what happened in El Salvador or allow people to hear it for the first time.”