Daniel Flores y Ascencio

by Carlos B. Córdova

Don Juan Ama and his grandniece during the filming of Ama: The Memory of Time. Photo by DFX. All images courtesy of Daniel Flores y Ascencio.

In El Salvador, indigenous people suffered a great deal of repression in the late 1920s and early ’30s. The collapse of the world market had a very serious impact on the Salvadoran economy, negatively affecting the agricultural communities as well as indigenous culture and society. Hunger, as well as the fight for Indian land rights, proved the perfect catalyst for revolution.

The social organization of indigenous peoples was structured around the ancient communal system of land distribution–the “Chinamit.” The government labeled indigenous peoples and their leaders as “communist” and subjected them to a campaign of persecution. It created a wave of terror over the entire countryside; Indian people fell victim to the search-and-destroy tactics used by the National Guard, a new military institution, led by General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, designed to protect the economic interests of the ruling families. Most people in the rural areas fit the description of the suspects wanted by the government: persons carrying a machete, which was the traditional work tool and weapon used in the countryside; persons dressed as a campesino or in traditional clothing; persons having Indian features or speaking the native languages. Many innocent people were captured and, without any trials, executed by firing squads established by the National Guard.

Daniel Flores y Ascencio is a Salvadoran cinematographer who recently completed Ama: The Memory of Time, a gripping film that examines the events of the 1932 revolution from the memories of Don Juan Ama and Doña Paula, the nephew and daughter, respectively, of José Feliciano Ama, the Indian leader of the revolution. Throughout the film, Don Juan recalls the events from his childhood as an eyewitness and member of the respected Ama family in Izalco, where most of the revolution’s events took place. The film presents the legacy of these elders, allowing viewers to develop a better understanding of the revolution and its impact on Indian communities.

Flores y Ascencio worked on this film at a time of escalating tensions and violence in the post-Civil War climate of El Salvador in the 1990s. It was a difficult project to complete, as he had to deal with personal security issues and also with a community that is not very open to outsiders because of a long legacy of repression and discrimination.

Carlos B. Córdova Daniel, it’s a fantastic experience to reconnect with you after knowing each other since we were young kids. It’s interesting how our paths have crossed; we’ve always reconnected through the arts. You first came to the United States as a poet and cultural activist. Your recent film, Ama: The Memory of Time, contemplates the historical significance of 1932 for the Salvadoran people and for the rest of Central America. It was a period of incredible change and turmoil in El Salvador. Historical reports state that 25,000 to 40,000 Indian people were killed by the National Guard in just a few months. This has become known as la Matanza—the massacre—one of the darkest periods in Salvadoran history. The film presents a unique perspective: it is based on the story told by Don Juan Ama, who survived the massacre. How did you come to create a film about 1932?

Daniel Flores y Ascencio As you know, 1932 is an event that we as Salvadorans carry deep in our psyches. To some degree it’s a challenge for an artist or an intellectual to investigate the origins of that genocide. No one calls it that, but I truly believe it was genocide. Sometimes I say it was one of the last postcolonial intents of ethnic cleansing in that region. Like many Salvadorans, I grew up with the stories that reflect that period. My father had a great sense of history; he was a devoted reader who was also deeply absorbed in his culture, intellectually and viscerally. He had a half brother who was married to the sister of Miguel Mármol, who as you know was a notorious person. That was one of the reasons we were very close to that historical episode. When Mármol was planning a visit to the US and was asked if he had ever been a member of the communist party, he said, “Member, what do you mean? I am the founder of the communist party.” (laughter) I heard many stories like this.

CBC It’s interesting, what you say about hearing it from the family, through informal arenas, because in many ways in El Salvador, 1932 is a taboo subject. Not many historians have studied it in depth. Everything that happened during that time is kept in a dark closet: the genocidal actions of the National Guard, the systematic persecution of the Indian people, the suppression of indigenous cultural traditions on the part of the Salvadoran military governments. After 1932, it was a punishable crime to be an Indian in El Salvador. The Indian people had to stop practicing their public religious and cultural traditions; their culture became a private experience. They had to abandon their traditional clothing; they spoke Nahuatl only in private and not in front of strangers. Only a few people, like the historian Jorge Arias Gómez and the poet Roque Dalton, who did it creatively as opposed to making a formal documentation, have really analyzed 1932, looking not only at the historical events but also at the dramatic impact that they had on the Salvadoran psyche, how it has changed us as Salvadorans. Many of our sources of that period are part of the oral histories. As a cultural worker and as an oral historian, I find that to be fascinating. That was the key element of your film.

DFA You touch on the two main sources of information, the oral tradition and also the intellectual component. Pablo Antonio Cuadra, a Nicaraguan poet, said that Nicaragua flies with two wings: one is the wing of Rubén Darío, and his legacy, and the other wing is the legacy of Sandino, who was the patriot who fought the Yankee invasion in the ’30s. So we have Darío the modernist poet and Sandino the revolutionary nationalist, and Nicaragua’s national identity is based on that dualism between culture and politics. I think we fly on two wings in El Salvador too: my take is that there is a national intellectual and a natural intellectual. However, the experience of 1932 is a little more complex than the Nicaraguan experience. In that period there were three main components: Hernández Martínez, the dictator of the period; Farabundo Martí, the leader of the communist party; and José Feliciano Ama, the indigenous chief and leader of the insurrection. The national intellectuals have usually addressed 1932 from the literate, academic point of view, which is concretely based on the perception that this was solely a communist revolt, which was the excuse the government used to annihilate the indigenous population. For the communists to take on that struggle as their own has in a sense accommodated the official story. The indigenous people were never recognized as being at the forefront of this event. Their genocide was not only physical; it was cultural as well.

CBC I think you’re correct that when the intellectuals in El Salvador and abroad look at 1932, some call it a revolt, others call it a revolution, but they lack the human element, they detach it from the realities. Your film brings these questions to the indigenous people and asks them what they think about it. One of the most relevant questions, which comes up throughout the film, is, Was José Feliciano Ama, the Indian leader in Izalco, really a communist leader? It has been documented that at the time, communist leaders such as Martí were working closely with Indian communities in an effort to help them organize against those in government who had been passing legislation to take away their traditional lands. That is something that both Don Juan and Doña Paula talk about in the film, as do many others who come out and discuss the relationship that José Feliciano Ama had with organizers from the capital and other places.


Rosalio, Don Juan's son, and Don Juan in Ama: The Memory of Time.

DFA Essentially I wanted to portray both the contemporary and the historical indigenous reality. The notion that there are no Indians is laughable, ridiculous, and yet the state and the Salvadoran society as a whole suggest this by programmatically ignoring the Indian people. The negation of our identity is a legacy of the cultural genocide. For me it was essential to touch on the everyday life of the indigenous people of El Salvador and not make it something other than what it is. Conflicting assimilation and transculturalization are things that minority groups are forced to comply with in dominant cultures. And the lack of intellectual curiosity or political will to really look at the struggle of the Indian people in Central America is a legacy of colonialism.

CBC Communism and indigenous culture, which is communally based, share certain patterns of social organization. But the indigenous people in the film keep saying that they were not necessarily communists, they were communal: they were looking toward the well-being of a community. It is important to note that indigenous people are not into competition. To them, commonality, cooperation and collectivity are some of the important ways in which they organize their social lives.

DFA In my research I found that leading up to 1932, the indigenous people from the western part of El Salvador, Sonsonate and Ahuachapan, were the most organized. The communists could not do without them. I think the communists saw in the native people a perfect political alliance in the struggle for the land. The indigenous people are a land-based culture, not only in El Salvador but all through the Americas, and a land-based economy owned by the people was central to their survival. Indigenous people had been dealing with the land grab policies of the state long before the communists came into the picture. That was the main reason for the 1932 struggle, and that has been the struggle of colonial, postcolonial and modern times. In the United States as well as Brazil, Bolivia, and Ecuador, the struggles continue.

CBC When colonizers look at land they see it as a commodity, something that can be owned and exploited. To indigenous people, land is sacred, it is Mother Earth, and there’s a great connection, with respect not only to the earth but to other people. This is something that is often missing from the analysis. The sacredness of the land is integral to the indigenous experience, and that spirituality, as well as a religious way of life, is absolutely essential when one looks at land, social organization and human relations. That’s something that does not exist in a colonial society.

DFA That aspect was fascinating to me. I tried to convey a spiritual presence in my film. How to grasp that spirituality? The Nahuatl society was organized around their spirituality as the essential and central part. José Feliciano, the leader of the Indian revolt and grandmaster and chief of the Nahua-Pipil nation, was not just a peon; he was a merciful mayordomo—the spiritual person who rules over the clanship of a deity. And he was, I believe, the caretaker of la Santa Cruz la Plata, which is a holy silver cross.

CBC One thing you mention in the film about the cross that I have also found in my own research is that in many indigenous cultures it doesn’t signify the Christian cross but the four cardinal points; it also means the cornfield, corn itself. In Mayan symbolism, the corn stalk represents the cross, which is life. So there is also an element of ancient indigenous spirituality that is present there, and that’s a kind of beauty in itself. In El Salvador the Day of the Cross is a very important celebration. When I saw your film, I learned that José Feliciano was one of the leaders of the Cofradía, the spiritual society, and that immediately came to my mind. I never knew that about José Feliciano.

DFA Exactly, nobody knows that. This is where the film is very revealing, if you look and listen carefully to the story of Don Juan, José Feliciano’s nephew. My interest in film is to give voice to the indigenous people, with absolutely no intervention. José Feliciano was executed by an angry mob of mestizos and white townspeople who beat him to death and then hung him, cut out his tongue and left his cadaver in full view in the Izalco town square, as an example of what would happen to indios communistas. Don Juan was 19 at the time. This had a great effect on him. Later in his life Don Juan became a spiritual leader of the Izalcos. The film gives the native interpretation, however wrong, however precise, however inaccurate. It’s our indigenous perspective and interpretation, our voice coming across with no adornment. Another important aspect for me was to show the Salvadoran nations that the indigenous people have survived and are still very much alive. Thirdly, I would say that the spiritual aspect was something I was trying to grasp. I don’t know how successful I was in that, because the film was made under very difficult circumstances and it took me a long time. I invested everything that I had. But I’m very satisfied in that to some degree those aspects were addressed in the film.


Doña Paula, José Feliciano's daughter, in Ama: The Memory of Time.

CBC The film really does something that other films have not been able to do, in dealing just with the Salvadoran experience. It’s not a historical document per se, but more a conversation with an individual who has an incredible character. Don Juan has such a jovial way of life. To see an older man come up with all these great ideas, with a great sense of humor, and who can also reflect on the past and really see other people . . . I felt a tremendous connection with him. And when I saw him going around to see Doña Paula—that was his cousin?

DFA Yes, Doña Paula is José Feliciano’s oldest daughter.

CBC She also is an amazing character. Almost 90-years-old, presenting her memories with such emotion. You mentioned this earlier—we usually don’t want to talk about 1932, we don’t acknowledge the impact that it had on indigenous societies, but many Salvadorans today have very strong Indian roots. It took relocating to the United States and living here for many years for me to understand that that indigenous background was my heritage and part of my own personal psyche as a Salvadoran and as an individual. I felt robbed because I was not able to really get at it in El Salvador when I lived there.

DFA In fact, you became a priest of Yemayá in Santeria.

CBC Yeah, I worked in Guatemala in the 1970s, around people who were very similar to the people of Izalco, and that’s how I began my involvement with the more spiritual aspects. In Guatemala they’re able to express their culture, their religion, their spirituality and their way of life more freely than people in El Salvador, which was a shock to me, and I began to reflect on and to study and identify my culture, my own personality, defining the postcolonial tradition. What part of the indigenous experience is within me? My mother comes from Zacatecoluca, a city that originally was a Nonualcan Indian town. So you and I both have this affinity in the sense that we have Nonualcan Indian roots. As kids, growing up, we never had any information; history books began with the colonial period, and indigenous people were seen as an object of folkloric representation. That still is the case, and the Salvadoran people carry a tremendous amount of prejudice and racism when dealing with the indigenous people, who are seen as second-class citizens by the mestizos, people of mixed Indian and Spanish blood, or those who live in the cities.

DFA That’s a very complex situation. One of the reasons I’m doing the New York International Forum on El Salvador 1932 is precisely that. The issues need to be ventilated in an international arena—not to say that it’s not possible to do that in El Salvador, but the conditions there to revisit our history are very limited and not very welcoming. Saying that the Salvadorans are racist—there is an element of that, I don’t mean to say that racism is benign, but the racism in El Salvador is more of a self-hatred phenomenon. Before shooting the film I interviewed people who physiologically—their faces were ancient faces, most definitely Indian. I picked them deliberately. Basically, my questions were, “Where are the Indians?” First they’d get stuck on the sense of the word Indians. Then they’d say, “There are no Indians.” So, you know, it’s very complex, those racial dynamics. So racism in El Salvador and in parts of Central America is more related to class than to the traditional division of race and color; it’s a cultural difference, more like xenophobia. We despise the similar. For me, to address this complexity in a larger forum, in this conference, is to bring together all the people who have done research on 1932, to start looking for a new concept of nationality, to break the many taboos in relation to who we really are.


Don Juan Ama and Daniel Flores y Ascencio at Ama's home during the filming of Ama: The Memory of Time. Photo by Lidia Castro.

CBC In your experience as a filmmaker, you have had the courage to go into an area of Salvadoran culture and society that is very controversial and hidden from the national discourse. I was always concerned about your safety, going to make such a film in El Salvador, considering that the postwar period is not necessarily a peaceful one yet.

DFA No, far from it, but I am not interested in making Walt Disney films. I want to address issues that concern me and the well-being of my community. I maintained the whole project practically in secret. I didn’t want to harm the Ama family, or the trust the family gave to me. El Salvador is still very dangerous. I was harassed emotionally; I was told that I was going to be killed. I never suffered direct threats, but when rumors start that you might get killed, in El Salvador you take no chances. I had to change homes at certain points, because I had already said publicly to the press that I was making this film. The relatives I was staying with were afraid of the rumors, fearful that a death squad would come to the house and take me and make me disappear. And they were afraid for their own lives. People are still very afraid. That’s the legacy of the 1980s civil wars. I moved houses three times to respect my relatives’ concerns, not so much because the threats were real, but because of the fear.

CBC Well, rumors tend to make things real, and that’s where you must be cautious. Another aspect of the film that fascinated me was the relationship that you developed with Don Juan. You mentioned the word trust. Izalco has suffered so much repression over time; it’s not easy for a spiritual leader like Don Juan to open up to an outsider. You’re not totally an outsider, of course; you’re Salvadoran and I can see that you’re involved in American Indian spirituality as well as with our own Nahuat spirituality. I’m fascinated by the relationship that you developed even outside the film with this man of wisdom.

DFA You must understand that seven years went by before we decided to make a film. My relationship with Don Juan was part apprenticeship, part father/son relationship and part calling; it had its own dimensions. He was a shaman, and I come from a long line of a spiritual clan. With Don Juan, everything developed along the path. He was treated with a certain admiration and deep respect in his community, almost feared—that comes with reverence. He was also the spiritual advisor of one of the Indian leaders of the country, Adrian Esquino Lisco, who led one of the most important organizations of indigenous people in the ’80s. In my work with international indigenous people’s rights I befriended Esquino Lisco, and I met Don Juan at one of the gatherings, where he was introduced to me as the nephew of José Feliciano. Of course that played a role in my trying to meet him, but it was never my intention to write a book or a poem, much less make a film.

CBC It was more on a personal level.

DFA It was a spiritual encounter from the very beginning. That developed into a very complex relationship. Over the years I witnessed the parade of people that came to ask him questions: professors, students, researchers all stopped at his house. One day he said to me, “I’m tired of repeating the same story. I’m tired of them coming and asking the same thing over and over. I just want to tell the story one more time, to you. And you do whatever you want to do with it.” And I said, “Don Juan, what do you want me to do with this story?” He said, “I don’t know, I’m just going to tell you the story.” And over time the story kept growing and growing. Everything was coming to fruition in terms of consolidating our spiritual relationship as he passed on the tradition and responsibility to me. We had our own understanding beyond anything else. I told him what I do, and he told me what to do. He said, “Well, you know best. If this is what you do, and this is how we can do it, let’s do it.” And he practically made me do it. In a sense this is his film. He died shortly after the film was completed. But to me he is still very much alive. Sometimes he reminds me of Clint Eastwood, with his hat and everything, sometimes of an old anarchist, with all his bravura, and other times with his deeply mystical ways, of a saint. Absorbed in his own culture, he says in the film, “I’m probably one of the last of my people who embraces the old traditional Indian ways.”


Wilfredo Lemus, Daniel Flores y Ascencio and José Ricardo Cordero filming Ama: The Memory of Time.

CBC I remember that. What you just said strikes a very important note, because that differentiates your work from other films and works about 1932, which tend to be historical documentation rather than a conversation with a man.

DFA Historically, there has never been a film made about 1932. And fortunately now there are two. I myself had reservations about making this film, because it was so personal. On the one hand I didn’t want to look at what was being written or said about 1932 because it was not about that. And on the other hand I didn’t make an extra effort to research the official version of 1932. But at about the same time, the director of the Museo de la Palabra y Imagen in San Salvador and a North American historian were working on their film about 1932, with a very anthropological, very ethnographic approach. It has some historical footage, something that I had absolutely no interest in showing, for many reasons. So now we have two films. Actually both films were screened at the New York International Forum on El Salvador 1932 this past October. They were the central component of the discussion between academicians and poets, intellectuals and indigenous leaders who came to New York for this conference. I think the struggle of the ’80s has created an atmosphere that has allowed an event like this to happen to some extent, as did gaining access to the archives of the former Soviet Union, which lay out the story of the communist party for historians and researchers. These people are looking at history through different eyes now. It’s very satisfying, for me, to have organized this forum outside El Salvador; it represents the continuation of my work as I try to engage my community intellectually. So, in a sense, to continue the legacy of Don Juan, as he passed it on to me. And hopefully this will help us set the record straight. I hope that in the end El Salvadorans will never say again that Indians do not exist. I would be very proud of our culture if they could do that. And also the commissions of the United States and abroad help us set the historical record on the right path.

CBC It’s something that has never been done at this level before, from a multidisciplinary perspective.

DFA Do you know the poet Claribel Alegría? She was an eyewitness of the 1932 genocide as a child. There are not many testimonies from that generation, not many people left to pass on the story. Claribel and the contributions of the intellectuals of her stature can reinforce our history.

CBC We have to come to terms with who we are as Salvadorans, and this is really a gigantic step that you are taking in order for us to come to that point.

DFA It’s also a healing. We have to look at our history to be able to heal as people, to heal the collective psyche, to heal the community. It is important that we look at the legacy of terror. Fear is an element that can easily infringe on people’s consciousness. Here and everywhere else, fear is becoming a tool for nationalistic policies and for manipulation of information. El Salvadorans and Central American people have been terrorized from the moment the white man arrived. They had guns, horses, metal, and we had never seen people like that; the fear from that very first encounter was used as a form of colonization through terror. Breaking that cycle of fear and analyzing the legacy of terror is one of the essential things I want to convey when I show the film. Sometimes I think this film is not made for mass audiences. I would like to rent a car, go across the Americas with a projector and show the film wherever the Salvadoran communities are located, because the diaspora has been a result of that fear and that policy of terror. To heal we need to first deconstruct the pattern of terror.

CBC In the film your connection with Don Juan brought a sense of recognition and a sense of identification that I could totally feel in my heart. Your work is an essential piece for all Salvadorans to see, for us to come to terms with this idea that we are again trying to maintain our Indian-ness and at the same time we have to come to terms with our present life here in the United States and see ourselves as Salvadorans abroad in the diaspora. I see it as an understanding of an indigenous person, a man of wisdom, a man of respect in his community. We don’t really see that in many aspects of Salvadoran life, somebody who has such a position of respect and power—not so much political power, but spiritual power.

DFA You know, the day that Don Juan passed away I was abroad. I was invited by my associate producer, Petuuche Gilbert, to a conference in Washington on indigenous leaders. At the closing ceremony the drums were beating and a new generation of Indians were initiated, so to speak, to the traditions and responsibilities of leadership in a new century. There, that evening, Don Juan came to me once more and revealed the purpose of our relationship and the meaning of the film. The next day I received a fax that said that Don Juan had died the night before. He will always be a part of my life and my filmmaking.

Indigenous peoples
Cultural history
Political corruption
documentary film
latin american film
Winter 2005
The cover of BOMB 90