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Mario Bencastro, Oscar Romero and Us

Mario D. Fenyo


     At the risk of writing less than elegant prose, I propose to examine diachronically three related issues: the use of a "historical" novel for didactic purposes, the circumstances surrounding the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, and the ramifications of liberation theology conceived as a Latin American phenomenon of the recent past.

     Most of us have read historical novels, and some who profess history may even have inflicted them on unsuspecting high school or college students. There is no foolproof definition of the genre, except that some fiction is designated "historical" simply by virtue of the fact that the plot unfolds in a more distant past and the names of some of the characters are recognizable. One feature of "fake" historical novels is the lively or not so lively direct speech uttered by the protagonists whose actions may have been recorded by historians, but whose voice was never recorded, taped, or written down by any chronicler.

     On the other hand, authentic fiction often features historical figures, but not necessarily. The fiction may present a convincing '"picture" of the past—convincing because of the realism of the portrayal, the psychological insights and the high esthetic value, as is obviously the case of Shakespeare's "king plays" or Tolstoy's War and Peace. Yet kings and Napoleon may be entirely absent: according to György Lukács, using Walter Scott as his example, what makes a historical novel more realistic than romantic is the revelation, the display of class struggle, the correct depiction of a "hitherto existing society" in medieval England.1The author need not be Marxist, socialist, or even "left-leaning" to produce fiction that amounts to a documentation of the social and cultural history of a given society in a given period—witness some of the works of politically conservative writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa,2 or Honoré de Balzac .3

     Mario Bencastro4 writes authentic fiction, as opposed to fake history. This applies to his short stories (see especially his collection entitled Arbol de la Vida; historias de la Guerra civil), and to his novels, maybe even to his paintings, including his most recent works.5 I will focus on a single one of his works, perhaps the best known: A Shot in the Cathedral/ Disparo en la catedral.6

     It behooves us to sketch the background of the story, which is also the socio-historical milieu in which Bencastro became a creative artist, of which he is a "product"; a summary may suffice, since it is easy enough to find a chronology of the Salvadoran civil war, or of the civil wars across Central America.

     The genocide of the Native American population began with the arrival of the "conquerors," and the subsequent settlement of Central America by the Spaniards in the 16th century. The genocide was not always complete, nor was it always deliberate. Native Americans fought and in many cases survived in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and in El Salvador. At independence, or even earlier in El Salvador, the land devolved into the hands of handful of landowners, the famous "fourteen families" oligarchs and plutocrats in the Salvadoran case. 7 Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the presidents were military dictators (caudillos), or just plain dictators.

     Similar socio-economic conditions prevailed in other countries of Central America, leading to major upheavals. Such was the case of the progressive and democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, dislodged soon after he took office with the assistance of American intervention in 1954. The Somoza family, entrenched between 1957 and 1970 in Nicaragua, was forced to resign and flee the country (only to die at the hands of an assassin in Paraguay the following year) by the Sandinista revolt, which was dislodged in turn by the "Contras" who received extensive American support. At one point in Bencastro's novel, the radio announces the triumph of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.8 The reader may well ask, did the people of San Salvador—the capital city where most of the action is taking place—actually hear this announcement in 1980, does the author recall this announcement, or is this merely another historical detail introduced to enhance the realism of the drama unfolding in the novel?

     There are other historical events in the region that have a direct bearing on the happenings in the novel, yet are not mentioned. One of these would be the 1932 revolt associated with the name of Farabundo Marti, comrade of Sandino in Nicaragua, the Salvadoran revolutionary whose name was adopted by the movement for liberation in the 1970s and since (Frente Farabundi Marti de Liberación Nacional). Another event, not explicitly mentioned in the novel, yet difficult to overlook, was the Cuban revolution of 1959. Bencastro's novel refers to the events of 1979 and 1980.

     When the Christian Democratic Party of El Salvador succeeded in briefly dethroning the military regime, reaction was swift and brutal. A right-wing government took over which, in turn, was overthrown by a coalition of mainly "moderate," relatively progressive officers, but including some hardliners. Death threats against this reformist cabinet forced the resignation of almost all ministers in January 1980. Violence continued, sometimes by leftist elements, or by elements posing as leftist, but more often by the forces of reaction. According to Archbishop Oscar Romero, in early 1980 the war had already claimed the lives of about 3,000 Salvadorans each month, the "cadavers clogging up the streams…"9

     Right-wing death squads engaged in acts of terrorism against labor leaders, intellectuals, peasants and ordinary citizens, culminating in the assassination of Romero himself in March 1980. Romero seemed uninterested in politics or in progressive ideas until the late 1970s, but from that time on he was labeled a "liberation theologian." 10 It may be argued that by 1980 liberation theology had run its course, receiving no encouragement from Rome. Yet the ideal came alive, in substance if not in name, in El Salvador, embodied in Romero as well as in Bencastro's novel. "¡Trabajar unidos por un destino comun! Y eso no es nada de nuevo. Es exactamente lo mismo que quiso hacer Jesucristo!"11 The Archbishop had the audacity to denounce the mass murders committed by the nameless and faceless agents of the ruling class. Indeed, Romero was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979: "Si significa algo bueno para el pobre, la Iglesia este de acuerdo; y si no significa nada para el pobre, el decreto tampoco le interesa a la Iglesia" ["If it is something good for the people, the church is in agreement, if it means nothing for the people, then the Church is also not interested"], he declared optimistically 12 —albeit by then Romero had left the mainstream of the Church and the majority of the local clergy morally far behind.

     The Archbishop was then shot and killed by unknown assailants while celebrating mass in the chapel of a hospital in San Salvador. As Bencastro points out in his Epilogue to the collection Arbol de la vida, this was the first time an archbishop was assassinated in church since the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury, on orders from Henry II of England, in 1170.13 A week later, during the funeral at the Cathedral, as people cam to pay homage to the remains of the archbishop martyr, the mourners wee decimated y gunfire: 42 killed and over 200 wounded. (The figures given in Bencastro's novel are 35 killed and 450 wounded)(14 It was "as if all 5 million citizens of the country" had found their way to the Cathedral, or at least to downtown San Salvador, writes Bencastro.15 The right-wing Junta forbade the publication of any information about the assassination.16 Thus the novel of Bencastro constitutes a challenge that was expressly forbidden by the regime.

     While the United States government and its complicity in the murders is not mentioned in the novel, it is important for all of us to remember that our government, including President Jimmy Carter, his successor Ronald Reagan, and many congressmen approved huge sums of military aid to bolster the Salvadoran oligarchy and did little or nothing to stop the mayhem. Romero's letter to President Carter, dated February 17, 1980, asking the American president to halt military aid (amounting to 1.5 million dollars a day on the average, for twelve years—7 billion dollars in ten years alone), went unheeded. Many of those who read the novel since its publication in 1989 must have read it with these facts still fresh in mind. It is also important to remember that tens of thousands of Salvadorans were killed before Romero, and tens of thousands more suffered the same fate between 1980 and 1992, when a peace treaty was finally signed in Mexico. A million more avoided that fate by finding their way, legally or illegally, into the United States.

     These are the events that provide the structure and framework of Bencastro's novel. In my research on the dialectics of literature and politics I have resorted to the images of "mirror" and "chisel" to describe this dialectical relationship. While the novel evidently serves as mirror of Salvadoran society or segments thereof, its function as chisel is less obvious. By 1992 the total number of copies sold, whether in English or Spanish, was far fewer than 50,000. The book was printed not in El Salvador, but in Mexico and the United States (eventually translated into French and German). It had been printed by Editorial Diana in Mexico in 1989 while the civil war was still raging, claiming thousands of victims, including nuns and priests. A few of the stories included in the collection Arbol de la vida, while offering a realistic portrayal of the suffering among the villagers, students, and urban guerrillas, did get printed in El Salvador in the early 1980s. On the other hand, the rebel movements was often led, manned or womanned, by the agricultural proletariat, landless peasants who lacked a literary education, or a formal education of any kind. It will take a while for them to turn into a reading public. As Rogelio, the protagonist, explains to his girl-friend, a poet "nunca he publicado, además de dificil, en este pais la literatura no vale nada …["I've never published, besides the difficulty of it, in this country literature is not valued.]"17 Which may lead us, the leader or critic, to believe that Bencastro did not intend the book as a weapon to promote the revolt, to promote the overthrow of dictatorship.

     Nevertheless, the book may have contributed to the victory of the FMLN in the elections of 2009. At least 50,000 copies of the novel are in circulation by now, half of them in Spanish. Books, especially in countries where the ownership of cultural artifacts constitutes a luxury, are passed from hand to hand, and may often be quoted by people who do not own a copy and may have only second-hand knowledge of its contents. It would be necessary to conduct research regarding the reception oft Bencastro's works by the reading public in El Salvador in a systematic manner to ascertain its true impact.18

     Bencastro's novel is undeniably powerful, but exactly where does its power reside? The very structure of the novel revolves around the dialectics between historical fact and historical imagination. According to the blurb on the cover of the edition published in Houston (Arte Público Press, 1997), except for the biographical details and the sermons delivered by Romero and reproduced verbatim, "the other names, characters, places and incidents are invented by the author, or have been used in fiction form."

     Actually, the blurb is inaccurate. There are details that give the story plausibility, beyond the well-known central event of Romero's assassination. Thus the poem by Roque Dalton, which serves as epigraph at the beginning of the novel, represents reality: Dalton was the epitome of the poet engagé while, at the same time, a well-nigh mystical figure, straight out of the magic realism of some as yet unwritten Latin American novel. The young radical poet of flesh and blood had been sentenced to death on two occasions, yet managed to escape each time, miraculously (to end up murdered by an FMLN group).

     The novel also reveals the predicament of the impoverished strata of Salvadoran society. Rogelio Villaverde, the protagonist, is not the alter ego of the author, but he is described as an artist, much as Bencastro is in real life (a well-known painter before becoming a well-known writer). Of course, as most denizens of bohème, Rogelio is penniless,19 living off the reluctant charity of Ramona, the owner of the corner grocery store.20 Moreover, it so happens that Rogelio, like the author, had traveled across Honduras and settled in the United States, for years. The unemployed Rogelio eventually finds employment with the daily La Tribuna as janitor and occasional reporter. There was no daily by that name in San Salvador,21 but the reference is transparent enough: the real life newspaper El Independiente was banned in 1980, like the fictional one, in the middle of the story. At one point Rogelio and his girl-friend travel to Ilobasco, her birthplace, some 60 kilometers north of San Salvador.22 The town is in or near the region in the north of the country that the FMLN guerrillas were able to control for much of the civil war.

     The dichotomy or dialectics between literature as mirror23 and literature as chisel is reflected in the mind of the author, speaking through the protagonist. "El dilemma entre arte y realidad causa en mi una desesperación asfixiante, pues no estaba seguro si mi pintura debia expresar la opresión de la realidad a la creatividad….["the tension between art and reality causes a suffocating desperation in me, in that I am never sure whether may portrait expresses oppression of reality or that of creativity"] "24 Ten years after the events described in the novel it is no longer the art of painting that is reflecting despair, but the art of writing, the novel itself. The author remains hesitant, not knowing for sure whether he, the man of creativity, has the right to play the role of historian, to record events "as they really happened" (to borrow Leopold von Ranke's famous phrase), or whether he should disguise reality to the point of making it unrecognizable by manipulating the cast of characters. The same doubts, the same dilemma seem to assail Bencastro nowadays, as he wrestles against the intrusion of historical dates and names into his latest novel, in his portrait of a family through many generations, "The Portable Paradise."

     As regards Bencastro's technique for weaving fact and fiction, there is a long story entitled "Habia una vez un rio" ("Once There Was a River") in Arbol de la vida. The story is followed by three sentences listing three "historical facts" from 1980, 1981 and 1982, each entailing hundreds of victims. It is followed by a "documentation of the facts", a short list of references, including eye-witness reports collected by journalists.25

     The structure of Disparo en la catedral can be summarized as follows, chapter by chapter, episode by episode:

Voice of Rogelio (first person account)

Voice of the author


The author; dialogue between Dominguez, the editor of a daily and Rogelio

Lourdes, the girl-friend

Dialogue between Dominguez and Rogelio

The author, in a bar

Lourdes, on a bus

Author at the Red Rum

Author; then Archbishop Romero



Author at the Red Rum

Lourdes and her family


Dominguez, under arrest


Author, in a bordello; voice of Soledad, a prostitute



Romero. Text of a letter

Lourdes and her family



Rogelio, painting





Dialogue—murder of Romero





Poem by Lourdes

     Thus from this structure we can see that the voice of the omniscient author becomes less distinct, whereas the voice of the Archbishop is heard increasingly, becomes irrepressible. The drama in the novel becomes the drama of Romero, of El Salvador. As the Archbishop explains: "I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran People." Although Bencastro may have preferred to keep historical facts at bay, the words of the Archbishop could not be silenced within him.

     Bencastro's novel is not a historical novel, certainly not in the negative sense of that term; it carefully eschews that label. The sermons of the Archbishop are reprinted literally, without commentary, and these are, indeed, primary documents. The characters in the novel are fictional, but their ideas, their feelings, their utterances become real as they are juxtaposed to those of the actual Romero. It is this juxtaposition which gives the novel its extraordinary power, its power as authentic fiction.

Mario D. Fenyo is Professor of History at Bowie State University. He is currently president of the Association of Third World Studies and author of numerous books, essays and articles. He can be contcted at


1 György Lukács, The Historical Novel (London: Merlin, 1962), passim.

2 For example, Historia de Mayta, the story of a soldier in Peru in the days of the Sendero Luminoso uprising, or La guerra del fin del mundo, the retelling of the millennial uprising at Canudos in Brazil.

3 György Lukács, Balzac et le réalisme français, (Paris: La Découverte, 1999). For an extensive bibliography on the sociology of literature, please see my Literature and Political Change (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1986), last chapter.

4 Mario Bencastro was born in Ahuachapán, El Salvador in 1949.

5 Mario Bencastro, Arbol de la vida; historias de la Guerra civil, first published in El Salvador in 1993 (Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1997).

6 Mario Bencastro , Disparo en la catedral (Mexico City: Diana Press, 1987). It has been reprinted by Arte Publico Press in Houston in 1997, and in English as Shot in the Cathedral, 1996, by the same publishing house. Hereafter cited as Disparo en la cathedral.

7 Regarding the history of El Salvador, the most recent one I could find is a textbook by Christopher M. White, The History of El Salvador, (Greenwood Press, 1908). See also Hugh Byrne, El Salvador's Civil War: A Study of Revolution (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1996); Jon Sobrino, Witnesses to the Kingdom: the Martyrs of El Salvador and the Crucified People, Maryknoll: Orbis, 2000) focusing on the Jesuits ; Thomas P. Anderson, Politics in Central America: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua (Westport: Praeger, 1988), is evidently somewhat outdated.

8 Disparo en la catedral , 9

9 Disparo en la cathedral, 10.

10 See the works of Gustavo Gutierrez in Peru, particularly his Teologia de liberación, Leonardo Boff, Jesu Cristo Libertador, Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, but also the works of Ivan Illich that preceded them, such as Deschooling Society (1935), produced in Puerto Rico, and The Limits of Medicine (1974), at his Institute (CIDOC) in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

11 Disparo en la catedral, 18.

12 Disparo en la cathedral, 64. Translations by Rick Warner, Wabash College.

13 Disparo en la cathedral, 156.

14 Arbol de la vida, 109. Becket's murder is recorded, in addition to standard history texts, in T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral (first performed, 1935).

15 Disparo,146.

16 Disparo en la cathedral 34.

17 For a methodology and analysis of the reception of a literary work, see the works of Robert Escarpit, beginning with his Sociologie de la litérature, (Paris: Presses Universitaires, 1958).

18 Disparo en la cathedral, 11.

19 Disparo en la cathedral 170.

20 Disparo en la cathedral, 23-24

21 Bencastro himself uses the phrase "espejo de esa realidad histórica" in the epilogue to his Arbol de le vida, 107 ff. In this epilogue he reveals his theories regarding the distinctions between history and fantasy, that is, the role played by historical fact in his fiction.

22 Disparo en la cathedral 33

23 Disparo en la cathedral 113

24 Disparo en la cathedral 2

25 Mario Bencastro, Arbol de la vida, 106.


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