Tell Mother I’m in Paradise was a long time coming. The product of interviews conducted from exile in Costa Rica between 1987 and 1992, the publication of Salvadoran political prisoner Ana Margarita Gasteazoro’s extraordinary life story was tabled following her untimely death from breast cancer in 1993. Three decades later, interviewers and editors Judy Blankenship and Andrew Wilson secured the family’s permission to share her story with the world. It was worth the wait.
Gasteazoro’s riveting account tells the story of an unlikely revolutionary who turned against her class to join the national liberation movement that fought the US-backed military dictatorship to a draw after twelve years of civil war. Her narrative is at once harrowing and disarming, insightful and inspiring. Published as an authoritarian government in El Salvador has revived the practices of political persecution and extrajudicial detention, the book is a timely reminder of the strategies deployed by a previous generation of radicals against repression.
From Reform to Revolution
As historian Erik Ching notes in his introduction, the book doesn’t quite conform to the typical Latin American militant genre of testimonio. This is because Gasteazoro is hardly a subaltern representative of a disadvantaged class. Even so, the protagonist’s revolutionary commitments appear to render her narrative suspect to the publisher, such that Ching is recruited to confirm its veracity. This endorsement feels unnecessary, insulting even, but he assumes the task gracefully enough and provides key historical context for the civil war.
Unlike most of her comrades in arms, Gasteazoro hailed from the upper ranks of the Salvadoran bourgeoisie, her mother a leader in the secretive and elite Catholic sect of Opus Dei. Her politicization began in part by accident, after her parents sent the rebellious teenager to study in Guatemala with the Maryknoll sisters. There, she was unwittingly immersed in the nascent school of liberation theology. She had a restless, cosmopolitan youth, studying in the United States and Europe and, in the early 1970s, living in Jamaica as the partner of Michael Manley’s minister of tourism.
In this period, El Salvador’s landowning oligarchy, which governed through US-backed military rule, was responding to growing economic inequality and democratic demands with ruthless repression. As her analysis of the burgeoning social conflict matured, Gasteazoro returned home.
“By the time I returned to El Salvador,” she recalls, “about 2,000 large landowners controlled almost 80 percent of the usable land, compared to 230,000 small landowners with less than 100 hectares each. These are the kind of statistics that result in civil wars.” In this context, the 1977 assassination of Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande, beloved advocate of liberation theology’s preferential option for the poor, compelled her to act.
After her experience with social democratic politics in Jamaica, Gasteazoro says, “I felt that the reformist approach of the political parties, even the social democrats, wasn’t enough.” Nevertheless, she was nervous about the prospect of armed struggle and, in her words, didn’t “have the guts to join the trade union movement of peasant organizations” that comprised the mass movement. She turned to the legal opposition parties, joining the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR), a member of the Socialist International.
The political work was all consuming: “One week might find me organizing a women’s group or analyzing the political reality of El Salvador with a student study group. The next week I’d be working like crazy putting out an edition of the party’s newsletter.” As a young woman, she was constantly “fighting to be taken seriously in the party with half these men relating to me as a sexual object” but developed close relationships with many of her comrades.
Gasteazoro’s English skills soon found her traveling abroad to build international solidarity and fundraising for the Salvadoran left. She recounts the romance of the 1978 World Festival of Youth and Students in Havana, where she began to overcome the lingering prejudices of her bourgeois upbringing.
“I felt quite intimidated,” she remembers:
I’d always worked in a reformist political line, but the political context in the festival was overwhelmingly revolutionary. . . . Up till then, I had rather looked down on these mass organizations. I didn’t like the way they acted, their techniques, their loudness. . . . But in Cuba, I got ‘massified’ and I loved it.
She returned to San Salvador “ready to take up arms.”
Back home, the violence was mounting: “For every large-scale massacre at a demonstration, there were ten individuals disappeared or assassinated, some well known and others from the most humble sectors of society. During those months I saw bodies in the street every day.” She became increasingly uncomfortable with the smug, safe approach of the MNR in the face of the risks taken by the campesinos and factory workers, who “weren’t afraid to die for others, to go out and scream for their needs and rights.”
But Gasteazoro stayed in politics. She joined the short-lived revolutionary junta following a 1979 coup by progressive officers as a press liaison, only to watch it collapse in a surge of military opposition and repression. After the formation of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) marked the initiation of civil war, she joined the insurgent army’s political-diplomatic arm, the Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR), as part of the MNR.
Secretly, however, she joined the armed struggle, leading a “double life” as an MNR leader and a militant with the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL), one of the five insurgent groups of the FMLN.
From the Underground to the Inside
In the FPL, Gasteazoro received basic arms training and carried a pistol, but she saw no combat. Instead, she was tasked with logistics and propaganda, helping to set up the clandestine Radio Farabundo Martí and produce the renowned militant documentary El Salvador: El Pueblo Vencerá.
Her time in the underground was short but no less eventful. When she became romantically involved with her housemate and superior, the couple had to secure permission from their commanders to become intimate.
“The rules of the clandestine struggle say you must control yourself with the same discipline you bring to the rest of your work. They demand you be an ascetic. And I’m not,” Gasteazoro concedes.
That relationship, however, would prove abusive, her partner constantly chastising her independence as bourgeois deviancy.
The FDR leadership was abducted, tortured, and murdered on November 27, 1980, and it was Gasteazoro who identified the disfigured remains of her MRN comrade Enrique Barrera. After the failed 1981 offensive, which she recalls with bitter disappointment, a new round of death threats sent the remaining leadership of the legal opposition into exile, and she became the MNR representative to the FDR and the only woman in the leadership. Her FPL membership remained a secret.
In this role, she began to coordinate closely with the Committee of Political Prisoners of El Salvador (COPPES) to denounce the situation of political prisoners and publicize disappearances. Then she herself was arrested.
After unidentified security forces surrounded her safe house, Gasteazoro was disappeared. She describes the traumatic ordeal of her detention and torture at the hands of the National Guard. Most of the disappeared were never seen again; the 1993 United Nations Truth Commission put the number around 10,000 by the conflict’s close. But the Gasteazoro family’s status helped them to locate her alive after eleven long days.
Beaten into signing a confession, Gasteazoro was finally allowed to bathe and hauled in front of the media for a live press conference. Back in familiar territory, she regained composure.
“The Guardia Nacional had made all these efforts to break me, and they’d succeeded, but then they had undone all their work by putting me in this press conference,” she writes. The next day, her image was plastered across front pages nationally, and she was transferred to the Ilopango women’s prison.
The narrative of prison contains rich character studies together with practical lessons about activism on the inside. After fantasizing about suicide, Gasteazoro was thrilled to find herself incarcerated with fellow militants — and eager to start organizing.
She founded a women’s section of the political prisoners committee: “COPPES at Ilopango started as a political initiative with political objectives, but it would never have got off the ground if it hadn’t also been an organization of survival.” The women began by organizing a communal fund for necessities like toothpaste and sanitary napkins and demands around improving food rations, eventually coordinating hunger strikes with their counterparts in the men’s prison. The Mothers’ Committee (COMADRES) acted as couriers and helped publicize the actions. Organizing around prison conditions was carried out openly, with clandestine work to spread propaganda, engage in political education, and recruit the unaffiliated.
They received new detainees with great care:
Many of the new arrivals came in immediately after torture by the police, so we made sure that a woman’s first contact with us wasn’t another interrogation. We tried to give her a feeling that she was among other women now, she wasn’t alone, she was safe. You could almost touch the solidarity in those moments.
Just like on the outside, factional tensions between the different political-military groups of the FMLN were high, and COPPES eventually split between FPL and the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP) members. Gasteazoro recounts how the news of FPL commander Cayetano Carpio (aka Marcial)’s role in the murder of his second-in-command, Mélida Anaya Montes (aka Ana María), in Nicaragua shook her faith profoundly: “My world was coming apart, crumbling. And that was dangerous, because to survive in prison I needed to believe in my organization.”
This experience led her to adopt a more discerning, critical militancy: “There is a particular kind of obedience you have to accept when you’re clandestine and dealing with compartmentalization,” she maintains. “It’s a conscious process, an exercise of judgement: you are aware of why it’s done and you accept it because it’s necessary to achieve the goals. But there’s another aspect to obedience, which is idealization of human beings.” In both romantic relationships and political struggle, she learned to bring her comrades down from their pedestals.
Gasteazoro was released a few weeks later, liberated as part of a 1983 amnesty. By then, she had spent two years behind bars. She would travel to Mexico and spend the remainder of the war exiled in Costa Rica.
Back to the Future
Gasteazoro’s narrative is a look into the revolutionary organizing of the 1980s. But it also strikes an eerie harmony with the repression taking place in El Salvador today.
More than forty years after the founding of COPPES and COMADRES, political prisoners and their families are once again organizing for justice. COFAPPES, the Committee of Family Members of Political Prisoners, was founded in 2021 after President Nayib Bukele’s regime swept up dozens of former FMLN cabinet members and government officials as others fled into exile. Friends and relatives drew on their experience from the civil war to mobilize, once again, against authoritarian state violence.
This selective repression of the political opposition was soon followed by an indiscriminate campaign. In March, the government enacted the second state of exception in three years, indefinitely suspending constitutional guarantees of due process and freedom of association. In the first three months of mass arrests, the country’s already overburdened prison population doubled, making El Salvador the world’s foremost mass incarcerator.
At least fifty-nine people arbitrarily detained in this period are known to have died in state custody, some beaten to death after being jailed with known gang members, others for lack of medical care for chronic illnesses. In this context, family members of detainees have held candlelight vigils and marches for their loved ones’ freedom.
The revolution Gasteazoro fought for may feel more distant today, but the repression she faced in El Salvador is as present as ever.