Translator's Note: This is an unauthorized translation from the book El Salvador: Historia General. Photographs and citations have been redacted, but the original page numbers have been retained.




Chapter 15: Anastasio Aquino – National Hero

By Jorge Arias Gómez



Introduction

On July 24, 1833, after Anastasio Mártir Aquino was publicly executed by firing squad, an executioner beheaded his corpse. The indigenous insurgent had turned forty-one years of age just over three months earlier. His head was placed in an iron cage and hung near the edge of the street running past Hunters Hill where every passerby could see it.

 

This horrifying scene continued as ants and birds of prey ate away at his head until only the skull remained. The example that the government authorities had made of Aquino must have served as a brutal, barbarous warning to the communities of the Nonualco.

 

The rebellion of Anastasio Aquino, or "Aquino the Indian" as he is known in oral tradition and in our written history, was to be burned permanently into the minds of the people.

 

In this essay, I will attempt to summarize the historical conditions that gave rise to the insurrection, its key events, and its tragic end.

 

The immediate causes of the indigenous uprising

In order to understand the immediate causes of the rebellion in Santiago Nonualco and San Juan Nonualco that was led by Anastasio Aquino, we must focus our attention on the existence, at that time, of an acute crisis of political power, as shown in the following events.

 

1=Between March of 1832 and February of 1833, the following men served successively as Head of State or Vice Head of State of El Salvador: General Francisco Morazán (March 29 to May 13 of 1832), Joaquín de San Martín (May 13 to July 25 of 1832), Mariano Prado (July 25 of 1832 to February 8 of 1833), and Joaquín de San Martín (February 9 to June 30 of 1833). San Martín served again between July 1 of 1833 and May 12 of 1834.

 

This situation reflected the deep contradictions at the heart of the governing elite that were exploited by General Francisco Morazán to strengthen his political hegemony within the states of the federation. Specifically, Morazán recognized the faction led by Prado in opposition to the faction led by San Martín. It has been said that the determining factor in this crisis gripping the heights of power was the aspirations of San Martín's faction to free El Salvador from the dictates of Guatemala. This theory argues that these were expressions of a nascent nationalism that would play a large role in shaping much of nineteenth-century Salvadoran history.


2=El Salvador's chronic fiscal deficits became increasingly severe due to warfare demanding vast material resources of every sort, especially human. Successive governments carried out numerous forced recruitments among indigenous communities and instituted taxes that overwhelmed the people.

 

Indeed, on February 6 of 1833, after "the black standard of the horrible insurrection of the Nonualcos", as historian José Antonio Cevallos called it, had already been raised, the government of El Salvador vetoed a plan approved by the Legislative Assembly for the monthly collection of loans worth 4,000 pesos. The government asserted that the measure "is quite dangerous, since it seems that the continuous loans that we have demanded are what has caused the disturbances that have been breaking out among certain peoples, and therefore the publication of this law will serve to increase their discontent."

 

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Although the veto talked about "disturbances", the true facts of the situation paint a portrait of sheer anarchy. Indeed, occurring within just a few months of Aquino's rebellion were violent incidents in San Salvador on October 24, 1832, and in the town of Zacatecoluca on October 26 and 28. At the same time, an uprising in the town of Izalco unfolded at the instigation of the priest Pablo Sagastume, Felipe Vega, Manuel Anaya, and Serapio Rivas.

 

On November 10, these individuals had led an unsuccessful attack on the barracks in the city of Sonsonate. Other such events broke out on November 24 and December 17 in San Miguel, which in turn led to what Cevallos called a "bloody Indian slaughter". This incident will be our next topic of discussion.

 

In late-1832, the city of San Miguel was rocked by a bloody rebellion that would last until January 4, 1833. The town's political and military leader was Guadalupe Echeverría, who commanded a force of more than a hundred soldiers, not including officers. His soldiers were indigenous peoples from Santiago and San Juan Nonualco. Echeverría gave his men free rein to commit horrible crimes without fear of punishment, earning him the general hatred of the people of San Miguel.

 

In November and December of 1832, there had been abortive attacks on the barracks, which had compelled the government to send soldiers to keep the peace. As noted, these soldiers were, as Cevallos put it, "half-civilized, nearly Christianized Indians from the towns of Santiago and San Juan Nonualco."

 

The aforementioned impunity afforded to the soldiers encouraged them to commit a growing number of outrages. The townspeople responded on December 30 by attacking a group of soldiers who were taking a routine bath in the Tejar River, east of San Miguel. The townspeople surprised them while they were in the water and threatened them with death if they did not surrender. In the end, some managed to escape and those who remained were beaten and then allowed to go free. They returned, still completely naked, to their barracks.

 

The ambush at Tejar inspired the people to rise up. Although the indigenous soldiers responded with murder and destruction, they failed to prevent the people of San Miguel and surrounding towns from organizing themselves. On January 4, 1833, they carried out the aforementioned "bloody Indian slaughter", killing all the indigenous Nonualco soldiers. This sad event provided the final impetus for Aquino's rebellion.

 

The Central American context of the Nonualco insurrection

We must now turn our attention to the general situation of the states that constituted the weak Central American federation, especially the following.

 

1=Public finances were in a disastrous state inherited from the colony and made worse by new conditions prevailing after independence.

 

2=Many new forced contributions and taxes were being levied. It has been estimated that these affected a fifth of the population, in other words, the wealthiest sectors of Central America's population, especially landowners. The rest of the population, primarily the country people, had no financial capacity to pay in cash due to their de-facto economic marginalization, in spite of the fact that it was they who produced the wealth of both their old and new masters.

 

3=The privatization of uncultivated lands and crown lands, ordered by the Federal Congress on January 27, 1825, was taken by local leaders and political bosses as a green light to begin acquiring, by consent or by force, the lands of the indigenous communities and the communal lands.*

 

*NOTE(pages 222-223)=During colonial times, the forms of land ownership were the following: (a) indigenous communities, (b) ejidos (communal lands), (c) the haciendas (privately-owned landed estates), whose origins lie in the plots of land granted to the Spanish conquistadors, including the peonías for the foot soldiers, caballerías for the cavalrymen, and marquesados for those granted the title of marquis (d) the crown lands, or composition lands, belonging to the King. In other words, during colonial times there was not a single piece of land that did not have an owner. The Law to Abolish the Communities (1881) and the Law to Abolish the Ejidos (1882) privatized these forms of land ownership. Before these laws were promulgated, the executive branch had already been using decrees to grant national lands (the former crown lands) to government officials and individuals closely linked to the government. In my view, the two aforementioned laws, which were intended to promote the cultivation of coffee, legalized a fait accompli of many years.

 

I need to emphasize also that, after independence had been achieved, the political center of the Central American area was Guatemala. Thus, Guatemala maintained the dominance that it had enjoyed in colonial times. Consequently, Guatemala bore a traditionally disproportionate influence on almost all official orders mainly affecting San Salvador, so much so that it could be said that whenever Guatemala sneezed, El Salvador caught a cold.

 

Thus, even laws that were only intended for Guatemala were, in some measure, effectively applied to El Salvador as well. For example, a law was passed in Guatemala on July 27, 1829, concerning farm laborers. The law provided facilities to tenants and abolished the payment of rent with labor.

 

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The landowners responded immediately by petitioning the government to take the necessary steps to force indigenous peoples to work on their estates.

 

In November, the Legislative Assembly of the State of Guatemala passed the Labor Act, a law against vagrancy with the objective of obtaining farm workers. This law compelled any peasant without work to labor on haciendas or in mines. Although this legislation was repealed in 1831, it served to establish the rules of employer-laborer relations. It instituted corporal punishment for any peasant who did not meet the commitments of his contract with his employer.

 

Alejandro Dagoberto Marroquín (the scholar, not the politician), who explained the consequences of the independence revolution, gave the following as the most significant negative aspects of the colonial legacy:

 

-stalled economic development due to the Crown's failure to promote suitable industrialization in its American colonies.

-many remnants of feudalism in El Salvador's social organization.

-a fanatical and openly politicized clergy, belonging to a church with extensive political, spiritual, and economic power, who exploited the ignorance and poverty of the people.

-poorly organized and overly bureaucratic public administration.

-brutal exploitation of the indigenous peoples.

 

After going over these points, which I have only briefly outlined, Marroquín provided the following succinct summary.

 

"All the negative aspects I have pointed out were directly inherited by the new regime created following independence. To make matters even worse, intense political rivalries launched El Salvador into a chaotic period of bloody civil wars. The peasant masses, who had been led to believe that independence would magically bring about a new, happy era, felt keenly disillusioned, occasioning many revolts in small villages and rural areas. Central America's initially peaceful transition to independence was eventually more than offset by the disruptions that took place in the years immediately following emancipation from Spain."

 

I believe that it is also pertinent to stress that one of the greatest problems affecting the Captaincy General of Guatemala at the time of independence was its sparse population. Estimates of its population in 1821 vary between 1,287,481 and 2,000,000 people, most of whom lived in what is today Guatemala. This is a fact worth reflecting on.*

 

*NOTE(page 223)=In November of 1776, King Charles III ordered the registration of the population of Spain's American colonies. The data obtained between 1777 and 1778 produced a figure of 797,214 inhabitants of the Kingdom of Guatemala, of which 103,005 were tributary Indians. In 1803, the intendants were ordered to visit their territories and collect further data. Thus, the Intendant of the Province of San Salvador, Antonio Gutiérrez de Ulloa, found that his province contained 165,278 people, of whom 54.1% were mestizo, 43.1% were Indian, and 28% were white. It has been estimated that El Salvador's total population around the year 1821 was 200,000 people.

 

The dominant elites would confront this situation, which was harmful to their interests, by implementing laws, as well as de-facto measures, in order to ensure a reliable workforce for their farms whenever they needed one. Therefore, indigenous communities were to continue to be used as sources of cheap labor.

 

We should note that, in El Salvador in the century following independence, and effectively until the second half of the twentieth century when the first Labor Code was passed, strict regulations existed in the countryside concerning craftsmen and day laborers. In towns, the municipal governments were required to keep records on their inhabitants that included their current trade. Registration was mandatory, and a registered person was permitted to leave only if he received a job with another employer who had given him a ticket confirming his employment status in some productive labor.

 

Mayors provided the landowners with laborers in exchange for a fee. We will refer to this form of exploitation, which has still not been studied in El Salvador, as a "captive workforce", a typical, makeshift status of slave-like subservience to which the workers who had only their labor to offer were subjected.

 

The privatization of the crown lands and the de-facto seizure of indigenous and communal lands rendered indigenous peoples increasingly dependent on the emergent landowning class.

 

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Central America's fiscal situation, to which I referred earlier, kept on deteriorating during the life of the federation, and neither the first loan approved by Barclay, Herring, Richardson and Company, nor other measures, managed to resolve the problem.*

 

*NOTE(page 223)=Barclay, Herring, Richardson and Company sent a representative to Central America to deliver the conditions of the loan. The loan was set at 7,142,875 paper pesos, or one million pounds sterling. The Federal Government agreed to pay off the loan at a rate of 50,000 pesos every three months, plus dividends. This loan is known in the financial history of Central America as the "English Debt". Following the dissolution of the federation, this debt was divided between the nations of Central America, whose failure to make their payments on time provoked Great Britain to apply blunt diplomatic pressure through its agents, as well as naval blockades and armed occupation by the forces of the British Navy. The delays in payment also contributed to Britain's decision to intervene politically in the internal affairs of Central American nations, supporting conservative governments and movements throughout the nineteenth century. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the English consul Frederick Chatfield was the bane of Central America's liberal governments.

 

This represents a panoramic perspective on the general financial and economic problems being experienced in the Federal Republic of Central America. This, combined with the power struggles in each of its constituent states, forms a complete historical picture of the years immediately preceding the rebellion led by Anastasio Aquino.

 

The Salvadoran context of the Nonualco insurrection

The Head of State of El Salvador was Mariano Prado and the Vice Head of State was Joaquín de San Martín. Their administration was characterized by its nonstop levies of troops and taxes. El Salvador was a powder keg. The people of Sonsonate, Izalco, Ahuachapán, Tejutla, Chalatenango, Zacatecoluca, and San Salvador were, according to Cevallos, "burning brightly with revolutionary fire".

 

Discontent was so generalized that it was unlikely anything could have prevented socio-political upheaval. The struggles between liberal and conservative factions in El Salvador provided the historical backdrop of these events. Each government measure demanding new loans or taxes was met with outcry from both city dwellers and farmers.

 

We have already referred to the executive veto made by the Salvadoran government on February 6, 1833, after the outbreak of Aquino's rebellion. However, there were other insurrections in various parts of the country and, as Cevallos put it, "The fortune that was needed to pacify the nation could not be supplied from the National Treasury, and instead had to be extracted, either willingly or unwillingly, from private individuals."

 

Anastasio Aquino took up arms only twelve years after independence, but El Salvador had seen no moment of peace during this interval. What do we know about Aquino himself? Cevallos wrote the following passage about Aquino, using unabashedly racist language to describe "This pure-blooded descendent of the ancient Pipils".

 

"The immense prestige that he enjoyed among his own people was, with good reason, the source of general astonishment. Aquino was a savage Indian whose intelligence did not extend beyond knowing how to earn his daily bread as a day laborer by doing crude proletarian work in the indigo fields, either cutting the plants in times of harvest or extracting the indigo dye. Aquino was far too lowly in status to be fit to motivate the masses, and it seems certain, as is noted in authentic documents, that this revolutionary Indian would have to have been incited by people of greater talent and means in order to have launched such a bold and daring rebellion against the Supreme Government of the State."

 

The above paragraph deserves detailed scrutiny, but I will limit myself to noting that the lowly and unintelligent Indian described by Cevallos understood how indigo was cultivated, harvested, and processed, and that attributing Aquino's own abilities to uninvolved individuals is merely an attempt to scorn and even deny the intelligence and sensibility of the lower classes. Later, I will have the opportunity to explain Aquino's remarkable insights as well as his incredible bravery.

 

The historian Julio Alberto Domínguez Sosa obtained a copy of Anastasio Aquino's certificate of baptism, which, in short, states the following.

 

"In Santiago Nonualco, on April 16, 1792, I, the priest, pronounced the exorcism for, anointed, solemnly baptized, and chrismated Anastacio Mártir, who was born on the 15th as the legitimate son of the Indians Thomas de Aquino and Maria de San Carlos. I informed Juliam Cisneros, the child's godfather, about his relationship with the child and the obligations that it entailed. Let the record state that I have signed this certificate. –Anto. Roza de Aguado"

 

In the left-hand margin of the certificate, it says, "Anastacio the Indian registered by Casamto". This document is recorded on page 117 of volume thirteen of Parish Books of Santiago Nonualco from 1789 to 1794.

 

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According to stories that have been passed on from generation to generation in the town of Santiago Nonualco, Anastasio Aquino was a poor farmer who specialized in the cultivation of grains and tobacco.

 

At the time of the rebellion, he was working as the general foreman of the hacienda Jalponguita alongside his brother Blas. Jalponguita was the property of a ladino who overworked his employees and subjected them to corporal punishment, most notably the stocks, which were popularly referred to as "the slice".

 

The stocks were made from pieces of wood, cut lengthwise with holes big enough for a man's ankle to fit through. They had iron fittings that only the employer or foreman could open, and were equipped to hold and torture up to five people at once. Those being punished were left exposed to the elements in the blazing sun, without being given any water or food for as long as their employer saw fit.

 

Salvador Calderón Ramírez, who researched the life of Anastasio Aquino in Santiago Nonualco and in the archiepiscopal archives in San Salvador, wrote the following about him.

 

"Aquino was of robust physical constitution. He was born in the heart of the mountains, and his struggles with animals and the elements disciplined his muscles and senses. He was as strong as a bull and, though he was illiterate, the cunning wile of his ancestors can be glimpsed throughout his life story."

 

The character of Anastasio Aquino

The character of Anastasio Aquino has been transmitted to present generations in fragments that border on being caricatures, undoubtedly disseminated to promote racial and social ideas completely contrary to the social protest movement that he led. In the nineteenth century, he was described as a common criminal according to contemporary norms. Cevallos provided the following typical example.

 

"Anastasio Aquino was a man of normal height, somewhat obese, with a circular head, protuberances around his ears, a small forehead and small eyes, thin lips, a short beard, a flat nose, prominent cheekbones, skin the color of a dried leaf, and a round face. He had a scar on his right cheek. As a whole, he was terribly ugly. This all matches a profile devised by Franz Joseph Gall, however empirical it may have been."

 

Six months elapsed between the outbreak of Aquino's rebellion and his death. The movers and shakers behind all that happened were the people living on the coast of La Paz Department. They managed to organize a force of fighters composed of thousands of indigenous soldiers, including even a significant number of ladinos.

 

The army that decisively suppressed the Nonualcos comprised 5,000 soldiers recruited by the government and placed under the leadership of Colonel Juan José López. If we compare these two forces, one can assume that the rebel soldiers, given the popular support they enjoyed, the types of weapons they possessed, and the tenacious resistance they put up, must have exceeded ten thousand men.

 

At the time of this great indigenous insurrection, everyone belonging to or sympathizing with the dominant elite, socially and economically speaking, undertook to manipulate and distort the facts, just as occurred ninety-nine years later during the peasant rebellion that began in January of 1932.  I am absolutely convinced that any person studying Salvadoran history must make a strong effort to capture the cultural atmosphere of the time in order to understand the reactions of both the dominant classes and the dominated classes.

 

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For example, in the case of the Nonualco rebellion, we could very easily imagine the sudden shock, and even panic, felt by the elites who were faced with the first organized social protest in Salvadoran history, a movement that for a short period seemed to be on the verge of victory. And yet, it was led by the indigenous peoples, the very lowliest of all the exploited peoples. One contemporary priest described them as, "the bottom rung of all the classes without exception."

 

Almost overnight, the exploited had become a brave band of fighters with weapons in hand. The exploiters were to suffer a great many sleepless nights before resolving to maintain and prolong at any cost a status quo that would grant them a monopoly on privileges thanks to the inhumane subjugation of the marginalized and excluded classes.

 

This is why the dominant elites came to see Aquino as an abominable and sadistic figure, the embodiment of Satan himself.

 

I first studied the Nonualco insurrection over forty-five years ago. At that time, I argued that, because of the way that our past had been crudely manipulated, we had no real history. I pointed out our lack of a sense of history, our haphazard interpretations, and our extensive exposure to false information.

 

As I noted, our "written national history" was little more than compilations of anecdotal facts and chronicles. As poorly composed and superficially written as they were, I maintained that they could be used, with a critical eye, to write the real history of El Salvador. Thus, when we uncritically incorporate historiographical works into our own intellectual heritage, we can be swindled. Decades later, I continue to affirm these judgments.

 

I also made the point that those who have devoted themselves to studying history professionally have failed in the area of interpretation (the mechanism of historical hermeneutics). An interpretation must be based on certain principles that will help us to find the threads linking an event to its causes. A historical event can only happen in a certain social, economic, cultural, and political setting and during a specific time or period of time.

 

Any attempt to approach events in isolation, by uncoupling them from one another and ignoring their dynamic interactions with the settings in which they took place, will lead to the distortion of the facts themselves and thus produce a one-sided view or a faded reflection of the reality. In this sense, historical science, which seeks to bring us closer to exact truths, must always be open to new interpretations and rectifications.

 

The reclamation of Anastasio Aquino's life and deeds, taking them from the place where they were put by his contemporary enemies and inserting them in their true and proper historical context, is a just and necessary task. Aquino was a man of flesh and blood. He was a typical product of the marginal culture that the elite had dominated, though he emerged as the undisputed leader of his ethnic group.

 

My assertion that Aquino was a typical product of the marginal culture is based on the fact that the independence of Central America was not a turning point for the indigenous peoples, who continued to be burdened by the racist conceptions, first of the conquistadors, and then of the colonizers. We must recall, at least in general terms, some of these conceptions. I will quote directly from what the scholar Gustavo Palma Murga wrote on this subject.

 

"One of the first concerns of the Spanish Crown, after having successfully subdued the local population, was to establish and consolidate a set of institutions that would henceforth guarantee the effective propagation of the colonial regime… From this perspective, and with a view to the long-term administration of the colonial system, the Spanish put in place a series of rules and mechanisms that, in political, economic, social, and ideological realms, sought to demarcate and solidify a substantial division between two segments of the population: the conquerors and the conquered, the civilized and the barbarians, the colonizers and the colonized, the Christians and the pagans."

 

These ways of dividing the population served to justify the fundamental objectives of the colonizing process so that the regime could secure optimal and immediate control of the local population and its natural resources.

 

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It is very instructive to remember that, from the very start of the conquest, there was discussion in Spain concerning the legal status of the indigenous peoples. Some did not consider them to be humans. Pope Paul III felt it necessary to issue the following statement on June 10, 1537, within the papal bull Sublimis Deus.

 

"We define and declare… that, notwithstanding whatever may have been or may be said to the contrary, the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect."

 

Attempts were made to mitigate the unequal treatment inherent in the first colonial institutions (slavery, encomiendas, forced labor, the concentration of indigenous peoples and foundation of Indian villages), and some were abolished. Indigenous peoples were freed of certain types of labor. And yet, Gustavo Palma Murga noted as follows:

 

"All of this was predicated on the intent to maintain and disseminate a specific status quo: the concrete existence of differences to justify the availability of the labor force and, above all, of social and economic classes and norms to justify segregation and discrimination."

 

The Spanish model of colonization deserves a fuller treatment, but space will not permit it in this essay. Still, one must not overlook the fact that the indigenous people never felt any affiliation with the independence movement led by the upper classes and the urban lower classes. I must emphasize that the independence movement was solely urban and never extended into the countryside. Therefore, there was no participation on the part of the indigenous peoples.

 

In this sense, what the contemporary historian Jorge Luján Muñoz said of Manuel Tot and Tomás Ruiz, two indigenous men who participated in the independence movement in Guatemala, can be applied just as well to Pedro Pablo Castillo, one of El Salvador's national heroes. Though he may have been ethnically indigenous, he had clearly assimilated into the non-indigenous system.

 

"They were not indigenous people in a sociocultural sense, which is the sense in which we ought to use the term. They lived within the 'non-indigenous' social system… They did not act as 'representatives of the indigenous group'."

 

The real situation concerning the sociocultural indigenous group, the aforementioned historian notes, was as described in the following report written by Mr. Vela during the time of the independence movement.

 

"The Indians did not actively enter the revolution. Rather, they got caught up in it due to their own simplicity, going wherever and doing whatever their leaders wanted… In their hearts, they didn't even understand what had happened and merely accepted the change in political power that took place in the capital. Their situation of subjection and dependence permitted no other course of action."

 

There can be little doubt that it was Aquino's conscience that drove him to fight against the inhumane exploitation of the Nonualco people. His rebellion was not conjured up overnight on a whim of emotion.

 

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Historic men, like Anastasio Aquino, are the executors of the actions imposed inexorably by the necessity, in its strict sense as a philosophical category, to change things. Revolutions are the product of this necessity, and consequently, are inevitable. Historical personalities are compelled to act by the ideas, tendencies, trends, and circumstances that are rooted in the material and spiritual strata of a given socioeconomic formation.

 

Before continuing, we must at least make a comparison between the conditions existing before and after the Pipil-Nonualco insurrection of January 1833 and the Pipil-Izalco insurrection of January 1932, led respectively by Anastasio Aquino and José Feliciano Ama. The parallels between the two are virtually identical. The Nonualco leader was shot dead, and the Izalco leader was lynched by a mob of whites and ladinos. Ama's corpse was hung from one of the trees in Izalco's central park.

 

Aquino's historic exploit: Religion and politics

Next, I will examine Aquino's actions, which have been transmitted to the present day only in fragments.

 

1=In regards to the turbulent times confronting Mariano Prado, I have already expressed the essential points, noting especially that power struggles were the main sources of strife, not only in El Salvador, but also in the federal republic. In the face of so many severe rebellions, the government formed armies through the forced recruitment of peasants, mostly indigenous peoples. The government paid no heed to their willingness to serve or to their own considerable problems. The conscripts were forced to abandon their poor households and set out for an uncertain fate that might leave them dead or mutilated.

 

In this period, it was common to see the conscript's mother, wife, and other family members accompany him to the frontlines. They cooperated with the army in various ways, for instance as camp followers or messengers, and often died by the side of the loved one who they were following. Out of dire need for the basic necessities of life, including food, these unarmed civilians were obliged to accompany an armed man in the hopes of receiving at least a small portion of the army's requisitions and booty.

 

At its essence, the recruitment of indigenous peoples constituted a de-facto form of payment in service for the government's taxes and forced loans. Four fifths of the population lived in such extreme poverty that they had no other means with which to pay the government. Thus, the people were paying for the government's continuous exactions with flesh and blood.

 

In El Salvador's central coastal belt, Nonualco communities were subjected to such forced recruitments in order to restock the government's armies. The Nonualcos were regarded as brave and aggressive soldiers. Because of these conscriptions, Anastasio Aquino was able to gain fame and prestige by expelling the agents of the government who came to gather more "cannon fodder" for its endless wars. The successful liberation of their people strengthened the faith of Aquino and his men in the justness of their cause. Indeed, Aquino recalled the aforementioned "bloody Indian slaughter" in the following manner.

 

"Just recently, a great many sons of San Juan Nonualco and Santiago Nonualco perished in the city of San Miguel. They were killed by the ladinos. Let us rise up to avenge them and defy the government in San Salvador. We have the power to remove their ability to keep on recruiting people and demanding taxes endlessly, oppressing us and ordering us to die far from our families. We will fight to the death for our cause, and I will be your General!"

 

Aquino's words warrant attention because they reveal one of the immediate causes of the uprising. Clearly, the uprising represented an act of resistance against oppression. One can't help but make note of Aquino's altruism. He was dedicating himself wholly to the defense of both the martyred brothers of his race and those who continued to be forced to fight and die in fratricidal wars that they did not understand and did not need to be involved in.

 

2=The deeds of Anastasio Aquino have been presented to us as those of an ordinary bandit leading a gang of criminals. Nothing could be further from the truth. The people and even the local authorities of Santiago Nonualco and San Juan Nonualco, as well as Analco and parts of Zacatecoluca, answered Aquino's call to rebellion.

 

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Inhabitants of the poor neighborhoods around the capital also swelled the ranks of their Indian liberators.

 

Cevallos claimed to have had seen written orders "sent to Cojutepeque, Apastepeque, and Santo Tomás Texacuangos, inviting them to join in on the execution of Aquino's plans."

 

By the end of January, the ones who Aquino called "my brave boys and comrades-in-arms" boasted a total strength of about 3,000 troops, the infantry being composed entirely of indigenous men and the cavalry being composed of ladinos and mulattos.

 

Even today, to organize an army of three thousand men would require considerable technical and military skills, knowledge, and resources. How exactly did an illiterate Indian living in the countryside manage to put together an army that was massive for its time in spite of the obvious problems of logistics and unity of command? One answer is that Aquino benefited from considerable military intuition and a detailed knowledge of the land in which he was operating. Moreover, his rebellion enjoyed the strong support of local peoples.

 

A fair inspection leaves little doubt about Aquino's talents and energy, which served him well on so many occasions. His other great trait was his reckless courage, which helped him put to flight the government forces who came to confront him. The government forces, though equipped with better weapons, scattered in the face of the huiscoyol spears, machetes, arquebuses, and farming tools of Aquino's men.

 

It has been said that Aquino was advised on the arts of war by a man of Portuguese ancestry, but this claim is quite dubious. Aquino was extremely mistrustful and wary of those who were not of his race.

 

3=The Salvadoran government assigned Father Juan Bautista Navarro to go to Santiago Nonualco and parley with Aquino. He did so between February 17 and 18. According to Cevallos, "Mr. Navarro's first objectives were simply to win the trust of the fearsome Commander Aquino and the sympathy and respect of the key members of his large retinue, including Manuel María Colindres, Zarampaña, and Blas Aquino." Father Navarro delivered the following statement to them.

 

"Put down your weapons and you will be forgiven. Value harmony over the spilling of the blood of our brothers, and you will prove that you are Christian and human, just as your forefathers were. My children, put this hostile attitude against your government behind you. Your government desires only the greatest good for you and wants to give to you as much as you request. Reject the sinister advice of those rebels who have been deceiving you. Return to the order and the authority of the legitimate supreme authority, as you would do in obedience to one of the greatest precepts of our most holy religion. Leave war behind and accept the peace that I have come to offer to you so that everyone may return to the fulfillment of their duties. Finally, if you stop being the enemies of the government, the government offers to confirm you to the military ranks conferred as a result of the revolution. Accept, my children. Accept the paternal offers of the Supreme Head of State, which will set a very wholesome example in the interest of the common good and will put at ease the minds of the other peoples of our beloved country."

 

Cevallos proceeded to also record the response of Father Navarro's indigenous interlocutors, especially Aquino. Cevallos wrote as follows.

 

"They responded that they did not want the blood of their fellow men to be spilled, but they were resisting the government of Vice Head of State San Martín, because he had not been given his position through the will of the people, as Anastasio Aquino had. If, for that reason, they were to be attacked by government troops, then they would wait for them, because they had enough people with which to fight them. They said that they fully understood that the three clergymen who they had been told would be sent to them from San Salvador had been ordered to have them reconquered, but the government should know they did not need to be reconquered. Concerning the three aforementioned clergymen, they would receive Father Navarro in his capacity as a parish priest, but never as a conqueror."

 

Navarro, who was treated with great propriety and esteem, acted more like a spy than a negotiator.

 

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However, Navarro has provided us with valuable information concerning the immediate factors inducing the Nonualco people to rebel, and also, as Salvador Calderón Ramírez aptly observed, "has highlighted Aquino's character and frame of mind." The letter he sent from Olocuilta on February 21 reads as follows.

 

"The rebels in Santiago have not dared to impede my departure. I owe it to our Lord that I have not been treated disrespectfully by one of those criminals, especially the Pupuso, who is an influential leader among the people of Santiago Nonualco. I set out as soon as I received the official request from His Excellency the Vice Head of State, and I thanked God many times that my brother in the faith, Father Salazar, did not accompany me on this dangerous mission due to his serious illness. I survived and have returned in good health from the refuge and the lair of that disobedient people. For you see, long ago I used to live in Zacatecoluca where I benevolently provided accommodation to Aquino himself, the man who the rabble in Santiago Nonualco are now calling 'Commander General of the Army of Liberation'. Consequently, Aquino treated me with deference and good will during our discussions in contrast with the misbehaviour of some of his group.

 

In response to my requests, Aquino told me that the land that they were plowing and sowing was theirs and that the ladinos had stolen it from them. Also, he said, the ladinos had treated the peasants like animals, recruiting them and sending them off to be slaughtered or massacred. The rebels promised me that they would maintain peace and harmony, but with their weapons on hand to defend the legitimate authority and to protect their rights.

 

Aquino walked along the hallway of the ecclesiastical house, wrapped in a sleeveless cloak that was brown with a red silk trim. It had been given to him by Azmitia in San Vicente. On his feet were sandals with thick straps and on his head was a hat with a wide brim. He is a skilled horseman and uses a hunting horn made of tiger skin. He delights in the fact that his mount can leap over ditches and fences, making him unbeatable in races and as a horse trainer.

 

Rather than drinking, he prefers to chew the leaves of a shrub bearing white flowers. He also puts them in other food, like coffee, which has a narcotic effect similar to opium. He keeps this sleep-inducing plant to himself, and refused to let me see a specimen of it. This poisonous concoction is regarded by the naive masses as having been spawned from a pact with the devil. However, Aquino was chastened by my admonitions, and he showed me the medal and scapulars that hung from his chest, reassuring me of his faith in the Virgin and the Redeemer. He told me that he only drinks because Cascabel, his old and flamboyant companion, had gotten him hooked on such things as a means to fight hunger and thirst while on campaign.

 

He assured me that he feared no man or beast, and that the only thing that could scare him was when his wife was angry, especially if she cried. Thus, Aquino is a mix of savage simplicity, reckless bravery, and superstition.

 

I had no success in my attempt to pacify that rebel. Still, I can't complain about my treatment by him. He behaved with respectful politeness in consideration of my status as a priest. He spoke to me with a somewhat naive simplicity about his providential crusade in defense of his brethren. I indicated to him that the legitimate government had valuable resources and ample means to defeat him, and might judge him severely, but he just answered me, with a smile full of oriental fatalism, 'My dear Father, what happens, happens.' As we parted ways, he urged me most strongly to consider taking charge of Santiago's parish, swearing to me that I would have his complete respect and support. Upon my arrival in the city, I will explain myself and give advice on the peace and health of the state that has been so disturbed by these men who have lost their way."

 

This lengthy quote provides us with various important points on which we can ground an analysis of the social causes of Aquino's rebellion and of certain aspects of his personality. I was fascinated to see Aquino's confession concerning the only thing that could frighten him.

 

*NOTE(page 224)=My parents had the idea, based on popular traditions, that Aquino would kneel down before his mother to be punished whenever he behaved badly, and that he remained deeply devoted to her. They also believed that the struggle of the Nonualcos was just and that Aquino's death was an abominable crime.

 

Father Navarro's letter is a testimony of inestimable value. And yet, the one who wrote it was an opponent of the rebel movement who was committed to defending the ruling system.

 

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Navarro also, in another letter addressed to a high-ranking official, recommended exploiting the differences and disagreements between Aquino and his ex-deputy Cascabel with the aim that Cascabel, once pardoned for his crimes, could be induced with "some money to inform on and give testimony of the rebel and his plans."

 

Thus, the saver of souls was inciting a man near Aquino to betray him for money, or in other words, to emulate the example of Judas.

 

4=What I have noted above testifies to facets of Aquino's personality and informs us of some of the causes that sparked his just and inevitable fight.

 

Anastasio Aquino's revolutionary decrees

Next, I will analyze some of the documents promulgated by Aquino, which will give us an idea of his sense of justice.

 

The three documents that we have deserve to be transcribed in full in their proper chronological order.

 

Document A="Anastasio Aquino, Commander General of the Santiago Nonualco Army of Liberation: On this day I have agreed to impose penalties on individuals who commit any of the following crimes. (1) Those who take the life of another will pay for it with their own life. (2) Those who injure another person will have one hand cut off. (3) Those who harass the civil authorities or military chiefs will be punished with ten years of public work. (4) Those who harass married or sheltered women will be punished in accordance with the law. (5) Those who steal will have one hand cut off for the first offense. (6) Those who walk outside after 9:00 PM do so at the risk of their life, and if they survive will be punished with one year of public work. (7) Those who make liqueur will be fined five pesos for the first offense and ten pesos for the second. -Pronounced in Tepetitán February 16 1833. -ANASTASIO AQUINO"

 

Document B="I, Anastasio Aquino, Commander General of the Santiago Nonualco Army of Liberation, have on this day agreed to the following: None of the debts of those living in the territories controlled by my government need be paid. Anyone attempting to collect debts incurred prior to this decree will be sentenced to ten years in prison to be paid for with public work. -Pronounced in Tepetitán on the night of February 16 1833. –Anastasio Aquino"

 

Document C="I order that any Indian or African slave who will not submit to my law be executed."

 

Though Document C has been attributed to Aquino, its authenticity is doubted by many who have studied his rebellion. I believe that the style in which it was written is very unusual.

 

Interpreting the revolutionary decrees

Now I will make a critical examination of the documents transcribed above.

 

My immediate general impression is that the rebels held a burning desire to administer justice and felt the need for fast and decisive measures.

 

The first decree to be issued laid down the death penalty for murder as well as harsh penalties for the crimes of theft, causing injury, and production of liquors. This final provision effectively established dry law, though this term was not explicitly used. The decree also demanded respect for civil and military authorities under penalty of a harsh ten years of forced labor.

 

A nighttime curfew was imposed, with violators liable to be killed. This is what we would today called "martial law", a measure that has in fact been frequently abused in El Salvador's history.

 

Especially interesting is the fourth clause, seeking to protect married and sheltered women. During this period of history, a "sheltered woman" was one who lived voluntarily or involuntarily in a monastery, or who did not attend public entertainments and rarely left her home.

 

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This clause alone completely refutes the false notion that the Nonualco troops, and even Aquino himself, raped women.

 

Document B simply ordered the complete cancellation of all debts contracted within the territory controlled by the rebels.

 

A single attempt by any creditor to collect a debt would be punished with ten years in prison and public work. This decree fulfilled one of the most potent popular desires of the indigenous peoples, and in general of the ladinos, who had been plunged into poverty by incessant taxes and forced war loans. These measures were instituted in the heat of the struggle out of an urgent need to solve problems that they had once thought they would have to live with forever.

 

Document C merits special consideration. Firstly, it demonstrates that obedience to the government, submitting to and complying with revolutionary laws, was expected of everyone including the indigenous Nonualco people and those allied with them, whether white or ladino. The document also refers to African slaves, called "sanates" in the original Spanish, but slavery was abolished in Central America in 1824 by the Constituent Assembly.

 

However, it is worth emphasizing that freed slaves often continued to live with their former masters and were working for them in various capacities. Obviously, these freed slaves were loyal to their former masters, and for this reason, they supported them in times of need.

 

During the historical socio-ethnic processes that followed colonization, the original antagonism between the Indians and the conquistadors expanded to include other contradictions, such as conflict pitting Indians against native-born white Spaniards, Indians against ladinos, and Indians against mulattos and blacks. We must always keep in mind that, during colonial time, society was rigidly divided into social strata on the basis of blood, or ethnic origin in other words. Social strata developed in colonial society on the basis of skin color, language, clothing style, and occupation, including the following.

 

(1) Spanish immigrants

(2) Native-born white Spaniards (creoles)

(3) People of mixed Indian-Spanish ancestry (ladinos or mestizos)

(4) Mulattos and blacks

(5) Indians

 

Document C's aforementioned reference to "African slaves" must surely have meant mulattos and blacks, who were collectively known as "pardos".

 

According to Alejandro Dagoberto Marroquín, the pardos constituted, "a social class of little importance. Quantitatively, at most several tens of thousands of Africans were taken to this area over the course of the 300-year colonial period. They were completely absorbed by the Indians and mestizos without changing the social structures of the population."

 

These "pardos" were segregated and were prohibited from having sexual relations with Indians and mestizos.

 

It would be worthwhile at this point to reflect further on the status of the pardos. Archbishop García Peláez said that they constituted, "a new, energetic people who are united in their interests and speak only among themselves, which causes them to be closely observed by the temporal authorities and even the Court." Furthermore, the pardos were characterized by their strong personalities. They surpassed the indigenous people and managed to put themselves on par with the ladinos in the colonial social hierarchy.

 

When they protested or struggled, they did so, not in a disorganized or individual manner, but as a collective unit. In this way, they successfully preserved their independence. The pardos were artisans whose services were in demand. This explanation should shed light on the reasons for Nonualco animosity towards the pardos.

 

Special attention must be focused on the drastic nature of these decrees that we have already noted. These decrees were passed at the height of a bloody struggle with the aim of maintaining the highest possible standards of public order, and if they had been written in any other way, would likely have been treated as the most negligible of the many de facto measures that the new government was adopting. Was not the rigorous application of "martial law" or a "state of siege" a typical recourse in Aquino's time? What reason would Aquino have to not defend his cause with the same emergency measures utilized by the governing elite?

 

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Anastasio Aquino's triumphal entrance into San Vicente

I will now tackle two more important events described in the chronicles of the indigenous uprising.

 

1=On February 15, 1833, a large contingent of rebels arrived outside the gates of San Vicente de Austria, also known as the City of Lorenzana.

 

According to Cevallos, the inhabitants who had remained in the city "were overcome with terror and rushed out into the streets to give the rebels the honor of a warm reception. They reassured themselves with the thought that the priest Santiago Fernández would be with Aquino, and so they greeted the Indian's triumphal entrance with a royal welcome. They cheered wildly, fired an artillery salvo, and happily rang the bells."

Cevallos wrote that "the two thousand burly savages", who were "hungry for mass plunder", scattered across the city breaking through the doors and windows of homes to steal all that they could find.


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