Mario Bencastro

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An Existential Analysis of Mario Bencastro’s Disparo en la catedral

Frederick Mills (*). January 2007. Maryland, USA.

Mario Bencastro’s historical novella, Disparo en la catedral, provides a literary account of the reign of terror in El Salvador from the last months of 1979 to the weeks just following the assassination of Archbishop Romero on March 24, 1980. In the tradition of Salvadoran writers Roque Dalton, Claribel Alegria, and Manlio Argueta, Bencastro’s historical fiction provides a window into life under a reign of terror. For Disparo, like Árbol de la vida, provides both a hard look at the historical record and a profound insight into the Salvadoran psyche during that country’s greatest crisis since the Matanza of 1932. As Bencastro himself has observed, the writer’s art aims at holding a mirror up to reality in order to provide an occasion for reflection (Árbol, 107). This reflection includes the recognition of the role of freedom of the will and moral values in times of human crisis (Árbol, 108). I will employ an existential analysis, in the tradition of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, to the moments of decision that confront both the fictional and historic protagonists in Disparo.

Disparo is the first part of a trilogy that covers the Salvadoran civil war, the odyssey of refugees to the United States, and the homecoming of the Salvadoran expatriate. Disparo ends with one of the main characters, Dominguez, about to begin his odyssey to Costa Rica. Odisea del Norte covers the persecution of the fictional Calixto, his subsequent odyssey to the United States, and the challenges he faces working in the North. The last part of the trilogy, Viaje a la tierra del abuelo describes the homecoming, back to El Salvador, of both a deceased expatriate and his grandson, the sixteen year old protagonist Sergio. In each part of the trilogy the main characters face difficult life changing decisions.

This essay will focus on the first part of the trilogy, Disparo. In Disparo, the placement of fictional characters in the midst of the actual events that transpired during the early days of the civil war in El Salvador demonstrates how so many Salvadorans had to remake themselves by crossing both spiritual and national boundaries. In particular, Bencastro weaves a fictional narrative into the tapestry of actual speeches by Archbishop Romero to give the reader an intimate sense of real events on the ground. In the opening paragraph, the pervasive experience of anxiety and the almost routine nature of repression is clearly announced:

En este tiempo, sólo el hecho de amanecer vivo causa verdadera sorpresa. La muerte ya no sorprende a nadie. (8)

The political event that sets the stage in Disparo is the October 15, 1979 coup that brought an ostensibly reformist Civilian--Military Junta to power. This event was to bring an anxious public first hope, and then despair. It turns out that the very Junta that was supposed to enact economic and land reforms, free political prisoners, end the repression, and set the stage for free elections, became merely a front for the exercise of the real power still held by hard liners in the military and their oligarchic allies. As the death toll subsequent to the October coup rises, Bencastro’s fictional characters face the same momentous moral decisions as the civilian members of the Junta and thousands of Salvadorans: how to define themselves in a country on the verge of civil war.

This existential interpretation of Disparo focuses on three levels of narrative. First, there are the personal stories of Rogelio, Lourdes, and Dominguez, the main fictional protagonists. These characters give us an insight into the experience of Salvadoran intellectuals who lived through this period. Second, there is the real story of Archbishop Romero, whose broadcasts are reproduced in the text at critical moments of the personal stories of the fictional characters. And third, Bencastro, through the reflective narration of his characters, describes the duplicity of the majority of Salvadorans who show a routine face in public while holding their own feelings about the war in careful reserve. This third aspect of the novella would at first appear to be inconsistent with an existential perspective, as though one could refuse to choose, and by refusing, merely adapt to the circumstances.

Let us examine each of the above three features of the novella in turn. We begin with Archbishop Romero because it is Romero’s words that give us an overview of both the political events and the moral decisions facing institutions, political movements, and each individual in the country.

Archbishop Romero’s speeches document the atrocities committed by the security forces against peasants, workers, students, opposition political parties, Christians, suspected guerillas and their sympathizers, and other suspected opponents of oligarchic power. He also exposes the powerlessness of a series of Civilian-Military Juntas whose existence serves as political cover for the hardliners in the armed forces, such as Colonel Guillermo Garcia and Colonel Jaime Abdul Gutierrez. Romero describes the total state of affairs in the country in religious, economic, and political terms on an almost daily basis. He also acts to transform the current state of affairs by the very reporting of the facts on the ground. These reports, which are re-published world wide, help to mobilize human rights advocates to plead the case against US military support for the regime. But as Bencastro documents in Disparo, the Human Rights Administration of U.S. President James Carter, continued to send military aid, even as the repression intensified.

As the repression intensifies, so too does Archbishop Romero’s identification with the poor and those who seek political and economic reform. Romero also acts by addressing himself to both the armed forces, that they should not obey orders to kill innocent people, and to the popular forces, that they should seek a negotiated solution to the conflict. Romero is motivated by a Christian perspective that is informed by liberation theology, a theology that subscribes to a preferential option for the poor. Yet this identification with the oppressed and commitment to liberation theology do not, by themselves explain Romero’s actions. Romero could have still kept quiet about the ongoing genocide and focused his energies primarily on the official functions of the Church.

Romero’s own transformation during the trying months from October 1979 to March 1980 is not an automatic one. He is challenged by the murder of both his priests and so many of his people to act either in the interests of the oligarchy by remaining quiet and supporting an increasingly compromised ruling Junta, or in the interests of the majority of Salvadoran people. The former path promises Romero personal security and the gratitude of the army and oligarchic forces. He chooses the latter path, and this leads to his assassination.

It is in the context of Archbishop Romero’s decision to act on behalf of the oppressed and in favor of democratic reform that the fictional characters, Rogelio and Dominguez, must define themselves at critical moments in the story. Rogelio and Dominguez represent the moral dilemma faced by thousands of Salvadorans during the early 1980s. How will I define myself in relation to the crisis that is engulfing my country? Shall I try to maintain neutrality, which does not guarantee my safety? Shall I collaborate with the armed forces and become an accomplice in murder? Shall I participate in some form of resistance, even the minimal resistance of telling the story of what is happening in the country and risk death? Each individual, like Romero, had to define himself or herself in relation to some particular situation, and every situation was inevitably related to the growing conflict in the country.

In Disparo, Rogelio finds a job at one of only two remaining independent newspapers, La Tribuna. His immediate supervisor, Dominguez, points out, “Nosotros representamos una voz de la oposición moderada, con palabras bien medidas” (30). This position causes some consternation for the idealistic Rogelio, who asks, “Entonces, nunca se puede decir la verdad abiertamente?” (30) Dominguez explains that there are ways to critique the current Junta without being too provocative. But Dominguez admits that sometimes he regrets not being able to publish the whole truth because of the lack of freedom of the press in the country. Sometimes, he says, he cannot sleep, and “la conciencia me remuerde” (31).

As the state repression intensifies, so too does the dilemma facing Rogelio and Dominguez: how much truth is to be told in La Tribuna? Dominguez laments that he has lost the idealism that still inspires Rogelio, yet Dominguez admires the remaining flame of commitment that he sees in Rogelio.

Lo que quiero decir es que envidio la buena voluntad y el entusiasmo con que usted se enfrenta a la vida, su fe en el ser humano, su esperanza en el futuro. Desde pequeño aprendí que si no tenemos fe vivimos a ciegas. Limitamos nuestro tiempo y espacio. Debemos creer en algo o en alguien. Sobre todo en nosotros mismos. Porque con ser fatalistas no arreglamos nada. (47)

It is in relation to Rogelio that Dominguez sees what he is not:

O sea que usted, Rogelio, es el espejo de mis años mozos. En cambio yo, ya estoy acabado. Soy un viejo inservible, que ni siquiera puede mirar hacia atrás por temor a que los recuerdos le conviertan en estatua de sal, como la mujer de Lot. (48)

It is Dominguez who faces an existential crossroad when, after bomb threats against the newspaper and the murder of associates, he must decide whether to close down La Tribuna or take over leadership while the newspaper’s owner is out of the country. To close down would mean to silence one of the few independent media voices left in the country. To keep the paper open would mean risking his own and other employees’ lives. Will he act in accordance with his waning idealism? Or will he seek to preserve his life, close the paper, and perhaps flee the country? What Dominguez has been does not determine what he shall become. There are no advisors that can help him. Depending on whom he asks for advice, he would have already stacked the deck for or against keeping the newspaper open. He simply has to make himself one sort of person or another by his practice. He has to define himself at a critical moment. Rogelio recognizes this existential crossroad and must defer to Dominguez’s own freedom: “Oscuro desde cualquier ángulo. Por eso mismo la decisión debe ser suya y sólo suya” (118). Dominguez, faced with the burden of choice, makes himself into the person who will assume the responsibility of keeping the newspaper open. He chooses the values of hope and idealism over resignation and pessimism. Thus at the same time he chooses to act, he also chooses those values that will guide his act.

It is not long after Dominguez takes leadership of La Tribuna that the state terrorism intensifies, and more members of the Junta resign out of protest. It is Archbishop Romero who expresses the totality of the situation by describing the actions of all sectors in the conflict. Finally, in the face of mounting torture and murder, Romero calls upon the armed forces to stop the repression. The next day, March 24, 1980, Romero is gunned down by an assassin while saying mass in a hospital chapel. According to Bencastro, his assassination was motivated by a desire for “la destrucción del líder espiritual y la consciencia de un pueblo lo cual representa uno de los mayores crímenes contra la humanidad” (Árbol, 109). It is up to Dominguez to write a eulogy, and in the hands of Bencastro, Dominguez writes a powerful, moving, editorial on the life and death of Romero.

Only days after the Dominguez’ editorial, the bomb threats against La Tribuna are carried out and the protagonists are faced with imminent danger. The fictional account in Disparo closely parallels the destruction of independent media in El Salvador at the time as documented by Chomsky:

There had been an independent press in El Salvador: two small newspapers, La Crónica del Pueblo and El Independiente. Both were destroyed in 1980-81 by the security forces. After a series of bombings, an editor of La Crónica and a photographer were taken from a San Salvador coffee shop and hacked to pieces with machetes; the offices were raided, bombed, and burned down by death squads, and the publisher fled to the United States. The publisher of El Independiente, Jorge Pinto, fled to Mexico when his paper's premises were attacked and equipment smashed by troops. (Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky Chapter 2: Containing the Enemy Segment 8/8 http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/ni/ni-c02-s08.html)

Both Rogelio and Dominguez decide that it is time to leave the country. But on the way to meet Dominguez in order to begin their exodus, it is Rogelio who faces an existential crossroad. For he arrives at the site of a demonstration against state terrorism at which many participants are shot and some lay wounded on the street. When Rogelio is asked to assist with the lifting of the wounded into ambulances he must decide whether to continue with his plan to leave the country or to risk his life in order to save others. He must decide quickly, as now Dominguez, from inside a nearby bus, is urging him to board and save himself.

Rogelio’s dilemma can be understood in the context of the love story between Rogelio and Lourdes. For at one point in the novella Lourdes, a teacher and activist, must bid farewell to Rogelio in order to live a clandestine existence. When they say goodbye, perhaps for the last time, Rogelio both resists and respects her decision. Bencastro is at his best when he has Rogelio reflect, alone, on his relationship with Lourdes:

Muchacha entregada de alma y corazón a la humanidad, que me predicó la palabra solidaria con el pueblo durante largas noches de vigilia, visión amor, arte, poesía. Que me amó con tanta fuerza y fervor, como si en mí concentrara su amor por la humanidad entera. Ahora me pregunto si merecí la mirada tierna de sus grandes y bellos ojos negros; la frescura de su sonrisa franca e infantil. Posiblemente mi propia independencia, o egoísmo no me permitió amarla con todo el humanismo y la intensidad con que me quiso ella. (134)

Rogelio admits to himself that it may have been his own independence or egoism that prevented him from giving more of himself to Lourdes. Does this mean that Rogelio could not have given more? Do we choose the degree to which we are self-absorbed? Do we choose our sense of humanism, our concern for others? Bencastro presents us with both those features of human reality that we choose, such as our actions, and those which are largely out of our control, such as our true feelings. For Rogelio, it is not clear how much one may determine one’s own capacity to love and to identify with another human being.

Rogelio’s reflection on his relationship with Lourdes reveals that he himself does not really know his own innermost motivations. Rogelio is at the crossroad. He can join Dominguez or stay and help the wounded. He cannot rely on his idealism to arrive at a decision. After all, he does not really know how deep his idealism goes, even when it is challenged. He knows that he could just as well now decide that his own life is what is most important. Yet he cannot even rely on his instinct for self preservation, for he has seen others overcome this instinct and he knows that he can too. And though moved by the death of his friend in this very same demonstration, the emotions of the moment need not determine his decision either. Nevertheless, Rogelio must choose and there is no time. Bencastro knows this moment of choice; he has divined the soul of Rogelio and has found nothing certain there.

Rogelio and Dominguez made their choices in full consciousness of the risks. The large majority of Salvadorans, however, sought to remain, at least on the surface, neutral bystanders to the war. For example, Rogelio describes the comportment of passengers on a bus:

Luego me dediqué a estudiar a los pasajeros, entre los que se destacaba un mayor número de hombres, de piel oscura, serios y taciturnos, posiblemente obreros, o campesinos. Las mujeres no apartaban la mirada de sus canastos con fruta, queso fresco y botellas de crema. Algunos niños dormían sobre las piernas de sus madres y otros, con los ojos pegados a la ventana, observaban los caseríos y los postes de la luz que pasaban veloces en dirección contraria a la del bus. (100-101)

Bencastro points here, to the widespread survival mechanism of Salvadorans both inside and outside of El Salvador during the 1980s. Show a fixation with routine on the outside and guard real feelings on the inside. It is perhaps this duplicity that still stifles the historical memory of many Salvadorans. For the fear is still there, subliminal but palpable. And Bencastro has revealed to us its anatomy and origin. Yet even the neutral stance is a choice and one that becomes more and more difficult to sustain.

Has Bencastro succeeded in holding a mirror up to the reality of civil war in El Salvador, or is the image in the mirror more about himself. Rafael Lara-Martinez argues that much of Disparo is autobiographical:

Seguramente, el despertar de la conciencia personal de ambos personajes expresa la conversión del propio Bencastro; el pintor de formas geométricas y fuerzas cósmicas abstractas se ve en necesidad de narrar la historia. (3)

Perhaps it is true that Bencastro himself, like so many Salvadorans, faces moral challenges and makes himself into the writer with a social consciousness. And yes, Bencastro, like Rogelio, was a painter before becoming a writer. Bencastro, however, goes beyond his own story in Disparo and tells the story of both those who fled the conflict and those thousands of activists who stayed and made a difference during the civil war.

What makes Disparo a monument to both Romero and to the five million Salvadorans who had to define themselves during the civil war in El Salvador, is the clear placement of responsibility on each individual for what she makes of herself within the context of her situation. For the war itself, at any given moment was the result of the multitude of decisions to collaborate or resist, to flee or to stay, to hide one’s feelings or to express them, to play it safe or to expose oneself to danger.

(*) Frederick Mills teaches Philosophy at Bowie State University, Maryland.