Oral history with Linda Garrett, 12/10/2019


Marta Valier (MV): Today’s December 10th.

Linda Garrett (LG): 10th.

MV: 2019, I’m with the Linda Garrett at her place in Santa Monica, we’re conducting an oral history interview. You want to tell me a little bit about your early life? Where you were born and where you grew up?

LG: OK. Well, I was born in 1942. So was World War II, in Los Angeles. And my father worked for some aircraft company. My mother was a writer and historian and had spent some time in Europe just before the war started. And she loved talking, about telling us stories about what was happening in Europe in 1939, and how she got caught up in the Spanish Civil War victims, and the beginning of World War II, and the Nazis and all that. She had many adventures that she told us. So we grew up with some sense, I think, of the world and the bigger world and a bit of adventure because she presented her stories in that way.

MV: Sorry. Did you say she. She was living, where was she leaving?

LG: We were in Los Angeles. We were all living in Los Angeles.

MV: So her stories, she was.

LG: She had gone to Europe as, she was an American, but she had gone to Europe. She had a good friend who was Hungarian, and met her friend. And they traveled around in 1939 and got caught up right as the war was starting. So then my brother was born in 1945 and we moved to the town of San Luis Obispo. And that was a wonderful time. Probably one of the happiest times in my life in terms of just being a child, living on a ranch in the country, in the countryside, having animals. I had my own horse and we had cows, cattle and sheep and all those things. It was a wonderful childhood. And when I was twelve, there were four of us. By then, I was the oldest. My parents decided to move back to Los Angeles, which was for me, a disaster. And we moved to a town, San Marino, which was all white, restricted, wealthy community. My parents did not have a lot of money. They were aspiring upper middle class. So we were on the lower, lower scale of San Marino. And at the time, even I knew there was something wrong about this community, that it was so insulated and so white. Even though I didn’t really have a sense of racism or anything at that age, I knew there was something wrong. Anyway, through high school, I worked in the local library and I worked, I always worked to escape school and escape San Marino. I went to the University of California, Santa Barbara for almost three years, really did not have a good time there. It was also an all white, very at that time. This was the early 60s. 1960-61, it was a very Republican university. The John Birch Society, which was, you may not know it doesn’t exist anymore. I don’t think, but a very extreme right racist organization was very popular on the campus at UC Santa Barbara has my memory. There were no, it wasn’t like Berkeley at that time. There were no political things happening, even though I didn’t know what political was, anyway I dropped out. I went to Europe for a year. I spent six months as a nanny in England for my mother’s friend, who she had traveled with in Europe in the thirties. And then I went to Germany, where I had a cousin who is in the American army in Bavaria. And it was winter of 1963. The wall had gone up pretty recently. It was, the Iron Curtain was a big deal, and my cousins, the army base was fairly close to the Czech border and he was always on maneuvers in the middle of the night. They had threats and things were happening. I didn’t really have any political understanding of anything, but I decided I wanted to go to Berlin so, and they couldn’t go, American army people couldn’t go unless they were assigned there. So I took a train all by myself in the middle of the winter and went to Berlin and there was the wall, and things were happening. And I didn’t really still didn’t really get it all. I certainly wasn’t a politically conscious person, but I also didn’t see it as somehow the enemy, friend, enemy. I really didn’t understand it, but came back to L.A. and by, and I started I had several different jobs, but I went to work at the Los Angeles Free Press Bookstore, which was a very important political 60s venue in Pasadena. And there, everything was happening by 1964, everybody was political. Everything was political. Everything was just exploding all around us with Vietnam happening, and the civil rights movement. And to be in a bookstore where all of these books were appearing and magazines and articles about really what U.S. history and what we had done to the Japanese, to the Native Americans, to everybody, all this information was, we were just learning every day. We were all learning, not just me. It was just an incredible time. And then I got involved with the Peace and Freedom Party, which was trying to get on the ballot in California. We had to have, I think, a million signatures or something and had a year to go out and get signatures in order to be a party. And it was wasn’t a Communist Party. It was a leftist, pro-peace anti-Vietnam War anti-racist party. But not. I wouldn’t call it a sectarian left party.

MV: What years was that?

LG: This was ’65, ’66 maybe I can’t remember exactly. ’67? It went on for a few years before the actual election, I think was on the ballot in ’68, but it was a great experience. I was actually a paid organizer for a while. You know, $50 a month or something too, and lived in a commune in Pasadena on Orange Grove, with other people who were organizers. So that was all a period of awakening really, and learning and meeting people and learning how to go out and organize and ask people to sign abortion, pro abortion. That was a huge issue. And in fact, I was remember being in a line to go to a theater in Westwood. There used to be huge lines and we would ask people to sign our petitions for abortion rights. And there was a there were standing there and the line was a group of people that had, had gone to high school with in San Marino, and they were shocked and appalled. And I later, few years later, went to the first and only reunion and everybody said, oh, here comes the communist. It was, it was an interesting time. People were so polarized and everybody was positioning themselves or learning something. I mean, there were also like hippie moments in that time, like, great surprises of just seeing what everybody was doing, what was happening. And it seemed like things were happening overnight out of nowhere. Everything was bubbling. It was an amazing time. In 1968, by then I was married. He was a union organizer. We went to Boston for a year.

MV: Where?

LG: To Boston to. I’m not sure exactly how we made that decision. My brother was living there, and going to Harvard and our plan was to take a backpacking trip to Europe for a year. And Boston was sort of a stopping point and we were both worked low level jobs, saved money, and I now worked with the Welfare Rights Organization. And we were doing anti-war stuff all this time. I was never a big leader of the Vietnam movement or anything, but I was always involved in leafleting and demonstrations and so on. We went to Europe. We helped organize anti-war, anti-war demonstrations in London, and Paris, and Rome, actually. And just by leafleting at the American Express was a big deal then that’s where everybody would go. You probably don’t even know what American Express is, but they sold money orders and things and it was a place people could get their mail. Of course, there was no Internet or no e-mail or anything. So all the Americans would always go to the American Express, wherever they were in the world. And it was a good place to leaflet and get people to go to these demonstrations. So that was our, that was our work in Europe. We went to North Africa. We came home. I got pregnant. Our daughter was born in December of 1970. I worked for, I was working for an ACLU welfare rights project at the time. And, in 1972 my mother died of cancer, and it was very traumatic time and I didn’t want to be married anymore and I split and we had a very friendly separation and joint child custody and all of that. And then I worked a couple jobs and started working with Indochina Peace Campaign (IPC), which was the Jane Fonda Tom Hayden anti-war group and really was one of the few things happening after night because in 1973, the Paris peace agreement was signed. So there was no more draft. And the anti-war movement basically collapsed in 1973. And the Indo-China Peace Campaign was one of the few national organizations that was trying to still until the war continued. Right? But American boys were not being killed, supposedly. In, at the end of 1974, IPC decided to send a small delegation to Saigon, then Saigon, with the idea of in downtown Saigon unfolding a huge banner against the war and then escaping, or something. And my job was to go to Bangkok and be in Bangkok to meet them. These people, after they were after they unfolded their banner and hopped on a plane, they didn’t come to Bangkok. But I stayed there. And and with the help of Tom Hayden and Jane, the idea was that I would go to Hanoi from Bangkok. It took, I don’t know, three months or something for me to get the visa. And during that time, I was living in Bangkok with the journalist’s family and traveling back and forth to Laos, to Vien Tin, Laos, where the North Vietnamese embassy was. And they would say, we don’t have permission yet, come back. So I did that three or four or five times. And then in April, I think it was on April 20th, something like that of 1975. They said, come, we have your visa. I went to Laos, got on the plane. I was the only foreigner, flew in to Hanoi, huge storm and an old prop plane that I thought was going to crash. But I knew I wouldn’t die because I was with Vietnam, and it was OK. And that was the night before the war ended. But by sheer coincidence. So I got there on the 29th of April. No, I’m sorry. That’s wrong. I was there for several days before the war ended, and I can’t remember the date, but I do remember, well, one important thing about that visit was meeting with a journalist, a Vietnamese journalist who my brother, my brother had been to Hanoi in 1972 as a journalist, and he had met this Vietnamese journalist who agreed to see me when I was there. And he was an old man and he was a wonderful person who invited me to his home, late at night, and talked about the war and what it had meant, and how his family was in the south. He hadn’t been able to see his family since the 1940s. And how, he said, “The war’s going to end and we’re going to bring beautiful things to the people in the south. We’re going to teach, bring them culture and poetry and music.” He had such dreams for the postwar, none of which happened of course, things didn’t turn out as people had hoped. But he was, he was. I was so fortunate to meet him. He, he has died since. And so then on the morning of the 30th, I was waking up early, but in the hotel and they said, come, come, come outside. And the war was ending and everybody was in the streets. Everybody had a little paper flags and there was fireworks and excitement. But excitement in the Vietnamese way wasn’t like being an American football game or something. It was it was different. But people were very happy, to say the least. And later that day, the rest of this delegation from the Indochina peace campaign arrived. So I was the only I think the only American in North Vietnam that morning. And then they came. And then we had another week or 10 days where we stayed in Vietnam and traveled. And they took us to different, to Haiphong and different places and showed us around. We were invited to celebrations and so on. So that was, that was a momentous event in my life, certainly. And I’ve felt I’ve always felt, despite everything that’s happened since then in Vietnam and elsewhere, a real commitment. If I believed in blessings. It was a blessing to be there. At that moment and I certainly wasn’t, I mean, there are so many other Americans who were leaders in the anti-war movement and people who sacrificed a lot and should have been there. And I was very fortunate to be to be there at that time. Came back to L.A. few months later, opened a bookstore here in Santa Monica, down the street with a couple of people, put up the money and I ran this was called the Bookshop in Ocean Park and we were very political. We wouldn’t sell bestsellers, only politically correct books and things. And we had events every month, at least once a month, political events, poetry readings and things like that. So this was 1975, 76. In 1979 I went on a delegation back to Vietnam. The Chinese had invaded North Vietnam and it was a very tense situation and they wanted some people to come. But the important thing about that trip that I remember is, it was in July 1979, and July 19th was the day the Sandinistas’ victory in Nicaragua. And we were with the Vietnamese that day, and I remember my Vietnamese handler saying, “It’s time for you Americans to pay attention to what’s happening in Central America. We don’t need you to be doing anything for Vietnam now, it’s not the right time. You go pay attention. Learn about Central America.” Yeah. And I had never I mean, I had kind of follow what was happening in Nicaragua. I’d never been to Central America. I really didn’t know anything. I certainly didn’t know anything about El Salvador. So that was ’79. But then I came back and we started hearing rumblings and refugees were coming and things were happening in March of 1980 the archbishop was assassinated and really many people were coming. And I met some Salvadorans and we had an event at the bookstore for these. And then in the early arrivals of Salvadorans, there were a lot of very political people, students mostly, or grad students and people who had to flee. But they came with a purpose to organize up here. And they were amazing. And everybody said at the time and and I certainly agree, ever since the Salvadorans are good organizers, and they they set to it. And it is as you probably know, there were five different organizations that later became the FMNL, and there was always tension between the organizations. At least three of them were pretty strong here in L.A.. And so the organizers were, you know, each out organizing more North Americans, getting people involved. And then many times it just seemed it was horrible. This kind of tension and competition. But at least in my opinion, when I look back on it, not just here in L.A., but in general, maybe many more things happened and many more people were involved because there were the organizing was kind of dispersed. And they were there were many projects. I mean, El Rescate, that was the first legal services, legal social services project. But then CARECEN started and others, and everybody was vying for money and for donors and for support. But maybe in the long run, it’s not a bad thing because many more people were committed and involved. I don’t know. It was hard at times.

MV: This is something I’ve heard also from the community of Guatemalans.

LG: Same thing.

MV: Once they came here, they found themselves divided, reflecting the different groups they were coming from.LG: Yeah, it’s hard, and it’s it sort of continues even though it kind of doesn’t. But it kind of does at least for the for the people who were involved 30, 40 years ago, those loyalties still exist. I think to certain organizations. So El Rescate was one, and CARECENS was the other, there were other things happening, too.

MV: What were their differences?

LG: El Resctae in some way was in competition with CARECEN I suppose, you know some, for the same donors. People who supported the refugees and so on. For people who weren’t organized, for the refugees who weren’t organized here, it probably, I don’t know if it was uncomfortable. It probably was at times because everybody was trying to recruit the refugees, and North American support. So it was quite, quite a time. So El Rescate opened in May of 1981. My bookstore was, had been oh, the bookstore was right here on Main Street, originally. And after I came back from Vietnam in 1979, I was interviewed by, I think, the L.A. Times or something about what was happening in Vietnam. And so we were having an event at the bookstore. I was showing my slides and a demonstration of Vietnamese who were anti-communist came marching down Main Street yelling, you know, and banging on the bookstore’s windows. And some people had put smoke bombs inside the bookstore in little paper bags behind the books. It was all a huge kind of scary thing. We had no idea that was going to happen. And the landlord, I think that’s what caused the event, a few months after that, the landlord raised the rent from three hundred dollars a month to three thousand dollars a month. So we moved to a little space down the street and it wasn’t the same. And I didn’t have the same energy anymore to run this. Then the decision was, I’m going to close it and go to El Rescate, is this the moment I should be doing this? But I had never been to Central America still. So in July of ’81, I went with some friends to the second anniversary of the Sandinista victory. And then I said I was going to take a bus and go to El Salvador and Guatemala and Mexico, see for myself what was going on. My friends thought I was crazy. Everybody thought I was crazy. I just took just, got on a local bus and. I saw on the ground really what what was going on, the poverty, the way people were living, the repression, the soldiers everywhere, the checkpoints, people being pulled off the bus, made it to San Salvador in the late at night. It was a blackout, a curfew. I got out of the bus. I had names of people to contact. But this was late at night. I found, I saw a sign that’s a hotel or rooms or something and stayed there and ended up. It was a brothel and I was there for the first night. Nothing. I mean, I was fine. Nothing nothing bad happened. And the next day, I contacted the human rights people and other names that I had. And I spent about a week, I think, in in San Salvador. People took me around, taught me, answered my questions, showed me everything. The Human Human Rights Commission, the Committee of Mothers, some journalists, some religious people took care of me. And my Spanish was terrible, practically non-existent. But I guess I understood enough to get the picture. And then I went on to Guatemala and I met I had a few names there. I just stayed there a few days, on to Mexico and home. But then I felt, I think by the time I came back more comfortable making this decision that it was this is what I wanted to do. And I felt like I had at least a superficial knowledge of what was happening. Closed the bookstore and went to El Rescate. And I was the, I think I was the director for a short time till we found like a Salvadoran who who was qualified and could do it, and I did fundraising and I did press stuff, lots of different things. And by 1980, and then I made. Yeah, I made several or maybe many trips to El Salvador between May of ’81 and the end of ’84, for taking medical supplies or whatever things back and forth, meeting with the organizations, trying to collect information because there was no. It’s hard to remember or to to understand now, but with no Internet and no real news sources, information was hard to come by. It really depended on a few journalists able to publish up here. So it was it was important to go back and forth. And I did one, we did a medical airlift thing with Operation California was called, we took a planeload of medical supplies to Honduras at one point for the Salvadoran refugee camps across the border in Honduras. And and I wanted to go to the border. So with some other people, we rented a jeep. We drove across Honduras to the Mesa Grande refugee camp and we had some medical supplies. It’s right, right on the border. And. I was able to go across and visit one of the guerilla camps on the Salvadoran side. A little boy, 9 or 10 years old, got me at like 5:00 in the morning and guided me up this mountain and no cross to get over there. And if you did, you read the Charles Clements book, Witness to War?

MV: No.

LG: Well, we were there at the same time. So what if you’ve read his book, he he he gives some good descriptions of what was happening there and how it was. But I think I was there for about a week. And it was a small, maybe there were two or three adobe structures. We slept in hammocks. Tortillas and beans once in a while, some avocado and some lemon. The best meals I ever had in my life were those meals with cheering them there. I have to say. There was a wedding at some point from one of the young people. Two people got married and there was music. There was a life. But then in turn, then Clements arrived, about that same time. And he stayed. He was a doctor, medical doctor.

MV: Who sorry?

LG: His name is Charlie Clements. His book is really important. What he did was important because he had been in the United States Air Force in Vietnam. And after that, became a doctor and wanted to do good things. And he came he spent a year in El Salvador in the mountains with the guerrillas. And when he left, he wrote this book. He has the book is very readable, very authentic. He’s not a it’s not rhetorical. It’s not a Marxist or anything like that. It’s a book that many people could read and really understand what was happening in El Salvador. I think the work he did was incredibly important.

MV: You said there were songs. Do you remember what songs?

LG: I don’t remember. I’m terrible at things like that. But they had. Yeah, there was a little band, a little group with guitar and violin. Three or four guys in this group. But I don’t remember music. I’m terrible. So after about a week, they they received news that it was, that they were going to have to move. That there was going to be an army invasion. And so I left, went back to Honduras. Charlie went with them, and they went down to the Guazapa vulcano, which is right outside of the capital. Right? And and were there during most of the war.

MV: This was near the border with the Honduras? Right?

LG: Yes. Right. Yes.

MV: Do you remember the location, the name of the area?

LG: La Virtud is the name of the little town on the Honduran side. Mesa Grand was the big refugee camp sponsored by the United Nations, and there were ten thousand maybe refugees there. A lot. A lot of people there. There was another big refugee camp near Morazán, that you probably know, Colomoncagua. So, let me think what else? Quipurito was the name of the little hamlet where I stayed and there was another camp nearby of a different organization. I can’t remember the name of that place, but I met those people too. They had a doctor. A lot of children and a lot of women were there. It wasn’t just, and students. I mean, I think that was part of the picture was that the actual kind of leaders in the camps were students who had left, who had come from San Salvador and organized. And so they were the more educated leaders at the time. And actually, everybody I remember spending time with when I was there, most of them were had been students or grad students. One was, two of them were doctors that actually had graduated medical school and one was killed not long after that. The other, Julian, just died a couple of years ago from diabetes or something, but I I haven’t seen him since then, since the war. Can’t remember there was another trip I was on where people were fleeing across the river. I was on the Honduran side and the army was had invaded. The Rio Lempa, not the Sumpul, Rio Sumpul was a huge massacre earlier on, this was maybe 1983, I was at Mesa Grande camp and people said, started running down towards the river and said, they’re coming, they’re coming. And the army, the Salvadoran army was shooting at refugees and they were trying to swim across the river. And I remember they had some big intertubes tires, intertubes, and the men were carrying women and children across the river. It was raining, and muddy, and very scary. So there were a lot of different events like that during that time. But by or maybe one other story I should talk about, because there’s one person who’s was very important in his story, sort of it’s important as indicative of many people, I think. On one of the trips down from L.A. I was asked to go to the prison, Mariona prison, a prison where political prisoners were being held and to take some leaflets and things just to visit one particular person, Héctor  Recinos, who was a leader of the electrical workers union. And he had been captured in 1982 [was captured in 1980], I think, and tortured. And his whole, there were a group of electrical workers who had been organizing blackout and things, that the government didn’t like. So they were they had all been arrested and they were being held at Mariona.

MV: Blackouts you said? Blackouts?

LG: Yeah. Shutting down the electricity in different places, different cities and different times. There’s another word for it besides blackout, but that’s what would happen. So I was able to get into the prison and on visitors day and I met these guys in particular, Héctor Recinos and his story it’s so incredible and it relates back El Rescate because he he was arrested, I guess, in ’82, or ’80. And I’m confused about the years. I’m sorry. But two years after he was arrested, on almost the same day his wife and daughter were disappeared, they were taken away. And neither of them have ever been found. And he had three sons, young boys who were maybe ten and six and three at the time. And they were visiting a friend nearby when these men came and took his mother and daughter, who was 13 at the time. So we knew all this, right? And I met with Héctor and he wanted me to meet his oldest son, who was still in El Salvador. The three boys were still there, but they were living under assumed names and hiding with a distant relative. But the idea was to get them out, and bring them to the US. So I met with the oldest boy, Héctor. And at one point, maybe on another visit he, Héctor  and I went there together, although we couldn’t be seen together, but he helped me get in the prison is my memory anyway. And he was like 14, but a really mature 14. And he had been basically taking care of his little brothers, so on. So in 1984, we got word at El Rescate that the boys were coming. And their grandfather had gotten them to the Guatemala border. He had hired somebody, help them get across the river. They got all the way through Guatemala, through Mexico. Arrived in Tijuana. And they were arrested by the Americans. They were in prison. So El Rescate, we got them out and they lived with me for a not very long, for a few weeks and then stayed with a relative at the same time. There was a lot of negotiating going on in El Salvador to to release the political prisoners. And so. A few months later, they were released and they all of the electrical workers, prisoners, including Héctor, were deported to Holland because Holland, the Netherlands, was, wanted to take them, was willing to take them. So the boys went there too. So they all there was a big reunion in in the Netherlands, father and and his sons. But he couldn’t stay. He had to get back to El Salvador and he went back in ’85, sometimes in ’85, and stayed and did continued labor organizing and doing his work. The mother and daughter, nobody knows, still, really what happened. It was apparently the national police that took them. And for a long time Héctor was told by somebody or he thought that the daughter had been like adopted by some family in the United States and was still alive. But apparently that’s not true. So, but he continues to this day doing human rights work and organizing for the disappeared and the political prisoners from from the 80s, they’ll organize and make their demands. And he’s he’s an amazing person. So I stay in touch with them, and those boys.

MV: You would travel pretty frequently.

LG: Yeah.

MV: How long would you stay for? Couple of weeks, a month?

LG: It depended on some of those. Some of those trips, it was a couple weeks, but sometimes just not very long at all. Few days, back and forth. And always, you know, there’s always nervousness about what would happen in customs, or whatever. I never had any problem. And a lot of people thought I was a nun. And I kind of looked like I could be a nun. So that was that was, I just was very careful, but I never had any problem, coming and going. So by late 1984 at El Rescate, we decided we had to have a human rights department and really be doing human rights work, not just the legal and social services. And part of the project was I would go to El Salvador and be the human rights representative. So I went down in January, I think of 1985, was going to just be for six months. And my daughter was here with her father and our friends, and my sister and so on. It ended up being 10 years, going back and forth a lot. But really I lived down there 10 years. And the work was a lot of a lot of it was just documenting, all these books right here are chronologies, the news every single day. Radio, TV, print, news, I kept a chronology of everything that was happening, and the source of all the information. And that’s what all those books are. So part of my life was just monitoring all, everything that was happening, and talking to people and trying to make sure of it. And then writing weekly reports back to El Rescate, which they would distribute

MV: From where were you collecting information?

LG: Radio, television, the newspapers, organizations, anything, everything that was happening every single day without without editing, but writing the news as they reported it. But then my weekly reports and monthly reports would be more.

MV: From you living there and seeing with you own eyes?

LG: Yeah.

MV: Do you think the people, the the press, were they reporting exactly what was happening or no?

LG: In different ways, yes. And I also included Radio Venceremos. And and the other guerillas radio was also there. So you know, they’re written just as as I heard them. So you could get the same story from Radio Venceremos and from Diario de Hoy, the right wing newspaper there. Make up your mind what you believed. But then when I wrote the weekly report or analysis, I think it was much more honest.

MV: Mm-hmm

LG: The other part of the work was receiving delegations. So a lot of delegations came from the US and Europe. We had some too. And then, you know, all the logistics of arranging a schedule, appointments, meetings, transportation, translating, everything for these delegations and they would come for three or four days or a week. There were all kinds of sometimes members of Congress and the religious community, solidarity people, just a whole variety of, of Americans who wanted to see what was going on. And we would always meet with the government, with the military, with the FMLN in and one way or another, with the popular organizations, the human rights groups. We always presented everything so people could, again, make up their own minds about what they wanted to see and ask questions of the government and the military and so on. I think those delegations were very useful and important because people came back and they again, they had like I had had a first first-hand view of what was going on and and and what could be done up here. So that went on almost 10 years also, a lot of a lot of visitors came.

MV: Were there visitors before, well you weren’t there, but were the delegations also coming years before? When did they started?

LG: Yeah, we started, I mean, delegations did come in the early 80s. The worst the worst years, of course, were 1980 to 1984, in terms of death squad killings and disappearances, and all of that. It was a really difficult time. And I don’t, I mean there were some delegations, but I don’t think a lot of people went. By 1985 when I went down, the popular movement was able to be a little more open, not quite so clandestine. So the labor unions and the student groups, peasant groups, religious groups were actually, there were demonstrations in the street, again, which hadn’t happened because it was so dangerous in those early years. So there were there was more access for delegations to actually meet with people, meet with different groups. And the government and the military thought it was in their interest to give their side of the story, I guess. So they met with us, and the embassy. We always made sure people met with the U.S. embassy as well, and heard their side of the story.

MV: Which allowed you to do your job, right?

LG: Yeah, because we could kind of look like where we were very neutral, and just trying to give everybody a voice.

MV: So those were ten years.

LG: Yeah, 1989 was the year of the offensive, the big military offensive. And this gets back to Hèctor a little bit. And to this other woman, who is really important to me during my time down there. And this another labor organizer. Her name was Febe Velasquez, Febe Elizabeth Velasquez. And I met her on one of the first delegations that I had in 1985, we visited this labor federation, FENASTRAS, and a whole group of union people came to meet the delegation. This is like the first time they had been so open. And Febe was one of the people in this group, and she was just 22, 23 years old. But one of those women that you never forget who is just so charismatic in her way, but and really intelligence, and smart and clear, gave great answers to questions, and was just very engaging in so many ways. And she had been working in a garment factory since she was 13 years old, from a very poor family, at this time, she was in 1985, she must have been 23 or 24. And she quickly became like a leader in the labor movement in 1985 she was the secretary general of FENASTRAS which was this big labor federation, and they had a large building office downtown San Salvador and October 31, 1989, a car bomb went off at noontime, right in front of that building. And she was killed and nine other people were killed and 27 people were wounded, injured. And Héctor, who I mentioned before, actually was in the building at the time. He wasn’t injured, but he he was upstairs meeting with a journalist friend of mine when that happened. So Febe was killed, and the offensive started November 9th, November 11th. She was killed October 31st. And so the offensive was in her honor, was named in her honor. And she’s still considered a hero in El Salvador. We were there during the offensive. You know, we knew it was coming. Didn’t exactly know what time exactly when things were going to happen. But it was a very frightening, but I have to say, just go back the whole experience. I never felt personally threatened. And it’s this kind of that, gringa, I don’t know, self-confidence or, you know. I’ve just never felt like anybody, anything was gonna happen to me. And there were different times where things were a little scary. But I never. I never felt I was going to be killed. But so during the offensive, there was helicopters and bombings, and things were happening. And one night some men in black with M-16’s came to the door of our house, and we all just froze and we didn’t let them in and nothing happened. We were we were very lucky. But a lot of people died during those days and maybe, just to say historically a little bit, 1989, I mean, this offensive had been planned for years. The logistics of the offensive and preparations for it in the Spring of 1989 was Glasnost, and Perestroika. Everything was changing. Everything was starting to fall apart in the communist world. And in November 9th, the Berlin Wall comes down. And so this is November 11th, with a lot of confusion. And people just, you know, what does this mean for everybody, for everything that ever. It’s all collapsing and. But the decision was made to go ahead with the offensive. And I think then that the larger political context created some doubts and indecisions, and made it. It was a real crisis, I think, for many people. So of course the offensive did not succeed militarily. But politically, I think the, the analysis it was that it did lead to the end of the war and the massacre of the Jesuits on November 16th. Of course, the Americans realized it’s all over, that they could not continue funding this war. So. The offensive ended the war in some ways, even though the peace agreement wasn’t until January 1992. During those last couple of years I continued to

MV: ’92?

LG: ’92.

MV: Yeah.

LG: I continued doing the writing. Then El Rescate, we started working on this database called the Index to Accountability, which, in my point of view is the most important thing we ever did, and the idea was to, to create two databases, one that would document the history of the military officers who were responsible, who made the decisions, and the other database was the all the violations of human rights. So my job in El Salvador was to try to convince all the human rights organizations, that were five, of course, that we should all combine our data because everybody had some similar but their own data about violations. In the end, the only only organization, institution that agreed to work with us was Tutela Legal, which was the human rights organization of the Catholic Church. And in the end, I think that was fine. It was a good decision. They had probably the best documentation and the most neutral, most, I don’t know what my word is I’m trying to say. But María Julia Hernández, who was the director of two Tutela Legal, was very, very careful and precise in testing, taking testimonies and documenting the information.

MV: These were testimonies of people? I had talked to a person that said that they would go to Monseñor Romero and they would tell him what had happened and he would put it in some records. 

LG: Yes. When was one Monseñor was alive, there was an, the institution was called Soccorro Jurídico, but then it I can’t remember exactly the sequence, but it closed. I think the director had to leave the country. And then Tutela Legal was started. I think, I think, Monseñor, it was after he was killed, because the Tutela Legal records actually start in 1982. So we don’t have the early stuff, but we got, there are like forty five thousand testimonies that they had. So in El Salvador my job was to go to Tutela Legal every week and wait for them to give me a mimeograph copy of the week’s report. And then I had to wait for people coming to L.A. to carry this information. In L.A. they were designing all the database, which was, but now it’s very primitive when looking back on what what they did. But it was amazing. And I think it was the first, not only anymore, but certainly but the first experience of of creating these two databases that could be cross-referenced. So if you find a violation, a person, you could, you could cross-reference and determine what would which officer had command responsibility over that zone or that area at that moment when that person was killed or whatever. So there was a lot of work done in L.A., and there were a whole crew of volunteers inputting this data every single day. And the objective was to complete it before the signing of the peace agreement, because the peace agreement was going to include a Truth Commission that could use this information. So they worked like crazy up here and and did completed it and we presented it down there to the United Nations Truth Commission and to the ad-hoc Commission, which was set up to investigate the military officers. So that was all. I mean, I think it was very important and successful a contribution to that process. But the reason I still see it as important project is that it’s used still today by war crimes investigators in Europe and here, in Canada, by immigration people who are investigating. We get calls from lawyers who are defending somebody who’s going to be deported and they want to know if they were involved in anything. So that database continues to be really important and useful. And the actually the University of Washington, Human Rights Center, has a project, that’s just been completed, to combine all the human rights data from the other organizations as well. So this new complete database will include the United Nations database, the UCA, the universities, the Human Rights Commission, the Soccorro Jurídico, and Tutela Legal, everybody’s database. And I haven’t seen the final version, but they worked really hard to clean it up. So there’s no duplicates of information, etcetera. So it’s another tool that should be really useful in the future, for academics or researchers, investigators and so on. After that, when the Truth Commission report was presented in 1993 to the government and the military and everybody and amnesty was passed, general amnesty by the legislature immediately. So no one could be prosecuted. But then there was, during those months, there was an increase in death squad killings and the U.N. decided they better stay involved and there should be an investigation. So I am I, I was an investigator at that point. It was called the Grupo Conjunto to investigate death squad killings, and that was in 1993-94.

MV: How do you do that? How do you do that job? How do you investigate deaths?

MV: They hired internationals, there were detectives from Chile, Spain, Canada, the US. Think that’s all. But there were like five teams of police, or people who had experience in investigating. It was, in the end, it was like many, many projects of the United Nations, I mean, it was it was established with a lot of publicity. We’ve got to do this. And really the objective was to stop the killings and make sure that people, death-squads type of people would would understand that there would be an international consequence if they continued doing this. I don’t think the objective was really to prosecute. It certainly wasn’t to prosecute. They didn’t have the ability. The commission didn’t have the ability to prosecute anybody. I think it was just like a holding pattern. Right. Keep things quiet. But it was an amazing experience for me.

MV: What was your role? To coordinate?

LG: I was one of the investigators on a team. And actually, I was, I was the lead investigator for a small team. Two guys, one was American, and one was Canadian. And they really didn’t want to work with a woman. And that was one of my most clear experiences of that. And at that time, I didn’t, I just thought something was wrong with me, that I really wasn’t doing a good job. But they they just refused to do any of my suggestions about investigations. So I was, I resigned as the lead investigator and I worked with another team, with the Chilean detectives. And they were great. And, you know, we we had one particular crime. We were supposed to investigate and we did. And we wrote a report and so on. And so that it lasted about six or eight months, I think. And nothing really came of it. You know, it was more of a public PR.

MV: So the reports are there. But there were no consequences.

LG: No.

LG: So that was late ’94. And then I left in ’95.

MV: How did they operate, these death squads? How, how how were their targeting the victims? How were they?

LG: Well, with most of, I’m trying to remember these particular killings that we were, that were, that occurred after the peace agreement. The idea was to look, there were some FMLN people, and some right wing people. It was kind of a mix of victims. And it’s not really clear that they were all actually death squad victims. But. People were as, the, the style of the motive, no, there’s a good word for describing how the killings took place, but, you know, people would just be picked up, thrown in the back of an SUV with polarized windows and disappear. In these cases, and I can’t remember the details of these cases we were working on, but. They could have been death squads, it could have been some other minor, personal revenge for something. You know, it was kind of unclear. And as I say, I think the investigation met its objective, which was really just a warning, that the international community is watching.

MV: Mm hmm. Which is something that wasn’t happening in 1979-1980?

LG: Right. Right. And of course, back then, it was much more massive what was happening, a much more frightening than postwar. But we had, it was, we were getting death threats, the investigators. You know, it was, it was kind of a big deal in that, in that sense that supposedly these guys were being investigated. But, and then at at the same time, there was the amnesty right? Which was horrifying that this had been passed, and it basically still 40 years later, 30 years later. Even though the amnesty was kind of repealed two years ago, there’s still very little of any kind of I mean, no one has actually been punished for anything. There is the prosecution, the trial now for the El Mozote massacre. But that’s been going on for months or year. It’s not clear what will really happen. In the meantime, all those people, the really, the people who really had command responsibility during the war are dying or have already died, with no punishment’s. I’ve been working I worked on a few cases here with the war crimes people in Washington, and one, of the one of the people we were investigating died at age 90-something before he could actually be arrested. So some of those people are still around.

MV: So if you if you if you read the book, a history book in El Salvador of contemporary history, would you read, what they write in it? How do they write history?

LG: That’s a good question. I don’t know, the schools, it would be interesting to see a school textbook. I don’t know what they say. If it’s like our history textbooks, they don’t say much. There might be a paragraph, or there was some war from 1980 to 1992. I don’t know. That’s a good question for every country, right? Who writes the history, and and how they write it, and what the children are taught. I don’t know.

MV: And since you also worked in the in the Balkans and as a reconciliation, how is reconciliation possible if it’s not, acknowledge what has happened?

LG: No. The hatred and the distrust, everything just continues. And the children inherit that from that. There’s something called genetic trauma, or inherited trauma or something like the children, the grandchildren can even still feel the pain and the anger of the parents or grandparents, what they went through. And there’s if there’s no, you know, it’s it’s difficult to think of anybody, any country that really seriously initiated a process of reconciliation and forgiveness. Except Germany, which is so interesting, and that’s one reason I wanted to go spend some time there, because in Berlin in particular, because I think it’s the only, as far as I know, the only country that has tried to honestly acknowledged the past and and maintain a daily reminder of what happened and and and a future. It certainly hasn’t happened in the Balkans at all. Not Vietnam, or El Salvador. Yeah.

MV: To  go back to the period in ’79, ’80. Those years, what are your memories of El Salvador, the strongest memories you have of what was happening there? Related to, maybe through the pictures that you have seen of Richard Cross?

LG: There’s so many, I mean, there’s there are sensory memories that are really strong. The heat, and humidity, and getting off the airplane. From Los Angeles the flights would always leave at midnight and it arrived in San Salvador at 7:00 in the morning or 6:00 in the morning and get off the plane. And it was like walking into a sauna. Just unbelievable. Heat and humidity and and smells and odors, and crickets. But I would say my strongest memories were being in the in the “campo” in the countryside, either in the mountains or just visiting different communities outside of the capital, spending time with people in their little champas, and the generosity and hospitality of people who had nothing except, you know, a mud bahareque, a house with a mud floor or dirt floor swept clean all day long, and a little wood fire and the smell of the smoke, the cooking.

MV: All these people there were displaced from their home?

LG: Some. Some. Oh, and actually, I did spend a lot of time on those early years, 80s, those early visits. There were refugee camps, or displaced camps, in the churches in the capital. And there would be hundreds and hundreds of people, you know, living in in the courtyards and so on and cooking and the smoke and the smells and the children. Women and children mostly. And old people living in these really crowded, uncomfortable conditions, but safe inside the church. Just trying to cope with the poverty that that’s there and that’s all over the world but not in San Marino, California. And wait, not. And I don’t think it should be romanticized, but people are incredibly generous and hospitable to us, you know, coming in as a white American out of nowhere and inviting me or us delegations even into their little home, giving us coffee or whatever it was that they they had the little bit or whatever they had, telling their stories, very painful stories, being willing to do that. I mean, that those are the experiences I remember most, most strongly. And then in the city too, the union labor people, I mean, they is just courage everywhere. Really, just remarkable. And perhaps it’s the same in every similar situation, when there’s that level of tension and war pre-war, all that going on, but also the sense of for people who were participating, who were organized, or who had a sense of hope that what they what they were doing really was going to mean something, and that things were going to change. I think what’s very difficult now, 30 years later, 40 years later, is to talk to some of those same people. And things didn’t turn out the way people had hoped. I think a lot of lessons to be learned, I guess, about what happens, what power does, and corruption, and what we see everywhere. But. In these countries where people have gone through, revolutions, and lost everything, lost relatives, suffered horrifically. And then the postwar comes, and I think the majority of people just felt they were forgotten and left behind, their lives really were not improved, and that there wasn’t, the solidarity that exists when you’re in the middle of a struggle it tends to fade I think post post struggle, whatever, struggle anywhere. It’s very difficult. I think post, is more difficult than the than the actual revolutionary period. I don’t know where to go with that but.

MV: When did you go back last time in El Salvador?

LG: Last time?

MV: Hm.

LG: I haven’t been there since 2015, four years ago.  I went to work for this other organization from, I was away from El Salvador until 2009, and then a friend of mine who had worked at El Rescate had started an organization in Washington called the Center for Democracy in the Americas. And so I went to work with her in 2009 until 2015 as the El Salvador senior policy analyst or something. So I spent some time in Washington and we took delegations to El Salvador and went back and forth. So I had a number of visits and opportunities to go back and be. And I wrote reports during that time, too. On what what the situation was. And those were the years 2009, the FMLN president took office with great hopes that things were going to finally change, that there was opportunities. Etcetera. So that was a process also. And I haven’t been back since 2015, I guess.

MV: Now, how do you see this situation?

LG: Down there? Well, there were just such excitement when that when Mauricio Funes was elected president in 2009, he was not a member of the FMLN, but he represented the FMLN and they were the party in power. And it was just, it was thrilling after all these years of right wing government since the end of the war. That this was the opportunity, things were, great things were gonna happen. And it’s just another, he’s it another example of corruption, kind of, subsuming any hope for for change. I mean, there were some minimal things happened. The uniforms for kids to go to school, milk every day for school kids. I mean, there were things, some good things that happened. Right. But the, Mauricio Funes, I don’t think, he had been a journalist before. He was a respected journalist who was quite good at what he did. There are many different rumors and stories about what happened to him, but he clearly became a corrupted person in his personal life and, and the way he ran the government, and he’s now a fugitive in Nicaragua. He stole millions of dollars from the government. He and his cronies, his all group. They are, I don’t know, the FMNL doesn’t really take responsibility for that I don’t think, but they were in power, I mean. And I and I do know many ex-combatants, people who were activists or participated in the war, who live in mostly in rural areas, and have lot of anger and feel that they were totally forgotten, that their lives haven’t changed. You know, there’s a lot of alcohol and health problems. Alcohol, PTSD, serious serious problems. And now there’s even less expectation, I think, that good things are going to happen, that the country, and I just read some data, which I don’t remember any of it at the moment, but the actual statistics about life and education and health care, all those things, it looks like 1980s or 1970s, life has not improved for the majority of people. And of course, hundreds of people are coming here every every day, every week. People are still leaving. And I think the dream of every young person or most of them is to go to the United States and meet up with a relative because everybody has relatives here. Right? But there’s no opportunity. There’s no hope there. The school systems, the schools are collapsing and falling apart. Many of the schools don’t have running water. They don’t have toilets. There’s nothing for the kids. So. All these years, all the struggles and. And and and I don’t see what the future really is for El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras. Except for people to continue migrating for the kids, they say, you know, their choices, join a gang or or or leave the country, that really there’s no, nothing else to do. It’s all really tragic.

MV: In the media general, we don’t read what happened in their country. If we know, then the stories are not aliens. It is their stories that are aliens.

LG: Right. And there’s two things I would say about that. One is the one of the things we did in El Rescate and other groups here in the early 80s that was most, one of the most important things we did, was that we organized “house parties”, they were called, and people would invite their neighbors, their friends or family to come. And we would bring a refugee and food and they would cook food, Salvadoran food. And the persons or or the refugee or refugees who came would tell their story to this group of white North Americans who didn’t know anything about El Salvador and those personal, that personal contact, which is really what you’re talking about. That just made a huge difference. Those are the people who ended up coming on delegations, or giving donations or whatever, but being involved in some way because they had that personal experience, they could understand. I mean, and the other part of it that’s so important even more now than it was then, is that Americans are so focused, we’re focused on America and America. There’s no real information unless you just, as you say, really seeking about what’s going on anywhere else in the world. You can watch hours of news and it’s all about Washington, what’s happening here. The country is so insulated and uninterested, most people, and lack any knowledge of anything outside the border, so people who are coming across, most of, or a lot of Americans don’t have any sympathy or understanding or empathy for why they would come or they’d just see it as an invasion of of their territory in some way, and obviously I think, you know, again, if there were more direct contact, people who’ve actually met a refugee or a migrant and actually know somebody, and know their story are much less likely to be so racist and intolerant. But that’s where we are now as a country. And of course, it’s the same in Europe. Italy, right? All of Europe. All the white Western world is in fear of losing control. That’s definitely what we see here.