Tell Mom I’m in Heaven (Review)

Ana Margarita Gasteazoro (1950-1993) lived a remarkable life as an underground political activist and political prisoner in El Salvador. Deeply introspective and powerfully told, his memoirs Tell mama I’m in heaven offers a complex portrait of a woman who has transgressed multiple social sayings. Gasteazoro intimately describes how ordinary Salvadorans survived state terror and organized revolution. The memoir is a gem of a source that will capture the attention and hearts of multiple audiences.

Gasteazoro traces the gradual radicalization of her political consciousness, which began uncharacteristically when she was an inquisitive upper-class teenager who questioned her fascist Catholic upbringing. As a young woman, she traveled to several countries in search of love and personal autonomy, and eventually came to social democratic politics. But state terror, electoral fraud and left-wing politics further radicalized her. And so, in the late 1970s, she made the life-changing decision to join an armed revolutionary movement, which fought to overthrow a US-backed military dictatorship and build socialism. While Gasteazoro did not fight as a combatant, she nevertheless risked her life as an underground political activist. In May 1981, the National Guard disappeared and tortured her for 11 days. She then spent two years organizing in a women’s prison. Upon her release, she lived abroad and coordinated solidarity actions. Later, she opened a cafe with her partner and reflected critically on the dogmas that undermined revolutionary theory and practice.

This memoir was long in coming. Gasteazoro’s close friends Judy Blankenship and Andrew Wilson interviewed her for countless hours and edited the transcripts for her approval. Unlike most Latin American memoirs, this one was first produced in English, due to Gasteazoro’s fluency and the interviewers’ monolingualism. After much internal debate, the family approved the publication of the memoirs nearly three decades after Gasteazoro’s fatal battle with breast cancer. In 2019 the memoirs were published in Spanish and are now published in the original English.

The “A Nice Girl Like Me” section depicts the oligarchic society in which Gasteazoro’s family lived. His four siblings – a priest, a lay nun, businessmen and a chemical engineer – lived up to the expectations of their right-wing family. And it initially looked like Gasteazoro was on a similar path. His mother, who remained anonymous throughout the memoir, was a life member of Opus Dei, a fascist Catholic organization that advocated strict gender segregation and patriarchal gender roles. Mother spent her days arranging fresh cut flowers and attending mass, while seven servants looked after her household. As a child, Gasteazoro participated in Opus Dei activities, learning gourmet cooking, etiquette, and other skills that would make her a respectable wife. At the insistence of her liberal father, she attended a coeducational English-language school that educated the children of American embassy officials.

The social rebellion of Gasteazoro began to awaken in early adolescence. To keep her from smoking and partying, 15-year-old Gasteazoro was sent to an all-girls school in Guatemala run by Maryknoll nuns, including Sister Marian Peter, who later became a famous anti-war activist in the USA. Gasteazoro’s parents were unaware of the nun’s political activities, which included providing social services to slum dwellers. Gasteazoro quickly developed a close relationship with María Cristina Arathon, a 25-year-old psychologist who took her to the mountains to witness the miserable conditions in which indigenous people worked. These experiences led Gasteazoro to reflect on the class divides in his home: “Since I got used to walking in the poor barrios and sitting at the same table with the working class people, I didn’t understand why we had to have such chasms between rich and poor in El Salvador. After high school, Gasteazoro worked to secure her independence and lived in several countries abroad. During that time, her parents antagonized her various romantic partners — often over anti-black racism — and prevented three different engagements.

The section “A beautiful country like El Salvador” describes how increasing state violence targeted reformers and radicals alike. In the late 1970s, Gasteazoro joined the National Revolutionary Movement, a legal political party of intellectuals and social democrats. Her fluent English and solid administrative experience have made her a skilled public writer and spokesperson at international conferences. Often the only woman, Gasteazoro fought to “be taken seriously in the party, half of these men considering her” as a “sex object and the other half as a political colleague”. But she has become increasingly disillusioned with the effectiveness of electoral strategies in creating structural change, let alone shielding political opponents from state violence. She describes a typical week:

I went under one of the underpasses and there was a body hanging from the bridge. He was a man in shorts, with a cardboard sign saying: “Death to traitors of the fatherland.” It was signed by one of the death squads… I saw another body. It was covered with a sheet with a design of what was supposed to be the flag of one of the people’s organizations on it…there was a third body. The person had been tortured and the bones were broken. It was our daily life. Terror followed us.

To build the revolution, Gasteazoro joined the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL), the country’s largest guerrilla organization. The FPL was one of five guerrilla groups that made up the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), an armed insurgency of urban workers and peasants. She wrote propaganda, supervised the making of a major documentary film, transported weapons and equipment, and ran several safe houses where groups of comrades lived and worked together. Such work required careful coordination and pseudonyms to circumvent the suspicions of neighbors and authorities. On average, Gasteazoro spent two hours a day in security. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. In a case of security failure (not under Gasteazoro’s supervision), authorities captured and killed the five-person leadership of the Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of mass organizations.

The FPL’s strict security culture has shielded its members from state violence, while inevitably disrupting their personal lives. The organization resorted to the tactic of partitioning, which limited “to the absolute minimum” the knowledge that members had of each other’s identities and activities. As Gasteazoro describes it, “What you don’t know, you can’t reveal if you’re arrested.” The underground life produced a series of contradictions that she and others struggled to overcome. “The reality is that you live together, you sleep in rooms next to each other, and you need love — to hold someone and to be held,” she says. “But the rules of underground wrestling say you have to control yourself with the same discipline that you bring to the rest of your job. They require you to be an ascetic. And I’m not.” Gasteazoro quickly developed a romantic relationship with fellow committed, but dogmatic, Sebastián, who often justified sexism in the name of militancy and shut down political debate with accusations of bourgeois deviation. Years later , he will end their long-term relationship to date a more “disciplined” woman.

Sebastián and Gasteazoro were arrested together when the National Guard knocked on their door in 1981. Since the morning of her arrest, Gasteazoro had learned that her family had abandoned her. But a glimmer of hope appeared between the blows. Her mother and brother had secured a quick meeting with her due to their close relationship with National Guard commander Vides Casanova. Despite the reprimands, their “family solidarity, offered unconditionally across a huge chasm of ideology and past arguments”, gave Gasteazoro strength. She had survived torture, sexual assault and a hostile press conference. And unlike other comrades, she was alive to organize with other political prisoners. The prison secretary asked Gasteazoro if she wanted to send a message to mom. She thinks :

I was alive, my family still loved me, life was beautiful, even concreted Ilopango [prison] was beautiful.

“Yes,” I say. “Tell mom I’m in heaven.”

Without charge, Gasteazoro was detained for two years in Ilopango women’s prison, an experience she describes in the column “A beautiful prison like Ilopango”. At maximum capacity, his prison unit, which was one of three, housed about a hundred women who slept next to each other with only a space of two tiles separating their beds. Besides political activists, other detainees included teenage girls, sex workers and elite women who had committed financial fraud and apolitical kidnappings.

Gasteazoro joined the leadership of the Committee of Political Prisoners of El Salvador (COPPES). The group faced squalid prison conditions, violence from apolitical inmates and gang leaders, and bigotry among political prisoners who represented competing organizations. In response, Gasteazoro and others collectivized food production, organized activities ranging from gardening to beekeeping to maintain morale, and carried out hunger strikes to obtain better conditions and denounce American imperialism. She also headed the disciplinary committee, which maintained relative harmony among the inmates. Mothers of missing children have risked their lives to support the hunger strikers, discreetly inserting messages into their bras to facilitate communication between different prisons and organisations. Overall, Gasteazoro powerfully recounts the togetherness, friendships, romances, traumas and conflicts that shaped the daily lives of inmates.

Gasteazoro survived in paradise to tell his story. In vivid detail, this memoir describes the relationships and the organizational process that made revolutionary struggle possible. It will surely leave a lasting impression on readers.

Diana Sierra Becerra is a historian and popular educator. The manuscript of her book documents the revolutionary practice of working-class peasant women in El Salvador.

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