La Verdad: A Witness to the Salvadoran Martyrs (2014), Lucía Cerna and Mary Jo Ignoffo

Réquiem para los mártires, Antonio Bonilla UCA
La Verdad: A Witness to the Salvadoran Martyrs (2014) [186pp] Lucía Cerna and Mary Jo Ignoffo tells the important story of Lucía Cerna, an employee of the UCA (University of Central America) and an eye-witness of the massacre of the six Salvadoran Jesuits and their two coworkers in 1989.  At the time of the massacre Lucía Cerna and her husband Jorge where the only witnesses who spoke up to give their testimonies.  Their accounts of seeing members of the Salvadoran military on the UCA grounds at the time of the massacre are critical because the Salvadoran government immediately accused the guerrillas of the killings.  Establishing the responsibility of the Salvadoran Armed Forces was an important step in accelerating the peace process given that US congressional support for El Salvador’s military hinged on the Salvadoran Armed Forces’ human rights record.  In the end, the military was forced to admit responsibility for the massacre.

Mary Jo Ignoffo is a historian that co-authors La verdad with Lucía Cerna.  Ignoffo approaches Cerna with the idea of writing her life story; attention is given to Cerna’s early years, to the killing of the Jesuits as a critical turning point in Cerna’s life, and to her experience seeking asylum in the US after the murders.  La verdad is structured in a parallel manner; Cerna’s account begins each chapter and is followed with an essay written by Ignoffo that gives historical and political context to Cerna’s text. 

Even though Lucía Cerna has provided official eyewitness testimony about the Jesuits on multiple occasions, La verdad seems to exceed the limits of the testimonial genre.  The reader learns for example that Lucía Cerna was particularly close with one of the Jesuits, Martín-Baró whom she calls “Father Nachito.”  She remembers him as “fussy” because he was particular about his workspace and study time.  She recalls how Martín Baró opened his office door on one occasion to yell at a person making too much noise walking down the hall.  Cerna also describes seeing an apparition of her beloved Father Nachito a few hours after his murder. 
He came at maybe five o’clock, and he had his briefcase for all his papers.  He came through the door holding the briefcase, smiling and laughing, wearing the blue shirt and gray pants he had on earlier in the day.  That is true, really true.
This fragment stands out in Lucía Cerna’s testimony because it interrupts the “truth” of her testimony.  This is something that plausibly cannot be true and yet Cerna emphatically explains that it is “true, really true.”  How is the reader to reconcile Lucía Cerna’s experience of “truth” with her position as an eyewitness?  Is the reader to believe that Cerna heard Martín Baró calling the soldiers carroña [scum] and yelling “this is an injustice!” just before his murder, but disregard the fact that Cerna saw Martín Baró two hours after his death?  If parts of her story are dismissed as fanciful, how does this impact her overall credibility?  While the reader may accept on some level that she did see Martín Baró after his death, this part of her story seems to exceed the limits of testimony.   

Cerna also explains the ending of her first marriage as the result of her husband practicing the occult.  She explains that he learned about black magic while working for the Regalado family because, Cerna explains, the matriarch Concha became wealthy by making a pact with the devil.    
The workers at the Regalado home also said that the night she died, they heard yelling in the Regalado land offices.  The oldest people say even more.  They say she is the fire from the volcano at Izalco, called el Puerto del Diablo-the devil’s gate.  Many people say that since she made a pact with the devil, la Conchita appears in the fires of Izalco.
On one level this can be disregarded as folkore, but it is Lucía Cerna’s “truth.”  Again, how is the reader to reconcile this notion of “truth” with Cerna’s role as an official witness?  Is this somehow a “truth” that exceeds the limits of the empirical? Lucía Cerna’s account of Concha Regalado brings to mind Antonio Bonilla’s painting representing the Jesuit massacre.  I have always wondered about the identity of the woman in the lower right hand corner of the painting.  Would viewers recognize her as Conchita Regalado near fires of the Izalco volcano?  The symbol of a wealthy woman that has made a pact with the devil seems to explain Bonilla’s image and can, to some degree, explain El Salvador’s economic disparities. 

There are several problematic aspects of La verdad that I will just mention briefly here.  The first is that there is no substantial explanation of Mary Jo Ignoffo’s role during the interviews with Lucía Cerna.  What were Ignoffo’s prompts?  Did she ask questions to direct Cerna’s explanations?  Where the interviews in English?  Was language an issue?  Why is the book published in English only?  Who is the intended audience?  Why was it published through a Christian publishing house instead of a editorial that typically publishes histories or testimonies?  The editorial does have an important impact on whether the book is read as fact of fiction.  What exactly was Ignoffo’s interest in getting this story out?  She has published other historical works about California’s Gold Rush years.  La verdad seems like an outlier.  I am left with many questions about the role of Mary Jo Ignoffo and about the book itself.

In sum, La verdad is a book that confounds the notion of “truth” assumed by academics in a similar way as the Rigoberta Menchú controversy.  Both Cerna and Menchú narrate, to some degree, collective perceptions and ways of seeing and this poses some challenges to academics out to establish historical facts.  I agree with Ignoffo’s final assessment that “nothing about this book is easily classified…ultimately this book is a fusion, a blending of cultures and languages, traditions and histories” (171).