In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section El Salvador

  • Introduction
  • Historical Overviews
  • Comparative Studies
  • Precolonial and Colonial Eras
  • Late Colonial and Early Independence Periods
  • The Mid- to Late 19th Century
  • Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries
  • The 1932 Rebellion
  • Gender and Feminism

Latin American Studies El Salvador
Erik Ching
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0170


Any analysis of scholarly inquiry into El Salvador has to be placed in the context of the country’s authoritarian history. Whereas almost every other country in Latin America experienced at least one era of prominent reformist and/or progressive governance, El Salvador has had almost none. The lone attempt to instill genuinely democratic reforms, prior to the end of the civil war in 1992, was a short-lived and ultimately unsuccessful endeavor between 1927 and 1931. That reform program failed in a military coup in December 1931 that brought to power General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez. Thereafter, El Salvador was ruled by a series of military-led regimes such that the country holds the dubious distinction of having the longest run of uninterrupted military rule in modern Latin American history (1931–1979). Military leaders repressed any signs of autonomous mass organizing, especially in the countryside, most egregiously in a crackdown in 1932, and then with steady ferocity during the spiral into civil war (1980–1992). Archives were closed until the late 1980s, and press censorship and states of siege were the order of the day; thus, serious inquiries into the nation’s history and politics were constrained. However, to mute their repressive tendencies and garner popular support, military leaders promoted themselves as populist nationalists, which encouraged the writing of nationalist narratives. Beginning in the 1950s, the government’s printing office began to publish books that military leaders deemed beneficial to the nationalist cause. For better or worse, those studies laid the foundation for the nation’s modern historiography. Moreover, El Salvador’s authoritarianism did not go unchallenged, with new, contrarian voices entering the arena in earnest in the 1960s, primarily from the two main universities, the public National University of El Salvador and the newly founded, private University of Central America José Simeón Cañas. Intellectuals at those institutions led the way in creating an oppositional scholarship that questioned the celebratory narrative and focused attention on the masses and their suffering at the hands of civilian elites and military leaders. Toward the end of the civil war in the late 1980s, the nation’s archives were opened for the first time, and then with the negotiated settlement to the war in 1992, a relative outpouring of intellectual inquiry has proceeded to date.

Historical Overviews

El Salvador has not produced many broad, historical surveys. But those that have appeared have been groundbreaking in their own ways. A survey, Dalton 1963 represents one of the first of the new contrarian voices that began to challenge the long-standing liberal and/or nationalist historiography dating back to the late 19th century. White 1973 provides a standard-setting academic narrative. Kincaid 1987 covers a broad expanse of time in an article-length work, from the distinct perspective of El Salvador’s rebellious tradition. The textbook Ministerio de Educación 1994 introduces the new postwar scholarship to the secondary-school level. The authors in López Bernal 2015 provide an updated and advanced version of a text-like historical overview of El Salvador’s modern era. Lauria and Binford 2004 offers new scholarship and, by virtue of covering a nearly one-hundred-year time period, provides an important overview.

  • Dalton, Roque. El Salvador: Monografía. Havana, Cuba: Enciclopedia Popular, 1963.

    A foundational work of the oppositional scholarship in the 1960s. Published in Cuba, where Dalton was living in exile at the time. Sources are limited, but Dalton retells the story of El Salvador from a progressive stance, sympathizing with the workers and criticizing the civilian elites and military officers.

  • Kincaid, Douglas. “Peasants into Rebels: Community and Class in Rural El Salvador.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 29.3 (July 1987): 466–494.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0010417500014687

    A foundational study that compares three episodes of mass mobilization in the 19th and 20th centuries to advance a thesis about the causes of insurrection in El Salvador.

  • Lauria, Aldo, and Leigh Binford, eds. Landscapes of Struggle: Politics, Society, and Community in El Salvador. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004.

    Presents research by both established and up-and-coming scholars that covers the period from the late 19th to the late 20th centuries. With a broadly sociopolitical focus, contributors look at how El Salvador’s traditional authoritarianism manifested itself at the local and national levels.

  • López Bernal, Carlos Gregorio, ed. El Salvador, Historia contemporánea, 1808–2010: América Latina en la historia contemporánea. San Salvador: Fundación Mapfre/Editorial Universitaria, Universidad de El Salvador, 2015.

    A text-like historical overview of El Salvador’s modern era, with four of the five chapters authored by prominent Salvadoran historians who tell the story from social, political, and economic perspectives. The fifth chapter, authored by a literary scholar, focuses on culture.

  • Ministerio de Educación. Historia de El Salvador. 2 vols. San Salvador, El Salvador: Ministerio de Educación, 1994.

    As part of a postwar education reform, El Salvador’s Ministry of Education oversaw the writing of a new history textbook targeting secondary-school readers. The team of writers consisted of professional historians who wrote a narrative driven by primary evidence and new research.

  • White, Alastair. El Salvador. London: Benn, 1973.

    The standard-setting narrative history for many years.

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