Thirty-two-year-old Marta Maritza Amaya did not witness what happened in El Mozote in December of 1981, when U.S.-trained soldiers murdered over a thousand people, primarily women, children and the elderly, in the small villages of El Mozote, Morazán, in El Salvador.
Marta wasn’t even born until November of 1985 in a refugee camp in Honduras. She was the daughter of Rufina Amaya, the sole witness and survivor of the worst massacre in modern Latin American history.
Over 30 years later, Marta retold Rufina’s story to an asylum officer in the United States. She added her own experience, including the threats received in early 2017 for speaking out in a similar way that her mother had before dying in 2007.
In a recent telephone interview from New York, her place of residence for the last year-and-a-half, Marta said that she knows the story of El Mozote by heart because “I heard it since I was in my mother’s womb.”
“At first I didn’t know why she cried, and as I grew older and I understood, I would cry with her, dry her tears,” Marta told Latino Rebels. “I always shared with her the weight she carried because of it. I helped her to carry it.”
Marta’s declaration to a U.S. immigration officer in May of 2017 reads like a firsthand account of what happened: how Rufina saw the soldiers arrive, how they separated the men from the others and started to kill them. Rufina saw a soldier kill her husband, who was beheaded by one strike of a bayonet.
Then the women were separated from their kids. Rufina was marching to her death, after being forced to leave four of her children behind. They were nine, five and three years old, and an eight-month-old baby daughter.
She never saw them again.
One by one, women in the line were shot. Their bodies were thrown inside a house. Rufina fell to the floor to pray and was able to “sneak between an apple tree and a pineapple bush,” according to Marta. Rufina eventually escaped.
The woman later heard the screams of children, probably even her own, being killed by the soldiers. That day, Rufina lost her husband and four of six kids (the oldest ones were away from El Mozote that day). But over the next 30 years, she told of the massacre again and again, and her story was key to the original articles by U.S. newspapers and to the exhumation of the first bodies.
The Salvadoran and U.S. governments initially denied the massacre or tried to pass it as a confrontation between soldiers and guerrillas, but Rufina’s voice, which never wavered, insisted on the truth.
Eventually, El Mozote became the largest mass murder case presented at the Inter-American Human Rights Court, and the responsibility was assigned to the government of El Salvador for numerous human rights violations.
Rufina never left El Salvador after returning in 1990, but she traveled extensively to many countries over the years to tell of the massacre. She died in 2007 at the age of 64.
As the only surviving child of Rufina Amaya, Marta feels responsible for continuing her legacy, she said.
“For her, the saddest thing was to remember the death of her children, that she had lost her children and could not do anything,” Marta explained. “She believed God gave her the strength to get out so she could talk about it, bring it into the open. Was she afraid? I would ask her. Her response was that Jesus Christ died for truth.”
‘I Didn’t Want to Leave El Salvador’
In the last week of August 2018, Marta was granted asylum in the United States. She had arrived here in April of the previous year to visit several family members who had left their country before her, usually after violent incidents left them in fear for their own lives.
Marta had a tourist visa for years and often traveled to New York and Los Angeles, but always went back to Jocoaitique, Morazán, the place that her mother had returned to in 1990, to become the most outspoken and fierce of the El Mozote survivors.
This time, Marta’s remaining family in the U.S. convinced her to stay and ask for protection. She was doubtful, worrying about “who would carry my mother’s message, keep her museum open and go to the cemetery to visit her grave,” Marta said.
But several recent incidents had convinced her she would be killed if she remained in El Salvador.
In September 2016, the investigation against the former soldiers accused of being responsible for the massacre had been reopened, and Marta spoke to several television and radio outlets about her mother’s story.
After that, things started to happen.
“I had seen people following me and take pictures of me at work,” Marta said. “But one day, when I was pregnant with my daughter in early 2017, a man got on the bus with me, sat by my side and threatened me directly.”
As Marta recalled, the man was carrying a camouflage army suitcase and told her: “I know who you are. You are Rufina’s daughter.”
Marta said she then felt a sharp point against her side and assumed it was a knife. “He told me I was being watched at work and in my house. That I should quit my job, leave everything, or I would be killed.”
“He told me that was how things would end,” Marta added. “By that I knew what he meant. That he would eliminate me as the last remaining family member of Rufina.”
In the end, Marta felt she had no choice, as she was pregnant at the time. She decided to do what her mother never did: leave her country for fear of her life.
Fast forward to late summer of 2018 and Marta has just received asylum, a ticket to permanent legal residency in the United States. She is looking ahead, wants to learn English and validate her title as a laboratory technician.
“I just want to move on, allow my daughter to grow up in peace,” she noted.
But just like her mother, she doesn’t want to just ignore or bury the past.
“I don’t want to let my mother’s legacy die,” Marta said. “As I told the immigration officer, those who threatened me wanted to silence my mother. And I can’t let that happen.”
Pilar Marrero is a journalist and author living in Los Angeles, California. She tweets from @PilarMarrero.