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Exhibiting El Salvador

Last year, colleagues from the Kelley School of Business reached out to the Director of the University Archives, Dina Kellams, with a request. They were interested in collaborating with the University Archives on that year’s Kelley Common Read book, Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, about South Africa and its system of apartheid. Did the Archives have any documents or other items from IU’s history that touched on these subjects and that could bring the topic closer to students, make it more immediate for them?

Cover image of the book The Far Away Brothers, depicting a photograph of two young men and a desert landscape.
Cover of the book The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life, by Lauren Markham

This year, the book chosen for the Kelley Common Read is Lauren Markham’s The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life. Markham is a journalist who has written about unaccompanied minors immigrating to the United States from Central America, and the recent increase in the numbers of these young migrants entering the U.S. beginning in about 2012. Her book The Far Away Brothers follows the experiences of twin teenagers from El Salvador, Ernesto and Raúl Flores, and their decision to leave their home and family to journey to the United States. It is an intimate and poignant story that explores the brothers’ decision to leave El Salvador, the dangerous journey each undertakes, and how they fashion new lives for themselves once they reach California. Our colleagues from the Kelley School reached out again, this time with the request, did the Archives have anything about El Salvador?

Dina forwarded the request on to me and a colleague of mine, since we are both archivists working with the Modern Political Papers Collection. Maybe we had something that would be of use to students participating in the Kelley Common Read?

Boy, did I have something – a whole lot of stuff, as a matter of fact! I’m responsible for several collections of congressional papers in the Modern Political Papers Collection, including the Richard G. Lugar Senatorial Papers. Senator Lugar served in the U.S. Senate from 1976 to 2012, which makes him the longest-serving senator from Indiana in the state’s history. For 34 of the 36 years he served in the Senate, he was a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he was Chair of the committee twice, the first time from 1985 to 1987 and the second time from 2003 to 2007. His collection is huge – approximately the equivalent of 1,500 bankers boxes. Coincidentally enough, when I received the message from our Kelley colleagues, I had recently processed several folders in Senator Lugar’s papers related to El Salvador and I had found several memorabilia items, folders, and binders, related to 1988 elections in El Salvador and the 1989 El Salvador presidential inauguration. I had a feeling that there would be a lot of other good stuff in the collection too. I rolled up my sleeves and started digging through spreadsheets and boxes to see what all we had – the best part of an archivist’s job!

U.S. Senate photograph of Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI), President of El Salvador Jose Napoleon Duarte, and Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), May 6, 1984. The men are seated at a table with plates of food and drinks in front of them.
U.S. Senate photograph of Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI), President of El Salvador Jose Napoleon Duarte, and Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), May 6, 1984. They are at the U.S. Senate, likely in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Room. Senators Pell and Lugar were members of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Items connected to Senator Lugar’s role as a member of the official U.S. delegation to observe the legislative and municipal elections in El Salvador, held on March 20, 1988. The banner from the Third Brigade was presented to Senator Lugar in gratitude for his role as an election observer.

So You Say You Want to Put Together an Exhibition? – First Steps

I thought that one good way to support Markham’s book and to bring the subject closer to the students of Kelley might be to mount an exhibition on El Salvador using materials taken from Senator Lugar’s papers. Many of us who work with archives and special collections believe that being able to see, touch, or otherwise interact with “the stuff” (as we often call it) can make far away events, people, and time periods feel closer and more immediate. It’s one thing to read something about Abraham Lincoln and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation; it’s another thing entirely to see the pen he used to sign it and the original version of the document. Or to read letters that he wrote in which he discusses his thoughts about the state of the nation. For this sense of immediacy to work, though, we need the help of our audience. As an archivist and curator, I try to choose the most visually appealing but also informative items that I can, but I also rely on my viewer to be open to the sense of wonder that these items contain. An exhibition is a two-way, collaborative project between curator and viewer.

Image of a piece of letterhead for the United States Senate with handwritten notes in blue and black ink.
Handwritten note by Andrew Semmel, Senator Lugar’s Legislative Assistant for Foreign Policy, on the March 1988 El Salvador election results.

As an archivist who works with political papers, one of my main goals is to increase transparency about how the U.S. government works and how decisions are made by the people who make our laws. The best way that I can do that is by making the materials available to as many people as possible; exhibiting them is one way to do that. After all, it’s not often that people get to see Department of Defense publications, handwritten notes taken by congressional staff members, informational memos to Senators on legislative issues, and unclassified State Department telegrams. Since IU had this wealth of materials related to El Salvador, my colleagues and I agreed that a good use of them would be to display them in the exhibition spaces at the IU Archives for the Kelley students and the broader public.

I also had another dilemma when it came to figuring out how to support Markham’s book, namely that bothersome issue of time period. Federal regulations require that congressional committee records remain closed for 20 years. Since most of the items about El Salvador in Senator Lugar’s papers could be considered records of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I could not display anything dated past the year 2000 (committee records from the 107th Congress, which spans the years 2001-2002, will be open for researcher access on January 1, 2023). But the events that Markham writes about occurred during a much later period, from approximately 2014 to 2017. Richard Lugar left office at the end of 2012. I therefore wouldn’t be able to provide anything directly related to the time period that Markham writes about – even if I did have materials from that time, a lot of them would still have to be closed.

The majority of the materials Senator Lugar had about El Salvador are from the civil war period of the 1980s and early 1990s. However, when I was reading Markham’s book, it was fairly obvious to me that these earlier materials would still work really well as background information. Even though Markham focuses on events that happened in the 2010s, the civil war still looms large in The Far Away Brothers. For instance, the description on the back of the book frames the narrative of the Flores brothers in this context: “Growing up in rural El Salvador in the wake of the civil war, identical twins Ernesto and Raúl Flores always had a fascination with the United States, a distant land of fantasy and opportunity…” Markham herself notes the persistence of the civil war at the beginning of the book, in her Author’s Note: “But something in their [the Flores twins] story illustrates, roundly and heartbreakingly, the wounds of war, the spirit of a new generation of immigrants, and the impact of migration on the United States as well as on the tiny, time-battered country of El Salvador.”

It was the “wounds of war” that Markham mentions that really made an impression on me: the effect of the civil war on the people of El Salvador, even on young people born in its shadow. There were other statements that Markham made that stayed with me, particularly some points she made in her Afterword about U.S. involvement and responsibility. Writing about the Trump administration’s demands for a border wall and the rhetoric calling for keeping immigrants out of the U.S., Markham states,

“But exclusionist policy ignores the legacy of U.S. responsibility for the Central American catastrophe. A war is raging to our south, though we seem to refuse to call it one, and American policy fueled the wars that preceded it. We supplied guns to and trained mercenaries and death squads who ended up perpetrating scorched-earth massacres like the one in El Mozote [of December 1981], where bodies, as I chronicle in this book, are still being exhumed and identified today, over two decades later.”

Another statement of hers resonated with me and stayed with me: “We have played a major part in creating the problem of what has become of Central America, and we must play a major part in solving it.”

So, the first themes that guided the selection of materials for the exhibition were the historical background of the civil war period, and a discussion of U.S. foreign policy and involvement in that civil war. The issue of U.S. immigration policy is also at the forefront of the book, so that theme was an obvious choice. The last theme that would play an important part in the exhibition was suggested by both the materials themselves and colleagues from the Kelley School: the importance of elections and the democratic process.

Civil War and U.S. Involvement

Lauren Markham begins The Far Away Brothers by examining the intersection of the public and the private and the ways that individuals try to maintain their normal course of life even in the midst of the turmoil of major historical events. In Chapter 1, she narrates the chronology of the Flores family against the background of El Salvador’s civil war: “They [Wilber and Esperanza, the twins’ parents] got married in the midst of the country’s civil war, in 1985, and when Esperanza gave birth to her first baby, Ricardo, two years later, the war still raged.” Their second son, Wilber Jr., who would later be the first of the family to make the journey to immigrate to the U.S., was born in 1988, “as the violence heated toward its final boil.” Esperanza became pregnant a third time when the negotiations for peace began, and again the year the peace accords were signed (1992). Both of those babies, however, died. The twins’ older sister, Maricela, who figures prominently in the book, was born in 1994, the year that “El Salvador held its first free and fair peacetime elections. The conservative ARENA party won, but the war was over. After so many years of conflict, it was a time of rebuilding.” In that year of rebuilding, Maricela survived. The history of the Flores family, its marriages, births, and deaths, played out against a backdrop of national events but also against a backdrop of conflict and terror.

Image of the first page of a newsletter from the human rights organization El Rescate.
Newsletter from the human rights organization El Rescate, January 1989. It gives a summary of the some of the losses during the first nine years of the civil war in El Salvador. The war ended three years later, in January 1992.

It was when I started looking through the materials in the Lugar collection that I really began to understand the conflict and fear that underlay this period for the Flores family. At an open house for the exhibition held on September 15, 2022, I had a conversation with someone who asked me a very thoughtful and intelligent question, “When you were preparing this exhibition, did you ever have to stop and take a step back from it?” Without hesitating, I answered, “Yes, yes, I did. Quite often, actually.” In her book, Markham mentions “the mutilated bodies” that appeared in the city and countryside during the civil war. When I was preparing for the exhibition, I often came across contemporary newspaper clippings with explicit, detailed descriptions of these activities and these mutilated bodies. I read accounts of some of the human rights abuses carried out by the rightwing death squads and their arrests, torture, and murder of anyone they thought might possibly be a leftwing insurgent sympathizer. In preparing an exhibition case devoted to the civil war, I had wanted to include a copy of the newsletter of a human rights organization. However, the cover story featured a report on the torture of political prisoners by state security forces with a graphic account of the ways they were tortured, and so I decided to replace it with a different copy. But even the copy that I chose still conveys the violence and instability of the period. The civil war in El Salvador started on October 15, 1979. By January 1989, about 1,000,000 Salvadorans had become refugees and 600,000 had been displaced from their homes. The United Nations estimated that by the time the civil war ended in 1992, over 75,000 people had been killed and approximately 8,000 had been “disappeared.”

While I was preparing this exhibition, I did often have to take a step back from my research because the content was sometimes violent, graphic, and disturbing. But it was also good, because as I looked through the items, I often thought of them in relation to Wilber, Esperanza, Ernesto, and Raúl Flores and their fears. As Markham points out, few people really want to leave their homes. They do so because it’s necessary for survival. Ernesto and Raúl did so in the 2010s in order to escape gang violence, and over 1,000,000 Salvadorans did so in the 1980s to escape another kind of violence and war.

But the young man who asked the question had another one in mind as well, which he asked next, “Did you ever have to step back because you disagreed with the opinions you saw expressed in the documents?” Again, yes. Yes, I did. I had to take a step back when I came across a typescript dated May 8, 1984, entitled “Statement of Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina: The Election Results in El Salvador.” In this statement, Senator Helms (R-NC) is responding to the 1984 election of President José Napoleón Duarte, who is viewed by many as the first democratically elected president of El Salvador in over 50 years. Duarte was a member of the Christian Democrat Party (the Partido Demócrata Cristiano, or PDC), which many describe as being center-left, or even centrist. Helms, however, describes him as “the socialist nominee” and claims that “the State Department and the CIA bought the election for Duarte.” At the same time, Helms dismisses all claims of wrongdoing that had been attributed to Duarte’s opponent, Roberto D’Aubuisson, the founder of the rightwing ARENA Party. D’Aubuisson had been in military intelligence in El Salvador and had often been linked to the extremist death squads. Helms denies any connection between D’Aubuisson and the death squads, based on little to no evidence. His opinions of both Duarte and D’Aubuisson contradicted everything else I have read in Senator Lugar’s papers, in books, and in articles. I had to take a step back in frustration, but at the same time, it did remind me of the variety of perspectives and interpretations possible.

U.S. foreign policy in Central America during the Reagan administration was determined in large part by the Cold War theory of the “domino effect” – that if one country in a region fell to Communism, others would follow. Booklets published by the U.S. Department of State and Department of Defense outlined the U.S.’s concerns over Soviet influence in the region and the spread of Communism via support from Cuba and Nicaragua.

I also had to take a step back with regard to President Reagan’s Cold War policy of eradicating Communism at any cost – literally. According to reports by the U.S. Department of Defense and the Department of State, from 1983 to 1985, the U.S. sent $3.14 billion in aid to Central America, 74% of which was economic aid, 26% of which was military aid. But 26% of $3.14 billion is still $816.4 million. More precise amounts per year are available, but if we consider the period of 1983 to 1985 as a three-year period (which is generous), we’re looking at a total of more than $272.13 million per year in military aid. Military aid that went to the Salvadoran government to fight leftwing guerrilla insurgents on the argument that they embraced Marxist-Leninist ideology, but it seems like it was often used by the government security forces and the army against rural farmers if they were ever suspected of, or even accused of, being sympathizers

However, regardless of what I thought about the issue, I wanted the exhibition to present both sides: both for and against. I didn’t want to tell my story, I wanted to tell the fullest story of the civil war in El Salvador that I could. So I included both correspondence from the Salvadoran Ambassador to the U.S. and the President of El Salvador thanking Senator Lugar for supporting military aid; I included a speech by Senator Lugar emphasizing the need for continued military aid; and I also included correspondence from humanitarian aid organizations asking members of Congress to stop sending military aid, which was just prolonging the conflict. I also put on display some things that I considered to be a real archival treasure: a letter from the Central American Refugee Center dated March 26, 1990, asking Congress to end military aid to El Salvador, with three preprinted cards from Senator Lugar’s constituents, one from Elkhart, Indiana, and the other two from Bloomington. The card from Elkhart states that, rather than Congress sending a total worth $1.4 million each day to the Salvadoran government, they would rather see this money spent on “Affordable housing in U.S., better public education, rebuilding Nat[ional] infrastructure, research on environmentally sound energy sources and public transportation, & disbanding of Contras & helping war-torn Nicaragua to recover from years of economic devastation.”

Immigration Policy

If I thought that there were a variety of opinions and perspectives on U.S. military aid to El Salvador in the civil war period, it was nothing compared to the congressional debates on immigration policy! In 1996, the U.S. Congress engaged in extended debate over immigration reform, and the amount of materials in Senator Lugar’s legislative file is bewildering. However, sorting through the memos and newsletters, the legislative notices, the “Dear Colleague” letters, the clippings, the reports, and the recommendations from legislative assistants on how to vote on a particular amendment made me really appreciate the complexity of major legislation and of immigration policy in particular. It also made me realize how circular some of our discussions about the issue have been over the years. Much of the discussion in 1996 seemed to revolve around two different bills, one dedicated to reforming “illegal” immigration and the other to reforming “legal” immigration policy. A U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee Legislative Notice dated April 11, 1996, for the bill S. 1664: Immigration Control and Financial Responsibility Act of 1996 (the bill about “illegal” immigration, as it was referred to in the documents), alerts Republican Senators that, “Numerous controversial amendments are expected.” Over 200 amendments were proposed to the bill. Amendments addressed provisions in the bill such as the requirement that the Attorney General construct a three-tier fence at the border in San Diego – that sounds familiar! An amendment to modify the language and leave the issue up to the discretion of local agencies, rather than the responsibility of the Attorney General, which would put it at the federal level, was accepted. Other amendments tried to propose that English be instituted as the official language of the United States, and that federal benefits, such as welfare, Medicaid, school lunch programs, and access to Food Banks and Soup Kitchens be denied to undocumented children. Perhaps the most controversial amendment was called the “Gallegly amendment,” after its sponsor, Representative Elton Gallegly (R-CA), which would have allowed states to deny public school education to children of undocumented immigrants. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) wrote a letter to the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, in which she stated, “The Gallegly Amendment, denying public education to children of illegal immigrants, is exactly the kind of poison pill that will doom this legislation.”

Much of the discussion around S. 1665 – The Legal Immigration Act of 1996 centered on the receipt of federal benefits being tied to a sponsor’s income level and also on “chain migration,” whereby immigrants to the U.S. are allowed to sponsor their close family members and apply for immigrant visas for them. If it had been passed, S. 1665 would have dropped the yearly number of available visas for close relatives from 480,000 to 425,000. Senators Mike DeWine (R-OH) and Spencer Abraham (R-MI) issued a series of “Dear Colleague” letters entitled “The Facts on Immigration” to try and demonstrate to their Senate colleagues that the issue of chain migration was actually a non-issue.


I had mentioned before that both the materials themselves and my discussion with my colleagues from Kelley suggested that one theme for the exhibition should be elections. I had just found several exciting folders related to Senator Lugar’s participation as one of the co-chairs of the official U.S. observer delegation to the 1988 El Salvador legislative and municipal elections. The folders contained election posters, memorabilia, booklets from the U.S. State Department with guides to the El Salvador elections, photographs of Senator Lugar as an election observer, notebooks, and a wealth of other items! At the same time, my colleague from Kelley said that one of her plans for a parallel programming event was a voting registration drive to coincide with our midterm elections coming up this November.

Photograph of four men, the third of them is Senator Richard Lugar. The man on the right is wearing an election observer vest with the label "Vigilante."
Senator Lugar visits a polling station during the March 20, 1988, legislative elections in El Salvador. In this photograph, the man standing second from the left is wearing a vest with the logo of the PDC, or the Christian Democrat Party, the party of then-President Duarte.

The Salvadoran government had invited international election observers to attend the 1988 legislative and municipal elections, and President Ronald Reagan had asked Senator Lugar and Representative John Murtha (D-PA) to be co-chairs of the official U.S. delegation. When Senator Lugar arrived in San Salvador the night before the March 20, 1988 elections, there were explosions in the streets, some areas of the city had no running water, and other areas had no electricity due to attempts by insurgents to sabotage the elections. The FMLN, the insurgent guerrilla group, had voiced its opposition to the elections, calling them a farce and nothing more than political theater. They had threatened to disrupt the election process, and indeed the election observer group was unable to travel to one area of El Salvador that was under the control of the insurgents. They did, however, visit the other thirteen areas (“departments”) and 30 cities, 45 polling places, and over 1,000 voting tables. The FMLN had also managed to disrupt the public transit service, so many people had to walk to the polls.

Photograph of an unknown man wearing a cowboy hat and sunglasses and Senator Richard Lugar. In the background, a long line of people waits to vote in the election.
Senator Lugar at a polling place in El Salvador. Lugar’s Legislative Assistant for Foreign Policy, Dr. Andrew Semmel, was also a member of the delegation, and he recorded in his election observer notebook that some polling places had up to 150 or 200 people waiting in line who sometimes waited as long as two hours to vote.

Election posters for El Salvador elections, circa 1992? A State Department voting guide discussing the elections explains that ballots didn’t contain individual names, but the logos of the different parties. Voters cast their ballot for their preferred party by crossing out the desired logo.

But walk to the polls they did. Senator Lugar’s Legislative Assistant for Foreign Policy, Dr. Andrew Semmel, kept a notebook in which he recorded his observations. In all, he took notes about the voting conditions in six or seven different polling places in different areas of the country. I noticed that the first page describes things as running smoothly, with very short wait times for voters, who felt that the process was smooth and satisfying. As the day wore on, however, Semmel’s notes become longer and somewhat more hectic. He starts to record longer and longer wait times to vote – voters waiting in line for first one hour, then one and half hours, then two hours. Sometimes the lines were as long as 150 or 200 people waiting to vote. He notes incredulously of the polling place in La Libertad that they “Let a voter carry a machete into [the] voting area!” At the end of the day, though, he felt assured that they had witnessed democracy in action, and he notes that what he observed was the “Frontlines in the defense of democracy. Take the side of demo[cracy], freedom, human rights, right to vote.”

In spite of the threats of violence, voter turnout for the election was approximately 70% of the voting public. In his statement after the elections, Senator Lugar commented, “The American people should emulate the Salvadoran people when it comes to participating in the democratic process. The high voter turnout, under extremely stressful circumstances, and at considerable personal risk to many, was very inspiring to witness.”

It also turned out to be a peaceful transfer of power – the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) of President Duarte lost its slim majority in the legislative assembly to the ARENA Party, the conservative party that had previously been associated with the death squads. The following year, in March 1989, Alberto Cristiani of the ARENA Party won the Presidential election. The transfer of power from a President of one party to a President of a different party was the first peaceful transfer of power from one democratically elected president to another that El Salvador had experienced in its history, as noted by Senator Lugar and others. To me, this transfer seemed to be exemplified by another archival discovery: two invitations, first, for a reception held at the presidential residence on May 31, 1989, hosted by outgoing President Duarte, and then for a reception held at the Hotel El Salvador, Sheraton on June 10, 1989, hosted by newly inaugurated President Cristiani. I exhibited reproductions of them in one of the hallway cases side by side, in an attempt to emphasize their unity.

Lately in the U.S. we have had a significant and sustained conversation about our democracy and its survival. We’ve also had extended news coverage about elections, election results, and election denial. I therefore couldn’t help but think of our own contemporary situation as I sorted through materials related to past elections in El Salvador. The peace treaty to end the civil war in El Salvador was signed on January 16, 1992, and the ceasefire went into place on February 1, 1992. The Salvadoran Ambassador to the U.S. Miguel A. Salaverría sent a letter to Senator Lugar dated December 28, 1992, about the signing of the peace accords. Several portions of his letter affected me when I read it, but one in particular stood out: “Having worked so hard, and struggled so long in the cause of peace, we can have no illusions about the future; the maintenance of peace and democracy require vigilance, humility, and hard work. Nonetheless, we take pride in what we have achieved and hope that the success of the peace process in El Salvador will inspire other nations to follow a similar path, turning their backs on civil strife, hate, and the indecency of […] conflict.”

The exhibition “Far Away, So Close: Indiana and El Salvador, Elections and Immigration Policy” will run through December 16, 2022. It is located both inside the office of the University Archives in Wells Library, Room E460, and inside all six exhibition cases in the hallway outside the Archives Office.

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