The story of Bea: cultural resistance in El Salvador, one of the most violent countries in the world

The story of Bea: cultural resistance in El Salvador, one of the most violent countries in the world

Beatriz Alcaine in her home in San Salvador in 2016.

(José Fajardo)

There is one name that is always attached to the Salvadorian cultural movement of the last three decades: Bea. On 6 December 1991, shortly before the signing of the peace agreements putting an end to the Civil War that broke out in 1979, Beatriz Alcaine, inaugurated La Luna Casa y Arte, a space dedicated to freedom and creativity, which became a refuge for intellectuals who, like her, were returning from exile.

This social activist has been working ever since then to show people that El Salvador is much more than just one of the most violent countries in the world.

Her story is representative of a generation that dreamed about transforming society. It also paints a picture of this country’s recent history.

“If you ask me who I am, I will say I am many things: a girl from a comfortably-off family who completed school and went to study abroad,” she says. However, in this country, there is a hard side to even the nicest stories. “But hard isn’t always bad: I feel extremely grateful to be alive.”

Bea (as she is called by those who know her) was born in San Salvador on 6 February 1965. When she was 17, in early 1983, the army kidnapped her and her 15-year-old sister, during a visit to the Salvadoran capital. After being held for 72 hours, during which they were tortured, they were finally forced to confess that they were engaged in ‘subversive activities’ supporting left-wing guerrillas.

“It was a lie. At times like that, all you want is for them to kill you once and for all, for it all just to end. You’ll sign anything so that they’ll let you be,” she recounts.

The sisters had travelled to El Salvador to spend Christmas with their grandmother. They were living in the Mexican capital at the time, with their mother, who had decided to go into exile after receiving threats on account of her political engagement. Their father was also living outside the country, in Washington.

“A huge international pressure campaign was organised. The news was published in the New York Times, all the intellectuals we knew mobilised, prayer chains were held in churches, it was incredible,” she recalls. Her sister was released on account of her age, but Bea spent several more days locked in jail. On leaving, she went back to Mexico with the idea that she would not return to her country for a long time.

She lived in Mexico, France and Nicaragua, mixing with artists and intellectuals, and discovered a passion for communication and social change through culture. France accepted her as a political refugee. “It’s terrible for your passport to be valid for anywhere except your own country, it’s an awful feeling. Who has the right to exclude you in that way, when you are the one who was been wronged?”

In 1990, when the Sandinistas lost the elections in Nicaragua, she decided to go back to her country. “Everyone told me I was crazy, that they were going to kill me. I reached my hometown with an overwhelming sense of fear. Fortunately, nothing happened to me, but I did find myself faced with a huge culture shock: what I was seeing was a place that was mundane and militarised, sexist and dangerous.”

La Luna, the epicentre of the Salvadorian scene

Bea founded La Luna with a friend of her mother, the painter Óscar Soles, in the house that had been her childhood home. “We found it difficult to readjust. It was very hard. We came from Mexico and the two of us had spent a lot of time abroad, in very favourable conditions, culturally and artistically, and we suddenly found ourselves in a kind of desert,” recalls Soles in the daily newspaper La Página.

The significance of this space for freedom has been compared with movements such as the Movida Madrileña [the ‘Madrid scene’], except that they were only ever referred to as ’the lunatics’. “During the early years, right-wing militaries mingled with guerrillas who had just come down from the hills, young bohemians and intellectuals,” says Bea. It was open to everyone, accessible and self-managed.

“They accused us of being agitators, and we were, but not in the political sense.”
One thing everyone agrees on is Bea’s bravery.

“La Luna was in front of an ex-military man’s home. It was a provocation. If you do something like that, it’s either because you’re crazy or you have a very strong idea that you can’t let go of,” says Fran Maravilla, born in 1982, a cultural manager, an icon of the local music scene, and leader of the Salvadorian pop group Manyula Dance Club.

He was 14 when he entered La Luna for the first time. “In the early 1990s, you couldn’t have long hair or smoke a cigarette on a street corner. If you were with more than two people you were accused of illegal association and went to jail. That was the climate, one of total repression.”

Another key figure in the early days of the project was Horacio Castellanos Moya, one of the biggest literary figures in El Salvador. La Luna featured in his popular novel, El Asco (Revulsion). “I like this place. It’s nothing like those filthy bars where they sell that lousy beer they drink here with such a passion, Moya. This place has a personality of its own; it’s decorated with some taste. I like it, even though it’s called La Lumbre, even though it’s horrific at night, with the unbearable racket made by those rock groups…,” narrates Castellanos in one of its pages.

Not long after the book was published in 2007, the author received death threats and had to leave the country. “El Salvador was witnessing its second major exodus. The post-war exile. We went from dreaming back to the same-old fight for survival. We lost the post-war too. Us. Even Horacio Castellanos Moya left when the country repulsed him and some despicable fellow nationals felt that their chauvinistic, squady pride had been hurt and they started to threaten him,” says Carlos Dada, founder of the digital newspaper El Faro, in an unpublished text.

Many others like Castellanos fled the country again. La Luna symbolised the generation shift: it became a meeting place for the new local music. There were metal, punk or hip-hop concerts every night, alongside the jazz and protest song sets. “For my generation, it was a whole new universe that was opening up, a universe where you could connect with people with shared interests. That’s what happened to me and hundreds of other young people who were looking for cultural expressions made here,” says Fran Maravilla, who was a regular.

La Luna was the scene of legendary nights, such as when Joaquín Sabina turned up and stayed until seven in the morning. “I remember him saying to me: ‘Man, who is going to turn down an invitation to La Luna?’” Bea recollects. In 2012, La Luna closed its doors, partly for financial reasons and partly out of disenchantment. “Times changed,” explained the founder.

Handing over to the next generation: from La Luna to Casa Tomada

Another space took up the torch: La Casa Tomada, in San Benito, an upper-middle class neighbourhood. “The embassy guards feel strange seeing the kind of people going there. Young people from areas controlled by gangs come. It’s about erasing those invisible boundaries between classes, at least when it comes to access to the space and culture. It’s an oasis for kids looking for somewhere to do graffiti, to play music, do tattooing, connect to internet or simply chill out knowing that nothing is going to happen to them,” says Maravilla.

La Casa Tomada was set up with the support of the Spanish Cultural Centre, but it hopes, ultimately, to become more autonomous. “This country receives a lot of international cooperation funding, but the focus is always on violence. We want to change that. We are committed to social problems, but we are also artists. We are fed up with El Salvador only being associated with gang violence; we’re so much more than that,” says Maravilla.

It has staged more than 70 concerts and 60 plays over the last three years. “It is a box full of weird and wonderful things, it’s great fun,” says Maravilla.

“La Casa Tomada wouldn’t have been possible without the example of La Luna. Bea taught us to work hard for things, to expose uncomfortable realities, to create spaces for the community. She built up out of nothing the café that now provides a living for several women that she has empowered.”

But Bea is no longer there. As had happened to her before, and as with so many other of her compatriots, she was forced to leave once again, out of fear. She has started to work on Lunascopio again, in her new place of exile. It is a historical memory project, launched in 2012, a compilation of texts, photos and interviews, an oral archive about an era, which she will publish with the Salvadorian publishing house Índole.

She is not yet sure if she will be able to go home soon, or ever, but she is carrying on with her mission (despite the distance) to show the good side of what happens in the Central American country that was part of a group of countries that the US President Donald Trump recently referred to as a ‘shithole’. Bea responds with one of her favourite observations: “El Salvador doesn’t need a Luna [Moon], it needs a Milky Way.”

This article has been translated from Spanish.