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El Salvador Index


Ruins at Tazumal

When the Spanish first ventured into Central America from the colony of New Spain (Mexico) in the early sixteenth century, the area that would become El Salvador was populated primarily by Indians of the Pipil tribe. The Pipil were a subgroup of a nomadic people known as the Nahua, who had migrated into Central America about 3000 B.C. The Nahua eventually fell under the sway of the Maya Empire, which dominated the Mesoamerican region until its decline in the ninth century A.D. Pipil culture did not reach the advanced level achieved by the Maya; it has been compared, albeit on a smaller scale, to that of the Aztecs in Mexico. The Pipil nation, believed to have been founded in the eleventh century, was organized into two major federated states subdivided into smaller principalities. Although primarily an agricultural people, the Pipil built a number of large urban centers, some of which developed into present-day cities, such as Sonsonate and Ahuachapan (see fig. 1).

The Pipil were a determined people who stoutly resisted Spanish efforts to extend their dominion southward. The first such effort by Spanish forces was led by Pedro de Alvarado, a lieutenant of Hernan Cortes in the conquest of Mexico. It met with stiff resistance from the indigenous population. Alvarado's expeditionary force entered El Salvador--or Cuscatlan, as it was known by the Pipil--in June 1524. The Spaniards were defeated in a major engagement shortly thereafter and were forced to withdraw to Guatemala. Two subsequent expeditions were required--in 1525 and 1528--to bring the Pipil under Spanish control. It is noteworthy that the name of the supposed leader of the Indian resistance, Atlacatl, has been perpetuated and honored among the Salvadorans to the relative exclusion of that of Alvarado. In this sense, the Salvadoran ambivalence toward the conquest bears a resemblance to the prevailing opinion in Mexico, where Cortes is more reviled than celebrated.

The Spanish had come to Central America seeking, at least in part, to add to the store of precious metals that constituted the most immediate spoils of the Mexican conquest. In the small colony that they dubbed El Salvador ("the savior"), they were severely disappointed in this regard. What little gold was available was accessible only through the laborious and timeconsuming method of panning, a process that consumed the effort of numerous impressed Indian laborers for a number of years. Denied the opportunity for quick riches, the conquistadors and later the Spanish settlers eventually came to realize that the sole exploitable resource of El Salvador was the land.

El Salvador thus was relegated to the status of a backwater of the Spanish Empire. In this state of neglect and isolation, the seeds of the country's politico-economic structure were planted. Large tracts of land were granted by the crown, initially under the terms of the encomienda (see Glossary) system, whereby the grantee was invested with the right to collect tribute from the native inhabitants of a designated area. The manifest abuse of the Indian population that resulted from the encomienda system contributed to its replacement in the mid-sixteenth century by the repartimiento (see Glossary) system. Under repartimiento, representatives of the crown were empowered to regulate the work allotment and treatment of Indian laborers. Although more humane in theory, it was a system that was extremely vulnerable to abuse. The colony's distance from the mother country, the ease with which royal officials could be corrupted, and the prevailing disregard among the elite--made up of peninsulares, born in Spain, and criollos born in the New World of Spanish parentage--for the plight of the Indians militated against any substantive improvement in living conditions for the indigenous population.

Although landholders in El Salvador exercised nearly absolute power within their fiefdoms, they did not begin to realize the full economic potential of their holdings until they instituted the system of widespread cultivation of a single lucrative export commodity. The first of these commodities was cacao, which flourished during the latter half of the sixteenth century. Cultivation of indigo followed and produced tremendous profits during the eighteenth century. Largely as a result of the importance of the indigo trade, the colonial capital of San Salvador eventually came to be considered the second city of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, the Spanish administrative unit that encompassed most of Central America during the colonial period. The indigo boom effectively played itself out by the midnineteenth century, however, after the discovery in Germany of a synthetic dye that could be produced much more economically.

The fortunes of the Spanish Empire waned throughout the eighteenth century and were dashed completely by the Napoleonic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808. As the Salvadorans moved toward independence, the legacies of their progenitors, both Indian and Spanish, were firmly fixed. The predominance of agriculture was a fact of life well before the Conquest; the Spanish contributed to this basic system by emphasizing production for export versus cultivation for subsistence. Individual loyalties under the pre-Conquest civilization were given primarily to one's family and to one's village; Spanish rule did little or nothing to change this attitude or to build any substantial sense of national identity among the common people. Religious influence on daily life was strong in both preConquest and colonial societies. The simple animistic nature of the Indians' beliefs allowed for the ready assimilation of Roman Catholic dogma. As elsewhere in Latin America, the hierarchical structure of the church complemented the rigid stratification of colonial society. In many ways, independence would serve only to exacerbate the inequities inherent in that society.

Data as of November 1988

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