Martha Owen on Historical Background to El Salvador’s Civil War

The following clips can be aligned to the following Ohio Department of Education Social Studies Standards:

American History #24: The United States followed a policy of containment during the Cold War in response to the spread of communism.

American History #25: The Second Red Scare and McCarthyism reflected Cold War fears in American society.

Modern World History #18: The United States and the Soviet Union became superpowers and competed for global influence.


In the above audio clip, Ursuline Sister Martha Owen, mission partner to Sister Dorothy Kazel from 1976-1979, briefly describes the social history of El Salvador from the late 1800s to the 1980s.

She begins by mentioning the people’s fears of being accused as a communist by the Salvadoran government. Sr. Martha Owen justifies their fears by reinforcing that any revolution (especially a communist revolution) needed a middle-class uprising. After that, she delves into the social and economic effects of the Los Catorces (“The Fourteen” or the oligarchy) had on El Salvador. Towards the end she mentions an infamous term in El Salvador (and the rest of Latin America) that is a disturbing phenomenon that lasts to this very day. During the civil war, people would disappear never to be seen by family, friends, or their town – often because the government or paramilitary death squads suspected them of communist tendencies. This event still happens today but under different contexts: gang violence, sex trafficking, and kidnapping of those who attempt the journey from El Salvador to the United States. During the El Salvadoran Civil War an estimated 8,000 people “disappeared,” and the number of those who have disappeared in various circumstances as of 2014 was 3,740,000 (1).

Potential Classroom Uses:

  1. This clip is an excellent synopsis of El Salvador pre-civil war, and therefore may be used as a quick background lesson in conjunction with any of our El Salvador clips.
  2. This clip is also a tangible example of communist fears in other countries that developed parallel to our own fears in the United States. Teachers can use this to help students understand the global fear and threat of communism during the Cold War.


(1) The Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, “From Madness to Hope: the 12-year war in El Salvador: Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador,” United States Institute of Peace. Posted by USIP Library on: January 26, 2001; Carlos Carach and Evelyn Artola, “Disappeared persons and homicide in El Salvador” Crime Sci, 2016. Accessed July 11, 2018.

Photo credit: Martha Owen