A beloved teacher takes on the corrupt politicians of San Miguel, El Salvador, at the urging of women in her district, changing their lives forever.
In 1985, a few years after the Salvadoran army massacred 800 civilians in the eastern department of Morazán, but still before the government dismantled the death squads, María Alva Consuelo Guevara Herrera de Rodriguez went to a party with her girlfriends. Profesora Albita, as she’s known, was beloved in her community as a veteran teacher of all trades, teaching in both public and private schools in San Miguel, the largest city in eastern El Salvador. When she arrived at her friend’s house, however, she realized that it was no ordinary gathering: Her girlfriends had come together to beg Albita to run for mayor of San Miguel.
“I was confused,” she recalled. Thirty-three years later, she is an ailing woman of 87, bedridden by osteoporosis but with coiffed grandmotherly hair and a wide smile. She lives in the same celestial blue house as she did in 1985, and today, dozens of her own paintings stack up in her garage displaying volcanoes and rivers and other homages to her country. It was curious to her, that she would be asked to run when she had never expressed such interest to anyone.
But these were not ordinary times: El Salvador was embroiled in a civil war that wouldn’t end until 1992, that would all-in-all leave 80,000 people dead, untold missing, and over a million displaced internally and abroad. Many of those displaced had been fleeing from Morazán to San Miguel, saturating the city with civilians desperate for peace.
Albita was nervous about the proposal; Salvadoran politicians at the time were often embroiled in the conflict in unsavory ways, be it corruption or extortion, and walked around with targets on their backs. Still, she accepted. “San Miguel needed somebody to bring peace,” she said plainly. She won 80 percent of the vote.
Peace was a tall order. Like most Central American countries, El Salvador spent the 19th century a vista of coffee plantations; the plantation owners grew wealthy, and the farmers – the vast majority of the population—remained poor. It was a Marxist cocktail to an extreme degree, and shortly after communist insurgents in nearby Nicaragua revolted against their government, guerrilla fighters in El Salvador rose up in hopes of ending the cycle of inequality. Both sides fought with fury, but the Salvadoran government—backed by the might of millions of United States dollars determined to squash communism at all costs—left many more dead in its wake.
“Nobody trusted each other,” Albita told me. “Nobody knew whose side you were on.” The only way to achieve peace, she realized, was to create cultural unity. “I needed to remind the people of San Miguel of who they really were.”
In 1986, a year into her term, she organized El Desfile de la Paz, the Parade of Peace. The goal of the event was to interrupt the dogma of the war and celebrate the idea of peace as a masterpiece in and of itself. Dressed in white, San Miguel came together and did just that. Patty Rivas de Menendez was 18 when she attended the Parade of Peace. “It really was solemn and very organized, and in that time period we experienced a lot of patriotism, and we did it with enthusiasm,” she describes.
More than anything, Menendez remembers the way in which Albita treated the people around her. Her house was not too far from hers, and she recalls people of all stripes passing through, whether poor folks from the town, or El Salvador’s president, Jose Napoleon Duarte.
The secret to Albita’s credibility, according to Menendez, was the fact that she was already so well known as a teacher. “She always helped anyone she could that was within her reach,” she said.
As mayor, Albita founded a high school in the central prison. “It was my greatest pride as mayor to found that school,” she said. It was indeed the first prison school in all of Central America. “It was important that the inmates saw themselves not as prisoners, but as human beings.”
In 1987, she was elected governor of the province at large, also called San Miguel. In doing so, she became the first woman in El Salvador to hold two political offices.
When Albita finished her term in 1989, she returned to her teaching career – this time in the United States. She moved to San Francisco, California to become a Spanish-language auxiliary to kindergarten classrooms. She stayed until 2000 – long enough to earn her U.S. citizenship – and then returned to San Miguel to retire.
Once she returned home, Albita did not stop working to help her community. As an elderly woman, her increasing osteoporosis has been giving her great bodily pain. Her solution to her ailments was the same she had given her city decades before: art. She began painting, first as a distraction from her pain, but later as a mechanism to reconnect with her community.
El Salvador was hit hard by violence surrounding the inter-American drug trade in the 2000’s and onward, and many young people were drawn into gang activity as a way to make money when other means of social mobility seemed impossible. Albita began offering painting classes out of her garage to introduce the younger generation to the arts.
Gabriel Vigil would often pass by Albita’s house as a child and see large works of art hanging in her garage. It precipitated his curiosity for the arts, and he began taking classes from her during his summer vacations. Her influence remains with him to this day.
“Her patience and way of explaining the technique of realism inspired me to translate nature into works of art. She taught me how to highlight the delicacy in the details … without a doubt our friendly conversations while we painted influenced the sensation of happiness that I feel when I’m around artwork inspired by nature,” he says.
Vigil now works as a professional artisan in the touristic western town of Juayúa.
Profesora Albita has won countless awards in San Miguel, and remains universally beloved as a regional treasure. She has also founded several schools, including one that bears her name. With her failing health, she is unable to give art lessons anymore, but her thousands of former students and constituents take her lessons on with them.
She leaves behind a video, recorded from her San Francisco classroom. In it, she is elderly already, but with her wide smile and spritely energy. She speaks with enthusiastically enunciated Spanish:
“Life is wonderful when you have success. And those successes only come with positive values. We need to know that to have triumphs, we need intelligence. Intelligence isn’t born by itself. We cultivate it, and above all, we develop it little by little by lessons that are positive, by lessons that are constructive, and by practicing the values that permit us to be greater every day.”
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