Review of After Stories: Transnational Intimacies of Postwar El Salvador By Irina Carlota Silber, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press. 2022. 256 pp.

Reviewed Book

After Stories: Transnational Intimacies of Postwar El Salvador By Irina Carlota Silber, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press. 2022. 256 pp.

Cover of After Stories (2022)

Ester E. Hernández

California State University, Los Angeles

Irina Carlota Silber’s ethnography, After Stories: Transnational Intimacies of Postwar El Salvador, presents “a partial, positioned, reflective” ethnographic account of her fieldwork in Chalatenango, a province of El Salvador (xii). In this work, she “focused on the talk of everyday life that was full of people’s cogent theories on their sources of pain and hope” (4). The author spent the summers of 1993 and 1994 and the years 1996–1997 in a community repopulated upon the signing of peace accords. She focuses on what she calls the 1.5 insurgent generation following Ralph Sprenkle’s’ use of “postinsurgent lives.” Many of her participants, their relatives, and their descendants have since moved from Chalatenango to US locations such as New Jersey, Northern Virginia, Maryland, and Los Angeles. Chapters engage three themes: (1) the alarming numbers of all things violent, (2) the traumatized, injured, débil (debilitated) and subversive criminal-migrant bodies, and (3) the things or objects of war and postwar (xv). The author wraps the 1.5 insurgent generation between the before and after of the Salvadoran revolutionary movements, their successes, and failures. Their trajectories, and stories within continuums of violence underscore a narrative structure of before and after the civil war. In essence, she frames the life histories of families who participated in the revolutionary project and their young children who confront a changing reality marked by social violence and a migratory pull accentuated in the 2000s.

In the first chapter, the author reflects on the practice of anthropology, activism, and solidarity. It situates the ethnography within debates about testimonial practices and critical reflexivity. Silber asserts that testimonials are crucial to ensure that the people are not trapped in a sacrificial Central American victimhood trope whereby their stories become “living proof” in a performative manner (17). This has been an ongoing and crucial critique within the study of Central American refugee communities seeking asylum. To interrupt the binary of victimhood versus collective agency, the author adopts a stance of co-creating archives of memories with families that she met during fieldwork and who began leaving Chalatenango for the United States in 2001. In that year, a major earthquake prompted the United States to issue temporary protected status for Salvadorans already in the country, and it was also the first year of the dollarization of the Salvadoran economy, a push factor for migration.

Chapter two, “Numbers,” examines what the author calls encoding or “violencia encifrada,” where she tackles the statistics on both migration and apprehension data on unaccompanied minors and the statistics about violence in El Salvador. She explores how these numbers produce a context of insecurity, rather than just aggregating the numbers. A key claim and question in the chapter are how numbers encode particular “racialized markers,” that translate and produce storytelling, memory, and violence arguing that the numbers often conflate and occlude rather than clarify the issues confronting Chalatecos and/or Salvadorans at large. The numbers do produce a climate of fear and insecurity that the individual must survive, and in this context, she argues, “a citizen security constructs naturalized evil criminals and delinquents to be cleansed” (67). This chapter examines statistical tracking and an Atlas of Violence with statistics that shape what counts and for whom.

Disability is the central theme of chapter three, “Bodies.” She notes that trauma and victimhood trouble the idea of collective agency. She discusses how trauma and debility are talked about among her interlocutors. Some narratives of trauma are valorized and may lead to reparations, yet many are ignored. In other words, she continues the argument in Chapter two about whose stories count, and for whom. By using the spectacular stories of survival during insurgency, Silber examines how a collective ethics of care was enacted to respond to a position of the underdog which she calls debilidad or weakness; a bodily and psychological insecurity due to the militarization of life was countered by solidarity. The author draws from Laurence Ralph and Jasbir Puar’s analysis of gangs and violence to reflect on debility and caregiving in the context of occupation and bio-political processes (of control) in the aftermath of events. She argues that to counteract processes of massification and to survive, people in her study deployed an ethics of caregiving and interdependence that Eva Kittay calls an “ethics of care and labors of love.” The 1.5 insurgent generation carries on and resists debility and disability across time and geographies. They are resilient and, the author argues, sustain insurgent politics of care and caregiving despite the cumulative losses and intentional processes of maiming and disability they experience from the military or from the state (87).

Chapter four, “Objects,” deals with what objects people keep in a context of displacement. She analyzes material objects that people have kept from the war and from deportation and accumulation. Nancy’s story stands out as she keeps ephemera of her detainment and deportation. In keeping ephemera, Silber states, people refuse erasure; what objects they keep sustain a politics of refusal through counter-narratives. As such, Chalatecos may resist the displacements of war and the pressures to migrate. Specific collections of objects rescue/preserve and encode revolutionary memory and time anchored in Las Vueltas, their place of origin. She ends the chapter with the story of Marleni, who is a US citizen. Her story is of the successful accumulation of land and consumer goods that are shared with her relatives and fuel the industry of remittance parcels.

The effect of electoral defeat for the leftist party and the disorientation that it produces is examined in chapter five, “After.” In this chapter, there is a reckoning, a critique, and a call to account. She ends with an apocryphal story of a parrot that is arrested by the military during the war. It is a funny, irreverent story that elicits laughter but emphasizes that not even animals were safe during the war. The story closes a loop in the discussion of Salvadoran folklore, gender, and war that she started in the first chapter.

In sum, this book can be used in graduate and undergraduate level courses dealing with migration, methods, and gendered everyday forms of resistance in contexts of insecurity or militarization. The author humanizes the life stories of Chalatecos with care, cognizant of clandestine conditions that shape what is told, archived, and shared. The discussion of debilidad and a politics of care and caregiving is about the resilience and collective struggle of participants and their generations. Aspiring anthropologists will find her anthropological practice and revisiting of archival data illuminating. Her discussion of being a positioned observer, “a gringa-Argentinian” is generative in thinking about the intersectionalities that anthropologists embody and that shape the questions they ask and their knowledge production. Moreover, the study raises critical questions about participants’ appraisals of experience and meaning construction out of ambiguity, uncertainty, and ongoing insecurity.