Re-Imagining the Nation: Revolutionary Media and Historiography in Mesoamerica

Article excerpt

Three Mesoamerican revolutionary movements each chose an early twentieth-century hero as their centerpiece for reinterpreting their national histories and constructing images of nations betrayed. Thus, they constructed their fights as the most recent chapter in prolonged struggles for control of their countries. This contrasted with detractors' attempts to de-legitimize the rebellions by portraying them as puppets of recent international movements. To make their arguments, the rebels relied on a newspaper, Barricada, in Nicaragua; two radio stations, Radio Venceremos and Radio Farabundo Martí, in El Salvador; and the internet in Chiapas, Mexico. This article examines how the revolutionary groups used their media to reinterpret their countries' histories in a way that vindicated their struggles while casting doubt on the legitimacy of their opponents.

From their airplane windows, visitors to revolutionary Nicaragua could see exponentially larger-than-life silhouettes of a figure in a wide-brimmed hat guarding the capital city. The figure was so ubiquitous in the Nicaragua of the 1980s that it was sometimes abbreviated to just the hat. This was the symbol of the revolution: Augusto C. Sandino, an early twentieth-century rebel who was once reviled as a bandit. The guerrillas who led the coalition that deposed Nicaragua's dictator had rehabilitated Sandino into a national hero.

In 1980, a year after the Sandinistas marched into Managua, another band of rebels in neighboring El Salvador revived another obscure historical character. The coalition of five disparate guerrilla groups banded together under the name Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. Finally, in 1994, after the Central American fighting ended, a group of poorly armed insurgents in Mexico's most southern state had the audacity to take the name of another early twentieth-century rebel. However, this time the insurgency was not content to rehabilitate a name buried in history's footnotes. They claimed the mantle of Emiliano Zapata, the best-known indigenous leader of Mexico's successful 1910 revolution.

Each movement chose an early twentieth-century hero as the centerpiece for reinterpreting their national history and constructing the image of a nation betrayed. Thus, they constructed their fight as the most recent chapter in a prolonged struggle for control of the nation. This contrasted with detractors' attempts to de-legitimize the rebellions by portraying them as puppets of recent international movements. To make their arguments, the rebels relied on their media: the newspaper, Barricada, in Managua, Nicaragua; two radio stations, Radio Venceremos and Radio Farabundo Marti, which were usually located in the departments of Morazan and Chalatenango respectively in El Salvador; and the early internet in Chiapas, Mexico.

In all three cases, these were revolutionary media, which William and Harva Hachten defined in 1992 as "illegal and subversive mass communication utilizing the press and broadcasting to overthrow a government or wrest control from alien rulers."1 Each rebel group had a variety of media at its disposal but relied mainly on one technology as its official or primary voice. The factors that led to those decisions, as well as the different outcomes those decisions produced, are too complex for an article of this length. Instead, the purpose of this study is to examine one of the striking similarities in the way all three organizations used their media: How did the three revolutionary groups use their media to reinterpret their countries' histories in a way that vindicated their struggles while casting doubt on the legitimacy of their opponents?

The answers come from oral history interviews with media producers and their audiences, as well as from government documents and the texts of the media, found on microfilm, in internet archives, and in Central American archives. The two principal archives used were El Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen in San Salvador and me Institute de Historia de Nicaragua y Centro América in Managua, Nicaragua. …