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Didion in El Salvador

While Joan Didion felt compelled to write about Latin American culture and politics because everyone else was doing it, she didn’t understand them very well.

· 16 min read
Didion in El Salvador
Photo by © Ted Streshinsky via Getty Images

There is a special kind of practical information that the visitor to El Salvador acquires immediately, the way visitors to other places acquire information about the currency rates, the hours for the museums. In El Salvador one learns that vultures go first for the soft tissue, for the eyes, the exposed genitalia, the open mouth. … One learns that hair deteriorates less rapidly than flesh, and that a skull surrounded by a perfect corona of hair is a not uncommon sight…
~Joan Didion, Salvador, p. 17

In June of 1982, Joan Didion, who died last year aged 87, flew to civil war-torn El Salvador with her novelist/screenwriter husband, John Gregory Dunne. She was on assignment for the New York Review of Books, and the fortnight’s visit yielded two long articles that became a 108-page book, Salvador, the following year.

The truncated title—omitting the “El” from the tiny Central American republic’s official name—was an in-the-know tic among the norteamericano journalists who flooded there during the 1970s and 1980s. On the whole, the conflict struck these reporters and their readers as an eschatological struggle between idealistic socialist guerrillas and brutal right-wing “death squads” populated by renegade Salvadoran military personnel and believed to be supported by the Reagan-administration CIA. Salvador radiated terror and the portentous quotations from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness ensured instant critical success. “[Didion] brings the country to life so that it ends up invading our flesh,” enthused Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in the New York Times. “To get rid of it then is as simple as shaking off leeches.”

Forty years later, that language might seem puzzlingly overwrought, especially to those who weren’t born or were children when Didion’s book appeared. The civil war died down during the early 1990s, the US journalists went home, and El Salvador settled into the unremarkable landscape of extreme poverty punctuated by bouts of government corruption that are its salient features today. If people in the US think about El Salvador today, they are most likely recall that it was one of the countries Donald Trump is said to have described as a “shithole” in 2018. (The Washington Post sent a team there to investigate the truth of Trump’s assessment, and its reports of shantytowns and trash-lined riverbanks did little to brighten El Salvador’s image as a tourist destination.)

Others may recall hair-raising reports of “Salvadoran gangs,” whose 60,000 aggressively tattooed members (according to a 2021 report from Human Rights Watch) currently bleed civilians via extortion, murder each other, and run drugs, guns, and prostitutes. They control entire territories of El Salvador over which they function as a shadow government, and export their activities to the US and elsewhere. The most notorious and fearsome of these, Mara Salvatrucha (or MS-13), has an estimated 10,000 members in various US cities, and was actually formed in Los Angeles, California, by illegal Salvadoran immigrants during the 1980s. It then, in a kind of back-formation, established lucrative branches in El Salvador itself.

Not surprisingly, the civil war’s ideologically motivated atrocities, memorialized in romantic murals and other pious artworks dotting the Salvadoran civic landscape, seem as quaint and remote at 40 years’ distance as Ronald Reagan himself. There are probably even some Salvadorans who wish that the condition of their homeland seemed urgent enough to Americans—“invading” their “flesh,” so to speak—to inspire them to funnel dollars in its direction.

Indeed, one of the problems Didion encountered was that, by the time she got there in mid-1982, the excitement about El Salvador had already waned considerably. The worst and most widely publicized of the right-wing outrages—the assassination of Catholic archbishop Óscar Romero in the capital, San Salvador, as he was saying Mass, and the rape and murder of three Catholic nuns and a lay female missionary, all Americans—had taken place in 1980 before Reagan took office.

When Didion checked into her room at the four-star Camino Real Hotel in San Salvador (still in business today as an Intercontinental), she discovered that so many of her fellow journalists had since decamped for more interesting combat zones that the hotel had discontinued its breakfast buffet. “At the time I was in El Salvador,” she wrote, “the hostilities at hand were referred to by those reporters still in the country as ‘the number-four war,’ after Beirut, Iraq-Iran, and the aftermath of the Falklands. ‘Get an NBC crew up from the Falklands, we might get the buffet back,’ they would say.” Elsewhere she noted:

The era in which the guerrillas could be found just by going out on the highway had largely ended; the only certain way to spend time with them now was to cross into their territory from Honduras, through contact with their leadership in Mexico. This was a process that tended to discourage day-tripping, and in any case it was no longer a war in which the dateline “SOMEWHERE BEHIND GUERRILLA LINES, EL SALVADOR” was presumed automatically to illuminate much at all.

In other words, Didion neither saw nor interviewed a single guerrilla—ever. Instead, she had to content herself with looking at the lurid newspaper photos of dead bodies that prompted her musings about vultures, and casting a scornful eye over reports prepared by optimistic US officials. The Reagan administration hoped that strategic combinations of financial aid and military training could keep El Salvador from becoming another Nicaragua (which a revolution had turned Marxist-Leninist in 1979) and coax it toward something vaguely resembling a Western democracy.

Nor did Didion see much of anything else. She drove to one of San Salvador’s “body dumps,” the Puerta del Diablo, a steep and rocky promontory from which the death squads were said to have thrown their tortured and executed victims. All she found there was a man giving a woman a driving lesson in a Toyota pickup while children played on the grass. She took an A-list field trip on a chartered plane (joined by Dunne and reporters for the Washington Post and Newsweek) to the town of San Francisco Gotera, where there was supposed to be a major anti-guerrilla offensive at Morazán near the Honduran border. But the trip became a Latin-American comedy of errors (although Didion didn’t find it funny): the prop plane’s engines would turn over during the June rainy season only after some intricate hand-tinkering with wrenches, and their taxi ground to a halt as they tried to ford the Río Seco, which was swollen with seasonal downfall (the four trapped journalists and their vehicle were eventually rescued by a local with an earthmover and a winch).

In Morazán, as one might already suspect, the bruited combat never materialized, although Didion did finally lay eyes on an actual dead body—a naked 30-year-old man of unknown political affiliation who had been shot between the eyes. They also saw seven shot-up corpses in the San Salvador morgue. And she had dinner with the Salvadoran abstract painter Víctor Barriere (1941–2021), a grandson of General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, the early 20th-century dictator of El Salvador who had presided over la matanza, a mass slaughter of Salvadoran Communists in 1932. Didion listened in horror as Barriere declared that his grandfather was “misunderstood,” and that the assassinated Archbishop Romero was “a real bigot. … Listening to that man every Sunday was like listening to Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini.” I have a feeling that Barriere was pulling Didion’s leg.

As a substitute for the dearth of actual corpses during her two weeks in El Salvador, Didion filled her pages with fumes of morbid atmospherics:

The dead and pieces of the dead turn up in El Salvador everywhere, every day, as taken for granted as in a nightmare, or a horror movie. Vultures of course suggest the presence of a body. A knot of children on the street suggests the presence of a body. Bodies turn up in vacant lots, in the garbage thrown down ravines in the richest districts, in public restrooms, in bus stations. Some are dropped in Lake Ilopango, a few miles east of the city, and wash up near the lakeside cottages and clubs frequented by what remains in San Salvador of the sporting bourgeoisie. Some still turn up at El Playón, the lunar lava field of rotting human flesh visible at one time or another on every television screen in America but characterized in June of 1982 in the El Salvador News Gazette, an English-language weekly edited by an American named Mario Rosenthal, as an “uncorroborated story…dredged up from the files of leftist propaganda.”

While she and Dunne ate dinner on the porch of a San Salvador restaurant, they spotted a silhouette in the dark of a man sitting “behind the smoked-glass windows of a Cherokee Chief” (Salvadoran Jeeps and pickups, with their formidable cabins, are a special source of anxiety for Didion), and another silhouette crouched with a rifle between the pumps of a neighboring Esso station. “Nothing came of this,” she admitted, “but I did not forget the sensation of having been in a single instant demoralized, undone, humiliated by fear, which is what I meant when I said I came to understand in El Salvador the mechanism of terror.”

She visited a shopping mall in San Salvador where the muzak was playing—uh-oh—‘American Pie’ (“…this will be the day that I die…”). At her hotel bar, the television screens were tuned to “Señorita El Salvador 1982,” a competition to select El Salvador’s entry in the Miss Universe competition that year:

The four runners-up reacted, on the whole, with rather less grace than is the custom on these occasions, and it occurred to me that this was a contest in which winning meant more than a scholarship or a screen test or a new wardrobe; winning could mean the difference between life and casual death, a provisional safe-conduct not only for the winner but for her entire family.

Well, that’s one way to look at a TV beauty contest in the Third World, I suppose. But by the time I got to this passage (on page 70 of Salvador), I just started laughing:

I recall one morning picking up this message from my secretary in Los Angeles: “JDD: Alessandra Stanley from Time, 213/273-1530. They heard you were in El Salvador and wanted some input from you for the cover story they’re preparing on the women’s movement. Ms. Stanley wanted their correspondent in Central America to contact you—I said that you could not be reached but would be calling me. She wanted you to call: Jay Cocks 212/841-2633.” I studied this message for a long time, and tried to imagine the scenario in which a Time stringer in El Salvador received, by Telex in New York, a request to do an interview on the women’s movement with someone who happened to be at the Camino Real Hotel. This was not a scenario that played, and I realized then that El Salvador was as inconceivable to Jay Cocks in the high keep of the Time-Life Building in New York as this message was to me in El Salvador.

Was this an actual paragraph by Joan Didion, or the winning entry in a Bad Joan Didion Writing Contest? I felt sorry for Alessandra Stanley, who went on to become television critic for the New York Times, and Jay Cocks, who went on to write the screenplays for Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York, and Silence. All they wanted was a quotation from the woman who had published a perceptive and scathing critique of second-wave feminism for the Times in 1972. How were they to know that its author had turned a reporting trip to a war-wracked Central American backwater into an all-consuming private hallucination of gore, terror, oppression, and rotting cadavers.

Paul Theroux, whose 1981 novel, The Mosquito Coast, was based on his travels to Honduras during the same period, found Didion’s phantasmagorical take on El Salvador ridiculous. El Salvador, he countered in a review of Didion’s book for the Sunday Times, was simply “a miserably poor, overpopulated, badly governed, and politically and religiously divided police state.” While Didion’s book might be an “excellent account of being nervous,” Theroux wrote, it was useless as a piece of reporting about an actual Central American country.

Salvador was not even Didion’s worst piece of writing. That honor probably falls to Miami (1987), a book that had also originally appeared as serial articles for the New York Review of Books, and followed the Salvador template. It was not (as devotees of Miami Vice may have hoped) a glittering account of the dazzling excesses of a sun-baked, narco-fueled tropical landscape, narrated with Didion’s characteristic grace and irony. Instead, the book focused narrowly and obsessively on the same ideological dynamic that underlay Salvador: sinister and conspiratorial Miami-dwelling Cuban exiles trying to prod the US government into helping them retake their island from Castro. This time, the Reagan administration sent out support vibrations to the exiles for political reasons (Cubans were and are reliable GOP voters), but it was not in a hurry to re-enact the Bay of Pigs. As in Salvador, Didion simply ignored the leftists, in this case Castro and his Soviet-sponsored totalitarians, and what they might have been doing in and to Cuba itself.

This sort of take was, again, catnip to the Reagan-loathing, Castro-admiring New York Review of Books subscriber base. But even Edward Said couldn’t help noticing sentences like this one:

The coup which the United States would never allow to take place had in fact by the 1980s largely supplanted, as an exile plot point, the invasion which the United States had never allowed to take place, and was for the time being, until something more concrete came along (the narrative bones for this something, the projected abandonment of the Nicaraguan contras, were of course already in place), the main story line for what el exilio continued to see as its betrayal, its utilization, its manipulation, by the government of the United States.

“This,” complained Said in a review of Miami for the London Review of Books, “is mannered and highly self-conscious prose, ungainly and even downright ugly.”

This was the same Joan Didion whose elegant style, flair for mordant understatement, and extraordinary powers of close observation had made her early collections of magazine articles Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979) such arresting landmarks of New Journalism. In the title essay of the former she had seen right through the Summer of Love’s haze of 1960s romanticism to expose the Haight-Ashbury hippies for what they were: clueless runaway teens from the boondocks impressed into the service of the drug trade and the sexual revolution. In “The Women’s Movement,” republished in the latter, she skewered second-wave feminists as over-educated white women trying to recast themselves as an oppressed proletariat that would be the vanguard of a Marxist social revolution. These were against-the-grain views that did nothing to endear her to the literary Left—and indeed Didion had once been a regular contributor to National Review. In 2012, Caitlin Flanagan, writing about Didion in the Atlantic, asked:

Where was the Didion who was a Goldwater girl and a Nixon voter, the Republican at Berkeley, the woman who didn’t care at all about the prevailing literary and political fashions, who went to the supermarket in an old bikini and boarded first-class compartments of international flights in bare feet, and who therefore—because she thought about things always on her own terms—could see things in front of us that we’d been missing all along? How could someone that original turn into another tired espouser of the most doctrinaire New York Review of Books political opinions?

To Mark Falcoff, a longtime Latin-American expert at the American Enterprise Institute who reviewed Salvador in 1983 for Commentary, the answer seemed to be that Didion had ultimately found the good graces of the New York intellectual commentariat too alluring to resist. (Indeed, after decades in Los Angeles, she and Dunne moved to New York in 1988, where both resided until their deaths.) Falcoff maintained that Didion had bought into the intellectuals’ “sneering disdain” and “contempt for the middle class,” whether US or Salvadoran. He pointed out that Didion had drawn most of her information about killings—largely erroneous, he insisted—from left-wing NGOs, and that she had been conspicuously incurious about the Salvadoran guerrillas, who, as extensive documentation suggested, had been trained and financed by Nicaragua and Cuba (and thus, indirectly, by the Soviet Union). In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega’s Sandinistas had ousted the rightist Somoza family’s decades-long dictatorship; a Salvadoran-style civil war raged in Guatemala during the 1980s; and Honduras appeared to be on the brink of something similar. The Reaganites might have looked silly in their Panglossian efforts to nudge Salvadorans into Western-style voting booths instead of mutual slaughter, but just as the Reagan administration didn’t want another Bay of Pigs, it didn’t want another Cuban missile crisis, either.

The enthusiasm of intellectuals during the 1980s for left-wing revolution in Central America cannot be overestimated. Nicaragua buzzed with bedazzled norteamericano “Sandalistas” and their socialist NGOs. Large swathes of the Catholic clergy throughout Latin America got involved in “liberation theology,” a class-struggle take on Christianity that cast Jesus as a Che Guevara avant la lettre. Liberation theology ultimately backfired, and nearly half the Catholics in El Salvador, which was 93 percent Catholic in 1970, decamped to evangelical churches that preached that Jesus was actually the son of God. Nonetheless, during liberation theology’s heyday, smitten priests cast aside their Roman collars to take seats in Daniel Ortega’s government. The death-squad murder of the four American churchwomen in El Salvador in 1980 was assuredly an unspeakable crime, but the fact remains that one of the four, Sister Maura Clarke, had just returned from marching in a red neck scarf on the other side of the Nicaraguan border to celebrate the first anniversary of the Sandinista revolution.

I don’t think Falcoff had it quite right, though. The influence on Joan Didion’s hallucinatory state of mind during this bizarre period strikes me as not so much political as literary, or at least as the political mediated through the literary. And not so much Conrad as Gabriel García Márquez (1927–2014), the Colombian novelist who invented the eventually overused genre of “magic realism.” García Márquez won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982 and was then at the height of his powers. Scores of academic critics labored to pull layers of meaning out of his biggest-selling and highest-regarded novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), a 400-page saga about seven generations of a ruling family in a sleepy fictional Latin-American coastal town. Scores of younger writers, Latin-American and otherwise, mimicked his technique of inserting magical and hyperbolic elements into otherwise studiously realistic narratives. For a while, it seemed, if a writer had a Spanish surname, it was impossible not to come across a baby born with a pig’s tail, or some fantastical equivalent, in that writer’s fictional output.

In the May 1983 issue of Commentary that featured Falcoff’s review of Salvador, the critic Joseph Epstein published an essay-length analysis of the “sheer brimming brilliance” of García Márquez’s work as well as its shortcomings. Epstein deemed García Márquez’s writing (in the English translations of Gregory Rabassa) “absolutely first-class,” with “endless lovely touches.” He instanced a story about a man able “to sink easily into the deepest waves, where fish are blind and divers die of nostalgia,” and another with “a pair of languid hands that looked as though they’d just been shaved.”

Ultimately, though, Epstein believed that these dazzling tours de force were too much. “[R]eading One Hundred Years is like watching a circus artist on the trampoline who does only quadruple back somersaults. At first you are amazed to see him do it; then you are astonished that he can keep it up for so long; then you begin to wonder when he is going to be done.” Epstein confessed that, for him and several of his friends, “anywhere from between eighteen and fifty-one years of solitude was sufficient.” Picking up One Hundred Years in the living room of a sister who was a García Márquez fan, I managed to make it through only about five years of solitude. I couldn’t understand why I was supposed to be interested in a family patriarch who holes himself up in his study for months on end only to come up with the discovery that the world is round.

García Márquez livened up this cleverness, Epstein averred, by adding “the vinegar of politics” to his writing—specifically, the radicalism that had characterized his prose from his earliest days as a journalist before he turned to fiction. This continued through his lifelong friendship with Castro and his ferocious disdain for the United States and all its capitalist works. “[T]here is no act in my life which is not a political act,” he told a reporter in 1978. In 1982 he wrote that “there is not a single line in any of my books that does not have its origin in a real event.” This might have been true, except that García Márquez massaged those real events, especially political events, through the same magical and hyperbolic elements that he used to create the strictly fictional.

For example, One Hundred Years features a banana workers’ strike, modeled after an actual strike by United Fruit Company workers in Colombia in 1928, during which the Colombian army opened fire on the strikers. García Márquez wrote that “more than 3,000” workers were killed, and that their bodies were carted away in a train “with almost 200 freight cars and a locomotive at either end and a third one in the middle.” But Epstein quotes an interview with García Márquez in which he admits that the 3,000 bodies and the train were exaggerations for atmospheric effect:

There were very few deaths. If 100 people had been killed in 1928 it would have been catastrophic. I made the death toll 3,000 because I was using certain proportions in my book. One hundred wouldn’t have been noticed. I was also interested in achieving a certain imagery; I wanted the bodies to be taken away in a train, a train such as the ones that were loaded with clusters of bananas. I did the research and found that to fill such a train, you’d need at least 3,000 bodies.

Epstein dubbed this chicanery in the service of promoting revolution “political realism.”

If those 3,000 dead bodies remind you of the dead bodies “everywhere” in Salvador, or of visitors receiving “practical information” in the form of which body parts vultures devoured first, there is a reason. Didion was mesmerized by García Márquez’s fiction, especially his 1975 novel, The Autumn of the Patriarch, about the brutal caudillo of an unnamed Caribbean country who has wielded tyrannical power for more than 200 years. (His signature piece of savagery is to have his minister of defense baked with herbs and pine nuts and then carved and served up to his former comrades at a state dinner.)

The Patriarch is all over Didion’s imagination in Salvador, sharing the same “spirit” as Hernández Martínez, the tyrant grandfather of Víctor Barriere. Above all, it hovers over the “Señorita El Salvador” beauty contest, which prompts her to quote a page-long passage from The Autumn in which the Patriarch tries to ingratiate himself with his countrymen by dancing with a beauty queen from the slums. “On this evening,” Didion concludes, “that began with the grandson of General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez,” progressed to “Señorita El Salvador 1982, and ended, at 12:22, with [an] earthquake, I began to see Gabriel García Márquez in a new light, as a social realist.”

This wasn’t reporting; it was pure literary extrapolation of an even more fanciful sort than García Márquez himself purveyed. Joan Didion knew how to do better—and after the 1980s passed, she began to do better again, writing acerbic essays skewering leftist herd-disdain for figures like Martha Stewart and Terri Schiavo. Perhaps her problem during the 1980s was that, while she felt compelled to write about Latin American culture and politics because everyone else was doing it, she didn’t understand them very well, and so she simply followed the lead of a mesmerizing fellow writer at the peak of his accolades.

My mother, born in Lima, Peru, had a more evenhanded, if jaundiced, view of Latin America’s long history of lurching between totalitarian Left and tyrannical Right: “They’ve been hanging each other by the testicles for centuries,” she would tell us. Sometimes, the ideological switch of dictatorships seems to take place under the same person, as with Daniel Ortega, at the helm of Nicaragua for nearly five decades and currently courting US investment and clamping down on abortion. And Salvador was not an entirely worthless book. It made one point that Reagan-administration officials should have learned the hard way, along with all those officials in subsequent US administrations who have sought to nudge alien societies to become more American: Don’t do it.

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