2015 marked the first year where funds from the Jennifer Caldwell Endowed Fund in Human Rights provided quarterlong support for a graduate student, Ursula Mosqueira, to conduct hands-on human rights work. Ursula, a Ph.D. student in Sociology, spent the summer and fall in El Salvador to conduct research with a group of former political prisoners who experienced grave human rights violations including torture and other forms of inhumane treatment. Ursula writes:
As a native of Chile, a country that underwent a brutal dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet, I have always been interested in exploring the aftermath of authoritarianism in my own country and the Latin American region. Through work at the UW Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) in the past three years, I have become acquainted with El Salvador, a country whose history shares some elements with that of my own country, and with survivors of political violence who have a lot to teach me. While overt armed conflict divided El Salvador for twelve years, and Chile had a seventeen year-long dictatorship, forms of state repression and massive human rights violations used to quash calls for social reform represent a common denominator in the two histories. Similar patterns of repression also characterized the Cold War years in many other parts of Latin America.
As I became acquainted with communities of survivors in El Salvador and their struggle to obtain justice and truth after years of impunity and silence, I decided to focus on their process of survival and healing. Thanks to the UWCHR and the Jennifer Caldwell Fund in Human Rights, I arrived in El Salvador this summer to investigate the aftermath of authoritarianism, particularly for one group of survivors—former political prisoners. This is a group of people who experienced the human right violations of detainment without due process and torture as well as various other forms of inhumane treatment.
In my research, I am learning about how former political prisoners continued with their lives after experiencing extreme forms of repression on their bodies. I am discovering that the process has been very different for women than for men, and that their forms of organization have been fundamental in giving them tools to survive. As part of my fieldwork, I am carrying out in-depth interviews with over 30 former political prisoners, during which they share their life experiences and their understandings of things like justice and healing. They tell me about their families, about the ideals of social justice and political organization that led them to join revolutionary efforts, about their artistic talents, the psychological and physical sequelae of facing torture, their spiritual beliefs, and about the political and social projects that continue to motivate them. In those stories, I find the nuance and depth of any human story, of truncated dreams and illusions, and of survival and resistance despite extreme conditions. I also find the powerful influence of gender in shaping lives and opportunities of human rights victims’ access to justice and healing.
As part of my fieldwork, I also carry out participant observation of therapy sessions for former political prisoners. In these group sessions, participants share their experiences of pain and learn about tools of pain management. I have thoroughly enjoyed being in these workshops and feel like I am a part of an important effort, where members often have lively conversations and use humor profusely, even as they reflect upon, and cope, with the harrowing experiences of extreme corporal repression.