Resilience in the Midst of Destruction: A Firsthand Account of the Salvadoran Civil War—Melissa Elias (2021), Best of ENG 225 Winner

Questions to Consider

  1. Elias integrates both secondary research about the Salvadoran Civil War and primary research about her father’s experiences in El Salvador during this war from his interview responses. What are some examples of how she uses secondary and primary research and for what purposes does she incorporate these different types of research in her essay?
  2. Using Elias’s essay as an example, analyze the genre of a personal research essay. What is the purpose of this genre and what are the important moves a writer should make in a personal research essay to accomplish this purpose?
  3. Elias chose the issue of the Salvadoran Civil War to write her personal research essay on. From reading her essay and reflection, why was this an important and meaningful topic for her to choose for herself and for her audience?

A Note From The Instructor—Parisa Adlifar

Melissa’s impressive personal research essay recreates a firsthand account of the Salvadoran Civil War for the readers. Melissa exceptionally connects her primary research, by interviewing her father as a civilian at the height of the war, with secondary research, by finding information about the Civil War in El Salvador and synthesizing them concisely as she makes different points in a well-organized matter. Melissa is a dedicated writer and learner. Throughout the writing process, she considered revisions seriously. She showed up frequently during my office hours to brainstorm topics and discuss her essay’s overall structure. This project was the final essay in the class that Melissa composed using genuine pathos and weaving personal history with a research essay. I encouraged her to submit the final draft to the English composition awards for Advanced Writing, and I am super excited to see other students will read this inspiring and powerful piece.

Essay (Best of ENG 225)

Resilience in the Midst of Destruction: A Firsthand Account of the Salvadoran Civil War

Imagine firearms, shootings, and death as an everyday part of your life. Now, imagine  these aspects as an everyday part of your childhood. Civil wars affect the entire country through  the economy, resources via trade agreements, and relations with other countries. However, their  catastrophic effects extend to the country’s people. Regardless of one’s activity in the civil war  or lack thereof, no person is left untouched by the violence that ensues from this type of civil  unrest. El Salvador, a small country located in Central America, could not escape this violence,  and in 1980, a civil war broke out. Although literature surrounding the Salvadoran Civil War  seeks to examine the specific timeline of events that had large-scale effects on the country as  well as its relation to the United States, few individual accounts exist of what it was like to live  as a civilian during El Salvador’s civil war. The purpose of this research study is to uncover the  history of the Salvadoran Civil War through the lenses of a firsthand account from a civilian who  grew up at the height of the war.

The civil war in El Salvador was a long-lasting war, occurring from 1980 to  1992. The 50 years prior to the start of the war, El Salvador had been ruled by military leaders  and was right leaning in nature. The government favored the wealthy, which led to an extreme  division between the rich and the poor. Fourteen families, known as Los Catorce, “came to  dominate Salvadoran economic life early in the country’s history” as they owned many acres of  land to grow the country’s main export: coffee (McColm 11). Their workers, known as campesinos, farmed the land but lacked any rights to it and could barely provide for themselves,  let alone their families. In response to the poor living conditions, peasant revolts erupted as early  as 1932 in which a peasant leader, Farabundo Martí, led an insurrection that the military quickly  crushed. However, his advocacy for the country’s farmers led to the formation of the Farabundo  Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), which formed a leftist coalition of guerrillas that fought in the war. The Marxist-Leninist insurgency embraced the notion of equality for  everyone–a communist ideology and thus, were indirectly supported by Cuba and the Soviet  Union.

The FMLN gained the inspiration to fight against the Salvadoran, authoritarian  government from Nicaragua in which the entire population revolted against a hated dictatorship,  referring to the Somoza family who had maintained power for over 40 years. In Nicaragua’s  case, the communist guerrillas had the people’s support and overthrew the dictator. However,  according to historian Dr. Tommie Montgomery, “the situation in El Salvador was historically  different and far more complex than that in Nicaragua,” as the Salvadoran guerrillas were not as  successful in winning the public’s support (142). Although many Salvadorans did not fully agree  with the military’s form of leading the country, they did not want a communist government.  However, the “FMLN leadership […] calculated, incorrectly, that a sudden show of force would  foment a popular uprising” (Hoover Green & Ball 784). Thus, a lack of the strong, public  support for the guerrillas was detrimental to the leftist cause throughout the entirety of the civil  war.

The regime that opposed the FMLN was the military junta already governing El  Salvador. The right-wing regime was supported by the U.S. and thus, had a higher quantity and  quality of weapons to use against the FMLN. Nonetheless, the Salvadoran military lacked control in the rural areas surrounding the major cities of El Salvador. Therefore, the guerrillas  operated in the countryside with their main post being in Guazapa, the agrarian region that sits  outside of the country’s capital: San Salvador (Christopher & Drehsler). The guerrilla insurgency had the goal of creating chaos through various methods such as starting shootings in the city and taking over neighborhoods in an effort to build support for their cause among the urban population. To counteract the FMLN’s insurrections, right-wing paramilitary groups known as escuadrones de la muerte (death squads) were created. The death squads were behind several assassinations including that of Archbishop Oscar Romero who was killed during mass because of the leftist comments he made during his sermons.

The fighting continued for many years with neither side claiming victory and both  becoming exhausted with the continual violence and death that had plagued their country for 12  years. However, the year of 1990 marked a shift in the FMLN’s negotiation policy in which “two  neatly defined objectives [were outlined]: to undo militarism and to promote a transition to  democracy in El Salvador” (Chávez 1788). This allowed for communication to commence  between the two sides. Succumbing to the pressure from countries such as the U.S. to end the  war, the FMLN and the Salvadoran military signed the Chapultepec Peace Accords on January  19, 1992–a treaty that established peace between the FMLN and the Salvadoran government.  Although peace finally spread throughout El Salvador, the war left the country in a much lower  economic standing, which has perpetuated the current problems of gangs seen in modern day.

My father, Carlos Elias, is a Salvadoran American who now lives in the U.S. He was born in San Salvador and grew up while the country was in its civil war. He was just 14 years old when the war began, and he lived amid the chaos for 6 years. Moreover, he lived in El Salvador in 1982, which was “the most violent year [over the civil war] when 22,904 Salvadorans were killed” (Hoover Green & Ball 802). At the age of 20, he left El Salvador to study violin  performance at a university in the U.S. Currently, he lives in Ohio and works as a violin  professor in Cedarville University. Although he last experienced living in a civil war 35 years  ago, the memories from this period of his life remain vivid and ever present. His firsthand  account of the experiences he faced during the war in El Salvador, displays what it is like to live  in the midst of a civil war.

Although he did not take a side in the war, Carlos had many influential people around  him who opened his eyes to both sides. His father worked for the government–though  completely unrelated to the war–in the National Geographic Center participating in cartography  where he wrote on maps to chart new territories. Due to his father working for the government  and their Christian belief that one should respect who is in power, his family was right leaning.  As Carlos states, “Just because the president was a general did not mean we were oppressed. We  lived okay, we could go to church, and people could still work. There were liberties and  freedoms. Society was just very right-hand oriented because the military was very powerful.”  Therefore, putting his family first is expected and instilled at an early age for Latinos, Carlos  would have sided with the military if he had to choose.

However, he could see the leftist point of view as well. Though he had a few wealthy  friends who went to private schools and joined the military, he also had friends join the FMLN.  Most notably, he had a friend named Douglas who had been convinced by the guerrillas to drop  out of high school and join their cause. On one of his summer breaks back from the university,  Carlos was reading the newspaper in El Salvador when he saw a picture of a “body mutilated,  with no ears, no eyes, his tongue had been cut out and [he] couldn’t recognize the body. And then  [he] read underneath that the name was Douglas” and thus realized the picture was of his friend from high school (Elias). This image has made a lasting impact on my father and this atrocity  highlights war’s terrible effects as Douglas was tortured by the military to get information about  the guerrillas and their training camps. Due to Carlos being so young at this time and having  many friends and acquaintances join both parties, he understood the point of view of both sides  and remained neutral during this political unrest.

The war affected various aspects of everyday life. The nightlife is an important part of  Latin American culture as restaurants are open much later than those in the U.S. However, the  civil war in El Salvador interfered with this part of Salvadoran culture as it was no longer safe to  be out in the streets past sundown. As noted by Montgomery, “visitors to San Salvador reported  that during the day the city seemed remarkably normal. As soon as dark fell, however, one could  hear the shooting begin.” (17). Thus, life was largely similar to the prewar days, apart from the  violence that tended to occur at night. As Carlos remembers, “It wasn’t recommended [to go out  at night] because the guerrillas try to do things at night, the death squads try to do things at night,  so you didn’t want to be outside really late.” This curfew affected the Salvadoran culture, and  most notably for Carlos, it affected the concert schedules. Before the war began, Carlos  remembers attending classical music concerts with his mother that would start at nine o’clock at night. However, the war shifted events to start earlier as it was strongly advised that no one went  out past seven o’clock. The change in times allowed everyone to be back in their homes before  any shooting happened.

In addition to an established curfew, the school system was affected as well. Carlos  attended a public, national high school in San Salvador, which was near the national university.  Because it was not a private university, students did not have to pay to attend it, so therefore,  many college students had more leftist ideas. As a result, the university students led protests to oppose the military government. These protests often ended with the military opening fire and  the students running into a neighboring building to shield themselves from the shots fired. Thus,  many times students would run through the high school with the police trailing behind them. As  can be imagined, this shooting was not conducive to the safety and wellbeing of the high school  students. Therefore, if it was known that a protest would occur, the principal of the high school  would send the students home early to not get caught up in the middle of the violence. As Carlos  notes, “There were a lot of times we couldn’t finish a full day of school, and you never knew  how long school was going to last.” As can be seen, the civil war’s impact on the length of  school days not only affected the students’ education, but also their feeling of safety while  attending school.

The guerrillas wanted to instill disorder to make a point of their stance against the  military. Historian R. Bruce McColm writes that the guerrillas have demonstrated the “ability to  create a state of anarchy,” which they used to their advantage to undermine the power of the  military as best they could (26). For instance, they used to commandeer buses that belonged to  the government. In these instances, a guerrilla would arrive with a gun in hand and tell everyone  to exit the bus. Then, they would use the buses as a barricade in military shootouts as well as  light it on fire to show their opposition to the right-hand regime. Carlos experienced many  instances in which the bus he was riding in was overtaken by the guerrillas. In describing what  happened after the guerrillas seized the bus, Carlos described that “you [had to] move right away  and you [needed] to start trying to find shelter somewhere because the military [would] come in  a matter of seconds and the shooting [would begin].” This act of random shootings would happen  relatively regularly. In fact, they became a normalized part of everyday life. For example, Carlos  remembers that on his walks to music school with his mom and his siblings, they would hear gunshots start to be fired and immediately run into the closest business for shelter. The business  owners would lock their doors, and everyone would go to the floor waiting for the shooting to  pass. Carlos would wait on the floor and about a half hour after the last shot was heard,  everything would start opening up and people would go back to their business as if nothing  happened. However, Carlos would never forget walking out after the shooting and seeing the  bodies of both guerrillas and soldiers on the street who had been killed. He said, “They were  very young. They were 16- or 17-year-old kids and they could have had their whole life ahead of  them, but they chose that path.” Unfortunately, when fighting in a war, death is a common  endpoint for many, even those not directly involved. And for that reason, Carlos disagreed with  the war effort.

Although he did not align with the right or left regimes, Carlos was opposed to the war  because so many innocent people lost their lives due to the fighting between the FMLN and the  Salvadoran military. A study published in the Demographic Research journal found that “there were about 71,629 civilian killings and disappearances during the conflict, or about 1-2% of El  Salvador’s prewar population” (Hoover Green & Ball 781). As demonstrated, the civil war had  catastrophic effects not only on the two parties fighting, but most of all, on the civilian  population. Many times, there were shootings that erupted in which innocent people were sucked  into the violence. Because guerrillas tried to enact chaos in the streets of the capital in which  many people lived, civilians were not readily able to escape the violence and would suffer  terrible consequences. These deaths could have been avoided with the absence of this conflict,  and it is this reason that Carlos was against the civil war. He notes that war always implies that  people are going to die, and unfortunately, it means that innocent people are going to die. He  says, “these are people who just wanted to work and go on with their business, and live. And they died from this war. Too many people died…” Thus, he believes that to be a pacifist is best as  war only brings about destruction and halts countries from progressing. Because of his  experience living during the war, he argues that solving issues through dialogue is much better  than killing people who had nothing to do with the battles in the first place.

The most notable difference from living during a war and not living during a war is how accustomed a person gets to witnessing violence. At one point during his time studying in Los Angeles, Carlos agreed to accompany one of his friends in picking up a mutual friend at a restaurant he was working at. Carlos recalls waiting in a booth inside the restaurant when a customer sitting at another table pulled a gun on him and his friend, telling them he was robbing the restaurant and that if they followed his directions, nothing would happen to them. To avoid any harm, they complied and were thankful to have made it out of harm’s way after the incident. However, what Carlos noted was how much calmer he was than his friend who was clearly nervous and sweating. Carlos had found himself in similar circumstances before in El Salvador, and in those instances, the perpetrators had much larger guns. He notes, “It’s kind of sad to say, but you get used to it.” Being in the midst of such violence leaves a lasting impression in one’s life. The war not only made civilians grow more accustomed to being in violent and dangerous situations, but it also brought out people’s resilience. Carlos, in observing how resilient people are, says, “In El Salvador, we had many people dying, so you get used to seeing that […] but it’s amazing how human beings can adapt to different situations. You adapt, and you keep living.” This resilience is what protected many Salvadorans from crumbling to the horrors of war. As a Christian himself, Carlos noted how it put things into perspective at a much younger age in that this life is not everything. Thus, it is most important to have a strong foundation of faith since death could be just around the corner.The civil war in El Salvador had profound effects on the entirety of the nation and those  living in it. Civil wars entail large amounts of destruction and tension, and they create  irreversible damage through such a widespread net. Human beings are responsible for war but  are also resilient to the violence that accompanies it. Carlos has seen firsthand the atrocities that  war initiates and has experienced the inexplicable adaptability in his own life. My father’s life  was filled with traumatic experiences that no one should go through, but that are worth telling as his story highlights the incredible ability to adapt in times of adversity. Carlos’s story, along with those who have lived in the midst of a civil war, demonstrate that peace is the only way to  cultivate a brighter future for countries and their peoples.

Works Cited

Chávez, Joaquín M. “How Did the Civil War in El Salvador End?” The American Historical  Review, vol. 120, no. 5, 2015, pp. 1784–97. Crossref, doi:10.1093/ahr/120.5.1784.

Christopher, Frank, and Alex Drehsler. “In the Name of the People: El Salvador’s Civil War  1985 DOCUMENTARY.” YouTube, uploaded by EL Salvador Nuevas Ideas, 11 Nov.  2011,

Elias, Carlos. Personal interview. 13 November 2021.

Hoover Green, Amelia, and Patrick Ball. “Civilian Killings and Disappearances during Civil  War in El Salvador (1980‒1992).” Demographic Research, vol. 41, 2019, pp. 781–814.  Crossref, doi:10.4054/demres.2019.41.27.

McColm, Bruce. El Salvador: Peaceful Revolution or Armed Struggle? 1st ed., New York, New  York, Freedom House, 1982.

Montgomery, Tommie Sue. Revolution In El Salvador: Origins And Evolution. 1st ed., Boulder,  Colorado, Westview Press, 1982.


I chose the topic of the Civil War in El Salvador as it was unfamiliar for me, yet it was a  subject that had a large influence on one side of my family. Primarily, it impacted my father,who is one of the closest people in my life. I was eager to uncover the breadth of factors that the war influenced in the Salvadoran society as well as how it all tied into my family history.

The writing process for this project was unlike anything I had ever worked on as it  focused on primary research. This type of research allowed me to improve my communication  skills so that I could conduct an effective interview. In addition, it showed me the importance of  conducting quality, secondary research to gain a better understanding of the topic at hand. I  viewed a documentary, read two books and two scholarly articles, and saw a movie about the  Salvadoran Civil War to gain clarity in the topic in preparation for the interview. The interview  itself uncovered a new side of the civil war that was unlike that of the secondary research I had  experienced. Instead, it provided an emotional side of the events of the civil war through my father’s firsthand experience. I viewed the war’s impact on my father during the war itself as  well as its lasting impact that he carries with him to this day.

It was awe-inspiring to have my father relive these powerful experiences in his life, and it gave me a newfound appreciation for all that he has had to overcome to get to where he is  present day. My father is the epitome of resilience, and his life story is one of strength and  determination to continue in times of adversity. Writing this story has given me a greater  understanding of the power of writing as this piece has demonstrated a new side of my father and displayed how his circumstances in El Salvador have shaped him into the man he is today: my hero.

Looking ahead, I will take the skills that I have gained in developing this project with me  in my future endeavors. Although I learned new ways to improve my writing, I have also  discovered the importance and power that written words can have not only on its readers, but on the ones writing them as well. It was a privilege for me to venture into this new process of  writing a personal research essay, and I am grateful for the impact it has had on me as a writer  and as a daughter.


Personal Research Essay (300 Points)

The personal research paper is an opportunity to portray, recreate, investigate, and better understand a subject that matters closely to you and your personal history. Think of it as a cross between a personal essay and a research essay – it allows you to explore a moment or passion in your life, researching how it has impacted other people or how larger social or historical forces impact(ed) it.

The most exciting thing is that you will be conducting primary and secondary research about this issue. Primary research (a.k.a. “original research”) is research you conduct yourself – you go to the original source of information and do the work of gathering data about it.

Examples of primary research include: interviewing experts and other people who might provide insight; visiting landmarks that are important to your subject (though this method is more difficult due to the pandemic – if you are worried it is unsafe to visit a place you wish to write about, let me know and we can brainstorm other options); analyzing the discourses and rhetoric of those involved; conducting surveys and questionnaires; analyzing written, firsthand accounts of the issue (think of firsthand accounts in newspaper articles, social media posts, posters, written interviews). Secondary research examines the research already conducted by someone else. Examples of secondary research include: scholarly, peer-reviewed articles and books; documentaries; news articles that analyze others’ firsthand experience; textbooks; market research and statistical analyses.

Some examples of personal research essay projects:

1) A student who has a close relationship with their great-grandfather writes about his great grandfather’s experience fighting in World War II. They conduct primary research by interviewing their great-grandfather and great-grandmother about their experiences and even track down some of their grandfather’s friends for their perspectives. They conduct secondary research by finding information about his troop, the areas where he fought and was stationed, what happened in the battles he survived, and how his hometown fared during the war.

2) A student inspired by the Harry Potter series wants to know more about the fan fiction community she’s a part of. She gathers original, primary data by creating an online survey for her fan community, arranging interviews with her favorite fanfic writers, and attending a writing conference she’s always wanted to attend. She also conducts secondary research by reading scholarly analyses of the rise of fan fiction and fan communities and by watching and taking notes on the Finding Hogwarts documentary.

3) A student activist who has taken part in the recent “Lift the Bans” march in Cincinnati wants to know more about the movement and how to get more involved. He gathers primary research by interviewing those who planned the march, going to an additional protest on the same issue, and analyzing posters and social media used to raise awareness of the protest. He gathers secondary research by analyzing how different news sources discuss the issue and studying academic articles about rising maternal death rates in the U.S.

Format: I encourage you to take advantage of multimodal components and artifacts such as video, images, photos, diagrams, etc. alongside your written project.

Requirements: The personal research essay should be 2100-2800 words (approx. 8-10 pages long, double-spaced). It should rely on both primary and secondary research, with an emphasis on primary research. However, you need to use at least 3-5 secondary sources.

Disclaimer: In some cases, a student may have chosen a project that is unfeasible or which relies on faulty evidence and reasoning that they do not wish to challenge or investigate critically. In those cases, the student will be required to choose a different subject that will meet with more success.


In your project proposal, due before the personal research essay, you will present what you are hoping to research, arguing why and how you should research and write about this subject. Project Proposal is due 15 November 2021 before class time.

What you should include in the proposal:

1) Introduction: What will be your main focus in your personal research essay? Will you be investigating a community, a social trend, a traumatic experience, a hobby, family history? (Another way of thinking of this is: what is most important for us to know about your project? Why is it important that your reader learns more about this issue? What is it that interests you about this project?)

2) Timeline: What is the timeline you have set out for yourself to complete various stages of this project? (On what dates do you plan to interview, conduct research, reach out to someone in your community, go to the library, draft your first 3 pages, etc?)

3) Methodology: Since the personal research essay relies even more heavily on primary research, you should describe what kind of primary research you’ll collect and how. Will you conduct interviews or surveys, travel to a location, gather digital artifacts (tweets, posts, emailed flyers, etc.), take photos? How will you do so? Where? When? With whom? How will you evaluate whether your material is accurate or unbiased?

You can also talk about:

4) Existing scholarship: How will this paper respond to the scholarship that you have found? Is there previous writing about this topic? If so, how will you add to this preexisting discussion?

5) Research question: What question do you hope to explore and answer, and how do you think you might answer it? Keep in mind that research questions tend toward specificity and precision and avoid simple yes/no answers.

6) Expected Findings: What conclusions might you make as you conduct research in the field?


The project proposal should be 500-1000 words (approx. 2-3 pages long, double-spaced). You should submit it on Canvas as a .doc or .docx file.