A week ago, I finished Bitter Grounds by Sandra Benitez for the second time in five years. The book is an epic story spanning three generations of women from two families, one rich and the other poor. It is more than just the story of these two families, it is the story of the brutal massacre of indigenous people, the story of the conflict and bloody history of El Salvador, the battles of rich and poor, of tradition , against so called progress.
The women in this story are strong, determined, vibrant survivors. There is love here between mothers and daughters, sisters and friends. There is betrayal and anguish, the loss of children, loss of life, loss of a way of life. Ms. Benitez speaks eloquently of El Salvador’s beauty and the brutality against the indigenous. I ached when I read of the massacre. I cried bitter tears when the melodic language of the Pipil was silenced and when I read that they had given up their beautiful rainbows of color in their indigenous dress so as not to attract the attention and brutality of the Guardia.
At times, this book was so brutal in it’s truth; the violence and death were so senseless that I had to put it down for a day or two just to get past it. I wanted to hate the rich family that made their money on the backs of indigenous workers picking their coffee, working their fields but Ms. Benitez made them so human, so likeable that it was hard to find a villain. I sympathized and agonized with both. I wanted to stop things, make them see the inevitable disaster and got so involved with the story that I felt I was there. To be so involved in a book is a blessing no matter how hard the subject matter. Sandra Benitez is such a wonderful storyteller that for the days I read this book and long after, it absorbed me and changed me. It made me think. It made me want more. It made me educate myself more about El Salvador and its history.
How many books can do that? How many books can you retain so much of for such a long time? The second reading was just as hard to digest. Brutality, violence, terror, war and injustice aren’t meant to be easy. It is, after all these years just as hauntingly beautiful as when I first read it. Maybe more so now than before. I remain torn between the families, torn by the violence and injustice, want to work harder than ever for social change, for promoting peace and tolerance, more motivated than ever to protect my culture, my native language, the costumes my family wears for our Aztec dances, our traditions. I don’t know what else I can say about this book other than to encourage everyone to read it. It’s not some new buzz book – the publication date on my old copy is 1998 but look it up, buy it, borrow it, read it. Don’t leave it in the darkness of some old library shelf. It deserves much better.