Ten years ago Randy Vasquez made a documentary about Maria Guardado, a Salvadoran immigrant and activist who had fled her country after being targeted by the army. Maria’s heart wrenching story of surviving torture and sexual abuse, as told in Testimony: The Maria Guardado Story, won awards at both the Boston and New York Latino film festivals for Best Documentary. It went on to screen at twenty other festivals including the Havana Film Festival and AFI Film Festival. The award-winning doc allowed Maria to share her harrowing journey of survival and overcoming intense trauma–it also gave her a platform to continue her mission of fighting for social change through political activism.
It was November of 1996 in South Central Los Angeles, filmmaker Randy Vasquez walked into what he thought was a Green Party meeting but was something entirely different. A group of activists had formed a coalition called Crack the CIA after investigative journalist Gary Webb uncovered that the Central Intelligence Agency had been selling crack cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to contra guerrillas during the Nicaraguan civil war. The U.S.-backed contras were attempting to overthrow their country’s socialist government, the drug money afforded them access to weapons. At that first meeting, Crack the CIA was planning a national rally to protest the CIA’s involvement and demand accountability for their actions.
It was there that Randy met Maria Guardado. He began regularly attending Crack the CIA meetings and started working on a documentary about the group but was drawn to Maria. “Maria would speak up at practically every meeting and tell her story of being kidnapped, raped and tortured by the Salvadoran death squads who were trained by the CIA,” says Randy. Soon the focus of his documentary switched to Maria.
Randy didn’t speak much Spanish but they became fast friends. Maria recounts, “He spoke a little bit of Spanish and I didn’t speak English but I invited him to my house. Then, we came up with the idea to make the documentary.” As Randy remembers it, Maria was determined to shed light on the horrific actions of her country’s government and the CIA’s involvement in the Salvadoran civil war, “…I think I asked her if she’d like to do a doc about her story or maybe she told me she wanted a documentary done on her! She really wanted to get her message out into the world so I helped her do it.”
Maria is a kind, generous woman who fiercely believes that social change will come through grassroots activism. Her enduring optimism, in light of what she has suffered, is truly remarkable. On a Saturday evening in 1980, Maria was approached by 10 armed men, likely soldiers in the National Army, and was kidnapped. She was blindfolded and beaten, given electric shocks, received blows to the face and then thrown to the floor and raped.
Maria found it tremendously painful to share these memories in the documentary but was able to connect to audiences on a deeply emotional level. Randy tells the story of the first time he watched the film, with Maria at his side. “I watched it with Maria for the first time at my then girlfriend’s house because she had a big screen, just the three of us. Afterwards, my girlfriend broke down in Maria’s arms saying that she was sorry and that she never knew those things happened in El Salvador. Maria offered her such grace and held her in her arms.” When it screened in front of an audience for the first time, it was not easy for Maria but the support she received afterwards uplifted her. “I felt terrible, I felt like I almost had a heart attack. It hurt terribly. I was crying the whole time, everyone was crying, we cried together throughout the movie. Afterwards people hugged me and cried, they wanted to take pictures with me. I felt a great deal of support. It felt good. I was raising consciousness. Most Americans don’t know that their tax dollars are creating all this violence.”
Now on the tenth anniversary of the Testimony: The Maria Guardado Story, Maria reflects on how telling her story has helped heal her emotional scars, “It has helped me overcome my trauma, the kindness and solidarity of others has helped me. I have met so many beautiful people. I never imagined there would be so much solidarity here.” The film also helped fuel her activism, “It has helped me join in solidarity with the struggle of others and made me feel empowered.” Maria continues her work as an activist, working with countless organizations fighting for immigrant rights, union organizing, and against U.S. intervention abroad. She hopes that after watching the film people will walk away feeling that, “When people rise up we can make social change and create a new world…I bring a painful message but it’s so the world will realize that we need to work together to change the world.”
‘Randy’s Documentary’ poem by Maria Guardado
(translated from Spanish)
My duty in exile
has been to shout and shout
it to all and sundry
since brought by Santuario
and although my message
has pierced the people
it is still words and words
gone with the wind
in the obscurity of the forest
But in this second phase
it is about a documentary
made by Randy Vasquez
where I request solidarity to the world
with deep pain
to file a suit
the terrorism continues…
Documentary that is added
to the history of the people
in its struggle for changes
to never again immigrate
not to divide the family,
not to die on the border
not to be the system’s scapegoat
at last, we will have peace with justice
without foreign interference
Thank you Randy
Your documentary is at long last,
Written by Juan Caceres and Vanessa Erazo, LatinoBuzz is a weekly feature on SydneysBuzz that highlights Latino indie talent and upcoming trends in Latino film with the specific objective of presenting a broad range of Latino voices. Follow @LatinoBuzz on twitter.