The Sound of Innocent Voices:
A Historical Analysis of the film Voces Inocentes
By Julia Goodman
The concept of a poverty stricken country engulfed in civil war is not new to the film industry or to the history books. The movie Voces Inocentes (Innocent Voices), however, captures the humanistic side of war through the eyes on an eleven-year-old child named Chava, played by Carlos Padilla. The movie is set in a remote, fictional village similar to the real life town of Cuzcatazingo, El Salvador. Taken from the real life events of co-writer Oscar Torres’ childhood, Voces Inocentes depicts the social, political, and military battles that erupted during the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s.
Social Unrest and Disappointment
The social environment in El Salvador during this time period was one of great economic inequality and rampant poverty. A small elite class controlled most of the country’s wealth; this included the government officials who ran the country. This small wealthy upper class combined with a majority living as campesinos, peasants living at a subsistence level and often without running water or electricity, creates a perfect brew for unrest and insurrection.4 Mix this social inequality with the fact that El Salvador is the most densely populated country in the Americas and this unrest soon boils over into full blown war.4 Luis Mandoki, the film’s director, does an excellent job of depicting a typical campesino community through the main character, Chava and his family. The scenery and setting used to resemble Torres’ real life hometown showed how hard life was growing up as a have-not in 1980’s El Salvador. With scrap tin and bullet-torn sheet metal posing as walls and roofs, Chava tries to make the best life he can for his family. Though he is only eleven years old, he has become the man of the house and must provide for his mother and siblings.
Life was not extremely pleasant during this era and the civil war in El Salvador was characterized as violent and volatile. This violence was part of everyday life for both the character Chava and for Oscar Torres as a child. Mandoki utilizes Chava’s young brother, Ricardo, as a symbol of how surrounded the population had become by the civil war. Ricardo, no older than four and playing with a toy gun, was making realistic sound effects. He knows by heart the sights and sounds of war. This short shot of a young child imitating war depicts the overall idea of war as an engulfing and indoctrinating situation. That this film is shot in many short scenes and shots rather than in long drawn out scenes, add to the reality factor and helps bring the historical facts to life.
Political Factions and Their Motives
Voces Inocentes occurs during some of the bloodiest and most critical parts of the civil war. The war being fought was between the reigning Salvadoran government and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the opposing guerrilla coalition. The movie depicts the Salvadoran government as oppressive, corrupt, and militaristic in their governing. A US committee put together by President Ronald Reagan during his administration confirms Mandoki’s depiction of a corrupt and violent Salvadoran government. The “Truth Committee” as it was called, was created to investigate the killings of Jesuit priests during the civil war. A report written by Congressman John Malokey found that these murders were known at the highest levels of the Salvadoran government and were part of a massive cover up.2 This is only one example of the government’s corruption throughout the twelve years of war.
The film shows the harsh military structure by showing squadrons of government soldiers guarding the town’s public square, with a bunker directly adjacent to the school that Chava and his sister attend. Barbed wire and semi automatic machine guns are as standard to Chava as movie theatres and Coca-Cola are in the United States. The government tried to oppress the people in order to maintain control, even to going so far as to ban or censure certain patriotic songs and radio stations that encouraged freedoms as opposition to the government. One historical example of a banned station is the Radio Venceremos, a clandestine communication tool used by the FMLN to mobilize guerrilla units and encourage morale among supporters. Voces Inocentes portrays the Radio Venceremos as a way that the everyday citizen like Chava can aid and support the FMLN. Chava is given a banned radio by his Uncle Beto (played by Jose Maria Yazpik) who is a member of the guerrilla force. He is told to use the radio to alert the FMLN of government troop movement or activity. The FMLN was fighting as a coalition of many anti-establishment splinters who opposed the government after several disappointments regarding the improvement of the quality of life within the country.2 Though the Radio Venceremos was used primarily by members, the portrayal of Chava as a willing supporter of the FMLN helps to shine light on how strongly the population felt against the reigning government and its tyrannical actions.
US Involvement in the Civil War
The movie does quickly touch base on the historical fact that the United States was present and involved in the civil war in El Salvador during both the Carter and the Reagan administrations. Both Presidents Carter and Reagan supported the Salvadoran government: Carter wanted to maintain peace and Reagan wanted to block socialism from spreading to the Americas. At the height of US involvement, the average amount of aid given to the Salvadoran government was 1.5 million dollars a day.2 The film shows American soldiers in full fatigues walking around town handing out gum and candies to the children, including Chava. Chava is then chastised by a local woman for talking to the Americans and is ordered to spit out the gum. She knew of the tyrannical actions that the government was involved in and was trying to show the Americans also. Her wisdom would not be understood for several more years, until the report of the Truth Commission reached Washington DC and the atrocities committed were exposed.
Corruption and Oppression
The main theme of Voces Inocentes centers on the idea of the innocent voice being heard amidst the overwhelming boom of civil war and the crash of the civil infrastructure. The principal story line discusses the forced enlistment of all boys who reach the age of twelve into the military. To force young boys into the military shows how dedicated and desperate the Salvadoran government was to maintain control against the FMLN. Trucks full of young boys are constantly seen shuttling boys up and down the streets, heading to one training camp or another. Chava’s good friend, Antonio, is called up to serve. The military barges into the school and at gunpoint force the principal to read aloud a list of students’ names. One boy called forward is merely ten years old, but is forced to enlist for simply “being a troublemaker”.3 This totalitarian, militaristic government practice was meant to intimidate and force the submission of a population. This need and desire to maintain power over the entire country led the Salvadoran government to exploit and terrorize the citizens and their children.
Compared to the structured, militaristic government troops, the FMLN fights a very different war. To them, they are protecting their homeland from oppression. This desire to protect gives the FMLN a stronghold of commitment and heroism that helps them in the long run. The FMLN is a guerrilla force, depicted in the movie as secretive, wary individuals who are constantly looking for ways to deter the government soldiers. As discussed earlier, the Radio Venceremos was one way to gain access to the masses and befriend the people. Mandoki depicts the guerrilla soldiers as friends of the campesino population, helping the young boys escape enlistment by hiding them and fighting the soldiers in the countryside. Though the FMLN is fighting for the freedoms of the people of El Salvador, most of the fighting shown in the film occurs in these very people’s backyards. These up close battles not only destroyed the villages they were fought in, but killed a huge numbers of the population. Before the civil war’s end in 1992, more than 70,000 people were killed and twenty five percent of the population was displaced as refugees.1 Chava’s family, as was Oscar Torres’ family, was no exception to this harsh reality, having to pick up and move twice to escape the daunting battles occurring all around them.
Discrepancies within the Film
Though the film does a beautiful job of adhering to both Torres’ past and historical facts, one discrepancy that is often mentioned in reviews of Voces Inocentes is the fact that the type of Spanish language that is spoken in the movie does not follow the dialect spoken in El Salvador on a regular basis. The use of the “voseo” form of Spanish, which indicates a fundamental way that sentences are structured, is not present at all in the movie.4 This detract from the authenticity of the characters but diminishes the historical relevance of the movie. Also, the film was shot in Mexico rather than in El Salvador directly.4 Again, this did not have an effect on the historical relevance but did make evident a very subtle weakness on the authenticity of the setting. The reasoning for this discrepancy is valid and could not be avoided: the Salvadoran government would not allow the crew to film inside the country.
The film Voces Inocentes stays remarkably true to the real life events of Oscar Torres’ childhood and the historical facts concerning the civil war of the 1980s. El Salvador was filled with adversity and hardship for most of the population. Economic inequality and a dense population merged to create a volatile social situation that pitted the small number of wealthy individuals against the poor majority. These social strains helped create the political factions of the Salvadoran government versus the FMLN freedom fighters. The tension built between the two sides exploded into a full-blown military civil war, with government troops against FMLN guerrilla fighters. Voces Inocentes molds these three main social, political, and military battles into an honest story of survival and innocence. Realistic settings coupled with strong character portrayals creatively intertwined history and fiction, allowing the innocent voices to be heard at last.
1. Public Broadcast Station. “Enemies of War, El Salvador: Civil War”. http://www.pbs.org/itvs/enemiesofwar/elsalvador2.html (accessed February 23, 2009).
2. Maureen Kane, North Virginia Community College. “1980: The El Salvadoran Civil War”.http://novaonline.nvcc.edu/eli/evans/HIS135/Events/ElSalvador80/Salvador80.html (accessed February 23, 2009).
3. Voces Inocentes. DVD. Produced by Luis Mandoki, Alejandro Soberon and Lawrence Bender. Directed by Luis Mandoki. Written by Luis Mandoki and Oscar Torres (Mexico, 2004).
4. Juan Carlos Urena, Taken from