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Liberation Psychology and the Salvadoran Civil War  

Alexandra Puerto

Liberation psychology emerged in Cold War Central America with roots in the intellectual foundations of post-1960s Latin American social sciences. Jesuit priest, theologian, and social psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró pioneered the field of liberation psychology. He critiqued the epistemological limitations of mainstream Western psychology for Central Americans and encouraged the development of new ways to approach mental health as a collective community need with specific historical and social conditions. Spanish-born, but based in El Salvador at the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) José Simeón Cañas, and influenced by the social ideas of critical pedagogy and dependency theory, the process of participatory action research, and, above all, the religious ideas of liberation theology, Martín-Baró proposed a new psychology that did not abstract individuals from their social context and incorporated a “preferential option for the poor” into its conceptual model. In Catholic social teaching, the fundamental principle of the “preferential option for the poor,” to prioritize care for the poor and vulnerable, originates in the Bible, but the phrase was coined in 1968 by Spanish Jesuit priest, Pedro Arrupe, and fully articulated as a central tenet within Latin American liberation theology by Peruvian theologian and Dominican priest, Gustavo Gutiérrez, in 1972.Rethinking psychology from the perspective of the poor and marginalized became a priority for Martín-Baró who called upon Latin American psychologists to reject intellectual neocolonialism and build a new epistemology from below, as well as a new praxis to transform reality for the oppressed. He also set the recovery of historical memory, deideologizing everyday experience and uncompromising solidarity with war survivors as essential practices for Central American psychologists. The realities of El Salvador’s civil war (1980–1992) served as the inspiration for Martín-Baró’s conceptualization of liberation psychology, his understanding of the psychosocial impact of political violence and the creation of the Instituto Universitario de Opinión Pública. Unfortunately, Martín-Baró’s work is unfinished, as he was assassinated by the elite Atlacatl Batallion of the Salvadoran army on November 16, 1989, in his UCA campus residence alongside five Jesuit colleagues, as well as a UCA employee and her daughter. Nonetheless, Martín-Baró’s psychological research and practice not only exposed the profound economic structures that limited Salvadoran liberation but also contributed to the emancipatory ideologies of anticolonial movements.