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The Association of Communitarian Health Services (ASECSA) and the Role of Religion and Health in Central America  

Susan Fitzpatrick-Behrens

The Association of Communitarian Health Services (ASECSA) is a transnational, religiously influenced health program in Central America created during the Cold War. ASECSA was founded in 1978 by a small group of international health professionals with ties to programs started by Catholic and Protestant clergy and laity in Guatemala’s western highlands in the 1960s. It introduced a model of healthcare in which Maya health promoters and midwives became partners in healing rather than objects to be cured. Support for the health programs and ASECSA came from secular and religious international agencies, including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), German Misereor, Catholic Relief Services, and the World Council of Churches. ASECSA was founded to disseminate knowledge of popular health education strategies used by health promoters and midwives to provide preventive and curative medical services to their communities. The education methods grew from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and its use by religious agents influenced by liberation theology. Although it was founded in Guatemala, ASECSA’s publications and meetings attracted participation by health professionals and paraprofessionals from Mexico, Central America, and even the Caribbean. Ecumenical religious centers affiliated with liberation theology in the 1960s and 1970s facilitated the development of popular health programs that played a defining role in the region.


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.


Alcohol in the Atlantic  

David Carey Jr.

Dating from the earliest times in Latin America, alcohol has played a crucial social, economic, political, and cultural role. Often reserved for politico-religious leaders, alcohol was a conduit through which power flowed in many pre-contact indigenous societies; indigenous drinkways (production, commerce, and consumption habits) were associated with communal ritual events and social prestige. Introduced to the Americas by Europeans, distillation profoundly altered the potency of alcoholic drinks for people who were accustomed to fermentation. Even as the social and cultural practices of alcohol consumption changed over time, alcohol continued to have political and economic implications in the colonial and national periods in Latin America. Fearing that inebriation bred disorder and recognizing that moonshining undercut their own revenues, colonial and national governments alike sought to regulate, if not control, the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol. In nations as diverse as Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, and Guatemala, indigenous women came to play integral roles in the (oftentimes illicit) sale and production of alcohol. A cash nexus for moving labor and land and a crucial component of the economic system by which (often unscrupulous) labor brokers recruited workers, alcohol was a currency of local economies. As a commodity of local, national, and international significance, alcohol shaped the fate of nation-states. People’s class, ethnic, race, and gender identities all played into their access to alcohol. Although a person’s choice of libation could define their position, some of the more fascinating histories of alcohol are punctuated with women and men who used alcohol to disrupt social conventions. Through the consumption of alcohol, rituals and ceremonies created and reconstituted community both within and across ethnic groups. Imbibing could also divide people. Even while they sipped their cognacs and brandies, elites portrayed indigenous people, the poor, and other marginalized people getting drunk on moonshine to discount and denigrate them. Often associated with (particularly violent) crime, alcohol was seen as a vice by many and excoriated during temperance movements. Yet defendants across Latin America took advantage of judicial systems that considered alcohol a mitigating circumstance in many crimes. As 20th-century evangelical sects that preached abstinence as the route to wealth and marital bliss grew to unprecedented numbers, traditional healers and biomedical practitioners continued to tout alcohol’s medicinal value. In short, alcohol was a marker of social position and cultural identity, a crucial component in community and state building, and a commodity around which different cultural traditions, healing practices, and policing policies developed and evolved.