Researcher from El Salvador to join FIMS as Postdoctoral Scholar

By Nyren Mo

Photo of Adriana AlasShe doesn't remember it herself, but she's heard the stories.

“My mother told me we used to hide between two walls, trying to find some protection from the bullets,” recalls Dr. Adriana Alas. Alas was born in 1990 in San Salvador, El Salvador, two years before the end of the Salvadoran Civil War (1980-1992), a twelve year struggle between the repressive right-wing government army and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) revolutionary guerrilla forces.

Many people were forced to flee their homes during the armed conflict, including Alas’ family. The experiences of Alas’ family inspired her scholarly research on the impacts and interpretations of the war. From her undergraduate study to her recently completed doctorate at El Colegio de Michoacán in Mexico, Alas has approached her research through the lens of social anthropology.

Prior to undertaking her graduate studies, Alas also worked with Asociación Pro-Búsqueda, an NGO that aims to locate children who went missing during the war. These children were often kidnapped by the government army during combat and placed in illicit international adoptions.

“There are so many people looking for their families, relatives, and children. Children are the most vulnerable members of this group because they were only two or three years old when they disappeared,” said Alas.

Through her work with the Asociación Pro-Búsqueda, Alas had the chance to collaborate with many rural communities in El Salvador. This experience inspired her to continue her education by completing a Master of Arts and, eventually, a PhD.

“Anthropology gives me the opportunity to be with people and exchange aspects of their life and my life to create knowledge that is not just based on an interview,” said Alas. “If you spend a great amount of time in the communities, you start to understand how people’s testimonies fit into the whole context of the Chalatenango region.”

Alas conducted years of fieldwork primarily in Chalatenango, a region known as "repoblaciones" (repopulations) because the rural communities in this territory were often repopulated by Salvadoran refugees and those internally displaced by the war. She lived in rural communities of Chalatenango for almost three years, mainly in the municipality of Las Vueltas.

“Being there for such a long time created strong relations with the community, family, friends, and colleagues who live in the community,” said Alas. “Something I understand more due to my research in Chalatenango is that I grew up in a lot of silence about the war.”

However, younger generations from Las Vueltas have the opposite experience from Alas. They grew up hearing many war stories from their parents, many of whom were former FMLN insurgents.

“One of the interesting features of younger generations is that they are questioning the war stories that their parents told them for basically their entire life,” Alas explained. “They are not reproducing stories as something that happened years ago, but as something that matters for understanding the present. [They are] asking themselves, ‘when are we going to heal from war violence?’”

Alas realized that younger generations are not necessarily as socially and politically polarized as other generations.

“They ask questions about the past or emphasize parts of the past that their parents do not. These questions can lead to a discussion about reconciliation,” Alas said.

In 2019, Alas met FIMS professor, Amanda Grzyb, the Project Director for the SSHRC-funded Surviving Memory in Postwar El Salvador (, and other members of the project’s team in El Salvador. Grzyb and her team have been engaged in community-based, collaborative research about the war in the departments of Custcatlán and Chalatenango since 2016. Alas and Grzyb made their first trip to Chalatenango together in February 2020, just before the global COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was super excited that there are people who are concerned about El Salvador and who are doing field research with communities. I mean, it is just a small group in the world doing research about El Salvador,” Alas said.

Alas will begin a multi-year appointment as a postdoctoral scholar at Western University in March 2022, working collaboratively with Grzyb and the Surviving Memory in Postwar El Salvador team. Alas' position is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada through the team's Partnership Grant. The project includes 22 partners and more than 60 collaborators, co-applicants, students, and trainees working on diverse projects in partnership with Salvadoran communities and the Salvadoran-Canadian diaspora.

“We are thrilled to welcome Dr. Alas to FIMS as a postdoctoral scholar,” said Grzyb, “She is one the most prominent emerging scholars in the field of Salvadoran studies, and she brings a wealth of research experience to our team.”

Alas will support the team with her recent ethnographic research in Chalatenango that focuses on diverse voices and experiences related to the war and postwar period. By working collaboratively with communities to analyze the memories of former insurgents, civilians, right-wing supporters, military personnel, and younger generations, Alas will explore how this memory work can contribute to intergenerational knowledge, reconciliation, and prevention of future violence in El Salvador.