Before the Spanish conquest El Salvador was home to the Pipils, speakers of a dialect of Nahuatl, whose heritage is a mix of several cultural and language groups joined by conquest and later by culture. The earliest, a nomadic people, arrived in Central America about 3000 B.C.E.
They were influenced by the Mayans, who controlled this area until the ninth century, although this mixed culture was not as complex as that found in Mexico and Guatemala.
Another nomadic group the Izalco Pipil, who were related to the Toltecs and the Aztecs, may have moved into this part of Mesoamerica in the 10th century, situating themselves in what is now called El Salvador. Their stories and archaeological excavations indicate that this group may have moved south, fleeing conflict in the Toltec Empire. These later immigrants developed a nation known as Cuzcatlán (“Land of Jewels”), incorporating some Mayan speakers peacefully as a result of trade.
The first Spanish attempt to colonize El Salvador in 1524 failed when Pedro de Alvarado (1495–1541) was forced to flee.
In 1525 his second effort succeeded, and Spanish rule was established in this part of Latin America. The Spaniards called the land El Salvador (“the savior”), believing that the gold they found would increase their resources and fortunes.
Unfortunately gold proved not to be as plentiful as they had hoped, and panning for it (a method of extraction from riverbeds) proved time-consuming.
The agriculture and economy of El Salvador flourished over the next two centuries. Although gold prospecting had proved futile, landowners realized the value of plantation farming and Spanish settlers seized most of the land. Local rebels were enslaved and forced to work in the fields with the African slaves.
By the late 17th century, however, Spain’s power began to diminish, and the 18th and 19th centuries saw a further decline in its powers. Napoleon’s (1769–1821) conquest of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) in 1808 gave the people of El Salvador an opportunity to gain their freedom.
Salvadorans proclaimed independence in 1811, only to be crushed by the troops dispatched by the viceroyalty of Guatemala. Not until 10 years later in 1821 did El Salvador and the other Central American provinces finally gain their independence from Spain. After a brief period of annexation to the Mexican Empire from 1822 to 1823 under Emperor Agustín de Iturbide (1783–1824), the United Provinces of Central America was formed under General Manuel José Arce (1786–1847). This federation was dissolved in 1838, and El Salvador became an independent republic.
Frequent revolutions disturbed El Salvador’s early history as an independent. The presidents drawn from the military remained sympathetic to the conditions of the underclass, but reforms were repeatedly thwarted by opposition from the wealthier citizens. At the same time there were attempts to form a Central American union, but none succeeded.
In the 20th century, there was less civil unrest, and the years from 1900 to 1930 were relatively stable.
The Depression of 1931–32 was a harsh time and led to further political upheavals. General Maximilianio Hernández Martínez (1882–1966) enjoyed the longest presidency (1932–45).
Martínez was anticommunist, as evidenced by his handling of Farabundo Martí’s rebellion.
In 1932 the Marxist Augustín Farabundo Martí (1893–1932) led a rebellion that the armed forces ruthlessly crushed. The troops’ actions were severe enough to be termed la matanza, “the massacre.” Thirty thousand were killed, and Martí was executed by firing squad. Thereafter the military controlled El Salvador’s politics. This was a period of guided reforms. During World War II Martínez aligned the country with the Allies.
In July 1969 El Salvador invaded Honduras in the short Football War, and the two countries clashed again in 1976. The period that followed, lasting until 1992, was one dominated by civil war and human rights abuses. Finally the Peace Agreement between the government and the rebels in 1992 ended the civil war. The agreement was signed as part of the Chapultepec Peace Accords in Mexico and allowed the guerillas to form a political party and participate in the electoral process. The military was reined in and barred from civilian action. In 1993 investigations by the Truth Commission under UN auspices recommended the removal of human rights violators from political and military posts and the institution of judicial reforms. Amnesty was granted to certain offenders and a land-transfer program was initiated. Soldiers and former guerillas both benefited from this process.
j GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE El Salvador is the smallest Central American country and the only one without a Caribbean coastline.
Two parallel mountain ranges run east to west, dividing the country into two regions: mountains and the central plateau, and coastal plains (Pacific lowlands).The southern mountain range is made up of more than 20 volcanoes. Eruptions are rare, but earthquakes are frequent because of the range’s location at the juncture of three geologic plates. Río Lempa is the only navigable river. There are numerous volcanic lakes in the interior highlands.
The climate is tropical with pronounced wet and dry seasons; the rainy season (winter) lasts from May to October, while the dry season (summer) lasts from November through April. Temperatures vary according to elevation but change little from season to season. While the Pacific lowlands are uniformly hot, the central plateau and mountain areas are relatively moderate. The country has many beautiful natural features; the most remarkable is the Montecristo Cloud Forest, part of the Parque Nacional Montecristo on the border shared with Guatemala and Honduras, where toucans, pumas, rare spider monkeys, two-fingered anteaters, and striped owls dwell.

The Salvadoran economy has been growing at a steady, moderate pace since the signing of the Peace Agreement in 1992, which ushered in an environment of improved investor confidence and increased foreign investment. El Salvador has initiated a series of free-market policies, including the privatization of the banking system, telecommunications, public pensions, electrical distribution and some electrical generation, reduction of import duties, elimination of price controls, and enhancing the investment climate through measures such as improved enforcement of intellectual property rights.
One of the biggest challenges in El Salvador has been to offset the decline in the coffee sector—once the backbone of the economy—and to develop a more diversified economy. Another serious obstacle El Salvador must deal with is the trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation in other countries as well as a source country for forced labor.

El Salvador’s population is predominantly Roman Catholic although Salvadoran culture is a synthesis of Catholic and indigenous traditions. During the long war with Honduras, the government targeted the church for violence because it sympathized with the poor, which was equated with supporting communism as well. Many abandoned Catholicism as a result and Protestantism, especially its evangelistic sects, provided welcome alternatives. Spanish is the national language and, although indigenous languages are no longer in daily use, there is some academic interest in preserving the Pipils’ Nahua language.
Although most of the music heard on Salvadoran radio is standard pop fare from the United States, Mexico, or other countries in Latin America, a small underground movement exists—canción popular (“folk music”)—which focuses on current events in El Salvador.
El Salvador’s artistic sensibilities are also evident during religious and public festivals when the plazas are filled with dancers and the streets with floats and parades, musicians, and street artists; clowns and crowds alike are garbed in festive colors.
Poetry is also popular, and well-known Salvadoran writers include Manlio Argueta (b. 1935) and leftist poet Roque Dalton (1935–75). La Palma is famous for the school of art established by Fernando Llort (b. 1949). The town of Ilobasco is known for its ceramics, while the textile arts produced in San Sebastián are much sought after.

The most common and distinctive Salvadoran food is the pupusa, a thick corn tortilla filled with soft, white cheese or refried beans. The people consume rice and beans, which when “wedded” together are called casamiento (“marriage”), and enjoy such regional dishes as chicharrones (chunks of fried pork fat). El Salvador’s location on the Pacific Ocean also provides a great deal of fresh seafood, including oysters and clams. Like residents of many Pacific nations, Salvadorans often prefer to prepare their fish as seviche, a dish in which the fish is prepared by marinating it in lime juice and spices.
Licuados (fruit drinks), coffee (for which the country is justly well known), and gaseosas (“soft drinks”) are ubiquitous. Tic-Tack and Torito are vodka-like spirits made from sugarcane and should be avoided by those who wish to keep their stomach lining.
As in many other Latin American countries, marriage as a religious or civil ceremony was not prevalent in El Salvador in colonial times. Persistent poverty was probably the reason for this situation.
Many Salvadoran couples, especially in rural areas, lived together in common-law or free unions.
Women headed many families, and many children were born out of wedlock.
The modern Salvadoran wedding ceremony begins without the bride. The groom and the guests wait for her during the service. As soon as the wedding service starts a group of seven men leaves in seven white cars for the bride’s home, where the bride is waiting for them with her family. The bride is then escorted to the church. Nuptial songs are played when she enters the church. After the marriage ceremony a small party is organized.

Salvadorans observe the Catholic Novena for nine days of mourning. According to Catholic tradition nine is the number most closely associated with grief. Friends and relatives gather at the home of the deceased for these days, and a feast is arranged on the ninth day.