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Alberto Masferrer and the Vital Minimum: The Life and Thought of a Salvadoran Journalist, 1868-1932

  • Karen Racine (a1)


The events of Alberto Masferrer's life and the parallel evolution of his social thought reveal much about the broader forces which shaped El Salvador and Central America during his generation. His lifetime brackets the consolidation of the Salvadoran state and the formation of modern social groups. Alberto Masferrer was born in 1868, the age of the Liberal presidents' ascendence throughout Central America; he died in 1932 as Depression-era dictators assumed power throughout that same region. In fact, 1932 is a watershed year in Central American history. With Agustín Farabundo Martí's failed Communist uprising in El Salvador and the murder of Augusto Cesar Sandino in Nicaragua, the early 1930s brought a decisive end to the possibility for Masferrer's idealized type of elite-led reform and instead turned opponents toward ideologically-motivated popular revolt. Alberto Masferrer, like most intellectuals, struggled with ideas and power. He realized that the liberal reforms of the late nineteenth century Presidents not only had failed to improve the material and moral condition of the majority of his countrymen, but actually had degraded them. Though Masferrer's admiring biographer Matilde Elena López observed that “[t]he reality of man exploited by an unjust society is the central idea of his life,” it remains no easy task to categorize the cranky journalist's thought for, indeed, he does not fit neatly into any single ideology. Masferrer the humanist gave primary importance to the betterment of social and economic conditions for those living on the material plane, while Masferrer as a Christian stressed the otherworldly values of humility, hard work, patience and charity. Masferrer the communist called for a return to the ejidal landholding system of the traditional Indian communities and a guaranteed standard of living for all Salvadorans, but Masferrer the corporatist recognized the existence of a natural state of hierarchy and felt that harmony would prevail if each remained true to his pre-ordained vocation. Masferrer the aesthetic arielista venerated language and culture, but Masferrer the criollista could not be restrained to the world of pure art and consistently returned to earth to criticize uneven social conditions. Masferrer the hispano-falangist idealized a strong and vigorous nation, yet Masferrer the pacifist abhorred violence and aggressiveness.



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1 For a recent discussion of the interconnectedness of politics and ideas, see Beverley, John and Zimmerman, Marc Literature and Politics in the Central American Revolutions (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990). Strangely, the authors make no mention of Alberto Masferrer’s work although many Central American reformers and revolutionists, including Juan José Arévalo and Tomás Borge, acknowledge their debt to him.

2 Matilde Elena López, “Prólogo” to Masferrer, Alberto Obras Escogidas (San Salvador: Editorial Universitaria, 1971), p. 16.

3 Mirandola described nature as a vast, interconnected universe in which nothing was wholly separate from anything else. This he called “universal vitalism” and in fact is an idea that can be traced back even farther to the stoics of ancient times. See Cassirer, ErnstGiovanni Pico della Mirandola: A Study of Renaissance Ideas,Journal of the History of Ideas, 3(1942): 338–39. Bergson’s vitalism (1859-1933) enjoyed great currency throughout Latin America in the interwar years: La signification de la guerre (1917); L’énergie spirituelle (1925); L’évolution créatrice (1927); and Les deux sources da la morale et de la religion (1931).

4 Tercero, Rafael Masferrer: Un ala contra el huracán (San Salvador: Ministerio de Cultura, 1957), p. 14.

5 Montgomery, Tommie Sue Revolution in El Salvador: Origins and Evolution (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1982), p. 43 . The figure remained consistent throughout Masferrer’s life. In San Salvador there were births recorded for 106 married and 276 unmarried women during the month of October 1929, R.M. de Lambert to Secretary of State (San Salvador, 31 January 1929), U.S. State Department 816.00/generalconditions/2, p. 25.

6 Alberto Masferrer, in López, Matilde Elena Pensamiento social de Masferrer (El Salvador: Imprenta Nacional, 1984), p. 6.

7 Masferrer, Alberto La Patria, 2 July 1928.

8 Robbins, Warren G. to Secretary of State, “General Conditions Prevailing in El Salvador for the Period 1st Feb to 6th March 1929U.S.State Department 816.00/generalconditions/3, p. 18 reported 13,710 arrests in San Salvador in 1928, 84 of which were for public drunkenness. These offenses were overwhelmingly committed by bachelors (96).

9 Tercero, , Un ala, p. 17 . It was no trivial thing in those days for Masferrer’s father to recognize the boy, and thus bring young Alberto into Tecapan society. This relatively uncommon occurrence indicates the extraordinary nature of don Enrique Masferrer.

10 Masferrer quoted by his friend Tercero, , Un ala, p. 17 .

11 Tercero, in Un ala, p. 19 , describes Masferrer as a voracious reader, but unfortunately gives no indication of what the young boy read.

12 Manuel, Masferrer C, Biografía del escritor Alberto Masferrer (San Salvador: Tipografía Canpress, 1957), pp. 1112. Masferrer’s half-brother recalls that the young philosopher spent all his waking hours in contemplation of his social and physical environment, highly unusual for a child of ten.

13 Morán, Francisco Alberto Masferrer o la conciencia social de un pueblo (San Salvador: Ministerio de Cultura, 1951), p. 12.

14 Masferrer, C, Biografia, p. 14 . On 25 August 1925 a special session of the University Council granted the titles of “académicos honorarios” to Alberto Masferrer, Roberto Archibald Lambert and Friedrich Fullerborn. Masferrer was recognized for his literary accomplishments, the latter pair for work in the natural sciences. Macal, Mario FloresHistoria de la universidad de El Salvador,Revista del pensamiento centroamericano 32 (1977):1750.

15 Manuel, Masferrer C, Biografía, p. 15.

16 Masferrer, C, Biografia, p. 19 ; López, , “Prologo” to Masferrer, Obras Escogidas, p. 12.

17 Niñerías appeared in 1892 when Masferrer was twenty-four. Masferrer had compiled an earlier version four years previously, but suffered from feelings of inadequacy and destroyed these papers. Martínez, José LuísIntroducción a Masferrer,En torno a Masferrer (San Salvador: Ministerio de Cultura, 1956), p. 68.

18 Masferrer, Alberto Niñerías (San Salvador: Ministerio de Educación, 1972), pp. 1415.

19 Throughout the region, a generation of vigorous Liberal presidents had embarked upon economic modernization programmes which included: the abolition of Indian common lands, the introduction of export agriculture on a wide-scale, creation of central banks, and the formation of centralized bureaucratic states. See Williams, Robert G. States and Social Evolution: Coffee and the Rise of National Governments in Central America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994); Browning, David El Salvador: Landscape and Society (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971); McCreery, David Rural Guatemala 1760–1940 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994) and Development and the State in Reforma Guatemala 1871–1885 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1983); Menjívar, Rafael Acumulación originaria y desarrollo del capitalismo en El Salvador (Costa Rica: Universitaria Centro-América, 1981).

20 Mendieta, (1879–1958) developed the thesis in his multi-volume work La enfermedad de centroamérica (Barcelona: Tipografía Maucci, 1934). However, Francisco Morán credits Masferrer with the concept in conciencia social, p. 14. In Bolivia, Arguëdas, Alcides (1879–1946) described his nation similarly, as “a sick people,” in Pueblo enfermo (1909).

21 Manuel, Masferrer C, Biografía, pp. 3132.

22 Loveman, Brian Chile: Legacy of Hispanic Capitalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 189 gives as examples of this genre: Casa Grande (anonymous, 1908), and Sinceridad: Chile íntimo en 1910 (Julio Valdés Canga, pseudonym, 1910).

23 López, , Pensamiento, p. 14.

24 Masferrer, Alberto¿Qué debemos saber?” in Páginas Escogidas (San Salvador: Dirección de Publicaciones, Ministerio de Educación, 1985), pp. 711.

25 Masferrer, , “¿Qué debemos saber?Páginas escogidas, p. 10.

26 Masferrer, Alberto¿Qué debemos saber? in El mínimum vital y otras obras de carácter sociológico (Guatemala: Colección “Los clásicos del istmo,” Ediciones del Gobierno de Guatemala, 1950), pp. 4345.

27 Masferrer, AlbertoLeer y escribir” in Páginas escogidas, pp. 3233, 39.

28 Masferrer, , “Leer y escribir,Páginas escogidas, pp. 45–6.

29 Masferrer, , “Leer y escribir,Páginas escogidas, p. 30.

30 “Half of Salvadorans do not know how to read and write. Of the other one half,the majority never read anything but a half-dozen books, more damaging than useful, like The Oracle, White Magic, and other similar ones.” Masferrer, Alberto in “Leer y escribir,Páginas escogidas, p. 29.

31 Masferrer, , “Leer y escribirPáginas escogidas, p. 47.

32 Masferrer, , “Leer y escribirPáginas escogidas, pp. 5152.

33 El Día first appeared on 1 January 1923 and was edited by “two well-known Central American writers. Mr Alberto Masferrer and Mr Juan Ramón Urriarte.” The latter was then Director General of the Post Office. Hewes to Secretary of State (San Salvador, 5 January 1923) U.S. State Department 816.00/471.

34 Wilson, Everett AlanCrisis of National Integration in El Salvador 1919–1935” (Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 1970), p. 54.

35 Frank Arnold to Secretary of State (San Salvador, 19 September 1918), U.S. State Department 816.00/212.

36 The U.S. chargé d’affaires estimated Araujo spent over $25,000 of his own money on these projects, quite a significant sum in a country where the average wage was only 18ȼ/day. Peter Jay to Secretary of State (San Salvador, 24 April 1921) U.S.State Department 816.00/320.

37 Peter Jay to the Secretary of State (San Salvador, 8 April 1921) U.S. State Department 816.00/317; “Decreto de Elección de Diputados” published in General Calderón, Tomás El ejército federal de la República de Centro-América (San Salvador: Imprenta Nacional, [1922]), pp. 67.

38 Peter Jay to Secretary of State (San Salvador, 13 May 1921) U.S. State Department 816.00/322. Others honored in the legislative decree were: President Jorge Meléndez, Dr. Juan Francisco Paredes (the Minister of Foreign Affairs), Dr Miguel Tomás Molina and Dr Reyes Arrieta Rossi. Legislative decree dated 6 May 1921 and published in the Diario Oficial1 12 May 1921.

39 Montgomery Schuyler to Secretary of State (San Salvador, [May] 1921), U.S. State Department 816.00/363, noted that outwardly everyone supported the idea of union, but he could not find any one who would agree to it when speaking privately, not even members of the Salvadoran government.

40 See: Cruz, Rodolfo Cerdas The Communist International in Central America, 1920–36 (London: MacMillan, 1993). There is some discrepancy surrounding this date. Salvadoran Communists, notably Martí, Agustín Farabundo infiltrated the Socorro Rojo, a public aid organization, and subverted it for their own purposes. In Matanza: El Salvador’s Communist Revolt of 1932 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1971), pp. 2425 , Thomas P. Anderson asserts the Communist Party of El Salvador was founded in 1925 by Guatemalan and Mexican organizers and formally announced its existence in March 1930. James Dunkerley dismisses the 1925 effort as a failure and credits Martí with the creation of the PCS in 1930 in Power in the Isthmus (London: Verso, 1988), p. 76.

41 Opinión obrera, [San Salvador] Año 1 (no. 2, noviembre 1922): p. 2. The paper billed itself as “El periódico de propaganda político, organo del Comité Central de Obreros PROQUIÑONEZ.” The declaration dated 19 October 1922 appeared in El país [San Salvador] Año 5, 3ra época (no. 6, 2 diciembre 1922): p. 3.

42 Clarence Hewes to Secretary of State (San Salvador, 15 December 1922) U.S. State Department 816.00/458.

43 Jefferson Caffery to Secretary of State, U.S. State Department 816.00/615.

44 Vida Salvadorena, no. l[February 1928], p. 34; El Salvador, , Boletín del Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, no. 5 (13 August 1927).

45 Masferrer quoted in Wilson, , “National Integration,” p. 212.

46 Salisbury, RichardThe Middle American Exile of Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre,The Americas 40 (1983): p. 8 . Aprismo is a curious blend of nationalism and indigenismo, with a strong anti-imperialist and pan-American tone. Haya de la Torre rejected both the Marxism of his former associate José Carlos Mariátegui, and the exploitive and degenerative nature of the capitalist system. For an excellent biography of Haya de la Torre and his use of Christian symbolism see Pike, Fredrick B. The Politics of the Miraculous: Haya de la Torre and the Spiritualist Tradition (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986). See also Salisbury’s larger study of the decade Anti-Imperialism and International Competition in Central America 1920–29 (Wilmington DE: Scholarly Resources, 1989).

47 Samuel Dickson to Secretary of State (San Salvador, 5 and 10 September 1928), U.S.State Department 816.00/731 and 816.00/732. Turcios’ agency took an anti-U.S., pro-Mexico and pro-Sandino line.

48 Masferrer, Alberto La Patria, 27 April 1928.

49 Alberto Masferrer, La Patria, 27 April 1928. Burns, E.B.Modernization of Underdevelopment: El Salvador 1858–1931Journal of Developing Areas, 18 (1983/1984), p. 309 notes that Masferrer also protested high military expenditures, the high cost of living and the negative effects of incipient industrialization.

50 Masferrer in de Alba, PedroLa educación vitalista de Alberto Masferrer,Cuadernos americanos, 20 (1945), p. 171.

51 Masferrer, , El mínimum vital, p. 189.

52 See, for example, the collection of hagiographical essays compiled as En torno a Masferrer. Close friend Francisco Moran eulogized Masferrer as “a historical embodiment of pure social conscience” and observed that in Salvadoran history “there are two periods of social reality: before Masferrer and after Masferrer,” in conciencia social, p. 2.

53 Webre, Stephen José Napoleón Duarte and the Christian Democratic Party in Salvadoran Politics 1960–1972 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1979), p. 59 . Interestingly, the 1962 program omitted the vital minimum’s guarantee for a productive occupation, access to potable and sufficient water, and to swift and equal justice.

54 Masferrer frequently referred to the eclectic sources from which he drew inspiration including: Tolstoy, Juan Montalvo, Victor Hugo, Henry George, Abraham Lincoln, Annie Besant, Mussolini, Renan, Kropotkin, Aeschuylus, St. Augustine, the Bible, Gandhi, Romain Rolland, Camille Flammarion, the Buddha, Confucius, Pythagoras, Atlacatl, Maxim Gorky and Jesus Christ.

55 In several La Patria editorials Masferrer explicitly mentioned the Hindu caste system, notably “Vocación” (25 August 1928) and “Kshattriyas y vaicyas” (27 August 1928). The reference links him to the generation of European post-war intellectuals like Bertrand Russell and Hermann Hesse which turned toward the East for inspiration in the inter-war years.

56 Masferrer, Alberto La Patria, 16 May 1928.

57 Annie Besant quoted by Masferrer, in “El plano búdhico” in Obras Escogidas, p. 255 . Theosophist Annie Besant (1847–1933) produced a sizable body of writing on many eclectic topics. Titles include: Occult Christianity (1919), Fabian Essays in Socialism (1931), and Esoteric Christianity (5th Edition, 1950).

58 Masferrer, Alberto La Patria, 25 August 1928.

59 Masferrer, Alberto La Patria, 10 August 1928.

60 Masferrer, Alberto La Patria, 10 August 1928.

61 Masferrer, Alberto quoted in Burns, “Modernization of Underdevelopment,” p. 309 .

62 Masferrer, Alberto La Patria, 5 November 1930. Translation in Wilson, Everett AlanThe Crisis of National Integration,” p. 214.

63 Falangism is a post World War I Spanish variant of fascism and based upon the conservative and traditional values of Hispanic culture as a source of stability. For its Latin American context: Pike, Fredrick B. Hispanismo 1898–1936 (South Bend: Notre Dame University Press, 1971); Pérez, Ricardo y Montfort, , Hispanismo y Falange (México: Fondo de la Cultura Económica, 1992).

64 Masferrer, , “¿Qué debemos saber?El mínimum vital, p. 23.

65 Masferrer, Alberto Obras escogidas, p. 245.

66 In The Political Economy of Central America Since 1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p. 34, Victor Bulmer-Thomas calculates that coffee made up 92.6 percent of all Salvadoran exports in 1929. This lucrative cash crop provided fabulous wealth for the tiny group which controlled its production and sale, so it is not hard to imagine the reaction Masferrer’s suggestion spawned.

67 López, , Pensamiento social, p. 75.

68 Masferrer, Alberto La Patria, 29 June 1928.

69 The term comes from José Enrique Rodó’s novel Ariel (1898) which began the Latin American intellectuals’ spiritual and aesthetic reaction against the liberal-positivist ethic of the late nineteenth century. Arielistas decried the moral bankruptcy and loss of soul produced by decades of modernization projects and material progress. Significantly, however, arielistas rejected the sphere of social action and retreated into the world of poetry and books, leaving active engagement to the next generation.

70 Wilson, , “National Integration,” p. 113. For a discussion of the important topic of the growth of export agriculture in the area, see: Kerr, Derek M.The Role of the Coffee Industry in the History of El Salvador 1840–1906” (M.A. Thesis, University of Calgary, 1977).

71 Masferrer, Alberto in Alba, “educación vitalista,” p. 176. This is could be perceived as an artistic version of Marx’s labor theory of value, but more likely is derived from Masferrer’s Christian humanism.

72 Alba, , “educación vitalista,” pp. 178179.

73 de Guirola, Zelava un grito, pp. 910.

74 Masferrer, , “¿Qué debemos saber?El mínimum vital, p. 12.

75 Neo-Pythagorean refers to a return to the ideas of the ancients, particularly Plato and Pythagoras, who conceived of the universe as a vast symphony. All its parts were interconnected in perfect mathematical and musical harmony whose rhythm was not necessarily reducible to scientific understanding. It was a common cry among early twentieth Latin American writers. See Skyrme, Raymond Rubén Darío and the Pythagorean Tradition (Gainesville: University of Florida, 1975), and Vasconcelos, José Pitágoras: una teoría del ritmo (México: 1921).

76 Morán, , conciencia social, p. 18.

77 Masferrer, , La Patria, 9 and 14 October 1929.

78 Vejar, Rafael Guidos El ascenso del militarismo en El Salvador (San José: UCA Editores, 1982); Morán, Mariano Castro Función política del ejército salvadoreña en el presente siglo (San Salvador: UCA Editores, 1984); Remmer, Karen Military Rule in Latin America (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989); El pensamiento militar latinoamericano (México D.F.: Editorial Universidad de Guadalajara, 1990).

79 D.J. Rodgers to A. Henderson (San Salvador, 31 August 1929) in Great Britain, Public Record Office (PRO) Foreign Office (FO) Confidential Print Papers A/6255/2056/8. Little is known about the vitalista movement itself; it appears to have been relatively short-lived and its membership informal. The flag of the Vitalistas displayed a sun which radiated outward with the initials V.P.T., meaning “Vida para todos,” or “Life for all.”

80 Warren G. Robbins to Secretary of State (San Salvador, 13 July 1929) U.S. State Department 816.00/general conditions/5. Robbins described Masferrer as the editor of “one of the most scurrilous daily papers published here.”

81 In his memoirs, Salvadoran communist organizer Miguel Mármol recalled Masferrer as favorite author (p. 106). Mármol enthusiastically gave away copies of Masferrer’s book El dinero maldito to cart drivers and others he met, encouraging them to read and discuss the ideas contained therein. These cart drivers travelled a great distance and were useful vehicles for the dissemination of ideas to rural and illiterate populations. For an excellent first-hand account of the flavour of the radicals’ agitation in the 1920s and beyond, see Dalton, Roque Miguel Mármol (Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1987).

82 Alberto Masferrer quoted by Anderson, , Matanza, p. 46.

83 Mr. D.J. Rodgers to Mr. Henderson (San Salvador, 18 February 1931), PRO/FO Confidential Print 1/1508/201/8.

84 Alberto Masferrer in López, , Pensamiento, p. 22.

85 There is some controversy over the actual number of Salvadorans killed during the Matanza. Figures range from a low of 8–10,000, Anderson, , Matanza, pp. 135 , 145 to the more commonlycited 30,000 in North, Lisa Bitter Grounds: Roots of Revolt in El Salvador, (Toronto: Between the Lines, 1982), p. 39 . and Dunkerley, James The Long War: Dictatorship and Revolution in El Salvador (London: Zed Books), 1982, p. 29.

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