One Day of Life


In this timely novel, banned by the government of El Salvador in 1980, Manlio Argueta uses a poetic language to paint a disturbing picture of an abusive and oppressive government.  The military's violent methods of enforcing the "democratic way of life" involve the gruesome murders and tortures of innocent human beings who are struggling to survive and at the same time fighting for their human rights.  Argueta utilizes the fictional aspect of the novel to describe the different perspectives of both the oppressed and the oppressors.  The story focuses on one day of the life of an Indian woman named Lupe and her family, who describes her own emotions, thoughts, and actions, as she knows them from her personal experiences.  This book captures the heart and feelings of the audience by giving a vivid description of the horror that fills the lives of the natives surviving in El Salvador, yet their hope is never lost. Translated from Un Dia de la Vida by Bill Brow.

About the Author

Manlio Argueta was born in Salvador on November 24, 1935 and is a member of “Generacion Comprometadi” which is a group of writers between 1950 and 1956 who were influenced by Jean Paul Sartre and devoted to social, cultural, and political activism.  Argueta was first a poet and did not really think about writing fiction until he was in his 30’s.  His life began to involve much turmoil during the 1970’s as he wrote about the political horrors in Salvador.  He was arrested several times and even exiled for his involvement in political causes.  He stayed in Costa Rica for the duration of the Civil war in Salvador lasting from 1980-1992.  He is now, however, serving as the Director of Art and Culture at the National University, The University of El Salvador, in San Salvador.


One Day of Life invokes every emotion of the human heart and soul.  To become "lost" in the reading and immersed into the language of a novel is a powerful technique to use to help oneself understand themes within the literature.  When a tear comes to my eye, I know the language in the novel has touched me.  Imagine waking up everyday to the thought of just surviving that day.  This novel is about one day of life through the eyes of an El Salvadorian woman, but essentially, One Day of Life, in itself, defines the El Salvadorian lifestyle, living one day at a time.  They never know when their last day is going to be, due to the uncivil modes the government of El Salvador uses to "spread democracy."  There are many similar themes within this book and other books that take place within Central American countries that face the same problems day after day.

Innocence and Responsibility

Innocence is defined as: Freedom from sin, moral wrong, or guilt through lack of knowledge of evil.   This theme relates the novels One Day of Life and The Nine Guardians, to the testimonial, I, Rigoberta Menchu An Indian Woman in Guatemala, by showing a view of life through the eyes of young, innocent children.  In Argueta's novel, the main character is Lupe, 45,a caring wife and grandmother.  Her granddaughter, Adolfina, 14 years old, represents beauty and innocence as she grows into a young woman before her grandmother's eyes.  She is the future of Lupe's family.  Adolfina, like Rigoberta Menchu at a young age, evolves into the strong human being and woman she is by finding her place in the world through terrifying experiences and heavy responsibilities.

Innocence is stripped from these Central American girls at a very young age, and their reality is a nightmare.  One day, Adolfina goes to the bank in San Salvador to seek answers concerning cheaper insecticide and fertilizer prices, and becomes part of a demonstration because the bank is closed.  She ends up in caught in crossfire as police shoot and eventually blow up a bus full of the demonstrators.  Luckily she escapes and helps another little girl, Maria Romelia, who is shot in the hand, escape as well.  After a few days pass, Adolfina brings some animal crackers to Maria's house and talks with the her and her mother.  After hearing the news of Maria's cousin being killed on the bus that day, 14-year-old Adolfina says to Maria’s mother, "I know you're in the Christian federation.  It is the way: we must organize ourselves so they won't be able to abuse us.  I'm in league with the farmworkers." This young woman is fighting evil at the age of 14 because she understands what evil is and how it can tear apart families and communities.         

When Rigoberta Menchu was fifteen she touched her first dead body, her friend, Dona Petrona.  Dona was hacked to death by a landowner's bodyguard because she would not sleep with the landowner's son.  Rigoberta says in her testimonial after a real taste of terror, "It was the first dead body I’d ever seen, and that's why I was saying that I'll have to talk about a lot more corpses, but this was the first one I'd ever touched." She is stripped of her innocence not by choice, but because another human being murdered her friend.

These girls never had the chance to play or to even have free time to use their imaginations.  They had to help their families survive every day.  Rigoberta and Adolfina both helped their mother’s cook and prepare the little food they had every day and they helped raise children younger than them like they were their own.  Rigoberta helped her family pick coffee beans on the finca when she was 7 years old. These young women had responsibilities when they were 10-years-old that some adults in America will never have.  Fighting to survive is something I cannot explain, because I have never had to fight to survive.  Rigoberta and Adolfina represent, at such a young and innocent age, the essence of survival.

Fighting with Guns

In One day of Life and I, Rigoberta Menchu, an Indian Woman in Guatemala, the authorities in the countries of El Salvador and Guatemala use guns, machetes, and torture to control the people they see as "the enemies." The Indians or "the enemies" in these books struggling to survive helped one another as a community because the rich landowners barely gave them enough money to live on.  The money they did give them they would find ways of getting it back.  It is a sick cycle that is all part of a plan to keep the Indians working like slaves in the fields so the rich landowners and government authorities receive all the profit for the products traded to highly industrialized countries like the United States and Germany. 

In Argueta's novel, he describes from the authorities' perspective oppressing the popular uprising as fighting against communism.  The upper classes in Central America are taught in schools, fed well, and brainwashed into defending their country against "the people" who are considered "communist subversives." "The people" are, of course, the Indians who stick together as a community so that they have at least a chance to survive the harsh treatment by the authorities not to mention the lack of food and health care.  In the words of the authorities, "One must be ready to defend the country against its enemies even at the expense of our own brothers.  And, though it’s unnecessary to say so, even at the expense of our mother. This might seem like an exaggeration, but the Western world is in danger and we know that the worst danger to the Western world is what they call 'the people.' The trainer shouts, "Who is our worst enemy?’ And we shout, 'The People!'"       

Argueta goes on to explain that the authorities are trained by Chinese martial arts experts to fight and they also have classes in psychology, "which is to say, how you can make people suffer by the mere use of words." They are brainwashed into thinking that the Indians not only are challenging democracy but also challenging Christianity.  The well-fed authorities are not treated like kings, however; they are forced into a state of mind, a paranoia that encompasses their life.  Once they are brainwashed and beaten into believing the government's plan, they wear their uniforms and carry their guns into Indian communities to intimidate and ultimately kill off "the people," living in their communities.

They begin by threatening the men of the communities especially if the men are involved in organizations that stand up against the government.  In both the novel, One Day of Life and the testimonial, I, Rigoberta Menchu An Indian Woman of Guatemala, The main characters Lupe and Rigoberta Menchu are connected to men fighting for equal treatment and human rights.  Lupe's husband Chepe is a leader in the community as is Rigoberta's father, Vincente. The authorities, as a result of the rebelliousness and leadership of these men, eventually kill them both.  The authorities not only kill the men, but they beat women and children as well.  In some instances they rape or even kill women, a ruthless act of evil and violence.  No real human, brainwashed or not, should ever contemplate ruthlessly beating or killing another human.  This animal-like behavior is apparent in both novels and is something that makes you wonder, "what the hell is going on in Central America?"  

Fighting with Hearts

In Argueta’s novel and Menchu’s testimony, the oppressed Indians, no matter how poorly they are treated never seek to murder to fulfill their revenge on the authorities.  I'm not implying that all Indians or Natives are perfect, because some of the authorities themselves are Indians, only they are brainwashed into fighting for a cause that is based on making money for the rich, while murdering and torturing the poor, but I'm saying the mistreated Indians in Argueta and Menchus' novels use means other than guns to fight. 

In Menchu's testimony, she describes a time when they captured a guard and took his gun.  She was so amazed because no one in her community had any idea how to use it.  She kept expressing her amazement towards this concept of not knowing how to use the gun, which symbolizes the non-violent views and lifestyles of the people in her community.  They were too busy worrying about eating and surviving to ever even think about guns.  Even after capturing a few guards or authorities in traps they set up, Menchu explains how they questioned them and heard their side of the story and in the end, spared their lives so that they may have a second chance to live without being a brute authority.  Menchu speaks about using the bible as a weapon, which is a major theme of both works.

In One Day of Life, Adolfina speaks about the brutal murder of her uncle Justino, who is Lupe’s son, because he helped organize the non-violent demonstration at the Bank to demand lower prices for fertilizer and seeds.  Four authorities murdered him and stuck his head on a property post on the roadside.  Men in the community who supported Justino soon hunted them down.  These men made the murderers bury Justino and beg for forgiveness.  Justino’s friends justified their reasoning behind pardoning the murderous authorities by saying, "From fear of God more than anything and because we’re not murderers."  That takes much composure and prudence by Justino’s friends to spare the lives of these ruthless, animal-like men.  Thus, they demonstrate a non-violent and humane way to retaliate and send a message. 

Adolfina, in response to her uncle's murder, took a stand against the authorities in the Cathedral in San Salvador with teachers and students.  They locked themselves in the in the church for days and she said that she had never eaten food so delicious as she did when she was in there.  They sang songs and slept in shifts to keep a watch out for policemen or others who would try to break in and end the demonstration.  This displays the courage of the people in El Salvador to stand up for what they believe in, especially after Justino was brutally murdered for helping organize a demonstration.  The end result did not drastically change the authority's behavior, but it certainly proved that the faith of Adolfina and a few others was far too strong to be held back by any authority.        


Hope is something that cannot be taken away no matter what the circumstance is.  In Argueta’s novel and Menchu’s testimony, hope is the key factor that fuels the Indians fire to survive.  Together as a community, the people work to help each other because there is no way in hell their government is going to help them in any way.  They have to stick together or else there is no chance of survival.  No matter how bad the lives of the Indians are in these books, never does an Indian contemplate suicide or giving up.  If one Indian were to give up, not only would that Indian let himself down, he would also let his whole community down.  If there ever was a “perfect communism,” which I do not think there can be unless God was the dictator, a lesson should be taken from the Native Peoples in these novels; never give up hope and never cease helping your neighbor, for something better lies ahead.

In both novels, conscience and awareness are emphasized.  This is to know why the things around you are happening and to understand the reasons underlying them.  The characters in these novels have a strong awareness of life, and their consciences evolve through their experiences as they distinguish between good and evil.  The conscience is an essential part the human mind and soul that is shaped and molded by the models in ones life.  Luckily for Rigoberta and Adolfina and Lupe, they had parents that truly loved them and cared for them.  They had wonderful role models in their parents, and with out this paternal love, their conscience might have been shaped much like that of the authorities.


When introduced to a different lifestyle in another country, one begins to think about the problems that occur in his or her country and how they relate to the problems in other countries.  There are connections between every country and community in the world and literature can really help tie them together.  As you read more and more about the lifestyles and hardships many human beings go through, it is hard to comprehend how running out of gas or getting a flat tire can ruin your day.  I believe if one is brought up in an economically sound environment, they fail to realize the problems that are occurring in their own country.  I believe this because I have failed to realize how much there needs to be done in other countries and our own country to improve the lives of many struggling human beings.  That does not mean that we all have to totally forget about our daily lives and start fighting against these horrors, but we can start by taking a moment out of our daily lives to volunteer at a homeless shelter, or give food in a food drive, or say a prayer for the people that really need it.  If each person on the face of the earth helped one other person, just one, this earth would smile a grin the size of the Nile.


When doing research on the novel, One Day of Life, I found a touching article written by Dr. Allen Webb called, Homelessness and Language Arts:  Contexts and Connections, in the English Journal.  Dr. Webb explains the importance of teaching about literature and connecting the themes of literature to the problems that exist in the world today.  I am learning about these problems through literature and through interaction.  Dr. Webb learned through first-hand experience, by actually helping a homeless man survive.  This turned him on to exploring the problems causing homelessness and in turn inspired him to teach students about this problem through literature and interaction.

He relates homelessness and the novel One Day of Life by saying, "The Third World literature we read also suggested differences and added to our understanding of the experiences of homeless people.  One Day of Life, which treats the brutal experiences of peasants at the beginning of the revolution in El Salvador, raised tough questions about U.S. foreign policy in the region, about what we might even describe as an active policy of creating homelessness.  One Day of Life focuses on a systematic repression, a culture of violence and terror that differs both in kind and degree from the other texts we read.  Yet, in depicting the development of a resistant and revolutionary consciousness, it raised questions about the factors that inhibit such a consciousness in the United States.  In order to understand homelessness in Africa and Latin America, a critique of industrial development was not enough; a complex understanding of race and gender relations, international politics, and differing cultural contexts evolved out of our reading.  And didn’t we need this more complex understanding to view homelessness in the United States as well?"  I think, yes, most definitely.

Facing the problems of the world by reading and discussing literature is a great place to start.  But relating these problems to your own life and taking action to help solve these problems is the ultimate goal.  Technology, language, writing, reading, loving, and hating are all learned behaviors.  This means they are taught from one and learned from another.  It begins with parents teaching their children love and respect, and these behaviors are carried from children into their schools where they are influenced by teachers to learn and imagine and discover.  Teaching, whether from a parental aspect, a peer relationship, or from a certified teacher, is the key to solving the worlds problems.




*** The Curbstone Press:  learning through literature that illuminates the issues of our times is a good site to learn about the authors of different literary works.

*** Enemies of War gives an overview of the history and timeline of the events surrounding the civil war in El Salvador.

** Lonely Planet gives some information on the history, culture, and environment of El Salvador as if you were planning a trip to visit there.

* Human Rights Resource Center, Literature and Human Rights: Questions to Apply to Literature, Other Texts, and Media



I believe it is important to impel students so that, on their own, they desire to learn more about this type of literature, thus raising the probability of solving the world's problems through teaching and interacting.  Here are some questions and topics to let your students to think about: 

How does language play an essential part in the progress of the world? Is language the essence of all life and the key to solving the problems in the world? Why?

How does literature and testimony tie into this previous concept of "language used in helping to solve the world's problems?"

In One Day of Life how was the law influenced by language and what does this suggest when comparing knowledge, language, and power?  Are the people of El Salvador powerless in this novel? Why or why not?  Do some research and find out what is happening in El Salvador today and decide what factors contributed to the current status of El Salvador. 

What does having “freedom of speech” mean to you?  Why do you think it is the first amendment in the Bill of Rights?  What does this symbolize about The United States and the importance of language and opinions? 

How were the voices and opinions of the natives in El Salvador judged/looked upon by the authorities in their country?  What were the consequences of these judgments?

How does the lifestyle of a native in El Salvador relate to communication, language, and education?  How is the education of the characters in this novel shaped by schools?  Who is affected the most by schools, the authorities or the civilians?  What does this say about the importance of schools when the mind of an individual is being shaped?

Without guns, what do you think would happen if the authorities of El Salvador and the Natives of El Salvador sat down and discussed the issues of their country and communities?  Would it be civil? Or would the authorities feel naked without their guns that speak for them?



Webb, Allen.   Homelessness and Language Arts:  Contexts and Connections. The English Journal, v80 n7 (Nov 1991), p22-28.

Bencastro, Mario.  El Salvador’s Poets of Recovery, Americas 53 no. 2(March/April 2001) p48-51

Anjali Sundaram & George Gelber.  A Decade of War:  El Salvador Confronts the Future,  1991.  Prologue by Manlio Arguet


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