It is a great time for 46-year old Vanda Guiomar Pignato, a native of Brazil, who on June 1st, 2009 became the First Lady of El Salvador, Central America, a country of about 6.5 million people. She is the most politically savvy and educated woman ever to have such position in a country where according to the latest U.S. Department of State’s country report, only a tiny percentage of women graduate from college.
Her husband, Mauricio Funes, a former journalist and the charismatic leader of the leftist FMLN party, enjoys the highest approval rating of any incoming Salvadoran president. Before him, no other leftist candidate had been elected president of the smallest republic in the Americas.
She grew up in the state of São Paulo in a family whose ancestors came from Italy looking for a new life in Brazil. In the 1980s, she studied law at the University of Mogi das Cruzes in the state of São Paulo and joined the movement of solidarity in support of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the armed struggle of the FMLN in El Salvador and in opposition to U.S. intervention in Central America.
One of the best sources for understanding the controversial policies of the U.S. in Latin America during the Reagan years, such as the acquiescence with the use of torture and death squads, is William M. Leogrande’s “Our Own Backyard: the United States in Central America, 1977-1992.”
From 1980 to 1992, the Salvadoran civil war left about 75,000 dead and uprooted over a million people, some of whom emigrated to other countries. At least 1.5 million Salvadorans presently reside in the United States and contribute over one billion dollars in remittances to their former country. An almost insignificant number of Salvadorans took refuge in Brazil.
In 1989, Vanda graduated from Mogi das Cruzes as a lawyer interested in environmental law. From 1988 to 1992, she worked with the Program for Cooperation and Academic Solidarity for World Service in Brazil. During ECO-92, and along with other NGOs, she organized a forum on Environmental Education. Her political interests led her to join the Workers’ Party in São Paulo.
In 1992, while Funes worked as a journalist and had yet to cross paths with Pignato, the U.S.-backed government of El Salvador and the FMLN signed a Peace Agreement that ended a war that neither side could win outright. The guerillas put down their weapons and the FMLN became a political party.
The following year, the future first lady began to reside in El Salvador and work as the representative of Brazil’s Workers’ Party in Central America. During the heated political campaign that led to the election of her husband, the rightist Salvadoran newspaper “El Diario de Hoy” published an article on February 23, 2009 that tied Pignato with having befriended the People’s Revolutionary Party (“Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo”) and former guerilla commander Joaquin Villalobos of the FMLN. Villalobos, who currently resides in England, reputedly ordered the killing of the famous poet and revolutionary Roque Dalton in the 1970s. No criminal charges have ever been filed against his killers.
With the election of Lula and the ascendancy of Brazil’s Workers’ Party to power in 2003, the fortunes of Pignato also turned upward. She became the director of the Center for Brazilian Studies at the Embassy of Brazil in El Salvador. She befriended Funes sometime in the 1990s.
After a long relationship with Funes, who also worked for CNN, they got married in 2006. Both of them had been previously married. That same year, the City of São Paulo awarded Pignato the Anchieta Medal and an Award of Gratitude for her human rights work and for promoting Brazilian culture in Central America, and the Salvadoran Congress gave her the award of “Distinguished Friend of El Salvador.” A year later, she and Funes became the proud parents of Gabriel, their only son.
She became a naturalized Salvadoran and renounced her Brazilian nationality in October 2008. As the dominant conservative media in El Salvador attacked Funes as a stooge for communism during the presidential campaign, she stopped talking to the Salvadoran press and her husband took the position not to grant any interviews to the conservative “El Diario de Hoy.” She continued to appear alongside her husband at political rallies, fundraising events, and trips abroad.
Within days of Funes’s historic election in mid-March 2009, she and her husband traveled to Brazil and met with Lula. Her close connections with Lula and the Workers’ Party promise to deliver for Funes great economic support. Because China is currently the number one trade partner for Brazil, El Salvador’s Pacific ports are expected to play a significant part for such enterprise.
During the March visit to Brazil, she told the Folha de S. Paulo that in the final stages of her husband’s political campaign she received a serious death threat that prompted her to take Gabriel to go live with her parents in São Paulo. El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world.
As the first Brazilian First Lady of El Salvador, Pignato has no role models to follow and her public persona will continue to be scrutinized. In a small country where Brazilian singers, soccer stars, and artists have long been revered, her future public role in the Funes administration is uncharted.
She might get involved in providing greater support for unique Salvadoran institutions such as the Museum of the Word and the Image (MUPI) in San Salvador, which have staged exhibitions on subjects whitewashed or belittled by official right-wing organizations ranging from indigenous traditions to obscure historical characters as exemplified by Prudencia Ayala (1885-1936), a native of El Salvador who in 1930 became the first woman in Latin America to ever run for president of a country even though she did not have the right to vote.
As a mother of a toddler, Pignato might consider doing outreach to the thousands of Salvadoran single mothers who live in extreme poverty. Among them there is Checha, an unemployes woman who suffers from cancer and who resides near the town of Cojutepeque to the east of San Salvador. In an article that appeared last year in www.contrapunto.com.sv, Checha was described as living in a small shack with her 5 small children without plumbing, electricity, medical help, or any government assistance.
Pignato might also want to cement her understanding about the contributions of Brazilians in Central America and rescue from ignominy the saga of Glória Silva, the enigmatic black Brazilian woman from São Gabriel, Rio Grande do Sul, who lived in El Salvador’s capital from 1939 to 1944 with her husband, the Paraguayan-born guitarist virtuoso and composer Agustín Barrios Mangoré (1885-1944).
Mangoré and Silva traveled together throughout Brazil from 1929-1931, where he enjoyed one of the highest artistic achievements of his career playing at sold-out concerts classical music while dressed as an Indian chieftain. Mangoré’s humble tomb in San Salvador is a national monument. According to Carlos Salcedo, a researcher of Barrios based in Asunción, Paraguay, Silva left El Salvador two years after the death of her husband, sometime in 1946, never to return. Silva traveled first to Brazil and then to Italy where she died in poverty in 1965.
At the very least, and as one of the unsung heroes and pivotal advisors in her husband’s rise to power, Pignato should tell her own story about her new country where, in the words of famous Salvadoran novelist Manlio Argueta, the waters of the south sea silently wash its shores.
Edgardo Quintanilla is an immigration attorney with offices located in Sherman Oaks, California. See www.immigrationattorneysforyou.com. He is writing a novel inspired in an unknown chapter of Latin American history.