The First to Listen
Paula Cuellar was born in El Salvador in 1980—just as the country was descending into a brutal civil war. Her father was a social activist and her uncle worked as Monsenor Oscar Arnulfo Romero's lawyer on the Socorro Juridico Cristiano, a nongovernmental organization that advocated for human rights. When Cuellar was three years old, turmoil struck, organizations like Socorro Juridico Cristiano were overthrown, and Cuellar's family fled the country. They escaped to Mexico, leaving middle-class comforts behind.
"It was a very hard transition," Cuellar says, "moving from a home where I had my own room, toys to play with, things on the wall, to sharing one bed with the entire family in a small space." By the time she turned seven, her parents had saved enough money to afford a nicer apartment in a safer neighborhood, but it still wasn't "home."
When peace accords were signed in 1992, effectively marking the end of the conflict, Cuellar's family returned to El Salvador, where her father became director of the Human Rights Institute at Central American University. Cuellar later attended that school, completing a bachelor of law degree. She took several internships and practiced law, before becoming a judicial clerk for El Salvador's Supreme Court of Justice at the Constitutional Chamber. She spent four years in that role, before moving to the United States in 2009 to complete her first master's degree in international human rights law at the University of Notre Dame.
Upon graduating, she returned to El Salvador to lead the international unit at the Supreme Court of Justice and oversaw extradition processes, among other issues. While there, she earned a second master's in human rights and peace studies at the University of El Salvador. However, after receiving anonymous threats related to the petition for extradition of the militaries accused of international crimes involving the massacre of six Jesuit priests and their two helpers, Cuellar decided to return to the United States.
She is now a PhD candidate in history at the University of Minnesota and is minoring in human rights. She originally intended to conduct research related to Holocaust genocide but switched her focus to studying violence against women.
Now Cuellar is putting all of her energy into unearthing stories of El Salvadorian women who suffered violence during the war. She knew that parts of this history had been buried and decided to be the first researcher to document these women's experiences. So far, she has interviewed more than 60 women, listening to their diverse narratives, which depict varying degrees of violence. Some of the women told Cuellar that she was the first person to ask them for their stories. "This is the first time someone has wanted to listen to them," Cuellar says. "Before me, their stories were never told, and they felt like no one cared enough to listen."
Cuellar would like to document the stories of all El Salvadoran women who were victimized during the armed conflict—though she knows that that is an impossible goal. She believes that sharing these stories will hold perpetrators accountable and can catalyze change in both her home country and around the world.
Cuellar hopes that her work will help make her country more transparent to its own citizens and to the rest of the world. Compared to its neighbors, El Salvador's history has not been well-documented, but Cuellar knows that learning about its past will help steer the way forward into the future.