Review: Humo: Murder and Silence in El Salvador

Review: Humo: Murder and Silence in El Salvador

I started learning Spanish when I was about 12 years old. I was formally enrolled in classes for 10 years, and while I’ve lost a lot of it I know one thing. Any language teacher is worth more than conjugating verbs and learning vocabulary. Language can be a real first step to empathy in incredibly profound ways. To learn a language is to learn a culture, a history, and a people in a way that speaks to intimacy and full development of a person. 

Language isn’t the only thing that does this. Music, movies, books, and podcasts are a learning tool as well. We are used to movies being dubbed, music just existing, and books being translated, but podcasts haven’t found as much of a cultural stride in translation. Which is why I was thrilled to know that Humo has an English adaptation. 

Humo: Murder and Silence in El Salvador follows journalist Bryan Avelar as he uncovers the deep, twisting truths behind a mass grave in a tiny far away town. What originally seems like a tragic, true crime story for the ages, turns into a corruption reality that reaches to the heights of the El Salvadoran government. From a corrupt police force in a tiny town, right up to President Bukele.

Packed in these eight episodes, is a story of terror and horror many people are separated from. Laid bare are many of the realities of living in a country owned by not just the government, but more so by gangs. Parents and families don’t know where their children are, if they are dead, alive, imprisoned, or escaped with no way to get back or contact home. Mothers create community, fathers walk the shadows of night, and a government really does nothing to help. 

Every thirty minute episode feels like a sucker punch, beautifully presented with overlapping Spanish, English and audio design elements to suck you in. It is a great podcast to listen to, encouraging the listener to feel uncomfortable not just with the content, but with the distance itself. The Spanish language isn’t quite translated as interviewees are introduced. The tension of not knowing exactly is a powerful use of potential language barrier. Families don’t know what happened to their loved ones, and a listener may not know the exact meaning of the words being spoken. There has to be feeling and genuine human moments to reach for in this podcast. 

Unfortunately, like a language barrier can create apathy, the miles and miles from El Salvador to the United States and other “western” countries make it easy to disconnect and treat it all like a bad dream. The reality is, that it’s not. The discovery of a mass grave weaves its way from local missing persons all the way to a corrupt president. The journey taken by a journalist is staggeringly dangerous, and to so many of us, it is only just a story. 

A story that can lead to a moment of empathy. The reality is that many of us feel powerless in the distance, with waves, mountains, and jungles separating us from the tension and horror of a country where a government is at war, and at times, in bed with gangs. Years of unrest cause exodus. According to The Migration Policy Institute, as of 2021 37% of people who came to the United States form Central America were from El Salvador. Over a million people. Over a million people are in the United States because of the political unrest in El Salvador.

Our own narrator, Daniel Alvarenga, has familial echoes of tragedy due to how El Salvador has been run for the last fifty years. His story weaves in from The United States and back to El Salvador with heart wrenching clarity. Not only is the country dangerous to be in as an average citizen, but to be a journalist of any sort is risking not just freedom, but life. Bryan Avelar, the Spanish Language host of Humo has been unable to return to the country he was working so hard to change for the better because of his journalism. 

So it’s not just the story, it’s not just the pull of the morbid curiosity brought on by a mass grave and a serial killer. It’s the understanding, and the reminder, that people risk the danger and immense discomfort of immigration to quite basically survive. Parents give up their children, sisters leave behind brothers, and children lose pieces of who they are for the sake of basic safety and opportunity. 

This isn’t a podcast just to tell a story that informs, it has the power to garner more understanding, and cultivate more humanity where it may not have been planted before. 

Humo is a documentary seriesproduced by Sonoro in partnership with Revista Factum.

Listen to Humo Below

HUMO: Murder and Silence in El Salvador
Listen to HUMO: Murder and Silence in El Salvador wherever you get your podcasts!

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