Oral history interview with Mary Kay Baum

Dublin Core


Oral history interview with Mary Kay Baum


Madison (Wis.)
Sister cities
El Salvador
Madison-Arcatao Sister City Project (MASCP)
Political activists


Copyright 2022, Mary Kay Baum and Madison Public Library. For more information, contact Madison Public Library.


Baum, Mary Kay, 1947-


Laurion, Joan




Mary Kay Baum is well-known and highly respected in the Madison area as a community organizer, lawyer, school board member, county board member, ordained minister and one-time Madison mayoral candidate. She has dedicated her life to social justice and environmental causes. She was a passionate community activist and supporter of sistering between Madison and Arcatao in the early 1980s and traveled to El Salvador several times.


Madison, Wisconsin, United States
Arcatao, Chalatenango, El Salvador




Madison Public Library



Sound Item Type Metadata


Identifier: madarc-002
Narrator Name: Mary Kay Baum
Interviewer Name: Joan Laurion
Date of interview: 12/16/2022

[00:00:02] Introductions
[00:00:48] Reactions when resolution to Sister with Arcatao was passed on April 1, 1986
[00:02:51] Taking a copy of the resolution to Arcatao
[00:13:12] Massacre in Arcatao right before the resolution was passed
[00:16:58] When the people of Arcatao found out about the resolution
[00:20:48] Uncertainty and risk around Arcatao and surrounding areas
[00:23:03] Bombing of a nearby hamlet
[00:31:15] Going to Arcatao to observe their first elections
[00:39:34] Lessons learned
[00:42:53] Recording is cut off


Interviewer: Good morning.

Mary Kay Baum: Good morning.

[00:00:02] Introductions
Interviewer: Today is December 16, 2022. My name is Joan Laurion, and I'm here today in Ridgeway, Wisconsin recording for the Madison Arcatao Sister City Project, Living History Project with the Madison Public Library. I'm interviewing Mary Kay Baum. She's right here. Hi, Mary Kay.

Mary Kay Baum: Hi.

Interviewer: Why don't you just introduce yourself a tiny bit, Ms. Baum. Go on.

Mary Kay Baum: Yes. I'm Mary Kay Baum. And I was on the school board in Madison when I first became aware of Arcatao, El Salvador.

[00:00:48] Reactions when resolution to Sister with Acatao was passed on April 1, 1986
Interviewer: Perfect. So here's my first question for you. After so much community outreach and activism, and also strategizing with allies on the Common Council, on April 1, 1986, the resolution to Sister with Arcatao was passed. Can you remember what the community's reaction was to that successful vote? How you felt? What did people do?

Mary Kay Baum: It was such a relief, you know, celebrating our connection, yes. But also knowing that we, as a city -- truly sisters -- could be helpful and that we are doing a role that needed to be done. I just -- And to have such strong support on the city council. I wasn't on the city council but I was on the county board when I was younger. And so, I remember being in that chambers, the same one that the county board used, when this happened.

And, you know, you're supposed to kind of keep it quiet in those rooms. But we were just thrilled that our city would do what it could for peace.

Interviewer: Wow. Beautiful. So the war in El Salvador was still going on at that point, obviously.

Mary Kay Baum: Yes.

[00:02:51] Taking a copy of the resolution to Arcatao
Interviewer: But somehow it was decided to take an actual copy of the resolution to Arcatao. How did it come to pass that you were chosen to take the resolution to them?

Mary Kay Baum: Rosa Escamilla was very influential. She was on the city council at that point when it passed, and she had done most of the hard work talking to her fellow council members and so forth. But she could not go. There was a medical issue in her family, and she couldn't go. And she came to me. Actually, it was a delegation of about three people who came to me about whether I could go. And it was like a week before takeoff time, and luckily I had a passport that was valid and everything.

I had a daughter in elementary school and I had to -- actually, yeah. The biggest challenge was knowing that she would be staying with families that she knew. And there was one right across the street and another Native family, and it was one of her best friends anyway. And so, that worked itself out. I think they were going to be gone one day and I had to figure all this out in advance and feel comfortable with it. I knew I had to take time to think about her safety -- I mean, my safety as it relates to her, to my daughter. And I think the part that helped is that the year before, I had been to Nicaragua to monitor their elections.

And it was part of the National Lawyers Guild and it was very well done. And we always knew who was going to take notes at different parts of the -- and that had much more notetaking to take, you know. But there were a lot of interviews too. And so, I came to the conclusion that we were in a delegation that included an aide to Senator Dellums, the congressman. And I must say, in our subsequent actions with and delegations that I was on in Arcatao or throughout El Salvador during the war, we always tried to have a member of congress's staff person with us.

And that even sometimes it was a Republican legislator. I felt some assurances that I was not risking the future of my daughter, being a single parent at the time. So it was having to make a decision quickly and -- but already aware of the situation quite a bit.

Interviewer: Wow. So now, can you describe that trip? How did you get there? Why didn't you go to Arcatao? How did you feel about that?

Mary Kay Baum: We flew, I think out of Madison and into, I think, Houston, Texas, I think was probably the change of planes and so forth. Arrived in San Salvador -- the airport is a little distant from the main part of the city and things were pointed out to us from people who had been in the area or knew what to expect. And I think we spent the first night in San Salvador. And connected with the others who were going with us in the entire way.

Then it was a long trip. I think it was then that we were informed that we were not going to be able to go to Arcatao. And that I didn't know fully then the reasons except that the people were -- that it was safer to not go into the city at that time. It's interesting, I guess the population there was about 600 people, if you count everyone. And that's the population of the village I live in now. And I'm on the village board. And so, I have a better sense of -- and especially us not being able to go into the town.

So we met in a hamlet about 10 miles away where I was told that these people had been living kind of in the mountains there, which much of this area is. We all met in this little hamlet. And the first person who spoke to me -- and she clearly represented the whole group behind her. First, there was some kind of music or a song of welcome. I am not -- and especially then, I wasn't much of a Spanish speaker. But we had very good translators with us all the time.

And -so after that welcoming song, Maria Serrano came closer to our little delegation. And she introduced us to her daughter and others around. And I was asked to read the proclamation. I believe I read it in English and somebody translated to them. And I remember being moved so much by the words of the proclamation which, of course, I had certainly seen before. But to be saying again that their rights have been -- their United Nations or Geneva Conventions had been violated when they had been kept from their homes, or -- very hard to get food, and their lives being endangered.

Of course, later on I heard so many of the stories of youth having been taken from their homes and forced to join the army. And then they would be taken somewhere far away to a different part of El Salvador, and they were told that, you know, wherever they were taken, that those people were dangerous. So they wouldn’t associate them with their own fellow members of Arcatao. But much of the time we listened to their stories.

[00:13:12] What life was like in Arcatao right before the resolution was passed
And the main story that they told us, and we didn't know this till we got there:

You know, we passed the -- the city council had passed the proclamation on April 1st. We didn't know then how they found out about the proclamation, but they had -- sometime in April, I think after the proclamation was passed, but before they knew about it, they told us the story of how the people of Arcatao were rounded up. I think a helicopter kind of kept -- kind of telling them to go into the center of the town, which every town there has a church and a plaza.

And they were forced to go to the center of that town of Arcatao -- by the army. And they chose four young men. They accused the people of the city of favoring the rebels, they would say. And any young man would be considered that. So in front of the whole group, they started hitting and hurting these young men until they were lying dead on the ground.

And the army then said to the people, the remaining people, which -- the town is largely made up of elders and children and those probably were the only four men there at that time, young men. And they said, If you don't leave now, we're going to -- I think maybe they gave them a deadline, but anyway, Leave this town or -- because you have been sympathizing and feeding and caring for the rebels as they've said -- Leave or you will all be killed. And then the helicopters left.

And then they told us -- and this is still just Maria and the others telling us what had happened only weeks before.

[00:16:58] When the people of Arcatao found out about the resolution
It was shortly after that probably that the Red Cross -- only it's not called Red Cross down there, it's translated -- arrived, possibly to see if anybody was injured. And they told them that they had a sister city in Wisconsin. I remember -- and totally, like, years later, a young man who took care of food -- who grew food, corn, I believe, for the community -- he was taken -- I mean he was arrested because he had money on him.

And they thought he was going to go into the city and buy arms or something in the big cities in Salvador. That's what they said, anyway. But they arrested him and took him into the worst prison. And he was -- The guard said, “You know people in Wisconsin?” And he said, “Oh, my sisters are there.” Purposely wanting the words to be -- OK. Now I'll go back to the story. But, you know, that is how they thought of us. And Maria just called me her sister all the time, all the years subsequent.

And so, they told us that the Red Cross came -- when they told them -- to check to see that the people that were there were OK, and that this proclamation had been -- and that a delegation was coming down for their safety.

And I should say -- yeah. Because they had been worrying ever since the death of those four men, what should they do? And they decided they would not leave Arcatao or its area because they knew that a delegation was coming who would check on them. And if anything happened to them, it would become known. And that is so much of what our witnessing or accompaniment was about. They felt safer when we were personally there, but they also felt safe that if something did happen to them when we weren't there, the word would get out. And it would prevent future trouble. So that, I think, describes what happened then and there right at the first meeting of them that day.

[00:20:48] Navigating around Arcatao and surrounding areas
Interviewer: Beautiful. Mary Kay, if you couldn't get to Arcatao safely how did they get to San Jose Las Flores to meet you?

Mary Kay Baum: Well, they knew the mountains very well. And we always say Arcatao is part of Chalatenango. Well, Chalatenango is like the county seat would be here or something like that. And there's where the military were. And people were afraid to go into Chalatenango. And that's why years later, many years later, people at the -- when they were told they wouldn't be able to vote in Arcatao at the last minute because the government couldn't assure their safety, they'd have to travel to Chalatenango, which was like a day of travel, walking. And it would be fearful to even just go in that town. So they knew, you know, where to hide, where to -- well, I could tell the story about the next day.

Interviewer: Oh, wait, you said that maybe they walked all night?

Mary Kay Baum: Yes, they told me they walked all night in order to be at -- somehow the communication happened -- was probably by a runner. Although there was a radio eventually, but I think that would have been much later. They -- It was determined that community, San Jose Las Flores, would be the meeting place. It's a small hamlet. And in order to meet our time that was determined, they had to walk all night in the dark. And they probably knew the way to do that. They knew the land.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Mary Kay Baum: But it was quite the sacrifice on their parts.

[00:23:03] Most powerful memory of this trip to Arcatao: bombing of a nearby hamlet
Interviewer: Now, tell us about the most powerful memory of that experience.

Mary Kay Baum: The next day, I believe, we stayed in that same town, and we were walking. They were showing us the area and they told us we needed -- and these were some very young, I would say teenage boys who were showing us certain areas. And they said, Now you have to stay close to us, and if we tell you to do something, you have to do it. And they were showing where they had to have their plots, where they couldn't really be out harvesting or nothing was growing there.

Probably much of it was already parched by the kind of warfare that was going on where they just bombed areas whether there were people there or not. And suddenly one of them said to us, “Spread out and lay down and don't move.” We didn't know why. I didn't hear anything. But shortly I did. I heard a plane and saw the plane just, you know, looking up just a tiny bit, and I saw the U.S. marker on the plane. So it was the United States plane.

And it was quite a distance from us, but it was down a hill. We were on higher part of the hill. And then I saw smoke coming up from under where the plane had just been. One of the boys said what -- hamlet, the name of the little hamlet. But we were just as still as we could be because we knew we were being a danger to them too, you know, to anybody, if they knew where we were. They explained later that these planes are equipped with heat detectors. And so, if there was a group together, the plane would know that there's people there and we would be bombed.

But we were spread out and laying still. And I'll never forget that moment. Then I became -- I'm sure it was out of trauma. They felt it was safe to walk back towards where San Jose Los Flores was. And I felt faint. I'm somebody who has to eat. I have low blood sugar. And so, having coffee and something sweet in the morning wouldn't have helped me anyway. And I don't remember what we did or didn't eat.

But one of those boys pulled out of a pocket or something. And I didn't say I was hungry. I didn't -- I just said, Oh, I'm feeling faint. And he pulled that out and it was like whole wheat bread or, you know, something kind of stiff and -- but exactly what I needed. And I think they gave me water. I don't remember that part. I would guess they did. But they knew what to do, and they were equipped to do it. I mean, who carries food where you’re not planning a big trip anyway. And I just thanked them and I thanked them for their care.

Now, we had the -- I mean, normally, as I said before, we take somebody from Congress, some aide. And I think this event helped us, you know, really plan for that well in advance because we would be telling our hosts or that we would be -- the government would know where we were planning to go. And they didn't want to be seen killing people. That this was all supposed to be -- you know, they didn't want the United States to know.

[00:29:47] Main message and role for the delegation upon their return to the U.S.
These brings me to the main message they gave us when we would be ready to leave. They would say, Your job has just begun. The important task is what you do when you get back to the States. I'm thinking, Well, I won't be in danger then, you know. But their safety was dependent on two things: on us when we're there, that the government would know we're there and so they would feel safe, but also knowing that we're a sister city and we have come once already, and we're going to be back. We're going to come back at least -- you know, we went back a couple of times a year -- delegations during that time, as soon as we could arrange them again. And we would be public about it. And so, they know that -- And all the rest of my visits where we were planning to visit Arcatao, we visited Arcatao.

[00:31:15] Going to Arcatao to observe their first elections
And we made a difference when the government -- well, this is after the war is already -- the first election after the war is already at least signed as being over. The fact that by our coming -- and I had my daughter with me then, then she was a teenager. And I know this is sort of off the main reason we're here, but it does show. On our flight down for then we thought we were going to Arcatao to observe their elections, the first elections.

The United Nations was monitoring. And when we got to San Salvador, we were told – no, when we got all the way to Arcatao, again over these very dusty, if you can call them roads, but -- pathways, and I think that time we had to walk on a bridge that was made of rope.

Interviewer: Wow.

Mary Kay Baum: Yeah. And over, you know, a ravine. But it was all strong and everything. And people ahead of us had gone over. So, you could do that. And we get to Arcatao, and they tell us that the government had just announced that Arcatao couldn't have its elections there, or that elections for the government or for the president and for all the other positions could not -- because the army could not be sure of the security there. And people were outraged because they knew that -- they were told they'd have to travel to Chalatenango hours, many hours, a whole day away you have to walk and a fearful place.

Well, they had been told that and they had reached the United Nations people. They decided they had to reach the United Nations people to -- So one or two trucks, you know, pickup trucks, not fancy ones, not new ones. But anyway, my daughter and I, we had just arrived in Arcatao and they told us -- and they said their plan is to get as many people as possible from Arcatao down to San Salvador just where we had come from and be at the hotels where the United Nations peoples are staying. And I didn't think my daughter would want to go.

And she wanted to go. Then I felt I could go with her. And we were sitting in the back of the vehicle. I have a picture of her in the back of the vehicle with -- and it was a bumpy route and -- but it wasn't going over that -- we didn't have to get out of the vehicle or anything. And they had a route to San Salvador. And we did the speaking -- they had loudspeakers and people spoke. We were merely accompanying and documenting what was happening. And I think we did. We were able to contact our legislators, or some within our group did to put pressure from the United States that the United Nations didn't call for this.

This is a violation of their rights and so forth. And so then we were driven back. And of course, we were -- you know, they took care of us, made sure we had food that we needed and such. But the next morning, a helicopter with United Nations on it -- symbol, not in English, but anyway -- flew down to Arcatao's main plaza and announced that the elections would be held in Arcatao (applause). And I have pictures. I mean this was like two days before the event, before the -- I have pictures of people standing in line for hours to be able to vote.

And the voting it wasn't inside a building, it was kind of a podium kind of thing where you could secretly, you know, fill in. I have this picture of this older, elder woman, obviously tired and weak but voting with, you could see, with pride. And I must say that when I see elections in the United States now, where people have had to stand even recently for hours in order to vote because some rule got changed at the last minute, I am -- it reminds me always of this. And I have always thought of doing a letter to the editor, comparing, you know -- sometimes we act like a country that has lost its democracy. Anyway -- yeah, that's much later.

But it amplifies the importance, not that we speak or tell them what to do -- Always when we would think that we should bring something down -- maybe some church that offered school chairs and school desks -- bringing them down to them. And we said, Well, that's not really on the list. Well, let's ask what they would like. And they would rather that we purchase from them, the people who are making furniture, and that helps their economy and the people there.

[00:39:34] Lessons learned
And that is such a good reminder. We are not the only ones who can help themselves, but they need the resources, and they should get adjusted wage for doing this work. And just -- the lessons I learned, that our job is influencing our own legislators for world peace and for stopping to use our -- during this whole war -- I hate to call it a war, because it isn't -- I mean, in the sense it is not a two-way war. It was just attacking people, citizens.

And so, the -- I was going to say something about the -- oh, other things we learned. What would be good? Don't bring trees down from the United States. We have trees growing, but we need -- you know, we need them in Arcatao, where they just bombed the trees and so forth, and that kind of thing. Our words to our own legislators and to the public, for the public to know that -- I met a mother who was carrying a child in her arms. This, again, is years later. It's in the middle of the war. And she was in a town that had -- in a hamlet that had been shot at from helicopters, United States helicopters. Oh, by the way, we were told never try to take a picture of any equipment or planes or helicopters military was using. And you would probably not get -- You would probably not leave that spot alive if you tried to do that. So, in this case, we were talking about, I get these side --

Interviewer: About the mom and her baby.

Mary Kay Baum: OK. So the mom and the baby, she said to us -- she came up to our delegation and she told us through a translator -- we learned that she had been told to not go to the United States delegation that's here.


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