Still scarred by memories of the violence that befell their town in the wake of their last democratic election half a century ago, peasants and landowners alike went to the polls here today to vote in an election they said they hoped would bring less, not more, bloodshed to their brutalized lives.

"This is a town that 50 years ago was the first to suffer a Communist invasion in Latin America," said local election commissioner Juan Roberto Rauda Rivas. "From what our population suffered then, there are still very vivid scars to haunt the minds of the voters you see before you today."

"What is happening here now," the commissioner said as he pointed proudly to the long queues of voters who had gathered behind the 20 ballot boxes in a local farm cooperative building, "is proof that the people of El Salvador have finally understood that their most powerful weapon for liberty is not the gun but the ballot."

Voters began arriving at this town's lone voting center today with the first sign of dawn from behind the Izalco volcano to the east.

By the time the polls opened at 7 a.m. in the inner courts of a cooperative two blocks from the cathedral-dominated local square, thousands had lined up to vote. Through the day they stood chatting, laughing, eating slices of watermelon and tamales wrapped in corn leaves.

But memories of the past rather than hopes of the future hung over the elections here in Juayua, a quaint, sleepy coffee plantation market town of 6,000 in the western area of Sonsonate province. For it was here, and in the surrounding towns, that the orgy of violence that continues to haunt the nation first began. It was here that Latin America's first Communist-backed revolt occurred in January 1932 following a military overthrow of El Salvador's last freely elected government, that of president Arturo Araujo.

Araujo was elected in 1931 on a platform to reform the nation's feudal system, a platform that was no more radical than that advocated today by Jose Napoleon Duarte, president of the civilian-military junta who is seeking victory for his centrist Christian Democratic Party.

Like Duarte, Araujo upset the vested interests of the oligarchs of his era--and the army that they had so long dominated. Araujo managed to rule for only eight months before being overthrown by his vice president, Gen. Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez. He set the pattern of military dictatorships that continued until Oct. 15, 1979, when a coup by angry young officers toppled Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero and started the series of temporary juntas that today's popular elections are intended to replace.

The abortive peasant revolt was called by Augustin Farabundo Marti, one of Latin America's first Communist agitators, as a reaction to Hernandez's assumption of power. Memories of the uprising, long considered this century's turning point in El Salvador, and the military's response still cloud the nation's political thinking and judgment.

The vast bloodletting in the rebellion and the repression that followed left from 10,000 to 30,000 dead. To people of the right--landowners, businessmen, oligarchs--it was a violent class struggle in which the haves were brutalized by the have-nots.

To those on the political left--today's guerrillas, Communists, underground Social Democrats, or even Duarte's Christian Democrats--the matanza or butchery, as the killing was known, was an exercise in government repression that set the tone for the wave of officially supported violence, assassinations and mysterious disappearances that for the past three years have created a nightmare in El Salvador.

Today, a small coffee planter in the empty, cobbled streets here pointed out the house where Don Emilio Redaelli, an Italian immigrant, town mayor, and foreman for the region's dominant coffee plantation, was hauled out of his house in 1932 after being wounded and seeing his wife raped. He was dragged through the streets and tortured, then finally killed by a machete blow. The dead immigrant's son, Mario, is today a leader of the rightist National Republican Alliance, which is threatening to end Duarte's recent dominance.

Redaelli was one of four of the town's oligarchs to die in the quickly repressed uprising. About 200 peasants were killed in military executions in reprisal after the revolt. Many thought their only crime was that they were poor, of Indian parentage and selected by Hernandez's government as an example to make sure they would never again rise up against their rulers.

One toothless and barefoot 74-year-old said as he waited in line to vote: "We are voting again because we hope this time we can put an end to the violence. We didn't 50 years ago, but today we have to try. If not, the matanza that has never ended will continue."