Every time I walk past the UCA (the Jesuit University here) I can’t help but think that people were murdered there. I came to El Salvador knowing a bit of history and a very specific history of the Jesuits here, and yet it was my own apprehensive heart that prevented me from really knowing the place that the six Jesuits and two women were killed in 1989. I didn’t want to visit until I was ready.
Well, Friday began with a bang! I accompanied a coworker and a friend to the Hospital of Divine Providence, the place where Oscar Romero lived and was murdered. Another place I was avoiding out of fear....
So as the story goes, Romero was made the Archbishop of El Salvador in the mid 1970's. He was appointed as a person who would not make a lot of changes and maintain the status quo. In the beginning, Romero was a friend of the rich, and they thought they were supporting someone "safe". But as history took its course, Romero also evolved. Through his relationship with Rutillo Grande (now a Jesuit Martyr), Romero learned about the reality of the poor of his country, and he was forced to live life with his eyes wide open. In time, Romero became the true man of God that he is known for today. He became a man of the poor and began speaking out against the oppression of the rich and the government. His sermons were prolific and prophetic, and like Dr. King, he knew his words had consequences.
While saying mass at the hospital chapel (a hospital for those with terminal cancer), Romero was assassinated by a man who was later linked to the School of the Americas. A week later, Romero’s funeral was packed with Salvadorans flowing out into the park. The government used the opportunity to open fire on the crowd, killing the defenseless mourners.
Today, Romero is the Salvadoran Saint. Although Rome will probably never canonize him for political reasons, Salvadorans have already given him sainthood status. He is there national hero and a beacon of light. And in some ways, because he is a martyr, his message has been heard by even more people. On behalf of the government, killing Romero was probably one of the worse moves they ever made!
I visited his humble home on Friday as well as the very spot his body fell when the bullets hit him. I saw the bloodstained clothing he was wearing and his limited personal possessions that proved his commitment to live in solidarity with the poor.
It was an intense experience to say the least, and in a way, I felt closer to the Salvadoran people by getting a closer glimpse of a person they admire so greatly.
By Saturday, I woke up and decided to take the morning off, knowing the evening was going to be filled with more intensity. By three in the afternoon, I waltzed down to the UCA so join the festivities of the 16th Anniversary of the Jesuit Martyrs.
The first thing I saw on the campus were the unusual amount of gringos. They come here in delegations for the event...to learn more about liberation theology...and experience the certain mysticism that martyrs bring. But besides the gringos, I saw beautiful alfombras (rugs made of sand). Groups of students at the UCA get together and interpret the reality of El Salvador through artistic expression. They spend tedious hours on this one large rectangular space that will later be photographed and destroyed. Simply amazing pieces of artwork, and onetime occurrence.
By the time we had seen the alfombras, it was time to finally go to The Romero Center and see the Rose Garden, the place were the Jesuits were found. They have a little museum off to the side with personal effects from the Jesuits as well as the other Latin American Martyrs including the Maryknoll church women, James Carney and Rutillo Grande, to name a few. One of my favorite memories about that experience was walking next to a campasino man as we went through the museum and when we got to the El Mozote display, he tapped me on my arm to show me all the bullets they found in the mass graves. I looked into his eyes at that moment, and I could see a certain sadness of collective pain he has faced throughout his long life in El Salvador. And the thought did cross my mind, "was he from the area of El Mozote?"
After the museum, I went to the Rose Garden and just stood there for a few minutes. I couldn’t help but visualize the last moments of the Jesuits and two women. The horror of finding soldiers in your yard...hearing gunshots in close proximity and knowing they are coming to you next...wondering if there is a way to escape...saying a last minute prayer before death. Today there are rose plants in the space where some of the Jesuits were found. Besides contemplating the cycle of life to death and the symbolism of death, the site itself has a certain calm intensity....
After that experience we decided to get some good fresh juice and take it easy before the vigil. We saw some friends, went to the chapel to see the stations of the cross art by Roberto Huezo (a really talented Salvadoran artist).
By 6pm the vigil started and also welcomed thousands of people. The was an interpretive dance that kicked off the vigil and I couldn’t help but cry (I’m one of those closet emotional folks...connected to everything and everyone but you can never really tell). They danced to this song that I hear often here, and that I like a lot, but this time I really listened to the lyrics and reflected.
Translation of the refrain: "Changes...there are many Changes..."
I couldn’t help but think of the cycle of changes here in El Salvador. A brutal history of murder and corruption marked with committed, loving people who don’t give up. The poor who fight every damn day for ever ounce of dignity. The United States who parades their wealth here and flaunts their level of power by influencing government policies like its their job. The Salvadorans that I know, who have such a deep and sad history of love and loss, of assassinations and struggles. And I think "cambios, muchos cambios..."
I wonder if anything really does change here...the acuerdos de paz that are for shit...the US presence that make me want to denounce where I am from...the Salvadorans who always talk about the past for fear it will happen again, so that we may never forget. How could you not get caught up in that experience.....
So after my little moment, I joined some friends, including my house mother when I first came to Salvador (she took such good care of me). It was really a special experience walking through the vigil with her because it is her history that she shared with me that I think of every day now.
I think of her three daughters who are my age and now live in San Francisco. I think of how her brother was a member of the guerrillas, trained in Cuba and killed here in El Salvador (17 years old). I think of the 1986 earthquake that took her house as she had to care for her three girls alone, without a husband. The trauma of dealing with the aftermath of the disaster and the war with her children. Her connection to the people of her country and her commitment to her faith. I remember her story of how she was there in the park at Romero’s funeral when they opened fire. It’s all these stories and more that I remember every time I hear a song...or hug her...and so walking next to her in this vigil was really important (and unplanned).
But let me tell you, this vigil was huge...thousands of people with individual histories and a real feeling of understanding and solidarity. It wasn’t particularly somber, but I think it is part of the historical mourning that is taking place here.
After the vigil, was the mass. And all I really want to say about that was that the sermon was really rockin. Whoever the guy was, he was really right on. He really got to the core of the reality here. From the long standing poverty, to the government corruption, the unequal distribution of wealth, the collective sins brought on by violence and the ever present "natural disasters" that he also believes aren’t quite so NATURAL. I really found myself hanging onto his every word, really glad I believed in the same God he did...really glad he was representing Catholicism...the Catholicism that I know and Love.
At any rate, after mass, was an interval documentary and a solidarity concert. There is really something awesome in this world when you can sing some really great music that has such a powerful message that people connect with. Music can move mountains man, and when you think of the power of music and media here, your thoughts can really go somewhere.
So that’s how I ended my night. I sang Casas de Carton as I lulled myself to sleep, and found myself thanking God for another really great Salvadoran day. And these are the moments that remind me that this could be the rest of my life....
On a side note: Bought some swell music and a T-shirt with Romero, Che and Marti on it. The shirt is so intriguing that I couldn’t help but buy it in the hopes that it would create future conversation. I’m not so convinced that these three men had the same ideals, but I do see some of the similarities and their differences are what makes the shirt interesting!