Seven days of solidarity in El Salvador

Wed, 03/17/2010 - 2:00pm
Romero Tomb

“I have frequently been threatened with death. I must say that, as a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people.”

Oscar Arnulfo Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, spoke these prophetic words just weeks before his assassination on March 24, 1980. Thirty years later, I witnessed firsthand the spirit of Romero alive in the people of El Salvador.

Over Mardi Gras break, I accompanied Billy Kavula, campus minister for liturgy and music; Rev. Ted Arroyo, S.J., rector of the Jesuit community; and nine students on a weeklong immersion trip to El Salvador, where we lived in solidarity with the Salvadoran people.

We worked with CRISPAZ, Christians for Peace in El Salvador, an organization that facilitates immersion encounters. Francisco Mena Ugarte led our delegation in experiencing the Salvadoran reality.

None of us anticipated the horrifying stories we would hear from the survivors of the civil war, the incredible faith and determination of the women of CoMadres, or the generous hearts of our home-stay families in Guarjila. None of us imagined how enormously our lives would be transformed by our experiences in this small, war-battered country.

“I have read and written papers about El Salvador, but one can only read and write so much. What has happened and is occurring in El Salvador does not seem real until you can experience it yourself,” said Adriana Moreno ’10, a senior theology major. “I can see God in these people. I can see how God is working through them and through people like ourselves. God brought us to these people so that we can be a voice for them back here in the States.”


Our week began with Sunday morning Mass in the crypt of the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador, the church’s basement that houses Romero’s tomb. During Mass people knelt at his tomb to pray and left flowers in his memory.

In the 1970s and ’80s, the structure of Salvadoran society was such that the lower class were a threat to those in power, who ordered the military to torture and kill thousands of civilians during the country’s civil war. Romero believed that the government’s oppression of the poor violated their basic human rights.

In the afternoon, we met with Peggy O’Neill, S.C., who in 2005 founded the Art Center for Peace in Suchitoto. The center promotes peace through the arts and cultural exchange.

O’Neill, an activist for peace in El Salvador since 1986, challenged our group to work together for change and to think about what actions we would take when we returned to campus.

She and other activists during the civil war fought for truth when lies and propaganda were the status quo. “It’s easy to help, but it’s harder to risk. What am I willing to risk for the truth – for what I know to be true for me?” she asked, inspired by the teachings of Ignacio Ellacuria, S.J., one of the Jesuit martyrs.

We all have crosses to bear, O’Neill explained, but are we helping others off their crosses or building them? This idea impressed many of our group members, especially Michael Lysek  ’11, a junior studying pre-medicine.

“No line I have ever heard has made me think about life more than what Sr. Peggy said,” Lysek reflected. “I feel like it helped everyone stay humble and realize that we should correct our lives so we are not a burden to anyone. It makes us want to help those people in need without judging them, which puts a ‘cross’ on them.”


The next morning our group visited the Divine Providence, where Romero lived during his time as archbishop. We viewed black-and-white photos of Romero’s assassination and his bloodstained clothing. A single bullet penetrated his shirt and vestment, straight through Romero’s heart.

We visited the chapel where a death squad soldier shot Romero with an assault rifle, as the archbishop celebrated Mass. The altar now proclaims: “On this altar, Mons. Oscar A. Romero gave his life to God for his people.”

Next, we met with CoMadres, the Committee of Mothers of the Disappeared. Alicia de Garcia, one of the founding members of the group, shared the history of the organization and her personal story.

On July 30, 1975, students from the national university protested for better conditions at the school. Garcia heard the marches taking place on the street; then she witnessed armed soldiers marching toward the protestors. “All of a sudden, we heard the rifles being fired, and we saw the first people fall to the ground. There was panic,” she recounted in Spanish as Mena translated.

The first shots were fired at about 10:30 a.m. In the afternoon, the army rolled through in trucks to pick up the dead bodies. “Some students were still moving but couldn’t escape, and they were thrown in with the dead students. Most of these students were never seen or heard from again,” she said. Garcia’s brother was among those who marched and disappeared.

Relatives searched for their loved ones in hospitals, morgues, police stations and prisons in San Salvador, to no avail. In 1977, with the encouragement of then recently appointed Archbishop Romero, the group of women organized themselves and searched for answers – extremely dangerous and emotionally taxing work.

Over the next few years, members of CoMadres photographed mutilated dead bodies for identification by their family members, providing families their only source of closure. Graphic photos still hang in the CoMadres office.

The women marched in protest to demand the release of prisoners and were confronted by members of the armed forces who tried to intimidate them. The Mothers refused to be silenced.

After hearing the barbarous acts others withstood, our group asked Garcia whether she or her family members were ever captured and tortured. The room was silent as she shared her story.

In 1981, paramilitary soldiers blindfolded, raped, electrocuted and suffocated Garcia, who was five months pregnant at the time. She delivered a stillborn baby and was left for dead.

Garcia’s daughter was taken, raped and tortured; but she fled El Salvador and now lives in Canada. Her 12-year-old son was “forcibly disappeared.” Her 16-year-old son, Juan Carlos, was seized while collecting information for the 1992 Commission on the Truth for El Salvador to the United Nations. He and his cousin were tortured and killed. The mural Juan Carlos painted in the CoMadres office serves as a stark reminder of El Salvador’s violent past and the peace for which the women continue to fight.

Garcia is amazingly strong and steadfast in her faith. She is not angry with God but believes she would not be alive without him. Garcia, who is now battling cancer, welcomed our group into the CoMadres office with hugs and a smile. As painful as it is for her to relive the torture, she is compelled to share the truth, and she thanked us for listening to her story.

Emily Reznicek ’12, an international studies major, said visiting El Salvador gave real faces, names and places to the torturing, disappearances and murders that took place for decades. “This trip makes me want to fight for justice and stand up to oppression everywhere so that nobody ever has to suffer like the Salvadorans suffered,” she said.


On the third day we visited the National Assembly to meet with representatives from El Salvador’s two major political parties: the left-wing National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA).

On March 15, 2009, Mauricio Funes, the presidential candidate from the FMLN party, won the election and officially took office on June 1, 2009. He is the first FMLN party leader not to have fought in the Salvadoran civil war.

First, we heard from Damian Alegria, an FMLN deputy and former commander of FMLN forces during the civil war. He and his wife, Carolina, own Hotel Oasis, the guesthouse in San Salvador at which our delegation stayed.

Then, we heard from Jaime Handal, a legislator from the ARENA party. We met in the Roberto d’Aubuisson Room, named after the founder of the ARENA party. The Truth Commission determined that d’Aubuisson was responsible for organizing the death squads, ordering Romero’s assassination, and sending the CoMadres death threats.

We then visited the Monument to Memory and Truth at Parque Cuscatlán, a memorial wall dedicated to the civilian victims of the war. The 12-year civil war resulted in 75,000 deaths, mostly civilians. On Jan. 16, 1992, the Salvadoran government and the FMLN signed The Peace Accords to end the civil war.

The monument is similar to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., a 300-foot-long black granite wall of names, including Archbishop Romero and the six Jesuit martyrs.


On Ash Wednesday, our group headed to the rural village of Guarjila, located in the province of Chalatenango. I was sick that day, so I missed the stops along the way.

The group visited El Paisnal, where Rev. Rutilio Grande, S.J., ministered and was murdered in 1977. A close friend of Romero, the priest vocalized his compassion for the poor and his condemnation of the Salvadoran government. After Grande preached a sermon on social justice, government agents shot him. Grande’s death served as a catalyst for Romero to continue the fight against oppression.

Our delegation visited Chalate Cemetery to pay respects to the two Maryknoll sisters who were martyred in 1980. Salvadoran National Guardsmen tortured, raped and shot Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, along with fellow missionaries Jean Donovan and Dorothy Kazel. The women had worked with war refugees and the poor throughout Central America.

In the afternoon, we met our home-stay families in Guarjila. Our group members divided into pairs and stayed at our families’ homes for two nights. In recognition of Ash Wednesday, the group joined the people of Guarjila for Mass at the chapel of the Jon Cortina, S.J. monument.

Kathleen Kirk ’11, a studio art major, said she was blessed by the time she spent with her family in Guarjila. “I have been deeply moved by their stories of pain and struggle and have been truly affected by witnessing their incredibly strong relationship with God,” she said. “I will forever be thankful for my experiences there and am happy to say that I have family in El Salvador.”


After having breakfast with the families, our delegation met with the community’s youth group, who sang songs about Salvadoran life and discussed how they were preparing to become positive members of their community.

I felt better, so I took a taxi from our guesthouse in San Salvador to the village of Guarjila. There, I met my new family: Eva, 78, her daughter Nora, 26, and Nora’s son Gerardo, 2. Nora’s husband is in medical school in Cuba.

I joined the group on a hike in the hills of Guarjila, led by Mario, 19, Chamba, 18, and several other community members. It was arid and hot (in the 90s in mid-February), but the view was breathtaking. From the highest peak, we could see farmland and the Honduran border.

“This hike let me see God’s land more clearly, and also it showed me a sense of community and caring,” Lysek said. “These people took time out of their day to take us on a hike, and they worked together to help us reach the top. It shows that with the help of each other we can scale mountains.”

We visited the house of Jon Cortina, S.J., founder of the Association in Search of Disappeared Children that reunited families in El Salvador during the war. His six Jesuit brothers were brutally murdered at the University of Central America, but Cortina survived because that night he was ministering in Chalatenango. Cortina died in 2005 at age 71.

That night we had dinner with the families. With my elementary Spanish skills and my partner Reznicek’s help, we exchanged life stories and family photos with Eva and Nora.

Nora slept in the bed with Gerardito. Eva gave up her twin bed to Reznicek and me, while she slept on the hammock in the main room. How could these people thank for visiting, when they cooked us meals and gave us their beds?

Maria Walser ’10, a senior communication arts major who has participated in service/immersion trips all four years at Spring Hill, said her experience in El Salvador was life changing. “This trip truly gave me a new awareness on my life and the role I serve in spreading the word to others about living in solidarity and being a voice for the voiceless,” she said.


It was our last morning with our families. When Nora woke us for breakfast, she presented to Emily and me woven bookmarks with our names on them. She had made them while we were asleep.

Nora’s gesture of kindness reminded me of what Mena told us before we departed for Guarjila. We were not there to serve them or do community service work. We were there to learn from the people of Guarjila and to live in solidarity with them. I gained so much from the short time I spent with my family in Guarjila.

Our group gathered and waited for the van to take us back to San Salvador. Eva insisted on carrying my bag on the long walk from their house.

As we boarded the van, and everyone hugged and waved goodbye, I thought about how there is no van coming to take these people out of poverty. This is their home. This is their reality.

In the afternoon, we visited the University of Central America (UCA), where the massacre of the six Jesuits and their two female collaborators took place. On Nov. 16, 1989, Ignacio Ellacuria, Segundo Montes, Ignacio Martin-Baro, Joaquin Lopez y Lopez, Juan Ramon Moreno, and Amado Lopez, along with their housekeeper Elba Ramos and her teenage daughter Celia, were brutally murdered. Twenty-six members of the Salvadoran military raided the Jesuit residence, pulled the priests from their beds, and shot them repeatedly with machine guns.

As we looked through hundreds of gruesome photos from the massacre, it was one of the many times during the trip when we asked, “How could a person do this to another human being?” It is incomprehensible.


Our final day in El Salvador was a day of reflection at San Blas, a beach on the Pacific coast. The week sparked many questions that didn’t have simple answers. Mid-week, after hearing several personal stories of injustice, Mena posed the question: Where is God in all of this? The answer seemed obvious: He is in the people of El Salvador. He is the joy in their smiles, the generosity in their hearts, and the strength of their spirit.

In contrast to international service trips, our immersion in El Salvador required us to be witnesses and storytellers. What we experienced in El Salvador will impact our everyday decisions and the actions we take in the United States. Lysek said, “During this whole trip I was thinking, our service starts when we get back, rather than while we are in El Salvador.”

The students are working to establish a scholarship for bright, young people like Mario and Chamba, so they can attend university in San Salvador. Other initiatives our group is working on include collecting digital cameras for O’Neill at the Art Center for Peace and selling crafts made by the artisan women of Guarjila.

Our efforts are small, but they bring to mind a verse from The Romero Prayer, which we read on the beach of San Blas:

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.