Jesuit martyrs bolster El Salvador's Left


UCA Martyrs muralEarlier this year, I volunteered as an Observer in El Salvador's Presidential Election. For the first time in the country's history there was a democratic transition of power: Mauricio Funes, a former journalist, was elected with 51.27 per cent of the vote.

He represents the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the political party of the former guerrilla forces in the civil war, and has dedicated his presidency to the life of Monseñor Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in 1980 for speaking out against the repression and human rights abuses that occurred in the lead-up to the war.

The election took place on 15 March, and the 29th Anniversary of Romero's death occurred on 24 March. That day was charged with symbolism for those who had hoped, prayed and struggled for so long for an improvement in the conditions of the poor majority of the country.

I went to the University of Central America (UCA), Jose Simeon Cañas, on that day. It is named after a man who campaigned to end slavery, but is better known for the events of 16 November 1989, when six Jesuit priests and two others were assassinated there.

UCA Martyrs memorial rose gardenFive days before their deaths, on 11 November 1989, the FMLN had commenced their final offensive against the military. In response, the top military brass decided to make an example of the UCA Jesuits, who had been some of the strongest voices promoting social justice and human rights in the country.

I thought I had a good understanding of El Salvador's recent history, but my insight was deepened by the people I was living with at the time.

One was a former Salvadoran Catholic priest who had been kidnapped and tortured by the military. The other was a Canadian Lutheran Minister who was imprisoned and accused of the murder of the Jesuits, before being expelled by a government desperate to tell any story except for the reality: that the UCA Martyrs were assassinated by an elite military unit. Under cover of darkness, they had broken into the Jesuits' living quarters, rounded them up and led them outside for execution. They then burnt the neighbouring centre that commemorated Romero's life.

In a cruel twist of fate, the Jesuits' cook had stayed over that night with her 15 year old daughter for the first time: her husband was out of town, and they considered it safer than home. They were terribly wrong.

UCA Martyrs chapelIgnacio Ellacuria, Ignacio Martin-Baro, Segundo Montes, Arnando Lopez, Joaquin Lopez y Lopez and Juan Ramon Moreno are the Jesuit priests who died that day, along with Julia Elba Ramos, and her daughter Cecilia Ramos.

They are not forgotten. The restored Oscar Romero Centre at the UCA now tells their stories as well. As part of their community service, UCA students explain the lives and struggles of the Martyrs to visitors. Out the back is a commemorative rose garden: a beautiful and peaceful spot today, in contrast to the photos displayed inside, which graphically depict the discovery of the bodies in that same location 20 years ago.

Unfortunately the boundary wall to the garden is topped by razor wire, like almost every wall in the country — the most visible signs of the immense social problems and security concerns that still plague the country.

Beside the Centre is the Chapel. The Martyrs lie in the crypt there, and a painting of them hangs on the opposite wall. The Chapel is a mixture of the hope and despair from El Salvador's history. On the back wall, the Stations of the Cross are represented by sketches of tortured and mutilated bodies found dumped on the streets during the years of the civil war. Opposing this, the altar is filled with the vivid colours of the paintings of Fernando Llort, El Salvador's most famous artist. He paints hope, with new growth flowing from the hands of Romero.

Jon Sobrino, who was away on that fateful day in 1989, celebrated Mass on 24 March. He had Romero's face stitched on his stole — 29 years later, Romero was still looking out at his congregation.

On 16 November the Chapel will be filled again, like it has been for each of the past 20 years, although this time will be different. In death the UCA Martyrs were made an example of, because they embodied the promotion of social justice and human rights for which the FMLN were fighting. This time, the example of their lives will join with Romero's in shining a light for this first democratically elected FMLN government.

Jeremy TarboxJeremy Tarbox is a 2009–2011 Rotary World Peace Fellow from Australia, focusing on International Development in Latin America. During 2009 he observed El Salvador's presidential election with Centro de Intercambio and Solidaridad/Centre for Exchange and Solidarity and assisted with this NGO's report to the Tribuno Supremo Electoral/Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

Topic tags: Ignacio Ellacuria, Ignacio Martin-Baro, Segundo Montes, Arnando Lopez, Joaquin Lopez y Lopez, Juan Ramon



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Existing comments

Very moving story. The reality I remember vividly! People must be touched by the commitment of those people! Thanks!

E. Hufkens | 11 November 2009  

Thank you so much for bringing to mind again, the the courage and bravery of these people of great Faith and Hope.

How easy it is for us, here in a free country to protest, write letters and generally strive for a more equatable and just world, with no fear involved.
I am not denigrating these activities, which to my mind are an absolutely moral imperative, in following Christ.
It is sobering to remember and respect those who had their lives taken, fighting similar issues in a cruel and unjust regime.

Their Faith in a 'Good God' comes to mind, and the example of their lives, can spur us on to greater efforts, in seeking for justice.

Bernie Introna | 11 November 2009  

Next monday, 16 November the president of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes is expected to give a posthumous distinction and homage to the murdered Jesuit priests. He will present the Jesuits' family members with the Golden Great Cross for humanitary services regarding combat against inequity and construction of democracy in El Salvador.

Carlos | 12 November 2009  

great to see this post on what is, in the united states, veteran's day. as we reflect on the people who served this country let us also remember the wounds caused by the destructive policies of the Kennedy/Johnson/Nixon/Carter/Reagan/Bush/Clinton/Bush administrations ... Obama, are you listening?

Good work Jeremy.

dalton anthony | 12 November 2009  

Jeremy, muchas gracias for your excellent reflection on this massacre, one of hundreds in El Salvador during the years of the massacres, 1932-1992, When I first visited El Salvador in 1991 I knew it was right to be there to present a different side of US Americans. I have now been there 15 times including serving as an observer with you in March with the CIS. When you have a chance I encourage you to check out my reflections of the election at En solidaridad, Carlitos.

Carl J. Malischke | 12 November 2009  

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