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Cintia García, '12

Opening Our Eyes: Stories of Civil War in El Salvador


     The republic of El Salvador was engulfed in a violent, twelve year civil war, from 1980 to 1991, with peace accords signed on January 1992 in Chapúltepec, Mexico. During this period violence became systematic and terror reigned among the civilian population. A surge of human rights violations took place due to instability across Central America spurred by Cold War fears of communism. In 1979, Colonel Jaime Abdul Gutiérrez and Colonel Adolfo Majano overthrew the National Coalition government and replaced it with the reformist Revolutionary Government Junta which led to the tensions between the conservative and leftist parties. The most ruthless leader within the Junta was Lieutenant Colonel Monterrosa who led the most gruesome attacks generating political struggles between civilians and the conservative military. This process of political polarization also fomented the rise of leftist movements such as the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), which played a prominent role in opposing the Junta's power. In this context indiscriminate attacks on the non-combatant civilian population and collective summary executions against the rural population became a constant. Death Squads organized appalling massacres such as those at the Sumpul River (14-15 May 1980), the Lempa River (20-29 October 1981) and El Mozote (December 2, 1981), in which innocent civilians were put to death. It was believed that all must be killed in order to cut out the "cancer" at the core. According to this "kill the seed mentality," every child regardless of age, all adults, including elders, and even animals had to be destroyed. As word of such massacres traveled through the nation, state and international institutions turned a blind eye, including the United States. The murder of Monsignor Romero on March 24, 1980 occurred during Mass: while he was consecrating the body and blood of Christ, his own blood was shed at Divina Providencia chapel. Then eight months later on December 2, 1980 four American women, one lay woman, Jean Donovan, and three nuns from the order of the Ursulin sisters and Maryknoll sisters: Dorothy Kazel, Maura Clarke, and Ita Ford, were raped, tortured, and mutilated by a Military death squad on their drive back from San Salvador airport. The deaths of these individuals, whose only crime was working in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, exemplified the seemingly limitless, devastating power of the Armed forces and the paramilitary groups controlled by them. Yet these examples were only the beginning of the twelve years of violence and bloodshed that was to come.

     The aid of the American government during the Reagan administration funded the military leaders in power and provided counterinsurgency training. On January 14, 1981, after a halt in aid, the US restored military assistance and increased its military and economic support, which amounted to a total of 4 billion dollars by the end of the war. The increasing flow of resources was intended to train, modernize and expand the structure of a number of elements in the armed forces including the Rapid Deployment Infantry Battalions that specialized in anti-guerilla warfare. Air raids, bombings, and mass executions, became part of everyday reality.

     After hearing this brief summary you might think that the history of El Salvador is filled with injustices, poverty, violence, and political instability paralleling economic instability. Yes, this history is terrible. But what does this history have to do with us here and with me?


     My family comes from San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador-my parents, extended family, and family friends experienced the violence, terror, and horror of the civil war. My family in El Salvador understood what it means to stand in solidarity with the poor. They believed in the mission of the church regarding its preferential option for the poor and stood by the side of individuals like Monsignor Romero. I remember, as a child, my grandfather would tell me stories about attending the masses of Monsignor Romero. One story in particular I will always remember is when my grandfather attended the funeral mass for Monsignor Romero. On this day, a bomb exploded in the cathedral plaza, while thousands of mourners were gathered there. My grandfather on this day and thousands of others escaped with their lives, but left their shoes behind, as mute reminders of what had happened. My grandfather was lucky to have escaped with his life when many others died. During the duration of the war, my parents were persecuted by the military because of their roles in the Catholic Church as catechists. A statement released by Monsignor Romero details the kinds of persecution my parents were experiencing:

"In less than three years, more than fifty priests have been attacked, threatened, calumniated. Six are already martyrs-they were murdered. Some have been tortured and others expelled. Nuns have also been persecuted. The archdiocesan radio station and educational institutions that are catholic or of a Christian inspiration have been attacked, threatened, intimidated, even bombed. Several parish communities have been raided. If all this has happened to persons who are the most evident representatives of the church, you can guess what has happened to ordinary Christians, to the campesinos, catechists, lay ministers, and to the ecclesial base communities. There have been threats, arrests, tortures, murders, numbering in the hundreds and thousands…" (February 1980 at the University of Belgium).

     My parents saw the peers from their parish disappear one by one while they lived daily in fear that they would be next on the blacklist the military had developed. As the war continued many members in my family unfortunately suffered this torture and death. These stories are ones that are barely being told today but have been kept silent.

     Growing up in Los Angeles I have encountered many people with similar stories because Los Angeles alone is home to 270,000 Salvadoran immigrants. Every corner you turn throughout the city, the Salvadoran presence is high. Since I volunteered in a parish that served immigrants from Central America, in particular, from El Salvador, I learned the stories of courage from a wide range of individuals. They all had endured similar experiences of abductions and torture, forcing them to leave their beloved country because they could no longer bear the violence and persecution.

     Since coming to Holy Cross, the legacy of the Jesuit presence in El Salvador and the civil war has always been present. From commemorative services my freshman year, to the various courses I have taken, all have deepened my understanding of the current situation and recent past in El Salvador. But it was not enough for me to continue reading these stories; so, in 2010 I took my first trip back to El Salvador, only two years after the program was initiated by the Chaplain's Office. The following summer I returned as the group leader for the same immersion experience.


     The opportunity to travel to El Salvador was a pilgrimage through the death and resurrection of a nation. I stood in the same spot where the blood of thousands of innocent people was shed, from El Mozote where the bullet holes and blood stains are still present, to the altar where Monsignor Romero was murdered; in the UCA museum, I saw his bloodstained garments. I traveled down the same road that Ita Ford, Jean Donovan, Dorothy Kazel, and Maura Clarke took that fateful day. I conversed with individuals that worked with these incredible women in the parish they served. I saw the American guns, planes, and cars used by the military only a few feet from the Radio Venceremos headquarters. The stories I had always known became part of my lived experience. Everywhere we traveled evidence of the war was present 20 years later.

     Even though it has been over 20 years since the peace accords, El Salvador continues to suffer the aftermath of the war. Poverty is still ever present-El Salvador is the fourth poorest nation in Central America. We saw brand new community developments across the street from cardboard shacks. The poverty is most clearly seen in the children, as young as the age of five, on the side of the road selling miscellaneous items. Crime and gang violence plague the nation due to the heavy presence of drug cartels in Central America. Opportunities for health care, education, and employment are relatively few to non-existent especially, after the dollarization of the economy which was introduced under the Bush administration. My host family, the Martínezes, for example, told me that Mr. Martínez supports his family from what he earns from the crops he sells. The day we visited he sold 100 lemons for $1.65; this was what he was using to support his family of five. This is the reality of the country; but even in the midst of this reality, the nation is experiencing a spiritual resurrection.

© Alexis Nicholas, '13

     Regardless of the violence the nation continues to relive, I experienced many testimonies of hope, love, and faith. They were the living gospel, the living God, the living church. As Monsignor Romero stated, "If they kill me, I will resurrect in the Salvadoran people." No truer words could have been uttered. Events from war, natural catastrophes, and poverty have continuously brought the smallest nation in Central America to the brink of ruin, but its citizens have not allowed it to happen. Living in communion with the people of this nation has opened my eyes and heart to a love and faith that I never knew before. It has led me to change the way I see life and what I can do. Nothing has shaped me like going to El Salvador twice and coming to terms with what I experienced and the ethical obligation to see what has happened in history and to respond to it.


     As a Religious Studies and Political Science double major with a concentration in Latin American and Latino Studies, I spent my semesters reading prominent liberation theologians, who define what I have experienced in theological terms. My own encounters with suffering have opened my eyes to realities of this world that cannot be ignored. Theologians such as Johann Metz refer to this experience as the "mysticism of open eyes." Through the encounter with those who suffer we experience the true nature of God. "Our relationship with God is decided in our encounter with other human beings," Metz writes. "One of the non-canonical sayings of Jesus is: the ones who see their neighbors see God. Our Human neighbor now becomes a 'sacrament' of God's hidden presence."

     For me the people of El Salvador are the sacrament, God is embedded within them and I witnessed God in them. I saw this in the children at the Centro Escolar in Zaragoza with whom we danced and played games; in the families I have stayed with and shared a home; in their laughter, basketball and soccer games, meals, and conversations that lasted well into the night. In the two little girls I met at El Mozote whose laughter was simply contagious. They are the hope of a community that was the site of unimaginable horrors.

     Therefore, it is within the signs of our time where God is present-we must take the present and scrutinize it in order to understand the world in which we live in. This is our task, but what comes after the scrutinizing? According to theologian Jon Sobrino, if we follow Christian scripture the "real ecclesial substance is the realization (making real) of the true people of God, within which communal equality is realized… that all support one another on the long journey of history, bearing one another's burdens, forgiving and encouraging one another, that all walk humbly with God in history."

     This call is a tall order. After experiences like that of El Salvador, how do we, who live in the first world, fulfill the call many liberation theologians are proposing?


     In my tutorial senior year, what now? is the question my colleague and I have been tackling. What I have concluded after some field research and readings is that it all boils down to education. Educating individuals in the first world of occurrences in the third world, because these events continue to happen today. My goal is to open your eyes to the past which is very much the present. And in the third world countries, we must push for education, that people may attain basic literacy, think critically, know their legal rights, and have access to basic needs, in order to achieve the voice they desperately need to end the injustices.

© Michael Rodgers, '12


vol. 10 (2013)
vol. 10 (2013)
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