The rose garden, at the UCA. Photo by David Romero S.J. (Casa Fall 2007).
By Angela Alaimo O'Donnell, associate director of Francis and Ann Curran Center for American Catholic Studies. Fordham University
At the University of Central America (known affectionately as “The UCA,” pronounced oo-ka) in the heart of the city of San Salvador, grows a beautiful rose garden. The roses were planted and meticulously tended by a man named Obdulio Ramos. Obdulio once worked at the UCA as a handyman and landscaper, and his wife worked for the University, as well, keeping house for the Jesuits who served as leaders, scholars and teachers.
On the night of November 16th, 1989, Julia Elba Ramos and her daughter, Celina, who was staying overnight with her mother, were awakened, dragged from their beds, and savagely murdered, along with 6 Jesuit priests who were living in the house: Ignacio Ellacuria, Segundo Montes, Ignacio Martin-Baro, Amando Lopez, Juan Ramon Moreno, and Joaquin Lopez y Lopez.
Father Ellacuria, the president of the UCA, had been an outspoken critic of the corrupt leadership of the Salvadoran government and the civil war being waged against its own people. The government sent soldiers to assassinate him and to brutalize his body, and were given instructions to leave no witnesses; hence, the “collateral damage” of the 5 unlucky priests, the blameless housekeeper, and her 16-year-old child. The bodies were discovered the next morning, most of them prostrate on the lawn—the very ground where Obdulio’s roses now grow.
These shots were heard around the world. Pictures of the slaughtered innocents were circulated widely, symbolic of the massacre of an entire people. International pressure forced the government to sign peace agreements and made way for more peaceable leadership to take root in El Salvador. The murders of these good people were terrible, and citizens around the world were moved to insure that their lives and deaths not be wasted. They are remembered to this day as martyrs whose sacrifice saved a nation and countless lives, and their collective symbol has since been the rose.
Human beings have long associated Roses with Remembrance. The rose is a perennial: she blooms, faithfully, each year, attesting to the pitiless passage of time and, simultaneously, renewing the promise of the eternal. She is the queen of flowers, the biggest of blooms, possessor of the odor and attar that soothes and enchants all who approach her.
It is no accident that the flower arrangement that best bespeaks our grief is the Bleeding Heart: white carnations arranged in the shape of a heart riven by a streak of blood-red roses. Red roses, in particular, are associated with human passion, with the heart, and with precious human blood—all words and things demonstrative of life. They insist, in the face of loss, that love endures.
Five years ago, on the 16th anniversary of these deaths, I visited the rose garden at the UCA. It was a warm November day in San Salvador, and the roses bloomed in shameless abundance. I was awe-struck by the peace of the place, a small corner that breathes beauty amid a troubled city, blighted by new violences and new injustice, kidnappings and gang killings and grinding poverty, the wars—ever ancient and ever new—waged against the human spirit. I also learned that Obdulio had since died and another gardener has taken over his task of keeping these roses blooming, a husband’s and father’s refusal to forget outliving his own mortal body.
The strangeness of being in that place—ground where precious lives were lost—and witnessing the testament of roses, made me feel the presence, in an other-worldly way, of the men and women who breathed their last breaths there. The roses were rife with remembrance of people I had never met, and somehow they were there among us, reminding us of how steep the cost of freedom, justice, and peace has ever been (and will ever be).
“A terrible beauty is born” (gracias, Senor Yeats), and that “Beauty will save the world” (gracias, Senor Dostoyevsky). I wrote the poem below in the days that followed, another attempt at remembrance—though no arrangement of words can offer the solace of a single rose.
Return of the Saints
November 19, 2007
The Rose Garden, University of Central America
Tonight the grass is bloodless,
and you’re surprised to find
beauty where your bodies once lay,
your new wounds blooming red as roses.
The man who planted them is gone.
For years he tended every stem,
hands sure as a father’s
soothing his dying child.
Only the murdered ones return,
a gift given in exchange
for the horror of death in the dark
roused from your lonely beds.
Your crimes (un)common as love:
aiming truth at the face of falsehood,
claiming justice for the disappeared,
shaming the proud and the fortunate few.
No one calls you saints, even now.
You loiter on the well-trimmed lawn,
toe stones along the brickwork paths,
search for your selves in empty rooms,
then retreat as you once refused
to retreat, before the coming sun,
your roses blooming red
at the heart of the martyrs’ garden.
On March we celebrate life and witness of two great Salvadoran men: Mons. Romero y Rutilio Grande S.J. They were close friends and both of them suffered martyrdom as a result of their fight for social justice in El Salvador. Those who met them can not talk of one of them without mention the other. Here is a video with memories of Fr.Grande by Jon Sobrino S.J. and Salvador Carranza S.J.
Salvador Carranza S.J. (aka 'Chamba') gave recently a talk as part of the Perspectives on El Salvador's Civil War Class, taught by Gene Palumbo. Fr. Carranza was a member of Rutilio Grande's team in Aguilares, he knew Mons.Romero and shared about the killings of the six Jesuits their housekeeper and her daughter at the UCA in 1989. Casa students learned about Salvadoran history from Carranza’s first hand experience. Students visited Fr. Carranza at Parish El Carmen, Santa Tecla.
Last Friday, Jon Sobrino S.J. shared some words of wisdom with Casa students in Gene Palumbo's Perspectives on El Salvador's Civil War class. He spoke about his experience as a jesuit priest in El Salvador, his memories of the six jesuits murdered at the UCA in 1989 and some of his memories of Dean Brackley S.J.
Today we want to share with all of you those memories of Dean Brackley S.J. by Jon Sobrino on a video.
In November more than twenty Casa alums gathered in Washington DC for the annual Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice. The Teach-In is an opportunity for students and educators from Jesuit high schools and universities across the country to come together for a weekend and share how they and their schools are striving to be "men and women for others." Casa alumni from both El Salvador and the Philippines helped to table throughout the weekend and speak with interested students about their experience studying abroad. The alums also got together Friday night and shared pizza and a small reflectionabout transitioning back to the states. Casa alums Laura Snowden (Santa Clara University) and Beth Keenan (St. Joseph's University) gave one of the keynote speeches about their time in El Salvador and learning about the history of Salvadoran martyrs. It was a wonderful weekend and a great reminder that studying abroad with Casa does not end after just a semester; it is an gateway to the greater Jesuit network and all those who work for justice!
During our time together in Mariona, my new friends Oti and Aida have filled many hours sharing their memories of Archbishop Oscar Romero. The strong hug he provided in a time of struggle. His homilies echoing from every radio in town. Even the horrors that they encountered at his funeral. But, as we shared a cup of coffee in a small room of Oti’s house, I asked them for a few words to describe this man and they both had to pause for a moment. “… love… solidarity… a voice for the voiceless… the fight… the defender of the poor…” As I listened to these two women speak, one word resounded in my mind “ejemplo.”
Archbishop Romero was, and continues to be, an example for those of us who desire to live our lives oriented toward social justice. He placed himself firmly on the side of the poor and took their struggles to be his own. He used his privilege and strength as the head of the Church of San Salvador to call for a more just nation. He listened intently to the needs and desires of poor and suffering Salvadorans and he responded not only in words but in deeds. During his three years as Archbishop, Monsignor Romero lived simply, prayed constantly, and refused to compromise his morals.
Reflecting on my situation as a student at a Jesuit university, I have begun to see that this man exemplifies all of the qualities this education tries to foster in me. I heard the phrases “men and women for and with others,” and “the preferential option for the poor” a thousand times since I was in high school but it was when Oti and Aida spoke of the Monsignor that I fully realized what this sort of life looks like. My hope is that I will be able to convert this new understanding and follow the example Archbishop Oscar Romero has set when I return home from this semester at the Casa de la Solidaridad in El Salvador.
“…amor… solidaridad… Voz de los sin voces… lucha… defender de los pobres…”
John Byrd with praxis site partners, Shannon and Brianne, at Mariona.