Recently, my father came to visit me from the United States. We spent one morning in a Christian base
community called El Pueblo de Dios en Camino (The people of God on the way). I wrote a little poem
about the experience we had during a celebration of the word.
El Pueblo de Dios en Camino. Celebration of the word.
Stifling, hot, immovable air,
provided by the Holy Mystery. Dispersed through the homily
shared by all.
Incomprehensible to my father.
No holy sacrament, no body or blood of the Christ.
Crisis. Salvation at stake?! Wait,
back to translating.
So much beauty lost in the process.
Beauty, like language, cannot be caged.
Only know, father, that they ask
about your dying mother.
They welcome you. Open arms. Common theme.
Accompaniment enters my mind. Wait.
What does it look like now? How can we accompany these people?
Wrong question. What can we do
to open our hearts to be accompanied?
Two way street.
To love others, one must first love herself.
To accompany, one must be accompanied.
I came to accompany, but was accompanied;
my father the same, with his faith, his mother.
To fully live, you must give yourself away to others,
Last Sunday, the same weekend that I spent in Las Nubes, I hiked down the mountain with Elsa a little before 7:00 and I went straight to El Pueblo de Dios en Camino. This day was the day that the community was going to celebrate the life of Carlos Acevedo (the catechist that was martyred) as well as the lives lost in the Mudslide of Montebello. Since I arrived so early, I began my day by helping Anita with some last minute things that had to get done- setting up chairs, sweeping, getting supplies ready, etc. Around 8:30, we took some large photos of some martyrs, some crosses, and some signs to the Ermita. If you recall, this is where the discovered bodies were laid out during the mudslide for family members to come and claim. As people arrived, we distributed flowers and signs with scripture verses on them. All in all, there were well over 100 people that came to share in this special service! Around 9:30, we all began a procession through the streets of San Ramon. This was a super chivo experience for me. The young and old alike were walking through the streets of San Ramon singing songs of liberation together. A large wooden cross led the procession, followed by huge pictures of some martyrs that were particularly close to the community. I was asked to help to carry the picture of Silvia, one of the martys that Anita knew very well- I was definitely humbled. As we walked through the street singing together (well, I was listening) we also shouted out chants. So somebody would scream out “Viva _____ (martyrs, victims of the mudslide, Monsenor Romero, Christian Base Communities, etc)” And we would all respond “Que Viva!” Which means, in a sense, “Long Live the King!” Or in our case, the presence of those are still with us. This was just a really cool experience of solidarity with the Salvadorians.
Finally, we arrived at a large park. This park is made of the dirt mound leftover from the mudslide. So essentially, the earth that we were standing on was once part of the upper volcano and had caused many deaths. While nobody can confirm it, the park is also a sort of mass grave, since it was never formally overturned to ensure that no body parts were left. So we were really standing on holy ground, with a cross to commemorate the event. Here, we (over 100 of us) had a worship service. We sang songs, learned about Carlos Acevedo and the Mudslide of Montebello, and had communion together. Several youth from the community shared the sermon with us. At one point while we were singing a solemn song, the youth spread hundreds of rose petals all around us in the park. To me, these red petals among the dry, brown ground signified so many lives lost- a solemn occasion indeed. All is all, it was an incredible experience. But perhaps the most exciting part of it was that they used pan dulce for communion. Pan dulce is essentially any type of bread that is sweet- cookies, pastries, etc. I’m convinced that if churches in America gave out cookies instead of cardboard wafers for communion, all of our churches would be packed!
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.
There is nothing like going somewhere new in order to remember — or to realize— just how little you know. This is a daily occurrence for me here in El Salvador. For the last two months, I’ve been studying with a Santa Clara Universityrun program known as La Casa de la Solidaridad. A program aimed at Jesuit university students, Casa seeks to immerse its participants in la realidad — the reality — of this tiny Central American country.
The question then is, of course, what exactly is that reality? Or, how might a gringo college kid here for four months come to access any part of it? While I am still in the process of discerning those answers, I have an
idea about how our program strives to do that over the course of a semester. I am also learning about its limitations.
I spend two full days per week in the urban community of San Ramon, visiting a preschool classroom in the mornings, making home visits with social workers and community leaders in the afternoons and seeking to provide a context for the lives these children lead. We learn of fatherless homes, families affected by alcoholism and domestic abuse, un- and under-employment, water-borne illnesses and poor infrastructure. The list, unfortunately, goes on.
Though we are stationed in the prosperous and relatively safe neighborhood of Antiguo Cuscatlan, Casa emphasizes taking us out of the comfort of our houses (that we share with Salvadoran students) and showing us other parts of the country.
Therefore, we additionally spent a week in the rural part of the country bordering Honduras, where much of the violence occurred during El Salvador’s horrific civil war in the 1980s. (A war in large part financed by the United States — another
topic unto itself.) We heard stories and visited sites from those years, learning about how such a history still has major ramifications for the country and its people to this day.
I recount this to underscore, that unlike when I studied in London last summer with Fordham’s program, here I am constantly interacting with Salvadorans, hearing their stories and traveling through the country, encountering Salvadoran “reality” as much as one can in two months.
Yet I know there is still so much more. What about the hundreds of Salvadorans eating lunch in the air-conditioned food court of the brand-new mall complex near where I stay? Subway, Burger King, Pizza Hut — is this the Salvadoran dream,
what people do here when they have “made it,” when they have enough money that they do not have to worry about what those families in San Ramon confront on a daily basis? Then again, is this any different than the United States? What
effect has the United States had on creating this culture?
So, I ask, what about this reality? What is El Salvador — the war-torn families living in homes made of sheet metal with no running water, or the people who live behind armored gates and have personal drivers? Of course, the reality of El Salvador today is both and everything in between. We should recognize though that the former is altogether more common than the latter.
That said, what this demonstrates is just how hard it is to understand “reality” outside of our own context. For me to understand the world as a gringo who was raised in the United States is hard enough, to desire an
experience of anything else requires even more effort. Now that I am here in El Salvador, I am repeatedly reminded of just how many experiences of this world exist in the year 2012. With seven billion people on this planet, it’s tough to get a
grasp on anything beyond one’s own reality — but I think getting an education demands that we try.