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.
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.
Hello! My name is Brianne, but I am in the process of changing my name to something easier to say in Spanish. I attend Gonzaga University in Washington State and grew up near Seattle. Here in El Salvador I will be accompanying the families of Mariona and I look forward to learning the local crafts and how to make pupusas! I cannot wait to grow as an individual and improve my Spanish, “poco a poco.”
Loyola University Maryland
Hola Amigos! My name is Antonio. I go by Medina for all those wondering. I am from Secaucus, New Jersey. I am a junior at Loyola University Maryland where I study communications and hope to one day work for National Geographic in some form or fashion. I am currently living in Casa Ita as part of the Casa program in Antiguo Cuscatlan and find the people and the culture to be invigorating. I don’t know why I decided to come to El Salvador but something in me knew it was the right place for me to study abroad. My Praxis sight is El Pueblo de Dios en Camino and is located in San Ramon and the nearby community of Las Nubes. Every Monday and Wednesday I get to walk up a dormant volcano and listen to the beautiful inhabitants of Las Nubes. I couldn’t be more blessed. For now I’m taking things day by day and trying to live every experience to its fullest in my new home. Poco a poco.
Buenos todos! I am Catherine Erbes and I’m majoring in Life at Gonzaga University with a concentration in Spanish language and global culture studies. We have only just started our semester in the lovely El Salvador, nestled in the crook of Central America but I have high hopes for our coming days here! I’m looking forward to exploring all the cultural dynamics of El Sal as well as the hearts and minds of the Salvadorans and my fellow CASA community members! Saludos :
¡Saludos a todos! My name is Matthew Ippel (Mateo). I hail from Dearborn Heights, Michigan and I am currently a Junior in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, DC where I am majoring in Regional and Comparative Studies. I am concentrating my studies on international development and social justice within Latin America and the Middle East. I spent last semester studying in Amman, Jordan and, now, I am here in El Salvador with the Casa. It’s great to be back to Central America – a place that I feel very much at home. With only two weeks into the Casa experience, I feel as if I have been a part of it for much longer! As the semester moves forward, I hope to engage El Salvador, the people, its history, and the hopes and dreams that many deeply desire. As I grow in my faith and discern God’s vocation for me, I also hope to develop relationships among my fellow Casa students, Casa staff, professors, and the people of FUNDESO (my praxis site) and explore the possibilities of what 'solidaridad' can lead to.
¡Buenas! I’m Hannah from Hales Corners, WI. I am a junior at Marquette University in Milwaukee studying International Affairs and Spanish. I am so thrilled to have joined the Casa community; in El Salvador I am surrounded by inspiring people and having a ton of fun. Although it’s still early in the semester, I can already tell that my classes at the UCA and praxis placement in Las Delicias will be rewarding experiences and that may time in El Salvador will be life changing. I am so excited to be taking a giant step toward simple living and solidarity with Salvadorans; “I want to link my destiny with that of the poor in this world” – Jose Marti
Hey! I am John Byrd and I study philosophy and theology at Fordham University in the Bronx. I am originally from Marshfield MA but I went to high school at Boston College High. I can’t believe that I am finally in El Salvador and I get to spend four amazing months here! While I had studied the history of the martyrs and the civil war, being here and hearing the reality of these events from first hand witnesses has already blown my mind and I am excited for that feeling to continue.
Mary Catherine McDonald
University of Dayton
Hi! My name is Mary Catherine. I am a sophomore from the University of Dayton double majoring in religious studies and human rights. I am so excited to be a part of this program! It is fascinating to be here and learn about the Salvadoran culture, history, and development while experiencing it. The people that I am meeting are teaching me so much through their love and openness that a class or text would not be able to communicate. I truly feel like a student of life itself. This experience is such a unique gift, and already I have learned and grown so much!
Meg Stapleton Smith
Hola a todas y todos. My name is Meg Stapleton Smith. I am a junior at Boston College and am majoring in Theology with a double minor in Faith, Peace, and Justice Studies and Catholic Studies. My praxis placement is El Pueblo de Dios en Camino and I am really looking forward to accompanying the people of Las Nubes. My hope is at the end of the semester I have irreversibly fallen in love with El Salvador, deepened my faith, and explored the depths of Liberation Theology.
Primero Dios… Buenas!!! My name is Michael A. Martinez and I was born and raised in Miami, FL where I attended Belen Jesuit Prep. I am currently a student at Fordham University (Bronx, NY) dual majoring in Philosophy and Psychology with a concentration in American Catholic Studies. Due to my previous education, I have been infected with the contagious “Jesuit Virus” and am now participating in this amazing and unique experience that I am extremely grateful for. God has placed me with the San Antonio Abad community to learn, grow and love in faith with this beautiful country (which is very appropriately named “El Salvador” or “the Savior”). I am only certain of one thing: God wants me here and in the words of Dean Brackley, SJ, I am prepared to be “ruined for life.”
Loyola University Maryland
Buenas! I'm very proud to be part of the Casa de la Solidaridad program in El Salvador. I hail from Loyola University Maryland in the charming city of Baltimore where I study Global Students & Latin American/Latino Studies. After witnessing the effect that El Salvador has had on many Loyola students, I've been patiently awaiting my own turn at the helm. In the short time I've been here I've been experiencing a continual expansion of my worldview through accompaniment and immersion.
Saint Louis University
Hello! My name is Sara Hanel, I’m a sophomore studying Spanish and Social Work at Saint Louis University, and I was born and raised in Minnesota. I’ve already learned so much from El Salvador in my first few weeks, and I’m so excited that I get to be here for the next four months to open myself to new realities and learn and grow as much as I can from the beautiful people here.
University of San Francisco
Hola a todos! I am beyond excited to be here in El Salvador, learning about a new reality and embracing life in a close community. While I am originally from Portland, Oregon, I am currently studying at the University of San Francisco. While working towards a major in Art History, I was recently captivated by the history and culture of Latin America and so I am now adding Latin American Studies to my academic pursuits. At my praxis site in Mariona, I am looking forward to a semester rich with experiences shared with the unbelievably kind members of the community.
Saint Louis University
Hello my name is Stewart Heatwole from Morton, Illinois. I am a Social Work and Theology major at Saint Louis University. I am incredibly excited to be in El Salvador, the thing that gives me the most excitement is the opportunity to learn from the people of El Salvador. These first weeks have taught me that there are no better teachers on how to live life, than the El Salvadorian people.
Hola! My name is Ted o Eduardo depending on whichever is easiest. I come from Cheyenne, Wyoming and usually take classes at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. This year I am living in Casa Romero in Antiguo Cuscatlan with the best Salvadoran and American housemates one could ask for. My praxis site is Tepecoyo and I am taught by some of the most interesting people at the UCA. Stay chivo!
Hello to all! My name is Tom Haskin and I am a junior studying history at Fordham University. I think that a desire to explore realities previously unknown to me has brought me to El Salvador, a desire to constantly alter, broaden, and refine my worldview. I hope to challenge myself in these next four months to examine what it means to be both un estadounidense and — more generally — any individual, in this 21st century of increasing interconnectedness and globalization.
¡Buenos! My name is Lacey Schmitt and I am from Eden, NY. I am studying International Relations at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY. I am already enjoying my time here with the Casa community and Casa Ita. I came to El Salvador to fall in love with the Salvadoran people and this country. I am looking forward to the coming months that I will be working with the people of El Cedro. There is no better way to learn than being immersed among those who know life best.
University of San Francisco
Hey! My name is Kelsey and I am a junior studying International Relations: Latin America at the University of San Francisco. Jesuit education has fueled my passion for social justice and service learning, and now the CASA program in El Salvador is offering me more. I was interested in the El Salvador program because of my desire to serve, but my three emotional weeks here so far have shown me the importance of community and confianza over action and ability. Casa de la Solidaridad has ultimately given me more love, more reflection, and more inspiration than I ever could have expected, and I am realizing that there is just more for myself and for the world. The Salvadorans we are living with, and their testimonies of Monseñor Romero and the Jesuits, are true examples to live by. My continuing months in El Salvador will be spent exploring ways to embody the Jesuit mission, possible Spanish translations for my name, and an understanding of how uselessness can be the best possible thing! La paz.
Saint Louis University
Howdy! My name is Alexa Phillips and I am a sophomore at Saint Louis University. I am studying Spanish with a concentration in American Studies and International Studies, Political Relations and Special Education (a mouthful, I know) and I hail from a small town in central Illinois. I am so excited to have this opportunity to work alongside these beautiful Salvadorans and to learn all that I possibly can about this way of life. I am spending these wonderful four months in the midst of some truly inspirational people in Tepecoyo and I cannot wait to spend as much time with them as possible. As one of my dear Casa Ita friends would say, this experience and opportunity truly is ¡Que increible!