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A Brief History of the Casa de la Solidaridad
by Kevin Yonkers-Talz
In 1982, Ignacio Ellacuria, S.J., president of the Jesuit-run Central American University (UCA), gave the commencement address at Santa Clara University. Clarifying his vision of a Christian university, he said, "A Christian university must take into account the gospel preference for the poor. This does not mean that only the poor will study at the university; it does not mean that the university should abdicate its mission of academic excellence—excellence which is needed in order to solve complex social issues of our time. What it does mean is that the university should be present intellectually where it is needed: to provide science for those without science; to provide skills for those without skills; to be a voice for those without voices; to give intellectual support for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to make their rights legitimate." He went on to add, "We as an intellectual community must analyze causes; use imagination and creativity together to discover the remedies to our problems; communicate to our constituencies a consciousness that inspires the freedom of self-determination; educate professionals with a conscience, who will be the immediate instruments of such a transformation; and constantly hone an educational institution that is both academically excellent and ethically oriented."
During El Salvador’s civil war, Ellacuria had become an outspoken critic of the political right and left and had called for a negotiated settlement to the conflict. Applying this vision of a university in the context of El Salvador in the 1980s entailed risk of which Ellacuria and other Jesuits were well aware. In 1989 Ellacuria, five fellow Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter were murdered by the Salvadoran military at the UCA. Jon Sobrino, S.J., a prominent theologian and companion of the Jesuits at the UCA, had been giving a conference in Thailand when the killings occurred and, therefore, had not been killed himself. After the deaths of the Jesuits, Sobrino spent a number of months at Santa Clara University. During this time at Santa Clara, he developed friendships with Steve Privett, S.J., the then academic vice president, and Paul Locatelli, S.J., president of Santa Clara. This was the beginning of a strong connection between the Jesuits at Santa Clara and the UCA.
Dean Brackley, S.J., a Jesuit theologian who spent a good amount of time doing community organizing in the Bronx, arrived in El Salvador in 1990 to continue the work of the Jesuit martyrs by teaching theology at the UCA and doing pastoral work in surrounding communities. In 1997, while visiting Santa Clara University, Dean had the idea of an academic program where students attending Jesuit colleges and universities in the U.S. could study in El Salvador. Dean shared this idea with Steve Privett, S.J., who was the current provost at SCU. They, along with a number of other Jesuits and lay colleagues, felt the idea was worth pursuing especially in light of the then upcoming 10th anniversary of the martyrs at the UCA.
In July 1998, Kevin and Trena Yonkers-Talz completed their time working with the Jesuits in Belize with an organization called Jesuit Volunteers: International. Their academic background in college student development and theology combined with their experiencing of working with marginalized populations prompted them to contact a few Jesuits in Central America. One of those Jesuits was Dean. Dean invited Trena and Kevin to visit the UCA.
In February 1999, Dean Brackley, S.J., Steve Privett, S.J., Trena and Kevin all met at Pati's Pupusaria in El Salvador in order to talk about the possibility of starting up an academic program in El Salvador for students at Jesuit-run colleges and universities in the U.S. That night, over pupusas (Salvadoran tortilla filled with beans and cheese) and beer, the Casa de la Solidaridad was born.
In April 1999, Trena and Kevin officially began working on the Casa program. The role of the each person was clear: Dean had the connections at the UCA and in Salvadoran communities; Steve, along with Paul Locatelli, S.J., president of Santa Clara University, had the administrative capability to cover the initial start-up costs of such a program; Kevin and Trena could create and execute the program. Early on much assistance and advice came from Gene Palumbo, a freelance journalist living in El Salvador, Sonny Manuel, S.J., the then associate provost at SCU, and Dennis Gordon, director of International Programs at SCU.
In November, 1999 Charlie Currie, S.J., president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU) announced the birth of the Casa to the Salvadoran community during the 10th anniversary commemorating the Jesuit martyrs at the UCA.
Throughout its history, the Casa de la Solidaridad has drawn inspiration from the lives and commitments of these Jesuits and from all the martyrs in El Salvador.