I am not a Catholic. I´m not even a Christian. But this Catholic man of faith who was killed 32 years ago, was the first compass of morality, solidarity and love for others that I ever had. Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero is, for me and many Salvadorans, the greatest example of integrity and love in the face of violence and inhumanity. That I lived in the city he served at the time of his greatest accomplishments makes me feel truly fortunate. That he is considered in many Latin American countries to be the “Saint of the Americas,” and that even that most conservative of institutions, the Vatican, has initiated canonization proceedings, is no surprise to me. If there was ever a man worthy of being called a Saint in the 20th Century, it is certainly Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero. Even Westminster Abbey recognized his contribution to humanity, honoring him with a statue in its illustrious pantheon.
I remember the day he was killed. Carlos, my next door neighbor, came knocking on my door to give me the news. He was about 12 years old and I was months away from turning 11. I had not yet opened the door fully when he asked if I knew that Monseñor had been killed. I stopped cold. I couldn’t believe it and thought that perhaps it was a joke. But then, in a mocking tone, Carlos said to me: “My dad says it serves him well for meddling in things that don’t concern him.”
Carlos’ father was my parents’ compadre. My mom and dad were godparents to Iris, Carlos´ younger sister. At some point, their whole family had been Catholic, but by the time Monseñor Romero was killed, Don Carlos and his four children had been Mormons for at least two years. Carlos was my best friend.
Romero’s death marked a turning point in my life as in the life of a majority of Salvadorans: it was the point at which everyone realized that, for the oligarchy and the paramilitary Death Squads doing their bidding, no dissent would be tolerated in El Salvador. The message was: keep your mouth shut if you want to live. If Romero’s voice could be silenced, anyone was at risk of losing their lives for refusing to side with the government. By the time Romero was killed, I had already lived through more than a few armed confrontations (we lived close to the military airport in Ilopango and I stayed home by myself); had cried alone as I waited and hoped that my parents would return alive from work each time I heard on the news that there had been armed fighting in the city, where they worked; and I had already come across my share of dead people (killed execution style) in my neighborhood.
But I was unaware of why a Catholic Archbishop like Romero would be killed by a gang of thugs like the Death Squads led by Roberto D’Aubuisson. All I knew was that, every Sunday, up until that 24th of March in 1980, my father had been listening to Romero’s masses being broadcast live from San Salvador’s Catedral. Every Sunday, I would wake up to the sound of the echoing voice on the radio. And every Sunday, I would close my ears because it bothered me to have “church” right in the middle of the living room. For my father, however, Romero’s services were a must. It was perhaps the only chance were he could tune in to the airways to listen to a reasonable person addressing the crazy savagery being perpetrated against the whole country.
People were crushed when they heard the news of Monseñor´s death. I have this vague recollection of almost all the adults I encountered in the days following the killing talking softly about the event. An icon of peace had been shot through the heart as he performed the holiest of rituals. There was a heavy silence in my house and I don’t remember my parents reactions–probably because they knew I had a tendency for “sharing” too much information with neighbors and friends and they didn’t want the world out there to know they believed Romero was right. The shit had hit the fan and even priests had to fear for their lives.
On TV, I saw the aftermath of the massacre that took place on the day service was held for Romero at the Cathedral. I remember seeing an eerie shot of shoes without visible owners strewn all over the place. Blood in some areas. Clothing. People dead near the steps of the church.
Many years later,Mamá Lola (my grandmother) shared the story of how she had been caught in the stampede while doing her rounds as a door-t0-door cosmetics saleswoman. She had taken a wrong turn, she said, and ended a block or so from the church right after the Army had opened fire on the crowd gathered to say goodbye to Monseñor. “It was crazy,” she said, “people were running mad, trying to escape the bullets.” She was almost run over by the crowd but managed to find a shallow doorway were she quickly took refuge. She stood flush to the wall, watching in horror as the herd of people ran for their lives right past her. By then she had begun to pray–hoping that she could make it back home to be with her six youngest children. (A single mother, she always worried that if something happened to her, there would be no one to care for them). And then it happened. A middle-aged man who was trying to run from the massacre taking place, tripped and fell right in front of her. Behind him, dozens of people fled frantically, unaware that they were about to trample that man to death. “I don´t know how or why I did it,” my grandma said, “but I stepped out for a second, grabbed the man´s arm and dragged him into the doorway with me while I screamed at him to get up or be ready to die!” They both survived. But that day, the death of so many people at the hands of the military was an outright declaration of war against peaceful assembly and made it clear that the war was escalating and that people were being forced to take sides in the conflict: “you either side with the communist subversives, like Romero, or you side with the military and the US-backed government.”
The exodus of 1 million Salvadorans (one fifth of the country´s total population) ramped up as a result of that massacre at the same time that millions of dollars kept pouring in from the US to support the military violence. President Jimmy Carter, meanwhile, “sought congressional approval to supply military equipment worth $5.7 million to El Salvador’s ruling junta.” Following Carter, Reagan further increased the level of aid to the Salvadoran government. Life had effectively become a day-to-day miracle as bullets paid for by U.S. tax dollars rained down on us.
A year later, my mother left the country and nearly died trying to cross into the US as an undocumented immigrant. Nine months after that, my father and I followed and were captured trying to cross into Calexico, California, before we finally made it into the US.
Unbeknownst to me and hidden deep in my heart, Romero´s spirit crossed the border, undocumented, with me. I never forgot his face, the love Salvadoran people had for him or the fact that he soon became a martyr for those seeking a peaceful resolution to the madness of war. But life as an undocumented adolescent took a lot of my energy and attention, and it was only in my years as an undergraduate student in La Sorbonne (Paris, France) that I reconnected with him.
Since then, I´ve obsessed over Romero and his history: his early years, his appointment as the Archbishop who was initially deemed “safe” by the government but who quickly transformed into its most ardent critic. I learned about how the death of common folk stirred his soul and his passion for justice. I learned about how his good friend, Rutilio Grande, was killed and how it made him even more resolute in his demand for peace. By then, Romero was already looking at death face to face and was not in the least frightened by it.
With every account I came across, with every one of his sermons that spoke to me of a man with more courage, compassion and love than anyone had ever seen in this tiny little country, Romero built a palatial home in my heart. Why was he killed? Because he had realized that Truth and Love for our fellow human beings transcends and supersedes any attachment we may have to our very lives. Because he had reached a level of Enlightenment that comes from understanding how dehumanizing violence is to perpetrator and the victim. Because he had realized that it is every person´s responsibility to speak up against violence whenever we witness oppression. And because he did it with the only weapon that hatred could not match: Love.
Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero is, without a doubt, El Salvador´s greatest revolutionary. A revolutionary of peace and justice whose work and life is remembered and honored around the globe alongside the likes of Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa and Mahatma Gandhi. Though I am not a Catholic, I am certainly a disciple of Monseñor Romero and his message of love, peace and compassion. Gracias Monseñor Romero. The world is a better place because of the time you spent with us down here, and I feel blessed to have coincided with you in the same little country that we both called home.