Legacies of Faith and War in the Republic of the Savior, El Salvador

Michael Hammond

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."
L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between

The Quetzaltepec volcano rises over San Salvador
Historians often guide students to view the study of history as a trip to a foreign land, following the suggestion of L.P. Hartley in his 1953 novel.  After starting my fall semester classes in August, I spent nine days in El Salvador to teach an intensive course on Latin American history to a group of U.S. students. Within that class, the “Hartley concept” went “meta,” as the imagined visit to a foreign country actually took place within a foreign country.   

This group of students is part of an internship and study program partnering with ENLACE, a non-governmental organization committed to community development and poverty relief throughout El Salvador. There is a Christian element to the work of ENLACE, which gave opportunities to reflect on the role of religion in Latin America as well.

Archbishop Oscar Romero's Toyota Corona
Semester abroad experiences often prioritize historical study because of its usefulness to interpret the culture during the time in the foreign country. This is also why students take intensive courses in the native language. In an environment where the understanding of the role of history and the humanities is fading, it is tempting to justify historical study by its pragmatic worth. Universities spotlight programs of relevance, immediate application, simple concepts, and raw skills. History and the humanities push us closer to the facts and reality of the story of people. The closer we get to the details, the more fragmented and frayed that story becomes. We can magnify the story, or retell it to get a better focus. But clarity often eludes the realities of Latin America—and history done well. Real history is messy, and not reconciled in a 60-minute documentary. History can leave us with more questions than answers. But the experience of thinking about that history can also change us. Our quick week of history brought these students a deeper understanding of the Cold War, Latin American religion, and the culture of El Salvador.

The Cold War turned hot in the tropical mountain terrain of El Salvador. U.S. culture wars of the 1980s took place at the same time as a bloody civil war in El Salvador. And these were not merely coinciding conflicts. American Cold War fears of an expanded Communist empire encouraged domestic cultural battles over that borrowed destructive rhetoric of eliminating the enemy. And the rise of Marxism in the West brought true destruction as conflicts escalated in Central America and elsewhere.

Sister Bernadetta presents
Oscar Romero's home
The effects of the Civil War, which ended with a peace agreement in 1992, are still visible in the dramatic poverty in many of the rural villages, once the recruiting base for Marxist rebels fighting for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front
 (FMLN). FMLN is now a dominant political party, and El Salvador’s president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, served as a commanding general for the FMLN during the Civil War. Despite the end of the war, poverty dominates the lives of many Salvadorans. According to ENLACE, In rural El Salvador, 46% live in dirt floor homes, 23% of children suffer from chronic malnourishment, 58% lack access to clean water, and 63% live on less than $2 per day. Yet the signs of capitalist Neoliberalism are all around the city of San Salvador.

Religion is inescapable in El Salvador, a nation literally named “Republic of The Savior.” The church in Latin American history is vital to understanding the region, considering the singular hold that Catholicism had over the region for much of its history. Indigenous faith assimilated into Spanish Catholicism to create a unique and powerful religious authority throughout Latin America. Recent decades have seen a more diverse mix with the rapid rise of non-Catholics, including Baptists, Mormons, and especially Pentecostals. Catholicism remains the dominant religious factor, however, both in adherents as well as icons and cultural heroes.

The altar in the Divina Providencia chapel
where Archbishop Oscar Romero died
During the Civil War period, proponents of Liberation Theology used “consciousness-raising” techniques to explore the meaning of the Bible for empowering the poor. Many Catholic laymen and women read the Scriptures for themselves and embraced a gospel that sought to drastically challenge the political system that had suppressed the poorest in society.  The most radical adherents to Liberation Theology preached against the injustices in El Salvador and rallied for an armed revolution. Others challenged the government by preaching for the rights of the peasants and other underprivileged in society.

Our class explored San Salvador to find sites connected to Catholic martyrs of the Civil War. The home of slain Archbishop Oscar Romero is a modest, one bedroom building on the grounds of Divina Providencia a hospital for cancer patients. Sister Bernadetta, a small-statured nun with a quiet voice and deliberate steps, opened the gate and walked us slowly through Romero’s home. Inside, we discovered his car—a Toyota Corona—and his books among the preserved living quarters. Just across the street to the hospital parking lot stands the chapel where Romero was shot dead by an assassin as he prayed during mass on March 24, 1980. The chapel is still used regularly, so the altar where the slain Romero died is marked simply by an inscription and plaque. Romero advocated a gospel based on helping the poor, and called for an end to the violence of the Civil War. A petition to beatify Romero as a Catholic saint was on hold for years due to the association of Marxism with liberation theology. But just last month, Pope Francis declared that there were no doctrinal problems with Romero and he would be considered for sainthood.

The altar and crucifix at the National Cathedral, San Salvador
Our next stop was the National Cathedral, Romero’s burial place, and the site of his funeral, which erupted in violence when military snipers opened fire on the estimated 250,000 mourners gathered in the Civic Plaza. Bombs and gunshots took the lives of over forty people who were stuck in the midst of the crowd with no easy escape. Our group was led by a professor from the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA), who explained that the Christ on the crucifix in the cathedral was viewed by people of indigenous heritage as a Black Christ, because they associate their Catholic faith with a Christ of darker skin. Beneath the cathedral, artistic representations of the stations of the cross lined the walls near the site where Romero was buried in a sarcophagus. Standing on the steps outside the cathedral and looking toward the plaza, it was disturbing to look at a bustling downtown scene as a former battlefield of the Civil War.

The lawn where the Jesuit martyrs were
found, today a rose garden
Our next trip was to UCA, where on November 16, 1989, a Salvadoran army “rapid response team” invaded the home of six Jesuit priests who were serving at the university as academics: Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., Amando López, S.J., Ignacio Martín-Baró, S.J., Segundo Montes, S.J., Juan Ramón Moreno, S.J., and Joaquín López y López, S.J. Also murdered were housekeeper Elba Ramos and her 16-year old daughter Celina Ramos. These army teams, commonly known as “death squads,” were trained in the search and destroy counterinsurgency tactics developed during the Vietnam War. Members of the Atlacatl Battalion knocked on the door, entered the residence and captured the six priests. They then used machine guns to shoot them, and mutilated their bodies. Other members of the squad entered the adjacent apartment where a housekeeper and her daughter were sleeping, and killed them as well. The Romero Center on the UCA campus houses an adjacent museum where visitors can enter the rooms and see firsthand where the killings took place. And just in case some may doubt what took place, visitors have the option to view graphic photo albums of the victims and murder scene. The museum displayed artifacts from the victims, and also paid tribute to other martyrs of the Civil War era, including the three American nuns and their fellow aid worker—Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel—who were raped and murdered by the military in December 1980. The chapel next to the Romero Center displays unique and gruesome artistic representations of tortures and murders as the stations of the cross.

Bibles torn by machine gun fire
in the 1989 attack at UCA
After touring these sites, there was a heavy feeling of the depravity at work during the Salvadoran Civil War. Our guide described the violence she lived through during the Civil War as a unique type of evil. My students were confronted with the reality of the Cold War in ways that are often lost in the classroom in the U.S. And the powerful impact of religion was the key to interpreting the story. These martyrs were killed for their theology and their desire to live out their faith. The words of their sermons were the only weapons they held against government oppression.  They believed in a gospel of transformation, based on the core belief that people were created in the image of God. And if people were created in the image of God, the gospel would need to address their spiritual needs, but also their physical, mental, and emotional needs. In the time of the Cold War, both sides escalated the conflict to diminish the worth of human beings.

The situation today remains desperate for much of El Salvador that is stricken with severe poverty. The guns of guerillas against the army have been quieted. But the desperation of El Salvador has led to a street gang violence that requires all businesses to employ shotgun-bearing security guards. ENLACE and other groups like it are working to equip local church and community leaders with education and tools to assist in building a new El Salvador. Through ENLACE, rural communities gain agriculture projects, clean water and latrines, health care, microloans for small business, roads, and housing. In doing so, the message of Christian faith is matched with actions to assist those in need. Five principles guide the work that ENLACE sponsors in El Salvador communities: Incarnation, Community, Loving One Another, Service, and Justice. This is an effective model for partnering with existing leaders throughout El Salvador. And yet, it is how most Christian outreach—missions—from the U.S. is done today. Without the shadow of the Cold War, this holistic approach to the gospel thrives.

High above El Salvador
For our class, studying history as a trip to a foreign country (and in a foreign country) brought a new understanding of humanity. The weight of historical violence was disturbing and challenged our understanding of human nature. The enduring poverty in the nation brought a uneasiness, as well as confusion as to the best strategy for a remedy. The work that groups like ENLACE have brought by partnering with Salvadoran leaders are moving toward a hopeful future. 


Christopher said…
This is wonderful, Michael, and sounds like a wonderful experience for you and the students. My mother-in-law grew up in El Salvador and my wife and I visit every few years. I wrote some thoughts after our last visit in 2011 here on the RiAH blog:

Michael Hammond said…
Thanks, Chris--it's good to know of your connections to El Salvador. I just read your previous post--very interesting insights. It is fascinating to interpret liberation theology outside of the context of the Cold War. Thanks for your comments.
Unknown said…
I love this! Sounds like a great trip. I loved how you framed the humanities. So many are losing sight to the true purpose and value of the humanities! Great work!
joechilds said…
Great to hear the report. I know this was a transformational experience for you and your students!
Kabo said…
Wonderful entry. Duke Divinity has a regular fall and spring theological education course run for pastors in El Salvador and it has been one of the most important teaching experiences of my life. Bravo to you!

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