Social Justice Home & Abroad: Social Justice Creativity Competition 2010

16. El Salvador: Singing Through Dark Streets

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Mary Anne Reese

Creative Nonfiction

How is it that news from an obscure part of the world can continue to haunt you with questions decades later?

I remember as if it were yesterday wearing a crisp new suit and heels into my first job after law school, glancing at the morning paper in the break room, and seeing Jean Donovan’s smiling face on the front page. In horror I read the story beside her picture. Jean was a young volunteer from Cleveland who, along with three North American nuns, had been raped, tortured and killed at the hands of El Salvador’s National Guard.

Although at the time I had never heard of El Salvador, Jean’s story hit close to home. So many of my college classmates had joined the Peace Corps and other volunteer programs, and I had considered doing the same. This smiling picture could have been any of us. It could have been me.

Over the months and years that followed December 2, 1980, I found myself drawn deeper and deeper into Jean’s story and those of her companions — Sisters Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and Dorothy Kazel. I devoured the steady stream of biographies, articles and movies produced about these women and the little country they loved. Above all, I wanted to know: why in the world would they have stayed a war zone where they were receiving death threats? Their commitment and their courage challenged me. Was there anyone or anything I’d risk my life for?

With the nuns, the atrocity was appalling but the picture seemed clearer. Risking their lives is something nuns do. They’ve done it for centuries. But Jean Donovan was the one who intrigued me. Here was a young woman in her twenties who had left a career as an account executive at Arthur Anderson to keep the books for La Libertad mission. She zipped around the tropical countryside on her motorcycle, played the guitar for children, and took her fiancé to the beach when he came to visit. Jean’s whole life was ahead of her.

As the civil war that had begun in El Salvador during the Seventies escalated, Jean’s family and friends were urging her to come home. Her local archbishop, Oscar Romero, was gunned down at Mass by a soldier. Her good friend Armando’s bloody body was left on her doorstep as a grim warning. Jean wrote to a friend:

Many times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could except for the children, the poor bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to choose the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.¹

Jean’s words moved me whenever I read them, but they still made little sense. How could she stay there?

Nearly twenty-five years after the murders, my friend Julia invited me for lunch in her tiny cabin in Eastern Kentucky. As I breathed in the smell of cedar, wiped the August moisture from my forehead and took a bite of the sandwich she’d set before me, Julia bored right through me with her brown-eyed stare and a characteristically direct question.

"How would you like to go to El Salvador this December?"

Before I could take a breath, I heard myself give an answer just as direct.

"Okay."

Wait. Who said that? Never mind that I had no passport and had never left this continent. Never mind that both my parents were confined to nursing care and that I spent most free time with them. Never mind that my legal practice was fraught with constant deadlines and pressures. And let’s put aside that fact that the place was dangerous. Julia had invited me and I had accepted as if we were going not to Central America but to a noon matinee.

Julia explained further. Seven groups were sending delegations to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the four women’s deaths, and more than two hundred people were traveling from the United States to take part. The best-known were former Senator George McGovern and Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA), who are not related.

Though I didn’t know Julia well, I sensed that she would be good to travel with. She had spent most of her adult life as a volunteer in El Salvador during the Eighties and Nineties. Julia also spoke Spanish fluently, while I knew only the string of epithets my Venezuelan college roommate had spewed whenever she overslept class.

Julia was inviting me and two others to join her on the trip. All of us were women just shy of fifty, but the similarities ended there. Marie was pale with wavy graying hair, and she had volunteered for several years in Nicaragua. Cheryl was a quiet, compact woman with glasses and blunt-cut hair; she had rarely ventured out of Kentucky.

The weeks following that summer lunch gave me plenty of reason to reconsider the trip I had so blithely signed onto. A hurricane, earthquake and volcano had all hit the country at once. And though peace accords had ended the war back in 1992, street crime and gang violence had replaced the military-guerilla warfare. The U.S. State Department was advising people not to go there.

In addition, although the events of 1980 had inspired me, they had also disillusioned me. My government’s response to the atrocity had been awful. Our U.N. ambassador, Jean Kirkpatrick, falsely reported that the four had run a roadblock. As if that justified raping and murdering them. Then Defense Secretary Alexander Haig, ill-famed master of misspeak, had declared that these were “no ordinary nuns,” implying that they were some sort of guerillas. No evidence supported either assertion. Robert White, the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, had been so distressed over the official response that he resigned in protest. White had dined with Jean and Dorothy the night before they died; he knew what they were made of.

The trip also surfaced some of my own inner conflict and confusion. Since December 2, 1980, I often found myself longing to carry on the work for the greater good that Jean and her companions were doing, and I even waded ankle-deep into those waters a few times. But something always pulled me back. I suppose that, like most of us in the States, I am attached to creature comforts: the home and car I own, the pool I belong to, my pension plan. And like most of us, I also crave some semblance of security, as illusory as it might be. So although the events of December 2nd left their imprint on me, and El Salvador continued to haunt my imagination, any work for change I ’ve done has been at arm’s length—signing petitions, writing Congress, carrying signs. My activism has looked more like passivism.

Amid these conflicting thoughts and feelings, I came upon a letter Ita Ford had written to her sixteen-year-old niece shortly before December 2nd. I took the letter as both a challenge and an indictment of my own mid-life malaise. Ita wrote:

This is a terrible time in El Salvador for youth. A lot of enthusiasm and commitment are getting snuffed out here now. The reasons why so many people are being killed are quite complicated, yet there are some clear, simple strands. One is that many people have found a meaning to live, to sacrifice, struggle and even die. And whether their life spans sixteen years, 60 or 90, for them their life has had a purpose. In many ways, they are fortunate people.

Brooklyn is not passing through the drama of El Salvador, but some things hold true wherever one is, and at whatever age. What I’m saying is that I hope you can come to find that which gives life a deep meaning for you, that which energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead.

I can’t tell you what it might be. That’s for you to find, to choose, to love.²

I reread Ita’s letter several times and I had to admit that lately I’d only caught glimpses of what gives my life any meaning at all. And these cold, dark, Bush-era years spent under the fluorescent lights of either a law office or a hospital room were not so much about being enthused, energized or “moving ahead” as they were about just slogging through. So when I pictured Jean Donovan flipping back her shoulder-length brown hair and imploring me, “C’monnnnnn,” I knew I was going to El Salvador. But not before bruising my arms with $300 worth of inoculations and stocking up on Immodium A-D.

***

Waiting in Atlanta for the connecting flight to El Salvador, I was a head taller and a lot whiter than anyone else at the gate. White skin, white hair, wide eyes. That is, until Marie, Cheryl and Julia came around the corner. Julia and Marie were wearing native white cotton smocks embroidered with bright flowers, as well as Tevas with no socks. This made for an odd sight in late November. Cheryl and I, on the other hand, wore clothing more congruent with the climate we were leaving: jeans, fleece and gym shoes.

Had she not been taller, Julia’s short brown hair and dark tan would almost have blended in with the Salvadorans at our gate. And her personality certainly blended in. When she sat down, Julia abandoned the reserve I was used to; she was grinning and chatting in Spanish with everyone around her. She had found her tribe; she was heading home.

The young man next to me on the plane and the older man by the window were also going home. The young man spoke clear English, his companion only wheezed and coughed. Families in El Salvador are broken apart, with one out of every six Salvadorans working in the United States to send home remissos on which the local economy has come to depend. The desire for holiday home visits had filled our plane.

After three hours of crossing the Gulf of Mexico, our jet began to descend over mountainous terrain.

It looks like Kentucky, I thought, picturing the Cumberland Mountains where my father grew up.

When our wheels thudded onto the runway, the young man asked me,

"Have you been to El Salvador before?"

"No--my first time here."

He reached over, took my hand in his strong, callused grip and smiled.

"Welcome to my country."

The San Salvador airport was small but bright, cool, and full of the same overpriced boutiques one finds at airports everywhere. That is, until we reached the area for claiming baggage and clearing Customs and Immigration, an area that was dimly lit, hot, and cramped with long lines everywhere. Most in line were Salvadorans. The lines also held a smattering of white businessmen and women in suits. Corporations relocated their plants here so that they could dodge paying minimum wages or benefits, and the locals were happy to get the jobs. That is, until those companies saw a better opportunity somewhere else.

Finally, the lines held a third set of travelers--white women with neither makeup nor dyed hair, and shaggy white men, many sporting beards. Depending on their generation, they were wearing Tevas, Birkenstocks or Rockports. Bright Guatemalan-weave purses abounded. These must be our fellow delegates, I thought, and so they were.

Each encounter I had with Salvadoran soldiers in the airport felt more menacing than the last. The soldiers in the luggage area shuffled me back and forth several times between the same two conveyors, all the while meeting one another’s eyes and smirking. I finally ignored them, stayed in one place, and found my suitcase when it came around. Many of our delegates never did find theirs.

The soldier at Customs told me to punch a button; if the light came up green, I could pass through freely. But a red light would mean having my suitcase opened and searched. And probably robbed of the Immodium A-D, I thought. Green. Relief.

The soldier at Immigration had a scar across his forehead that could have come from a knife fight. He scowled as he stared from my passport to me and back again.

"Where are you staying?"

"Hotel Alameda."

"What is the address?"

I fumbled for the document with some camino or other and showed it to him.

"What is the purpose of your visit?"

Silence. Somehow I didn’t think, “commemorating your army’s atrocities” would go over.

“Soy tourista,”

I finally blurted out, wondering what dark recesses of my brain the proper Spanish phrase had crawled from.

With no word of welcome nor any wish for a pleasant stay, he stamped my passport and motioned for the person behind me.

I stepped outside the dank airport into paradise. Tropical sun lit up the flowering trees in a fiery blaze of red, orange, yellow and white. Palm trees stretched high into the bluest sky I’d ever seen. I learned immediately why Julia and Marie were wearing cotton and sandals; my own athletic shoes and jeans were about to spend the week in a drawer.

The crowd of people awaiting rides into the capitol jammed close together, and so I asked Julia for two essential terms. In the crowded city and unbounded culture, I used them often: con permisso (move over so I can get by you) and perdon (sorry I just slammed into you when you didn’t move over).

Our delegation pulled up in front of the Hotel Alameda, a clear downgrade from any Super 8. The white paint was dingy, the carpet softly crunched under our feet, and the only elevator held four people at most. Three with luggage. Cigarette butts were strewn about the deck surrounding the tiny outdoor pool.

Julia and I shared adjoining rooms on the fourth and uppermost floor. We opened the screenless windows and doors and stepped onto a tiny balcony overlooking the city.

Julia pointed to a lopped-off mountain to our left and mouthed words.

“What?” I shouted.

This time, she cupped her hands around her mouth.

“That’s a de-funct vol-ca-no!”

“Oh.”

We both laughed. The noise of blaring horns, sirens, buses and cars that packed the streets below made it impossible to hear. This racket started each morning as people left for work at four a.m., and it didn’t die down until they came home after eleven. Meanwhile, exhaust fumes were wafting upward and filling our room. Our only other choice was to shut the windows and turn on the rusted air conditioner, but it was even louder.

The city below us was crowded with office buildings, fast food restaurants and ordinary urban structures. It was also packed with cardboard and corrugated metal homes and businesses. Outside every car dealership stood a man holding a rifle.

That evening, we gathered for the first of many tortilla, bean and rice meals and an orientation. José Artiga, Executive Director of the SHARE Foundation, gave us an overview. José was a burly man who exuded the earnest warmth of Ricardo Montalban welcoming us to Fantasy Island. José had survived the war years first by being in college in the capitol when his village was massacred. He then fled to Texas.

We learned that SHARE is one of several grassroots organizations in El Salvador whose goals include national and international advocacy, community organizing, and economic development. At any given time, SHARE might be organizing area residents against a coffee company polluting a river, issuing alerts about a disappeared human rights worker or leading college students on an alternative spring break. SHARE had also founded a number of locally-owned business cooperatives whose profits go to the worker-owners.

At that first session, leaders distributed bags with our itineraries, posters and other commemorative items. I heard two jarring things at this session. The first was that, at any time, a scorpion or a tarantula might make a “dramatic” appearance. I looked at Julia, who whispered that in twenty years she had never seen a tarantula. I never asked about the scorpions.

The second start came when I pulled a T-shirt out of my bag and found myself staring into the faces of Jean, Dorothy, Maura and Ita above the SHARE logo.

José announced,

“We’d like everyone to wear these T-shirts Sunday at the cathedral. That way you can be identified with your delegation.”

Julia looked distressed.

“Are you going to wear this?”

she asked when we got back in our room.

“Naaah. I haven’t dressed the same as everybody else since Catholic parochial school.”

“Oh good. I didn’t want to be the only one who rebelled.”

She then told me how she’d gone for training in Port-au-Prince and a group of Nebraskans had bounded off the plane wearing bright red T-shirts with John 3:16 paraphrased in white letters:

“For God so loved the world that He sent us to Haiti.”

Our T-shirts joined the jeans and gym shoes in the drawers.

That night, Julia went to bed early and I stayed up journaling by the light of one stark bulb in the ceiling. The fan blades below it made for a poor man’s strobe effect. No sooner did I finally fall asleep than the traffic woke me up again, and Julia came into my room dressed for the day.

“Good mor-ning!” she shouted.

Groan.

She then went downstairs to retrieve some of the coveted Salvadoran coffee, but came back with her lower lip pursed.

“They don’t serve the coffee til six.”

I rolled over and laughed.

“You Mennonites are attached to so little—and then they deprive you of that!”

“That’s right! I want my coffee!”

She returned to her room with a hrrrumph.

We spent the next days packed into vans with no shock absorbers speeding up and down steep hills, visiting memorials and community worksites. The weather each day was just as the day we arrived, with hot sun pouring down from a blue sky onto a rainbow of flowering trees and bushes.

We passed fields of black rock—lava left after a volcanic eruption. Julia pointed out a man with ropes rappelling down the mountainside beyond. He was harvesting the few cornstalks he’d planted on the steep slope. On highway shoulders, we saw plenty of disheveled people walking and bicycling, and we passed a factory whose entire parking lot was bicycles. We also passed layers upon layers of cardboard boxes and corrugated metal lean-tos that made the hillsides look like dumps. These were people’s homes. By contrast, we also saw the elegant cementerios. Even the poorest pour money they don’t have into burying their dead beneath ornate monuments on spacious, manicured lawns.

At one point, I was talking to Marie and I stopped in mid-sentence and stared past her out the van window.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“People are washing their clothes in that river!”

I looked at the brown women waist deep in the gray water, and recalled how Jean Donovan had bathed in the river with a bar of soap she’d brought from her former life--a $25 bar of Estée Lauder. Bathing in a river had sounded cool and earthy when I’d first heard that, but sight of the real thing was repulsive. When he overheard my remark, José chimed in,

“They say ninety-eight per cent of the rivers in El Salvador are polluted—and no one has yet found the other two.”

***

Our delegations walked around the Wall of Remembrance in downtown San Salvador. In the dark granite are carved the names of many of the 70,000 people murdered or disappeared during the civil war. The wall is about eight feet tall and below street level; cars passed by us overhead. At the far end of the wall are primitive murals painted in the bright colors of Salvadoran folk art, murals of Archbishop Romero, of skulls, hangings and other atrocities from the war years.

For a long time, we silently milled around the wall just taking it all in. Some snapped pictures. We were each given a rose and asked to leave it near one of the names; I left mine in the pile near Jean Donovan. What struck me most about the wall was that no one name stood out. No larger letters demarcated Archbishop Romero or any special dignitaries—you had to look hard to find them. Death was a great equalizer.

When I came upon Julia, she was standing with Marie and Cheryl looking somber. She pointed to a name beneath the year 1989: Hilario Lopez Lopez.

“Hilario was my friend,” Julia told us. “I trained him to be a health promoter. He delivered medicines to where a lot of the fighting was in the north.”

Julia said she had asked Hilario once if he was afraid, and he’d acknowledged that he was. But he added,

“I choose to act out of my commitment and not my fear.”

“What a lesson.” Julia remarked. Then she stopped talking and gasped for breath. “The soliders threw him out of a helicopter.”

As tears streamed down her cheeks, the rest of us embraced her. After a time, she went over to the wall, held a paper over Hilario’s name, and shaded it with her pencil. Then she left him her rose.

* * *

After the Wall of Remembrance, we boarded our vans, this time for a visit to the living. First, we drove through the Lower Lempa region, a flat area not far from the ocean. The fields along the way still held the standing water from Hurricane Stan.

After stopping for herds of cattle in the road, we then drove to a worker-owned market, where farm products, hand-made wares and other items were sold. Its goal was to compete with the big box stores that the Central American Free Trade Agreement (“CAFTA”) was bringing in, the cooperative market would give the locals both ownership and a higher share of the profits.

We walked around the covered building with its open stalls and I bought what I thought was a flat green banana. As I went to peel it, however, the shopkeeper yanked it from my hand and replaced it with the more familiar yellow fruit. I had just met my first plantain. To be fried, not eaten raw, thankyouverymuch.

We concluded our visit to the market sitting in a circle with local farmers and shop-owners. The farmers had lost their crops to Hurricane Stan, what with saltwater storm surges and standing pools browning and drowning their fields. They had borrowed money for seeds with the arrangement that repayment would come when the crops were harvested and sold, but those conditions couldn’t be met this year. Some feared going hungry.

As we stood to leave, a farmer with gray sideburns said through a translator:

“‘We thank you for visiting us, and for all you are doing. But please, do not forget our brothers and sisters in the mountains who lost everything to the volcano.’”

Since almost any misfortune leaves me complaining loud and long, the farmer’s words stunned me.

***

On the way back to San Salvador, we stopped at a Shell station with a small store. A line formed for the restroom, but I was grateful not to need it. I had noticed, however, that many of my companions were washing their hands with those foil-encased towelettes, and I wanted some for myself. I found the right rack and was pulling them off to buy when Marie came up next to me, frowning.

“Uh, Mary Anne,” she asked, “why are you buying condoms?”

That’s when the word condones found its way into my vocabulary.

***

At the end of the day, before Julia went to bed and I took out my journal, I had a confession to make.

“I feel like a wimp,” I said. “I mean, you and all these people here have lived with killing all around you, but you’re still upbeat. And I get down because I hate my job and my parents are aging. It’s been a lot worse here.”

Julia nodded but gave me an answer that helped.

“I said the same thing to a woman here when I learned that my father was ill. Her whole family had been gunned down, and here I was crying.”

“The woman told me, ‘Suffering does not compare,’” Julia went on. “We each have our own struggles; everyone’s is hard. It’s a mistake to ever match them up against each other.”

* * *

The next day, we toured the “holler” of a mountain and met an old woman wearing a full floral skirt. A white bandana framed her white hair and sharp Indian features. She welcomed us into her small stone and mortar home, but we had to enter it by balancing on boards.

To implement CAFTA, road crews were building a highway across the mountain ridge above, a highway that would extend from California to Panama. Instead of securing the excavated dirt, however, they simply left it piled on the side of the mountain above this neighborhood. This in an area prone to earthquakes and heavy rain. A storm and a tremor sent a river of mud down the mountainside, filling and even burying homes in this holler. Fortunately, the mudslide occurred at mid-morning, when few people were home and a warning could go out.

Inside the old woman’s home, mud stood waist-high. Her neighbors had cleared out the small entryway and they were now digging out her living room with shovels and wheel barrels. It looked to me like an impossible task, one that would cause you to just give up and move. Yet, they kept at it and cheerfully welcomed us. One man with a space between his front teeth told us in English that he had worked in the States as an oenephile.

“Wine lover,” he added with a wink.

Even as these men were digging, more piles of loose dirt lurked ominously on the ridge above us. In this, El Salvador again reminded me of Appalachia and its struggles. In eastern Kentucky and elsewhere, earth-hostile business practices such as strip-mining and mountaintop removal send the mud they call “valley fill” to bury homes, obliterate streams and poison the drinking water. Here, the stream that had flowed freely alongside this old woman’s house and had watered the bright trees and flowers was now a dry gulch flanked by bare sticks. In El Salvador, mountain people were struggling not against coal mining but against a gold mining process that used cyanide.

Before we boarded our van to return from the visit, Cheryl and I were sitting on a dirt rise eating some greasy chicken and mushy rice out of Styrofoam boxes. Though Cheryl as usual wasn’t talking, I could see tears trickling down from under her photo-ray lenses.

“What’s wrong?”

“I grew up really poor,” she explained. “Seeing how folks here live is bringing back a lot of bad memories.”

“Oh.”

I didn’t know what else to say. We ate the rest of our lunch in quiet.

***

That night, I visited a place that couldn’t have been more different. Instead of breathing dust in a hot van or meeting someone else with sun-cracked skin, I was sipping white wine and eating hors d’oeuvres in an art museum with white marble floors and brass railings. The museum sat in a part of San Salvador flanked by the corporate buildings and a circle of Westin-type hotels.

In one corner of the room, George McGovern was chatting with anyone who came by. I marveled at the stamina of this man in his eighties to make such an arduous trip. When I walked up to the group gathered around him, he said he was working on his next book.

“I’m trying to catch up with Jimmy Carter,” he laughed.

The real purpose of the gathering at the museum, however, was more than just social. It was to allow members of our delegation to meet with George W. Bush’s ambassador to El Salvador in hopes of having some influence. To attract the ambassador, however, you had to throw a reception on his turf; he wasn’t about to join us in the campo for papusas (bean pastries). Ambassador Hugh Barclay was the doddering white-haired man in the far corner.

“He’s a lawyer from New York who donated $90,000 to Bush,” someone near me whispered. “He ’s hard of hearing so he’ll never address groups. And he doesn’t speak Spanish.”

* * *

The statue of Oscar Romero stands in a city square and many acclaim him “San Romero.”

Romero spent most of his life as a timid, pious priest and bishop from a peasant family. Initially, he was committed to keeping the Catholic Church—the pervasive denomination in El Salvador—neutral in the civil war. That is, until the military motto “Be a patriot—kill a priest” started circulating, and Romero’s close friend Father Rutilio Grande was gunned down. From then on, Oscar Romero became a champion of nonviolence and a voice for the poor.

When he was elevated to archbishop, Romero clung steadfastly to the simplicity that had always emblazoned his life. He infuriated the few wealthy families by refusing to live in the mansion they offered him. Instead, he lived in a small house on the grounds of a cancer hospice for the poor.

When I walked under the flowering trees into Monseñor Romero’s home, I found it sparsely furnished. His bedroom was especially spartan: a twin bed, a wooden kneeler, a chest of drawers and a desk no larger than his high-back manual typewriter. Several weeks before he was shot, Romero had tapped those typewriter keys to write a letter begging President Carter to stop funding the government that was killing his people. His letter went unheeded. Romero had also tapped those keys to write a message to the Salvadoran National Guardsmen, a message he then broadcast over radio the day before he died. He pleaded:

Brothers, you are from the same people; you kill your fellow peasant . . . No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is contrary to the will of God. In the name of God then, in the name of this suffering people, I ask you, I beg you, I command you in the name of God: stop the repression.³

As I passed through his room, I couldn’t resist spreading my own fingers across Archbishop Romero’s typewriter keys. Give me your words.

In the front hallway leaving his house, I paused before the glass encasing the white liturgical vestments Romero had been wearing when he was shot. As he was offering Mass in the cancer hospice chapel, a soldier acting on orders from on high put a bullet through his heart. Twenty-five years later, the faded rose bloodstains and the hole in his vestments still stood witness. I remained there awhile, contemplating my own reflection over the torn cloth.

***

In November 1989, the Salvadoran military ambushed six Jesuit priest professors at the University of Central America. They also killed the professors’ housekeeper and her daughter.

En route to the UCA, Julia, Marie, Cheryl and I had our only real conflict during the trip—other than the fact that Cheryl’s silence was driving Marie crazy. The dispute arose when Marie told Cheryl and me that we “must see”the photograph albums in the civil war museum. Within them, she explained, are graphic photos of the bodies of the murdered professors and women, some with their brains beside the bloody carnage.

“I don’t know if I can look at those,”I told Marie.

At home, I was seeing enough images of my father ravaged by Alzheimer’s to fuel a lifetime of nightmares.

“But you’ll be missing something important,”she protested.

“I don’t care.”

Julia then shared her experience of leading a combined group of Salvadorans and North Americans and inviting them to view the photograph albums.

“A North American woman said, ‘I don’t think I can stand that,’”Julia went on. “So a Salvadoran woman snapped back at her: ‘We have to look at these pictures; we don’t get a choice.’”

We all fell silent. Inside, I was seething at what seemed like manipulation, but I tried to lighten things up.

“But hey, no pressure, right?”

Marie and Julia both dropped back and apologized. Cheryl sat quietly.

“It’s okay,”I answered. “But I’ll decide what I look at when I get in there.”

Photograph albums of the dead are important in Latin America. During the war, local people took pictures of the dead bodies they discovered at massacre sites and elsewhere, so that family members searching desperately for the disappeared could look through them. The photographs were also a grassroots effort to preserve evidence of atrocities that the military tried to cover up.

I walked around the museum looking at pictures of the professors and their coworkers from happier times—smoking long cigars, laughing by a lit birthday cake, teaching in packed classrooms, lying prostrate at ordination. Also on display were pieces of their torn clothing, still stained.

I passed the room with the grim photograph albums. At the table sat Cheryl, slowly turning the pages. I looked away and walked outside.

The small backyard was landscaped with a carpet of grass that the blue sky and sunshine had turned a vivid green. Eight rosebushes filled the yard, each weighed down with blood-red blossoms. The housekeeper’s husband had planted these rosebushes sixteen years ago in honor of his wife, his daughter, and the six professors. The soldiers had left their bodies out in this yard beneath the night sky.

I had no need of graphic pictures. All the truth I could bear was trickling down my cheeks.

* * *

On the bright morning of December 2, 2005, members of our delegation boarded rusted school buses in San Salvador to retrace the four churchwomen's final journey. Twenty-five years ago, Dorothy and Jean had picked up Ita and Maura at the same airport where we landed. They then went to take their friends home to Chalatenango in the north. They never made it.

On our own ride out of San Salvador, the bus was buzzing with animated conversation, all of us wondering what the day might hold. As the buses wound their way up and down hills, we couldn’t help breathing in the hot, dusty breeze of the dry season.

After awhile, our bus turned onto a bumpy side-road and stopped. The tour leader then stood to make an announcement.

This turn-off is the place where seven Salvadoran National Guardsmen in civilian clothes stopped the women’s van. Some of the guardsmen got in and took over driving. Others followed in a car. The women had already received death threats, so at this point, they would’ve known that something was terribly wrong.

“We ask you now to keep silence from this moment on, until we reach the field that was their final destination.”

The lively chatter ceased; the only sounds were the bus’s own creaks and grinds. In the silence, I tried to imagine what it was like on the van that night. Close, crowded. Dark. I wondered: Were the women crying? Trying to talk their captors out of it? Deathly still?

Though not more than an hour, in the silence our ride felt endless.

Finally, the bus pulled up beside a clearing in San Pedro Nonhualco. Twenty-five years ago, this was a lonely field far from the nearest house. Today, a small chapel and a monument mark the site, and a neighborhood has grown up nearby.

Scores of people were already gathered in the field when we arrived. Some sat on folding chairs beneath a makeshift tarp; others stood around the outskirts in the sun. A choir from La Libertad was singing Mariachi-style hymns while a dozen guitarists strummed. Jean Donovan had once played guitar with this choir.

During the commemorative service which followed, Salvadorans and missioners came forward to tell stories of the four women. How the teenagers loved to see Jean’s motorbike pull up. How Maura and Dorothy never missed a chance to play with the children. How Ita made a pest of herself at the local police station by constantly asking after the latest villager disappeared.

One woman described the gruesome scene when she and others unearthed the four bodies from a shallow grave in this field. As she described how they covered the bodies with palm branches until sheets could be found, I felt my shoulders tremble.

After the stories, a leader recited a litany of the names of so many killed in El Salvador. Jean Donovan . . . Sister Ita Ford . . . Archbishop Oscar Romero . . . Professor Ignacio Ellacuria . . . . At the sound of each name, the assembly cried out:

Presente! (“You are here with us.”)

Then the ushers passed out seeds. The final blessing invited us: “Plant the seeds of new life in this place of death, and become a seed of new life yourself.”

I spent time kneeling in the dirt in front of a small stone monument, cupping my seeds in my hand. As I knelt, a small yellow butterfly circled over and around the air in front of my face. Then I buried my seeds.

Planting seeds in a killing field proved a fitting image for our visit to El Salvador. Throughout our stay, we were alternating between mourning acts of violence and celebrating signs of hope. And though I still didn’t have any firm answers, tracing their steps gave me a glimpse into the mystery of why Jean Donovan and her companions had not fled El Salvador. My question was no longer “how could these women stay?”but “how could they not?” The warm faces, lush landscape, and stark suffering underscored for me the ancient truth from the Song of Songs: love really is stronger than death.

***

During our delegation’s closing banquet, I stepped outside. Standing high on a hill, looking up at the stars and down at the city lights of San Salvador, I pondered what awaited me back home. The trip would no doubt end with chiseling through an icy windshield at the Cincinnati airport. Then, I’d be pushing my way through the mall that adjoins my office workplace. Shoppers weighed down with packages would probably still be rushing past life-sized mechanical bears singing holiday tunes--a sharp contrast with the families begging for nickels in back of the cathedral and the homes with dirt floors and one lightbulb. A mountain of legal pleadings would be covering my desk by now, and phone messages from nurses would no doubt continue.

What I didn’t know standing there was how much our family’s war against my father’s Alzheimer’s was getting ready to escalate, or that next December would find me standing not on a tropical hillside but in a chilly cemetery. Still, the thought struck me that last night in El Salvador: perhaps what I’ve seen here will somehow give me strength to face the suffering back home. As the faces of the farmer, the oenephile and Jean Donovan herself flashed in my mind, I realized that I’d seen new ways to respond. Love is also stronger than pain.

When the banquet let out, we boarded the schoolbus to ride back through San Salvador to our hotel. As we passed the car lots lit up and guarded by the men with rifles, the office buildings and tin hovels, a song rose up among us as its own kind of blessing for this struggling place. Softly at first and in unison, then strengthening into three-part harmony, strains of “Dona Nobis Pacem” wafted through our dark bus and out into San Salvador’s streets. Grant us peace.

 

¹Carrigan, Ana. Salvador Witness: The Life and Calling of Jean Donovan(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), p. 212.

²Noone, Judith. The Same Fate as the Poor (New York: Orbis Books, 1995), p. 116.

³Vigil, Maria Lopez. Oscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic(Washington, D.C.: Epica Task Force, 2000), p. 398.

 

 

 

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