Thirty years ago yesterday, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero – an outspoken critic of government repression and defender of the powerless – was gunned down by a death squad as he celebrated mass in San Salvador. Last night, about 200 members of the Mission District’s Salvadoran community gathered to remember the man they call Saint Romero and vowed to continue his fight for social justice.
“He spoke for the powerless, for those that weren’t heard. And that’s why he became a martyr,” said Luis Ventura. A t-shirt printed with a life-sized image of Romero’s placid, bespectacled face peeked out from beneath his unbuttoned baseball jacket.
The gathering, which was organized by groups including The Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) and the Three Nations Indian Circle, was one of several Bay Area events including religious services, a film screening and a photography exhibit, commemorating Romero’s life this week. Held at Cesar Chavez school, it featured music, traditional dance and recording of Romero’s sermons.
Some people arrived to the event fresh from the immigration reform rally outside Senator Feinstein’s office, an apt way to remember a man who defended the rights of the most vulnerable in society. Ana Perez, CARECEN’s executive director, said she’d been on the verge of tears at the demonstration, thinking about Romero. She hopes his message inspires young people to work for social change.
“A lot of our people are condemned to a life of poverty and struggle,” she said, “But we come from a long legacy of people who have fought for social justice.”
Earlier in the day, the president of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, made an official apology for Romero’s assassination, which happened during the first years of El Salvador’s civil war between a U.S.-backed regime and a leftist guerrilla group, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN.)
The FMLN put down its arms, came down from the mountains, and became a political party in 1992; Funes was the first member of the party to be elected president. He took office in June 2009.
In a statement, Funes acknowledged that the death squads that operated in the nation during the late 1970s and 1980s and terrorized, tortured and murdered people considered to be critical of the government, “acted with the protection, collaboration, acquiescence or participation of state agents.” Many at the Cesar Chavez school said Funes’ apology was significant.
Romero, who came to be known as the “voice of the voiceless” didn’t start out a champion of social justice. When he was named Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977 many progressive groups were disappointed, explained Father Kevin Burke, Dean of the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University, in an interview yesterday afternoon.
“He was seen as someone who wouldn’t make waves,” Burke said. The turning point came after the assassination of another Jesuit, Rutilio Grande, a critic of government repression and proponent of liberation theology.
In response to Grande’s murder, Burke explained, Romero canceled all masses in the country for a week, and celebrated a single one in San Salvador. More than 100,000 people turned out. He also was the first archbishop to refuse to attend the installation of a military general.
He later ordered construction halted on the national cathedral until the needs of the people – who he considered the true church – were met. All the while, Romero was calling for justice for the poor and denouncing government repression in his masses, which were broadcast via radio through the country. “He had thrown down the gauntlet,” said Burke.
He also wrote a letter to then-President Jimmy Carter to abandon plans to supply training and arms to the Salvadoran military. Carter did not respond.
The day before his death, Romero implored Salvadoran soldiers to stop killing their own people. “No soldier is obliged to obey a law higher than god’s law,” he said.
And then, on March 24, 1980, as Romero celebrated mass at a hospital chapel, police agents acting on the orders of army officials shot him in the heart.
At the Cesar Chavez school, Gloria Ramirez thought back to the day Romero died. She said it was common knowledge that Romero’s life was in danger; death squads prowled the country and the archbishop had galvanized the poor. Still, the murder of the most revered priest in the nation was a wake-up call, “We didn’t think it would reach that level,” she said, “We felt unprotected.”
After Romero’s death, the war escalated and continued for 12 more years, until 1992. Approximately 75,000 people died.
Shortly before his assassination, Romero spoke to a reporter about the possibility of his death. Burke quotes the statement in a paper: “I have often been threatened with death. I must tell you, as a Christian, I don’t believe in death without resurrection. If I am killed, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people,” said Romero.
“He was a leader, a martyr,” said Ramirez, wearing a confection of a dress for her folkloric dance performance.
But Burke said Romero didn’t intend to be: “I don’t think he thought of himself as a saint or hero but the people of El Salvador have no doubt about either of those things.”
Echoing the archbishop’s words, Ramirez said Romero’s life and lessons still beat strong in her community. “He taught us that we must stand by oppressed people and to defend people in need … His presence is alive in the Salvadorans. And the more time passes, the more we feel it,” she said.