There are three moments in the life of Gloria Cañas, a Salvadoran living in the Mission, that belong to her most indelible memories. The first is when she received her First Communion from the hands of Salvadoran Monsignor Oscar Romero.
“It was Good Friday, and he was the priest of the St. Michael Cathedral where I went to Mass. I had to confess my sins, and at the end I lied about being in the church with my parents. He went out to find them and came back to me: “Never lie to an adult ‘hija,’ ” he told her. Cañas remembers his paternal voice and patient manner, as well as the “enormous sacrifices he did for the poor in Salvador.”
The second day Cañas remembers is March 24, 1980, the day Archbishop Romero was gunned down as he served mass. “I was in the university when I heard the news. People began to shout, ‘We have to leave, we have to run,’ while truckloads of soldiers drove toward us. I was thinking, what is going to happen now? What is going to happen with all the displaced people that arrive to his church seeking for help? Who is going to protect us?”
Almost 35 years have gone by since that day, and still Romero’s sermons are vivid in her head. When she heard the news of his beatification, she felt compelled to arrange a trip from the Mission to her native country. And it was there, on May 23rd, that she witnessed the third moment that marks her existence.
“We were like a million people. We didn’t care to be tight within the multitude. People carried messages with his picture, and phrases of love, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation. There were people from all Latin America, ministers, government representatives. Even a delegation from Japan. It was truly exciting,” she said about a historic moment that brings Romero a step closer to sainthood.
Gloria traveled with a delegation of 10 people from San Francisco bringing phones, laptops and crafts to poor communities in Pango, El Salvador. Helping needy communities back in the Central American country is one of the main tasks of organizations such as Catholic Charities, where Gloria works, the Salvadoran National Network Abroad (RENASE in Spanish), and the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN).
CARECEN did not have a figure for the number of Salvadorans living in the Mission, but there are close to 78,000 in the Bay Area. Most of them arrived in the 1980s fleeing the country’s civil war. As rents have gone up, many have moved to Oakland, San Bruno and Richmond.
José Cartagena, a committee member of RENASE, is one of them. A Mission resident for a decade, Cartagena helped to organize a massive transmission of Romero’s beatification at San Bruno Cathedral on May 23rd. “People traveled from different parts of California. We felt the need for getting together to celebrate the memory of a man who is still alive for us. This (beatification) means hope and recognition of a fight that hasn’t ended.”
Cartagena, now living in Oakland, has news clippings from El Salvador from 1979 and early 1980, when the right wing called Romero a “terrorist,” a “communist,” and a “guerrilla,” calling for his execution. “The paradox is that when he was named Archbishop, people didn’t like him because he seemed to represent the conservative church. But when he began to preach Liberation Theology and denouncing the atrocities of the war, we found an ally, we found a voice for the unheard.”
By then, Cartagena belonged to Christian grassroots communities in the northern province of Chalatenango, and joined the revolutionary student movement. Soon he went into to exile and fled with close to 1,000 farmers to the border with Honduras. He saved his life but lost many fellow students in the infamous Rio Sumpul massacre when the government killed nearly 600 people with the help of Honduran armed forces, according to the Truth Commission of El Salvador.
“I paid a coyote to cross to Mexico with the promise of taking a plane at the border, but it never happened. I ended up walking through the Arizona desert with a group of migrants, of which 13 died,” he said. After a long journey, he ended up in one of the four shelters for refugees that the Casa del Salvador Farabundo Martí opened in San Francisco. He met Cañas there. She was coming from Washington, where she had begged senator Ted Kennedy to stop sending weapons to El Salvador.
“Every year, when we commemorate Romero’s killing in a mass at St. Antoine (on Cesar Chavez Street), we are aware that his words never get old. We still need social transformations, we still witness injustices, and unfortunately Salvador is not safe from violence,” said Cartagena.
“An act of justice”
Romero’s homilies are indeed in the heads of his followers. Alba Guerra, the owner of the Sunrise Restaurant, a Latin American restaurant located on 24th Street, said that she remembers as “if it were yesterday” the last homily from Romero that she heard on the radio. She was only 12, but was struck by Romero asking the Salvadoran Armed Forces to stop the repression. “That was really powerful,” she said. “He dared to ask them to stop the massacres, to stop killing civilians, our brothers. ‘No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law,’ he said.”
Guerra was also forced to leave her native Ilobasco in Cabañas Province, traveling first to Honduras and after a long journey, to California. “I lost many relatives: my mother, uncles, my brother-in-law. One of my brothers came here to study medicine at Georgetown University, and he came back to Salvador because he wanted to found a hospital. He was killed. The other was caught in a raid here in San Francisco, was deported and then killed,” said Guerra, who has been in the Mission for 10 of her 25 years in exile. “I still have two sisters there (El Salvador), and relatives in Oregon, Italy, Australia… the need to preserve the life doesn’t have borders.”
Nowadays, Guerra organizes a dinner in Monsignor Romero’s memory every year on the anniversary of his death, inviting her fellow Salvadorans to talk about his life, experience and legacy. “We hang posters of him on the wall, we talk about the political work of the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberal Front – in power) and serve tamarind juice, which was his favorite.” For her the beatification means “an act of justice: now he is Saint Romero. He is still alive; for me he never died.”
Romero of America
Carolina Parrales, an administrative assistant at the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s Department of Public Policy and Social Concerns, also feels that the “enormous respect” that even people from other religions, such as Mormons and Evangelicals, and from other Latin American countries profess for Romero, “shows that his footprints in the history are borderless. No wonder he is called Romero of America.”
Parrales kept a big poster of Romero in her office. She was just 10 when the Archbishop was killed, but she remembered that her mother, who carried a radio everywhere to ensure that she never missed one of his homilies, went to his funeral. “I was scared, because after the stampede of people (40 died in the ceremony) my mother didn’t appear. All her friends came back to their houses, but my mother didn’t. She was hidden for eight hours while the military threw bombs and there was shooting all around.”
Now the mother of one, Parrales recognizes that living in the metropolitan area of San Salvador kept her safe and “innocent” from the cruelty of war. But when she joined the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas (UCA) to study architecture, in 1989, the first act of violence she witnessed was the killing of six Jesuit scholars/priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. Armed men in uniforms gunned them down.
“That open my eyes to what had been happening in the rural areas for long time,” she said. “I went to the border to help communities coming from Honduras, where there were also persecuted.”
Her mother was the first of the family to come to San Francisco, and slowly all the relatives ended up here. Parrales arrived in 1995. Her brother, nevertheless, was recruited by the armed forces and killed, allegedly by a land mine planted by guerrillas. “We never knew the truth, and my mother couldn’t attend the funeral as she was here, undocumented,”said Parrales.
“As Monsignor Romero said, it was a war where brothers kill each other. His lessons about the role of church in the society are what inspires me everyday in my job,” she said.