The massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter occurred on Nov 16, 1989 at the Universidad Centroamericana “José Seimeón Cañas” in the city of San Salvador. While remembering these 8 martyrs, their brutal deaths are among what ¨The Commission on the Truth for El Salvador¨ estimates are 75,000 killed or disappeared during the war against the people of El Salvador.
Who were these 8 persons cruelly assassinated on the evening of Nov 16, 1989? Celina Ramos was an 18 year old student who that evening decided to stay with her mother Julia Elba Ramos who was the housekeeper for the Jesuit community at the University. These two women were killed because they were witnesses to the murder of the six Jesuit scholars.
Soldiers of the Atlacatl battalion, trained by the United States and on orders from the highest political authorities, entered the university grounds and went straight to the house of the Jesuits. There they found Ignacio Ellacuría, rector of the university, Ignacio Martin Baró, a psychologist, Segundo Montes Mozo, sociologist and founder of the Institute for Human Rights, Armando López Quintama, Rector of the UCA de Managua until 1983, Juan Ramón Moreno Pardo, a scientist whose specialty was Bioethics, and Joaquín López y López, who developed methods of Popular Education.
The Jesuit priests were taken to their garden and told to lie on the grass, and then they were killed by rifle fire. Their skulls were smashed open and their brains extracted and then splattered against the garden wall. This was not just a simple assassination. It was a political demonstration against the Jesuit community who had dedicated their talents, their intelligence, to support the poor and to advocate for an end to the civil war. When not at the university, these priests worked in rural parishes attending to the pastoral duties of peasant communities which had been affected by the violence and insecurity.
Why were these six eminent scholars and priests killed in such a brutal fashion – by a squadron which had been trained by the United States? Ignacio Ellacuría, was a key promoter of a peace process, which evidently the government, nor its main ally the United States, did not want.
Here were six academics, university professors working in a university, and in that environment trying to make the cry of the poor more easily understood while preparing graduates who could make their contribution to building a new El Salvador. Why were their brains splattered on the wall of their garden?
The Jesuits have a reputation in the history of the church in Latin America since the earliest century of the conquest of the Americas. The story of the Reductions of Paraguay is a unique chapter where the Jesuits sought to establish zones of protection for the “indios” – the Guarani – against the slave trade of the Spanish and Portuguese colonizers. This story condensing 1 ½ centuries to 2 hours was told in the movie “The Mission”. The theme was true if not all the historical details in the movie. Since the earliest years of the conquest of the Americas, when the conquistadores entered with the two weapons of military and church, there were instances where sectors of the church broke rank with power and privilege and stood in solidarity with the poor. And without a doubt they suffered the brutal power of church and state that did not tolerate such “insolence”.
These small but recurring streams of solidarity with the poor, what Gustavo Gutierrez sometimes compared to sprouts of artesian water welling up to the surface, began to take on almost official status with the Conference of Medellin in 1968. The term “the preferential option for the poor” became normal language and the poor were not the “spiritual poor” of the affluent world but the real poor – the dispossessed, the homeless, the marginalized, and the oppressed. In the Americas these poor were most often “the indios” – the rural and urban poor.
The bishops in Documents of Medellin stated “The Latin American bishops cannot remain indifferent in the face of the tremendous social injustices existent in Latin America, which keep the majority of our peoples in dismal poverty, which in many cases becomes inhuman wretchedness.” The bishops echoed the words of Pope Paul VI who, while addressing a campesino community in Columbia in 1968, said “Now you are listening to us in silence, but we hear the shout which arises from your suffering.”
The bishops spoke of an “authentic liberation” and the dependence of the Latin American nations to centers of foreign economic power. Consequently Latin American nations were not the “owners” of their own history or their own economic future. These church documents entered into historical and sociological analysis to understand the “reality” in which the gospel would be preached.
The result throughout the Americas was an “exodus” of pastoral agents, who based on this fundamental preferential option for the poor, chose to work with the poor and for the poor in their struggle for this authentic liberation. The most powerful example perhaps is that of the academic and friend of the establishment who was chosen to be Archbishop of San Salvador – Oscar Romero. As he evolved to become the bishop of the poor and the oppressed, he was deemed to be a traitor and dangerous to the traditional order of society. Church and State conspired to eliminate him which culminated in his assassination while celebrating mass on March 24, 1980.
It is in this context that the Jesuits of the Catholic University dedicated themselves to work for the poor and with the poor. As academics they worked out of this fundamental option. They strove to promote a peace process based on fundamental principles of justice. The traditional oligarchy resented that their superior intellectual power was at the service of the poor in the spirit of Medellin.
Much has been written of the heroism and sacrifice of the 8 martyrs of Nov 16, 1989. Jon Sobrino, the eminent Jesuit theologian of that particular community escaped death only because he was traveling outside the country at that time. He has written extensively about his companions and no better can be added to eulogize these martyr saints.
We can get angry together when we think of the impunity enjoyed by the assassins. The US trained soldiers who killed the martyrs of the UCA surely did not act on their own. There are links that go right to the highest levels of government. So let’s be angry about that if it helps.
Perhaps we can connect to those events of 1989 with the reality of today. Today we are witnesses of a strange movement that started with “Occupy Wall Street”. Across North America there have been instances of this “occupy” movement in many cities, including Victoria. The occupiers are a scattered group of protesters – seemingly without clear objectives. They are the homeless, the unemployed, the underprivileged, the working class who can no longer afford to buy a home. Their message is saying “the system is not working for us”.
The 99% are beginning to awaken to the reality that the political and economic system which governs our lives is working well – but only for the 1%. In spite of all the organizational difficulties of the international “occupy” movement, we can see that the reality of El Salvador and all of Latin America in the 1980’s was an expression of this same simple fact. The “system” in which we live functions for the good of a very small minority of the privileged, who have the power to manipulate and control different sectors of society: the political, the juridical, the economic (World Bank and IMF), and especially the police and the military.
The 75,000 who were killed or disappeared in El Salvador were sacrificed because the “system” demanded this offering to preserve the divide between the 99% of the popular class (mostly campesinos and urban poor) and the 1% of those who owned the nation, even if many lived in the United States. The government, the church and the military took their orders from this 1% or less, perhaps only 30 families.
Here in Canada we are much slower to understand this reality. Because we share a much larger pie, the crisis has not hit us so hard. We have a petro-economy that is willing to sacrifice the environmental health of the planet for the diminished royalties the oil companies give back in exchange for the $billions that they extract. Our national industrial capability has been de-capitalized and we have become a “Wall-mart” nation consuming everything “made in China”. Do we need to talk about our banks and corporations that greedily scooped up billions of dollars to help them through the economic crisis?
The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are putting the screws to countries such as Greece and Italy. The 99% know that they are paying to prop up the power and exclusive privilege of the 1 %. The participants in the occupy movement shout out their demands: “we want justice; we want change” and “make the rich pay, not the poor”. The occupy movement is based on the realization that the system does not need a few “tweaks” to make it better but rather it needs profound and fundamental change. The great inequalities can no longer be accepted as “normal”.
The Jesuits of the U.C.A. of El Salvador used their talents, their brains and insights, to foster this change in a non-violent way – through solidarity and education. And that is why the “system” splattered their brains on the wall of the garden at the university. And that is why the church has yet to recognize them as martyrs.
On this 22nd anniversary of the martyrdom of the youthful Celina and her mother Julia Elba, and the six faithful companions of the Jesuit community, we can be present to these mentors and witnesses by opening ourselves to the message of the “occupy movement”. The long hidden treasure of Catholic social doctrine can guide us in a profound analysis of the reality in which we live. We are called to be “occupiers” of our own destiny and this implies entering into the struggle for profound changes to the “system” that governs our lives. This is what the Council of Canadians is all about. Across the country there are many groups struggling for change – in the environment, in our relations to First Nations, on behalf of refugees, for a public health care system that cares for all equally – there are so many causes. It is time to join in and work for change.
The struggle did not begin with us and it will not end with our efforts. We can move this change forward by joining in and with this commitment we can honour the memory of the 8 martyrs of the U.C.A of El Salvador. We have hope, confidence and time on our side, and the memory of our martyrs who are present among us.