Remembering Romero in San Salvador
|Romero and his people — with bullet holes and nail holes — in a world bursting with resurrection.|
By Rick Steves
In the capital of El Salvador, San Salvador, thousands of people tumble into the hot and dusty streets. They gather at the church where, 25 years ago today, their archbishop, Oscar Romero, was assassinated. Jostling elbow-to-elbow in the heat, I'm engulfed in the crowd, joining a march across town to Romero's tomb to remember the man whose death marked the beginning of a civil war that engulfed the nation for 12 terrible years.
In Romero's last sermon — delivered as the bloody repression of the Salvadoran people by their government was building — he directed his words to the army. Today, a pick-up truck blares a crude and crackling recording of Romero's unforgettable words: "You are brothers of the poor. These are your people. More important than any order from your commanders is God's order: Thou shalt not kill. I ask you. I beg you. In the name of God, I command you. Stop the killing." The next Monday, March 24, 1980, while giving a special Mass, El Salvador's archbishop was shot dead.
A mural across the street portrays a bigger-than-life Romero with the stigmata — the signs of the cross (nail holes in his hands and feet) that appear mysteriously upon those with towering devotion and faith. Romero is surrounded by his people — all portrayed with bullet holes in their chest and nail holes in their hands. While a mighty cross is depicted sprouting massive roots, huge stocks of corn grow as high as the volcano in the distance. Salvadorans are called the people of corn. The scene is absolutely bursting with resurrection.
|Thousands fill the streets as San Salvador remembers Romero.|
Suddenly a bullhorn announces "Romero vive!"...Romero lives! Echoing the phrase, the march begins.
We move into a wealthy neighborhood — easy to identify by the red, white and blue painted onto the broken curbs. Those are the colors of the ruling conservative ARENA party. In nicer neighborhoods like this, the small front gardens are walled and roofed in. The ventilation gap between the roof and the wall is lined with broken glass and a roll of razor wire stretched out and glistening in the sun. Shops look closed down and secure behind heavy black steel bars. But a prison cell-style window allows customers to make purchases.
Watching an armed guard open a gate for a family in a minivan returning home, I thought how miserable it would be to be filthy rich in a land of such desperate poverty.
Walking on, we cross a bridge. Fine office buildings, car lots and modern malls each come with a fence and a gun-toting guard welcoming shoppers. The modern urban buildings stop at the ravine. Building is not allowed on this mucky land that tumbles into an open sewer.
|The US Embassy, the most fortified building in El Salvador, is called simply "The Embassy."|
Looking into the ravine, I see a mosaic of corrugated tin roofs — some galvanized gray, others rusty red. Among the ramshackle shacks, little girls care for tiny sisters, a nasty-looking dog sleeps, and bored teens play checkers with a crude board chalked onto a broken piece of concrete. In poor cities throughout the underdeveloped world, shanty towns break out like rashes on land condemned as uninhabitable. Rather than spend a big hunk of their meager wage commuting from affordable land on the edge of town, workers live here in order to walk to work.
Electricity — once hijacked from the power wires — is now privatized and everybody pays. In this poverty-stricken neighborhood, having a job paying minimum wage is all people can reasonably aspire to. With the minimum wage at $140 a month and the effects of recent privatization, a quarter of a family's income goes for water and electricity.
Above it all stands the US Embassy, known locally as simply "the embassy." It's famous as one of the biggest and most heavily fortified in the world — certainly the most fortified and secure building in El Salvador. While the streets are festive, there's no party at the embassy. Romero Day is a day few conservatives celebrate. To most of them, Romero was a communist. Embassy guards eye us as we pass. Photography here is not allowed. Considering that my tax dollars paid for the place, I grab a shot...a nerve-racking experience.
|Remembering victims of repression at the Wall of Truth.|
The parade — with numbers growing as we sweep toward the city center — takes a break in a huge park. It's lined by the Wall of Truth which bears the names of 25,000 victims of the Civil War etched in black stone. The wall stretches as heart-breakingly long, as the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. An elderly woman sorts through the names to find her lost loved one. She locates the name, stands at attention for a moment, touches it gently, and wipes tears from her eyes with a red bandana. A younger man hefts his little boy up for a close look at the name of a relative he'll never get to know. The war in this tiny country touched everyone.
Entering downtown, the crowd of marchers seem taunted by a chorus line of American fast food joints. The proliferation of American chains is impressive. El Salvador is ten years into the "structural adjustment" (tough love economic policies imposed on them by countries to whom they must repay debts). Along with the Dunkin' Donuts, KFC, Wendy's, and Pietro's Pizzas, local chains mimic their big-gulp American inspirations. A McDonalds knock-off is called simply "Biggest." A huge Western Union outlet is a reminder that about a third of El Salvador's economy is sent, generally by wire, from refugees working in the USA. At each intersection, police stop traffic for the parade to pass. A colorful icon of San Salvador are its rumbling city buses — gaily painted hand-me-down American school buses.
|Since 2001, US dollars are the currency of the land.|
Formal storefronts seem overwhelmed by what folks at the Embassy call "the informal sector" — street vendors selling bananas, cheap clothing, bootleg music, and so on. One man with four candy red boomboxes on his shoulders hollers, "Cinco dollares." Fathers delight their children by springing for snow cones shaved on the spot from a big chunk of ice and drizzled with a colorful syrup. While "internationales" (as visitors from the rich world are called) drink from Coke cans, locals generally sip sweet sodas with straws from plastic bags.
Old women wearing lacy petticoats over flowered pants sell corn tortillas from plastic boxes. The currency exchanged is the US dollar. El Salvador was officially "dollarized" in 2001 — a move some liken to voluntary colonization.
The crowd is upbeat. Romero is on nearly every T-shirt. Bullhorns blast favorite Romero quotes: "A church that does not address the needs of the poor is not a real church." Political dreams are chanted: "Let's Romero-ize Latin America." Signs read "ARENA Asesino a Monsenor Romero" — ARENA assassinated Romero. (ARENA is the ruling right-wing party Jeb Bush dropped by in 2004 to support the election.) Huge portraits of Romero read "Resucitaste en tu Pueblo" (Resurrected in the People).
|"Resucitaste en tu Pueblo" (You were resurrected in your people).|
Standing a head taller than anyone in the crowd and obviously a gringo, I am impressed that — even though everyone here understands Romero's killers were trained and paid by the USA (where they live to this day) — I felt only warmth from the mass of demonstrators. As I marched across town, I saw not a single anti-American poster.
I'm one of hundreds of visiting North Americans. Most are from church and study groups. And most of us wear white T-shirts with "Romero Vive" crayoned across our chests. With our presence, we both give and receive hope.
Turning a corner, the crowd seems to swell and it's all downhill to the cathedral. It's Easter Week in this very Catholic country. The pope appointed an extremely conservative archbishop to fill the seat once held by Romero. Still, the people are enthusiastic about their Catholicism — seeming to agree with the activist nuns and priests around here who say, "Part of my vow of obedience is disobedience, when necessary, to Church government."
At the city's main square, the parliament and cathedral seem to face off. Both are of colonial architecture. (The Spanish first came here in the 1500s, called the country "Our Savior," and forced the people off their land to grow export crops.) The neoclassical parliament, with mold-stained white columns, feels tangled in the tropics. The cathedral stands tall with characteristic primitive folk paintings enlivening its façade.
|Wearing solidarity T-shirts, we bus to the march.|
Today a happy and hopeful crowd fills the square. But Salvadorans know this square was the site of the massacre that kicked off their bloody 12-year-long civil war. After Romero was assassinated, the nation gathered here during his funeral. Government snipers began picking people who had gathered to mourn their loss. Forty died and it was clear on that day...war was unavoidable.
The cathedral's basement is where Romero's tomb ended up. The space now functions as a church — actually competing with the cathedral upstairs. While the actual cathedral is locked on this anniversary, the basement is open and jammed with marchers.
Romero is well along the road to sainthood. The current archbishop opposes the move. But for the Salvadorans filling the streets, the archbishop shot down 25 years ago, is already Santo Romero. Romero vive!
[Rick Steves toured El Salvador from March 20 through 26, 2005. It was his third tour with Augsburg College's Center for Global Education. For more on their educational travel offerings, see www.augsburg.edu/global/. For Rick's journal of this trip, complete with photos and journals from his earlier trips to El Salvador, see www.ricksteves.com/news.]