|Oregon State Bar Bulletin JULY 2012
“If you choose to enter into other people’s suffering, you at least have to consent to the possible consequences.”
—Sister Ita Ford1
It was March of 1980. Oscar Romero was then the archbishop of El Salvador. In relative austerity, he lived on the grounds of a hospital on the outskirts of the capital, San Salvador. Somewhat late in his life he had come to embrace the concept of “Liberation Theology,” a supposedly radical form of Catholicism that was then, in the face of widespread poverty and despair, sweeping across Latin America. At its core was the notion that even the poor were entitled to a better life on this earth and were not required to simply await the rewards of heaven. This view was rejected by those who held power over the lives of the peasant masses, and Romero’s teachings were deemed by the government to be aiding the revolutionary forces that were threatening its continued grip on the country. While conducting Sunday Mass in the chapel of the hospital in 1980, Oscar Romero was murdered by an assassin’s bullet fired from a high-powered rifle from the courtyard outside the chapel. He fell to the floor and bled to death in front of his shocked parishioners, despite their efforts to save him. His murder was traced to a member of a military death squad.
In March of 1994 I was in El Salvador as an elections observer for the first freely held national election since prior to the start of the civil war that had begun in the late ’70s and ended with the peace accords of 1992. With his martyred death Oscar Romero had become a hero in the struggle for freedom and justice in El Salvador, and on the anniversary of his death a Mass was held in his honor in the very same chapel where he had been murdered.
Although not Catholic I was honored and privileged to be invited to attend. The Mass was conducted by priests from a number of surrounding countries. The chapel seated about 200 people; however, approximately 2000 more were crowded into the courtyard outside and could see into the chapel as the back wall was made entirely of clear glass, and loudspeakers had been installed so they could hear and participate.
After the Mass the crowd then formed a long line and peacefully marched approximately 5 miles into downtown San Salvador, making its way through crowds of onlookers finally to the city park directly across the street from the Metropolitan Cathedral where years earlier, during the height of the violence, hundreds of unarmed college students, publicly protesting the disappearances of many of their friends and colleagues, had been gunned down and massacred by the military. I was also invited to join the march, which I did.
One group participating in the march was the Co-Madres. The Co-Madres is an organization made up of the mothers of the “Disappeared,” the missing young people, victims of death squads or official kidnaping, the children who would never see their families again, despite the newly won peace. Each mother was dressed in black with a white headband, and carried a photograph of her lost child. For the most part these mothers were physically small and appeared frail. While I am not tall, I seemed so, walking with them along the parade route.
It was fitting, however coincidental, that it was the birthday of my own lost child. While she died in an auto accident and had not been massacred by soldiers or death squads, I held her photo up too, as we walked the parade route together, some singing hymns, some praying, some simply marching in silence, erect, proud and defiant. Despite their frail appearance, they were a force to be reckoned with, these mothers of the Disappeared.
At the Cathedral steps we paused to listen to speakers reminding the vast audience of what had been won and who had been lost in the effort to free this country from the grip of the powerful. In the aftermath of the long and bloody war, the rebel forces had now become a legitimate political party and had participated freely in the recent election, campaigning, debating its values and seeking votes. It had won some seats in the National House of Deputies. It had finally made its mark. The country, battle-scarred and broken, had finally made peace with itself. And in the process, in the hearts of the Co-Madres, the lost children were finally coming home again.
1. One of four North American church women murdered by a military death squad in San Salvador.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ronald Talney, a retired public interest lawyer who lives in Lake Oswego, is the author of the recently released satiric novel, Nockers Up!, from Inkwater Press, and a memoir, The Archives of Silence, from West Virginia University.
© 2012 Ronald Talney