A 2005 mural by J. Reyes Yasbek entitled Verdad y Justicia (“Truth and Justice”). All photos by Richard Amesbury.

“If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people.”

Archbishop Oscar Romero

On Monday, March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was shot and killed while saying Mass in the chapel of the Divine Providence cancer hospital in San Salvador. Once regarded as a quiet, bookish cleric, Romero had dared to speak out against state-sanctioned terrorism on behalf of its otherwise voiceless, and often impoverished, victims. In his homily at the basilica the previous day, he had directly addressed the army and National Guard: “I implore you, I beg you, in God’s name I order you: Stop the repression!” Tragically, his appeal was not heeded: at least 75,000 Salvadorans died in the ensuing 12-year civil war between the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government and a coalition of rebel groups known as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Though much has changed for the better since the war ended in a negotiated settlement in 1992, significant challenges remain, and on the thirtieth anniversary of his death, Romero continues to be a symbol of hope for those on the underside of Salvadoran history—a history inextricably linked, for better or worse, with that of the United States.

A couple of years ago, those of us marching through the streets of San Salvador in the annual procession in Romero’s honor experienced a collective intake of breath as we rounded a corner: beside the road was a heap of body parts—arms, legs, torsos. A street vendor was hawking mannequins, but in a country traumatized by violence, the spectacle of his dismembered wares cast a momentary spell that only laughter at our misunderstanding could break.

Every year on the anniversary of Romero’s death, thousands of marchers make their way through the streets of San Salvador to an outdoor Mass at the cathedral.

While the political violence that characterized El Salvador in Romero’s time has abated, it has been replaced by criminal violence, much of it associated with street gangs known locally as maras. Eighteen years after the end of the civil war, Salvadorans continue to live with the anxiety of “having to accept the possibility of death—and violent death at that—at every hour, every minute,” says Juan Hernández Pico, S.J., a theology professor at the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) in San Salvador. El Salvador’s homicide rate is among the highest in Latin America, with approximately 4,300 murders, or an average of nearly 12 per day, reported in 2009. A recent study by the United Nations Development Program found that gang-related violence cost the country approximately 11.5 percent of its GDP. Anti-gang measures, like the heavy-handed Super Mano Dura policy, implemented in 2004 and viewed by many as little more than an attempt on the part of incumbent politicians to win votes, have failed to stem the killings and been criticized by human rights groups.

In his weekly homilies and radio addresses as archbishop, Romero repeatedly called for an end to the escalating violence—the murders, disappearances, and torture that were becoming daily occurrences—and implored the U.S. government to stop sending weapons to El Salvador, but the real thrust of his critique was that these visible and overt convulsions were merely recurring symptoms of a larger, more insidious disease. “I will not tire of declaring that if we truly want an effective end to the violence, we must eliminate the violence that lies at the root of all violence: structural violence, social injustice, the exclusion of citizens from the management of the country, repression,” he said in his homily of September 23, 1979. “All this is what constitutes the fundamental cause, from which the rest flows naturally.” Romero’s insistence on the structural origins of violence brought him into increasing confrontation with those who benefited from these political and economic arrangements, and six months later, Romero was dead. That El Salvador continues to bleed 30 years later suggests that the societal pathologies Romero identified have yet to be adequately treated. Conservative estimates suggest that poverty still claims a third of the Salvadoran population, with as many as half of these surviving on less than a dollar a day. In upscale San Salvador enclaves like Santa Elena and Colonia San Francisco, by contrast, stately homes hunker behind cinderblock walls crowned with electrified barbed wire, and the parking lots of North American-based fast-food restaurants are patrolled by men with shotguns.

Despite the rapid post-war reconstitution of civil society, political life in El Salvador continues to be marked by pervasive exclusions, most notably of the impoverished. While these inequalities might be explained as the inevitable growing pains of a country in transition out of civil war, their extent and severity have led some observers to conclude that El Salvador is still only nominally a democracy, and that the social hierarchies of the 1970s remain largely intact. Sonja Wolf, a researcher on El Salvador at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, contends that El Salvador is characterized by “electoral authoritarianism,” in which such outward trappings of democracy as multi-party elections serve to conceal radically undemocratic inequalities of economic power and political access. “The Peace Accords and the introduction of formal democracy, through elections, did not suddenly make El Salvador democratic,” Wolf says. “Many of the things that Oscar Romero said thirty years ago remain, sadly, very much valid.”

Since the civil war ended, the FMLN has been incorporated into the political process as a party, and one year ago this month Carlos Mauricio Funes Cartagena became the first FMLN candidate to be elected to the presidency, breaking a 20-year hold by the rightist ARENA party. A popular television journalist, Funes ran on a moderate platform of crime reduction and health care expansion and captured 51 percent of the popular vote. Many analysts see his victory as indicative of increased dissatisfaction with the policies of the ARENA party, though not necessarily of growing support for the FMLN. Nevertheless, Wolf argues, “the victory was significant in that it finally ushered in an alternation of power, sent a message to the right that it does not own the country, and gave the FMLN an opportunity to show that it can govern the country effectively and is not the party of ‘child-eating communists’ that ARENA has always claimed it to be.”

Marchers in a candle-lit procession pass an alfombra---a mural made of salt, though the word literally translates as "carpet"---on the campus of the Universidad Centroamericana in San Salvador.

Though hopes are high, Funes faces robust political opposition. “He’s young, smart, forward-looking, and pragmatic—a lot like President Obama,” says William LeoGrande, a specialist in Latin American politics and dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C. “However, he faces tough challenges. He is relatively inexperienced at politics, and he faces a stalwart opposition on the right that sees its own path back to power [as] based on preventing him from accomplishing anything.” Moreover, structural constraints, including a massive deficit, will limit the new government’s ability to pursue sweeping changes. “The FMLN likes to maintain its revolutionary rhetoric,” says Wolf, “partly because it knows that this goes down well with its traditional supporters, but it knows as well as Mauricio Funes does that the country’s problems are so deep-seated that transformations cannot be achieved in a few months or even years.”

In an effort to lure foreign investment, El Salvador recently underwent major neoliberal economic reforms, including adopting the U.S. dollar as its official currency in 2001 and signing on to the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2003. But the results of economic growth—modest, at around 3 percent per year, until 2009, when the economy contracted by 3.3 percent—are unequally distributed, and the gap between rich and poor has widened. Poverty rates have fallen over the past decade, but this has less to do with improved economic policies at home than with remittances from some 2.5 million Salvadorans living abroad, which comprise approximately 18 percent of El Salvador’s GDP. While providing welcome relief to many in the short run, remittances drive up prices, contribute little to public projects, and provide an unreliable foundation for long-term economic growth. Even at this unofficial level, El Salvador’s economic fortunes remain yoked with those of the United States, and the repercussions of economic crises on Wall Street are felt acutely along unpaved roads to the south: in January, El Salvador’s central bank announced that remittances had fallen 8.5 percent last year, to $3.46 billion—the first such decline in 25 years.

Fissures within civil society, deepened and expanded during the past three decades through political and economic conflict, also bisect the church that Romero struggled to imbue with a new sense of hope and purpose during the final three years of his life. “For some people in the church, the church’s mission is to save souls, get them to heaven. This seems to have little or no essential connection with social conditions,” says Dean Brackley, S.J., a theologian at the UCA. “For others in the church, the poor are the crucified vicars of Christ, and if we do not walk with them, we are not walking with Him.” Romero’s successor, Archbishop Arturo Rivera Damas, continued to conceive of the church as a voice for those who suffered injustice, oppression and poverty, but in 1995 a different tone was set when Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, a member of Opus Dei, was installed as the sixth Archbishop of San Salvador. Though a vocal critic of gang violence and international gold mining, Sáenz Lacalle, a Spaniard, cooperated closely with the ARENA government and accepted awards from the military, including the honorific rank of brigadier general. During his tenure as archbishop, Sáenz Lacalle advocated for the canonization of Romero but did not participate in the annual March 24 procession and outdoor commemoration Mass. Though he always gave reasons for his absence, many participants felt that he was not in step with the church for which Romero had spoken, the church of the poor. During the procession, marchers regularly took up the chant, “Queremos obispos al lado de los pobres”—“We want bishops on the side of the poor.”

A street mural depicts a campesino in the process of throwing off his shackles.

The Vatican, for its part, has taken pains to distance itself from the more politically progressive elements of the Salvadoran church. In March 2007 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog group, issued a notification concerning “erroneous or dangerous propositions” allegedly present in the work of UCA theologian Jon Sobrino. A Basque Jesuit who served as Romero’s theological adviser and confidant, Sobrino has written extensively about the plight of the poor through the lens of Christology. The Vatican document takes issue with Sobrino’s emphasis on the church of the poor as the “setting” in which Christology is centered and expresses concern that Sobrino’s theology underplays the divinity of Christ. Unlike some other liberation theologians in Latin America, Sobrino was not silenced, but local catechists and parishioners are suspicious of the Vatican’s motives for publicly reprimanding a theologian whose life’s work has been to stand decisively on the side of the country’s poor and marginalized. Meanwhile, a cause to canonize Romero opened during the pontificate of John Paul II seems to have stalled under Benedict XVI.

As the Catholic Church’s social influence has faltered in El Salvador, its membership has waned. According to an October report from the UCA’s Public Opinion Institute, Catholics today comprise just over 50 percent of the population, down from 64 percent in 1988. Protestant churches, especially Pentecostals, have made substantial inroads, now claiming 38.2 percent of the population, up from 16.4 percent two decades ago. Yet, there are signs that the Catholic Church’s leadership has begun to recover its prophetic voice. In February 2008 José Luis Escobar Alas succeeded Sáenz Lacalle as Archbishop of San Salvador. In an act unprecedented in recent history, Escobar, a native Salvadoran, invoked Romero in his inaugural homily, referring to him as a “martyr . . . who watches us from heaven and accompanies and blesses us.”

A 1993 report by the U.N. Truth Commission identified Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, founder of the ARENA party, as the architect of Romero’s assassination, but D’Aubuisson had died of cancer a year earlier, and his alleged co-conspirators have never been brought to trial in El Salvador. (In 2004, a federal judge in California found one of them, Captain Alvaro Saravia, liable for involvement in Romero’s assassination. Saravia is currently a fugitive on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s most-wanted list.) That may soon change: in November, the Funes administration announced it would open an investigation into the assassination, in compliance with a 2000 ruling from the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights. Then, in January, President Funes publicly apologized on behalf of the state to the victims of the civil war, acknowledging that “state institutions, including the armed forces, the police and other state organizations, committed serious human rights violations and abuses of power.”

In January, President Mauricio Funes acknowledged that “state institutions . . . committed serious human rights violations” during the country’s 12-year civil war.

Thirty-five percent of the Salvadoran population is below the age of 15, and many are too young to remember Romero. Yet despite continued divisions within church and society—or perhaps because of them—Romero’s legacy remains a powerful force in Salvadoran life both at home and abroad. “Romero matters regardless of the generation,” says Ana Grande, 30, a second-generation Salvadoran-American community organizer from Los Angeles. “For the younger generation, although they didn’t have first-hand contact, it is a remembrance of faith and justice. They have heard stories of how their family members or friends were impacted by Romero’s words. Others may have lost family members during the civil war and reflect on the courage that each of them had alongside Romero.” Grande’s great uncle, Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest and advocate of land reform, was ambushed and murdered, together with an elderly man and a teenage boy, on March 12, 1977, just two and a half weeks after Romero was installed as archbishop. Father Grande and Romero had been friends, and late the same night, Romero celebrated a funeral Mass for the three—an event widely regarded as the tipping point in his shift from social moderate to human rights advocate.

Romero’s image is ubiquitous in the lives of Salvadorans.

As Holy Week approached three years later, Romero knew that his own life was in danger, but he refused bodyguards, preferring to share the lot of the people he served. Speaking on the evening of March 24 to those assembled for Mass in the chapel of the cancer hospital run by nuns where he lived in a small apartment, Romero referred to the day’s gospel text:

You have just heard in Christ’s gospel that one must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history requires of us, and that whoever seeks to avoid danger will lose his or her life. By contrast, whoever out of love for God gives oneself to the service of others will live, like the grain of wheat that dies, but only apparently.  . . .  Only in undoing itself does it produce the harvest.

Moments later a single bullet struck him in the chest as he readied the bread and wine for the sacrament. He was 62 years old.

Whether on murals by the sides of roads or in the purses of campesinas selling fruit on the streets, Romero’s image is today ubiquitous in the lives of Salvadorans. Rarely is a Mass celebrated, especially in the campo, where Romero’s name is not invoked. “Salvadorans in this violence-stricken country call upon San Romero de America in the hopes of converting their gangster children into productive citizens,” Grande says. “They call upon Romero in times of sickness or in despair. Whatever the case is, Romero is always present.” Hernández Pico agrees: “He was present when people were suffering. That presence, that closeness, that merciful attitude to suffering is what the Salvadoran people remember.” The result, Hernández Pico observes, it that “Romero has become a saint much earlier than the church has felt the need to canonize him.”

Salvadorans look to the past to shape their future.

Richard Amesbury holds a joint appointment as Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology and Associate Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University in California and is currently on sabbatical at the University of Zürich. He is the author of Morality and Social Criticism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) and co-author of Faith and Human Rights (Fortress, 2008).

From 2005-2008, Andrew Kirschman, S.J., worked at the Universidad Centroamericana "Jose Simeon Canas" (UCA) in El Salvador, teaching sociology and political science, directing programs in legal formation, and assisting at an urban parish in San Salvador. A Jesuit of the Missouri Province, he is now in the second year of an MDiv program at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California. He also holds an MA in public policy from Saint Louis University.