All day, every day, I hang out with about 55 Salvadoran teenagers. I’m a teacher, and I work with immigrant students in a neighborhood full of pupuserias and cumbia. Inside the walls of our bright, beautiful schools, the kids make it clear—they miss El Salvador. Their families aren’t clinging to Salvadoran culture because they want to change the US, but rather because they didn’t want to leave their homes at all. The journeys across the deserts and rivers of Central America and Mexico were not to come benefit from some mythical American dream, but quite literally to save their lives and the lives of their children.
The Death Squads of the Civil War have become history, but the violence continues. After the Salvadoran Civil War, the US had one major export to El Salvador: the gang culture of Los Angeles, which filled much of the power vacuum in the wake of the Civil War. In the San Diego International Law Review, Juan Fogelbach wrote about the risk factors that lead Salvadoran youth to the gangs: neglect, violence, poverty, lack of opportunity, and a family relationship to gangs. When seeking a solution to these problems, few options are offered to the poor of Central America.
In El Salvador, a handful of elite oligarchs continue to disenfranchise the rest of the nation. Even as mining revenue grows the country’s GDP, most families continue to live in abject poverty. Archbishop Óscar Romero, soon to be a saint, saw the same forces at work some forty years ago. He recognized that taking on the cause of the poor is dangerous, for individuals and for the Church. But without taking that danger upon ourselves, we cannot fully live Christ’s greatest commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
In the month before he died, Romero traveled to Europe, where he accepted an honorary document at Louvain and implored St. John Paul II against supporting the government in El Salvador. When speaking at Louvain, Romero said, “Once again it is the poor who enable us to understand what has really happened. That is why the Church has understood the persecution from the perspective of the poor. Persecution has been occasioned by the defense of the poor. It amounts to nothing other than the Church’s taking upon herself the lot of the poor.” Romero must continue to be our model for taking on the passion of the poor and accepting our own persecution for the defense of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The Salvadoran community in the US continues to experience persecution. Our government has stripped them of protection, and our immigration laws put families trying to escape violence in danger of deportation that is more like a death sentence. Can we put ourselves and our Church on the line to protect them the way Romero did?
Romero doesn’t only matter in the face of violence and injustice. He is also relevant to a Church battered and divided by politics. Especially in the US, it can be so easy for us to align ourselves with a party and to assert that a “real Catholic” votes a certain way. It isn’t so easy or simple. Romero’s only partisanship was to justice, to truth, to holiness. He didn’t broadcast the names of the missing and killed because he was a Marxist member of the Liberation Front. No, he preached against repression and murder because he believed in the unalienable dignity of the human person. The only label he wanted for the Church was one of unity and Incarnation.
In a homily given on November 11, 1979, less than six months before his assassination, Romero said: “We are not being political when during the homily we point out political, social and economic sins. Rather this action is the result of the Word of God becoming incarnated in our reality which often does not reflect the Word of God but rather the reign of sin. Therefore, the Word of God points out to people the paths of redemption.”
Brigid Hogan is a teacher, writer, and reader who lives in Northeast DC