Woman holding a placard reading “Monsenor, your dream has been fulfilled. The people have freed themselves at last from the yoke of repression.”
My last day in El Salvador was the 29th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, murdered in a hospital chapel in San Salvador, by assassins under the command of School of the Americas graduate (and ARENA party founder) Roberto D’Aubuisson (just in case you had any lingering doubts about how great US complicity in the Salvadoran tragedy has been). Since his death, the bespectacled, unassuming Romero has become a figure whose stature almost rivals Che Guevara’s as a Latin American popular hero. He spoke out clearly and boldly against the murderous repression that swept the country in the late 1970s. He opted to place his church at the service of El Salvador’s poorest people; when he demanded that the soldiers stop murdering them for protesting peacefully against their poverty, he was killed.
As I mentioned, I’ve never found any organized religion very convincing as a mechanism for social progress — or spiritual fulfillment, for that matter. Individuals within many different faiths have touched me with their commitment, their courage and their ability to tap a source of inspiration from the deepest wells of human nature. I have no doubt there is something real beyond the material, but religions, like states, like corporations, like armies — like most of the structures that dominate our lives – have little or nothing to do with bringing most humans closer to that essential, incomprehensible source of meaning and healing.
Which is what makes the exceptions, the true believers who are truly prophetic, truly altruistic, truly visionary, so exceptional. A friend, daunted by my descriptions of the dark side of reality in El Salvador, asked how under such terrible, unaltered conditions: ongoing poverty, violence, corruption, psychosis, degradation – healing could even begin. But on March 24th, in the bright blue morning, in a white chapel decked with flowers, hundreds of people came to honor one man’s ability to commit himself to fight against suffering with all the considerable but insufficient power he had. El Salvador’s Vice President to-be Sanchez Cerén, former leader of another insufficient struggle, the guerrilla war, was one of those who came to honor him. What I realized then and there was that in El Salvador, the healing happens all the time. It has to. Everything is celebrated, everything is remembered, time is always taken to eat and drink and dance and sing. To fit the most horrific, unforgivable death into the overarching negentropic cycle of life. Because there simply isn’t any other way to be alive that’s worthy of the name.
Is there any progress there? I don’t know, or at least I don’t know yet. Is there any such thing as progress anywhere? I don’t think we can point to it, in any way that really matters (we’ve demonstrated in recent years that victories we thought were permanent, over everything from slavery to small pox, are only provisional). In the North, our notions of eternal progress are unraveling as fast as the arctic ice is melting and the mountain of toxic debt, like that pile of sludge in Tennessee, is pouring into the rivers of our economy. But there is a way to live fully and to participate fully in the possibility that life can be a closed circle of energy that will sustain the generations. Learning that way is our task. El Salvador has been my teacher, and I’m grateful.
Meantime, while I philosophize, they are getting down to work. Women’s groups, community groups, youth groups, prisoners’ groups, neighborhood organizing committees, professional organizations, party structures are all meeting now and will be during the next two months to assess how to move the process forward.
We can help. If you ask how, I’ll tell you, but I’ll just be telling you something you probably already know:
Keep working, keep listening, keep speaking your truth.
Keep learning how to live in some way that’s worthy of the name.
Ali Primera, Venezuelan master of Latin American New Song, sings his El Sombrero Azul (which has become the alternative Salvadoran national anthem) at a Central American peace concert in Nicaragua.