By Eileen Purcell
Forty years ago, I met Jean Donovan on the steps of the Archdiocesan seminary, San José de la Montaña, in the capital city, San Salvador.
It was the summer of 1980. She rolled up on her motorcycle, revving her motor, her short. blond hair glinting in the sunlight. She exuded only confidence when she encountered me. She was 27. I was 26. We exchanged stories, hugs and the admonition to “stay safe!”
El Salvador was in the midst of an ever- escalating crisis and an incipient Civil War.
We were both young, idealistic women working on behalf of our dioceses (Cleveland for her, San Francisco for me) to bring to life gospel values of love and justice through service, public policy, solidarity and accompaniment.
It was only a few months since the assassination of the Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. The Archbishop was killed by a sharpshooter while celebrating Mass at the chapel of the Hospital of Divina Providencia on March 24, 1980.
The beloved Archbishop had earned the enmity of the Salvadoran oligarchy and military by using his platform to denounce their human rights abuses; not only the state-sponsored violence perpetrated by the Armed Forces and their accomplices against anyone who dissented or challenged entrenched political interests, but also structural violence that consigned most Salvadorans to extreme poverty.
He preached the political dimension of faith and held accountable the generals, the oligarchs and even their patrons in the United States.
He opened the seminary grounds to refugees pouring into the capitol, fleeing scorched earth tactics. He deployed young lawyers to defend political prisoners. He instructed his Social Secretariat to mobilize food, medicine, housing supplies for the thousands of Salvadorans displaced from their homes. He wrote to then President Jimmy Carter asking him to halt US military aid since it was killing his people. And every Sunday,
he announced the Good News - a vision of a just society predicated on the Common Good and the preferential option for the poor, not the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.
In short – the Archbishop had jumped into the public square that was on fire, accompanying those in the crosshairs and their loved ones, confronting power with truth, radical love and forgiveness, fully aware of the risks. He faced death threats. But grounded by his faith and the courage and witness of his people, Oscar Romero was undaunted. “If they kill me, I will rise in the Salvadoran People.”
Jean Donovan was inspired by the Archbishop.
A young lay woman, she worked with Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel and Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, accompanying Salvadoran communities ripped apart by the violence, poverty and an escalating conflict funded by US tax dollars and directed by the United States military advisors. Yet in spite of the spiraling violence targeting opposition leaders, trade unionists, teachers, priests, sisters and lay leaders like herself, and though pressed by worried family and her fiancé to return home to Cleveland, Jean chose to stay.
Jean had fallen in love with the place, the people, especially the children. She once wrote, “Where else would you find roses in December?”
Her task was, in large part, to accompany families in crisis, to be present, to listen, to sing, to share stories, to share tears and elicit laughter. Jean was an outward sign of love and compassion in a time of sorrow. In a letter written to a friend just two weeks before her death, she shared “Several times I have decided to leave El Salvador. I almost could, except for the children, the poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and helplessness? Not mine, dear friend, not mine.”
While Jean was working in El Salvador, I was a young organizer at the Archdiocese of San Francisco, accompanying the growing number of Salvadoran refugees pouring into the City. Through Catholic Social Service, (CSS), we organized emergency social and legal services and organized the Ad Hoc Committee to Stop the Deportations. Working with our Social Justice Commission, we also organized the Interfaith Task Force on Latin America, educating our communities about US immigration and foreign policies and mobilizing resources to challenge summary deportations and the foreign policy causing the massive displacement of entire families in the first place.
That summer we invited Roberto Cuellar to visit the Archdiocese. Roberto was one of the bright, young attorneys who had co-founded Socorro Juridico and worked closely with Archbishop Romero to defend political prisoners and expose human rights abuses. During his visit, he shared documentary evidence of government-sponsored repression with church and congressional leaders and the press. Roberto, in turn, enlisted me along with Notre Dame Sister Sandra Price and Salvadoran-American Journalist Stella Ampuero to visit El Salvador and document the reality ourselves. Sponsored by the Archdiocese of San Salvador and Socorro Juridico, we would visit the refugees and communities under siege. Even though loved ones tried to dissuade us due to the risks, we chose to go.
Many of the accounts of the war in El Salvador focus on the brutal violence of the death squads and the scorched earth tactics taken from the US counter-insurgency play books applied in Vietnam and Indonesia. And we certainly encountered the horrors of the war, came face to face with death squads, held survivors of the Rio Sumpul massacre in our arms, and encountered the National Guard and paramilitary ORDEN.
But alongside the nightmare, was the beauty of the land, the people, and the vision and lived experience of a Beloved Community.
We were embraced by the Christian Communities seeking to incarnate genuine peace grounded in justice. We participated in the first national convocation of Ecclesiastical Base Communities in the crypt of the national cathedral. We walked with priests, sisters, catechists, labor leaders, and political leaders who shared their fervent conviction that a new world is possible. We met with organized campesinos who took us in at great personal risk when we got stuck in a rain storm after curfew. We prayed at the altar where Oscar Romero had been shot dead. We sang the “Misa Campesina,” “Vamos Todos al Banquete” and “Casas de Carton.” We taught our counterparts black spirituals! We encountered profound faith and unmitigated joy in the midst of human suffering and struggle! It was that vision, joy, and profound faith rooted in community and “conciencia” which captivated Jean, our sisters, and so many others who have made the pilgrimage to El Salvador and fallen in love with these remarkable people.
US government officials would later claim we were “duped” by the Marxist-inspired leftists. They alternated between denying human rights abuses altogether to justifying the Salvadoran government-sponsored repression as the only recourse to the perceived communist threat. They refused to recognize the right of the people to elect their own leaders and were blind to the utter failure of the political and economic status quo let alone the state-sponsored crimes perpetrated under a capitalist system that destroyed so many lives. The preservation of US hegemony trumped democratic principles let alone human rights. “Collateral damage” was perceived to be part of the natural order.
My interlude with Jean on the steps that day in the Summer of 1980 was short.
Jean exacted the purpose of our delegation. I invited her assessment of the situation, the needs, how best we could support the work. When I pressed her about the security risks, she nonchalantly responded, “They don’t kill blond North Americans.” An overt bravado, even though I suspect she carried the fear with her.
We took our leave of each other, strengthened. For if fear is contagious so are courage and love.
I spent the next 3 weeks documenting massacres, holding women who had witnessed their husbands macheted to pieces, their babies speared by bayonets on the edge of the Sumpul River. I visited the countryside following military sweeps and bombardments. We were followed by death squads. We were also blessed to be welcomed by the Sisters of Divine Providence and other families as we sought to divert attention. Sister Sandy was arrested by the Treasury Police when they discovered her in the home of a Christian Community leader. She was released only when US Ambassador Robert White went to retrieve her in the middle of the night against the protests of his own wife concerned for his safety.
Upon returning to the US, we issued an Archdiocesan Fact-Finding Report – an eye witness account that became a compelling case for our ongoing work defending, protecting and advocating for refugees in our midst and our counterparts in the region with the full weight of the Archdiocese of San Francisco and Archbishop Quinn. We echoed Archbishop Romero’s appeal for an end to U.S. military aid. We worked closely with the Salvadoran community in San Francisco who bravely told their own stories and invited us to accompany them, their relatives in Honduran refugee camps, and the displaced within El Salvador. Later, the work would grow into the public Sanctuary Movement.
A few months later, on November 27, 1980, six political leaders of the FDR - a coalition of opposition political leaders - were kidnapped by military operatives from the Jesuit High School in San Salvador during a noon time press conference – their tortured bodies discovered a few days later.
Then, on December 2nd, 1980 a contingent of Salvadoran National Guard intercepted Jean and her 3 sisters – Ita, Maura and Dorothy. The women were returning from Comalapa International Airport.
Their bodies were discovered in a shallow grave by a campesino and unearthed in the presence of US Ambassador Robert White with whom Jean and Dorothy had shared Thanksgiving dinner the night before. They had been raped and shot at point blank. Their charred van had been burned and left abandoned by the roadside.
The deaths of our sisters shocked the world.
The United States government’s initial response was to deny military involvement. US Defense Secretary Alexander Haig suggested “perhaps they ran a road block.” UN Secretary Jean Kirkpatrick stated “The nuns were not just nuns. The nuns were also political activists.” Meanwhile an elaborate coverup led by the leaders of the Salvadoran High Command began.
Taken together with the assassination of the Archbishop, the political leadership of the FDR and thousands of Salvadorans, the US church women’s death marked the beginnings of a 12-year armed conflict that would ultimately cost more than 75,000 civilian deaths, the overwhelming majority – according to the UN Truth Commission’s 1992 Report, “From Madness to Hope” -- at the hands of the US-trained and financed military and death squads. The US would invest more than $4.5 billion dollars on the side of the criminal government.
In 1981, a year after Jean died, we invited her parents to visit the Archdiocese of San Francisco for the anniversary celebration of her life and sacrifice. Mr. and Mrs. Donovan stayed with my parents and myself at our family home. Two sets of parents: one grieving the loss of a beloved daughter and the failure of the US State Department to provide any satisfactory answers on a mission to tell her story; the other worried that their daughter would fall victim to the same fate; all faced with the paradox of the Christian call to love, to live, and to be willing to take up the cross. They broke bread together, and gave thanks.
A few years later, in 1984, four members of the National Guard and their superior would be tried and convicted of the rape and murder of the four women – an historic first in the military history of El Salvador. But the intellectual authors of the crime were never brought to justice and a few years later, some of the implicated military leaders were even granted residency in the United States, including the Director of the National Guard, Coronel Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova and Defense Minister Jose Guillermo Garcia.
In 1993, the UN Truth Commission determined that Coronel Vides Casanova and Coronel Garcia had organized an official cover up. In 1994, four of the imprisoned guardsmen men confessed to the crimes and alleged that they acted on orders. A decades long legal battle in US courts ensued, led by the sisters’ families and by Maryknoll Sister Ita Ford’s brother, Bill Ford, a prominent attorney, and other dedicated groups, including the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability. They lost the court case, but in 2012, a judge found General Cassanova guilty of war crimes, and in 2015, he was deported to El Salvador.
Every year, on December 2nd, the Salvadoran community gathers at the site where the sisters and Jean’s bodies were unearthed. Thanks to the efforts of the SHARE Foundation, the site was declared an historical landmark in 2015. That year, over 100 women religious from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in the United States made the pilgrimage with the SHARE Foundation to accompany the community to mark the 35th anniversary and to honor the life, sacrifice and legacy of the women who gave their lives for the poor and a vision of a just society, a beloved community.
The Community gathers at the Historical Monument for the 2015 35th commemoration of Ita Ford, Maura Clark, Dorothy Kazel & Jean Donovan’s martyrdom at the site their bodies were discovered in 1980.
This year, the 40th anniversary pilgrimage was postponed due to the COVID – 19 pandemic. Instead, the LCWR and the SHARE Foundation are sponsoring more than 40 celebrations across the United States, Central America and Europe.
A beautiful African American veteran of the Civil Rights movement, Rev. Phil Lawson, once described the people of El Salvador to be very similar to the Black social gospel communities in the United States: “A Resurrection People living Good Friday,” one committed to sacrificial love, an unconditional love of the marginalized and oppressed and the vision of freedom.
Today, as we recall the story of Jean Donovan, may we remember her invitation to set aside our fears and walk with the people yearning to be free. May we make our love concrete, through small and large gestures, through prayer and action, in community and song, in solidarity. May we draw strength and courage from her memory, from one another, from the beauty of the earth, full of hope and joy.
JEAN DONOVAN, PRESENTE.
ITA FORD, PRESENTE
MAURA CLARKE, PRESENTE
DOROTHY KAZEL, PRESENTE
Eileen Purcell served on the SHARE Foundation’s Board of Directors from 1983-1992 and as Executive Director from 1986-1991. She is currently a member of the SHARE Advisory Board.
On World Humanitarian Day, the Salvadoran Association for Humanitarian Assistance PRO-VIDA honors the memory of men and women who gave their lives in the performance of humanitarian assistance. Medical professionals who in difficult moments during the armed conflict, despite the difficulties, provided assistance and protection to hundreds of people who needed it, to all medical personnel who continue to do their work from the first line in these difficult times with the interest to save lives.
36 years after the founding of PRO-VIDA, it continues faithful to its mission promoting participatory processes in Integral Health, Risk Management and Resilience to Climate Change, Territorial Development, as well as Institutional Strengthening to improve the quality of life of the vulnerable population with a focus on law, gender, and different generations.
This year the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the most complex challenges for humanitarian work around the world. The lack of access to essential services and the restrictions imposed by governments around the world have meant that those who have been at the forefront of the response are the communities, civil society, and local NGOs. PRO-VIDA emphasizes the work of community structures that are and continue working on the front line in all the communities of our country.
Through the Integral Health Program, PRO-VIDA serves communities in conditions of greater vulnerability, with an emphasis on children, women, and the elderly affected by confinement, in which the population becomes the victim of one of the worst pandemic in the world in the last hundred years. Each country suffers the pandemic according to the measures taken by its authorities and according to the capacity of its health system, recognizing that El Salvador has a very weak and collapsed health system, and need a specific strategy and plan to contain the contagion of the coronavirus.
As a humanitarian response and assistance, the organization has activated the medical and humanitarian response team to bring food, hygiene items, and necessities to the most vulnerable and low-income families, who do not have access to the health system and basic services. PRO-VIDA is taking up the experience of humanitarian assistance in crises to avoid more deaths due to lack of medical attention, lack of personal protective equipment, medicines, and medical personnel.
PRO-VIDA has launched the campaign "Supporting the struggle against COVID 19, for the life of the Medical personnel and COVID Positive Families", together with the SHARE Foundation and CARECEN LA to raise funds for the assistance of people affected by COVID 19 in El Salvador. With the support of the international community that stands in solidarity through its contributions with medical personnel, patients from rural communities, the social movement, journalists, and independent health workers, families who have lost their jobs, and loved ones due to COVID-19.
PRO-VIDA has delivered food kits, hygiene kits, and personal protection to families in various areas of the country, families in the most vulnerable communities to emergencies in the context of the pandemic, and the effects of storms Amanda and Cristóbal. PRO VIDA reaffirms on the World Humanitarian Day always be faithful to their mission of accompanying the most vulnerable populations, especially in the context of the COVID 19 pandemic. The reality in El Salvador represents a complex challenge for humanitarian operations, which reveals the enormous social inequality in the country, the violation of human rights, discrimination, and social exclusion that must be eradicated to achieve a more just society.
San Salvador, August 19, 2020
by J. Alejandro Artiga-Purcell
Cabañas, El Salvador – This Saturday, in Victoria, Cabañas, over 900 people gathered in the blazing hot plaza to celebrate Radio Victoria and the Social Economic Development Association’s (ADES) 25th anniversary. The sister organizations hosted a joint community arts festival to mark two and a half decades of solidarity, support, and dedication to participatory community development, human rights and sustainability.
Both organizations’ mandates originate in their struggle to repopulate the town of Santa Marta, Cabañas, at the height of the bloody civil war. Founded by community members on their return from Honduran refugee camps, ADES and Radio Victoria’s first challenge became building and maintaining the social and physical tools necessary for subsistence survival.
The speeches, live music, and community dance and theater performances celebrated both organizations’ blossoming successes over the years. The event, itself, reflected their extraordinary growth and community support as attendees came from municipalities far beyond Santa Marta, including those from other parts of Cabañas, Usulutan, San Vicente and Cuzcatlan. ADES and Radio Victoria’s projects expanded to include fostering literacy, environmental and human rights education, community health, microfinances, organic agriculture, leadership training, youth programs, and women’s empowerment.
An Historic Success
Their most public success began in 2006 with their resistance to a Canadian-Australian gold mining company (first Pacific Rim, then Oceana Gold) that threatened to contaminate the country’s water resources. ADES and Radio Victoria accompanied local communities to protest the proposed El Dorado gold mine near San Isidrio, Cabañas. The 12-year fight transformed a local outcry into a nation-wide movement with international support. Their organizing drive culminated in March 2017 when El Salvador became the first country in history to ban metal mining.
A hand stitched depiction of community organization against mining in Cabañas, hanging in the Radio Victoria office. (Photo by author).
The monumental victory was the result of unparalleled levels of local organization, dedication and sacrifice. Speakers like ADES President, Vidalina Morales, recalled the costs incurred along the way, including the unresolved assassinations of four anti-mining activists in 2009. Morales reminded those present that “We cannot talk about the 25th anniversary of Radio Victoria and ADES, and our successes, without remembering Dora Sorto, Ramiro Rivera, Marcelo Rivera, who gave their lives for the defense of our environment and the right to life of current and future generations.”
Morales also noted “new threats on the horizon that put at risk democratic aspirations, social justice, and the search for an ecologically sustainable society for the Salvadoran people.” Chief among these is the continued struggle over El Salvador’s water resources.
El Salvador’s Political Water Crisis
Facing a dire water crisis, predicted to get worse with the effects of climate change, El Salvador remains one of few countries without a general water law. Following years of pressure from El Salvador’s Foro del Agua, an umbrella group of environmental social organizations including ADES, the Ministry of Environment (MARN) submitted a proposed General Water Law to congress in 2012.
But not withstanding general consensus on 92 articles of the proposed Water Law, and just three months after the metal mining ban passed, El Salvador’s conservative ARENA party proposed their own water law, with the technical guidance of El Salvador’s National Association of Private Companies (ANEP). The regulatory entity of the ARENA/ANEP law consists of one executive representative, 2 representatives of COMURES (an ARENA dominated group of mayors) and 2 representatives of ANEP. While ARENA claims that their law is not privatization, a growing portion of Salvadoran civil society is concerned that putting water regulation under the decision-making power of private interests would be a de facto privatization.
In contrast, a counter water proposal presented by the Universidad Centro America Simeón Cañas (UCA) also in 2017, with supported by the Catholic Church, places regulatory control firmly in the hands of the state.
The ARENA controlled congress has momentarily cast aside MARN’s General Water Law in favor of their own. However, despite having the necessary votes to pass it into law, a wave of social protest regarding “who decides” about water regulation has since exploded as a point of contention on the national political agenda.
Rallies, marches, and public forums organized by students of the public University of El Salvador (UES), environmental groups, and labor unions have filled the streets of San Salvador. Protestors have taken over highways and airwaves of public and mainstream news outlets. The recurring demand is “no to the privatization of water” and no to the incorporation of ANEP in the regulating body.
In his comments to those gathered in Victoria’s public square, Oscar Beltran, director of Radio Victoria, promised that, “Just like we did with the mining issue, we will assume the challenge against the privatization of water.” Later on, a community performance group reiterated this stance. The actors depicted ANEP’s attempt to commodify water (depicted by a suited man slapping a dollar sign on a young woman dressed in a water costume) and the power of an organized community to protect their “human right to water”.
Mining, Water and Community Organization
On June 5th, roughly two weeks before the 25th anniversary celebration in Victoria, ADES invited communities to commemorate the 9th anniversary of Marcelo Rivera’s martyrdom for defending the human right to water against transnational mining interests. On another hot Salvadoran morning, hundreds of people gathered in San Isidro’s central park for the event, titled, “Exigimos el Derecho Humano al Agua, No a la Propuesta Privatizadora de la ANEP” (“We demand the Human Right to Water, No to the Privatization Proposal of ANEP”).
The events speakers included the Monseñor José Elías Rauda, Bishop of San Vicente, Ana Milagro Guevara, the Environmental Secretary General of the Ombudswoman of Human Rights, Omar Serrano, the Vice Rector of the UCA, and Ms. Morales from ADES. They spoke of water as a human right that supports all other human rights—including health, food, sanitation. They spoke against the privatization of a resource so vital to life. They also spoke of the power and necessity of the people to stand up for those rights at all costs.
Morales echoed these sentiments again this past Saturday. In reference to Marcelo and the other martyrs who stood against mining, she stated, “They will always be an example to follow.” An example that demonstrates that “only with organization and popular struggle do we guarantee the defense of our inalienable rights and interests as working people.”
J. Alejandro Artiga-Purcell is a PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz department of Environmental Studies.
This was my third trip with a SHARE delegation to serve as an election observer in El Salvador. On each trip, I have learned more about the history and concerns of the people of El Salvador. Some of it is very disturbing because it involves injustice and murder of innocent citizens by agents of the U.S. government. Our group visited the chapel where Monsignor Romero was assassinated, and we heard some of the details of this horrific event. It seems that in the many years since Romero’s death, information about U.S. involvement becomes more evident. Of course, the U.S. also armed pro-government forces during El Salvador’s civil war, including death squads that murdered thousands of innocent citizens. Yet, Salvadorans choose to settle in the U.S., and one of the largest concentrations is in the area where I live, metropolitan Washington, DC.
These great contradictions continue in the policies and practices of our current federal government, which has become very anti-immigrant, and particularly unjust to people of color. I was treated with such warmth and respect during my time in El Salvador; at the polling places, many Salvadorans approached me and asked about where I come from and how I became an election observer; they told me of their travels in the U.S. and several said they had lived in the U.S. for several years. On the most recent trip, I felt uncomfortable to be an American and wondered if anyone would show hostility toward me or other members of the delegation.
SHARE does an amazing job of organizing and leading the delegations. On my first trip, for the presidential election in 2014, we spent several days in orientation, including lectures by an economist and visits to historic sites as well as visiting community based programs which were improving the lives of women and the poor. We met with leaders such as a mayor and several mothers of children who “disappeared” during the civil war. We went to candidate forums. We were hosted by a former ambassador at his beautiful home. The SHARE staff held many discussions so that we could reflect on our experiences and ask questions about what we were learning. I feel that all of the activities are very carefully chosen and well planned so that delegates will better understand what is at stake in having a free and fair election process. The other delegates come from all over the U.S. as well as Canada and Mexico. The range of ages and professions was surprising. We had two college students in our group, as well as at least two senior citizens (that’s me!) The thoughtfulness and assistance from SHARE staff who accompanied our group was exceptional.
I think the most exciting part of observing the election is the vote counting. When the president of the precinct (table) held up each ballot, it was just thrilling. I wish U.S. elections had such transparency.
There is much more I could say about my memorable service with SHARE delegations, but I conclude that I will be returning to participate in a future delegation. I thank SHARE for the opportunity to meet fascinating people and for working to improve confidence in the electoral process.