Delegation to El Salvador Experiences Eye-Opening Events and Connection to Local People
By Barbara Kelley, OP
Adrian Dominican Sisters
A diverse group of about 42 Catholic Sisters, graduate students, and long-time activists – predominantly from the United States but also from Latin America and other parts of the world – spent the first half of Advent exploring the history, current events, people, and community organizations of El Salvador and Honduras. The delegation took place November 29-December 12, 2022.
They were participating in two separate delegations. Roses in December, the experience in El Salvador, was co-sponsored by the SHARE Foundation and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an organization of the elected leadership of the majority of congregations of U.S. Catholic Sisters. Roses in December marked the 42nd anniversary of the killing of four U.S. Catholic missionaries who had come to El Salvador to serve the people. This was followed immediately by the Vamos a La Milpa delegation to Honduras. Some participants learned about the programs of the Sisters of Mercy and the School Sisters of Notre Dame for the people in the urban area of San Pedro Sula, while others traveled seven hours to the rural area of Bajo Aguan to meet people who were defending their waters and their land rights.
While Roses in December activities formally began on November 30, many saw their arrival in El Salvador as memorable in itself. Many traveled to El Salvador for the first time, while for others, the journey on November 29 was a memorable reunion.
“It was hard enough to hear about these long-ago instances of martyrdom, but in a way even scarier to hear – both in the morning from Karen Ramirez of ProVida and in the afternoon from Father José Maria Tojeira, former Provincial of the Jesuits who were killed – that the situation in El Salvador is going backwards,” Sister Barbara Kelley, OP, wrote. “Again, anybody who opposes the government of El Salvador is treated as an enemy of the state and subject to persecution, detention, and torture.”
Ana Karen Barragán Fernandez also reflected on the experience at the UCA museum. “To be in the UCA is to remember that the reconstruction of the social fabric takes time and is not guaranteed: it is an essential and urgent struggle that requires all of us with our historical, cultural, and political baggage,” she wrote. “Therefore, the Jesuit University of El Salvador is a bastion in the transformation of such a polarized and changing world: It is fertile ground.”
The delegation began their commemoration of the four Church women – Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, and lay missioner Jean Donovan. Stuck in traffic for three hours, the delegation missed a planned meeting with one of the local communities in Chalatenango, the area in which the four women ministered to and accompanied the local people.
Even before Mass on December 2, commemorating the 42nd anniversary of the deaths of the Church women, the delegation sensed a strong communion with the martyrs. The bus took the same route as 42 years ago when two of them went to the airport to pick up the other two returning from a Maryknoll meeting; after leaving the airport, the women were abducted. The delegation rode in silence.
Mary Anne Perrone, one of the SHARE Foundation organizers of the delegation, reflected on the differences in the rides along that route 42 years ago and in 2022. “Then, they were driving from the airport, in the dark, on their long ride home, the four of them. Today, we, a busload, started out on the road toward the airport, on a clear, sunny day, in memory of them. Then, abducted and in fear and terror, their captors made the turn onto an isolated country road that took them all the way to a clearing near the town of Santiago de Nonualco. Today, we made the same turn, holding red roses, quieting our voices and maintaining silence for the 20 minutes and 22 seconds it took us to arrive at the same site. Then, their bodies were cruelly violated and they were shot at close range, killing them and spilling their blood on the soil of the pueblo of El Salvador. Today, we processed to that site, where they were hastily buried in a shallow grave, and where the seeds of their sacrifice have sprouted into joy and hope and a liberating message in all of the communities they touched in El Salvador and around the world.”
About a mile from the location of the commemorative Mass – in a chapel built on the site where the women’s bodies were discovered in a shallow grave – the delegates were met by members of the local community, who were joyfully waiting for the delegates to accompany them in processing to the chapel.
“We joined a procession of local people who venerated the four women,” Sister Sharon White, SSJ, recalled. “Despite the heaviness of the deaths, hope and resurrection were in the air because of the joy of the people. The crowd did not allow the sorrow to dampen their spirits. They are a hopeful people holding on to the witness of the four martyrs we celebrated today. They call us to solidarity, to be companions with a country seeking peace, justice, freedom, and basic needs.”
After the Mass, delegates and community members gathered outside the chapel and around the site where the women had been initially buried. Many admired the “witness,” an ancient tree that had been spattered with the blood of the women. Others brought the roses they had been carrying to the building that marked the site of the shallow grave.
Many members of the delegation recalled commemorating the deaths of the women in years past, in their own local community. Marc Alvarado, volunteer staff member of the InterReligious Task Force on Central America and Colombia (IRTF) of Cleveland, recalled experiences with the family members and friends of Sister Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary Jean Donovan. The spoke “with joy and yearning of their friends long past, in all their beautiful and imperfect humanity.”
Marc spoke of the hope he feels and of the sense of purpose illustrated by a bee who landed on the rose he was carrying. “It proceeded to do what bees do, working to perpetuate life.” In the same way, Marc wrote, we must carry on the legacy of solidarity left by the four women. “We are called to be and move and work and love in solidarity with each other. To perpetuate life in the midst of death. To create movements for liberation…that are so leader-full that our leaders can no longer be martyred, that we no longer need to die in order to live.”
The sense of solidarity was shared that evening in a Zoom call organized in collaboration with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the Sisters of Charity of Halifax in which the delegation’s friends, family and community members, and others joined a virtual pilgrimage, with up to nearly 700 people following the delegation’s posts from each day of the experience in El Salvador.
After an intense day, some members of the delegation chose to begin the last full day of the El Salvador experience early – with 6:15 a.m. Mass celebrated by Cardinal Rosa Chavez. After Mass, the cardinal met with the delegation over cookies and coffee, reviewing his newly published book about his own experiences in El Salvador – including his friendship with Archbishop Oscar Romero. Each of the visitors from the delegation received a signed copy of his book so that they could remember the occasion and the experiences of the people of El Salvador.
The entire delegation joined local community members and professionals at the International Forum on Human Rights, hosted by Tutela Legal Maria Julia Hernandez. Speakers offered analyses of past and current human rights crises in El Salvador and the prospects for truth, justice, and reparations for the victims. Among the speakers were people who shared personal testimony of how they had been affected by the continuing repression in their country: stories of detention and torture and of waiting helplessly to hear of their loved ones in detention, being swept up in the government’s state of exception in which many constitutional rights have been suspended.
But as sober as the events of the last few days were, the delegation spent the rest of their last day in El Salvador in celebration. The group gathered at the office of a local SHARE Foundation community organization partner which works with women suffering from cancer. The afternoon was a celebration of the commitment of the women who serve other women and of the long-time dedication of one of the SHARE El Salvador staff members. In turn, José Artiga, Director of the SHARE Foundation and Coordinator of the Roses in December delegation, was recognized for his decades of dedication to the people of El Salvador and Honduras.
Once the delegation returned to their hotel, they split. One group went out to eat at a distant resort area, where they had the opportunity to shop for souvenirs, while another group enjoyed dinner at a local restaurant – and still other simply stayed at the hotel. The delegation then took the rest of the evening preparing for the next day: either their drive to the border of Honduras or their trip back to the United States.
Perhaps Sister Maria Orlandini, OSF, best expressed the feelings of the delegation as they prepared to leave El Salvador. “I want to tip my hat to this beautiful, welcoming, and courageous people, especially the strong women we met – a strength born of struggle and not giving up,” she wrote. “I feel blessed and grateful to have had the possibility to walk on this land blessed by the blood of so many martyrs. What a privilege to be able to witness the love the people have for the sisters who lived in their midst and who loved them. This love is so strong even after 42 years.”
BY SHARON WHITE
Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the earth.
Meek does not mean weak, or standing by and allowing the rich and powerful to abuse people, land and water to enhance their own personal interests. Meek instead means to live in harmony with life and its processes. I listened, witnessed and grew distressed as I recognized that the people were having to form nonviolent communities to defend their land. How can land, rightfully belonging to the people, be taken without any consultation or compensation?
Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
We recently received shocking news of the murders of two environmental activists, Aly Dominguez and Jairo Bonilla in Honduras on Jan. 9. While we were adjusting to this terrible news, we learned of the murders of another activist, Omar Cruz Tomé, and his father-in-law on Jan. 13. Sadly, these murders are not unique; they follow other murders, notably that of famed environmental activist Berta Cáceres in 2016.
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice, for they shall have their fill.
Part of our delegation traveled in two pickup trucks across the San Pedro and Guapinol Rivers. Our anticipation peaked during the bouncy ride as muddy water splashed over the vehicles. We were greeted and given details of efforts by representatives of communities who live along the polluted rivers. The water defenders — some of whom were unjustly jailed for two years — continue to try to halt Lenir Pérez's Inversiones Los Pinares Mining Company from creating an iron oxide mine in Honduras' Carlos Escaleras National Park. The mine is an environmental disaster, contaminating the rivers that provide the communities' water and drain into the Caribbean Sea.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall have mercy shown them.
Everyone's entire being would cry out for mercy if they visited the Campo Buena Vista Community in northeast Honduras. We walked through mud to a small church where Pastor Rita Santamaria explained how the intense rain from Hurricane Julia crippled the town with floods and landslides. The Ulúa River that borders the town overflowed and the riverbed had never been dredged by the government. Retaining walls are flimsy at best. We toured parts of the village damaged by the mud and water that had buried homes and people. A resident invited us to visit a family in a tiny home built on weak pillars. A young mother with wrenching tears explained that she watched her neighbor and the two children buried alive under the pile of mud that was visible next to her second-floor window.
Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God.
On Dec. 22, 2022, shortly after our departure from Honduras, Mauricio Esquivel, a member of the Tranvio Farm Cooperative and father of nine, was murdered. His life was dedicated to saving the land in the Aguán Valley, Honduras, so that the community could farm their land. The Dinant Corporation continues to violate human rights by displacing families and communities from their land, to profit from palm oil. While trying to negotiate land titles acquired in the 1970s, the peasants live with constant intimidation, evictions and loss of life. More than 150 laborers have been massacred since 2009. Yet, it is clear that these people have lived in constant faith and hope before the face of a personal God.
Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.
Many peacemakers witnessed to us throughout our journey. Honduran Jesuit Fr. Ismael Moreno Coto, known as Padre Melo, is a shining light. With his life at risk every day, he now has a guard. Padre Melo is founder of Radio Progreso, a voice for the poor and dispossessed. Share Foundation and LCWR's invitation for sisters to go on this delegation is an opportunity to be in peaceful solidarity with the people of Latin America. If we proclaim the paschal mystery to be the heart of Catholicism, our only option is to invite and join all to the table to break bread as leaders who engage the passion, death and resurrection.
Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice's sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
It is impossible to return to the United States and simply live life as usual. Realizing that when we went to El Salvador, the State of Exception (suspension of habeas corpus) was in place. More than 60,000 people have already been arrested without access to due process, lawyers or family. The day we arrived in Honduras, the same State of Exception went into effect. The church and the entire world needs to cry out for the poor, who should not be forced to migrate to other countries.
In some noteworthy tweets Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) question what the U.S. is doing about the killings and threats against land and water defenders in Honduras, by paramilitary and security forces operating in concert with private business interests.
To provide assurance to the people of Honduras and U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Laura Dugo that the world is watching and cares, I will continue to call and email my senators, Dugo and the State Department. It is paramount that the license of Inversiones Los Pinares Mining Company be revoked, that Dinant Company be prevented from displacing peasants who have land titles in Honduras, and that there be a complete investigation of the murders of environmental defenders.
My body, mind and spirit call me to share this reflection; perhaps one more person will know the invitation to experience the blessing of the Beatitudes, to be in solidarity with and to respond to the cry of the poor.
Email sample for you to share fundraiser:
Donate to the SHARE foundation to support three amazing projects in El Salvador and Honduras. A fellow delegate and SHARE ambassador, Gabriela, is biking a 100-mile race in Alaska in solidarity with three projects in El Salvador and Honduras. You can donate here: SHARE.
The 100-mile bike race will fundraise for:
SHARE Foundation is a fantastic nonprofit with 40+ years of solidarity work in Central America. The SHARE ambassador doing the 100-mile race in Alaska is a US-born Salvadoran Honduran; her parents immigrated to the U.S. in the early 90s as refugees from the El Salvadoran war. The delegations transformed her political relationship with El Salvador and Honduras. We are thrilled and excited to see her dedicate her 100-mile bike race to the resistance that needs YOUR solidarity in El Salvador and Honduras, so please donate here: https://share-elsalvador.networkforgood.com/projects/54380-share-el-salvador-general-campaign
SHARE EL SALVADOR
SHARE STRENGTHENS SOLIDARITY WITH AND AMONG THE SALVADORAN PEOPLE IN EL SALVADOR AND THE UNITED STATES IN THE STRUGGLE FOR ECONOMIC SUSTAINABILITY, JUSTICE, AND HUMAN AND CIVIL RIGHTS.