Revisiting El Salvador 35 years after the churchwomen´s deaths
Today we share a reflection by Judy Ress, a participant on our Remembering the Churchwomen Delegation.
She told me her story in bits and pieces as we bounced along in our rickety yellow school bus into the lowland hills of Chalatenango en route to her village.
Mercedes Montes was only 15 when Sisters Carla, Ita and Maura came to San Antonio de Los Ranchos in early 1980. A dangerous time. The Montes family was known to be consecuente. They´d produced catechists, youth leaders and comandantes—and had paid dearly for it. Twenty-eight of the Montes clan perished as a result of the “scorched earth” policy implemented by the Reagan administration to help the Salvadoran Armed Forces to rid the country of “communist subversion.”
Mercedes’ father, Angel Montes, had been the village’s revered catechist, but because he was illiterate, he had his nine-year old daughter read the Biblical texts to him. By the time Mercedes was 15, she too was a catechist and a dynamic youth leader.
Now an old man, Don Angel had spoken the day before at the anniversary Mass held on the site where the bodies of the four churchwomen were found. There stands a simple white monument in the shape of a cross. The inscription reads:
Entregaron sus vidas el 2 de diciembre de 1980.
Recíbenlas Señor en tu Reino.
An enormous pine tree shelters the monument, now declared a historical site by El Salvador`s Ministry of Culture. A chapel stands on the site as well. That day it was filled to the brim with folks like myself—old-time or one-time missioners—and lots of Salvadorans of a new generation. I was part of a 100 plus delegation that had traveled to El Salvador to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the churchwomen´s assassinations. Our delegation was sponsored by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and the SHARE Foundation. Most were religious Sisters who were or had been in positions of leadership. Our age range: 65-75, an aging but highly committed troop. I was welcomed as part of the delegation because I had been a member of the Cleveland Mission Team to El Salvador (1970-72), like Dorothy and Jean. I had been invited to launch my historical novel dedicated to these nuns. Blood Flowers had just been translated into Spanish.
That day, as we gathered around the memorial and heard the testimonies, I caught a glimpse of who these women might have been. Don Angel described how Carla would stop the jeep rather than drive into a passy of butterflies in flight. Mercedes told of how Maura made her a skirt out of a burlap bag because she didn´t have any clothes. “I was hiding out in the woods behind my house when the Sisters found me,” she whispers. The National Guard was hunting for her.
It became clear why the Sisters were considered an obstacle to the “scorched earth” assault. They were protecting the villagers by scurrying them away to safer areas; they were bringing in food, medicine and clothing; and they were systematically tracking the abductions and disappearances for the Catholic Church´s Legal Defense Office.
As we coasted along the now paved curved road leading deeper into Chalatenango, Mercedes showed me the book she was reading—the translated version of Vessels of Clay, a biography of Sister Carla Piette by her good friend and classmate Jacqueline Hansen Maggiore. “My dad was in love with Carla,” she said. “They had these long conversations together.”
Carla arrived in San Antonio in March, on the day of Archbishop Romero´s funeral. She died in a jeep accident on August 23. She and Ita were coming back to San Antonio after having taken a seminarian to his home. It was dark and raining. Carla must have miscalculated the river´s strength as she nosed the jeep into the river crossing. The current caught the jeep. Carla pushed Ita out the window. The villagers found Ita the next morning clinging to a branch alongside the river. She was dehydrated and covered with mosquito bites—but alive. They found Carla´s naked body 18 kilometers down river. “We couldn´t find them in the night,” Mercedes wailed. “My father couldn´t look at Carla´s body. He just wept and wept.”
When our caravan of three buses finally arrived at San Antonio, we were invited to form a procession into the village. It gets dark early in El Salvador, so people met us with colored lanterns, fireworks and drum rolls. We were astounded—the whole village had turned out to welcome us. As we approached the outskirts, we crossed the river. Now there is a bridge. Carla, presente!
As we processed into the main plaza, Beethoven’s Song of Joy filled the air. The local authorities and a children´s choir greeted us. Each child was wearing a t-shirt with a photo of one of the four churchwomen. They sang the sophisticated Cambia Todo Cambia. Mercedes was by my side the whole way. “Here`s where my house was.” “Back there is where Maura and Ita found me.” “Here is the embankment where we searched for Carla.”
We stayed the night in San Antonio, grateful for the simple hospitality. I got to sleep in a hammock again—and grudgingly had to admit to being out of practice. The next morning we were treated to breakfast in the town’s Memorial Park, where a bust of Carla honors her as one of the village`s three outstanding heroes.
San Antonio, which borders Honduras, boasts of being a “new town”. Its inhabitants were forced to flee to refugee camps in Honduras to escape the ¨scorched earth” campaign. There—for nine years—they learned to live together as a community. When they returned home, after the 1992 Peace Accords, they had to start all over. Mercedes says that they learned to work together when they were refugees in Honduras. Now, each family has been granted a piece of land and the government supplies seed and fertilizers. In this corner of El Salvador, the smell of hope filters through the dusty streets.
During the week-long trip, we visited other villages and co-ops and heard testimonies of how the seeds of the churchwomen ´s sacrifice—along with so many others (75,000 dead or disappeared, 134 massive massacres)—are bearing fruit.
El Salvador is described by some as a “failed state”. The country is listed as one of the most violent in the Americas. Yes, there are gangs of disaffected youth who roam the streets. They are learning fast from Mexico´s narco-mafias. They are feared. Many Salvadorans are trying to flee—and are willing to pay a high price for a “good coyote” who will deliver them safely to the United States.
But against this El Salvador is another version found in the newly organized efforts to become food independent, to re-forest the land, to recover the indigenous way of nurturing one´s own milpa. As one expert told us: “With the influx of the maquiladoras (sweatshops), El Salvador switched from being an agricultural country to an industrial one. But the maquilas only helped about 250,000 families. Our people need the land. We must return to the land.”
El Salvador is the only country in the Americas to reject imports in the name of food security. Food security versus food sovereignty.
Thirty-five years is a long time. Mercedes is now 50, has grown kids and coordinates 14 different women’s groups, each engaged in producing—either food or crafts. The four churchwomen have long been dead. But as we drove in silence along the road where their van had been hijacked and they had been abducted, raped and shot once in the head in a “potters’ field,” I sensed the terror they must have felt,.
What actually happened? Did they scream for help? Did they plead for their lives? Or did they just give up and went to their graves in silence? Did Dorothy, the elder, try to calm Jean, the youngest, who planned to marry her sweetheart the next season? Did Maura sing one of her Irish love ballads as they shot her in the head?
Did Ita feel relief that she´d be joining Carla there in the San Antonio cemetery?
If I fast-forward my own journey by eight years, I could have been driving that van out to the airport to pick up Ita and Maura.
There but for you, go I.
I walk in these women´s shadows.