Guitars Against Guns
January 14, 2015
Guillermo with the Drew Delegation
During the Salvadoran Armed Conflict, not everyone fought the power of the military by taking up AK-47s. Some took to the streets in protest, others served as popular teachers and nurses. One young man, Guillermo Cuellar, used his guitar to confront the oppression. Cuellar wrote the songs for the Salvadoran Popular Mass commissioned by Monseñor Oscar Romero. Last night, SHARE’s delegations from Drew Theological Seminary had the privilege of sitting down with the great musician to not only enjoy his melodic voice, but also to hear his powerful testimony.
One day at mass, Monseñor called me out in front of the entire congregation, “Why don’t you write a song for our Patron Saint, the Divine Savior of the World.” What could I say at that moment? “Sorry, Monseñor Romero, that is too large of task for me, I’m only 20 years old!” Of course I couldn’t say that, so I nodded my head politely, ensuring that Monseñor would have the song he requested as soon as the creative energy came to me.
A year later, I still didn’t have anything. It dawned on me that I had yet to write a Gloria song for the popular mass I was composing at the time. Maybe I could make those songs one in the same. All of a sudden, the song started coming to me:
“¡Gloria al Señor, gloria al Señor!
¡Gloria al Patrón
de nuestra tierra: El Salvador!
No hay redención de otro señor.
Sólo un Patrón: ¡nuestro Divino Salvador!”
(Glory to God, Glory to God!
Glory to the patron
of our land: El Salvador!
There is no redemption in any other god.
Just one patron: Our Divine Savior!)
I surprised myself, and thought, “Hey! That’s pretty good! Let’s see where this goes…” Verse after verse kept coming to me. By the time the fourth and last verse came to me, I was excited and scribbling away. It practically wrote itself:
“Pero los dioses del poder y del dinero
se oponen a que haya transfiguración.
Por eso ahora vos, Señor, sos el primero
en levantar tu brazo contra la opresión.”
(But the gods of power and money
oppose the transfiguration.
And for that, now, God, you are the first
to raise your arm against the oppression.)
Salvador de Mundo Statue; photo cred: wikipedia.com
I was so pleased with myself. However, I knew that Monseñor came from a more conservative background, and I wasn’t sure how he would respond to the image of God lifting his fist against oppression. Nevertheless, I kept it in there. Don’t get me wrong, I did my research. I had an argument prepared to defend that verse. Have you noticed that the monument, Salvador del Mundo, in San Salvador has it’s arm raised? Well, it does. I was pretty convinced by just that fact alone, but I knew I should look to the Bible for anything that may help my case. Quickly, I found Isaiah 10:1-4, which says the following:
“Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches? Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives or fall among the slain. Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised.”
“And there you have it,” I thought to myself. There is my Biblical defense. It was time to turn the song into Monseñor Romero.
I will never forget the day that I gave him that song. Arriving at his office at 9am on March 21, 1980, I encountered throngs of people waiting to meet with Monseñor. I spent three hours waiting my turn to speak with the beloved and extremely popular, that particular day, archbishop. Lunch time came around, and Monseñor left his office to go eat. I squeezed my way through dozens of people just to hand him my song. When the paper hit his hands, he took a moment to read it, nodded his head, folded the paper up, a stuck it in his pocket for safe keeping.
“Well, he must not have read it. Because if he had, I couldn’t imagine him nodding,” I decided. Well, I concluded it best to talk to him about the song when perhaps he was less busy. My plan was to go to his office again on Monday. But, for those of you who know your Salvadoran history, you’ve already figured out how this story ends. I never did get to talk to Monseñor Romero about my song. Monday March 24, 1980, an unknown assassin pulled up to the chapel at Divina Providencia to murder our prophetic voice.
That same year, I was forced to flee the country for what would be 13 years. A few years into that exile in Mexico, a friend came to me with a tape of Monseñor Romero’s last homily, you know, the one that sealed his fate. I had never been able to bring myself to listen to it. My friend convinced me to play the tape because Monseñor mentioned my song. “What? Will I finally be able to know what he thought of it,” I nervously pondered to myself.
And, there it was. In the middle of the mass, he mentioned my song, but not just the song. He addressed the last verse.
“This is a good song, but the last verse, yes, the last verse is the best part.”
I finally knew what Monseñor thought of my song years after his passing. For the first time, I knew that the entire popular mass was “Monseñor approved.”
Guillermo Cuellar didn’t mean for his songs to become as widely known as they are today. With his guitar, he was able to respond to the guns of the armed conflict. Little did he know that his words would out live the guns, bullets, and bombs of the military. When faced with adversity, may we all turn to non-violent ways to confront our own oppressors. The power of the arts is timeless and cannot easily be destroyed. May Guillermo’s songs continue to be sung and inspire the next generation world-wide to use their guitars against today’s guns.