El Salvador Day 02: Two Red Books on Holy Ground, the High Price of Immigration, and Meeting Jon Sobrino

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Today was a full day, an emotional day. Here’s the scoop, dear reader…

You know what’s weird? Hearing someone proclaim your native country to be an “imperial nation” to your face.

That’s what happened yesterday during our history of El Salvador presentation yesterday as Carlos explained how the US government has been culpable in Salvadorian oppression for decades and we heard a similar thought, in different words, today during our presentation from another man named Carlos who explained the two major problems in El Salvador, economics and violence. But let me step back for a moment because we witnessed profound images before we listened to this story.

The Red Books

Our first stop was at the University of Central America where we traveled through a museum dedicated to the martyrdom of six Jesuit priests and two women who were executed in 1989. I encourage you to read about the full story on another website, as in the meantime I want to talk about the emotions involved in seeing this museum. First, the museum was located in the offices of the Jesuit priests, meaning we learned of their lives in what was once the space where they worked their message. There were photos on the wall showing the firebombing the soldiers did to the offices, bringing home what this space once was. We saw clothing and items belonging to Rutullio Grande and Romero, plus the actual clothing the Jesuits wore as they were executed. Bullet holes were like  pockmarks across the fabrics and stains of blood and other bodily fluids from the assassination that night are still clearly visible in each garment. Combined with bullet-riddled Bibles, torched paintings of Romero, and photos of the two women who were also killed, the museum was a haunting tribute to their lives.

It went further, however, as we stepped outside to where the Jesuits were taken from their rooms, laid down on the ground, and shot in the head with exploding-tip bullets. If this comes across with a stark abruptness it is intentional. They absolutely do not hide death in El Salvador and the martyrdom of these eight people has captivated many of the people. The lawn is now a garden, with rose bushes representing each fallen priest and a yellow and white rose bush representing the mother and daughter, the whole thing planted by their husband and father. Our guide, Christina, declared this “holy ground” and I immediately choked up.

Down the path we went into the bedroom where the mother and daughter were executed and then had a few moments to wander back to the museum. Earlier we’d been told there were six books of photos in one of the classrooms just off to the side of the museum. Four have black covers and show the Jesuit’s quarters before and after the execution. The other two have red covers and are filled with close-up photos of everyone who was killed. All angles are covered. No details are spared. I don’t know who else looked at the books but for whatever reason, call it morbid curiosity or simply “needing” to see, I sought out the red books and paged through them. Without trying to be graphic and again in the interest of not holding back, so you might experience what I experienced, I saw heads that were no longer heads. Faces that were absolutely not faces. Hands now torn ribbons (A symbolic gesture to demolish his writing hand? Was he trying to protect his face?). Surprised, frightened facial expressions, frozen in death. A piece of meat on the lawn which was clearly the top of a brain.

Here’s why I mention this: I’ve seen a lot of stuff. If you go on the internet, you can pretty much see anything, for better or worse. A lot of that stuff? Makes you wonder why you’re even looking. But I also saw that stuff without context. These photos, these two red books, I read Sobrino’s book before the trip and then witnessed that museum, those clothes, that garden. I was immersed in context and that made all the difference in eliciting an emotional response. My fingers shook as I turned the pages and I wanted to take pictures of the pictures and could only manage one. It’s blurry and difficult to make out detail and I am glad. I am not posting it here. If you want to see it from me another time, I can make that happen. Until then, I will bury it in a well-labeled folder on my computer, not hidden but always available and forever in my soul.

A brief footnote: at my request, Luis asked a teacher in the school group behind us whether children are allowed to see the red books. They are, beginning in 9th grade. It leaves me wondering if this becomes a ritual, a rite of passage into Salvadorian adulthood. And if so, is it looked forward to, or is it something to dread? And really, couldn’t it be both?

Meeting Jon Sobrino

While we were still in the museum we received an amazing surprise. Our guide, Christina, was speaking about artifacts when she turned to the door, smiled, and said, “There he is.” Father Jon Sobrino, the man who has been charged with writing and speaking about Romero so often throughout his life, the man who Professor Chris is leading a class on at UTS, the man who would have been executed with his fellow Jesuits if he hadn’t been out of the country at a conference, Jon Sobrino walked right in and said ‘hello.’ I must admit, we swarmed the poor guy and he seemed ready to leave almost as quickly as he came in. Later, I asked Christina about this and she explained that in her experience he is always humble and often far too busy to chat beyond a quick ‘hola’ so we didn’t witness him being rude but simply being Sobrino.

Chris could hardly contain herself. She walked up to him and said what a thrill it was to meet him five years ago. She shook his hand and after he left she just looked at us all, shocked and stunned. We all had a good laugh at her expense in that friendly way, with this adult woman who was meeting this man she was so enamored of, the theological equivalent of a teenage girl screaming when she sees her favorite rock band. ? Don’t believe me? Check this out:

Excitement bursting, Chris thrusts out her hand to greet Sobrino. Their exchange is so quick I barely have time to snap this blurry photo.

Muoy bien, no?

U.S. and Them

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, our morning presentation was by a man named Carlos at UCA. He explained how economic hardship and violence continue to plague the country. The most fascinating aspect of this to me was his explanation of remittance, the money Salvadorians living in the US send back home to help family in El Salvador. There’s good reason for this: the unemployment rate has skyrocketed to 43% and the cost of living ever rises, particularly after El Salvador adopted the US dollar (8.75 exchange rate with local currency). That means items which were once 5 local currency are now $1, rounded up 3.75 without wages going up. Meanwhile, from my observation, prices seem to be comparable to US prices. Candy is still .50-.85. Gas is $3.30 per gallon. My favorite example is of this is Wendy’s because it seems they advertise on nearly every bus stop in the city. They advertise a Double Stack, fries, and Coke for $1.99, or $2.99 to “Biggie Size” it. A bargain, yes? Something many of us wouldn’t think twice about grabbing in the drive-thru, yes?

The minimum wage in El Salvador is $5 per day. Now how does that Double Stack sound?

Carlos took this information and put it in another perspective of how the average Salvadorian might spend $15 – $5 goes to food (maize, frijoles, sucre, etc.), $5 goes to oil (most foods are fried in oil), and $5 goes to putting minutes on a cell phone to call family in the US. The remittance received from those US family members makes up $3.4 billion and 18% of the Gross Domestic Product (in contrast, Mexico has the highest remittance situation in the world with $25-26 billion leaving the US but only making up 3% of Mexico’s GDP). When such a large amount of money makes up such a large amount of the GDP, and that’s after the US Salvadorians have paid taxes and Social Security – whether they’re legally documented immigrants or not – it’s clear El Salvador’s economy is in bad shape.

Hearing all of this, I began to wonder about a hypothetical “who” on the other end of the political spectrum, one who might hear $3.4 billion in remittance is leaving the US for El Salvador, not to mention the other billions going to other countries, and getting all upset that “they’re taking our money!” I can only hope they get a little more perspective on how the US economy affects the global economy before jumping to such conclusions.

Meeting a Musician

After the meeting I stopped by the campus mail room, just off to the side of the museum, and chatted with a young man working the counter. I’d noticed him before, plucking a ten-stringed instrument the size and shape of a ukulele, my instrument of choice. The strings were arranged in five pairs of two and through hand gestures and the word “quatro,” I did my best to explain how it reminded me of a ukulele’s size and four strings. Later, I stopped back again with Luis, who is on our trip and originally from Salvador. Luis translated a conversation between me and my new musician buddy, Juan Pablo (John Paul). I learned the instrument is a churango and is from the Andes and usually accompanied by a native flute and various sizes of guitars in a music ensemble. He taught me how to tune one if I find one to buy and I taught him how a ukulele is tuned (G C E A or do sol mi la). I was so excited to speak with this young man, a musician and economic science major, and was glad Luis could make it happen.

The High Cost of Immigration

After a lunch at a cafeteria in which we had papousas galore, we spent the afternoon with Kay, an immigration expert originally from the US who married a Salvadorian man and moved to El Salvador sixteen years ago to raise their three children in a home with an actively global perspective. She gave us more data on the remittance issue plus explained US immigration problems more clearly than I’ve ever had it put to me. She gave a new perspective on the question, “Why not wait in line?” when it comes to immigrants looking to enter the US legally. Each country is regulated to 20,000 immigrants per year. If we’re talking people from Lithuania, we’re fine. But larger populations like Mexico or El Salvador? It isn’t just a line, it’s out the door and around the block. Many end up waiting six, seven, eight years to make this process happen. Can you wait that long to make your life happen? It’s an awful long time to put up with more poverty than anyone should have to handle.

Because of this, many try to cross the border illegally and hope they never get caught doing anything which would get them deported. Immigration enforcement officials know where to look for illegals because labor issues drive where immigrants go to work. If you want to know why your tomatoes are so cheap it’s because of illegal immigrants. That may sound oversimplistic, but consider one of Kay’s final metaphors for our group: it’s a whole lot easier for a tomato to cross the border than it is a person, simply because they have a mechanism in place for it to happen.

Kay told us we were brave to come to El Salvador and learn and encouraged us to promote the census and to ask our state to give all people the right to earn a driver’s license. Without a driver’s license, one can’t open a bank account, rent an apartment, etc. Try living well without those means for a while and then say all these undocumented workers who pay taxes and supplement a Social Security system they’ll never see a dime from aren’t allowed to stay in the US.

See Sobrino Speak

Jenn made her new flight (with an additional 12-hour layover in Atlanta the night before) and joined us for a makeshift dinner of protein bars and hot dogs at a gas station called “On the Run.” We were all glad she made it safe and sound. The t-shirts, however, did not. The airline lost them and will hopefully bring them to the guest house tomorrow! As for our odd meal choice, we had to eat quick so we could be one time to see Sobrino speak at UCA. Our group of twenty-three now complete, we piled into our bus and set out for the University.

Many of us elected to hear Sobrino speak live in one auditorium while a handful of us went into another to watch him on a projector and get the English translation via headphones. This was the first time I’ve seen more than one other white person at a time who wasn’t a part of our group. In fact, the woman I sat next to was with a group from California but had graduated from UTS neighbor, Luther Seminary. Small world, no?

The translation was helpful though it had stops and starts all throughout, a by-product not only of the challenges that come with translating on the fly but also of translating Sobrino, as I’ve been told he sometimes leaves sentences unfinished when he gets a new idea to jump onto. I took a few notes of lines which stuck out to me:

  • Words, words, words, it’s easy to repeat (negative view of Vatican II)
  • The church is the people, the people of God.
  • Manipulating God is a great temptation but impossible with an always-moving God.
  • There is a Christ, a Jesus, for every taste. Yet it is the Christ who appears in the Bible who is a liberator.
  • Romero said it was good priests were being killed because it meant they suffered with the Salvadorians. The church is the people and the people suffer so the church suffers.
  • What is the good to be done? Change!
  • Let’s say it, we are free! Let’s transmit joy.

He used a lot of humor, too, and one was particularly funny to UTS students who are taught to be as inclusive with our theological language as possible. When about to quote Romero and realizing he wasn’t using inclusive language, he said, “’Each man…’ Sorry, that is how we used to speak back then! To correct these things is like correcting Shakespeare, it’s history.”

It was a full day and when I say full I say it was full of emotions in particular. Tomorrow we get to sleep in, with breakfast at 8:00am. Until then, a few final notes…

Spanish I Used Today

I’ve decided to track any Spanish I actually use in country, relatively unassisted, on this blog. Forgive my spelling: hola, gracias, hermano, bano es occupado, hale, empuje, do sol mi la, quarto (in regard to ukulele strings), and donde estad bano / agua / las senioritas bonita? ?

Final Notes and Highlights

Highlights from today include: seeing the painting on the cover of our required textbook, Witnesses to the Kingdom by Jon Sobrino in-person in the UCA chapel, learning the largest Salvadorian population in the US is in Fayetteville, Arkansas (Many work at the Tyson chicken plants; note how US labor force trends dictate population locations.), many of us trying papousas and loving them, Dennie and Jackie’s “pass the prayer” worship service, determining the difference between Diet Coke and Coke Zero is simply subjectivity of taste, trying a pack of chocolate mint gum (not bad!), and debating the politics of Noam Chomsky (Is he siding with the Tea Party? Inquiring minds want to know).

I’ll let Professor Chris have the final word:

“Thank you to all of our friends, family, and colleagues who are following this blog for your thoughts and prayers for our group as our travels unfold. We’re thinking about you as well. What a day, visiting the place where the Jesuit priests – these radical theologians – and their housekeeper and her daughter were killed and an evening spent listening to Father Sobrino and his theology of the new church! If any of you from the Sobrino course at UTS are reading, we took you along with us. More tomorrow…”

Thanks for reading. We love and miss you all! Enjoy the photos.


2 thoughts on “El Salvador Day 02: Two Red Books on Holy Ground, the High Price of Immigration, and Meeting Jon Sobrino”

  1. An emotional day-yes! It must be mind-blowing to be able to experience the sights from the pages of the books we have been reading.
    We at home are praying for all of you.

    And I just have to say- cherish this time and cherish the reality of this time. You will be able to bring back a narrative that will affect the rest of your life.

    And be very thankful that you have the ability to see these things. There are Americans that will never have the chance because of their own economic problems.


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