By MegAnne Liebsch
November 16, 2019 — “How do you help us? Only open your human heart, your Christian heart,” Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría, SJ, told students at Santa Clara University in 1982. As rector [president] of the University of Central America (UCA) in El Salvador, Fr. Ellacuría urged Santa Clara students to walk in solidarity with the marginalized people of El Salvador, which was, at the time, embroiled in a brutal civil war that would kill 75,000 people.
Fr. Ellacuría and his Jesuit colleagues at UCA lived this message of deep and uncompromising love, aligning themselves with poor, disenfranchised Salvadorans. They spoke out against the death squads that targeted innocent and powerless civilians. In a country where power was consolidated among the military and economic elite, this radical love also made them targets.
On November 16, 1989, the Salvadoran military murdered Fr. Ellacuría and five other UCA Jesuits — Fathers Ignacio Martín-Baró, SJ; Segundo Montes Mozo, SJ; Juan Ramón Moreno, SJ; Joaquín López y López, SJ; and Amando López Quintana, SJ — along with their housekeeper Elba Ramos, and her daughter Celina.
Their deaths became a turning point in the civil war, catalyzing peace negotiations between the leftist rebels and right-wing military and spurring the U.S. to halve its aid to the Salvadoran military. The example of the Jesuit martyrs also helped to shape Jesuit and broader Catholic social thought and contributed to the rise of solidarity movements in North America and around the world, such as Christians for Peace in El Salvador (CRISPAZ). UCA’s example demonstrated that Jesuit education requires open hearts and a commitment to work for justice. In a social climate that leaves many people feeling lost or angry, their legacy is a powerful reminder to love without borders.
As a teenager living in Mexico, Francisco Mena Ugarte proudly wore a sweatshirt emblazoned with the letters UCA. Though it was meaningless to most of his Mexican friends, for Ugarte, whose family had close ties to the UCA Jesuits and now-Saint Óscar Romero, the sweatshirt tied him to a lineage that “made my chest inflate.”
Salvadoran by birth, Ugarte, his mother and his sisters were forced to flee El Salvador on the eve of the civil war in 1981. His father, who was previously a captain in the Salvadoran military, stayed in El Salvador to join the rebel forces. It would be eight years before Ugarte would see his father again and 13 years before the family returned home.
In the meantime, the Ugarte family moved from Guatemala to Nicaragua, Cuba, the U.S. and then Mexico. Though distanced from El Salvador and the Jesuits, the moment of their deaths is ingrained in Ugarte’s mind. He remembers his mother watching the TV at their home in Mexico, absorbing the images of the Jesuits slain on their front lawn. She repeated with horror: “I can’t believe they did this. I can’t believe they did this.”
For Ugarte, the killings drove home the inhumanity of war — he thought, If this is what the military does to priests, people with power, then how will it end?
Three years later, the peace negotiations brought the civil war to an end, and Ugarte journeyed back to El Salvador for the first time. Remembering the moment when his plane touched down in San Salvador still brings Ugarte to tears, “I can’t explain what happened, but it was a sense of coming home. I was overwhelmed and began to appreciate my country in a different way.”
That moment transformed Ugarte, and he became dedicated to living and working forjustice in his home country as it grappled with the trauma of the war. Now, as executive director of CRISPAZ, Ugarte unravels the painful history of the war through encounters between Salvadorans and Americans. CRISPAZ brings American and Canadian people — primarily college and high school students — to El Salvador to learn about the civil war through the personal narratives of Salvadorans.
The program is not a service trip — participants are asked to “listen to understand, not listen to respond,” Ugarte says. “We have a commitment to share these stories with whoever is willing to listen in order to understand what a war does to a country. In a war, there are no winners, there are no losers, there is only destruction.”
Ugarte hopes that participants leave with a key message: “Don’t become part of a society that believes that going to war is a solution to a problem.”
CRISPAZ’s focus on nonviolence through its values of accompaniment, solidarity and love is rooted in the example of the UCA martyrs — who were also early supporters of the program in the mid-1980s. Ugarte says he has witnessed how this encounter experience can transform participants, spiritually and politically. He has received emails from past participants who were once politically neutral, but after their experience in El Salvador feel compelled to put their faith into action, such as one woman who now accompanies undocumented migrants in her community to their court hearings.
Thirty years after the Jesuits’ martyrdom, Ugarte acknowledges that many of the issues the Jesuits fought to address are still present in El Salvador — violence, economic inequality and lack of opportunity. As a result, the country’s population is increasingly shrinking. Hundreds leave for the U.S. every day, in part because of U.S. policies like NAFTA that have further disempowered the Salvadoran workforce. CRISPAZ urges American participants to examine how the U.S. was and remains complicit in the cycles of injustice in El Salvador, and like Fr. Ellacuría did in 1982, the program calls for a radical and transformative solidarity.