Monsignor Romero’s Portrait In My Memory And in History
The 25th anniversary of a crime still unpunished—the assassination of Bishop Oscar Romero—is being commemorated in El Salvador and all over the world, in March.
The most universal Salvadoran has passed into immortality and will be canonized, an emblem of the struggles
for justice, peace and human rights in the region
during the seventies and eighties.
María López Vigil
I went to El Salvador for the first time in 1981, barely a year after Monsignor Romero was assassinated. Almost everyone I spoke with had an interesting, surprising or suggestive personal anecdote to tell me about the man. The memory of his death was recent, the blood fresh in everyone’s mind, the pain just as sharp each new time the hard reality of those years touched still-open wounds. It was then that I decided that all those memories should be carefully preserved in that wonderful invention that has kept humanity’s memory intact for such a long time.
I thought of a book.
Memories in mosaicA few years later, once I was living in Managua, I began chasing after any anecdote that passed my way. It was like caching butterflies, all of them so beautiful. Later I would go back over them and select the ones with the most appropriate colors for the mosaic portrait I was trying to piece together. The work was slow, and fortunately not urgent. But starting in 1990, the tenth anniversary of the bishop’s death, the book suddenly took on an urgent quality for me. The birth finally came in 1992, the year El Salvador’s peace accords were signed, putting an end to the war that Monsignor Romero saw coming and tried to halt. The midwife was the much-needed and longed-for peace. In March 1993, the book was presented in the chapel of San Salvador’s Central American University. The title I had thought of—El mero Romero—(Merely Romero) didn’t get past the censors, but my alternative, Piezas para un retrato de Monseñor Romero,did. In 1999, it was translated into German, the following year into English under the title Memories in Mosaic and the year after that into French.*
Finally, in 2002, a special edition was published in Cuba, a door I had hoped very much that Monsignor would make it through. I was aware when I wrote the book that he had passed through Cuba in 1943 on his way back to El Salvador to be ordained after several years studying in Rome. But it was the middle of World War II. When the boat made a stop on the island, he and another student raised suspicions among the authorities, as they were coming from such a long stay in one of the fascist Axis countries. The two were interned in a labor camp, where they were forced to clean toilets, mop and sweep for three months until further investigation revealed that they were just two seminary students still wet behind the ears. Frustratingly, I could find no witness who could give me more details about this singular episode in Romero’s life and was thus unable to include it in my mosaic.
Through the book, Monsignor Romero returned to Cuba to “clean” again. This time to cleanse the judgments and prejudices, favorable or unfavorable, that Cuba had built around a stage in Latin American history that is incomprehensible if we don’t inscribe it within the history of the Latin American Catholic Church, in which Romero is now an emblematic figure.
Like childrenOne powerful impulse that compelled me to put together a mosaic of Monsignor Romero was that I had my own piece to add. I had met Monsignor Romero. I chatted with him for several hours in Madrid one afternoon in June 1979, as he was returning from Rome after his first audience with Pope John Paul II. For me, it was like the passing of a shooting star: brief and bright. The encounter has been so burned into my memory that even today I can evoke the details of that afternoon. It was a particularly critical moment for him, two years into his post as archbishop of San Salvador, with the repression by the military government in El Salvador at its sharpest. His eyes still threatening to brim over, Monsignor Romero related the humiliations to which he had been subjected in the pontifical court and in the audience with the pope himself. The unusual experience of that afternoon with him, that particular piece of his portrait, put me on the path of intuitions that l would later verify while grappling to give form to the book’s raw material.
All books have a story behind the one on the pages. Books are children of paper, conceived in love and passion like any other desired progeny, gestated in a long process full of anxieties and expectations and followed by labor pains. I’d like to share some of the experiences that accompanied this book’s gestation at a time when the 25th anniversary of the day Oscar Romero fell forever on the side of life is being commemorated in so many places in the world. This is how the piecing together of his portrait remains in my mind, and how I envision his portrait will remain in history.
In search of the pearlHow did Monsignor Romero end up “converted” into the martyr, the saint, the national hero we know today? However mythified he had become in my memory and in history, in my search for facts Oscar Romero always appeared as an inconsequential man. I scrutinized anecdotes and memories from the forties, the fifties, the sixties... and nothing rang out with the clear bell tones of a clue, an insight, not in his words and not in his actions. Studying every new puzzle piece I found for significance, for the twinkle of what would be his later shining light, I found nothing of any use. Despite all the anecdotes I was accumulating, I couldn’t piece together enough personality even to make him stand on his own two feet, much less stand out. So many children say the same pious phrases, so many priests have the same positive profile of dedication and generosity, so many others have similar scruples and institutional habits. And ever so many others, like Oscar Romero, are “mediocre”—like Salieri compared to the genius Mozart. Good people, for sure, in the best sense of the word, but not the stuff of biographies.
I kept looking, and it was always the same, even after he had been “converted.” Anecdotes simply rained down on me about his three years as archbishop of San Salvador, his “glorious” and best-known period, but in none of them did I find that pearl of brilliance I was looking for. Still no action, no word was especially dazzling. I also read all of his published homilies, which is quite an undertaking as they fill more than two thousand pages. Although originally spoken, their language seems that of a systematic and rigorous treatment of theology and catechisms, when not the routine idiom of notices on a parish posting. Taken out of their unrepeatable historic context, away from the Cathedral where they were spoken before multitudes who listened, cried and applauded, his homilies seem dense, reiterative. Authentic, yes, but suggestive, original or brilliant would be the last adjectives that would come to mind. It was not easy to extract phrases that, standing alone, without benefit of that concrete framework in which they were uttered, would shine in the book I had imagined.
Taken over by Salvadoran historyIt was a crisis; every day I gripped my pen as if with pincers, pushed repeatedly toward the “transcendental,” the “supernatural,” to use the most common, best-known words, those often employed banally. My thinking became obstinate, such thoughts unavoidable. I couldn’t explain it, even to myself: I simply could not understand the relevance, the dimension, the echo, the reason behind so much love and so much fame based on these paltry bits of fact. I couldn’t get a grip; it didn’t make sense. Maybe I should keep looking, I thought; maybe there’s something I just don’t know.
Just as obstinately, I couldn’t fail to admit what I already knew, what I had learned, what I’ve always been able to feel in El Salvador; his print is real and profound; it’s genuine and to be found everywhere. People’s eyes light up when they recall him because he persists in their memory, and that perennial flame has been unquenched even by the rivers of blood. He has become history. I have felt how deeply such different people love him, and I myself cannot forget him or fail to be moved when I remember that afternoon in 1979, when, so vulnerable and so authentic, he asked for my support and counsel. So many years after his death, I saw virtually all my witnesses, from Rubén Zamora to doña Tina, cry when they evoked that 24th of March as if it were today. He sparked the imagination of so many more people than I can ever begin to suspect. He has been taken over by his country’s history and being one of so many, has become their symbol, pulling down the barriers of space and time within which his insignificance moved.
This evidence is as real as all those doubts of mine. It was precisely by touching his undeniable insignificance and nonetheless feeling an irresistible impulse to give him all the significance possible in this book that I experienced mystery in what happened to Oscar Romero.
Between myth and demystificationI also have to say, sincerely, that while neither my fondness nor my veneration for Monsignor Romero were shaken by my ongoing verification of the insignificance of the figure as I continued organizing
the huge amount of material I had been gathering, it did dampen my inspiration as a literary narrator. What among all this material was worth highlighting, what was so special, how could I inject color into so much gray? How could I write significant things about so much insignificance? Once I had somewhat selected and ordered the material, I gave it to three friends to read. All three, more distanced than I from both Romero the myth and Romero the man, confirmed my perplexity. “It’s better now,” one told me, “but I still don’t see anything special.” Another added, “If I didn’t already know that Romero was famous, I wouldn’t understand how or why it happened.”
Worse yet, once I had found the golden thread to order the material and the book was already beginning to circulate, a friend very removed from this whole world of the Church read it and commented sincerely, “I like the book, but not the man; nothing in him really grabs me.” His comment threw me right back to that starting point where I had been paralyzed for so many months. And it raised another doubt: wouldn’t it have been better to maintain the myth of an almost unknown Romero than to reveal the human being, necessarily demystifying him?
A piece I was desperately seekingThe doubts of that gestation have been fading with the years and with the responses of many readers during that fresh time that comes after giving birth to a book. Most people who read it have embraced this demystified Monsignor Romero, feeling inspired and accompanied by this flesh and blood man. And it would appear, from the many comments I’ve heard, that in their encounter with the real Romero, a lot of other people touched the “mystery” there is in the man, the same mystery I touched when I was portraying him. That is the word: mystery. I can find no other.
There is mystery in his conversion, in the event or events that led him to become what he is. The minimal truth is that Oscar Romero really did change at a certain moment; he had a before and an after, as he himself recognized. Many other people perceived it that way as well, although, curiously, not those closest to him. Those people never spoke to me of “conversion.” Salvador Barraza, another deliciously insignificant being, a seller of shoes who became his driver and then his best friend, insisted to me that there was never any “conversion” in Romero. But if it wasn’t a conversion, it was something. Without transformation, we wouldn’t still be talking about Romero 25 years after his death.
What I think happened is that something in his conversion meshed with his personality. We can’t speak of that conversion as a dazzling cataclysmic event, like the life-altering response to an epiphany. The change was milder, gray even, with no blinding light or fall from a horse. What’s more, there’s not even a horse, not a trace of showiness or of vehemence. The line he crossed is so tenuous and the man who crossed it so like he was before that the conversion is as “insignificant” as the man who experienced it.
As a result, giving literary form and narrative credibility to the change going on in this man became an interminable worry for me. If there was no pearl, I at least needed to find something authentic that would serve as a bridge to carry the reader across his conversion. I searched everywhere, but still could find nothing. Only at the very end did I finally admit the impossibility of ever finding that one single “piece” that would allow me to give narrative weight and corporal form to his change. And that was when I finally came to terms with the certainty that I would never find it. Because it didn’t exist.
What to do about that piece, or that hole where it ought to be, was literally the last thing I decided in the text. And I resolved it by turning to the “fade to black” recourse some filmmakers use to mark a shift of sequence. I created a “part one”—before the conversion—and a part two—after it. No hinge between the two, just a fade out. It was recognition of my impotence. Afterward I felt a need to search for some phrase in the Bible that might help me cover it up a bit. And in those sparkling jewels one finds in the books of Job and Jeremiah, I found what had perhaps been waiting for me all along.
For the first part, the “unconverted” Romero, I found in the Book of Job (38, 24-26) this question full of subtle suggestions for a doubter like myself: “What is the way to the place where the lightning is dispersed…? (…) Who cuts a… path for the thunderstorm to water a land where no man lives, a desert with no one in it…?” For the second part, the now-converted Romero, I found the perfect fadeout in the prophet Jeremiah (18, 4): “The pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.”
Shepherd of lambs and wolves If there is any essential clue that “explains” Monsignor Romero’s conversion, I think it leads to God—and what more important thing is there to say than that? His conversion, his change, acquires its full meaning when embodied in the people of God who live in that tiny and insignificant country called El Salvador.
and a small inquisitor
There had already been many other “conversions” in El Salvador before that of Monsignor Romero. He is not at the root of the changes that took place in that country, nourishing them from below. He is the more mature fruit of those changes, and a late bloomer at that. Romero climbed aboard at the 11th hour, on one of the train’s last stops, joining many others who had borne the weight and the heat for so many years.
For 23 years as a parish priest in San Miguel (1944-1967) in a country where a very few wolves were imposing their ferocious law on millions of lambs, Father Romero wanted to be the pastor of both lambs and wolves. That stint began only a few years after the 1932 massacre of forty thousand peasants in a single week—one of the most bloodthirsty acts in Latin American history. In this country of the famous “fourteen families,” with one of the most unjust land distribution indices on the continent, Father Romero appeared impartial, neutral, unblemished, an artificially balanced weighing scale. In the midst of the latent conflict, he was honest, tireless, inflexible, a praying, superlatively clerical man with no other “social commitment” than to cajole money out of the rich to give alms to the poor. By so doing, he alleviated the needs of the poor and salved the conscience of the rich. Had the explosive lava of the Salvadoran volcano remained below the surface, Romero would have lived out his neutral passivity and complacent complicity for the rest of his life.
But it wasn’t to be. The volcano rumbled. By creating such social injustice and dictatorship and closing all channels for civic opposition and grassroots organizing, the alliance of military-oligarchic elites had unwittingly fashioned a time bomb. Year after year, more and more lambs “converted” to rebellion, challenging the law of the wolves.
When the winds of national change and of other, more universal changes in the Church in the sixties—with Vatican II, the Latin American Bishops’ Conference in Medellín—began to pump fresh air into the institutional Church, Monsignor Romero, now auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, boarded up the windows and doors against it. He retained that defensive stance for seven years, having gone from being a neutral parish priest to acting as the mini-inquisitor of the communities, priests, nuns and pastoral agents who were defending the lambs, fighting off the wolves and by that time dying for the cause of change in favor of life and justice.
He was not a grand inquisitor, just an insignificant cleric submerged in paperwork, who strained out mosquitoes but swallowed camels. But he continued to be an honest, tireless, inflexible praying man. Had his ecclesiastical career stopped at that post, he would have spent the rest of his life snuffing out small inquisitorial fires in line with his dogmas. Meanwhile, the Salvadoran Church was growing in that time of commitments, in the wisdom of the never neutral gospel and the grace of martyrdom. It was the cutting-edge Church in Latin America, but Romero was not a part of it. He had closed himself out.
Smacked by reality and By 1974, Monsignor Romero was a bishop of his own diocese, Santiago de María, at a time when the Salvadoran countryside was swelling with political and pastoral harvests—peasant and other grassroots organizations, organizations turned guerrilla groups and conscienticized and conscienticizing Delegates of the Word. Although that unstoppable and uncontrollable reality was smacking him in the face, he continued wanting to control, so he closed pastoral centers and ignored the messages from Medellín. Although such a clericalist, he remained an honest, tireless and stubborn man of prayer, and it was in those years that some twinkle first appeared, when compassion began slowly to win out over ideology.
devastated by violence
Nonetheless, his institutional dossier was still so impeccable that the wolves—the landed oligarchs and the military officers at their service—pressured the Vatican to name him archbishop of San Salvador in 1977. They expected him to quench the flames of the raging popular rebellion. When his appointment was confirmed,
no one could see what was beginning to take place. Before their trusting eyes, a mutation was occurring in Salvadoran history: his conversion. Had he not accessed such power by being named to the highest post in the Salvadoran Church, Oscar Romero might have continued being a compassionate but lukewarm religious representative, touched of course but not devastated by the inescapable reality of violence.
But he was named; they gave him power. And he was a man very aware of power, of authority. He had grown up with it and knew how to move in that terrain. Upon receiving the maximum institutional power with 60 years under his belt, his clerical skin now tanned by all the institutional routines, this insignificant man who had just begun to leave behind the man he had been, pointed the helm in another direction. He put all the power of the Church that he represented, the power in which he believed so fully, on the other side of the scale.
His conversion is personal, but it is above all historical. Without the backdrop of history, it would never be perceived. It is precisely in the space and time the country was passing through at that crucial stage, a stage that would soon unfold into a seemingly interminable civil war, that the “converted” Monsignor Romero lived the crucial stage of his own life. Mysteries. Coincidences.
The reflection of that conversion was clamorous in history but barely perceptible in his most profound personality. He would continue to be clericalist until the day he died, and, as always, honest, stubborn and tireless. Perhaps the feature that changed most in him was courage. While he wasn’t valiant, much less bold or rash, he was no longer the prisoner of his cowardice or scruples, and thus began gradually taking all the steps required of him to be a consequential Salvadoran in those days of violent and cruel arbitrariness. Free now of the fear of death, before the resurrection definitively liberated him from death, he became freer to take risks.
The stage, not the actorOnce I had gathered all the “pieces” for my mosaic, it became clear to me that the important thing in those that would make up part one—the “before”—would be to try to define the “road to Damascus,” the trajectory that would make the change understandable. It was an investigative task. And for the “after”? What would be the key to ordering the pieces in the second part? What thread would lead readers to the denouement of his death? Certainly no argument was needed, no “suspense” had to be built, because his assassination is the most widely known fact about the life of Monsignor Romero.
The development of the second part of the book, the most extensive of the two, where Salvadorans talk about the better known Romero, in fact the only one that many of them new, turned out to be more difficult than anticipated. Achieving harmony and a “story line” with many tiny, similar and not so brilliant pieces was a tremendous challenge. I quickly discovered that the stage on which the actor moved was more important than the actor himself: the stormy, macabre, unbelievable and heroic El Salvador of those three years, with the crescendoing tide of blood that would also engulf Monsignor Romero and sweep him away.
The events became the thread, a tragic thread along which Monsignor Romero began traveling, like an ant, every day assuming new commitments. Modest and insignificant, but new and good. No piece was a “pearl” but when strung together well, they would make a necklace. Once that task was completed, I became convinced that “being a saint” is nothing more than scrutinizing reality and being faithful to it. In the El Salvador of that period, reality was overwhelming, urgent, cruel, challenging. And ever-changing, from day to day, sometimes from hour to hour. Every minute offered an opportunity for either sainthood or more mediocrity, although perhaps mediocrity was more culpable then than in other times and other places. Being faithful to such a reality is not easy for anyone, certainly not for an aging man, and least of all for a bishop. But he straddled that reality and rode it, in the process finding a growing significance. In that setting, he was converted into the most universal Salvadoran, the very voice of El Salvador. No one remembers any longer the names of most other figures on that hurtling ride. Only his. And that of his killer. But more of Monsignor Romero remains than merely his name. His voice, his face, his life, his example, all the many seeds he sowed are still with us.
The last temptationAnd his last temptation? He did have one. A man of power, conscious of the institutional power that he had and represented, with the training, skill and experienced to exercise it, Monsignor Romero wagered all that power during his last three years on those who always lose, though he bet to win, of course. His gamble was based on the high hand he held: all the Church’s power for those without a voice, without life, for the impoverished and marginalized. To do that in that period of convulsions and changes, he necessarily had to face the “last temptation” of power.
October 1979: the coup of the “young officers” and the government junta that emerged from it, events in which Romero played a leading role. He was called upon to face his last temptation in the crisis into which that political “solution” threw the country. It was the trial by fire of his historic conversion, just as pressure from the Papal Nuncio not to celebrate a public and massive Mass in memory of the murdered priest Rutilio Grande had been in March 1977, at the beginning of his change.
He won out over his last temptation. And again, it was the people who pushed him to do it. The people and the blood, which by then was flowing in torrents. He met the challenge based on love of rhe people rather than a political calculation. Compassion finally won out over ideology. Monsignor Romero’s life was on the line, and he was ready not only for them to kill him, but to give his life, which is not the same thing.
I particularly value the “piece” from Jorge Lara Braud, a Mexican-American evangelical pastor, who told me about the confession Monsignor Romero had made to him as the two were returning by car from a visit to the communities shortly before his death. “I’ll tell you the truth,” Romero said to Lara, “I don’t want to die, at least not now. I’ve never loved life so much. I tell you in all truth, I have no vocation for martyrdom; I simply don’t have it. I want a little more time.”
Nothing brilliant, but a lovely way to tie off the thread of a life that is utterly coherent in its significant insignificance. Because it’s not about going off looking for death, but about loving life and defending the life of others. Perhaps that’s all it’s about. And “that” requires conversion. During those years in El Salvador, anybody who did “that” was risking his or her own life, and the odds were not favorable. It was following that simple logic that Oscar Romero achieved sainthood, reached martyrdom and is resurrected in the Salvadoran people, the people he loved so much.
He represents us inThe portrait and voice of Central America will always be there alongside Monsignor, with his portrait and his words, as they were in Cuba some years ago, as they are at any door he reaches, any plaza where he is commemorated this March.
the greater history
Central America’s moment came at the end of the seventies. The Sandinista struggle in Nicaragua, which would culminate in the revolutionary triumph of 1979, and the efforts of the peasant, grassroots and guerrilla organizations in Guatemala and El Salvador, all combined to turn the empire’s backyard into the center of the garden of world solidarity.
Today that period seems very far away. Central America has changed so much in recent years. So much is sadness and loss. So much was transformed and seemed to be progressing. But so much that appeared solid was fragile, so much proved ephemeral. So many pages turned, so many tears shed, the blood, the mountains of dead, the spectacular heroism and the persistent and silent commitment to change things. When it is time to retell the story, I sense that it will be Oscar Romero, the most universal of Salvadorans, who will be the definitive representative of Central America’s men and women in the pages of that greater history, the one written with the distance of time.
Because the great challenges of that period are contained in this man’s trajectory, in his personal change, in his words, in the way they killed him. That trajectory contains everything, or nearly everythingy: the cruel repression, the closed civic spaces, the tenacious struggle for constantly violated human rights, the grassroots organizing, the obscene US meddling, the state terrorism, the awakening of peasant consciousness, the emergence of the “other” Church and with it the “other” God of Justice who takes the side of those at the bottom, the political prisoners, the tortured and torturable, the disappeared, the refugees, the resistance without quarter, the poverty and bottom-scraping misery, and of course the war and the longing for a just peace with dignity.
This man, who was also a priest and bishop, was in all that. He is the symbol of a few unforgettable years, of a glorious period lived in this tiny speck on the planet. Those times have gone but, like an icon, he will represent the Central America of that unique moment. And he will do it to the fullest.
María López Vigil is editor-in-chief of envío and author of numerous books, including Piezas para un retrato de Monseñor Romero.
*The original Spanish version was published by UCA Editores (San Salvador) in 1993; the English edition, Memories in Mosaic, by EPICA (Washington) in 2000 and CAFOD (London) in 2001, the German version, Ein Porträt aus tausend Bildern, by Exodus (Lucerne) in 1999, and the French version, Esquisses pour un portrait, by Karthala (Paris) in 2001. The Martin Luther King Center (Havana) published the Cuban edition in 2002.