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Monday, March 29, 2010

Journalist By Trade-vi

Priestly involvement in national politics is nothing new in our country.
Matter of fact, one of the country’s Founding Fathers is none other than José Matías Delgado, a Roman Catholic priest who’s credited with locally spearheading back in the early 1800s the drive for El Salvador to become an independent nation. One of the most important decorations granted by El Salvador, if not the most important, is named after him.
Nowadays, religious involvement is not limited to the local curia and politicians fight openly for the blessing of some of the most renowned Evangelical Christian leaders.
It doesn’t really matter what one believes in terms of direct religious involvement in politics. A protestant pastor, it is well known, was one of the most important guerrilla commanders at the time the so-called civil war broke open. And whether you choose to believe that some of the Roman Catholic priests killed by government forces or murdered by rightist death squads were actively aiding the guerrillas or just ministering to their flock, seditious participation in armed confrontation is hardly what monsignor Romero ever did.
Events in El Salvador in 1980 coincided with the turmoil in Iran after the ascent to power in Tehran by the ayatollahs. Spurned by that similarity in him also being a religious leader involved in politics, wags in El Salvador had nicknamed monsignor, “el ayatola Romero.”
It was a correspondent for an American newswire service, I believe, who asked him at one of the mini-press conferences after the Sunday mass what he thought of the nickname.
Sheepishly, and I would say rather offended by the comparison, monsignor replied [and I am paraphrasing here, as my notes for that specific event have long been destroyed]: “I can hardly say that’s fair to me. I would never approve of anybody holding innocent people hostage,” alluding to the Islamic leader's sponsorship of the takeover of the U. S. Embassy in Tehran and the prolonged captivity of dozens of American Foreign Service officers.
There is however no question at all that he had actively become a participant in politics.
At the time of my last interview with him weeks before his death, I paraphrased my question about what had prompted him to become so involved.
I did so by recalling that back at the time we had first met in San Miguel he was known to be ultraconservative. You were, monsignor, I said, a somehow ill-tempered priest who would chastise a mother if she couldn’t quiet the wails of an infant as mass was being said.
Isn’t that, I added, something quite openly in contrast with the populist and at times raucous character of your Sunday sermons, punctuated by loud and frequent bursts of applause?
His reply, given also to many others on separate and different occasions, is already well known.
As it happens with many other things in life, violence doesn’t occur in a vacuum. For anybody who may believe otherwise, explaining violence, understanding why and how originates, doesn’t necessarily mean accepting it or worse yet, condoning or approving of it.
There is also the risk of oversimplifying it. Of just going after an immediate cause-and-effect sequence in order to assign blame.
As I said before in one of the previous posts for this series, it would be the equivalent of believing that Romero’s murder was just a spur of the moment decision prompted by his dramatic call to the military some 24 hours before his killing. Somebody may have organized it and somebody may have approved of the plans and somebody of course may have pulled the trigger to fire the shot that ended his life.
And there, we are all now guilt-free!
For me, is much more complex. It is, in a way, more of a collective, shared responsibility.
It is possible that you choose to blame the shameless and corrupt politicians who, months after his murder and in the years afterward, claimed to have fought courageously for a full and detailed inquiry, when in fact stood silently and did nothing of the sort.
Your chosen villain could be perhaps a local reporter or a foreign correspondent, the military or the guerrillas. And for that matter, even Pope John Paul II, whose more or less overt rejection of Romero's militancy may have been seen as a wink by the plotters.
Anybody, as long as blood doesn’t spatter you.
But as violence of another type gains ground in El Salvador and most everybody feels now unsafe at any hour and in any place, it stands to reason to ask what lessons are being learned about monsignor Romero’s immolation and whether his death meant anything at all to the ones that are still embracing the violence he fought so much against.
Monsignor Romero’s militancy is still very much alive, even if the reason behind the violence being waged nowadays is just common crime and not political motive.
But it is somehow ironic that the date chosen to honor Romero’s legacy has been that of his murder, March 24th. As if his anti-violent message had also died with him. Were it left to me, I’d choose another date to remember him, the date he was born: August 15th. Now that is a date I will never forget. Because it is a date of birth: of promise and beginning. Not an end.

Journalist By Trade-v

The first bomb exploded about the South West corner of the National Cathedral on that brilliant Palm Sunday morning. The thousands gathered to pay their final respects to monsignor Romero crowded all over the neighboring streets and the Plaza Gerardo Barrios immediately across the front portico where the coffin had been carried out for the funeral mass. The Jesuit rector of the Universidad Católica (UCA), Ignacio Ellacuría, who some 10 years later would also be murdered along with seven other people (five of them priests) was one of the pallbearers.
”It’s most likely a propaganda bomb,” I told the startled American TV correspondent standing right in front of me. Minutes later, to use a proverbial cliché, all hell broke loose.
The lucky ones were probably those on the outskirts of the massive congregation of people, who most likely fled away from the area without much impediment. Worse off were probably the ones closer to the cathedral, and most especially the ones on the street right in front of the main portico. Those were the ones trampled and run over by the stampeded throng running away madly from the unseen assailants.
Most of the dead that day were probably people crushed against the fence surrounding the cathedral. The gates had been locked to prevent people from entering the temple and to allow for the mass to be officiated at the front steps, just a few feet away where I and some other local journalists and foreign correspondents like myself had gained access.
As you may have read in the abridged recollection of my dispatches from that Sunday morning in the book whose pages I reproduced in the first article of this series of posts, there was a moment where I recalled crouching down as I somehow sensed that the bullets were literally whizzing by. And just as I crouched down, I immediately realized that it would prevent me from seeing whatever was happening in front and around me [that’s me, circled at the right hand side of the cathedral steps, on the pix that you can find at the web pages dedicated to archbishop Romero on this website. I said so in one of the many dispatches that I wrote over the many hours of that Sunday afternoon, banging away at the old telex machine.
And so I stood up again and remained standing for the whole of the madness, my eyes and my heart and my mind sadly registering the overwhelming cries of the dying, the panic of the thousands of children, women, and men gathered to say goodbye to monsignor, the drone of the guerrilla cadre over the loudspeaker, the implorations of some of the priests closer to us on the front steps, the haunting El Greco-like faces of the poor [as captured by Harry Mattison in the picture circled on the screenshot of the web page from the Harry Ramson Center of the University of Texas at Austin] who to my understanding at that particular moment and many years later, look as it they were just previewing the horrific nightmare my country had just entered in.
Back at the EFE bureau office on the third floor of the building across the basilica where monsignor had issued his most dramatic and open call for an end to the violence just about a week before, we fielded calls from radio stations from different countries and filed one take after another. We didn’t stop writing until well into the early evening and then headed out for a drive around the city, basically deserted.
To this day, questions on who was responsible for the violence of that day are still unanswered. In our dispatches and those of many other correspondents from San Salvador that day you have read the accusations from visiting church dignitaries that government soldiers or rightist militants were involved. Some even were as far as to say that shots were fired from the National Palace, then a mostly abandoned governmental building on the Western edge of the Plaza Barrios.
I cannot discount the possibility that either government agents or rightist operatives were mixed in the crowd and helped to stir the chaos and disorder that ended in mayhem and death. But I was there for the whole of it and all I can do is reiterate that at no time did I see soldiers around the area or shots fired from the National Palace or even signs that somebody may have been inside the facility.
Which brings me to what probably is my motive to reminisce on the events of 30 years ago.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Journalist By Trade-iv

The setting was the early 1990s, at a Christmas party offered by the then Nicaraguan Ambassador to the OAS, José Antonio Tijerino. The topic among a group of diplomats attending the party was El Salvador, and the reasons for the apparent lack of progress in the negotiations toward peace between the government and the guerrillas.
If the killing of Archbishop Romero had definitely unleashed the dogs of war on the country, much of the impetus for a negotiated settlement to the bloody confrontation had been the result of another atrocity just about 10 years later, the murder of six Jesuit priests and two women: their cook and her teenage daughter.
Given Washington’s support for the Salvadoran government before and during the war, some of the diplomats talking with John Maisto, a top American diplomat in charge of relations with Latin America, wondered whether there was any receptivity from the decision-makers in the Salvadoran government side to the signals the State Department may have relayed on the need for a peace agreement.
“What kind of signals are you giving them? Are they clear enough?” was the question asked of Maisto, a Yoda-like man who was at the time one of the most skilled Latin American specialists at the State Department. “As clear as this,” was Maisto’s reply, cocking his right-thumb and –index in a pistol like manner and pointing it to one diplomat’s forehead. “You MUST sign peace.”
The anecdotal retelling by one of the partygoers is, I believe, appropriate. Allow me to explain.
Most everybody who on 23 March 1980 heard monsignor Romero’s now historic appeal to the military (and by that I mean men in uniform, not necessarily just officers) will probably tell you that his reaction was the same as mine. Count among them the ones that probably thought of that calling as an excuse to justify the violence against priests. Also the ones that probably feared that such a thing would happen. Or, as in my own case, a kind of premonitory feeling, not unlike the dread you get when your tot climbs up the steps.
My point here is that our collective mistake is attaching a cause-and-effect relationship to monsignor’s historic appeal to non-violence to his murder on the following day [the pix is from the archives of EL DIARIO DE HOY.] It may be so. But the killing of the archbishop, is my belief, was not decided at the time of his Sunday homily or in the hours after. It had by then been planned and staged. It was most probably the result of twisted minds thinking that (as it had indeed been widely circulated at the time) Pope John Paul II’s rebuke of Romero’s open militancy was a carte blanche for murder.
Which is not, let me hasten to clarify, assigning blame to the Roman Pontiff. Somebody should have made clear, should have cocked his thumb-and-index in a pistol-like manner, much like John Maisto did many years after to make a point, to tell whoever thought of killing a man of peace that doing so was an open indictment of the whole of Salvadoran society as a violent one.

ToU - A Love Story-iii

Here is another one from our anonymous collaborator. I like it but then again I am biased. Hope you will like it too.

Don’t know about you
but I remember both of us
anxiously waiting for the chance
to turn the pages on the book of life.
I do remember too how
seeing everything as new
we both illuminated our lives
with sighs of love.

In time
impetuous winds brought by life itself
took your presence away from me
not so the thoughts that you created.
The thirst for living made me
look for love once past
and there deception
shaded whatever pleasure I enjoyed.

the fate of this romance
anxiously looking once more
to add that never filled page on the book of life
has brought your heart and mine
again together
stoking the fire that I
thought was left behind.

Are you, my heart’s carefully guarded
secret, still unfree?
Tenderness and affection
duty, let’s say,
make of me still a prisoner.
And it is so that at times
I would very much like
to be unborn. Were that to happen
I could then surge to life
just to meet you again.

It may well be that now
the book of our lives is coming
close to a conclusion.
But for a love like this
there is no end.
Don’t know about you
but as for me
— as I did yesterday —
now, and forever
I love you.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Journalist By Trade-iii

The archbishop’s mini press conferences had become an almost inevitable ritual for the mainstream local and foreign-media representatives.
In El Salvador, as it has often happened in many other countries around the world, a religious leader’s criticism can be a very powerful weapon — even more so when, as it was in Romero’s case, scandal hasn’t tainted his life.
And as it happens anywhere in the world, intimidation and censorship often result in increased attention paid to the critic.
To the fact that this was a leader speaking out against human rights violations and in general commenting on the political situation in El Salvador, added importance to the mini press conferences was due also to the desire of the foreign correspondents to spice our reporting with the more personal, “… the archbishop told [include your newspaper or newswire here].”
Censorship also worked in Romero’s favor.
On several occasions the transmitters of YSAX, the Archdioceses of San Salvador’s radio station, were the target of bombs that took his Sunday homilies off the air. More people would flock to the church to listen to his sermon and, unable to listen to the message via radio, journalists would also be in church early enough to position ourselves for the after-mass Q&A.
The picture above, where an altar boy is holding a phone handset to Romero’s mouth, was most likely taken at the time of one of those bombings in early 1980, when supporters of the archbishop made arrangements for his sermons to be transmitted by Radio Noticias del Continente, an overseas-based radio.
Talk about censorship being counterproductive: Romero’s homilies were now available instantly to a hemisphere-wide audience, instead of merely a national one.
Attending Sunday mass to listen to monsignor’s homily was not that difficult a chore for me or my then bureau chief, another Salvadoran journalist, Rosendo Majano h.
Our offices were located just across the street from the Sacred Heart Basilica, chosen as alternate see for his sermons.
While newspapers or magazine correspondents (even TV reporters, for that matter) had the luxury of polishing their stories, newswire correspondents were always then (and perhaps even more now, with the added immediacy of the Internet) pressured to file stories fast. To paraphrase a common saying, “Your deadline passed a second ago. Where the hell is your story?”
On Sunday 23 March 1980, as it had been customary after a prolonged occupation of the National Cathedral by left-wing militants, Romero was officiating mass at the basilica across the street from our offices. And this time, it was also carried over locally by YSAX.
Because of our proximity to the basilica and given the normal amount of time between the sermon and the benediction, there would usually be enough time for us to prepare a quick four- or five-graph summary of the homily, and then dash downstairs to attend the Q&A.
As the radio blared that Sunday with Romero’s plea “in God’s name” for all soldiers to obey divine law and not engage in any more killings, for all soldiers to disobey any unlawful order to murder, both me and my bureau chief looked at each other and thought aloud, “They are gonna kill him!”

Friday, March 19, 2010

Journalist By Trade-ii

Within hours after learning of the killing of monsignor Romero I filed a recap of my last interview with him. I had talked to the archbishop many times over the years and during the last few months of his life regularly attended his mini press conferences, more like impromptu gatherings with journalists after his Sunday mass.
As noted in my earlier post Monsignor and Me, I was perhaps one of the first to interview him at length shortly after he had been invested Archbishop in 1977. Not that we were at any time particularly close, but it had been then many years since the last time I had talked with him.
For a while back in the early 1960s “el padre Romero” had been chaplain at the Instituto Católico de Oriente, the Marist High School in San Miguel that I attended. Raised as a Baptist [and still an Evangelical Christian, not necessarily a good one] by my father’s paternal side of the family, I kind of drifted into Roman Catholicism while in secondary school.
I didn’t know it during my high school years, but there were a couple of additional coincidences between the two of us.
One is that both his father and mine were namesakes: Santos.
Although many of his childhood acquaintances called him by his first name, my father preferred his middle name, Oliverio, something that probably made me miss on that detail.
We also shared the same birthdates: August 15.
At least as far as regarding the one stamped in my birth certificate.
One reason why I never made much of that coincidence is that (as explained to me by my parents) some sort of delay of their own or bureaucratic mistake had me as born on that date, when in fact the birth had been days earlier.
To this day, unless my loved ones [the only ones who know it] wish me happy birthday on the actual date, my birth date is nothing more but data to be entered in legal documents. That day flies by me as just about any other —couldn’t really care less about it.
Once graduated from High School, and absent the pressure of obligated attendance to mass and daily prayers, the return to Baptist practice came back gradually though not immediately. Even if my Protestant roots had not been firmer, there were other reasons for me to get away from Roman Catholicism.
My point in retelling all this is basically to make clear that even though there was recognition from Romero when I mentioned our acquaintance from my teen years, there is no doubt in my mind that for him, mine was just one among the hundreds of once youthful faces lost in a then not so distant past.
Even so, when just a few weeks before his death my editors at EFE in Madrid relayed the request from a South American subscriber magazine for an interview with him, the archbishop agreed promptly to the request. That’s the interview summarized in the image above. (Please click to read.)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Journalist By Trade-i

This, as said in my previous post, is a personal reminiscence, not a primer in contemporary Salvadoran history.
By saying this I hope that you will excuse my not delving deeply into things like the origins of the armed conflict of the last quarter of the XX Century.
You may prefer to explain the 12 years of open low-intensity conflict from 1980-1992 as a legacy dating back to the infamous matanza of 1932.
Or just assign blame to the more immediate political strife of the 1960s and 1970s, the CIA or the KGB, Castro or the Sandinistas for arming the guerillas, the liberation theology priests for supporting the insurgents or the wealthy (the oligarchs, as it was the then fashionable terminology) for supporting the military. Most people would track the beginning of the so-called civil war to the alleged fraud in the presidential elections of 1972. A failed military coup later (among, of course, many other things) so the story goes, urban guerrilla warfare intensified and led to the young military uprising of 15 October, 1979, the real catalyst for what was to follow.
Political turmoil in those years was not confined to El Salvador.
Back in early 1976, as a then young government official heading the Dirección de Publicaciones [the Ministry of Education’s Publishing House] I told one of my literary advisers during a private conversation of my fears that in terms of armed confrontation our country would either become another Argentina (or Chile or Uruguay, take your pick, in reference to the brutality of government repression) or another Nicaragua (by then, the guerrilla war in the nearby Central American country was almost full blown.)
Because of our territorial size, my friend opined, there was very little likelihood of us becoming another Nicaragua. And most surely, he also thought, people on both sides had by then learned enough to avoid a repetition of whatever was still going on in the Southern Cone.
Sadly for our country, not only was he wrong in rejecting the possibility of an either-or scenario in El Salvador.
The result, as time came to show, was both.
Having said all that, when I first heard the news about the murder of Archbishop Romero in the early evening of Monday 24 March 1980, there was no doubt in my mind that this was the actual beginning of a long, brutal, and bloody conflict, the real start of the war —a nasty confrontation book-ended almost at its conclusion by another atrocity, the killing of the Jesuit priests in November 1989.
(Please click on the images above to see a scanned copy of a round-up about the situation in San Salvador and the country at large after the events at the funeral of monsignor Romero.)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Journalist By Trade

As the shouts and the screaming gradually diminished, the drone of the guerrilla cadre kept instructing people to 'stay down, stay down!' Thousands had by then already left the area, in a mad dash for safety from an unseen enemy. The unlucky ones, trampled and crushed by the stampeding throng, some of them dead, were left on the pavement.
It was then that the lanky, blond American photographer, cameras awkwardly dangling from his neck and shoulders, ventured onto the street. The sight of Harry Mattison helping some other spontaneous volunteers carrying the injured away from the street, while chanting "El pueblo, unido, jamás será vencido!" (The people, united, will never be defeated!) was one of the last images I registered while trying to leave the National Cathedral.
It was Palm Sunday, March 30, 1980. Welcome to madness!
To all practical effects, the civil war in El Salvador had started years ago.
For me, the actual beginning of one of the most bloody internal conflicts in modern Latin American history had been less than a week before, in the early evening of Monday March 24. It was then that monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez, Archbishop of San Salvador, was murdered while saying mass. In Monsignor and Me, earlier blogged here, I told a little about the priest. In this and other posts over the next few days I will be reminiscing over the events on that bloody Palm Sunday, about "el padre Romero", and other stuff.
For now, I leave you here with the scanned cover and selected pages of "De Profesión Periodista," a book where my Spanish colleague Antonio Coll Gilabert picked up a summary of my dispatches from that horrific day. (Please click on each image to read the pages.)

The Lost Steps

The writer to whom allusion is being made below may not have been entirely original.
As I understand it, the phrase originated in Europe.
It also seems that at a time it may have been related to certain rites.
In other words, were you to fail in performing as indicated, all your steps would be lost i.e., useless.
The lost steps room is also the name given to rather ornate chambers in places like the Argentine Congress, where visitors are taken to 'cool their heels.'
In any case, here is my latest attempt at poetry.   

The Lost Steps

The waiting lounge  
in every train station
—think also bus depot
or airport, it's all the same—
this writer used to say
is to be called 
the lost steps room. 
In there 
the steps you take 
will take you 

Walking on the treadmill   
at the gym   
I've often wondered   
whether my steps there
are taking me 
—other than, hopefully, better health!

And how about the ones   
I take while   
dreaming of you along   
my secluded bike path   
where the breeze   
whispers me your name   
in the rustle of the palm leaves. 

Don't know for sure   
but here is hoping that   
lost steps they aren't   
—not anymore.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

An In Memoriam

Any visitor here will probably recognize the pix as one of the many previously posted here.
I thought it appropriate to welcome this anonymous contribution.

In Memoriam to My Father

And the smile on your lips
that healed so many wounds
was a reflection of
the sweet tenderness
the loving care
your parents gave
from the moment they cradled you
as a newborn.

The tenderness
love and care
were still there
by the time
they welcomed the one
you chose to be your wife:
a wedding followed
by a home
bursting with joy
no sorrows
— a family to nurture.

Sadness though
will find a way to make herself
temper joy
constrict the soul
our peace of mind.

God called and beckoned
for you to join Him
bidding goodbye
to wife and children:
no tears allowed
but fortitude
to mitigate the sorrow
paining your loved ones.

”The Lord is awaiting you”
was Death soft whisper
in your ear.

Time, your time,
was indeed short.
The impact of losing you
profound on us
your loved ones
who now stand here
by Death’s
sudden and hostile grasp
on that May afternoon.

A grasp
but not a hold
because God is
the only one capable
of signaling fate
to call you home.
He is the one to whom
we now turn
and ask for
strength to ease the pain
whom we pray for
blessings to erase our mourning.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Sounds in the Silence

To do justice to the poem below perhaps the better picture would be one of my homeland, El Salvador, instead of the religious motive I have chosen. But since the author is a very religious person and I understand the writing to be also a prayer to God, there it is.
The poem was written I am told sometime around the mid-to-late 1980s, when violence overwhelmed the country.
Most of us know what happened and how things have —or haven't— changed.
The author wishes to remain anonymous and while I would be more than glad to reveal the author's identity, I am gonna respect that wish. The poem has the same title as this post.


Neither wail nor reproach
greets the night
as the day closes its tired eyes
to give Earth, inside and out,
its rest.

And I
my beloved homeland
watch your sleep
while you lay at rest
Wondering guessing perhaps
if there is
in the morning dew
the explanation of why
overwhelms you.

It’s been this night
while in my thoughts following
the footprints marking our
journey from birth to old-age
that I have heard and found
to my utter amazement
the sounds in the silence.

In this lethargic heaviness
besetting you
and us
I heard
the groaning of a woman in labor
the anguished
throes of a dying man in his sickbed
and also heard
the pain that goes along
with disenchantment.

My yearnings
led me along to find out
the sounds in the silence
heard the widower
sobbing for his wife
and also the complaints
of the dipsomaniac.

Rest my homeland
inside and out
and while you are asleep
I will be waiting
for the morn
to find out then if the sunshine
will soothe your suffering
and warm the coldness
that surrounds me.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Thanking God

This is a prayer of thanks that recently found its way to my inbox. As with the writing in my previous post the author wishes to remain anonymous.

Dear God
It’s so wonderful to know
that I am not alone
amidst the world.

That you have
as a husband to me
and a Dad to my kids
fulfilled all of our needs.

From the moment you
came into my life
there have been
no more lonely nights
or sad days at the park.

And whenever
need and despair beset me
I just close my eyes
and pray
for I know you are always there.

Dear God
I’d like to thank you today
for being there
when I need a friend
for your tender
and loving care.

There’s one thing
I know for sure
I would have never made it thru
had it not been
because of you.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

ToU - A Love Story-ii

Got this not long ago in my email.
The author wishes to remain anonymous:
You are
the flame that sparked a never-ending fire
The dawn
that sets off a different kind of daybreak
The hope
that gave my being a whole new outlook
My inspiration and support
even if not physically next to me
My sunshine
warming my life from faraway
The music
giving new rhythm to my song.

has been my teacher and great companion
It showed me
how to survive without you,
without your presence
And so I learned that
when morning’s eyes opened
I should smile even if my soul was faint
And also that
when night’s dark cloak enveloped all around
My heart was free to
release all my tears.

Well over 30 years
have passed and
I have found you again
Tell me
love, life of mine that
this is not an illusion
nor a dream
Let me also hear that there is
fire within your heart
That even though
our mortal bodies age
Our love´s fire
languishes not:

Still don´t know whether
my hands will ever be able to hold yours
Don´t know either if
our eyes will again reflect each other´s gaze
It could well happen that
our bodies will never embrace
But there is neither time nor distance
for my love
I will look for you all over
I will await for you
for an eternity…

And so
when my tired eyes
can see no more
and my lips
have no more strength to name you
when my trembling hands
can´t embrace you any longer
when the end
of my life approaches
It will be then that
the whole world will find out that
this love prevails.

There will be neither peace nor calm
within my heart
till I can hear both yours and mine
beating as one.

I loved you
in the past
In the present
I am still loving you
And I will love you