Local Salvadoran revolutionary honors the memory of slain Archbishop Romero.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
Nelson Santos sits at a polished dining table in his Marina apartment, flipping through a book about El Salvador’s civil war. He points to a black-and-white photo of dead Salvadorans with a sign that reads “Por subversivos los saludos del escaudron” (“For the subversives, greetings from the death squad”).
The 50-year-old man sports salt-and-pepper hair, a gray mustache, a striped polo shirt and black athletic pants. A former member of the Salvadoran leftist army, Santos routinely witnessed cold-blooded killings like this by the right-wing military in the ’70s and ’80s. “They would kill the people, and they would throw the bodies on the side of the street,” he says, gesturing with his hands in disgust.
Santos says he drew hope from the United States’ financial backing and national hero Archbishop Oscar Romero, a vocal opponent of the military. Santos would often attend his popular masses. “He always went to the poor places and talked to the people,” he says. “What Monseñor Romero was saying was: ‘You are brothers. Stop. Don’t kill each other.’”
But in 1980, a day after the people’s priest implored Salvadoran soldiers to stop human rights abuses, assassins shot and killed him.
Santos is speaking at a Sunday, March 28, event commemorating the 30th anniversary of Romero’s assassination. It will be one of the first times Santos has spoken publicly about his home country’s civil strife since moving to the Monterey Peninsula in 1986.
Raised in Mejicanos, San Salvador, Santos joined El Salvardo’s army at the age of 15, saying that as long as a boy was tall enough, the government would recruit him to pick up a gun, much like in the film Voces Inocentes.
But the military’s injustices led him to switch sides and join leftist guerrilla group Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, which formed after Romero’s assassination. “I knew what was going on in the army, and I didn’t like it,” Santos says. “There were only three ways: right, left, or dead.”
Santos tries to describe the scenes when his militia was hiding outside the city of Guazapa, but can’t find the words. “Too many things happened over there,” he says, shaking his head.
He then recalls the teachings of a Catholic priest named Rutilio. “He was saying all the time that you have to be for the people, not for the rich,” Santos says. “He was killed, too.”
With militants hunting him down and his wife pregnant, Santos says, he moved to the Monterey area to be close to Fort Ord and protest U.S. deployments of soldiers and weapons to El Salvador. “When I was fighting, I saw people from this country over there fighting,” he says. “I wanted to be close to the army and say, ‘Hey, don’t send soldiers to this country.’”
Santos complains that the people of El Salvador never saw any of the billions of dollars in U.S. aid, except in the form of rifles, airplanes and helicopters.
The U.S. granted Santos political asylum in 1986, and he has worked as a cook on the Peninsula ever since, eventually moving all his immediate family here. He says he distanced himself from local Salvadorans who were on the government’s side during the conflict. “They were always looking at me like… a bad person, but I am not.”
Peace didn’t come to El Salvador until 1992, when the United Nations helped broker peace accords. An estimated 75,000 people were killed in the 12-year war.
Last year, FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes was elected El Salvador’s president, the first presidential victory for the leftist party. Although he still has red FMLN flag in the corner of his living room, Santos isn’t optimistic about sweeping reform:
“He has to do a lot of work. He’s not going to do too many things. For too many years it was the right side. In too many decisions, he has to go to the right side to fix it. It’s not going to change.”
Santos flips through another book and recites Romero quotes: “If you are a Christian, you have to be human. Many people think that they are Christian, but they don’t believe in God. They believe in money.”
On the blue flyer for Sunday’s event is another stirring Romero quote: “If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people.”
That prophecy seems to have come true: The archbishop’s spirit still rouses Santos.