The chapel sits next to a cancer hospital. Outside of the small building, bright flowers spill onto the sidewalk with graceful ease. The words next to the crucifix translate “On this alter Monseñor Oscar A. Romero offered his life to God for his people.”
Between 1980-1992 El Salvador boiled with civil war. Entire villages were leveled, thousands killed, the physical and mental landscape of the country changed.
Our first day in El Salvador we visit a museum dedicated to the former archbishop, Oscar Romero. In 1980 Romero was assassinated while giving a sermon in the small chapel near where he lived. The doors of the chapel were open and a car drove by the front, a shot was fired, and the car sped away. For many, the death of Romero was the spark that solidified the need for change and began the Salvadoran civil war.
The small museum, which was his home, displays the usual artifacts of a home that made been into a museum: a bed, books, pictures, a peek into his bathroom. These artifacts seem to be presented as proof of his life. In the front room are artifacts of his death. Someone had a camera on the day he was assassinated and a series of 4×6 photos show him slumped over the altar with blood pouring over his body, falling to the floor with others crowded around him, being carried from the church. The pictures read like a series of news stills, a slow motion replaying of the event. In one glass case hangs the robe he was wearing the day he was assassinated. It is stained pale reddish-brown with his blood.
Much of the narrative of the museum is left to the viewer. There are no fancy videos or signs telling you how to feel. As we leave the museum a group of school children file quietly in.
In the days since that visit I have tried to imagine a similar museum in the United States. When and where we would be brave enough to display the bloodstained clothes of our martyrs? I can not imagine we would have the courage to offer the story without heavy-handed propaganda insuring the desired message.
Over a week later I am riding in the back of a pickup truck up a steep, rocky, dirt road. Crowded in the back with roughly ten other people we sway and bump into each other as the truck climbs, holding onto the truck and to each other. Each time we pass a house, the community organizer driving the truck beeps the horn and calls out to the people inside. “We’re showing a movie about Romero at the school in El Tule. Are you coming?”
The school sits next to a house and as far as I can tell is the center of El Tule. I am told roughly 30 people live in this community. The trees near the school are heavy, heavy, heaving with mangoes. We throw rocks up at the branches to knock ripe ones down and then sit on the side of the road and eat juicy ripe mangoes as well as the more tart “sason” mangoes, which haven’t reached full ripeness but are delicious nonetheless.
As dark approaches we gather at the school for the movie. We sit on plastic chairs brought by community members and on the floor as night birds and insects dart out of the darkness to flash across the screen.
The film was originally in English but this version is dubbed in Spanish. Watching it in this tiny community I cannot ignore the ways that Romero and his legacy are still alive. The area where we are was a hot zone during the war and the older people around me lived through all of this. As light dances across their faces I wonder how the Romero’s death and the war live on for them in their day-to-day.
At the end of the movie we eat pan dulce, sweet bread with fruit filling and crusty sugar on the outside, and drink coffee out of small styrofoam cups. Climbing back into the truck we all sit closer on the way home. Night air flashes across our faces and the rocks on the road jar the truck. In the distance a fire blazes against the night sky like a small sun falling below the crest of the horizon.
The memory of people like Romero lives on in museums and community life. It takes the journey of the people, the light of memory flashing across their faces, and the retelling of the story to younger generations to keep it alive.