Testimony of Esther Chavez and Walter Guerra.

Friday, August 27

Esther Chavez and Fr. Walter Guerra testified about their work in El Salvador on behalf of the needy, the persecution faced by their families and colleagues, the impact of Archbishop Romero on their lives and communities, and the impact of his assassination.

Testimony of Esther Chavez

Esther Chavez was born in San Salvador, the eldest of eight brothers and sisters. She went to school at the Colegio Asuncion and in 1978, she worked as a librarian. The University was closed very often so that could not finish her education.

Chavez commented on changes in the Catholic Church. When she was a young person, mass was in Latin. After Vatican II came about, the mass could be said in Spanish. Lay people could participate and become more involved. The meeting in Medellin in 1968, when the Conference of Bishops adopted a declaration regarding liberation theology, was also significant.

Chavez stated that she participated in one of the Christian base communities in her neighborhood. These communities sprang up in the countryside and in poor neighborhoods in the cities. The base communities practiced these changes in church doctrine. They were interested not only in what priests and others were saying but also in the philosophy affirmed at Medellin.

There were not many priests, and thus lay people were able to conduct and practice some of the services. They engaged in ”celebration of the word.” Chavez was one of the people who had an education, and so she would help poor people read their documents. She taught at a Catholic school with Sister Ines, who was her mentor.

Her first contact with Romero was through one of his homilies. The Catholic radio station was bombed and Chavez was asked to transcribe one of the homilies. Because she was listening directly to him, “just me and him,” she felt the power of his words very strongly, and wanted to help in any way that she could.

Sister Ines was sent back to Spain because of her support for Monsignor Romero. Chavez complained to the head of her school, and she was fired from her job. She then went to speak with Monsignor Romero. He was very open and humble. She asked him what she should do. She told him about her work with the base communities. He suggested that she go back to Morazon and survey the community to see what they needed. She did so with her brother and they discovered that many women needed day care. There were many single mothers, and other women would help them by taking care of their children. So in January 1979, she, her brother and a friend started a day care center.

A law was passed prohibiting meetings. Thereafter, they could not meet at the school but instead had to meet in people’s homes. They discussed the problems of their daily life – the killings, the persecution – and what they as Christians should be doing.

In August 1980, the Popular Movement called for a national strike. Parents and staff decided it would not be safe to be open during the national strike, so the building was empty. Two men took refuge in the day care building when it was empty. They carried weapons and they shot at a helicopter from the building. They were killed. Four more men were killed on the land of Chavez’s family in the hills.

Shortly thereafter, the Treasury Police came to the day care center asking for the owner. Chavez’s father said that he was the owner, in order to protect Chavez. The Treasury Police took him to their headquarters and tortured him for three days. They wanted to know where Chavez was. They said that Chavez was teaching children to be guerrillas because she was working with M. Romero. Her father eventually was released because the family was able to pay for a lawyer and they knew Monsignor Rivera y Damas and he also helped.

The day her father was released Chavez had to leave her children and go into hiding. In October 1980, she fled to Guatemala and then to the U.S. She didn’t want to leave, she felt that she was betraying her community because she could afford to leave and others could not. She finally got her children out. She hoped she could return in two years but she could not return. She applied for asylum but was denied. She then applied for a labor certification. She went to El Salvador for two weeks in 1987, and then returned to the States.

In the U.S., she worked to end U.S. military aid to El Salvador. She established a sister-city relationship between her city in New Jersey and Chalatenago.

She worked for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, as a community organizer in the immigrant community. At first she worked mostly with the Salvadoran community. From 1988 to 1994, she served as director of the refugee center, which provides legal services to other Central Americans as well as Salvadorans.

Regarding the impact of Monsignor Romero, Chavez stated that it was an “honor and responsibility to know Monsignor Romero because he taught that we should work with those who have no voice and those who fight injustice. Every year I have a service to commemorate his death. This is a responsibility that I try to keep and I try to help those in need and keep his legacy alive.”

Concerning Saravia, she is angry that he is here. She considers it a major injustice that families are divided and that someone like him who committed such a crime should be able to live in the United States.

Friday, August 27: Walter Guerra

Walter Guerra, a Catholic priest for 35 years and a close colleague of Archbishop Romero, testified about the violent oppression suffered by the people of El Salvador, his own persecution, and the vital role Romero played in negotiating and solving conflicts between workers and the large land-owners.

Father Guerra became a priest in 1969. Besides his devotion to his parish, Guerra is involved in several non-profit organizations, including one that is dedicated to eradicating malnutrition among children and providing nutritional education, and one that provides academic scholarships. Through these organizations, Guerra has helped feed and educate thousands of children.

Guerra first met Romero in 1962 when he was in seminary school in Armenia, a town located in the western province of Sonsanate, El Salvador. He was appointed Armenia’s parish priest in February 1977, the same month that Romero was anointed Archbishop. . Guerra recalled:

Repression in Sonsanate was terrible. Armenia was one of the towns most beaten by the oppression. The goal of the repression was to eliminate all opposition of the government. It was not possible to have any organization or gathering. Only religious functions, like holy mass, were allowed. Any other activity was dangerous and suspicious according to the military. As such, all the youth, teachers and farmers were targets. In three years, over 500 people were killed. I saw many of my parishioners brutally killed.

Guerra recounted the killing of his best friend:

My best friend was killed in front of my parish house. At 2 a.m they blew Jorge apart with bullets, and also shot his mother who tried to help him. They left her there bleeding to die. There was nothing we could do. Nevertheless, at 4 a.m., I ventured outside, took Jorge’s body and cleaned off the blood. Then I took his mother to the hospital. Many others also were killed, and I also presided at their funerals.

Guerra continued his memories of life under these conditions:

During the last few months of the life of Monsenor Romero, we all slept with our clothes on, in case we needed to flee at a moment’s notice. . . It was common to see bodies on the street. I myself had to pick up six young men. The National Guard and death squads had arranged their bodies in order of their size and left them along the highway leading to San Salvador, so that all who passed could see.

Guerra then testified about the time when he was detained for one day. He was accompanying the mayor to his office. The mayor was supposed to sign a document permitting a celebration. While Guerra was walking next to him, a female guerrilla fired into the mayor’s back, and he died on the way to the hospital.

The National Guard picked Fr. Guerra up in front of the mayor’s office. They accused him of conspiring with the guerrilla in the mayor’s murder. They tied his fingers behind his back with plastic binding for 12 hours. “My fingers got so swollen, that I couldn’t undo my belt.” Eight other prisoners were also in his cell. One said, “Father, don’t worry, we will defend you.” Another prisoner gave him his bed- a piece of cardboard. They warned, “If there is a noise, don’t move, we will investigate it.”

The townspeople surrounded the place where Guerra was being detained, to prevent his removal and clandestine execution. They “started sending cookies and other refreshments.” There was “great solidarity.” He invited the other prisoners to join him and they “gathered together at 6 p.m., we all ate together and prayed.”

Fr. Guerra’s family and Archbishop Romero sent attorneys. The lower court received his statement, and the attorneys explained that there was no basis to for his detention. The court agreed and ordered his release. Romero was in Rome at the time, but had phoned Socorro Juridico, the human rights office of the Archdiocese, and told them to send a lawyer to aid Guerra. They sent Roberto Cuellar, the director of the office.

Fr. Guerra discussed other dealings he had with Romero and the important role Romero played beyond his position in the Church.

Although Fr. Guerra’s parish was not a part of Romero’s diocese, Romero trusted Guerra because “I was a teacher at the seminary and at the UCA [University of Central America in San Salvador].” They would have monthly meetings with all the priests so that they could consider the country’s situation and come up with ways to address the situation. Monsenor Romero attended the meetings and actively participated.

Romero also invited Fr. Guerra to accompany him on strike negotiations. Guerra recalled a few of these labor disputes. In June 1968 there was a dispute between the Mesa family-owned brewing company and its workers. The Mesas had agreed to have Romero as the negotiator because he was trusted. He would first speak to the workers, then the administration and then bring the two sides together. “He would come up with proposals that were very doable. He was very friendly with the administration, so they could see, feel the condition of the workers, and so he could get concessions.”

In another situation, Romero negotiated a dispute between bus operators and their owners. The operators were demanding higher wages. The owners said they could not afford to pay better wages. The buses, which were very old, required constant repair, and so no money was available for wages. Romero’s solution was to help the bus owners get a loan. With the loan, they were able to acquire better buses, and could then pay the operators better wages.

Guerra also worked with Romero on writing pastoral letters. Once of the most meaningful explained that faith and politics were not inimical to each other, but rather that Christians have the right to get involved in politics and organize. This subject of the paper was decisive for Christians in El Salvador at the time.

During Romero’s last two years of life, Guerra also attended the weekly meetings to help prepare the weekly homilies. “We would meet in San Salvador and work from 7:30 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.” Romero would listen to the different reports from the various consultants on political, financial, social, pastoral and human rights issues. From these reports, he would write the homilies. “He wrote them himself -- he typed quite well,” explained Fr. Guerra.

His homilies were a lighted torch for all the people. He would apply the Biblical message to life. He would take a realistic look at what was taking place during the week, and then make conclusions. He would denounce all violations of human rights: give names, last names, names of places, etc.

Guerra continued:

He was the only person who could say these things in El Salvador. At that time, saying these things was like inviting a death sentence. He was the voice of those who had no voice. Seven times he received death warnings. He said ‘I am not afraid of death. Death be welcome. Because the day I am killed, I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people.’

Guerra and other priests cautioned Romero on the Saturday morning before his last Sunday mass on March 23, 1980 that: “We should not invite disobedience from the soldiers. We don’t want to give them an opportunity to kill you.” But, Romero “wanted to denounce the massacres of the army. He listened to our advice, but kept silent. He took the decision to invite all soldiers not to take part in death … and you know how that concluded.”

Guerra then related the impact and events following Romero’s assassination. “I was very sad and full of anger. I felt like a light had gone out. … On Tuesday, I went to San Salvador. Everyday I went to visit the body and joined the masses.”

Romero’s body was in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, eight blocks from the National Cathedral because the Cathedral was under construction. “I was at the burial. I was one of those along with six other priests who got to carry the body of Monsenor Romero from the altar to the main door.

There were over 300 priests from all over the Americas and Europe. Cardinal Corripio from Mexico celebrated the mass when the first bomb was heard. Streams of people were coming towards the Archbishop’s body. They could not get in because of the gates. Bombs started going off and there was a rush of people in all directions.

It was totally crazy. Everybody was running in great fear. Many people were on the ground and were trampled by the multitudes. … We took Romero’s body into the cathedral. The people knocked down the steel gates, and 5,000 people entered. We immediately took Romero’s body and put it in the burial vault. We were worried that they would try to take Monsenor Romero’s body. We encouraged people to sing. … By noon, things had calmed down, and the young priests went out and recovered 17 bodies [of those who had been trampled].

At this point, plaintiff’s counsel displayed several photographs showing some of the trampled bodies.

Fr. Guerra testified that “the Cardinal gave his final blessings, and at approximately 4 or 4.30 in the afternoon, all of the priests and nuns were escorted out by the military and into ambulances of the Red Cross. The military forced them to hold their hands up as they left. Guerrillas had entered the Cathedral. Thanks to them, the police and army did not enter- the army was scared of them. The Church and civil authorities negotiated that the army would leave.

Guerra then talked about Romero’s legacy:

Twenty-four years have passed. And ever year the activities for Monsenor Romero are increasing. I believe he is the priest most spoken about in the world. As a matter of fact, the Anglicans have placed a statute of him in Westminster Abby. He is a martyr for the Anglican Church and, of course, for us as well.”

He recounted what the Pope said when he came: “Happy is the Salvadoran people who have a shepherd, a bishop and a martyr as a guide.”

A series of photographs were then presented depicting activities celebrating and remembering Romero throughout the Americas.

Guerra continued “Always at his tomb there are flowers and people praying. Pope John Paul II himself changed his route and unexpectedly arrived and knelt and prayed there.”

Guerra was then asked if he was ever targeted after the assassination. He said he left El Salvador in July 1980 and went to Mexico. “The faithful people of Armenia kept telling me to leave.” He stayed there for two years, returning in August 1982. “I stayed through the entire civil war.”

Upon his return, the military threatened him. The colonel in Sonsanate, where Guerra and his parish were located, said: “You are a guerrilla, so I will kill you as you will kill me, so leave.” But, said Fr. Guerra, “I had made up my mind that I would not leave, because the people needed me. The Church was the hope of the people. For that reason, I could not leave.”

[Source: Center for Justice & Accountability, San Francisco, CA, 03Sep04]

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small logoThis document has been published on 15Sep04 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights.