We sit beneath a portrait of a handsome Italian priest, Sante Spessotto, pictured with two dates written below: “28 January 1923” on the left side, “14 June 1980” on the right. He’s looking off to the side, as if slightly distracted by a commotion behind the camera, but not distracted enough to clear the pleasant expression off his face likely anticipating the snap of the camera to come. It was taken two years before his death, two years before he was shot dead by gunmen linked to El Salvador’s military junta on the altar of his church in San Juan Nonualco and two years before he whimpered, “Pardon, pardon,” toward his murderers as his blood covered the floor below and his spirit rushed off to meet his maker.
It’s the kind of poster that passes as a decoration in an L.A. Salvadoran home. On a return visit to my hometown, my old friend Cecilia has me over for lunch. We sit talking over a plate of beef kabobs with saffron rice and grilled tomatoes from the Iranian restaurant around the corner. She’s excited because “La Profesora” sent the poster to her along with a matching one showing him as a young man that she’s placed on the opposing wall, just above a stuffed dog wearing a Santa hat.
Cecilia remembers Spessotto from the days when he ministered in San Juan Nonualco, when he helped reconstruct the church, and when he would caution children not to climb up the bell tower to ring it, as they liked to do. Back when Cecilia was the oldest daughter of a large family and she left school to be a second mother to her siblings, before war broke out and she eloped to San Salvador and sent back her two kids once in a while to the village before it got too dangerous. Before the priest was murdered and she stopped going back and her husband left for the United States, before she stopped hearing from him and before she gave up and made her way north as well, alone.
La Profesora was Cecilia’s grade school teacher in San Juan, and it is she who remains the closest connection to her home village 30 years after she left and a year after her parents passed away one after another.
“She’s such a beautiful old woman,” she tells me, “and she still has her spirit after all these years. She must be around 80 or 85, because she was the age I am now when I was a little girl. They killed her son, too. He was a doctor, a well-educated guy, her only son,” a pained look coming over her face as she invokes the all-powerful “they” that appears far too often in the stories she tells about El Salvador.
Whereas it once meant the police or the military — the “they” that shot dead Spessotto — in newer stories it means the far-harder-to-pin-down anonymous criminals and murderers that have worked hard over the years to give El Salvador the unhappy distinction of the world’s highest murder rates.
“It was people he knew,” she continues, “old friends that he went out with for a drink. He went to their house, and when he went to the bathroom, they put something in his drink. And when he got out, they grabbed him” — she extends her right arm behind her shoulder and grabs her neck from behind to demonstrate — “and then beat him to death with bats, the kind of bats you use to hit baseballs.”
“Just be careful never to go drink with people, even when you know them,” she adds.
Every one of her stories has a lesson, even if there is no lesson to be had. Especially the stories about murders back in El Salvador, of which there are many. Without morals to the stories, the utter senselessness and randomness of the carnage would be overwhelming. So it’s easier to warn about all the things to avoid — don’t go to ATMs at night, don’t talk to people on the street you don’t know, don’t look at people on the bus — instead of admitting that there’s no way to escape the eventual certainty of death back home.
When we get tired of politics and murder and kabob, she remembers that the church down the road is hosting a mass for El Salvador’s national holiday — a mass that is sure to be followed by pupusas, stuffed corn tortillas with cheese and some with beans and cheese and maybe some with loroco if we’re lucky, with pickled cabbage curtido and salsa to accompany. We head out, stopping in her garden to admire the fig and lemon trees interspersed with overgrowing flowers whose seeds she got from across Los Angeles and some from El Salvador and has lovingly nurtured since. This year’s record rains have produced a bounty of summer figs and grapes, perfect for giving out to friends and neighbors, of which she has many close by.
As we walk down the road she points them out: there’s a cousin a street over, Salvadoran friends who have become like cousins the street past that, the Indian woman in the house across the street who said with a less than positive intonation that the garden had become a “jungle,” the Armenians in the back, a Filipino over there, a Guatemalan on that side, a Chinese family on the corner, and a Mexican over here. A typical Reseda block, the kind of incredibly diverse mix that surprises out-of-towners but that’s unremarkable throughout the heart of the San Fernando Valley. The houses are small, some with well-tended gardens and others with worn-out plants and dried-out yellow grass. Behind the boxy postwar frames, many houses extend: a shed quietly built out back to host a son and his wife and two daughters, or a trailer permanently affixed to house a second or third family close by. A density that hints at a new kind of suburban American dream, one with room for big extended families from every corner of the earth.
We make it to the church just in time to see a dozen girls and women dressed in Aztec dancer costumes practice in the vestibule ahead of 7:00 p.m. mass. The dresses are bright blues and reds and greens with matching makeup, and all have bright, huge feather headdresses above their heads. We make our way around the other early birds and snag a seat. Soon enough, the pews begin to fill, the best-dressed wearing dark blue and white shirts and dresses — the colors of the Salvadoran flag — with kids wearing Salvadoran soccer jerseys in tow.
As the service begins, the Aztec dancers make their way down the aisle, speeding up as they reach the altar; beneath a huge crucifix holding aloft a pained-looking Jesus decorated on either side with long bands of fabric in El Salvador’s national colors, the drums beat hard, a conch shell is blown, and steps meant to evoke the dance of an empire that flourished a few hundred miles north of modern-day El Salvador quicken.
Meant to be an expression of attachment to Catholicism, the scene might shock an earlier generation of Latin Catholics: women adorned in indigenous costumes jumping side to side to a drum beat, their feather headdresses swaying and their shoulders and legs exposed as images of the Virgin Mary on their dresses shake wildly. One could also see something debasing about it all: a recreation of indigenous submission to the Spanish conquistadors, a dance summarizing the annihilation of 95 percent of the Americas’ indigenous people through colonization and the submission of the remainder to the faith of their bloodthirsty conquerors. But El Salvador hardly has any indigenous population these days anyway — the country is almost entirely mestizo, the indigenous mostly murdered by the Spanish, killed by disease, or assimilated. And there’s the other, more subversive interpretation: the dancers as a reminder of a beloved heritage extending back millennia far before Christian missionaries ever reached Central American soil.
Following the service, the Aztec dancers move toward the altar to take their place of honor. A drum beat sounds and they exit the church doors in formation, followed by a crowd holding aloft a life-sized icon of the Salvadoran Christ that until then was quietly positioned stage right. The congregation — about 100 people — follow through the parking lot in the dusk that follows immediately after the brilliance of sunset, walking slowly as a few rush ahead in ones and twos to get photos of the dancers and the Christ at the head of the parade. The drum grows louder, more constant, the shaking of the Aztec leg rattles — made from nut shells and filled with stones — growing stronger as incense wafts toward the sky. We reach a stage, where the Christ is lifted by a mechanical raising platform hidden behind the podium, slowly reaching a spotlight two men holding floodlights have created for it. The crowd claps with the beat, and old ladies are pulling out smartphones left and right. Since the icon moves skyward at a glacial pace, it’s hard for any of them to miss it.
A woman in dark blue and white reads out a speech to explain the significance of the saint that protects a country whose name translates simply to “The Savior.”
“Our Divine Savior of the World,” she proclaims, “is named from when the Christian armies defeated the Muslim forces at Belgrade in 1456, when churches were built the world over to celebrate,” she says, referencing a Hungarian triumph over Ottoman armies. Christopher Columbus named the first island he reached in the Bahamas “San Salvador” in honor. A few decades later the patron saint reached Central America, where conquistadors destroyed the indigenous kingdom of Cuzcatlán and built “San Salvador” atop it. This last part gets glossed over in the summary, however.
“It’s a symbol of the great faith of El Salvador’s people, of the connection between our faith and our homeland and the fact that we are a nation that seeks protection in God,” she continues.
The Christ ascends, the crowd gasps, and her voice reaches fever pitch as the Christ nears the top. Below him, on the podium beneath a large globe, a portrait looks down on the crowd, the only eyes to watch us besides those of Christ himself. It’s Óscar Romero, El Salvador’s fourth archbishop, who, like Spessotto, was killed in vengeance for his work with the poor and his perceived leftist sympathies.
He was hugely influential, a voice of hope who was himself inspired by leftist activists working to democratize El Salvador through the promotion of self-reliance groups and collectivization efforts. His experiences in El Salvador transformed Romero from a conservative supporter of Catholic orthodoxy into an advocate of liberation theology, which emerged in Latin America in the 1970s demanding social reform and economic justice. He believed Christianity not to be a pillar of social order but instead an ally of the weak and the poor. As a result, Romero criticized US support for the military junta as they turned El Salvador into a slaughterhouse in their determination to prevent “the spread of communism.” Beloved by the masses, Romero’s radio program captured the attention of the nation. On March 24, 1980, a day after he delivered a sermon calling upon Salvadoran soldiers to end atrocities against civilians, he was gunned down at church. His funeral drew 250,000 mourners, a huge number in this tiny country and enough so that to this day it’s considered one of the largest protests — because that’s what it was — in Salvadoran history.
The numbers of the Civil War dead would rise to astonishing levels, levels you could never have imagined in a place like El Salvador, a tranquil land of rolling green hills and pretty rivers and volcanoes and dark sand beaches where people for centuries worked their farms and were forced to survive on far less than they should have even as urban elites built fortunes. The junta went on a mad killing spree: 100,000 were killed, almost 10,000 “disappeared,” and one million people were forced from their homes, half of them fleeing the country altogether.
For those who escaped — those who took trains and buses north through Guatemala and Mexico, who entrusted their lives to coyotes in the deserts of Arizona in blistering heat to find safety and the possibility of a better life in the land that helped destroy the possibilities for life in the land they once called home — the unending cruelties and humiliations of poverty, violence, and death resurface often, in calls from weeping relatives, requests to cover funeral expenses, pleas for help getting north, extra cash for school fees. Children who spend their monthly phone call crying that they have been left alone with elderly relatives, asking why their mothers abandoned them to take care of strangers’ children in faraway lands.
And problems don’t just follow from “back home.” Those who left El Salvador arrived in Los Angeles — a city whose momentous 20th-century growth was built in large part on the aerospace industry, its wealth multiplied with each war the US government launched or supplied abroad — only to find a land of “freedom” where they were free to be neglected by a state that saw its role in the lives of its Latino immigrant citizens in terms of policing and deportation. They saw riots tear apart MacArthur Park in the early 1990s, an uncomprehending wave of terror and anger absorbing their new homes. They worked for cash under the table from employers who took advantage of their undocumented status, knowing they’d be too afraid to complain to the cops when money went missing or when they were forced to work far beyond what they should have in unsafe conditions. They see deportation raids all around, a buffoon of a president who dismisses entire nations as “bad hombres,” and difficulty for their kids in graduating from severely underfunded schools or finding employment after. They achieved the American dream, but no one told them this is what it would be like.
And compared to what’s going on back home, it doesn’t seem so bad — at least to those who haven’t seen relatives deported or imprisoned or killed. But once upon a time, before any of them had seen Los Angeles’s parched hills and overpriced houses, “not so bad” wasn’t the dream they were hoping for.
Atop the stage, under the watchful gaze of El Salvador’s martyred archbishop and the arms of Christ embracing the world from on high, the band belts out church song after church song. Most people stay seated, sharing pupusas and horchata with their children and grandmas, enjoying the slices of watermelon and pastries on offer for dessert. The priest announces that tonight we dance for the glory of God.
As the band takes a break, after the Aztec dancers have long since sat down and changed clothes, as the crowds thin and the pupusa line dwindles, an old classic comes on, a patriotic salsa tune sung by a passionate woman belting out from a speaker: “The Salvadoran people have the sky as their sombrero.” She continues:
My country is troubled, but El Salvador resists any and every adversity.
Oh Salvadoran brother, long live your blue sombrero!
Go forward so that your clean blood can spread across the sea
And become an enormous rose of love for humanity.
Oh Salvadoran brother, long live your blue sombrero!
You will have to fill the world with labor and sweat
And reconstruct the village of the divine Savior.
Mi pais esta muy triste pero El Salvador resiste a cualquier adversidad.
Hermano salvadoreño, ¡viva tu sombrero azul!
Dále que tu limpia sangre germinará sobre el mar
Y será una enorme rosa de amor por la humanidad.
Hermano salvadoreño, ¡viva tu sombrero azul!
Tendrán que llenar el mundo con trabajo y sudor
Y reconstruir el pueblo del divino Salvador.
Alex Shams is a writer and PhD student of Anthropology at the University of Chicago.