In 1989, five months before the Jesuits were assassinated, my friend Karl Kiser, S.J., and I managed to talk our way into El Salvador. At the Salvadoran embassy in Guatemala (where Karl and I were studying Spanish) we tactfully impersonated tourists hoping to visit the beautiful Salvadoran beaches. It got a little dicey when they asked if Loyola Chicago (where we were studying back in the States) was a Jesuit school. Knowing the answer “yes” would be a deal breaker, we simply replied, “What’s a Jesuit?” and found ourselves approved for entry.
For us young scholastics, El Salvador was the epitome of cool, the “it frontier” where everyone wanted to go for a piece of the social justice pie. My intentions to go to El Salvador were good, but I was still a naive 22-year-old idealist when it came to its complicated realities. When I arrived and saw the tanks on the streets, the overwhelming poverty, and the faces filled with fear, my simplified perception was swiftly dismantled. At the end of the short visit, I left with what could best be described as a sudden awareness that there are no quick fixes in social justice.
Five months later, the Jesuits at the UCA (where we stayed) were killed by American trained and funded Salvadoran commandos, forever redefining “a faith that does justice.” There has been much written since 1989, but to mark the 25th anniversary of this tragedy, my team and I set out to make a definitive documentary, a film where audiences can actually hear the story in the words of those who lived it. Not merely an historical account, Blood in the Backyard delves into how the martyrs’ sacrifice continues to affect El Salvador and the world today. Last week, Erik Lohr, the film’s director, premiered the film at the Ignatian Solidarity Network’s Teach-In in Washington, DC, and we’ve been thrilled by the response.
The film features interviews with witnesses, government officials, justice advocates, and scholars that we spoke to in New York, Washington, DC, and El Salvador. My three production trips to El Salvador could best described as “the same, but different” from that first trip in 1989. Gone are the military tanks, but an armed guard stands watch at the retreat house where we stayed while filming (armed guards are a frequent site in San Salvador). The overwhelming poverty is still there, and so is the fear. But instead of being afraid of what the military might do, Salvadorans face intense intimidation by gangs (it’s estimated there are 80,000 gang members in the country). Sexual violence towards women has become a far too common tragedy. With blood and violence filling the streets on a daily basis, El Salvador in 2014 remains the second most dangerous country in the world.
However, in many of my conversations with Salvadorans both on-camera and off, I couldn’t help but notice an inexplicable hope thriving amidst all the apparent hopelessness. From my own limited vantage point, this hope is more pronounced than it was during the civil war. At that time, Romero, Grande, Kazel, Donovan, Clarke, Ford and many others were preaching the radical new idea that the poor majority didn’t deserve their suffering, that justice wasn’t reserved just for heaven, that God wanted peace for them now. Decades later, those messages continue to grow and resonate more deeply even amidst turmoil. Today it’s not uncommon to see a man being beaten in the streets by gang members (something I witnessed in October). But those same streets are now lined with proud murals painted of Oscar Romero, the four Churchwomen murdered in 1980, and the Jesuit martyrs. Truly one glance down a neighborhood in San Salvador can visually offer the harsh juxtaposition of the worst and best of humankind.
It can’t be underestimated just how profoundly the stories of these martyrs’ heroic sacrifices affect many Salvadorans’ approaches to suffering and evil. Last weekend I met a 23-year-old engineering student at the UCA. She was born two years after the Jesuits’ murders, and yet it was clear that their story had become intimately woven into her own. She wasn’t in denial of the realities of her country, but somehow maintained a sense of joy. Emanating a courage and wisdom that reminded me how buoyant hope really is, she told me matter-of-factly, “My generation will stand up and change El Salvador.”
We set out to produce this documentary because of how deeply we believe the martyrs’ story has the power to transform…not merely within El Salvador’s borders, but throughout the world. We all need to hear the story not simply to keep the legacy of the martyrs alive, but to witness their examples of sacrifice, resilience, and the real dangers that accompany living out the Gospel--and then we need to pay careful attention to how it resonates in our own lives.
Twenty-five years after my first visit to El Salvador, the country seems more complicated to me than ever. I still don’t have any quick fixes to offer. But I’m convinced there’s much to be gained by reflecting on the hope that exists in the hearts of many Salvadoran people. Their story is Christ’s story, which is all of our stories. By hearing it in the words of the Salvadoran people, we have a chance to give voices to the voiceless, and amplify those indestructible messages of Romero, Grande, the Churchwomen, the Jesuits, and everyone else who spoke truth in the face of death.
We couldn’t have done this film without the Jesuit universities and Provinces who supported us. We’re grateful to these partners and many others, who are so committed to filmmaking through an Ignatian lens.
Below is a clip from the film that looks at the immediate aftermath of the murders, and in particular, the controversial relationship between the Reagan administration and El Salvador. I urge you to hear what Rep. James McGovern, Ambassador Walker, and a representative from El Salvador’s former military-led government, have to say as they process events twenty-five years later.
Loyola Productions is currently exploring distribution options for an expanded version of the film shown at the Ignatian Family Teach-In. In the coming months, we’ll announce how you can obtain a copy.