Posts Tagged ‘El Salvador


Saint or Commie?

As I’ve written before, I dropped out of the Catholic Church when I was a teenager. I haven’t become an atheist, although I see nothing wrong with that philosophy. It’s just that I prefer to keep my distance from religion. However, I’ve also been upfront about my belief that one reason Latinos don’t make bigger social and economic gains is our overreliance on the Church.

So perhaps I should excuse myself from a debate taking place across the Hispanic community, Latin America, and the Catholic Church. The cause of this debate is that old rabblerouser himself, Archbishop Oscar Romero.

For those of you who don’t know, Romero was the head of the Church in El Salvador from 1977 to 1980. During this time, he spoke out against the brutality of the government and the oppression of the poor. For having such crazy ideas, he was assassinated, presumably by members of a right-wing death squad. Following his death, a civil war ripped the country apart and killed tens of thousands of civilians, including members of my mother’s family.

In the thirty years since his death, Romero has been lionized as a martyr for the cause of social justice, or criticized as a dupe for communist agitators, depending on whom you talk to. The Catholic Church has been considering him for sainthood for years, but weirdly enough, they can’t seem to go ahead and canonize the guy.

The debate over Romero goes to the heart of the Church’s standing in Latin America. Is it an institution that upholds the traditions of the culture, even if those traditions include exploitation and enforced poverty? Or is it a force for peace and compassion, which is what that famous hippie Jesus espoused?

The perception of the Church in Latin America has a direct impact upon U.S. Hispanics. Many of us who are first-generation, for example, saw an organization that gave lip service to helping the poor, but supported corrupt regimes in our parents’ home countries. Priests like Romero, far from being supported, often earned Rome’s disdain. The dichotomy (some would say hypocrisy) was not endearing.

But Romero’s legacy may finally be thwarting the establishment culture that shunned him during his life. In a truly surprising moment, my mother’s home country of El Salvador has finally gotten around to acknowledging its most famous citizen.

The LA Times reports that “For the first time, the Salvadoran state is publicly commemorating Romero. Through most of this month, marches, concerts and debates have honored the priest.”

Furthermore, the country’s president, Mauricio Funes, recently asked forgiveness on behalf of the state for Romero’s assassination. Funes said, “This is something that should have been done a long time ago” and added that his government would “end the decades of silence” that have been Romero’s official legacy.

If El Salvador can finally acknowledge that Romero was killed because of his strong drive for justice, maybe the Vatican can get around to saying that he was a pretty good guy.

By the way, and at the risk of taking a cheap shot, it seems like the Catholic Church’s current issues prove that it’s not the best judge of morality and saint-like behavior. But then again, what do I know? I’m just an ex-Catholic.


One of the Cool Kids Now?

Recently, I wrote about the Pew Hispanic Center’s report that detailed the countries of origin for America’s Latinos. To no one’s surprise, Mexico is the top source of our Hispanics, with Puerto Rico and Cuba following.

Those Latinos who don’t have the blood of those fine nations/territories in their veins (including your humble blogger) have felt a little on the fringe. So you can imagine my surprise when Pew said that my family’s homeland of El Salvador was number four on the list.

The reason this intrigued me is because, as I’ve written before, I grew up in the Midwest, where Latinos were sparse (at the time). Even rarer in my hometown was someone like me who answered, “Hispanic” but then had to clarify that I was not part Mexican. Many kids I grew up with became flummoxed when I explained that Latin America did not consist entirely of Mexico. Many of their parents, sadly, were similarly befuddled.

I spent a lot of time in my teen years explaining that El Salvador was an entirely separate country, and nowhere near Acapulco or Cancun. One of my friends had never heard of the nation and referred to it as San Salvador (the country’s capital) until I gave up correcting her.

So it’s amusing to me that today, so many Latinos in America hail from the place. I had no idea we were so popular.

Of course, one reason that many Salvadorans are here is because of the devastating civil war that ripped the country apart in the 1980s. Although my family’s genesis in America goes back to the 1960s (quite a while for Salvadorans), some of my cousins came here to escape that conflagration. They, and millions more like them, stayed to become Americans.

But again, back in those days, being from El Salvador was like saying, “My family hails from San Marino.” A look of WTF was the most common reaction.

That is most likely not the case today. If you’ve heard of the Dominican Republic (number five on the Pew list), then you’ve probably heard of El Salvador. And although it’s a little sad to lose that flair of exoticness, it’s a relief to not have to explain where the hell our ancestors came from.

Leave that to the Paraguayans.


The Big Five

For decades, saying that you were Hispanic was analogous to saying, “I’m Mexican.” That’s no longer true, of course (and I’m not referring to the whole “Chicanos are different from Latinos” debate). Rather, Hispanic culture, like everything else in America – except for the Deep South branch of the Republican Party – has grown and evolved.

Recently, the Pew Hispanic Center issued a report revealing where all these foot soldiers in the Brown Invasion are coming from. As you can imagine, the top two demographics – the Beatles and Stones of Latino culture – are Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans. This is hardly a surprise, nor is the third-place finisher, Cuban-Americans, a shocker. As I’ve written before, Hispanic culture in the United States has often been relegated to East LA Chicanos, Nuyoricans, or Miami-based Cuban émigrés.

I was surprised, however, that number four on the list of Latino countries of origin is none other than my family’s homeland: El Salvador. The Dominican Republic comes in at number five.

These five countries account for the vast majority of Latinos in the United States, which isn’t so shocking when one considers that Mexican Americans alone account for more than sixty percent of the Hispanics in the United States.

The Center breaks down the traits of each group and contrasts them “with the characteristics of all Hispanics and the U.S. population overall.” That’s how I found out that Latinos who claim El Salvador as their country of origin are younger than the U.S. population but older than other Hispanics. I also found out that such Latinos have less education than other Hispanics, but they’re not as likely to have out-of-wedlock births. These are categories, of course, that no one wants to be tops in.

One thing caught my eye when going over the Center’s stats, however. People who responded to the survey were free to pick their country of origin, with few guidelines. As a result, the Center points out that “a person born in Los Angeles may identify his or her country of origin as Mexico. Likewise, some people born in Mexico may identify another country as their origin depending on the place of birth of their ancestors.”

So when it comes to counting Hispanics, it’s still an imprecise science.


The Horror, The Horror

First off, thanks to Quickbeam and Allegra for their thoughtful comments on my last post (“Believe”). I appreciate their faith, in every sense of the word.

Now, my previous post may have given people the impression that I base everything upon logic, and disdain the supernatural or unexplainable. That’s not true, of course, because I love a good ghost story.

I just don’t love them as much as my mom does.

For proof, let me regale you with the time that my mother and I got into an argument at the video store. It was the mid- 1980s, and the selection was sparse in those pioneering days of the VCR. Still, it was probably a little odd to see me, a sullen teenager, arguing to rent “Raging Bull” while my mother insisted on getting “The Omen 3.”

You see, my mother, about whom I’ve written before, has very definite ideas about what constitutes fine cinema. By her criteria, a great film must include at least one of the following elements:

  • A car chase with the monstrous villain in hot pursuit
  • An unstoppable killer robot/android/cyborg
  • A hidden door leading to a hellish parallel dimension
  • A good-looking vampire
  • A winged demon ripping people’s souls out through their chests

These are pretty great standards, of course, and I have no issue with them. But at one point, I thought they were a little too restrictive. Could a great movie also feature subtle character development, dramatic perspectives on another era, or startling insight into the human condition?

Well, my mother would point out that such factors only slow down the movie and delay getting to the really good part where that slimy alien creature devours the lead astronaut’s head.

In a way, she’s correct.

Horror movies have been unfairly maligned as empty, moronic time-wasters – the creepy third cousin at the cinematic family reunion. Even mainstream comedies get more respect.

But films of this genre are often the cultural barometer of where we stand. In addition, they can serve as a cathartic release for our fears and pain. This may especially be true for those of us who have witnessed violence or suffered through the abrupt departure of loved ones, like my mother has.

The history of Latin America, in truth, has been one long horror movie for some time. I don’t know if Hispanics are more likely to embrace scary movies, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this were true.

For example, one of my friends, a man who is originally from my family’s home country of El Salvador, has a vast treasure trove of horror movies. His wife, born and raised in America, tolerates his fascination and puts up with the overflowing boxes of tapes and discs, all of which offer some kind of gruesome imagery.

With so much real-life horror in our backgrounds, we seem well-suited to fictional depictions of terror. Perhaps this is why my mother constantly overrode my fledgling attempts at film snobbery when I was younger.

More than once, she would arrive home from a hard day of work to announce that she had stopped at the video store on the commute. Then she would enthusiastically proclaim, “I picked up the ‘Seven Doors of Death’!”

But let me be clear. She actually has good taste, singling out classics like “Rosemary’s Baby” and contemporary masterpieces like “The Descent” for high praise. She dismisses substandard fare with a direct “That is not scary” – the ultimate insult for a horror film.

Maybe because I grew up on them, or because I’m Latino, or because movies like “The Others” are so damn cool, I still love these kinds of films. Our joint appreciation for terrifying spectacles is one of the things my mother and I have in common.

For this reason, I have never understood my friends who say they don’t know what to do for entertainment when their parents visit. When my mom drops by to see my wife and me, we can always just pop in a DVD of “The Thing.”


Cold Case

As a rule, I don’t follow news stories that contain any of the following elements:

  • Celebrity misbehavior
  • Fashion do’s and don’ts
  • Golf
  • Young, pretty white women who go missing

I have to make an exception to this last category, however, by mentioning the Chandra Levy case. There are two reasons for this.

First, I have an odd personal connection to the incident. No, I never met the woman. But I vividly remember the day that she disappeared, in early 2001.

I was living in Los Angeles, and my wife and I had dinner plans with a co-worker who I thought might become a friend. But I clearly didn’t know him well.

The guy, henceforth called Crazy Eddie, was an acquaintance of Chandra Levy. But one would have thought that they were Siamese Twins by how much he played up the closeness of their relationship. Over dinner, he talked of nothing else but her disappearance, and he did so in a freeform, rambling manner that overwhelmed my wife and me.

I soon realized that what I had thought were Crazy Eddie’s good qualities at our job (ie, unlimited energy, passion for his work, extreme attention to detail) were actually the symptoms of a cackling mania. The guy couldn’t shut up, and he hatched conspiracy theories and metaphorical meanings and personal reflections that all centered on Levy’s disappearance, then swirled around each other and overlapped until none of us could figure out his original point.

It was, understandably, the only time my wife and I socialized with Crazy Eddie, and we vowed to never again dine with a madman. The last time I spoke to him, shortly before I left LA, he tried to enlist me in his scheme to fly to Washington DC and investigate Levy’s disappearance personally. He insisted that, with my help, he could find out what happened to her. I politely declined and then fled the state.

The second reason I’m thinking of Chandra Levy these days is because police apparently cracked the case last week. The alleged murderer is… yes, Latino… in fact, he’s an immigrant… from El Salvador, my family’s homeland… fuck.

This creepy guilt-by-association feeling is what I wrote about in a previous post. We have enough cultural baggage to carry without some moronic thug fulfilling stereotypes faster than Bill O’Reilly can spew them.

It is, of course, completely selfish to dwell on what this means to me and other Hispanics. But seriously, of all the imbecilic criminals to become national news, did it have to be the Salvadoran immigrant rapist-murderer?

In any case, I’m glad that Chandra Levy’s friends and family can find some comfort that her killer has been nabbed. But I have to wonder if, somewhere in LA, my old friend Crazy Eddie is babbling in his apartment, desperate to find a new outlet for his amazing powers of insight.


Where’s My Rosary?

When my wife and I were married over a decade ago, we had the ceremony at a Methodist church. That we had it in a church at all was more about practicality than an indication of the depth of our religious feelings. A couple of hundred guests weren’t going to fit into an outdoor tent or in some other preferred secular location. So we went with my wife’s childhood religion.

This logistical decision did not go over well with some of my distant relatives. They were older and had been raised in the Catholic crucible of El Salvador, and their opinion of the ceremony was summed up by their non-attendance. I found out later that one great aunt said, “If they’re not getting married in a Catholic Church, they’re not really getting married.”

While my relatives’ reaction may have been extreme, it is not rare in Latino societies.  Hispanic culture and Catholic dogma are so intertwined that it is often difficult to separate them. If you haven’t noticed, this has become one of my favorite themes on this blog.

There are good explanations why Latinos are fanatical about the pope.

The historical reason is because the Spaniards brought their religion with them on the point of a sword when they colonized Latin America. Natives who knew what was good for them quickly abandoned their old gods and hailed Jesus. Over the course of a few generations, this forced conversion morphed into sincere belief.

The contemporary reason is that the Church serves as a bridge for immigrants to their new country, a way for them to ease into assimilation and carry some of the traditions with them. Even for first- or second-generation Hispanics, the church often serves as community foundation and social epicenter in a way that is rarely seen anywhere else in this country (with the possible exception of Baptists in the Deep South).

But there are problems with the Catholic Church’s hold on Latino society. For starters, any culture that emphasizes religion so much is bound to be less interested in more secular matters – such as the importance of education or the value of political clout or the practicality of having many children.

In addition, Hispanic Catholicism has a strangely fatalistic viewpoint, seen in the mindset of many Latinos who think that being poor is their destiny and that they’ll be rewarded in the afterlife. Believing that God will take care of everything is one of the chief reasons that Latin American countries, and immigrants from those countries, have such a high tolerance for being pushed around.

There is also the weird disconnect between real-world behavior and Church priorities. In Hispanic culture, the mere act of stepping into the Church is often sufficient to prove one’s moral standing. Growing up, I knew gang members (or at least wannabes) who were praised as “good boys” solely because of their attendance at Church. Their presence, of course, was mandated by their parents, who cared little about what their kids did at other times of the week, as long as they were in the pews on Sunday.

Of course, there is one more negative consequence of Catholicism’s hold on Latino culture. Apparently, every painting by a Hispanic artist must have, at minimum, three images of La Virgen de la Guadalupe (seriously, is this a law or something?).


Despite these issues, however, Hispanic Catholics are not on the same theological plane as heavy hitters such as Christian fundamentalists or Hasidim Jews or Islamic theocrats. Latino Catholics are, for the most part, able to acknowledge the outside world and at least tolerate others.

As for those relatives who boycotted my wedding, they have gone about their Church-centric lives. They still attend Mass so frequently (i.e., at least once a day) that they have earned the Spanish appellation of “las cucarachas de la iglesia.” This is a poetic way of saying that even cockroaches don’t live in the church pews as much as they do.

I presume that the originator of the phrase was Catholic. Also, he apparently didn’t attend a very clean church.


Aunt #2

I know little about my other aunt, except that she died in a hail of gunfire. I never met her, and I’ve only seen two or three pictures of the woman in my life. She was killed with her husband in 1981, when the civil war ravaging El Salvador was in full, game-on effect.

Aunt #2 was not targeted for death, as opposed to her brother (Uncle #1), and had tried her best to stay out the homicidal mess that had engulfed that country. But logic tells us that a war that killed tens of thousands of people could not have been confined to soldiers and guerrillas. My aunt was among those civilians who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The details of her murder are sparse, vague, even contradictory. News that comes out of El Salvador is often like this.

But the story I heard was that Aunt #2 and her husband were driving down the road near their village. The couple’s destination or errand remains unknown. They came upon a government roadblock that had simply not been there the day before. Whether they failed to slow down quickly enough, tried to run it for some unfathomable reason, or just made inappropriate eye contact has never been determined.

The soldiers opened fire, and the truck skidded off the road. The couple, shot multiple times, died in each other’s arms. When my family claimed the bodies, the soldiers admitted that they had made a mistake, and they offered a curt “lo siento” for gunning them down.

The murder left their only child, Cousin #7, a two-year-old orphan. He soon came to America, where my mother adopted him. In an ironic twist, he now lives in El Salvador (more on this in a future post).

And that’s basically all I know about Aunt #2. To be sure, I’ve heard bits and pieces about her over the years. I’ve heard that she was a bit of a wild child and a gifted fabulist. I also heard that she loved fire ants (of all things) and could sew well. But I could be wrong about all of these things.

My grandmother rarely speaks about either of her murdered children. They are not even ghosts to her. They are reference points to a long-ago life – one that has a tenuous connection to the old woman living in the cold American Midwest today. In my presence, my abuela has acknowledged her dead son and daughter only when pressed, and she refuses to clarify or elaborate or instigate any discussion of them.

Similarly, my mother can offer only scattered information. When Aunt #2 died, my mother had not seen her in years – such are the gaps incurred within immigrant families. So she can offer only scant insight into her little sister’s life.

As such, my conjectures about her personality or the strength of her character would be misplaced. And after my experience writing about Uncle #1, I’ve learned that even well-honed family stories can buckle and alter over the years. The facts get smudged when the principles are gone, and honest attempts to portray people accurately (which is what I’ve attempted) sometimes lead to mistakes or disputes.

In truth, for most of us, it is only a matter of time before we exist only as a mysterious name and some fleeting snapshots, long-distant ancestors reduced to a jumble of letters in a box on the family tree.

So I stand no chance at capturing the vitality of Aunt #2, about whom, as I’ve said, I know little. Instead, I will offer this most basic of eulogies: rest in peace.

May 2019
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