Posts Tagged ‘first generation


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.


A Sort of Hajj

As I’ve mentioned before, my family emigrated from El Salvador. But I have never set foot in that country.

The nearest I have come to this familial motherland was when I was fourteen, and my mother took me to Nicaragua. As part of the trip, we climbed to the edge of a volcano (yes, my mom took me cool places when I was a child). On the climb down, my mother pulled me aside and pointed to some verdant mountains in the distance.

“That is El Salvador,” she said.

This glimpse is the extent of my first-hand experience with my family’s birthplace.

A natural question is, why did my mother and I stop at Nicaragua? Why didn’t we keep going into El Salvador?

The answer is simple: We didn’t want to die.

At the time, (circa 1985), my mother was on a Salvadoran government hit list. If she exited a plane there, she would be shot. Anyone who thinks I’m exaggerating doesn’t realize how ruthless and bloodthirsty the junta running El Salvador was at that time. My mother was a rabble-rouser in the United States, and she spoke out against the Salvadoran government (see my previous post on this). This got her noticed in her homeland. They certainly weren’t going to send some international assassination squad after her in the Midwest (it’s not a Bruckheimer movie for damn sakes), but my mother found out through her friends in El Salvador that she was on the small list of Americans who would be quickly picked up if she ever returned. Two of her siblings had already been murdered (see my previous post on this as well), so this was no joke.

For this excellent logistical reason, we were not going to El Salvador any time soon. The war has since ended, of course, and my mother has returned a few times. But I haven’t yet made the trip.

Time, money, and the myriad responsibilities of adulthood have prevented me from packing a suitcase and yelling, “Next stop, the tiny village of San Vicente.”  In fact, although I’ve lived in several cities and seen more of America than most people have, my international jaunts are limited. Besides that journey to Nicaragua, I’ve been to Mexico (which will be the subject of a future post) and traveled about nine feet into Canada once. I finally made it to Europe a few years ago, where my wife and I hit London and Paris. And that’s it.

But with all the dream destinations in the world that I have yet to conquer – drinking wine in Italy, diving off the coast of Australia, trekking to the North Pole – why am I hung up on visiting a tiny country best known for warfare and which my family abandoned a generation ago?  

After all, few people go to El Salvador unless they have family there. I suppose there are those mega-travelers who hit every nation no matter how small or impoverished. But aside from that, people generally don’t get any closer to the place than the rainforests of Costa Rica or the beaches of Belize.

However, for those of us who are first-generation, there is always the pull of a land that we have never seen, the place where our parents come from. Their memories and stories have not been decayed by time, and we feel irrational nostalgia for a place barely removed from us. We ponder how we would have turned out if we were born and raised there (I have since found out that this is metaphysically impossible… but that’s another post or maybe even a different blog altogether).

This yearning for a lost homeland is not shared by most Americans. For example, my wife is descended from German immigrants who came over so long ago that she has no idea when they arrived or what their names were. Her desire to visit Berlin is roughly equal to her interest in roadtripping to Delaware. In contrast, one of my best friends is first-generation Serbian, and his life was incomplete until he walked through Sarajevo.

Similarly, I want to see the place where my mother and aunt grew up, and the nation where several of my cousins were born, and the focal point of so much joy and misery in the history of my family.

And of course, I have more incentive to see El Salvador ever since Cousin #8 moved back there (this will be the subject of a future post).

So I hope to someday go beyond the fleeting image of that landscape I viewed from a distant vantage point when I was a teenager. For all I know, it might be decades from now, when I’m an old man doing some kind of crazy circle-of-life final journey. But I will stand on top of that lush mountain that I saw long ago and say, “Damn, I finally made it.”

August 2019
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