1983-84: The Assassination of Oscar Romero

Assassination of Oscar Romero

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In the early 1980’s we lived in Silverlake when it was largely a Central American working-class neighborhood, uneasily abutting the longtime Cubano immigrants there. Many friends and artist colleagues fell into this latter camp. I was working downtown at the time, and, for whatever reason, it befell me to have chance encounters (if such things exist) with political refugees on the street: the Guatemalan woman who served the burritos I ate a stand downtown, told me the story of her father’s murder by the rebels (She knew it was the rebels because they had left his corpse intact, something the military never did); a Salvadoran homeless man, while asking for spare change in the alley near our apartment, showed me his scarred back and the holes punched through his wrist from military torture.

It was in this heady context, among the meetings and marches we attended, that one otherwise simple weekday morning, in 1983, as I was ironing my shirt to go to work, I heard on the news that Lech Walesa, the Polish union activist, was being held in his home by the military. At that moment I had a vision of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the human rights leader in El Salvador, in the moment when he had been murdered, three years before, while conducting mass.

The vision stayed with me all day, and that evening after work I began drawing a piece about him based on my vision. Because of my job, and having neither time, space, nor paper large enough to work it all out, it took me nearly a year, at night after work, to complete the seven feet wide by 30” high drawing spread across two sheets). There are a number of art references in the piece: The Latino angels calling out in agony around Romero are based on angels in Giotto’s fresco of Christ’s crucifixion; the smoke drifting up from the candle snuffed by the assassin’s shot twists into Grunewald’s painful crucified Christ; the Psalm in the open Bible on the altar is actually a poem, called Psalmo 47, by Nicaraguan poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal; and so on.

I self-financed a 3000-print run of posters of the piece, as a fundraiser for “the Cause”; and, as my poster made its way out into the world, I began receiving mail from folks throughout the Americas who had been gifted the posters, or who saw them in human rights offices somewhere in Latin America.

However, there was more in my drawing than I realized: I had given the monster ordering the killing a tie striped in the colors of the American flag, not knowing that these were also the colors of the right-wing Arena party in El Salvador; and I dressed my assassin in a safari shirt, unaware that this was what the Salvadoran military wore out of uniform. And, as the oppression and brutality of the death squads rose, I learned that simply possessing my poster could get a Salvadoran tortured or killed.

In Fall 2006 I received a visit at our apartment from the then-current Salvadoran archbishop’s envoy, requesting permission to make amendments to those details and to authorize a new 5000-print run of my poster. Of course, deeply honored, I readily agreed. The new posters were then smuggled into El Salvador in the luggage of human rights observers and friendly US congressmen.

Then, on March 20, 2007 – the anniversary of Father Romero’s assassination – hundreds of Salvadorans marched through the capital holding aloft my poster; and a version, I learned, was even painted on the cafeteria wall of the San Miguel prison, where political refugees were held.

We installed my original drawing of Romero at La Placita Church, facing Olvera Street, when then-Father Luis Olivares declared the church site a Sanctuary for Central American refugees; my piece was set up as a kind of altar, where I would see elderly women pray among floral offerings. After Father Olivares retirement, my piece eventually made it way to Dolores Mission, in Boyle Heights, where it hangs to this day.

I still hear from strangers about the image and its impact on them. The adult daughter of Salvadoran refugees once told me that my poster hung in her childhood bedroom and inspired her to become a legal aid lawyer. The FMLN, which had been the principal leader of the armed struggle for liberation in El Salvador in the 80s and, after peace accords, became the leading leftist political party, gave me an award for my contributions to justice in El Salvador. And a couple of years ago, while visiting a Jesuit friend back home in la Sierra, I was introduced to Fr. Héctor Fernando Martinez, who directed the national chapter of SICSAL, a human rights solidarity organization inspired by Father Romero (He holds the poster).

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