A Walk With the Martyrs: Ordinary Lives

An alumna reflects on her experience studying abroad in El Salvador in 2011 through Santa Clara’s Casa de la Solidaridad program.

Sarah Neitz (center) on the patio of Casa Romero, the house where she lived in El Salvador, when the Scranton delegation came to visit in January 2011.
Sarah Neitz (center) on the patio of Casa Romero, the house where she lived in El Salvador, when the Scranton delegation came to visit in January 2011.

by Sara Neitz '12, who majored in international studies, Hispanic studies and philosophy.> She studied abroad in El Salvador in 2011 through Santa Clara’s Casa de la Solidaridad program. After graduation, she spent two years serving in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Detroit, Michigan. She is currently applying to doctorate programs in political science and peace studies.

In 1989, two women and six men were killed in a small country in Central America. There was nothing unusual about the killing of innocents in El Salvador. More than 77,000 civilians were killed during the 12-year civil war. People who spoke up for justice in this small country had been dying for decades, killed by death squads and the military, their stories whispered in secret, because even remembering was a crime.

However, something changed after the shocking murders of Elba, Celina, Ignacio, Segundo, Nacho, Juan Ramón, Joaquín, and Amando. The world could no longer ignore what was happening in this small country called El Salvador. The men who had died were Jesuits, intellectuals and pastors who had demanded justice and peace. The women had accompanied them in life and death, doing the oft-forgotten works of household and care that make peace and justice possible. Most mark their deaths as the beginning of the end of a horrific civil war. 

In spring of 2011, I studied in El Salvador with Casa de la Solidaridad, a program through Santa Clara University. Casa is grounded in four pillars of accompaniment, academic study, community living and spirituality. For four months, I lived in community with Salvadoran and American students, took classes at the Universidad Centroamericana, and spent two days each week with a community affected by gang violence outside San Salvador. I met Salvadorans who had known the Jesuits, and heard the stories of their lives and deaths from people who had loved and respected them. 

On Mondays and Wednesdays, I accompanied three families in Mariona, an urban community about six miles north of San Salvador. Mariona is outside the largest jail in San Salvador, La Esperanza, so it’s a dangerous neighborhood; many gang members and their families live outside the jail. We Americans were not able to walk freely around the neighborhood because of the attention we attracted. The families in Mariona taught us the ordinary creativity that can create spaces of justice. We visited with artisans throughout El Salvador, participated in meditation and massage therapy, and learned traditional crafts and cooking.

One morning, we gathered in the small meditation room above Oti’s home. With tears in her eyes, Oti, a mother in Mariona, lit a candle and shared the story of Alfonso Acevedo, a catechist in her parish during the war. Like the UCA martyrs, Alfonso had died by death squad. He had connected his faith and his power as a community leader with the struggle of the marginalized, the struggles of Mariona. That weekend, I went to Alfonso’s church, saw where he was buried. “He was a friend,” Oti whispered. As the families told us stories of the UCA martyrs and other Salvadoran martyrs, I began to realize that the Jesuits were part of a history of martyrs, women and men who still were missed and honored for their witness. Like me, most of the Jesuits were educated non-Salvadorans who chose to throw in their lot with a people they’d come to love. By telling us their stories, Oti welcomed us into their history of love. 

Every November, I commemorate the deaths of the Salvadoran martyrs. I think it is important to tell their story. As a graduate of a Jesuit university, it is a part of my story. Ignacio Ellacuría, the rector of the Salvadoran Jesuit community, believed Jesuit universities have a unique mission to devote the resources of the university to the service of the poor and marginalized. In a commencement address at Santa Clara University, he declared that we must “analyze causes, use imagination and creativity together to discover remedies, communicate to our public a consciousness that inspires freedom of self-determination, educate professionals with a conscience who will be the immediate instruments of transformation.” He and the others died witnessing to this vision. 

This November, I remembered the Jesuits and women who died believing that alumni of Jesuit universities would be instruments of transformation in the world. They remind me that becoming women and men for others is a mission worth dying for, a mission worth living for. Like the martyrs of El Salvador, we may live ordinary lives and die common deaths. But because of the martyrs, we know that living ordinary lives in the service of others can change the world. On the 25th anniversary of their death, I commit myself to their memories, to sharing their story, to living their vision.

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