The lobby of the museum of the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador, El Salvador, did not look very different from any historical site I had visited through my years of class field trips and family outings. My group, which consisted of students in the religious studies class Issues in Liberation Theology and members of the Stanford Catholic Community, was clustered together in a large, cheerful room with an arched ceiling and palm trees peeking through open windows. Introductory screens were arranged artistically in the center of the lobby so as to create a sort of labyrinth, forcing visitors to educate themselves before they can reach the gift shop in the corner selling stickers, pens and rosaries.
Beyond the gift shop, however, was an ugly history that quietly reverberated in the walls of the building. The introductory screens themselves were pasted with sheets of paper commemorating Salvadorans who were killed in the conflict between government and guerilla forces that ravaged the country in the ’80s. The true gravity of the situation revealed itself more fully in the next room.
A central glass case displayed the clothes that had covered the six Jesuit priests who were killed at the UCA in 1989. Proponents of the philosophy of liberation theology, a new arm of the Jesuit church that sought to liberate the impoverished and minority indigenous peoples from the repression of the government and the violence of its military “death squads,” these six priests were seen as a threat to the government and were eliminated on the morning of Nov. 16, 1989. The blue polo of Ignacio Baró was ripped with bullet holes, as was the brown, tattered robe of Ignacio Ellacuría.
In a separate case, a dictionary was splayed open to the f-section, severed cleanly by a line of machine gun fire. The glass frame of a painting of Oscar Romero, another Jesuit priest who was assassinated nine years earlier, had been shattered by a flamethrower, but the painting itself remained intact, a fact considered a miracle by some.
Leaving the museum, we lingered in the UCA chapel for talks by our leaders. The tenet of liberation theology advocating for social justice through religion was apparent in the chapel itself. The stations of the cross, a prominent part of Catholic churches, graced the back wall. Each station depicted a brutality suffered by Salvadoran civilians at the hands of the government–a reflection of the Salvadoran reality that continues to affect the country to this day.