The Making of a Desperate Dream

La Comunidad Oscar Arnulfo Romero, or COAR, was founded twenty seven years ago, back in 1980, the dream of one humble and ambitious man from small-town Ohio made real. Father Ken Myers had been a diocesan priest serving in the Diocese of Cleveland at the time the second Vatican Council was beginning to redefine the scope of the Roman Catholic church’s social teachings and the bishops of Latin America were quickly following suit, popularizing such phrases as "preferential option for the poor," "signs of the times," and Gutierrez’s "critical reflection on praxis," the basis of the developing theology of liberation that stemmed from this particular context. Up north, the United States bishops held another conference for themselves, unveiling the maps of the world, shading in the so-called "third world" patches with varieties of colors, each certain hue reflecting a sister diocese back in the States which would sponsor it. In this sweep for solidarity, the Roman Catholic diocese of the greater Cleveland area was matched with a sister diocese of its own, a consortium of financially needy, material resource destitute parishes dotting the departimiento of La Libertad, El Salvador, a mix of mostly unstaffed canton parishes, much on the outskirts of any of the central cuidades.

Father Ken Myers had been sent during the later 1970’s on a tour of La Libertad, the Salvadoran diocese that was to be paired with the American diocese of Cleveland, Ohio in a sister parish project of sorts resulting from the changes Vatican II and the US Catholic Bishops’ attempts to make the Church in the US—and its parishioners—more in tune with the Church of all the Americas and the realities and struggles of its parishioners there.

It was on such a mission relations trip that Father Ken Myers first flew into La Compala National Airport, drove along the coast to La Puerta, up la Carratera, and eventually came upon Zaragoza, the dusty pueblo sitting on the kilometer 16 mark, halfway between the capitol of San Salvador and the port of La Libertad.

La Carretera a la Puerta is the long, lone stretch of highway that shoots out from the capitol and winds along, crisscrossing the earthquake made mounds, until reaching La Puerta itself, the port-side city on the coast that, of course, has seen better days. In the days before the new road to the Comalapa International Airport was constructed to allow the taxistas to more direct route via which to rapidly shuttle foreign tourists into la Zona Rosa and the greater San Salvador metro area, all traffic going anywhere south was faced with the sole option of la Carretera a la Puerta. And so, it was this single-lane highway road quickly became overwhelmed with the campesino refugees fleeing the impending war.

Kilometer 16 marks the halfway point on la Carretera a la Puerta, effectively the mid-way marker on the long enough route from the capitol to the coast. The small, rural frontier-like town of Zaragoza sits off a dirt-side road, very close to the 16k mark, and as a result, for the many passing by, the town is a good place, if not the only place, to pause for a moment. The concha for playing fútbol marks the center of town, around which small, quiet stores, stocking nearly all the same simple conveniences—drinking water, sugar, beans, rice, the staples really. There are a collection of pupuserías, outside which the characteristic tired, but not hopeless yet woman will shout to passerbyers to "compre uno" as she slaps the floured tortilla between her palms above the hot grill, the tradition of place and time and role.

The other attraction in town, across from the futbol field, is the adobe church, sacred shrine and memorial to Nuestra Senora de Pilar, the Virgin Mary, where every Sunday crowds overflow into the street singing praise and offering prayers to God. A large church for a small town, the parish attracts people from all the nearby pueblos and distant cantons who reverently pour in on Sunday mornings. Nuestra Senora de Pilar is where Father Ken also found himself in the late ‘70’s while visiting La Libertad, and among the regulars and refugees, where he celebrated mass, and then mass after mass after mass.

Early on, in the course of his supposedly once to be his short stint in Salvador, the now Padre Ken found a deeper calling than his initial trip itinerary had perhaps suggested. Working in the Zaragoza parish of Nuestra Senora del Pilar, he soon was met with a growing concern: how to handle the constant flow of refugees steaming down from the northern departemiento of Chalatenango. Daily, the human tide of desperate mothers and shell-shocked children poured down into the southwestern state of La Libertad, the barely-still-alive human figures fleeing the focal point of the utter destruction and reign of terror in the north. The right-wing military regime was flexing its muscles once again. As various leftist rebel juntas were attempting, then quickly failing to seize control of the San Salvador capitol, and as they hoped too, of the government there, the militant troops of President Duarte were proving merciless in their raids of what both sides knew was guerrilla territory. So as the fiery objects fell from the skies, the poor and distraught campesinos that remained, namely those too young to wrap their hands around the confiscated m-16’s and those too old and tired to trek through the unforgiving mountain terrain near the Honduran border and those young women pregnant with what they wanted to believe would be new life, all of those otherwise left behind began the journey south towards the Pacific.

He began working with Ursuline nun Dorothy Kazel and lay Maryknoll missionary Jean Donovan, two fellow Americans also in the area to help out in the name of solidarity while braving the clearly oncoming civil war. Jean and Dorothy would drive their blue pickup north to guerrilla territory where the leftist revolutionary FLMN had a stronghold in the hills of Chalatenango close to the border of Honduras. The two women would literally bring truckloads full of abandoned children and the occasional distraught mother or older woman, the latest of the refugees, back to semblances of safety in the southern refuge of La Libertad. Zaragoza, being on the road, provided a welcome stop, and in time, Padre Ken found himself, out of desperate necessity, housing these newly orphaned children in his parish church, Nuestra Senora del Pilar. And so, 28 wide-eyed, empty-bellied children with no where else to go, all of their known family having been killed back in Chalate, the result of the right-wing military regime bombings there, became the first orphan internos of Padre Ken’s hogar.

When Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was murdered by the same right-wing forces in La Hospitilia Divina Provincia on March 18 of the same year, while saying a quiet mass in the supposedly serene and very beautiful suburbs of El Salvador for the nuns of a hospital serving children terminally ill with cancer, a great many across the nation were stricken with grief as their fear of the impending wartime doom deepened. Times were getting worse very quickly, yet the year was 1980, and so El Salvador was only at the beginning of what would be a very much longer experience of civil unrest. The war was not quite unexpected, however. Since before la mataza of 1932 and the obliteration of nearly all of the indigenous populations in the region, the country had felt the burdens of the land crises, the growing civil unrest, the ever-expanding percentage of the population living in truly dire poverty, and the resulting political chaos, underscored no doubt by the acknowledged and frequent attempts by foreign powers at intervention in the country’s fate.

Commemorating the beloved hero of the Salvadoran pueblo, Padre Ken celebrated the official founding of his hogar, naming it la Comunidad Oscar Arnulfo Romero in memory of the late martyr and champion of his people. Padre Ken’s decision to use Romero’s name was a risky one in wartime El Salvador, a loud sign of allegiance in a very polar place. Five months after Romero’s death, his birthday was celebrated once again and on August 15, 1980, COAR was officially realized. The 28 orphans who had captured Padre Ken’s heart the year before were joined by the many more orphans that piled into the Zaragoza adobe parish, nearly a truckload a week.

Tragically, in December of 1980, Jean and Dorothy were killed alongside two other American nuns, Maryknoll sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford. Not even the news of blue-eyed, blond haired American girls, brutally murdered and raped by the Salvadoran military, as was later demonstrated quite clearly, could capture the world’s attention or conscience long enough to change the course of the war. Not even long enough, it seemed, to halt it. And so, the stream of children, victims of the unimaginable war continued to find their way to Padre Ken’s church.

By 1982, Padre Ken was dealing with over some three hundred of these young orphans of the war. An acquaintance donated 80 acres of nearby hilly farm land, just past Zaragoza city limits, and so Padre Ken moved the orphans and COAR out of the Pilar rectory and tiny catechism classrooms, where they had been sleeping in triple bunks, stacked not two but three high, as many beds to a room that could possibly fit. In 1983, Padre Ken enlisted the help of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, a congregation from Galveston, Texas, which had itself started its mission catering to orphans in Texas at the turn of the century. In that first decade, the nuns and Padre Ken built houses with small kitchens, in each of which a housemother or orientadora would live, raising a "family" of twelve to fifteen children in each small casa. In time a school was built, as well as a clinic, a bakery, a small farm, a sewing shop, a carpentry shop, an impressive church, and, of course, for the nuns, a convent on the top of the hill, overlooking it all.

COAR continued to thrive in a certain sense, underscored perhaps by the unforgettable and sobering truth that the place existed for the sad fact of the war. Hundreds upon hundreds of children came to COAR in the wartime years, receiving food, shelter, and schooling. COAR today serves some 119 children deemed social orphans, who are unable to grow up at home with their families for a range of reasons. Nearly all of these reasons can perhaps be traced back to the never-so-distant war, no doubt the lingering results and the troubling aftermath of twelve years of destruction.

Today, El Salvador is a nation of many more discrete, yet unimaginably invasive wars. While the Peace Accords were officially signed in 1992 and soon after recognized by the world, there is very little that has changed for the majority of Salvadorans who call the geographically most small, yet most heavily populated tiny Central American republic, their home. The population of El Salvador today is just over 9 million people, although some 3 million Salvadorans have fled, mostly illegally north through Santa Ana, up through Guatemala, and Mexico, and eventually into their final destination in the United States. So many of these Salvadoran refugees contribute their exodus from their homeland to the dire and depressing situations within the Salvadoran nation.

The World Bank reports a national poverty rate of 40%, a level which the United Nation defines as those persons living on less than dollar a day. While many sources acknowledge the high unemployment rate, no highly credited multinational organization such as the World Bank, the International Development Fund, etc. takes into account in their statistics the vast number of workers who are "employed" merely as street vendors, selling their trinkets for a few centavos, standing all day in between lanes of heavy traffic and thick exhaust. Similarly, little regard is paid to the openly understood presence of horrid conditions in the many factories, where maquilla workers are constantly threatened with inhumane lines and hours of work. Illiteracy is a problem, especially in rural areas where schools are far and few between. Fewer than 15,000 Salvadorans will make it through high school to graduation each year, and the dramatic rift caused by lack of education is clearly seen in the tough economic situation.

The school dropout rate in urban areas is compounded by the presence of gangs, especially notorious ones such as the 18th street mara, an offshoot of the Los Angeles cult. Many critics attribute the rise in gangs to the deportation crisis complicated by the supposed end of the civil war. The polarized politics come at a price. El Salvador consistently ranks first or second among the 267 nations in the world as the country with the highest homicide rate for a nation not at war, a ranking that has been repeated year after year.

The growing pandemic of problems leads to the new sort of child seen in a place like COAR, the "social orphan." Because the parents still have rights and control over the children, the situation in COAR is now an even more complicated one. The politics of the orphanage and the tension between the various branches in the States that fund it, and therefore dictate their desires at times (un)proportionately, create a high turnover rate among both the children internos and the staff and caregivers, the orientadoras.