New Internationalist

Walking in the footsteps of Archbishop Romero

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David Rodriguez was a catholic priest. In the early eighties he took up arms and led guerrilla fighters during El Salvador’s 12-year civil war. Today he is a member of parliament. This is his story.

Photo: James Dryburgh
David Rodriguez Photo: James Dryburgh


It’s dark now, as I begin chatting to David outside his home in Los Marranitos, a rural village in the Department of La Paz, El Salvador. The weekly community meeting held outside David’s house, which involves community-elected leaders from 14 villages in the area, has just finished. He has had a long day, but then he generally does. Parkinson’s Disease shakes his body as he sits down.

We have a couple of hours before David gets into a battered old Nissan and heads to San Salvador for tomorrow’s parliament. Our discussions are sporadically punctuated by mangos falling from the ancient tree which during the day provides welcome shade. The house is modest. It is adorned by a portrait of David with the FMLN flag and a large poster of El Salvador’s best known face, that of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

In March this year President Obama became the first US president to visit Romero’s tomb, which lies below the cathedral in San Salvador. David believes Romero was a prophet, and that in him, Jesus Christ crossed El Salvador. In the late seventies, whilst he was Archbishop of San Salvador, Romero stood against the brutal, US-backed repression of El Salvador’s poor majority. In 1980, after the order from senior government officials, he was assassinated by a death squad whilst giving Mass. The day before his death, he had these words for his country’s government and armed forces:

‘In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise up to Heaven more urgently with each day that passes, I beseech you, I beg you, I order you to stop the repression.’

His death marked the transition from social unrest and repression to the civil war that would last for the next 12 years and claim around 80,000 lives. Romero’s death and the massacre of mourners at his funeral had a profound effect on David, who was a priest at the time. ‘Romero was four things,’ David explains. ‘A Christian, a humanist, a Salvadoran, and a revolutionary.’ The same could be said of David Rodriguez.

The priest

David grew up in the village of Caldera, in El Salvador’s volcanic zone. His parents owned a sugar cane plantation and a mill for processing the sugar. He recalls a happy atmosphere where the workers were treated as part of the family and everyone ate their meals together. David’s father was very religious and a respected community leader. There was only a primary school in the village, so David’s father arranged for David to live in the church in town, to attend high school in the morning and church teachings in the afternoon.

David later went to Madrid to study an extremely conservative teaching of canonical law. ‘I was of the right, formed of the old school. I was one of the last of the Council of Trent.’ David tells me. ‘We used to give mass in Latin with our backs to the people.’ David became a priest and was soon posted to Tecoluca Church, in San Vicente, a region of coffee and cotton plantations. This immersion in the rural realities of his country began to trouble him. He saw first-hand the ‘hunger wages’ and the abuse of peasant workers. He saw communities denied access to their rivers and land, and, when the élite offered money to his church in return for turning a blind eye, he saw how power buys silence.

This immersion in the rural realities of his country began to trouble him. He saw first-hand the ‘hunger wages’ and the abuse of peasant workers

‘I began seeing the problems without connecting the causes,’ David confesses. ‘But then I saw the aerial fumigation of the cotton fields. It killed the fish in the rivers, the domestic animals, polluted the wells and made people very sick. This was the reality.’ For David, it was this experience that created ‘an internal crisis’ between his religious conservative teaching and the realities flooding his eyes and ears.

In 1969, with this conflict in his mind, David went to a seminar with priests from all over Latin America to analyse the Vatican and discuss the theology of liberation. Suddenly he realized his crisis was the crisis of many. The priests discussed the causes and ‘began to discover reality’.

Photo: James Dryburgh
March on the 30th anniversary of Oscar Romero's death. Photo: James Dryburgh

A movement began with priests meeting each month for discussions and beginning to do ‘real community work’. Traditional Mass continued, but for those who wanted to stay behind afterwards, there was a deeper analysis of the teachings of the church, known as ‘Bible Circles’.

Some priests, including David, began to denounce injustice, but soon the horror intensified. A massacre of peasants took place near Tecoluca. As David tells me that priests had to become revolutionaries, I wonder how this could be reconciled with the teachings of the Church. As if reading my thoughts, David explains, ‘I began to have a new vision of the Bible. The Bible has a lot of revolutionary chapters. I began to think that the more Christian you are, the more revolutionary you are, and vice versa.’ A few years after this realization, Romero was killed and David joined the guerrillas. ‘We priests were like sheep without a shepherd,’ he reflects.

The revolutionary

A very emotional meeting of the country’s priests took place after Romero’s funeral and caused them to split into three groups. One group, which included David’s brother, decided to leave the country. The second group decided to stay in El Salvador, but to ignore reality and simply teach from the Bible as they always had, and the third group decided to stay and support the struggle of the guerrillas.

‘I began to have a new vision of the Bible. The Bible has a lot of revolutionary chapters. I began to think that the more Christian you are, the more revolutionary you are, and vice versa’

Initially, David was providing Mass for guerrillas, marrying people and helping to hide them, but as the war grew, passivity was no longer an option. In 1981, David was named boss of a militia that had the task of trying to take a strategic barracks near the national treasury buildings in the capital, San Salvador. This was the first of many major roles for David during the 12-year war.

After the peace accords of 1992, David felt lost coming down from the mountain camps. He had no family left in the country and had lost many friends. He went to see the new archbishop, hoping to rejoin the church. He was told that if he left the country for three years, did not speak of events in El Salvador and gave a public apology and statement of regret for what he had done, he could become an unofficial helper at a church, but never again a priest. ‘But what I did, I did with consciousness and thought, and I do not regret it,’ declares David.

The politician

As part of the peace process people were offered land and grants. With the support of his friend Jose Luis, who is still his neighbour in Los Marranitos, David took a small grant to rear cows. In 1997, David ran as a parliamentary candidate for the FMLN in the La Paz region. He was elected and still holds this post today.

The Archbishop saw David entering politics as dangerous for the Church and sent an excommunication request to Rome. The request complained that David, ‘adapted the Bible to fit reality’.

Though David is technically forbidden to enter a church or celebrate Mass, he would like the Catholic Church to recognize his marriage and let him use his vocation for communicating with people again. He believes the Church has double standards, and remarks, ‘the old apostles were married and free to express themselves’.

His religious beliefs inform his political views: he argues that Christian principles are socialist in nature. ‘Sometimes the concept we have is of the Soviet Union, but these are models, and I disagree with these models. The State should not own and control everything, people have to own things.’

‘Our country is like a sick body; when it has worms in the stomach, the food is not getting to all parts of the body’

David compares humanity to the human body. If a body is healthy it distributes food to every part: even the toe nails get some nutrients, not just the heart and brain. ‘Our country is like a sick body; when it has worms in the stomach, the food is not getting to all parts of the body.’ He calls this ‘radical capitalism’ and claims that a country has to produce laws to control the distribution of wealth.

David explains his four political priorities for a healthy body. ‘We need to make State institutions work for poor people, combat corruption by organizing people to tackle it together, make complying with our constitution part of our culture and, finally, reactivate our agriculture.’

David is acutely aware of the problems facing his country, and of their complexity. Unlike many politicians, he does not lead a life sheltered from everyday people and everyday struggle.

It’s now 9.30pm and we’ve survived the falling mangos. David hugs me before getting into his car and starting the long drive back to San Salvador. He’ll drive through his beloved country that so often looks as though the war ended only yesterday.

‘If I am killed, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people,’ said Romero, just days before he was murdered. Like Romero, David has devoted and risked his life to help El Salvador’s poor, defending the message of equality and hope. The journey has lost David his pulpit, but not his passion.

James Dryburgh is a Scottish-born Tasmanian writer passionate about truth and helping the world’s muffled voices to be heard. He has lived in Scotland, Spain and Latin America and is Associate Editor of tasmaniantimes.com

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