The murder of six Jesuits and two women forced the couple who witnessed the crime to flee El Salvador. And the tragedy bound Santa Clara to the battered country more deeply than ever.
The proclamation by a Salvadoran cleaning woman that soldiers—not guerrillas—carried out the shooting that resulted in the deaths of six priests and two women at the University of Central America (UCA) had staggering implications, both personal and global. From the bloodied lawn on the UCA campus to the U.S. Congress, and from Salvadoran military headquarters to every Jesuit community around the world, the meaning was clear. The killers had been trained and funded by the United States. The personal cost could be calculated only over time. As Lucía and Jorge Cerna were the only witnesses willing to testify about the night of Nov. 16, 1989, they themselves became targets.
When Lucía showed a woman representative of the diocese and a Jesuit brother where she had been when the murders took place, they knew she was in danger. They took the Cernas to the Spanish Embassy, where they gave sworn testimony. The Salvadoran judge who took that testimony could barely contain his exasperation that they had the temerity to report what they had seen. Jesuits who sat listening and Spanish Embassy officials hosting the impromptu hearing were convinced the lives of the family were in serious jeopardy. The priests explained to the couple that they had to flee the country or risk being killed. “To where?” Lucía wanted to know.
She expected that when the truth came out, she and her family could return home.
The Jesuits offered the couple a choice: Did they wish to go to Spain, France, or the United States? Lucía opted for Miami, because Fr. Ellacuría had told her that it was not far from El Salvador and that there were many Spanish-speaking people there. She mistakenly believed that all parties—Salvadorans, Americans, Jesuits, and Spaniards—wished to solve the crime. She expected that when the truth came out, she and her family could return home.
The family was planning to stay that night in the Spanish Embassy. But after hearing their testimony, the Spanish ambassador decided he could not ensure the family’s safety. He dispatched them, with barely enough time to beat the nightly 6 p.m. curfew, in a speeding car careening through the streets of San Salvador to the more heavily fortified French Embassy.
Meanwhile, American officials accused the Jesuits of trying to sneak the couple out of the country; the officials took steps to control the witnesses. When French security forces escorted the Cerna family to the airport the next morning, the commercial airliner on which they were scheduled had unaccountably taken off without them. The French consul arranged for an alternate flight, a military plane coming from Belize, to take the family to Miami. The Americans insisted that one of their embassy officials be allowed on the French plane “to help with immigration in the U.S.”
As the Cernas waited for the alternate flight with Fermín Sainz, S.J., the priest became increasingly disturbed by a growing presence of Salvadoran soldiers. Suddenly he shouted, alerting the French soldiers that, as Jorge stood looking at a television, a number of Salvadoran soldiers had closed in around him. The French drew guns on the Salvadorans and corralled Jorge back to safety. For the remaining hours, Fr. Sainz huddled with Lucía and her daughter, rosary in hand, praying constantly and trying to issue assurances to Lucía.
Upon their arrival in Miami, the tumultuous nightmare they found themselves in only grew worse. The U.S. Department of State and the FBI took custody of the family and detained them in a hotel, removing the telephone, television, and any contact with the outside world. They were not allowed counsel by Jesuits or by attorney. They were not allowed to telephone family members. They subsisted on American fast food delivered to them by FBI agents.
The couple had never stayed in a hotel and had never used an elevator. Their 4-year-old daughter had no change of clothing for the eight days they spent in the FBI’s custody. Unaccustomed to air conditioning, the child was cold.
American Jesuits called the State Department repeatedly that week to ask after the family. The State Department told the Jesuits that the family was being evaluated to determine if their security was at risk. In the end, no security evaluation was ever carried out. Yet the FBI and State Department allowed a colonel of the Salvadoran army, under the pretense that he was a doctor, to interview the Cernas. As was later proved, this colonel already knew that what the Cernas reported was true—that Salvadoran soldiers were on the campus and did the shooting on the night in question. The colonel was allowed to control the interview process, exerting enormous pressure and issuing terrifying threats. For three days of 12-hour interrogations, Lucía was accused variously of being a communist, of having guerrilla affiliations, and of providing sexual favors to the UCA Jesuits. Jorge was threatened with being sent back to El Salvador, where he feared a death squad might be waiting. Yet the couple believed their lives were more seriously threatened in Miami than in El Salvador.
Whispering to each other late into the night of the third day of interrogations, the couple decided to recant their testimony. Together they practiced what they would say in the morning. “I was not there,” Lucía reported in the interrogation room of the FBI offices the following day. “I don’t know anything. Put me back in my home.” Her husband said, “We were not there. Send us home. If someone is going to come shoot us, I’ll be ready.”
After they changed their story, they were given lie detector tests. The American and Salvadoran governments issued statements, one personally delivered to the media by President Alfredo Cristiani, that the couple had failed the tests and therefore were not credible witnesses. No one mentioned that the tests were administered after the couple changed their story. A month would pass before officials of both governments acknowledged that elements of the Salvadoran military carried out the massacre.
After a week in the United States, the family was released to Paul Tipton, S.J., president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. When he understood what had happened during the preceding days in the Miami offices of the FBI, he was outraged. His loud and angry exchange with the FBI agents was unintelligible to the Spanish-speaking couple, but they clearly understood Tipton to be the first American to believe them—and the first to offer protection.
It’s here that the family found a home, thanks in part to kinship between Santa Clara University and the UCA that had taken root years before.
Tipton arranged for an interview with human rights lawyers. He secreted the family away to Spring Hill College in Alabama, where he had formerly been president—and where SCU’s former president, William Rewak, S.J., had just become president. Lucía was emotionally broken. Years passed before Jorge admitted to his wife that during those nights in Alabama, he expected someone to come in the night to kill them.
After a brief rest, Lucía agreed to testify before a congressional committee in Washington chaired by John Joseph “Joe” Moakley, a Democrat from Massachusetts. After listening to Lucía’s story, he declared to the committee: “These people may be humble, but they are telling the truth.” Eventually, the Moakley Commission’s report, issued after an investigation that included 10 commission members and five House Republicans traveling to El Salvador, declared that high-ranking military and government officials ordered soldiers in the Salvadoran army to kill Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría and leave no witnesses. The only reason Lucía and her husband and child survived the night is that no one, except the martyrs themselves, knew the family was there.
Fr. Tipton sent the Cernas, under assumed names, to Texas. The thinking was that the family could blend into a Hispanic population unnoticed. Within weeks, however, it was clear to Jorge Cerna, a baker by trade, that he would not be able to find a job there. In consultation again with Tipton, they were sent to California, hoping for better job opportunities.
When they landed at San Francisco International Airport, they were greeted by two Santa Clara Jesuits, Jim Torrens, S.J., and Dan Germann, S.J. It’s here that the family found a home, thanks in part to kinship between Santa Clara University and the UCA that had taken root years before.
Conscience of a nation—or enemy of the state?
As El Salvador convulsed in civil war during the 1980s, associations between faculty and administrators at Santa Clara and the UCA deepened. Scholars at the UCA turned out groundbreaking publications in theology and psychology even while atrocities against campesinos, nuns, priests, and bishops surged. The university that sought to be a “conscience for the nation” found itself cast as an enemy of the state; bombs exploded on the campus and death threats echoed down the halls.
SCU President William Rewak conferred an honorary degree on UCA’s President Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., in 1982. The renowned theologian thanked Santa Clara for its “gesture of solidarity and support.” In 1985, Ignacio Martín-Baró, S.J., spoke at SCU’s Institute on Poverty, detailing the plight of the majority of Salvadorans. In the spring of 1988, president-elect Paul Locatelli, S.J. ’60 and Academic Vice President Charles Beirne, S.J., spent Easter in El Salvador to understand what it meant to be among people “weary of the war ... desperate for negotiations.” That fall, SCU Vice President Stephen Privett, S.J., went to El Salvador for an extended stay. And the following year, just months before the murders, President Locatelli awarded an honorary degree to UCA theologian Jon Sobrino, S.J.—who would return a few months later, accepting refuge.
On Nov. 10, 1989, six days before the murders, Fr. Locatelli wrote a letter to SCU’s Board of Trustees inviting them to be part of a delegation traveling to El Salvador that upcoming March to mark the 10th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero. When news of the massacre broke on Nov. 16, 1989, Fr. Locatelli immediately invited Fr. Sobrino, who survived only because he was traveling, to stay at SCU for a time of healing and support in the aftermath of the loss of his UCA Jesuit community.
In the coming months, as Locatelli proceeded with plans for the El Salvador delegation, even in the wake of the massacre, he signaled a new and more committed relationship between the two institutions. The martyrdom of the men and women at the UCA did not kill the kinship, it enlivened it. In March 1990, the delegation formed by Locatelli before the murders confirmed its commitment and accompanied Sobrino back to El Salvador (the 11 members of the SCU delegation to El Salvador were Paul Locatelli, Charles Beirne, Daniel Germann, Arthur Liebscher, John Mallen, Thomas Farley, Sheri Sager, Creaghe Gordon, Lois Gordon, Stephen Privett, and Jon Sobrino). Fr. Beirne returned to El Salvador to stay, taking up duties as a vice rector of the UCA.
“I spoke up.”
Back in the South Bay, the Cernas had help with resettlement from Fr. Germann, SCU’s director of Campus Ministry during the 1970s and 1980s, who more recently had co-founded the Eastside Project (now the Pedro Arrupe, S.J., Partnerships for Community-Based Learning, part of the Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education) and Alumni for Others. By 1989, despite an advancing case of Parkinson’s disease, Germann lived and worked in East San Jose as a liaison among the working poor, University students, and SCU alumni. Working with Spanish-speaking immigrants put Germann in a good position to guide the Cernas as they adjusted to a new country and culture.
Germann solicited help for the Cernas (often without giving their identity) from his networks of students, alumni, faculty, members of the Mission Church’s 10 a.m. community, and many new friends in East San Jose. Together, they found a place for the Cernas to live; they collected household items and furnishings and they found doctors; they engaged help from the law school on immigration issues. Germann fielded employment options, took the couple to ESL classes, demonstrated everyday American tasks—driving, pumping gas, changing a tire, grocery shopping—and helped them get to the dentist. The Cernas had a unique immigration status because the Jesuits had ensured that they were given political asylum. The couple’s path to citizenship was long, about 10 years, yet throughout the process they had proof that they were in the United States legally. This allowed them to get good jobs. As a tradesman, Jorge joined a union. The family had health care benefits. Their legal status allowed them to succeed financially where many of their illegal counterparts cannot. Lucía earned certification as a nursing assistant from a community college and worked in health care for almost 20 years.
“I spoke up for the priests,” Lucía recalls. “I am at peace.”
In August 1990, only months after the Cernas arrived in California, Fr. Jim Torrens interviewed Lucía and published her account of the massacre in America, a national Catholic weekly magazine published by the Jesuits in the United States. He underscored the importance of her observations and created a timely historical record. He also helped Lucía’s healing process through careful listening and respect for her story.
Undoubtedly, if the Cernas had fled to Spain or France rather than the United States, they would have avoided the treatment meted out in Miami. The scars have not completely healed 25 years later.
The murderers have never been brought to justice. There was a trial, of sorts—but the men who confessed to pulling the triggers were acquitted, since they were just following orders. Two officers were convicted, but they were released within 15 months following a blanket amnesty in 1993.
In May 2011, though, a new chapter in this tragic tale began: Arrest warrants were issued by a Spanish judge for top leaders of El Salvador’s military during the civil war, accusing them of orchestrating the crime. Lucía testified once more—this time by video.
It is difficult for Lucía to separate the trauma of losing some of the people she held most dear to horrific violence from the interrogation in Miami. Healing from the first ordeal may have proceeded more quickly if she had not been subjected to the second. Yet today the Cernas live with a sense of serenity, if not freedom from fear. “I spoke up for the priests,” Lucía recalls. “I am at peace.” Jorge says, “A lie is temporary, but the truth endures forever.”