Historian Mary Jo (Hull) Ignoffo ’78 talks about the 1989 UCA massacres in El Salvador and how she helped tell the story of witness Lucía Cerna.
Lucía Cerna was a housekeeper in the Jesuit community at the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) in San Salvador in 1989. She lived in Soyapango, a suburb of the capital, but was forced to flee her home when a guerrilla offensive brought some of the most horrific fighting of the civil war to her neighborhood. She turned to the Jesuits for help. That brought her and her husband, Jorge, to the UCA campus on the eve of tragedy.
Through an extensive series of interviews with historian Mary Jo (Hull) Ignoffo ’78, Lucía’s story has at last been told in full in La Verdad: A Witness to the Salvadoran Martyrs (Orbis Books, 2014).
Santa Clara Magazine editor Steven Boyd Saum recently sat down with Ignoffo to talk about her memories of the UCA massacres on Nov. 16, 1989, how she came to meet the Cernas, and why she decided to write the book.
I’m curious how this story came to you, because you were a student who graduated from SCU and embarked on a career as a historian, but you were not a historian of Central America.
I am a historian now but when I graduated from Santa Clara University in 1978, I was a religious studies major, and for the next 10 years I actually worked in a Silicon Valley kind of job. I told almost no one I was a religious studies major because I felt like that would be misinterpreted, so I actually put humanities on resumés. I went back after 10 years and got a master’s degree in history.
But in the meantime, my husband and I were close friends with Dan Germann, S.J., who I had met when he taught me at Santa Clara. My husband was a few years ahead of me and also had been taught by Dan—he presided at our wedding. By the late 1980s, he had left campus ministry, gone to Spanish language schools in Central America, and was one of the co-founders of the Eastside Project (now Community-based Learning within the Ignatian Center), with Sonny Manuel, S.J., M.Div. ’78, Steve Privett, S.J., and Lori Jimenez ’93 [who I had met through Dan]. Steve, Sonny, and Dan lived in a house in East San Jose, so before the massacre at the UCA, I knew the three of them were in contact with the people at the UCA and were monitoring what was going on in El Salvador.
When I heard the news the morning of the massacre, I knew those people were friends of my friends. I remember precisely where I was when I heard: I was getting ready for work, it was early in the morning, and I had the radio on. And I just thought, No. The brutality, the barbarity of it was horrible, but, also, these people were friends of my friends—that’s what I was thinking.
Within a month or two after that, I got a phone call from Dan Germann and he said that he had met the couple who had witnessed the massacre and they were being relocated to Santa Clara. He asked my husband and me not to tell other people but said he was calling because he knew I had worked in real estate. “I am helping these people get settled and I’ve been asked to find them a place to live,” he told me. “But I’m a Jesuit. I’ve never in my life had to find a place to live. I don’t have a clue. Can you help me? Can you help us?”
And the thing about Dan is that he had multiple friends like us, and he called other friends. So Dan reached out to his network and was able to really help these people get resettled. In the meantime, he developed a really close friendship with them—my husband and I developed a friendship with them as well.
In the book, people get a sense of Lucía through her voice, but as you got to know them from that early period on, how did you come to view them?
It’s very interesting to think about who Lucía and Jorge are. This is a couple who were dropped into American culture instantaneously with no desire to come here. And they did not understand—they had never had any access to even the most basic things that we think about. For example, in the book I mention she had never been in an elevator. She didn’t know that you press a button to go to another floor. When they first came, they were in Safeway. It was getting close to Halloween [and the store was full of pumpkins] and Lucía turned to [Germann] and asked, “Why are there so many squashes in the market?” She didn't understand.
But over time I got to know them. I think I can say unequivocally that they are the most hardworking couple I’ve ever met. I don’t think it’s just that they were trying to get ahead financially; it’s because they are simply very, very hardworking people. Lucía—which I think is obvious from the book—is extremely loyal and they both are deep thinkers. Jorge has a really good sense of humor and he is very, very bright.
And when did they start telling you their stories?
Lucía and Jorge did not tell us their stories at first. It’s hard for me to remember exactly when they did—Dan told us who they were and we never really asked them about it. I asked things about their life in El Salvador but not really about the event. It was clear that this was an emotional trauma on Lucía, so I think we talked about it more vaguely. She knew we knew. He knew we knew. They knew we were trustworthy. But we didn’t really talk about it.
But at the 20th anniversary of the massacre, I called them and invited them to dinner, just to mark that anniversary. And it surprised me when she told me, ”You are the only person who has called about this.” And then, around the dinner table, Jorge really, really elaborated on what they saw. And so that was the first time that I realized, Oh my gosh, I don’t think the world really knows what they saw, what they felt, or what they left. So 20 years later they began to talk about it at last with us.
When did it seem to you that this could become a book, that you could work with Lucía to begin telling a story with the kind of depth that it would take, and that this could become a project of scholarship as well?
Sometime after the 20th anniversary, it occurred to me that very few people knew the Cernas’ perspective. Lucía’s testimony had been documented within the first year of their coming to the U.S., but they were almost silent on it after that. So I’m getting older, she’s getting older, and my idea was really to interview her so that in 100 years, those interviews exist. That’s what it started out as.
But those interviews took on a life of their own. At the beginning, I expected I would go see her once a week and we would talk for an hour. It didn’t turn out that way at all because once we started talking, three hours, four hours would pass. And that became impossible to do every week.
So those interviews went on for two years. About halfway through, I asked Lucía if she agreed that this could be a book and she didn’t understand why. I told her, “What you have to say is really important for the world.” For me, just the level of poverty she was describing was very eye-opening. Have I never paid attention to statistics of poverty? Of course I have. But to hear her personal experience was a whole different story. And so she said, “Well, if you think it’s important, OK.” So that’s how we proceeded.
And as we are coming up on this anniversary, it’s a historical moment that’s charged for both what happened in Central America as well as central and eastern Europe; this kind of epic transformation really signaling the end of the Cold War. For me, one of the interesting things is how that interplays with the effects of what happened in the aftermath of the massacre in El Salvador, what kind of distance the United States might choose to or feel like it could put between itself and what happened. Is that something that struck you at the time or as you were working on this project?
One of the most significant backdrops, if not the most significant historical backdrop, to this whole story is El Salvador’s place as a pawn in the Cold War. It struck me, when I was going through Lucía’s story—hearing about the massacre and reading about it—how the Cold War was falling to pieces around the world but it did not seem to be falling to pieces in El Salvador. It’s like that message was not conveyed.
The U.S. itself is entirely conflicted in this whole thing. We use the language of democracy, the language of the majority of people, and yet financially our government was supporting the opposite of that simply because the opposite of that was calling themselves anti-communists. So it’s a story that’s rife with conflict at every level, right down to personal violence.
And the level of violence in El Salvador today, these 25 years later, is horrific. There are these massive crime rates. What I see is that the violence during the 1980s and early 1990s was a result of a civil war with two conflicting factions. That level of violence is still present in El Salvador, but it is gangs who, evidently, perceive that they have no other option—no economic option, no social option. This is a huge disappointment to people like the Cernas, and they are highly critical of governments in the last 20 years for not managing that element more effectively.
But what I must say is, when I want some information about what’s going on there, I ask Jorge, because he does monitor it. Lucía has told me, if their safety could be assured, they would go back. But their safety is not assured, and their safety is not threatened by what happened 25 years ago. Their safety is threatened by what’s happening today.
Mary Jo Ignoffo ’78 teaches history at De Anza College and is the author of five previous books.