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?