The Open Window

Lucía Cerna witnessed the murder of the Jesuits in El Salvador.

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The Open Window

Lucía Cerna witnessed the murder of the Jesuits in El Salvador.

Lucía Cerna was a housekeeper in the Jesuit community at the Universidad Centroamericana 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 to the UCA campus on the eve of tragedy. Her story has at last been told in full, in her own words, through a lengthy series of interviews by historian Mary Jo (Hull) Ignoffo ’78 in La Verdad: A Witness to the Salvadoran Martyrs (Orbis Books, 2014). Here is an adapted excerpt.


NOVEMBER 12–15, 1989

We have lived that war in our country. Everything is really true. For example, when Fr. Rutilio Grande was killed, they were on the road waiting for him when he went driving his Jeep. Soldiers killed him and killed two others. This was before Romero got killed. The activists were very angry. It happened in Chalatenango, about two hours from the UCA. And Fr. Alas, they tortured him. Somebody saw but nobody will say. It is too scary to say something in El Salvador. Msgr. Romero was shot even while he was saying Mass. Somebody saw, but nobody would say. All those people there, somebody saw. If you say, you will be killed. Simple.

Only one of the Jesuits at the UCA was Salvadoran, and that was Fr. López y López. He did not teach, but he was the director of the center for job training for poor people who could not attend school. The people could learn a trade. Everybody knew he had prostate cancer, but he said, “Ay, I don’t care.” He always said good morning, and for breakfast he liked to drink a beer. Afterward he walked to his office in the training center. He was a very good man, very humble.

Sometimes I did the laundry, but he did not want his clothes washed too much. “Every three days I change my clothes,” he told me. He was very humble, even though he was from a rich family in Santa Ana. They had big properties of coffee and fruit near a lake. On weekends he went to see his family, and he always brought back boxes of oranges for everybody.

“Do you think they are good people?”
“Yeah, they are.”
The priests’ error was that they trust too much.

Still in my mind I do not understand, or maybe I do not want to understand, why someone felt the need to kill them. I knew them. They did not have guns or bombs or weapons. Their defense was their brains. For example, I remember one interview years ago when Roberto D’Aubuisson wanted to be president. He was interviewed with Fr. Ellacuría on television and I saw them. D’Aubuisson pointed at Fr. Ellacu and said, “You are a communist!”

Fr. Ellacu answered by saying, “I am not a communist. I am a Christian, and you, Señor D’Aubuisson, are a hypocrite. You say you are for the people of El Salvador, and you are not.” Duarte won as president instead of D’Aubuisson. That interview made it so D’Aubuisson did not win. I think it made him hate Fr. Ellacu.

A GIFT OF BOOKS

One day the American ambassador, William Walker, came to the rectory to give a donation of books for the library at the UCA. It was maybe eight months before the massacre. Walker was one hyper man. He arrived at the UCA rectory and I opened the door. “Buenos días, señor.” He was very unpleasant, and he did not say hello or speak to me. He spoke fluent Spanish, but he did not take notice of me. Maybe he did not like Latino people. Or maybe he did not speak to me because I was wearing my apron and was therefore a servant.

I showed him and two other men to the conference room on the first floor of the rectory. Two guards stayed out. The guards were Salvadoran military, and they had very elegant uniforms. They looked very good and important. Fr. Ellacuría, Fr. Nachito, and Fr. Segundo received the donation from Walker in the big conference room with a glass door. They closed the door and talked and talked. There was a big round table and that is where they sat. The two guards disappeared. They went looking around. I left my trash basket and broom, and I followed them upstairs.

They were looking in the bathrooms, opening cabinets, and searching.

I asked, “Excuse me, sir, what are you looking for?”

“Nothing, only looking. Sorry—disculpe.”

“If you are done, go downstairs, please,” I told them. There was nobody to put discipline there. It was not my property, but I was taking care. The offices were all locked. If the guards were looking for something, they did not know that I had the key to every office.

Later I told both Padre Nacho and Padre Ellacu. I commented about the guards and they said, “Están locos.”

I insisted, why did they come here? “Fr. Nachito, excuse me, but do you think they came with good intentions?”

“I think they will give a good donation of books,” he said.

That is good, I thought. But then I said, “No, I am saying something else. Do you think they are good people?”

“Yeah, they are.”

The priests’ error was that they trust too much. When the ambassador came to donate books, I did not see a good sign. If you trust, you do not send someone to search. From that incident I could immediately identify Ambassador Walker at the airport on the day when we had to leave El Salvador. He did not speak to me on that day either. That Walker was a hypocrite, too.

THE WAR COMES TO SOYAPANGO

For us, the worst part of the war was when it came to Soyapango. A military helicopter flew over the district firing at guerrillas. It was loud, like a roaring lion. Our house was hit, making a hole in the roof. The FMLN opened sides of houses to crawl in and escape the firing. They did not ask permission, no, they just cut the hole. Guerrillas went in the psychiatric hospital, and from inside shot at the helicopters. The guerrillas killed, too. There is so much revenge. In the civil war the guerrillas killed and the army killed, they both killed.

Monday and Tuesday, November 13 and 14, when we slept at night, Jorge put a mattress over me and our daughter. This way the bullets would not hit us. He did not sleep but kept watch. We were living under that mattress! Things got worse and our supply of food ran out. There was no water, and the river was not close. Soyapango was the town worst hit by the war. In our home we had no water or light, and stores were closed. Every Saturday I went to the market to supply the refrigerator. That Saturday I could not go because of the war. On Tuesday afternoon we baked, and after selling all the bread, I thought we had to leave. I thought of going to my mother’s, but where she lived was too small. I was closer, like family, to the priests. We could not get to Jorge’s family because of the war.

I was not worried for myself; I was worried for the child.

Jorge did not want to leave. We had a lot of supplies, and at first he refused. But we did not have light, and no candles and no electricity. I was not worried for myself; I was worried for the child. If I must fast, I do not care. But for my child, especially for her, I wanted to go find somebody to help us. I had confidence in the priests to give us shelter.

I still remember Jorge standing in the front door. I was telling him, “Let’s go, let’s go, don’t stay alone.” He stood there with his arms folded, looking at the house. I had our daughter by the hand. “Vámonos.”

“I don’t want to,” he said. “The priests do not know me. I can’t go with you. Go with the child.”

“I won’t leave you,” I said. “Come. I will talk to Fr. Nachito and he will give you shelter.”

Finally he accepted. When we left that morning, Jorge did not completely lock our home. He only pulled the door closed. We hoped the war would be over soon, no more guerrillas in our colonia, and then peace. We left our home in Soyapango at 6 o’clock on the morning of November 15. We walked and walked, maybe 20 kilometers. We left our home, everything, everything! I only took the money in my purse; it was heavy with the coins. I put all our wages and all our bakery money in my purse to carry with me. I also had all the keys to the UCA and to the provincial office, maybe 35 keys.

I held a white flag high, very high. Some soldiers were still shooting and it was scary. Jorge carried Geraldina on his shoulders all that way. When we got into the city, I called Padre Nacho from a telephone to his private number. I asked him could he give us some days of shelter, to stay at the UCA for food and water. Padre Nacho said yes, come. A man came driving by in a truck. He yelled, “One colón for each person.” We paid and had a ride almost to the UCA.

“ARE THERE GHOSTS HERE?”

When we came to request shelter on November 15, the Jesuits were living in a new house. About two weeks earlier, the Jesuits moved into a new house inside the campus. This left the twin houses at numbers 15 and 16 Cantábrico empty.

Fr. Nacho took us there to stay. He met my husband that day. My daughter, Geraldina, and I went with him to the guest room in the new house to bring sleeping mats for us to borrow. Father was very happy with Geraldina because he enjoyed children. She was 4 years old then.

The house was empty. Geraldina asked, “Are there ghosts here?”

“No,” Padre Nachito told her, “we do not have ghosts here.” And we went with him to the guest room where he took two mats for us. He carried the mats for us back to the other house. Fr. Nachito was excellent, a very good man. Was it Providence that we were in the old house for that night? “Our cook did not come today,” he said. “I don’t know who will cook tonight.” Their regular cook lived in Santa Tecla and she could not get to the campus because of the war. That is what Fr. Nacho commented to me. “I can cook tonight,” I said.

“Okay. Fine, thank you,” he said and he left. After some minutes, Fr. Nachito came back. It surprised me when he came back. He said, “Lucía, the wife of the guardian will come to cook tonight, you stay here and rest.”

“It is okay, I can come.”

“No, mujer. You stay here, you are tired.”

Father said the wife of the guardian, the vigilante, but he must have meant gardener. I never thought it was Elba Ramos. Her husband Obdulio was a gardener, not a guard.

Jorge went out to buy something to eat and drink. He found some bread and cola for us, but he forgot to bring a match. I went to Casa Cinquenta, the provincial house, to ask the cook there for a match. I was friendly with that cook, and now she also knew we were in 16 Cantábrico that night. We had no lights, just a candle. Before we lay down we took a shower. Then we lay down to rest. The shower was important, because in Miami, when we said we were witnesses, they did not believe we were there. There was evidence of us in the shower. They found hair. And that proved that we were there.

After the priests had their dinner, about 7 o’clock, I heard Fr. Nachito playing guitar. I told Jorge, “Listen,” and I went to open the window to hear better. Fr. Nachito was playing his guitar in the dining room, and he was singing. They sounded like they were having a good time.

“Let’s go to join them,” I said to Jorge.

“No, Lucía, remember he told you to lie down. You are tired. Leave them. They are enjoying themselves.”

We lay down to sleep on the mats he provided us. But I left the window open. I went to sleep to Fr. Nachito playing the guitar and singing.

post-image Lucía Cerna, 2014. View full image. Portrait by Charles Barry

Lucía Cerna was a housekeeper in the Jesuit community at the Universidad Centroamericana 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 to the UCA campus on the eve of tragedy. Her story has at last been told in full, in her own words, through a lengthy series of interviews by historian Mary Jo (Hull) Ignoffo ’78 in La Verdad: A Witness to the Salvadoran Martyrs (Orbis Books, 2014). Here is an adapted excerpt.


NOVEMBER 12–15, 1989

We have lived that war in our country. Everything is really true. For example, when Fr. Rutilio Grande was killed, they were on the road waiting for him when he went driving his Jeep. Soldiers killed him and killed two others. This was before Romero got killed. The activists were very angry. It happened in Chalatenango, about two hours from the UCA. And Fr. Alas, they tortured him. Somebody saw but nobody will say. It is too scary to say something in El Salvador. Msgr. Romero was shot even while he was saying Mass. Somebody saw, but nobody would say. All those people there, somebody saw. If you say, you will be killed. Simple.

Only one of the Jesuits at the UCA was Salvadoran, and that was Fr. López y López. He did not teach, but he was the director of the center for job training for poor people who could not attend school. The people could learn a trade. Everybody knew he had prostate cancer, but he said, “Ay, I don’t care.” He always said good morning, and for breakfast he liked to drink a beer. Afterward he walked to his office in the training center. He was a very good man, very humble.

Sometimes I did the laundry, but he did not want his clothes washed too much. “Every three days I change my clothes,” he told me. He was very humble, even though he was from a rich family in Santa Ana. They had big properties of coffee and fruit near a lake. On weekends he went to see his family, and he always brought back boxes of oranges for everybody.

“Do you think they are good people?”
“Yeah, they are.”
The priests’ error was that they trust too much.

Still in my mind I do not understand, or maybe I do not want to understand, why someone felt the need to kill them. I knew them. They did not have guns or bombs or weapons. Their defense was their brains. For example, I remember one interview years ago when Roberto D’Aubuisson wanted to be president. He was interviewed with Fr. Ellacuría on television and I saw them. D’Aubuisson pointed at Fr. Ellacu and said, “You are a communist!”

Fr. Ellacu answered by saying, “I am not a communist. I am a Christian, and you, Señor D’Aubuisson, are a hypocrite. You say you are for the people of El Salvador, and you are not.” Duarte won as president instead of D’Aubuisson. That interview made it so D’Aubuisson did not win. I think it made him hate Fr. Ellacu.

A GIFT OF BOOKS

One day the American ambassador, William Walker, came to the rectory to give a donation of books for the library at the UCA. It was maybe eight months before the massacre. Walker was one hyper man. He arrived at the UCA rectory and I opened the door. “Buenos días, señor.” He was very unpleasant, and he did not say hello or speak to me. He spoke fluent Spanish, but he did not take notice of me. Maybe he did not like Latino people. Or maybe he did not speak to me because I was wearing my apron and was therefore a servant.

I showed him and two other men to the conference room on the first floor of the rectory. Two guards stayed out. The guards were Salvadoran military, and they had very elegant uniforms. They looked very good and important. Fr. Ellacuría, Fr. Nachito, and Fr. Segundo received the donation from Walker in the big conference room with a glass door. They closed the door and talked and talked. There was a big round table and that is where they sat. The two guards disappeared. They went looking around. I left my trash basket and broom, and I followed them upstairs.

They were looking in the bathrooms, opening cabinets, and searching.

I asked, “Excuse me, sir, what are you looking for?”

“Nothing, only looking. Sorry—disculpe.”

“If you are done, go downstairs, please,” I told them. There was nobody to put discipline there. It was not my property, but I was taking care. The offices were all locked. If the guards were looking for something, they did not know that I had the key to every office.

Later I told both Padre Nacho and Padre Ellacu. I commented about the guards and they said, “Están locos.”

I insisted, why did they come here? “Fr. Nachito, excuse me, but do you think they came with good intentions?”

“I think they will give a good donation of books,” he said.

That is good, I thought. But then I said, “No, I am saying something else. Do you think they are good people?”

“Yeah, they are.”

The priests’ error was that they trust too much. When the ambassador came to donate books, I did not see a good sign. If you trust, you do not send someone to search. From that incident I could immediately identify Ambassador Walker at the airport on the day when we had to leave El Salvador. He did not speak to me on that day either. That Walker was a hypocrite, too.

THE WAR COMES TO SOYAPANGO

For us, the worst part of the war was when it came to Soyapango. A military helicopter flew over the district firing at guerrillas. It was loud, like a roaring lion. Our house was hit, making a hole in the roof. The FMLN opened sides of houses to crawl in and escape the firing. They did not ask permission, no, they just cut the hole. Guerrillas went in the psychiatric hospital, and from inside shot at the helicopters. The guerrillas killed, too. There is so much revenge. In the civil war the guerrillas killed and the army killed, they both killed.

Monday and Tuesday, November 13 and 14, when we slept at night, Jorge put a mattress over me and our daughter. This way the bullets would not hit us. He did not sleep but kept watch. We were living under that mattress! Things got worse and our supply of food ran out. There was no water, and the river was not close. Soyapango was the town worst hit by the war. In our home we had no water or light, and stores were closed. Every Saturday I went to the market to supply the refrigerator. That Saturday I could not go because of the war. On Tuesday afternoon we baked, and after selling all the bread, I thought we had to leave. I thought of going to my mother’s, but where she lived was too small. I was closer, like family, to the priests. We could not get to Jorge’s family because of the war.

I was not worried for myself; I was worried for the child.

Jorge did not want to leave. We had a lot of supplies, and at first he refused. But we did not have light, and no candles and no electricity. I was not worried for myself; I was worried for the child. If I must fast, I do not care. But for my child, especially for her, I wanted to go find somebody to help us. I had confidence in the priests to give us shelter.

I still remember Jorge standing in the front door. I was telling him, “Let’s go, let’s go, don’t stay alone.” He stood there with his arms folded, looking at the house. I had our daughter by the hand. “Vámonos.”

“I don’t want to,” he said. “The priests do not know me. I can’t go with you. Go with the child.”

“I won’t leave you,” I said. “Come. I will talk to Fr. Nachito and he will give you shelter.”

Finally he accepted. When we left that morning, Jorge did not completely lock our home. He only pulled the door closed. We hoped the war would be over soon, no more guerrillas in our colonia, and then peace. We left our home in Soyapango at 6 o’clock on the morning of November 15. We walked and walked, maybe 20 kilometers. We left our home, everything, everything! I only took the money in my purse; it was heavy with the coins. I put all our wages and all our bakery money in my purse to carry with me. I also had all the keys to the UCA and to the provincial office, maybe 35 keys.

I held a white flag high, very high. Some soldiers were still shooting and it was scary. Jorge carried Geraldina on his shoulders all that way. When we got into the city, I called Padre Nacho from a telephone to his private number. I asked him could he give us some days of shelter, to stay at the UCA for food and water. Padre Nacho said yes, come. A man came driving by in a truck. He yelled, “One colón for each person.” We paid and had a ride almost to the UCA.

“ARE THERE GHOSTS HERE?”

When we came to request shelter on November 15, the Jesuits were living in a new house. About two weeks earlier, the Jesuits moved into a new house inside the campus. This left the twin houses at numbers 15 and 16 Cantábrico empty.

Fr. Nacho took us there to stay. He met my husband that day. My daughter, Geraldina, and I went with him to the guest room in the new house to bring sleeping mats for us to borrow. Father was very happy with Geraldina because he enjoyed children. She was 4 years old then.

The house was empty. Geraldina asked, “Are there ghosts here?”

“No,” Padre Nachito told her, “we do not have ghosts here.” And we went with him to the guest room where he took two mats for us. He carried the mats for us back to the other house. Fr. Nachito was excellent, a very good man. Was it Providence that we were in the old house for that night? “Our cook did not come today,” he said. “I don’t know who will cook tonight.” Their regular cook lived in Santa Tecla and she could not get to the campus because of the war. That is what Fr. Nacho commented to me. “I can cook tonight,” I said.

“Okay. Fine, thank you,” he said and he left. After some minutes, Fr. Nachito came back. It surprised me when he came back. He said, “Lucía, the wife of the guardian will come to cook tonight, you stay here and rest.”

“It is okay, I can come.”

“No, mujer. You stay here, you are tired.”

Father said the wife of the guardian, the vigilante, but he must have meant gardener. I never thought it was Elba Ramos. Her husband Obdulio was a gardener, not a guard.

Jorge went out to buy something to eat and drink. He found some bread and cola for us, but he forgot to bring a match. I went to Casa Cinquenta, the provincial house, to ask the cook there for a match. I was friendly with that cook, and now she also knew we were in 16 Cantábrico that night. We had no lights, just a candle. Before we lay down we took a shower. Then we lay down to rest. The shower was important, because in Miami, when we said we were witnesses, they did not believe we were there. There was evidence of us in the shower. They found hair. And that proved that we were there.

After the priests had their dinner, about 7 o’clock, I heard Fr. Nachito playing guitar. I told Jorge, “Listen,” and I went to open the window to hear better. Fr. Nachito was playing his guitar in the dining room, and he was singing. They sounded like they were having a good time.

“Let’s go to join them,” I said to Jorge.

“No, Lucía, remember he told you to lie down. You are tired. Leave them. They are enjoying themselves.”

We lay down to sleep on the mats he provided us. But I left the window open. I went to sleep to Fr. Nachito playing the guitar and singing.

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