Santa Clara University

Santa Clara Magazine


Finding a new meaning of home in El Salvador

Nearly a decade ago, Santa Clara joined a university in El Salvador to launch the Casa de la Solidaridad. Now, at the Universidad Centroamericana, whose Jesuits were once gunned down for speaking truth to power, students and scholars are traveling a road to the future with a new sense of solidarity.

By Juan Velasco

Down the mountain: After a day of picking coffee, it's time to head home. SCU senior Ashton Easterday, second from left, rides with Hiromi and Sonia, two teenagers from the village of Las Delicias, and University of San Diego student Stacey Brake, left.
Down the mountain: After a day of picking coffee, it's time to head home. SCU senior Ashton Easterday, second from left, rides with Hiromi and Sonia, two teenagers from the village of Las Delicias, and University of San Diego student Stacey Brake, left.
Photo: Charles Barry

August is the rainy season in El Salvador. The air is humid, thick, and gray clouds often gather in the morning, promising showers. On one such morning last year I stood in a rose garden at the Universidad Centroamericana and in the stillness I drank in the fragrance of the flowers and the smell of approaching rain. I was not alone. With me were a couple dozen students from Santa Clara and universities throughout the United States: Amherst, Boston College, Fordham, Gonzaga, Marquette, St. Louis, University of San Francisco, and others.

We too have our rose-lined paths around SCU’s Mission Gardens. But these flowers in El Salvador were planted by a man whose wife, Elba, and daughter, Celina, were killed here nearly two decades ago. Elba was the housekeeper for the Jesuit living quarters at the university. On Nov. 16, 1989, a squad of Salvadoran soldiers came to kill the university’s president—Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J.—and any other Jesuits they could find. The soldiers did not wish to leave any witnesses, so when they found the housekeeper and her daughter, they shot them, too.

It is precisely the act of witnessing—of learning from one another, with one another, across cultures and generations—that has brought me and the students together here. And, for the past decade, has brought students and faculty from Santa Clara together with colleagues in El Salvador at the Casa de la Solidaridad.

Mi casa es su casa

Breaking bread: Dinner at the Casa
Breaking bread: Dinner at the Casa
Photo: Charles Barry

The Casa is not your typical study abroad program. From the very first day the emphasis is on convivir—the Spanish word which means “to live with”—to learn and share the dramatic events in the recent history of El Salvador, as well as the day-to-day reality people face now.

My colleague Mark Ravizza, S.J., teaches philosophy at the Casa. “The students tend to move from an initial attitude of ‘How can I fix the problem’ to a deeper sense of solidarity in which they share the life and struggle of the people of El Salvador,” he says.

For me, teaching creative writing in El Salvador becomes an opportunity to help students discover the mystery of joy in solidarity. Living in the community, they’re challenged intellectually and spiritually.

Krystal María Wu, a junior at Santa Clara, was in my class last fall. The Salvadorans showed her, she says, “that you can find joy, love, and grace in the suffering we all deal with. And it is through solidarity, in the sharing of that suffering, that we find that.”

The Casa experience transforms those of us who teach as well. Personally, I never truly grasped the meaning of the term companionship until I first came to El Salvador, in 2004. Here the journey is inner as much as outer.

Last August, while we stood in the rose garden at the Centro Monseñor Romero, the skies opened and the rain poured down. The light grew silvery, and as the heat vanished with the refreshing shower, the sound of raindrops hitting hard across the rooftops muted our conversations.

By their fruits

Day of Recollection: Juan Velasco, fifth from right, strolls with students along the rim of dormant volcano. SCU students are Jennifer Latimer, second from left, and Tessa Brown, third from left. Other Casa students hail from St. Joseph University, St. Louis University, University of San Francisco, Loyola Marymount University, and Marquette University.

Day of Recollection: Juan Velasco, fifth from right, strolls with students along the rim of a dormant volcano. SCU students are Jennifer Latimer, second from left, and Tessa Brown, third from left. Other Casa students hail from St. Joseph University, St. Louis University, University of San Francisco, Loyola Marymount University, and Marquette University.
Photo: Charles Barry

At the Casa de la Solidaridad there are five physical casas: Ita, Romero, Silvia, Clara, and Rutilio. Students from the U.S. live with Salvadoran students. Four women on staff in the Casa program prepare lunch for the students during the week. Breakfast is provided as well. Students reheat lunch for dinner, with a little something extra from the cooks.

Along with creative writing and philosophy, students take courses on Salvadoran literature, the history of the country’s civil war, sociology, political science, economics, theology, Spanish, and praxis. The last of those is what truly defines the experience at the Casa: getting involved in real projects with the communities surrounding the university.

Class time: SCU student Krystal Maria Wu
Class time: SCU student Krystal María Wu
Photo: Charles Barry
Annie Boyd was a student at Marquette when she first came to the Casa in 2005. Last year Anita, as everyone here calls her, came back to serve as the program’s community coordinator. Together we went to visit the Centro Hogar, which provides health care and day care for more than 150 children. Three-quarters of the children belong to single mothers. University students assist the children with classroom work, while the health program provides psychological help for abused children, medical consultations, and AIDS treatment and prevention. As a student, Anita worked at the Centro. And when we arrive, a girl of about 5 comes running toward us. Her name is Orladis. She is so excited to see her friend that she can hardly talk. She wraps her arms around Anita and they embrace for a long time. Anita, too, is shining with joy.

“When I graduated from college,” Anita recounts, “one of my counselors said, ‘Go to where you feel more alive.’ I knew right away where that was.”

One of the founders of the Centro is María Isabel Figueroa, a former secretary to Monseñor Óscar Romero. A bony woman with small dark eyes behind thick-framed glasses, she quietly recounts, “So many men and women…gave their lives for daring to dream a different country.” Here, students experience solidarity with the communities; they also learn, she says, “that it is possible to live the teachings of our martyrs.”

A voice for those without voices

Among those martyrs is Archbishop Romero, who was murdered in March 1980, in the midst of the Salvadoran civil war—a war that would leave 75,000 dead and cause a fifth of the population to flee the country. Romero had heard rumors that he would be killed for taking the side of the poor. “Si me matan resucitaré en el pueblo salvadoreño,” he said in response. If they kill me I will be reborn in the Salvadoran people.

In 1982, Fr. Ellacuría, then president of UCA, stood in the Mission Gardens at Santa Clara and delivered the commencement address. “A Christian university must take into account the gospel preference for the poor,” he said. “This does not mean that only the poor will study at the university; it does not mean that the university should abdicate its mission of excellence—excellence which is needed in order to solve complex social issues of our time. What it does mean is that the university should be present intellectually where it is needed: to provide science for those without science; to provide skills for those without skills; to be a voice for those without voices.”

"'Go to where you feel more alive.' I knew right away where that was." 

Ellacuría became an outspoken critic of the extreme left and the extreme right in Salvadoran politics, calling for a negotiated settlement. His efforts earned him enemies of various political stripes. When the soldiers killed him and his fellow Jesuits, they tried to make it look as if the killers had been leftist guerillas.

One Jesuit from UCA survived the killings, because he wasn’t there: Jon Sobrino, who was at the time attending a conference in Thailand. A prominent theologian, Sobrino came to Santa Clara for some months, where he became friends with President Paul Locatelli, S.J., and then-Academic Vice President Steve Privett, S.J. This began a strong connection between UCA and Santa Clara, a connection that would ultimately develop into an academic program for students from Jesuit universities throughout the United States to study in El Salvador. The decision to launch the program came at a meeting in El Salvador in February 1999. The place: Pati’s Pupuseria, where, over a meal of pupusas—thick, handmade corn tortillas stuffed with cheese and beans—two Jesuits and a young Jesuit-educated couple from the U.S. decided they could make the program work. The Jesuits were Privett and Dean Brackley, S.J., who had come to El Salvador in 1990 after teaching community organizing in the Bronx. Serving as founding directors for the program were Kevin and Trena Yonkers-Talz, who had attended Boston College for graduate school before working with Jesuit Volunteers International in Belize. They first came to El Salvador on their honeymoon in 1996 and, Trena says, “saw how the liberation theology comes to life in a place like El Salvador.”

The official launch of the program came in November 1999, on the tenth anniversary honoring the Jesuit martyrs at UCA. Charles Currie, S.J., president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, traveled to El Salvador to make the announcement.

When Kevin Yonkers-Talz begins to talk about the history of the program—a history that he always begins in 1989—he speaks of Ellacuría’s idea of the power of academics embracing the hope of transformation. He says Ellacuría would be proud to see the work of the Casa. The Casa is also home to their family: three daughters, ages 7, 5, and 2.

Globalization: It’s not just for commerce any more

Fast learner: Junior Beth Tellman works with Samuel, a student in Colon Cobanal, El Salvador, using guitar lessons as one method to teach him English. While Samuel is blind,
Fast learner: Junior Beth Tellman works with Samuel, a student in Colon Cobanal, El Salvador, using guitar lessons as one method to teach him English. While Samuel is blind, "His sense of perception is amazing," Tellman says. "He picked up guitar very quickly."
Photo: Charles Barry

The afternoon following our visit to the Centro Monseñor Romero, I meet with Ismael Sánchez, a professor of engineering at UCA. I arrive at his office in the new engineering building. He is tall and friendly; we shake hands and he starts to explain the different UCA engineering projects being developed in communities around the country. But I would like to see rather than just hear about them.

Early the next morning we make a three-hour drive from San Salvador to La Unión, across the water from the Honduran border. Caserío Guacamayera is the name of the hamlet that is our destination. But we discover that the trip will be even longer; the river has flooded the main road. And so, by four-wheel drive vehicle, we make the trek over narrow roads, up a hill.

As is typical in the area, the problems include a lack of clean water and the need for cleaner, more efficient sources of energy. To address both of those at once, the project here is a solar-powered water-pumping station.

The heat is dense, heavy, humid. On the horizon lies the city of La Unión, near the Gulf of Fonseca, the site of a project destined to become the biggest port in Central America. From our hilltop perch, Sánchez can see the future coming fast to El Salvador.

“The whole concept of globalization can also be extended to this concept of social justice,” he says. “Not just at the level of commercial relationships but also education and international solidarity.”

Since the project’s completion in March 2007, residents of Caserío Guacamayera have enjoyed clean, fresh water. The electricity bills for the entire community have dropped from an average of $60 to $12 a month.

Similar projects exist around the country. And the connection with Santa Clara holds out the promise for further collaboration. In 2005, students from UCA first took an engineering class—introduction to aerospace engineering—alongside SCU students in the Bannan Engineering building. Thanks to a broadband video connection, they were able to do it without ever leaving El Salvador.

The technology subsequently led to SCU engineering students visiting El Salvador and, using the same technology, keeping up with their coursework back on the Mission campus. Sánchez is excited over plans at the Casa to further integrate elements of the experience that cater to engineering students; he sees good opportunities for crossover in curriculum, particularly when it comes to mechanical engineering. “The most important thing, however,” he says, “is to get students involved in real projects for the communities.”

Coffee picking time in Las Delicias: everyone in the family helps.
Coffee-picking time in Las Delicias: Everyone in the family helps.
Photo: Charles Barry

Studying in El Salvador has already led SCU engineering students to develop a number of senior design projects meant to meet real needs there. One student project developed a solar-powered rooftop thermal chiller for a new building at UCA; SCU students were also involved with the design of another solar-powered pumping station on Isla Zacatillo, off the coast of El Salvador.

The exchange is not only one-way. Sánchez and colleagues have come to the SCU campus as well. The first time he came to Mission Santa Clara, Sánchez says, he was struck by the sight of the eight white crosses in front of the church, bearing the names of the murdered Jesuits from UCA and their coworkers. “To see the symbol of our university,” he says, “gives a deeper meaning to our relationship.”

Students from UCA have studied at SCU. In spring 2006, one group was looking at more efficient and environmentally sustainable techniques for brick-making—seemingly a low-tech endeavor, but the study found a way to make stronger bricks without burning as much wood for the ovens. More recently, an architecture student at UCA, Gerardo Buendía, was part of the prize-winning 2007 SCU Solar Decathlon team.

It wasn’t until the end of my most recent stay in El Salvador that I went back to the rose garden. It was right after class, the rainy season over, when I decided to pay a visit to the place where it all started. The garden was permeated with the same stillness and silence, the same deep feeling of peace I had felt before. The air was warm and bright, and the rose petals trembled with morning dew not yet evaporated by the heat.

How, I wondered, do we better understand the meaning of this word Casa and our involvement in El Salvador? Could it really be that as a Santa Clara community we are building a new way of learning? Are we engineering a project of a common heart, as we walk in companionship with the suffering of the poor?


I am silent and trying to listen with a discerning heart.  

Juan Velasco, an associate professor of English and modern languages at SCU, also teaches at the Casa.

No right to despair

A poem and the story behind it—about a Salvadoran supreme court judge and human rights expert on facing the future in El Salvador.

Read the full story.

Harsh realities

How the Universidad Centroamericano was founded—and how it found its sense of mission.

Read the full story.

More Casa
Read more about the Casa’s history and how students can apply.