TORONTO - Watching black-and-white footage of El Salvador’s civil war and hearing Deacon Michael Glen Bell’s acoustic guitar and raspy voice, 54-year-old Francis Rico-Martinez choked back emotions.
“Why you see me crying or my voice break down is because this is not 35 years ago, we are still in the same realities,” said Rico-Martinez, co-director of Toronto’s FCJ Refugee Centre. “We work with refugees, they come from everywhere, they come from images like these. These people are here walking the same shoes that the El Salvadoran people were walking at that time and are still walking. That’s why this is so powerful.”
Rico-Martinez, who immigrated to Canada in 1990 from El Salvador following the killing of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, is watching the music video for “Romero.”
Written and performed by Bell, an American deacon, the video relied heavily on archived footage from the University of Notre Dame which was recorded around the time of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s assassination.
Born Aug. 15, 1917, Romero was the fourth archbishop of San Salvador before being gunned down while celebrating Mass on March 24, 1980. The assassination occurred one day after Romero, who had been very vocal regarding the social injustices occurring during his country’s civil war, called on soldiers to obey God by ceasing to support the government’s violations of basic human rights.
“I still remember when I was very young I was a student leader when Romero was a bishop and I visited Romero at least three or four times … with names of students who were killed,” said Rico-Martinez. “We brought these because he was going to read the names of these people in the homily every Sunday. He always said I don’t want this but if my people need it then I’ll do this and I’ll talk about this. I will do it because that is what my people want.
“That is something that has been transforming for me because as a young person I was criticizing (him) because of a lack of action, put it like that, and now if you walk in our office Romero is everywhere.”
It is these memories, both of atrocities and realizations, which allow the music video to draw such raw emotion out of a man who spent more than a decade living under the hardening reality of war. The images of youthful faces donning sorrow tug at something deep inside the former lawyer who became the formal investigator of human rights violations for the archbishop’s office following Romero’s death — the archbishop had previously performed this role.
“I was there when they seized the University (of El Salvador) and they killed many students,” he said, scanning through the scenes in the video. “Some of the images are very clear because I was there when they happened. It’s so accurate, the violence.”
Wife and FCJ co-director Loly Rico, who frequently wiped tears from her face, sat next to Rico- Martinez as he watched the video inside the FCJ Refugee Centre on a cold January afternoon.
Although Rico opposed the government’s actions during the civil war in a less public role than her husband, reliving the events through this music video still takes an emotional toll on her.
“It’s sad to see the video but at the same time it is accurate to see how many people are dying,” said the 53-year-old mother of three. “It’s powerful in a mixed way because it is really nice that after 30 some years they are remembering Msgr. Romero (but) it’s sad because it brings you to the past of El Salvador.”
Both husband and wife agreed that the lyrics — many of which they said were phrases taken from Romero — represent the bittersweet reality that the archbishop’s message is relevant to this day.
“What (Bell) uses is many things that (Romero) said in his theology concepts,” said Rico- Martinez. “When he said you are killing a bishop but are not killing the Church of God, the song is exactly an example of that.”