ARUN RATH, HOST:
This week, Pope Francis declared Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero a martyr, a decision that brings Romero closer to eventually becoming a saint. Romero was assassinated in 1980 at the dawn of El Salvador's brutal civil war. An estimated 2 million Hispanics of Salvadoran ancestry now live in the U.S., many of whom fled the same violence that killed Romero. For them, Romero's recognition is a vindication. For NPR's Code Switch team, Jasmine Garsd reports.
JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: What you are doing right now, listening to the radio, was dangerous in El Salvador in the late '70s. The right-wing government considered certain broadcasters to be treasonous, especially this one.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
OSCAR ROMERO: (Speaking Spanish).
GARSD: That's Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, whose homilies were broadcast nationwide. In this sermon, he's demanding in God's name that the Salvadoran military and government stop killing civilians. The next day in a church service...
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)
GARSD: He was shot dead. It was May of 1980. A right-wing death squad was blamed, but never brought to justice. It was a violent time in El Salvador. The bloody civil war that would eventually claim tens of thousands of lives was just beginning. The government and communist guerrillas fought throughout the country, and civilians were often targeted and killed in the process. Father Vidal Rivas, now an Episcopal priest in Maryland, lived through the entire conflict.
VIDAL RIVAS: (Through interpreter) Every day in my city we'd wake up to three to five dead bodies, girls like you, mutilated. After they'd rape them, they'd go to their family's house and machine-gun it down.
GARSD: Despite the dangers, Rivas listened intently to Romero's sermons.
RIVAS: (Through interpreter) I remember my dad had an old yellow radio and some of our neighbors would come over and listen.
GARSD: Romero was a proponent of liberation theology, a doctrine that says the church should fight for social and economic justice. Critics accused him of being a communist, especially after he publicly asked President Jimmy Carter to end support of the Salvadoran military. And lingering questions about Romero's politics may have delayed Vatican action.
CARLOS DADA: Archbishop Romero was a very uncomfortable character for the most conservative part of the Catholic Church.
GARSD: Carlos Dada is the founder of El Faro, a digital newspaper in El Salvador. He's working on a book about Romero's assassination, and he thinks it took a Latin-American pope to do this.
CARLOS DADA: I think that Pope Francis understood much better than - that in Latin America during those years, it was the Catholic Church - a part of the Catholic Church - that was resisting repressive regimes and military dictatorships in Latin America.
GARSD: But for many Salvadorans and other Latin-Americans, Romero has long been considered a saint. At Haydee's, a dimly lit restaurant in a predominantly Salvadoran neighborhood in Washington, D.C., a large picture of Romero gazes over the patrons.
HAYDEE VANEGAS: (Speaking Spanish).
GARSD: Haydee Vanegas, the owner, says she remembers being a child in El Salvador and seeing her grandmother crying over the news of Romero's murder. She says his canonization would be a blessing for the world.
VANEGAS: (Speaking Spanish).
GARSD: The more martyrs and saints we have, the better. Martyrs do not die. They live among us. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.