Remembering LOSPES

Posted on: October 23rd, 2013

So, what are you going to do about this?” the speaker asked.

“Well,” we replied, “we’ll now write some protest letters.  That’s what we usually do to conclude an Amnesty event.”

“That’s not enough,” said the speaker.   “You need to form an organization specifically dedicated to this issue.  You need to do it now.  Before you leave this room.”

And so we did.

It was spring semester, 1981. Our Amnesty International chapter, which held an event each month focusing on the human rights violations in a specific country, had selected El Salvador for this month.

The speaker was impressive, a Maryknoll priest, who, before entering the order, had served in Vietnam, but had become disillusioned with U.S. policy.  He’d just returned from El Salvador, a country much in the news.  His name was Fr. Roy Bourgeois.

We were sitting in the Cudahy Library Theater, two dozen or so people as I recall, mostly students, a few faculty. We’d just watched a documentary about El Salvador, brought by the speaker, then listened to his presentation. We turned to look at one another.  We nodded and said yes.  LOSPES—the Loyola Organization in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador–was born.

The previous March, in San Salvador, Archbishop Oscar Romero had been shot to death while saying mass in the cathedral.  Then, in December, four Maryknoll churchwomen—three nuns and a lay missionary, all from the United States—had been picked up by the military, raped and murdered.

This was a military strongly backed by the U.S. government. The Reagan Administration was fighting communism—a communism, they said, that was inching ever closer to our borders.  In 1979 a guerilla movement in Nicaragua had toppled one of our allies, the notorious military dictator Anastosio Somoza.  The Sandinistas were communists, we were told.  No matter that their Secretary of State was a Maryknoll priest and their minister of education a Jesuit.  No matter that the Minister of Culture, his brother Ernesto Cardenal, was one of the most celebrated poets of Latin America.  Never mind that they denied being communists.  As an earlier State Department official had put it, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck.”  (The Sandinistas had instituted land reform and a literacy campaign.)

LOSPES was a very active organization.  We immediately made plans for a conference—the first conference on the turmoil in Central America to be held in Chicago.  (The State Department sent a representative to defend its position.)  We brought in speakers and/or showed films almost every month.  We hosted a weekly radio show on WLUW. We manned information tables in Centennial Forum, raising a bit of money by selling “pencils for peace.” Several times LOSPES members headed off to Washington to participate in national demonstrations.  We attracted the attention of the Chicago “Red Squad,” which sent someone to infiltrate our organization.  (He was rather quickly exposed—pushing suspiciously hard for illegal activities.)

We helped bring Fr. Ignacio Ellacuria, the rector of the Jesuit university in San Salvador, to Loyola, to be awarded an honorary doctorate.  We hoped that would protect him.  It didn’t.  On November 16, 1989 he, five other Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter, were murdered by the military—a horrific event that finally persuaded our government (Reagan no longer at the helm) to cut off military aid.

Those were extraordinary times.  Many of us were changed forever.  I’ve never been so proud to be a member of the Loyola community.  And Fr. Roy?  Still active, a key organizer of the annual protests at the School of the Americas at Fr. Benning, Georgia, in which Loyolans continue to participate.  Still charismatic.  Still wonderful.

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