March 24 marks 38 years since the death of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador.
"He was my friend and I loved him dearly," said 90-year-old Arturo Revelo. The now-Tehachapi resident befriended Romero before he was named archbishop and the two were lifelong friends for 40 years.
"The people loved him because he would look out for them," Revelo said. "He was the voice for the voiceless." He was also spiritual adviser to Revelo's wife, Alcira, 75. The couple would confess their sins to him.
"He would give me "un jalón de orejas" (scolding) whenever I did something that was not right," admits the 75-year-old.
The world can use another man like Oscar Romero. The bespeckled 62-year-old prelate guided El Salvador as archbishop of its capital city, San Salvador, during a very troubling and violent time as civil war was about to break out. Before it ended some 75,000 people mostly civilians lay dead. We're not talking about a long time ago; this happened mainly during the 1980s. And I remember it vividly as thousands of people fled or tried to flee as refugees to escape a ruthless right-wing government repression backed by at least two U.S. presidents, Jimmy Carter and then Ronald Reagan.
Appointed archbishop in 1977 by Rome, the ruling class in San Salvador approved. Romero was not perceived as a threat as someone who might make waves against the wealthy, the military or the government. But when dozens of clerics, nuns and other church-affiliated lay people began appearing dead or disappeared for daring to speak out against the repressive regime, Romero could no longer hold silent. Among the dead were four American nuns who had been raped. Anyone suspected of aiding the leftists guerrillas fighting the government or criticizing the government was branded as pro communist subject to being kidnapped, tortured and murdered by right-wing death squads with direct ties to the government.
In an open letter to Jimmy Carter, the archbishop pleaded for the U.S. to stop sending military "advisors" to help the Salvadoran army fight its dirty war as well as cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and military aid. His words fell on deaf ears. Using the power of the pulpit and in widely broadcast radio programs, Romero implored the government to help the poor. And then during a sermon Romero said the words which ultimately were the last straw for the ruling class. He called upon soldiers not to obey orders killing civilians.
"In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise up to Heaven more urgently with each day that passes, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you to stop the repression!" thundered Romero.
The next day a sniper's bullet struck Romero. As he was raising the chalice celebrating Mass. "I felt as if a piece of my heart had been torn away," said Alcira Revelo. Shortly after Romero's assassination, the couple started receiving threats. Arturo Revelo was a judge and his wife was attending the university.
"I would get threats against my family, and they would tell me each night which route my wife took to go to the university," said Revelo. The family of five fled El Salvador, arriving as refugees in the U.S. in 1981 where they lived in several places before finally settling in Kern County. One of their sons is Bakersfield defense attorney Joaquin Arturo Revelo.
Now after 38 years, Arturo and Alcira Revelo have something to celebrate once again about their beloved friend and spiritual adviser. Earlier this month, Pope Francis announced that Oscar Romero will be canonized as a Roman Catholic saint. The Vatican said Romero was killed "in hatred of the faith."
"This is very emotional for me; there will be justice for him," said Alcira Revelo, her voice cracking a bit. Romero is expected to be canonized in October.
The couple and many of their fellow Salvadorans already consider Romero a saint and a source of strength and courage from which to draw in these trying times. In January, the Trump administration ordered an end to a program known as TPS, which provides temporary protected status from deportation for about 262,000 Salvadorans living in the U.S. Then came Trump's infamous profanity slur referencing immigrants from El Salvador. The Central Valley is home to many of them, something not missed by the Catholic Diocese of Fresno, which takes in Kern County.
"In the face of this all that they have already endured, and what still awaits them in the future, the Diocese of Fresno rejoices with all Salvadorans that their Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero is being canonized as a Martyr and a Saint, and that the Catholic Church by this long delayed decision deliberately supports them and their country’s continuing struggle to overcome the corruption, the repression, the violence, and the injustice that the Archbishop was gunned down at the altar for decrying repeatedly in his preaching and teaching," wrote Jim Grant in an email. He is director of Social Justice Ministry for the Diocese of Fresno.
With the ongoing climate of fear permeating immigrant communities right here in Kern County and elsewhere due to stepped up immigration raids, hope and faith still remain.
"I think we are going to have someone above who will intercede on our behalf," said Arturo Revelo. Amen.
Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a news anchor/reporter for Telemundo Bakersfield and KGET. Email him at email@example.com. The views expressed are his own.