At Plaza de las Américas—the iconic front porch of glitzy West San Salvador, on the far end of Alameda Roosevelt, the outstretched ribbon that leads east from here to the gritty urban clutter of downtown San Salvador and the Metropolitan Cathedral—there are two monuments. One is the postcard attraction that literally defines El Salvador: an image of Christ, astride the terrestrial orb, atop an obelisk-like pedestal. “El Divino Salvador del Mundo”—the Divine Savior of the World, is the country’s patron, and His Feast Day, on the 6th of August, is the country’s own spiritual holiday. The Divine Savior inhabits a monumental roundabout on the Alameda and, in a landscaped traffic island about 350 feet in front of it, stands a human scale statue of Archbishop Oscar Romero. It is a providential placement.
Romero stands between Jesus and Greater San Salvador, as if he was an intermediary between the Savior and the saved. “When I as pastor speak to the People of God, I do not pretend to be a teacher for everyone in El Salvador,” Romero said in his famous last Sunday sermon. Instead, he said, he was, “the servant of that remnant that calls itself the Church, the Archdiocese.” For that reduced group of true believers, Romero insisted, he was “the teacher who speaks to them in Christ’s name.” Romero is also a mediator between Salvadorans and their Divine Savior because he made it a point to explain with greater clarity than any other preacher the meaning of their national feast. Beginning with an Aug. 6 sermon the year before he became archbishop, and with three of his four pastoral letters issued on the date of the national feast, Romero developed what he would call a “Transfiguration Theology.” The Salvadoran holiday celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration—the Gospel account wherein Jesus is confirmed in his Messianic mission by God’s voice from on high, and His face shines like a brilliant sun. Jesus, Romero preached, is inviting Salvadorans to transfigure themselves so they can then reform their corrupt society. This was, Romero preached, the genuine path to true Liberation.
Over the years, Plaza de las Américas, or Divine Savior Square as locals call it, has become the rallying point for parades, carnivals, and protest marches of every stripe, which then proceed down Alameda Roosevelt to San Salvador’s main square, where the old National Palace and Metropolitan Cathedral are located. It is also the path of the candlelit processions that commemorate Romero’s murder, every year. Therefore, Romero, in statue form at the Divine Savior monument, and in his bodily remains at the Cathedral, continues to bear witness to the trials and celebrations of his nation. This year, Salvadorans were reminded of Romero’s perennial presence as a symbol and point of reference when, during nationwide protests spurred by the right in an institutional showdown between El Salvador’s still immature branches of government, protesters defaced Romero’s statue. The incident touched a raw nerve, unpacking quiet but deep indignation—not only at the damage to the monument, which was grave, but more at the inherent disrespect of the vandalism. The feeling was so widespread that the rightwing mayor of San Salvador—a presidential aspirant—appeared at the site of the monument and denounced what he called the “hatred” of the attack, called for respect for the figure of Romero, and promised that the city would help pay for the restoration.
In March 1980, Romero preached his last Transfiguration sermon. He sounded a hopeful note. “God’s plan is loving and powerful and capable of transfiguring all the miseries, injustices, and sins of the people of El Salvador”—he said—“transforming all these realities and all women and men into people in whom the beauty of Christ’s justice and holiness shines forth.” The monuments at Plaza de las Américas embody that hope.