By Ryan Blessing
A special forum that explored the causes and the human impact of the migrant caravans traveling to the southern U.S. border from Latin America featured presentations in both English and Spanish from two guest speakers.
Sister Mary Jude, Director of Hispanic Ministry organized the March 24 forum, held in the church hall at St. Mary Star of the Sea in New London.
The talk coincided with the 39th anniversary of the assassination of Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador. Romero advocated against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture. He was shot while celebrating Mass in 1980 in El Salvador. Pope Francis canonized Archbishop Romero as a saint on Oct. 14, 2018.
"We have to ask ourselves, why he was such a symbol of fear for some, and hope for others," Sister Mary Jude said. "How does what happened then in El Salvador connect with what is happening today?" She also said Archbishop Romero's life and work were points of reference for facing similar challenges today in the United States.
Guest speaker Walter Mena, the Massachusetts statewide coordinator for committees on immigrant rights, worked with the Archbishop in pastoral ministry and was present at his funeral on March 30, 1980.
In the church, Mena gave a presentation in Spanish that explored Latin America in Romero's time and today, and the response of people of faith both at the time of Romero's death and to the migrant caravans of today.
"So many Salvadorans lost family, houses, everything," he said. "But in those times, I felt the closeness of the church to me." Mena said he also feels that Archbishop Romero has been with him since that time. "Monsignor Romero stood up in a time when he knew he was going to die. He knew. Every year, I try to celebrate his legacy. What is going on right now in the country, we need to do something to make changes, especially for the poor. We need to move forward with Monsignor Romero."
At the same time in the church hall, Professor Anne Gebelein, the associate director of the Institute of Latina and Latino, Caribbean and Latin American Studies at the University of Connecticut, gave an English-language overview of the history of why large populations of poor people in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have ﬂed their home countries. Professor Gebelein tied the conﬂict, political and economic upheaval and genocide in those countries to the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Gangs and the drug trade ﬂourished in these countries and children, in particular, were threatened.
"Many had no choice but to leave their communities," she said. The ﬁrst caravan began 14 years ago, by mothers from Honduras, as a safety measure for migrating children. Religious communities in El Salvador are trying to convert young people in order to help them escape such dire situations, she said. "Numbers of people migrating are up, as we've seen in the news, but still nowhere near what they were in the early 2000s," she said.
Gebelein concluded by paraphrasing a quote from Pope Francis: "We are all being called to be islands of mercy in a sea of indifference." After giving their talks, the bilingual speakers switched locations and audiences to provide brief summaries of their presentations.
Afterward, Jennifer Blanco spoke about how her parents came here from El Salvador when she was young. Blanco later followed and said the journey was challenging. "There was one thing that kept us going: Seeing my mom here," she said. "Thanks to her and to the power of God. Without His will I would not be here."