Lucía CERNA and Mary Jo IGNOFFO, La Verdad: A Witness to the Salvadoran Martyrs, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014. pp. 186. $20.00 pb: ISBN 978-1-62698-073-0. Reviewed by Arthur J. KUBICK, Providence, Rhode Island
This is a book about truth-telling. Lucía Cerna’s compelling story brings us into the reality of El Salvador before and during the civil war of the 1980s. It is a reality shaped by inequality, poverty and systemic injustice−and the struggle for justice and accountability. At the heart of the injustice stands lie after lie after lie. The only way toward a just society can be found in truth. But truth comes at a price as became clear over and over again in the lives and deaths of Archbishop Romero and so many other Salvadorans. “They eliminate−or try to eliminate−those who tell the truth.” Such was the case of the Jesuits and their housekeeper and her daughter at the University of Central America José Simeón Cañas (UCA) who paid with their lives. Lucía Cerna, witness to these killings, was called a liar and forced into exile from her homeland. She found that those in power were not interested in the truth, but rather in how they could hold onto power.
In a scenario well-known to many Salvadorans during the years of military violence, six Jesuits in residence at the UCA were roused from their beds in the middle of the night of November 16, 1989, and brutally murdered. Their housekeeper and her daughter seeking safety at the UCA were likewise discovered and killed. There were to be no witnesses. But there was a witness. Lucía Cerna, a cleaning lady at the university, and her husband Jorge and young daughter had also sought refuge from the violence initiated by an FMLN guerrilla offensive in the city of San Salvador itself. Leaving their home and business (Jorge had established a successful bakery) in the suburb of Soyapango, they walked the considerable distance to the UCA bringing only what they could carry. There Padre Nacho (Fr. Ignacio Martín-Baró) showed them to the vacated Jesuit residence near the pedestrian entrance to the university. They would be safe there. But in the middle of the night, hearing shouts and shooting, Lucía looked out and saw government soldiers around the new Jesuit residence. “There was only one wooden door between us and them. All they had to do was kick the door down and they could come to shoot us. We had no protection, but they believed nobody was there. That was our safety.”
But they were far from safe in the days and weeks that followed. The story agreed upon by the ARENA government−supported by the United States−was that the murders had been done by the Communist guerrillas. However, Lucía had seen the soldiers and knew they were Salvadoran military. She told the truth, an inconvenient truth for those in power. And so she and Jorge and their daughter had to seek refuge: first in the Spanish embassy, then the French embassy, and finally in Miami where they were kept in an airport hotel and interrogated by FBI agents, U.S. embassy personnel, and a Salvadoran colonel. It is a brutal account of threats and intimidation focused on upholding a lie rather that hearing the truth. They were not under protection; it seemed to the Cernas that they were under arrest.
Ultimately the U.S. Jesuits were able to free the Cernas from the FBI’s harsh “protection.” Lucía testified before the Moakley Commission investigating the murders of the Jesuits for the U.S. Congress. Congressman Joseph Moakley was concerned about the truth and his Commission determined that “high-ranking Salvadoran military officers were involved in the UCA murders.” Lucía’s insistence on telling the truth contributed to this conclusion.
Unable to return to El Salvador, the Cernas settled in California with the help of the Jesuit community. It was here, in 1990, that Lucía met Mary Jo Ignoffo and they developed a close friendship over the years. A professor of history at De Anza College in Cupertino, California, Mary Jo Ignoffo is the author of five books focusing on modern U.S., California and local history. This book grew out of a dinner gathering with the Cernas to remember the twentieth anniversary of the Jesuit murders in 2009. The stories shared by Lucía and Jorge around the dinner table led eventually to a suggestion by Mary Jo Ignoffo that they record Lucía’s story as an important primary historical source and placed in archives. What followed were over fifty hours of conversational interviews which eventually led to this book.
La Verdad is arranged into eight chapters covering Lucía’s life from her early years (“The Innocents: 1946 - 1960”) to the most recent (“Exile: 1990 - 2012”). Each chapter is divided into two parts, one by Lucía and one by Mary Jo Ignoffo. “Lucía’s parts are her spoken English words, taken directly from transcriptions of our interviews. Her choice of words is sometimes sharp and literal, common attributes of someone learning English as a second language.” For each chapter Mary Jo Ingoffo has written an essay “as an accompaniment to her [Lucía’s] recollections to offer historical and social context.” Together they offer a comprehensive portrait of El Salvador, the UCA murders and the life of a cleaning lady who insisted on telling the truth. Lucía’s life “illuminates so many issues that still face our world: poverty, childhood hunger, limited opportunities for education or healthcare, abusive militaries, corruption in government, and loss−what she repeatedly called ‘deep, deep loss’.” A Preface by José M. Tojeira, SJ, and a helpful Bibliographic Essay by Mary Jo Ignoffo provide an even fuller context for this important story. Jon Sobrino’s Epilogue, “Telling the Truth,” reflects on Lucía’s story in light of Archbishop Romero and the biblical tradition of truth. It is brief and to the point. His wish is that “this book will proclaim to its readers, wherever they are, the fidelity and goodness of Lucía. She held firm in the truth until the end.” Indeed. May it be so.