Sainthood, at long last
They spent years quietly guarding a slain archbishop’s legacy amid El Salvador’s war. Now, their wait is over.
ROME — After he was killed, they burned his photographs and nearly every memento they had of their friend. The rest they buried in their garden, just beneath their guava tree.
Maria Hilda and Guillermo Gonzalez feared saying his name, even to their closest relatives.
It was 1980, and a brutal war grabbed hold of El Salvador soon after Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot in the heart as he led Mass in a hospital chapel.
To them and thousands of other Salvadorans who fled the violence in their homeland and came to Los Angeles, Romero was a hero who fought against oppression, against the massacre of the poor.
To others, he was an agitator. They called him a leftist, guerrilla, communist.
Long after he died, Romero’s legacy remained so polarizing that the Roman Catholic Church took decades to decide whether he deserved to be a saint.
Now 68 and 71 years old, Maria Hilda and Guillermo of Granada Hills thought they would never live to see this day — traveling to Rome
for Romero’s canonization.
They were college students when they met him. He visited the small town of Aguilares with his signature half-rim glasses and his solid black cassock.
Monseñor Romero, as he was widely known, was the new archbishop of San Salvador, expected to be meek and conservative. But in the late 1970s, the systematic killing of the poor brought on by right-wing death squads pushed him to speak up.
“Basta ya!” (Enough already!) Guillermo remembers him shouting at the funeral of Father Rutilio Grande, a friend of Romero’s who was shot more than 14 times.
Every Monday night in the capital, Guillermo and Maria Hilda would attend Romero’s prayer study group.
The couple came from well-off families. Guillermo’s parents had a vast amount of land, and Maria Hilda’s family owned a grocery store and a transportation business.
Romero taught them to look beyond themselves.
We’re all important, he would say. You have to have a conscience. You have to be the microphone of God.
Some nights he’d show up at their gatherings energized, other nights a bit shaken and discouraged.
He’d tell them about countless mothers who’d line up before him to cry over their murdered children, about being patted down by soldiers along road blockades, about the latest message he planned to deliver on his popular radio program.
“What do you think?” he would often ask the group. “What are your thoughts?”
As pressure built over his criticism of the Salvadoran government, the group grew smaller, from several hundred to about 20. Death threats became a part of life for Romero and for those who followed him.
“You’re exposing yourself,” Guillermo’s brothers would warn him. “Think of your family and distance yourself from him.”
In March 1980, Romero delivered a sermon directed at military forces:
“I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression.”
The next day he was gunned down by a sniper.
‘A pool of blood’
At his cathedral funeral a few days later, the violence continued.
Maria Hilda was part of the choir, and Guillermo, in one corner of the church, helped the radio station that used to broadcast Romero’s sermons set up for the event.
Outside, a sea of mourners filled the plaza.
When snipers began to shoot and drop grenades, the crowd scattered in terror.
“They’re going to steal Monseñor Romero’s casket!” Guillermo remembers people yelling. He and several men lunged toward the casket and heaved it onto their shoulders. They rushed it to the cathedral’s basement, where a grave had already been dug.
When he came back to look for Maria Hilda, chaos had erupted. Thousands had swarmed into the church, packed ever so tight inside the chapel. They sobbed and screamed for help. Some fainted. Priests removed their robes and swung them overhead like helicopter blades to ventilate people who were suffocating.
“The explosions seemed endless,” Guillermo said. “It was like someone put a metal bucket over our head and banged on it as hard as possible.”
Amid the crush, Guillermo said, he spotted something on the ground. It was the radio station microphone — the one Romero used every time he spoke to the people.
He wrapped the cord around his waist and hid the microphone in his pants.
Hours later everyone was released, forced to walk out with their hands in the air. Dozens had been killed.
“Outside it was a carpet of shoes, purses, lunchboxes and blankets,” Maria Hilda said. “As if a trash truck had dumped it all in a pool of blood.”
Almost two decades would go by before the couple could publicly speak of Romero.
Guillermo got a job at the social security office. Maria Hilda became an economics professor. They raised three children.
As war raged for 12 years, the two remained silent. They placed the microphone in a black plastic bag and buried it in their garden.
Four times the military ransacked their home. Twice gunmen lingered outside their door. Many nights, Guillermo slept elsewhere to protect his family.
“It was a dark night that would never end,” Maria Hilda said.
Preserving a legacy
On a recent evening, the Gonzalez family gathered for dinner at their home in Granada Hills. Three generations sat together to talk about baby Liam’s first haircut, Maria Hilda’s homegrown papayas and a longawaited trip to Rome that was only a week away.
Images of Romero were everywhere: on the dining table, on the coffee table and on top of an altar near the television. There, too, in a custom crystal case marked with Romero’s coat of arms, stood his old microphone.
Maria Hilda stashed it in her suitcase when she came to the United States in 2002.
Their time in Los Angeles has been devoted to speaking about this man who became their life so many years ago. They take Romero’s photo, his microphone and his story to churches, prayer groups and homes all over: South L.A., San Bernardino, Salinas, San Diego.
At one presentation in North Hollywood, a former military sergeant from El Salvador stood up and apologized for killing people.
“Many have felt a deep connection during our talks and open their hearts to us,” Maria Hilda said.
But the path has not been easy. At some churches, especially at the beginning, some would walk out of their presentations. Right-wing Salvadorans in the audience labeled them guerrillas. At some churches, officials refused to play their video about Romero’s life. At others, they would be invited to speak, then at the last minute, turned away.
Father Roberto Mena, a priest now working in Mississippi, used to help Maria Hilda and Guillermo years ago when he was based out of a parish in Compton. The couple would tell him all about their struggle.
“Keep going,” he would say to them. “You’re lucky there’s so many churches in California.”
What Maria Hilda and Guillermo longed for most was news from the Vatican. Romero’s path to sainthood, initiated in 1990, had been stalled for years by church conservatives’ efforts.
When news came this year that Pope Francis had approved the canonization, the two were ecstatic. They fell to their knees in their living room and cried.
‘Full of joy’
Three days before the big ceremony, Rome was cool and drizzly, buzzing with anticipation. Tens of thousands were expected to descend on St. Peter’s Square on Sunday.
Salvadorans, many from Los Angeles, were everywhere, decked in the blue and white colors of their f lag. They wore hats and pins and shirts with images of Romero smiling.
Maria Hilda and Guillermo walked into the crowd to interview a few pilgrims. Many of them know her from a Catholic news channel.
“Maria Hilda, como esta?” said one woman, Carmencita, embracing her in a hug.
“Full of joy,” Maria Hilda responded. “The moment we’ve waited for so long is finally here.”
As Maria Hilda interviewed pilgrim after pilgrim on the square, Guillermo recorded her with his cellphone. She carried a microphone, one issued to her by the news channel.
Back at her hotel, safely wrapped in two scarfs inside her suitcase, was the other microphone.
It had to be by their side on this special day.
MARIA HILDA and Guillermo Gonzalez, a Salvadoran couple from Granada Hills, walk in Vatican City on Thursday. While in college, the couple befriended Archbishop Oscar Romero, who will be canonized Sunday.
ARCHBISHOP Romero was assassinated as he led Mass in 1980, at the outset of El Salvador’s civil war. He had spoken out against military repression.
GUILLERMO, left, and Maria Hilda Gonzalez, right, visit Vatican City with their family. The couple followed Archbishop Oscar Romero in San Salvador and feared persecution after his assassination in 1980. “It was a dark night that would never end,” Maria Hilda said.
AFTER MOVING to the U.S. in 2002, the couple devoted their time to speaking about Romero, spreading his story to churches and homes across California.