Saint­hood, at long last

They spent years qui­etly guard­ing a slain arch­bishop’s le­gacy amid El Sal­vador’s war. Now, their wait is over.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Es­mer­alda Ber­mudez

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.

‘Enough al­ready!’

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.

An­to­nio Masiello For The Times

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.

Maria Ale­jan­dra Car­dona Los An­ge­les Times

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.

Pho­to­graphs by An­to­nio Masiello For The Times

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.

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