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In the essay “Hearing the Cry of the Poor,” Ron Hansen tells the story of the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador. In this excerpt he recounts the founding of the University of Central America—and how the university found its sense of mission. You can read the essay in its entirety in A Stay Against Confusion: Essays on Faith and Fiction.
The University of Central America [was] funded in 1964 by wealthy parents, politicians, and a Catholic Church hierarchy that wanted an antidote to the toxic Marxism that was poisoning education at the federally run National University. Without a site or financial foundation, with only a few fervent Jesuits, secretaries, and faculty members who taught for free as a favor to the fathers, the University of Central America at first relied solely on the high repute of the Society of Jesus for its prestige and seriousness. But that was enough. Within a few years a sloping, coffee-growing plantation in the hills south of the city had given rise to a palmy campus that housed highly regarded faculties in industrial engineering and economics, finally enrolling seven thousand students who were generally from Salvadoran high society, financially privileged young men and women who, it was thought, would use their advantages to help the less fortunate.
Ignacio Ellacuría, who was put on the university’s five-man board of directors, found that premise troubling. While the institution’s orientation was formally that of providing technicians for the economic and social development of El Salvador, he thought it was essentially affirming European values and structures, and fostering prosperity for the prosperous. Ellacuría felt the institution ought to fully engage the harsh realities of the Third World and, through teaching, research, and persuasion, be a voice for those who have no voice, to alter or annihilate the world’s inhuman and unjust structures, and help assuage the agony of the poor. With his forceful guidance and his editing of the monthly magazine Estudios Centroamericanos, the University of Central America would undergo an epistemological shift, orienting its ethos in the fundamental option for the poor and in the liberation theology formulated by Gustavo Gutiérrez, a theology founded on life in the risen Christ while it was focused on the institutions of injustice and death to which Latin America’s poor were subjected.
There was much to do.