Celebrations vary depending on customs within each culture. It has been interesting for me to experience and learn about many Salvadoran celebrations by attending or observing baby showers, birthday parties, baptisms, weddings, Quinceneras. All are enjoyable and taken seriously but none as seriously as their celebrations for the dead, particularly their own revered martyrs and saints. The ongoing respect they show for them is second to none.

Cities, towns, villages, and even tiny cantons holding names of a particular saint set aside an annual day to celebrate that particular saint’s namesake. The municipality closes all businesses so that they can hold a street fair complete with local food vendors, and a heavily “made up” local teenage queen and her court parade through town on the back of a pick-up. The fair concludes with fireworks.

In El Salvador All Saints’ Day in the fall is a serious day of reverence for all who have died. Nationwide businesses (including banks and Automated Teller Machines (ATM’s) and schools close; families from around the country travel to the cemeteries of their loved ones to spend an entire day cleaning their grave sites, planting fresh flowers, reading the Bible, enjoying picnic lunches, and bringing balloons and toys. I was in awe witnessing this day at a huge cemetery in downtown San Salvador one year; programs were distributed at the entrance gate detailing the times certain events such as musical groups performing were to take place. If you missed the program, a voice over the loudspeaker shouts the important upcoming events. Boys carrying tools rent themselves out to clean up the grave sites for you. I’m not sure why armed security was necessary every few intersections within the cemetery, but they were there also. Finding parking in the streets congested for blocks and blocks outside in neighboring areas, was a nightmare. Our U.S. Memorial Day celebrations pale by comparison.

Martyrs are revered as well. As a reminder martyrs are individuals who believe so strongly about a conviction that they are willing to suffer persecution, even willing to die for the cause/principle they espouse. The cause could be anything considered noble or just. It may be a system they deem to be unjust or corrupt. For the purpose of this piece, I will limit martyrs to Christian martyrs.

We Americans tend to associate martyrs as early Christians, such as most of Christ’s disciples and Stephen, were persecuted for advocating for or against certain beliefs. Martyrs didn’t end with Christ’s disciples and followers being killed for their following and leading his Christian example. El Salvador’s Oscar Romero is an example of a twentieth century martyr. Other contemporary Salvadoran martyrs simply went about their duties while another group, in the Salvadoran case the military, deemed that work to be dangerous or a threat to them, not unlike the early Christians were a threat to the Romans. (By in large, the cases I am familiar with occurred during the country’s civil war from 1980-1992.)

That leads me to the Salvadoran custom that seems most unfamiliar to me so far, the celebration for the martyred. Salvadorans are determined to hold in reverence those individuals who lost their lives having died or been killed for their belief, in this case, their practicing faith. El Salvador is not alone in celebrating their martyrs. Most of the African nations, Eastern Asian countries, Malaysian countries, and other Central and South American countries do the same. Some countries set aside a single day – Martyrs Day. Not in El Salvador. That country takes its martyrs VERY seriously! Just to review, martyrs have been around for millennia.

Those Salvadoran individuals who have been assassinated for their faith, for example, are commemorated on the day of their death every single year. This shows a sense of deep respect and honor for those who have died for their faith. Individual memorial celebrations are held for each person who lost his/her life in this way. Some are very public events drawing an international presence. Others are smaller, more private events.

Each and every Salvadoran in the country can probably tell you that on March 24, 1980 Archbishop (now Saint) Oscar Romero was assassinated while giving mass at the chapel of the cancer hospital he cherished and where he resided. He became a martyr due to his unfailing advocacy for the poor and oppressed despite the frequent death threats to him. All kinds of remembrances such as parades and services occur in his honor on that day throughout the country. Pilgrims come from around the world to take part in the commemorations.

On December 2, 1980, four women missionaries were raped and murdered in a remote location as they returned to the airport in El Salvador. Three were Catholic nuns and one a committed church lay person. They too are considered martyrs, and a chapel has been erected at the site of that assault. That date is also marked by the country and the church. A movie, Choices of the Heart about Jean Donovan, the lay woman from Connecticut, sheds some light into her life.

The six Jesuit priests, their caregiver, and her daughter were assassinated at UCA (University of Central America) on November 16, 1989, by the military. The priests were some of the brightest minds in the country, which had threatened the military. They are remembered in a processional candlelight vigil around the grounds of the university each year. Internationals come from all over the world to take part in this somber event.

David Fernandez, a Lutheran pastor known for his compassionate care in health promotion and humanitarian aid was killed on November 23, 1984. I’ll never forget the day his widow, Concepcion, brought tattered yellow newspaper articles she had kept all these years, all she has left of David, to show us. His daughters, Belinda and Cynthia, now carry on his tradition as third generation Lutheran pastors.

David’s daughter, leads a commemorative worship service in honor of her father.

Wuilver Carrillos, also a newly ordained Lutheran pastor, makes certain to hold a worship service of remembrance for his parents, Francisco and Jesus, both Lutheran pastors, who were gunned down coming out of their church on November 6, 2006. Presiding in that same church, Wuilver displays large photos of his parents on that date each year when a cadre of pastors and members gather holding candles for a special service of remembrance.

A collage from one of the services to remember Wuilver’s parents

The list can go on and on, unfortunately, but these are the ones I know of personally. The point is that there is not one collective day of remembrance throughout the country but rather a day for each and every martyr who lost his or her life giving of himself by living a life of faith.

Each martyr, like most associated with their commitment to their faith, was accused unjustly of being a subversive, Communist, and terrorist. Each was targeted and mercilessly killed. Some had received frequent overt death threats. Each of them stood stalwart for what he or she believed with unwavering faith during a very unsettled time in the country’s history.

Each martyr deserves his or her own day of remembrance.


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    Saint Stephen Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA)
    30 West Main Street, PO Box 266
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