Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Salvadoran Army Kills Rector of Jesuit University and 7 Others for their Work in Solidarity with the Poor

On November 16, 1989, elite members of the Salvadoran army entered the campus of the Central American University and murdered six prominent Jesuit priests and two of their co-workers. They were Celina Ramos, Elba Julia Ramos, Ignacio Ellacuria, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Segundo Montes, Armando López, Juan Ramón Moreno, and Joaquín López y López .

Understanding the reasons behind this crime requires a look at the historical context, and the role these teachers, scholars and religious figures played in supporting social justice through the university and church.

Since the 1918 student mobilizations in Argentina launched a wave of university reforms in Latin America, there have been two competing visions of the function of the university in the region during the 20th century. One linked education and knowledge production to the training of leaders and professionals for the labour market, and the other focused on social transformation, human development and justice.

The university the murdered Jesuits helped to establish in El Salvador was closer to the second vision, as it sought to “...devote itself formally and explicitly to having the fundamental rights of the poor majorities respected” (Ellacuria 1982, in Hassett and Lacey Eds. 1991, p.209). More radically, they called on the university to construct itself as a place where liberation and development are the “theoretical and practical horizon” of the institution (Ibid p. 209).

What was distinctive about this institution was the way in which it systematically tried to integrate a vision of social transformation throughout: using the university as a platform for projecting an independent and critical voice to influence society, explicitly conducting research geared to the needs of social change, and attempting to structure this vision into the curriculum. What was exceptional about this work is that it was maintained in the face of intense and brutal repression by the Salvadoran government, and a 12 year civil war.

In the midst of these tensions, Jesuits in El Salvador developed a radical and novel articulation of the function of education and of the principles of Liberation Theology. The roots for this experiment, however, lay in the concrete lived experience that of some of these Jesuits and many others had of living and working alongside poor communities.

Along with others, Jesuits in El Salvador played a key role in the spread of Liberation Theology among the most marginalized members of society: peasant farmers and the urban poor. Traditionally, religion has played an important role in Latin American society. However, the dominant wing of the church had historically aligned with politically conservative social forces. This began to be challenged in the 1960’s, when a movement which advocated for the adoption of a ‘preferential option for the poor’ gained prominence throughout the continent. This Liberation Theology espoused an understanding of society from the perspective of the oppressed and excluded (reading the world from the underside of history’), and a commitment to stand in solidarity with them in their struggle for a better life.

At the centre of this movement was the pedagogical concept of praxis, the cycle between critical reflection and action, whereby participants were encouraged to reflect their own lived experience and become active citizens. This newly found sense of agency among people participating in Liberation Theology would have important consequences in El Salvador and Latin America.

While most advocates of Liberation Theology emphasized the separation between church and civil society, it was no coincidence that some of the first popular organizations agitating for social reform and the protection of their rights in El Salvador arose from precisely the same communities where grassroots groups were practicing this interpretation of religious faith. All of this angered the traditional wing of the church as well as the government, particularly as social organizations calling for basic rights, such as political freedom and land reform, proliferated and grew. As a result, many social change activists and clergy working from the Liberation Theology framework became targets of government harassment and violence, even before the start of the Salvadoran civil war in 1980.

It is important to note that all of these developments happened in the context of larger trends in Latin America and the Global South, and echoed them. Like most of Latin America, El Salvador was undergoing a period rapid change, and deep economic and political upheavals characterized by increased poverty and social dislocation, and by cycles of social mobilization for reform (or revolution), followed by violent repression; usually supported by the United Sates as part of its own Cold War strategy. Located in the land bridge between South and North America, tiny El Salvador was a microcosm that mirrored the forces that rippled across the region for large parts of the 20th century. Other universities in the continent too came under intense pressure from repressive regimes intent on curtailing the autonomy of institutions of higher learning, and on preventing authentic political dialogue that included traditionally marginalized sectors of the society. Similarly, Liberation Theology played an important social role in many other countries from Chile to Mexico, and spread to Asia and Africa as well, where it also contributed to social change movements, and was met by the resistance of those threatened by its calls for greater justice.

Liberation Theology did not happen in isolation from other progressive social forces of the time, however. It had an organic relationship with many other social and intellectual currents such as popular education, organized labour, feminism, student movements and indigenous organizations, and in synergy with them, helped to invigorate a critical civil society calling for a new social order. At times Liberation Theology contributed to, and at times it borrowed from these other currents. For example, Paulo Freire, a central figure in the development of Popular Education, was himself active in a Christian Base Community practicing Liberation Theology before writing Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In turn, many of the concepts and tools of Popular Education were incorporated into the grassroots practice of Liberation Theology. Likewise, leaders and militants of MST (the Landless Rural Worker’s Movement) in Brazil are strongly influenced by Liberation Theology ideas.

In pursuing their radical vision of the university and church, the Jesuits in El Salvador and others put themselves at considerable risk. After all, this was the same country where a right-wing death squad had assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980 for his call to justice and an end to repression. The 1989 massacre of the Jesuits on a university campus was more than just a brutal crime then; it was the action of an oppressive regime resisting calls for inclusion and justice. Similarly, the actions of the murdered Jesuit educators were part of a broader and longer-term struggle to bring about a more just society.


Berryman, P. (1990). Ignacio Ellacuria: An Appreciation. America; vol.163 (1),12-15.

Commission on the Truth for El Salvador. (1993). From Madness to Hope: the 12-Year war in El Salvador. New York: United Nations.

Gutierres, G. (1979), The Power of the Poor in History (William E. Jerman Trans). Quzon City, Philippines: Claretian Publications.

Hassett, J. and Lacey, H. Eds (1991). Towards a society that serves its people: the intellectual contribution of El Salvador's murdered Jesuits. Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.

Kane, L. (2001). Popular Education and Social Change in Latin America. Nottingham, UK: Russell Press.

Prepared by Nelson Rosales, OISE/UT, 2006

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