· Vatican City ·

The stories

Marianella’s Legacy

06 March 2021

An advocate for the oppressed, she was killed on March 13, thirty-eight years ago in El Salvador.
Her biography runs parellel with that of Monsignor Romero

To tell Marianella Garcia Villas’s story means not least to extract from oblivion the life and death of a strong and courageous young woman, a lover of perfumes, and celebrating her memorial, is like an Easter liturgy. The broken bread of her life dedicated to the poor, and the blood shed for oppressed women and men.

Thirty-eight years ago she was captured by El Salvadorean soldiers who tortured her for hours.  Her body was found March 13, 1983.

Marianella was born in 1948 into an upper middle class family in El Salvador, to a Salvadoran mother and Spanish father. She studied in Barcelona at the expensive and prestigious Las Teresianas religious college. In addition to horseback riding and learning to play the violin, the nuns were offered the opportunity to teach catechism to the children of the barrio in La Torraza.  While there, for the first time, the young Marianella encountered the gaze of those who were hungry and cold, the faces of street children and adults marked by poverty. From that moment on, her eyes looked for nothing else.

Upon her return to El Salvador, and during the years of Catholic Action in university, she began to work in La Fosa, an area where people live in shacks, in miserable conditions, and total precariousness.  At that time, Marianella wondered why, and asked herself how in such a Catholic country, even by name, there could be forms of injustice and marginalization so widespread and rooted. She promoted university groups to read the Gospel in order to understand the “preferential choice for the poor”, drawing on the documents of the Council and of the historic Conference of the Latin American Episcopate of Medellin in Colombia (1968), and on the texts of liberation theology.

Her passion for juridical studies, for the philosophy of law, and for active politics led her to become a lawyer for the Legal Aid of the diocese of San Salvador, the diocese of Oscar Arnulfo Romero, and founded and presided over the Commission for Human Rights, to become involved in the Salvadoran Christian Democracy. Before an outraged farewell to her party, due to arrests and persecution by the security forces of the Christian Democrat party, Marianella founded the Movimento campesinos de mujeres democratas cristianas (Christian Democratic Women's Farmers' Movement) with Maria Paula Perez. The two women visited peasant women in inaccessible places, read the Bible with them, celebrated the Word, analysed reality, and tried to organize a network of communities and families committed to the defense of their rights.  

Marianella helped to find “ ‘the name of words’, that is, to identify things, to recognize them, to accept or fight them, and then to know that beyond the garden gate, or the curve of the mountain, beyond the river and the sea, there were others who spoke words equivalent to their own, even if in a different language, and that a bridge could be established between these languages, a channel of friendship and solidarity” (Il Margine by Linda Bimbi,1984). She experienced the faith with “a true, almost mystical passion for a person, a real embodiment of love”.

Carrying this rich baggage of embodied spirituality, she established a special friendship with America's Pulgarcito, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, who is today a saint.

Every week Marianella placed her burden in Romero’s hands. Whether it was photographs, numbers, names, stories, wounds, tortures, evidence, information that was transformed, when it came into contact with the fire of the scriptures, into the burning coals of his preaching.

To him she brought those faces, captured with her other eye, the lens of a camera, her faithful companion that became an instrument for reporting and capture evidence of the violation of human rights, whether it be the beatings or the rapes. These were the “Faces of campesinos without land, angered by the armed forces and power. Faces of workers fired for no reason, faces of the elderly, faces of the marginalized, of inhabitants of hovels, faces of poor children who from childhood had already begun to feel the cruel bite of social injustice” (Romero Homily)

In that shepherd’s hands she also placed her pain, the fatigue of continuing the struggle after seeing friends and acquaintances die, the rebellion after her arrests and her tragic silence after the sexual violence she suffered. At the cold and terrible account of her rape Romero burst into tears and his unexpected tears succeed in appeasing the hatred and transforming the desire for revenge into another opportunity for merciless reporting by Marianella the lawyer.

“To rape a woman is considered an obligation in the test of virility, whoever does not do it with a captured woman, whoever respects her, is pilloried, mocked as impotent and it is the bosses themselves who inculcate in their subordinates this mixture of inculcation, machismo and alienation. Thus this violence, which has always existed, has become a habitual and institutionalized practice for the security corps and the army” (interview in Marianella e i suoi fratelli [Marianella and Her Brothers], by Linda Bimbi and Raniero La Valle - Ed. Linda Bimbi 1983).

On March 24, 1980, this holy friendship seemed to have been interrupted. Romero was killed, in cold blood, as had been announced and ordered in the offices of the country’s politicians.  Despite appealing to the national and international courts, investigations opened by human rights organizations and associations, and trips to Rome, the Vatican, and Marianella herself to Europe and North America to report it. The sentence was pronounced, the archbishop had to die, the hands of a hit man to carry it out. This was only a brief suspension of earthly friendship, because three years later in the same month of March, the month of the Ides and of women's struggles, Marianella joined her brother bishop and her companions in the heavy martyrdom of El Salvador. On March 13, 1983, a press release stated that the terrorist Marianella García fell in a firefight. The only weapon found by the pacifist and non-violent guerrilla is the camera that accompanied her in her search for truth, that truth, that “splendor of reality” of her beloved Simone Weil. Reality is the teacher of life and death, with its harshness, its injustice, its negative and dark side, the one that shines in the livid color of the corpses inside the dark room and which is, however, transformed into a source of wisdom, or as the theologian Antonietta Potente would say today, into “political mysticism”.

“The great challenge that comes to us from history is the effort to become capable, without evading the reality in which we live, of maintaining distance from this same reality and questioning it, questioning ourselves to find answers that lie beyond the surface of things.

In this way we pass from a naive conscience to a critical conscience, in this way we go to the roots of facts and our vision becomes more complete.  In addition, we are able to understand the causes and, go beyond the contradictions, to make everyday life an historical event. This is wisdom” she wrote in 1981.

This is the legacy of the dangerous memory of a woman who made and still makes history.

by Grazia Villa
Advocate for the rights of persons