In my bedroom in Pittsburgh, PA, the flimsy white cross seems out of place on my bookcase. It is fragile and home made, so simple among my richly-glazed Nicaraguan pottery. The name of a Salvadoran girl, Santos Chavarria Luna, is painted on it. Age 5, the cross tells us.
Back in the late 90’s I joined a group of protesters marching to shut down The School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. We also referred to it as ” School of the Assassins” due to its roster of graduates: High-ranking military officers responsible for the brutal deaths of El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero, of five Jesuit priests from Spain who were teaching at San Salvador’s University of Central America, for the 1981 massacre of 800-plus innocent Salvadoran camposinos in their northern village, El Mozote. Most of the dead at El Mozote were children. Many of them babies, decapitated or thrown in the air and stabbed with bayonets.
Coincidentally I had visited the killing grounds of El Mozote after the massacre. Then it was a barren plot of nothingness except for a small iron “silhouette” of a family of four holding hands; a monument to remember a collective life that was no more because everyone had been brutally murdered. Santos Chavarria Lunas had lived in El Mozote and died there with her family.
As the protesters formed a group preparing to enter the SOA grounds, white crosses were hastily handed out to everyone by organizers for the illegal “crossing the line of the “School of the Assassins.” I reached for the cross being handed to me and held it up toward the sunlight to read it. Each cross bore the name of a murder victim whose death could be traced to a proud graduate of SOA.
How could it be? Of the hundred-plus crosses being distributed, this one in my hands wore the words “El Mozote” scribbled across the wood bar, and there was a child’s name…Santos Chavarria Luna. Age 5. The significance of my being in this place was beginning to deepen. This was more than a protest march for me. It was like a graveside visit for a little girl that I had never met but who now was finding a special place in my heart. I had visited what was once her home, where she played with her brothers and sisters, sat on her father’s lap and kissed her mother goodnight. Now they all were gone.
Holding the cross high, I moved forward with other trespassers as we headed for the demarcation line that was meant to separate us from SOA property on the other side. Illegal trespassing? I didn’t care. This was all I could do for a child whose right to live was smashed because of SOA.
I was arrested, of course. That was the point. My white cross was taken from me just before I was taken away to be processed as a criminal. I promised myself that I would remember every detail of my cross…to be thankful for the short time that I was able to carry it…to never forget the name of this child who died at the hands of brutal killers. Their training officers learned their skill right here where I was now standing.
I faced a friendly prosecutor who suggested that instead of purposefully breaking the law, I could be home with my family “shooting a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.” His face lit up when he emphasized “shooting”. After a bevy of personal questions, I was told that I would be released since this was my first offense. But if I returned to SOA again, I would face a 2-year prison term and fined a hefty amount that exceeded far more than I could earn in a year.
I was led outside the processing hall where a guard pointed to the ground’s exit and suggested that I leave immediately. As I walked away, I passed behind a large open-bed truck filled with…could I believe my eyes?…white crosses high up in a twisted pile. They had been tossed there haphazardly, obviously confiscated from the protesters and thrown away like garbage.
One cross seemed to light up like a bright neon before my eyes. “Santos Chavarria Luna, age 5”…I stood in disbelief and stared. It was MY cross, waiting for me to take it away from this odious place! Within seconds all that was left of Santos Chavarria Luna was cradled in my arms. She was going home with me.