History of the Romero Interfaith Center – Philadelphia-Las Anonas de Santa Cruz Sister Cities
Written for the 25th Anniversary of U.S. – El Salvador Sister Cities
An invitation to engage in sistering – A community of nomadic refugees from El Salvador’s civil war, weary of running through the hills with the military on its heels and subsisting on fruits, roots and charity for years, settled on land formerly known as the village Santa Cruz in the Usulutan Department. Regular harassment by the military led CRIPDES to ask a committee in the U.S. to accompany this newly-formed community. The Romero Interfaith Center (RIC) in Philadelphia had recently emerged from the Sanctuary Movement and the Going Home Campaign, the first offering refuge from war-torn countries of Latin America like El Salvador and the second supporting Salvadoran refugees in repopulating their homelands, and was called to accompany Santa Cruz. Two delegations traveled from Philly to meet the people of Santa Cruz in November of 1990, solidifying and celebrating this new sister relationship.
Followed by two decades of commitment to mutual solidarity – In a pre-Peace Accord gesture, the government gave the FMLN a parcel of land in the Lower Lempa region of San Vicente formerly known as Las Anonas. On April 18, 1991, the FMLN presented the title to this land to the community of Santa Cruz who had moved down from the mountain and across the Lempa River to become the community Las Anonas de Santa Cruz. The next delegation from Philadelphia visited the community on their new land in November of the following year.
The first priority for the community in the post-war era and, therefore, for our committee, was dignified housing. Together we advocated for housing promised ex-combatants in the Peace Accords and raised funds for additional housing. Much of our funding was raised through an annual banquet, an event that proved to be successful for many years. A most memorable banquet was in January of 1994 when Silverio Chicas Mendez and Maria Teresa Deras Quintero, two leaders from Las Anonas, were our honored guests. While in Philly, they shared their history and their reality in conversations at area churches, a synagogue, and universities and with elected officials, toured a Lancaster farm, and built relationships with committee members, our congregations and our broader base.
Relationships deepened and communication greatly improved when Joanie Brooks lived El Salvador in 1996. She spent half of each week in Las Anonas and half in San Salvador working on behalf of the SHARE Foundation and with Sister Cities to prepare for the international Encuentro in July of that year. Access to email and a telephone greatly facilitated the exchange of information between the community and the committee. Upon her return, Joanie compiled a family photo album that included a simple map showing the 60+ homes of the community and a photograph of each family with names and ages of each member and message that they wanted to share with the people of Philadelphia.
There was a shift in projects requested and funded in 1997, revealing a critical shift in our understanding of solidarity and sistering. Community-based projects were replaced by a regional youth organizing project in the San Vicente Department. This project, which included sports leagues, leadership training and education, was to support the organizing of many communities in the region rather than the few that were sistered with committees in the U.S. This change was a stretch for both the people of Las Anonas and for the committee in Philadelphia, but we grew to understand that a community can only be as strong as the region in which it exists, and the impact of a regional project, of regional organizing, is more far-reaching.
Another monumental growth experience for RIC was the incorporation of the Interfaith Community Building Group in our sistering efforts. In the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch on the Lower Lempa region, this pre-existing group proposed that they help rebuild damaged homes in Las Anonas. Since that initial trip in 1999, the Builders have collaborated with RIC, Sister Cities, and CRIPDES San Vicente to raise funds for and collaborate on construction projects every other year, some of those years in Las Anonas and some in other communities of the San Vicente region. The fruits of these weeks of service are seen not only in the structures and relationships built but also in the strengthening of communities organizing around the construction projects. Leaders of one community shared that their demonstrated ability in preparing for and completing a project with the Builders enabled them to procure funding for other projects. Perhaps the Builders’ greatest impact has been on our local committee as they bring new members and a burst of energy every two years, and have shared leaders with RIC – as well as with the National Board.
A second two-member delegation from El Salvador, Alberto Climaca from Las Anonas and Vilma Ortiz from CRIPDES San Vicente, visited Philadelphia in 2000. While their itinerary was similar to that of the previous delegation, they reported on Post-Mitch development and focused on the great need for economic reform. They also traveled 15 hours on a chartered bus with RIC members and others to Fort Benning, Georgia to demonstrate against the School of the Americas where Latin American military leaders responsible for the most egregious violations against civilians have been trained. The Philadelphia contingent carried crosses with the names of the 122 fallen of the families of Las Anonas. Alberto and Vilma represented their compatriots well as they stood on the stage in front of 10,000 people and delivered a strong message for U.S. “Cerre la escuela de las Americas!”
Vanessa Cardinale served as long-term volunteer with Sister Cities and lived in Las Anonas full time in most of 2003 and 2004. Her ongoing presence in the community and the hospitality offered to her made clear the commitment of each entity to our sister relationship. Vanessa’s work with the leaders in community, the National Board of CRIPDES, CRIPDES San Vicente regional staff, Sister Cities El Salvador Staff and with the National Board once she returned to the U.S. provided a wealth of information and a breadth of relationship that facilitated our solidarity work for many years.
The focus on youth organizing narrowed in 2004 with the establishment of a regional scholarship fund. The annual banquet to raise funds for our commitments gave way to an annual walk-a-thon, an event more inclusive of young people wanting to raise funds for scholarships for youth. Fundraising efforts have been more diverse in recent years, our latest success being a bowling. “Bowling for Bloques (as in cinder blocks)” was an event raising funds for a construction project and “Dollars for Scholars” raised money for the Scholarship Fund. The name for our upcoming bowling event to raise funds for the Builders to dig and build latrines could be very interesting.
A delegation of Builders was in El Salvador on July 2, 2007 when the Suchitoto 14 were arrested while en route to a demonstration against the privatization of water or fleeing the aggressive forces trying to repress the demonstrators. Upon their return to Philadelphia, delegation members mobilized in support of those arrested, jailed for three months, and charged with acts of terrorism. It was an honor for RIC to have two representatives, Sharon Browning and Frank Hollick, on the Human Rights Delegation in January of 2008 which called for the acquittal of the Suchi 14, and an even greater joy to celebrate their freedom declared the following month.
Romero Interfaith Center held a 20th anniversary celebration on March 22, 2009. We celebrated a sister relationship of nearly twenty years with the people of Las Anonas de Santa Cruz and the many the riches our experiences in solidarity have brought us. With food, music, old friends of El Salvador and new ones, we remembered our history with Las Anonas and El Salvador, while we dreamed expectantly of the emerging future. The timing was auspicious and we recognized the victory of the FMLN political party candidate, Mauricio Funes, in the Presidential Elections, the party of our brothers and sisters in El Salvador for the first time in their history. There were many reasons to rejoice!
Looking forward – Philadelphia’s relationship with Las Anonas de Santa Cruz and El Salvador continues adelante, strongly rooted in this shared history and with hopeful dreams for the future.
To all the staff and board members of Sister Cities as well as the leaders of CRIPDES who have facilitated and supported the cherished relationship we have enjoyed with our sisters and brothers of Las Anonas de Santa Cruz over more than 20 years, we say: