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The 1980s Sanctuary Movement's embrace of liberation theology

The 1968 emergence of what is now known as liberation theology engendered new forms of religious praxis throughout Latin and Central America. Scriptural interpretation was no longer the exclusive domain of a cadre of educated male priests who often used biblical texts to enforce subservience, especially of women and the poor. Small semi-autonomous Christian base communities began to emerge in cities and rural communities where people gathered to collectively study Scripture. These base communities gave the power of biblical interpretation to the community of believers, making them radically different from older hierarchical forms of traditional Catholicism. Women were more often in leadership positions, including reading Scripture.

Norma Stolz Chinchilla, a sociology professor from Los Angeles who lived in Guatemala for many years and was an activist in the movement, remembers visiting rural villages where people were studying liberation theology and interpreting texts together. Even though neither the revolutionaries nor the church really wanted to discuss the issue of women’s liberation, it nonetheless kept coming up. Stolz Chinchilla had many Guatemalan friends who had been raised as traditional Catholics but became religious progressives as a result of their involvement in a base community.10

By the 1970s, broad-based popular movements for reform emerged throughout Central America. Some local Catholic priests even joined the people’s calls for land reform and increased democracy. Yet, the Reagan administration interpreted these uprisings in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala as threats to America’s national security. It responded by launching massive counter insurgency campaigns aimed at crushing the revolutionary movements in El Salvador and bringing down the newly founded Sandinista government in Nicaragua. These counterinsurgency tactics caused heavy civilian casualties, which inevitably triggered a massive refugee flow into the United States and the emergence of a domestic movement that demanded an end to US military intervention in Central America.

Between 1980 and 1983, an estimated 1-1.5 million people fled their homes in Central America. As it became apparent that the Reagan administration was denying virtually every asylum request, the US churches began collaborating to create a network of safe houses that moved refugees to greater safety in the interior of the country. Many refugees chose to settle in Los Angeles. It was estimated that half of the refugees coming through Tucson, Arizona, were headed to Los Angeles because they had friends and relatives already living there (Chinchilla, Hamilton and Loucky 2009, 109). Chinchilla and her co-authors note that the large Central American communities in Los Angeles also made the refugees feel relatively safe. “In a sense, Los Angeles iwis sanctuary” (Chinchilla, Hamilton and Loucky 2009, 110).

The massive Central American refugee flow into Los Angeles created a large diasporic community and a large American solidarity’ movement. Both groups felt intimately tied to the fate of Salvadorans still in the war zone back home. Chinchilla describes this period of intense activism as having been “a completely encompassing life” with meetings and vigils in McArthur Park almost every’ night. Ana Grande got involved in the solidarity movement at the age of seven by helping refugees learn English, which launched her into a life of activism.11 The intensity of this type of deep solidarity' and the personal intimacies it engendered resulted in a blurring of the borders that normally' divide people from such very' different cultural contexts.

The protracted war in Central America, coupled with an on-going refugee flow, and a highly' visible activist movement that pressured the Reagan administration and local politicians to withdraw their support from the Contras, transformed the distant war into a local moral and political issue. Leaders of major public and private institutions in Los Angeles came under pressure to declare where they stood on the war in Central America.

The Catholic Churches in Los Angeles were especially affected. Not only were they among the city’s key institutions, both Jesuit and Claretian missionaries were active in Central America. Our Lady' Queen of Angels Catholic Church’s decision to publicly provide sanctuary' for Central American refugees is testimony' to the transformative impact the war had on the religious institutions of Los Angeles. Our Lady Queen of Angels is the oldest church in Los Angeles. La Placita, as locals call it, had long been a spiritual home to thousands of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, yet for many' years it had functioned as a traditional Catholic parish. When Father Luis Oliveras arrived in 1981 he brought along his deep connections to the farmworker movement as well as his solidarity work in support of the base communities in Central America. As the war in Central America stretched on, Oliveras became increasingly radicalized. He gradually opened the church up as a refuge for those fleeing the war. Soon refugees were arriving at the US/Mexico border with the name of La Placita in their pockets.

Even before officially declaring itself a sanctuary church in December 1985, it had already become a way station for refugees. Over time, the church took in hundreds of refugees, housing them in its buildings and in other safe houses, while also helping to coordinate speaking engagements for the refugees. Prominent church leaders questioned Oliveras’ tactics while officials from the Reagan administration investigated La Placita. Local supporters of the Salvadoran government called him a Communist. His life was even threatened by a self-styled “death squad,” yet Olivares continued to provide shelter for the refugees. Eventually, Olivares took his commitment to sheltering refugees further, proclaiming that all undocumented immigrants were victims of persecution (Tobar 1993).

Many of the Central American refugees who had been deeply involved in activism in their home countries carried their liberative praxis with them to the United States (Chinchilla, Hamilton and Louky 2009, 103). They continued their activism after arriving in Los Angeles, often linking up with politically aware compatriots who had immigrated in previous decades or had come to study in the United States as well as with Chicano/as and other Latino activists who had worked with the UFW. They also made connections with local religious leaders who were inspired by liberation theology and the reports of repression transmitted by their counterparts still working in Central America (Hamilton and Chincilia 2001, 120-121).

The growing presence of Central American refugees who had been labor or community activists in their home countries contributed to a growing militancy among the emerging labor movement in Los Angeles. Since many of these refugees were undocumented, they found work in the city’s low-wage industries, including the restaurants, sweatshops, or as day laborers in the region’s construction industry. According to author and journalist, David Bacon, “people coming from Mexico, Latin America, the Philippines, and Asia often brought militant traditions and a rich repertoire of ideas for fighting employers” to the United States (Bacon 2008, 114). Refugees coming from El Salvador and Guatemala regarded the labor movement as a social movement, not just an insurance program in which workers paid dues for better wages and benefits (Bacon 2008, 135).

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