Cortina Found Beneath A Tin Roof

Chayo’s home. Fr. Cortina helped build it.

December 12th was the fifth anniversary of Fr. Jon Cortina’s death. He passed away before I enrolled at Creighton and long before I knew anything of the tiny nation of El Salvador. To me it was just some country that popped up in National Geographic now and again. Yet Fr. Cortina and the people of El Salvador have none the less become two of the most influential things in my life. His life and his community have, without any doubt, reoriented my life.

I’ll be the first to say that my sophomore year in the Cortina Community was inspiring but far from life altering. I had a service site, a companion and had viewed Fr. Don Doll’s documentary on Fr. Cortina in Jesuit Journeys. Yet I knew little about the man or his ministry. I served just to serve. I completed my ethics homework out of an obligation to the class – not out of some desire to improve my own ethical understanding or to become a better person. For a year I lived in a community that just happened to be named after a deceased Jesuit named Jon Cortina. The emptiness in my experience pushed me to dig deeper as my sophomore year ended. I approached it as an academic question – best answered in class. So I enrolled in a Latin American-United States relations course and a course on the life of Oscar Romero, a man whom I knew influenced Jon Cortina in some way. My coursework left me informed about the context of Cortina’s ministry but still empty to the greater questions of his life and ministry.

So I took a risk and enrolled in Dr. Thomas Kelly’s theology travel course to El Salvador. What better way to learn about the life and practice of Jon than from the very people with whom he lived. I’d only left the United States on a limited basis before and had no idea what to expect in Central America.
That first rainy night in Guarjila forever changed me and my relationship to Fr. Cortina, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I was to live with Chayo and her family for three weeks. Sheltered from the rain by the tin roof over her adobe home I introduced myself, in broken Spanish, explaining where I’d come from, my family and what I did at Creighton. Prior to the trip I’d learned that I was to be one of the Resident Advisors for the Cortina Community in the coming year. While I didn’t get across exactly what a Resident Advisor did Chayo and her children, Marlo, Aida and Alexi, did pick up one key word: Cortina.

Chayo then pointed to the calendar on the wall I had missed when taking in the room. It was a Jon Cortina-themed calendar. (An identical calendar now adorns my dorm room wall) Front and center on the poster was the mural on Cortina’s home. She asked if this was the Cortina I meant and I nodded, . Quickly Chayo began rummaging around in her bureau for some unknown object. In a few seconds she pulled out a small photo album. It contained photos of she, a younger Marlo, Alexi, Aida, and her mother, Maria, standing beside an open coffin. “Cortina,” Chayo said as she pointed to the body in the photograph. It was the family at Cortina’s funeral four years prior.

The funeral took place at the parking garage at the University of Central America, where Cortina taught engineering. (Cortina was originally a fully-tenured professor at the UCA but was demoted to adjunct by Ignacio Ellacuria in the 1980s. The workers at the UCA organized and tried to unionized – against the wishes of Ignacio. Cortina sided with the workers and for this Igancio demoted him. Cortina took it in stride and continued teaching but now had more free time to work with the rural poor, especially those in Guarjila.) What an appropriate structure to hold the funeral for an engineer! According to John Guliano, the director of the Tamarindo Foundation in Guarjila, the only gringos at the funeral (besides himself) were Fathers Don Doll and Burt Thelen from the Jesuit Community at Creighton University. Buses brought the people of Guarjila to San Salvador for the funeral. Everyone went out of respect for Padre. They draped his coffin with a Basque flag. Cortina was proud of his homeland and was quick to correct anyone who assumed he was Spanish.

Chayo’s excitement as she shared stories of Cortina and the photos from the funeral brought to Padre to life for me. He was not just a photo in a frame or a name splashed across our community. He was a man who lived and died for the people of El Salvador. He worked with them to build proper homes and running water. Cortina walked with the people to obtain their basic needs and human dignity. While I heard snippets of this during my year in the community it wasn’t until that rainy night in El Salvador that I realized the magnitude of his work. Eventually I came to know that Chayo’s own home was built with the help of Fr. Cortina and the running water in her yard came from the system designed and built by Cortina and the people of Guarjila.

As I sit and reflect on the fifth anniversary of Cortina’s death this December I do so in light of the people whom he served. His memory is not carried on through sermons, books or photographs. It lives in the people of Guarjila. I did not find Cortina in my residence hall. I found Cortina beneath a tin roof, vibrating with the mountain rain, surrounded by the adobe walls he helped construct, and among the people with whom he lived.

Paz y amor,

Aida and myself. It was through her family that I discovered Cortina

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