Sobrino on Cortina

The father of the Communities

Jon de Cortina fought against death. Many years ago he decided to dedicate his life to others. He ran many risks and he lived in danger, he lived in a time when people with a purpose were hunted down, when bombs were actually placed in the UCA and throughout the roads that lead to Chalatenango, Arcatao, San José de Las Flores, Guarjila, and Los Ranchos. Today, on December 12th, he died at the age of 71. when I told father Jose Ellacuria that Jon had died of a cerebral hemorrhage, he said “that is the end of all the people that fight for justice”. This is the most profound truth about Jon’s death.

Very rarely I have seen so many tears, so heart felt, like I have today here in the UCA among the people that worked with him, and especially among those who worked with him in the communities. One hour after I found out about his death, they asked me to speak about Jon in the YSUCA.

Spontaneously, and without giving a lot thought to this, I called him “the father of the communities”. The people of the rural areas, men and women, cry now for him as one cries the death of a father.

Jon went to Aguilares in 1977 after Rutilio Grande was murdered, when very few priests were willing to take his position. Since then, Rutilio Grande called him “Father Tilo”, as the people of the area did –and he rebuilt twice the three crosses that were placed where he was killed along with a child and an elderly person, three crosses that were destroyed many times by barbarians with no feelings-. Back then, in those times of oligarchic repression and security bodies, Jon had his first meaningful experience with a poor country, a suffering country whose dignity had been disrespected –and with the sense of hope left by Rutilio Grande-. That touched him deeply.

The eighties, the years of the war, arrived. Many times we heard him speak about the horror of the war, about the death of the tortured rural inhabitants, about their generosity, about their hope for liberation. This liberation never arrived, but the Peace Accords did, the main ingredients were the Accords and not the peace, nor the reconciliation, nor the justice.

After some time in Jayaque, when it was possible to return to the conflict area in Chalatenango, he was in San Jose de Las Flores and in Guarjila, where he lived and worked for 20 years. There, in 1994, before the pain of the mothers and families that had lost their relatives during the war, especially their children, who had been stolen away from them, he decided to work even harder to find them. Jon was hurt by the pain of the mothers that had lost their children.

He founded Pro-Busqueda, and was able to see how more than 300 children found their families. He kept telling the following story: “A very old lady –I cannot remember her name- who was almost blind because of diabetes, said that she did not want to lose her eye-sight in order to be able to see her son, because she was sure that she would find him”, and Jon made everything he could to cure her from her diabetes so that she could see her son. That was what made him happy. It is not necessary to explain his pain. The last words I remember that Jon said were “they have to ask these people to forgive them”. He pronounced these astonishing words with an absolutely serious expression.

Jon learned a lot through his work for the children that disappeared in the country. He kept repeating that “after such a long war in El Salvador, with so much blood left behind, a genuine sense of peace has not arrived yet. Impunity is still here, and part of our job is to end with it”. And he demanded that this territory had to reach acceptable standards to be called a “country”, to speak about “economic progress”, or “democracy”, because, otherwise, these words were just a farce, and insulting lie. “The victims have the right to be compensated, morally speaking as well as technically speaking. A compensation in the technical sense of the word will be a difficult thing to get, but at least someone has to ask for the people’s forgiveness”.

Pro-Busqueda is today a symbol of a prophetic denunciation. It was able to get the approval of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights of the OAS against the Salvadoran State in the case of the Serrano Cruz sisters. This is a sign of denunciation against the impunity and the corruption of the judicial institutions. But most of all, it is a sign of reconciliation.

The obituaries say that Jon de Cortina was a defender of the human rights. But he was more than that. Not because of his profession, but because of his vocation; not because of ethics, but because of love, he defended the people because he loved them.

This is the Salvadoran Jon Cortina. In a meeting that we had with the Jesuit priests of Central America, about 20 years ago, father Ignacio Ellacuria was chosen to talk about El Salvador. And he began his speech with these words “To speak about the Salvadoran population, father Cortina would have to be here, not I”.

Jon was also a prestigious professor at the UCA for 30 years, he was a promoter of the seismological studies and the safe structures. For the Jesuits, he was a very dear friend, with a unique sense of humor, an ingenious man.

If I were to say what are my personal thoughts about him, I would say that we went to the same school, we went to the same novice school in Orduña and in Santa Tecla; we studied engineering and philosophy ay the University of Saint Luis, and theology in Frankfurt. In the same year, 1974, we came back to El Salvador, to work at the UCA, and we shared many things within the community for many years. Jon was such a dear friend. It was easy for Jon to get into our hearts. That is what many people say now. That is why they cry his death, and that is why there are many dear memories of him. That is why he has not died at all. His departure left an empty space, but his memory gives us strength to live and to work, to share, and to wait.

The document that brought us the news of his death in Guatemala uses just the right words to describe the situation: “Rest in peace after a tenacious battle”. We ask the Lord that the memory of Jon allows us not to rest in peace. We have used his words to say good-bye to him: “The most important thing is to be close to the people. We will never be able to talk if we are not with them. And once we are with them, our job has to be to give them hope, to encourage them”.

As a good Salvadoran, as a follower of the Christian faith, and as a Jesuit, Jon Cortina loved Monsignor Romero”.

Jon Sobrino
December 12th, 2005.

(taken from

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