Jean Donovan’s Guitar
This past December, Maryknoll Lay Missioner Debbie Northern (working at our central office in Ossining, NY) asked me to write an article about Jean Donovan – how her life and legacy live on in El Salvador. Since I never personally met Jean before she died, I felt Debbie’s request would be a nice way to get closer to Jean, to search for and discover her spirit, alive, among us.
I learned of Jean in 1984 (four years after her martyrdom on December 2nd, 1980), when I was working on the California-Mexico border with Salvadoran refugees. I lived with five other volunteers in a house we rented from Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Calexico, CA. The house library contained a movie called Roses in December by Ana Carrigan and Bernard Stone. One evening I pulled it down from the shelf and watched it. I was spellbound. The music from the song Be Not Afraid and images of Jean with her guitar and her incredible story hooked me. My spirit bowed down to that powerful simplicity. I wanted to be a part of it, and I wanted to learn to play the guitar. But it wasn’t until after long mission stints in Mexico, Venezuela, and working with an immigrant community in Brooklyn that the dream of learning to play reached fulfillment, when I arrived in El Salvador in 2011. At that time, I bought three guitars–one for nearly each decade I had procrastinated. I had no excuse now. The idea was to learn to play one and lend the other two out.
El Salvador, of course, is a different situation today than in Jean’s time here (1979-1980), yet her spirit of sharing music is just as relevant now as it was then. One day a gang member suddenly appeared in the community center where I work in La Esperanza. I was alone. “Hey, give me a guitar,” he said. Hair greased back, Marvin was middling tall, muscular, wearing a tank top shirt. His stature filled the only entrance to the community center and his craggy face took on the air of a petrified gargoyle that wasn’t going to budge until he got what he wanted. I handed him a guitar and told him I’d need it back tomorrow, at two, for a catechism class. My pulse raced as he took the guitar and walked out; I thought I’d never see it again.
The following day I arrived fifteen or twenty minutes early to get materials ready for my class. Marvin, cradling the guitar in his arms, was already at the front gate. “Gracias por tu confianza,” he said and looked at me with a solid, ruddy stare. He thanked me again for trusting him and put the guitar in my arms. His eyes turned big, like a frog’s sulking in deep water, as if he were tangled in something he couldn’t escape. “Take it again tonight if you want,” I told him. He shook his head, declining, and explained he had only wanted to play mañanitas for his mother that morning. It was her birthday (I knew his mother; she lived in dire poverty and had been bedridden for quite some time). “Take it,” I said. “Keep singing.”
He refused and a few weeks later he was arrested by the soldier-cops (National Police, which was the National Guard during Jean’s time). He ran when he first saw them and was shot and wounded. He remains in prison to this day. “Only if we could have reached him a few years earlier with that guitar,” I’ve often wondered.
I met Alex at a younger age, eleven. He also lives with his mother in desperate poverty and like so many kids in La Esperanza is bored out of his mind, but the day I showed up at his house with a wheelbarrow full of books (from our mobile library) and a guitar on top, he perked up. We practiced a few chords and he asked if he could keep the guitar. “It’s like a book,” I told him. “The only difference is you can keep it for up to six months as long as you’re practicing.” For a year we practiced (he checked it out twice), and now he’s playing a few songs. His favorite is Madre de los Pobres (Mother of the Poor). He has since become a member of the parish choir and often travels to sing at various events in San Salvador like the feast of Nuestra Señora de la Paz. When he returns from these events, you can see a light in his eyes. He is now fourteen and a catechist.
Most kids have no idea what they can get from the guitar, but I’ve found if someone encourages them and tells them to keep working at it, they get better. They get excited about playing and that opens other doors. Jean Donovan’s spirit did that for me, and in turn that spirit inspired Alex, and now he is singing and calling others.
Together in Mission,