How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

A statue to Salvadoran icon rises in McArthur Park

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Councilman Gil Cedillo, state Sen. Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) and others look on as the statue of Msgr. Oscar Romero is unveiled Saturday in McArthur Park.

Hundreds of people crowded around the southeast corner of McArthur Park on Saturday, craning their necks to get a glimpse of a newly unveiled statue of late Salvadoran archbishop, Msgr. Oscar Romero.

Romero was an outspoken critic of government repression in his native country in the time leading up to the Salvadoran civil war, which began in 1979. He was gunned down as he celebrated mass in March of 1980.

In the dozen years that followed, many of his countrymen fled the war, a large number of them settling in Los Angeles. Many Salvadoran Americans today consider Romero a martyr and hero – and are pushing for him to be recognized as a saint by the Catholic church.

The statue project was spearheaded by the Salvadoran American Leadership and Educational Fund, which worked closely with Los Angeles city officials to make it happen.

"Msgr. Romero is a legend for Salvadorans, and having the statue in Los Angeles, the second largest concentrations of Salvadorans, what more can we ask?" said Carlos Vaquerano, the group's director, who fled El Salvador shortly after Romero's assassination.

"Many of us lost family and relatives," Vaquerano said. "I personally lost three brothers who were killed by the army, right after he was killed. So he represents the struggle of many of us. He represents the beliefs and all those ideas of social justice, and I think having him in L.A. just sends a powerful message for the future our community."

Unveiled Saturday afternoon during a ceremony with city and state officials, religious and community leaders, the statue sits in a new memorial plaza within McArthur Park. The plaza is lined with volcanic rocks - inspired by El Salvador's many volcanoes - and ringed with benches inscribed with Romero's words.

The bronze statue was created in El Salvador by artist Joaquin Serrano and flown to Los Angeles just last week. City officials said getting it ready for the ceremony was a bit of a scramble. It was temporarily held up in customs, and wasn't mounted onto its pedestal until Friday.

Seeing Romero's memory honored with a monument in the United States was enough to move some spectators to tears. Long Beach preschool teacher Vita Morales held a blue and white Salvadoran flag and a banner with Romero's likeness. She said that as a young teacher in El Salvador, she was targeted by government forces, as were other teachers and clergy.

"I don't have words to explain to you what it means to me," Morales said tearfully on Saturday. "I came here when I was 23 years old, running from the same people that killed Monsignor Romero in 1980. I want to cry, because I never thought that I was going to see him here."

Earlier this year, Roman Catholic Pope Francis cleared the way for Msgr. Oscar Romero to be considered for sainthood.

Efforts to canonize the politically active Romero had failed to move forward under previous pontiffs. Pope Francis, who was elected in March, is from Argentina and the first pope from Latin America.

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