Missoula artist Melissa Bangs asks me if I want to talk in Spanish. I think about it but decline; nonetheless, our conversation will waver in and out of the second language we both speak. We’re standing in her studio space at Ceretana studios—a rustic grain elevator turned into art studios for working artists on the east side of Sherwood Street. She’s holding one of her paintings, a portrait of a priest with thick-framed eyeglasses, a sturdy jaw, unassuming eyes and a modest, parting smile.
“One thing that’s surprising is that when he was appointed Archbishop, he was a very conservative Catholic man,” Bangs says of the man in the painting. “He was not a threat to the powers-that-be at that time.”
She’s talking about Oscar Romero, the former Archbishop of San Salvador who was shot through the heart by Salvadoran soldiers as he gave Mass March 24, 1980. The day before his death Romero had called on government soldiers to stop the repression and killing that had ravaged the country during its bloody civil war.
Twenty-five years later, during a ceremony at Romero’s El Salvador home commemorating the 25th anniversary of his martyrdom, Bangs’ painting will be presented to the nuns who still care for his home and possessions. “They’re the monjas [nuns] who were there when he was killed, who held him as he was bleeding to death,” she says. The painting will henceforth hang at Romero’s home “in perpetuity,” Bangs says, but will show one last time in Missoula during First Friday at the Ceretana Gallery on Friday, March 4.
Bangs is no stranger to El Salvador, or to Romero’s home. She’s been there nine times, and every time she goes, she says, “my eyes are never dry.” Bangs fell in love with El Salvador the first time she visited in 1997.
“It blew my mind to meet people who had been tortured, had been raped and imprisoned, had lost family, had survived massacres where maybe half of their town was killed, yet those people had such vibrant, alive spirits,” she says. “They still had hope and faith and belief that something better, something beautiful and just, could be created for their children and grandchildren; and I had never seen strength like that.”
It was during her senior year at Big Sky High School in 1990 that Bangs first realized she wanted to be an activist for social justice. In a class where students were supposed to learn about the saintly writers of the U.S. Constitution, a visiting teacher from Hellgate High School walked into Big Sky High (“not the most liberal high school in town, or the most free-thinking,” Bangs says) and began talking about U.S. involvement in the conflicts and civil wars of Central America. He taught the students about military oppression and rampant poverty; he showed his students articles and films and even brought in a former CIA agent to talk to the class. One can picture a group of dumbfounded 17- and 18-year-old Montana kids staring up at a teacher speaking at length about Manuel Noriega, the Nicaraguan Sandinistas and contras, the murder of Archbishop Romero in El Salvador and the sins of Ronald Reagan, Oliver North and George Bush Sr.
“At first, I didn’t believe any of it, I don’t think any of us did,” Bangs says. “We were living in our little Montana bubble.”
If no one else in the class was convinced, Bangs was hooked or, more significantly, heart-broken. “It totally shattered my idea of the capacity for wrongdoing in the world, and the hypocrisy in the claims we made as a nation for the values we stood for,” she now says.
With her Montana bubble burst at her feet, Bangs spent most of her college career traveling through Europe and Latin America and learning Spanish. In 1997 she was one of the founding members of Friends of Ellacurio, a Missoula group dedicated to Missoula’s sister city, Ellacurio, El Salvador, a city named after a Jesuit priest murdered in 1989.
Friends of Ellacurio evolved into Community Action for Justice in the Americas (CAJA), and Bangs moved to San Francisco to work as development director for the SHARE Foundation, a social justice organization working with marginalized communities in El Salvador.
In 2000 she led a delegation of 106 people to El Salvador for the 20th anniversary of the martyrdom of Romero. It was for this particular trip that Bangs felt compelled to do something artistic as part of the celebration, so she painted the portrait of Archbishop Romero. She made hundreds of prints that she distributed to the people of El Salvador and international delegations meeting for the anniversary. To her surprise, one of the prints made it to Romero’s “tiny, humble home,” where it still hangs.
Two weeks before his murder, Romero was quoted by a newspaper as saying: “I am bound, as a pastor, by divine command, to give my life for those whom I love, and that is all Salvadorans, even those who are going to kill me.” It is Romero’s renunciation of life for love and justice that Bangs has made the central point of her painting. Underneath Romero, a throng of people, as if coming out of his chest, carries a banner that reads: “Si me matan resucitaré en el pueblo Salvadoreño” (If they kill me, I’ll arise in the Salvadoran people).
“It is true that he was more powerful dead, in some ways, than he was alive,” Bangs says. That he was willing to die for his cause, she says, brought much international attention and solidarity to El Salvador and gave hope to many Salvadorans who felt alone and isolated during the war.
In September 2004, a California federal court found former Salvadoran Air Force Captain Alvaro Rafael Saravia liable under the United States’ Alien Tort Claims Act for organizing Romero’s murder.
“Archbishop Romero: The Voice of the Voiceless” will be shown one last time in Missoula Friday, March 4, from 5 to 10 PM, before making the trip south to El Salvador. Ceretana Gallery is located at 801 Sherwood St.