Oscar Romero coverage: Los Angeles Times shows it can get religion when it wants to

I’ve often criticized the Los Angeles Times’ religion coverage –- or lack thereof -– but it was clear this past week in their stories about Sunday’s canonization of Saint Oscar Romero that the paper knows how to marshall resources for the religion beat when it wants to.

It helps that there is an Oscar Romero Square in LA, not to mention a Romero art installation in Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral downtown plus an estimated population of more than 400,000 Salvadorans in southern California. Maybe it helps that Romero is a hero to many Catholics on the cultural left.

Romero was killed in 1980 while celebrating Mass; his murder planned by right-wing death squads and directed by ex-Salvadoran Army Maj. Roberto D’Aubuisson. I was only two years out of college when he died. However, thanks to generous coverage of the man in Sojourners magazine (which I subscribed to at the time), I knew who Romero was.

Running an Associated Press account as the main story, the Times sent a Spanish-speaking reporter, Esmeralda Bermudez, to Rome to provide “color” stories (as we call it in the industry) of the locals who traveled to Rome for the ceremony. It helped that Bermudez was born in El Salvador.

In life, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was persecuted, shot in the heart by a single bullet while he celebrated Mass.

In death, his legacy was politicized, calumniated — all but silenced.

So for many Sunday, it was extraordinary to see Pope Francis at last declare Romero a saint in St. Peter’s Square.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims filled Vatican City’s ancient plaza for the ceremony . . . Romero’s followers traveled from El Salvador, Los Angeles, Washington; from distant lands like Sweden, Norway and Australia.

On this grand stage, they savored every detail: the bright blue sky filled with cotton-like clouds; the Gregorian chants ringing over a sea of 70,000 people; the red-ostrich-feathered helmets of the Vatican’s fancy Swiss guards; the bloodstained rope belt worn by Romero at his time of death, now tied around the Pope’s waist to honor his memory.

Romero! Romero! Your pueblo is with you, Romero!

Then there was this, about the locals:

“We deserved to have this day,” said Jesus Gutierrez, a Salvadoran doctor from Torrance who waited before dawn to enter the square. “We’ve dreamed about being right here, in this moment, for so long.”

To reach Rome, some went to great lengths. They took out bank loans and loaded credit cards; they crowdfunded and dipped into savings; they worked double shifts and lived on tight budgets.

“I sold pupusas, empanadas, panes con pollo, yuca frita, mangoneadas,” said Norma Portillo, 52.

Why is this important to California-based readers?

In the multitudes lining St. Peter’s Square, there were pockets of pilgrims from Los Angeles. Many of the Salvadorans displaced by the 12-year civil war, by Romero’s consequential death, ended up settling all over the Southland. Many vowed that when Romero’s canonization came, they would attend, regardless of where it was in the world.

There are at least 2.6 million Salvadorans in the United States, many of them in central Los Angeles as well as Washington, D.C., Houston and Miami. (The Donald Trump administration would like many of them to leave).

The Times also featured a story about a huge Mass on Sunday, attended by about 3,000 Salvadoran immigrants at the cathedral. Several of the articles were translated into Spanish. It also ran a photo essay on the local couple, Maria Hilda and Guillermo Gonzalez, who helped preserve the new saint’s legacy through keeping Romero’s old microphone and other paraphernalia, which the caption termed the saint’s “relics.”

Due to the Times’ weird/non-functioning search feature on its site, I had to rely on Google to help me come up with the piece that explained who this couple is.

After he was killed, they burned his photographs and nearly every memento they had of their friend. The rest they buried in their garden, just beneath their guava tree.

Maria Hilda and Guillermo Gonzalez feared saying his name, even to their closest relatives…

Now 68 and 71 years old, Maria Hilda and Guillermo of Granada Hills thought they would never live to see this day — traveling to Rome for Romero’s canonization. …

It’s truly a fascinating tale.

Their time in Los Angeles has been devoted to speaking about this man who became their life so many years ago. They take Romero’s photo, his microphone and his story to churches, prayer groups and homes all over: South L.A., San Bernardino, Salinas, San Diego…

But the path has not been easy. At some churches, especially at the beginning, some would walk out of their presentations. Right-wing Salvadorans in the audience labeled them guerrillas. At some churches, officials refused to play their video about Romero’s life. At others, they would be invited to speak, then at the last minute, turned away.

All this coverage shows one thing: If it cares to, the Times staff can and will do decent religion coverage. As of now, it still lacks a full-time religion reporter even though it employs many other writers who specialize in other beats. Meanwhile, the city has one of the most diverse religious populations on the planet.

What will it take to get the Los Angeles Times to hire a professional religion reporter? Maybe a papal visit?

The West Coast is overdue for Vatican drop-by. Maybe something comparable to John Paul II’s 1987 U.S. tour — which included stops in Los Angeles and San Francisco –- but with a greater sweep, ie the cities of the Pacific Northwest?

One can always dream.

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