Los Angeles elected and religious leaders this morning named the corner next to L.A.'s first church, Paseo Luis Olivares, after the pastor who 25 years ago declared La Placita Church a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants escaping in the carnage of a U.S.-fed civil war in Central America. Those were heavy times in L.A. for these immigrants as well as their Latino and non-Latino supporters. The presence of Olivares's legacy and the dramatic change in L.A.'s politics became obvious when I received in the mail an invitation for a private gala dinner scheduled for tonight (I'm not going) at the Pico House, next to the church. The event's 17-person organizing committee includes L.A. council members Tom LaBonge and Ed Reyes. L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, L.A. Unified Board of Education President Monica Garcia, Congresswoman Judy Chu and U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will co-host the dinner. It's all to honor the 100 years that the Claretian order has overseen the church founded in 1822.I called on Ruben Martinez to give me some context. He's now a professor of literature and writing at Loyola Marymount University. However, between 1986 and 1993 he wrote at least a dozen stories, some front page features, for the L.A. Weekly about Olivares and the tug of war over what to do about immigration into the U.S. Here's some of what we talked about.
What was going on when Luis Olivares declared La Placita a sanctuary in 1986?
The declaration of sanctuary at La Placita occurred in the midst of the conflicts in Central America, the death squads in El Salvador, the Contra war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, both conflicts in which the United States was deeply involved. It was an incredibly divisive issue at the time, during the Reagan years. Olivares, along with his assistant pastor, Michael Kennedy, and their close friend, Father Gregory Boyle; the three of them together wrote an Op-Ed for the Los Angeles Times in which they declared La Placita, Dolores Mission, and maybe St. Vincent's sanctuaries to people arriving from Central America fleeing the conflicts who were not considered at that time refugees by the Ronald Reagan administration. The administration called them economic refugees. If you came from Cuba fleeing a communist regime, you could be considered a refugee but not if you were a leftist rebel fleeing violence from the right-wing government that the U.S. was supporting in El Salvador. If you were on the left or caught in the crossfire, as most people were, you could face the possibility of death as a civilian from the death squads' indiscriminate violence in El Salvador.
Do you recall a specific sermon or press conference delivered by Luis Olivares during this time?
There were so many press conferences in those early years. Olivares was a very savvy strategist in terms of media. He knew how to call a press conference. He knew how to get the media down to La Placita, the TV cameras, the print journalists and the radio people. They actually hosted the Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega at La Placita. They gave a breakfast for him. And this was at the height of the Contra war. To receive Daniel Ortega at that time was a clear sign of where their sympathies were, politically. Cesar Chavez was down there all the time. The luminaries of the progressive movements considered La Placita their home and of course this alienated a lot of people, among whom were some of the parishioners of La Placita, the old guard, more conservative middle class Catholics were extremely upset that Olivares was making politics there with their church.
What did Central American immigrants say about Luis Olivares at the time?
He was a hero to the refugees who were sympathetic to the progressive and revolutionary causes in Central America. He was a hero also to everyday people who were caught in the crossfire and who saw Olivares as their champion. There was a strong anti-street vending ordinance at the time in Los Angeles. Olivares declared sanctuary for the street vendors, the day laborers, for all the city's unwanted Latino people. He was opening the doors to the homeless at night. La Placita was jammed with people on the sidewalks. In the basement at night there were hundreds of cots set up. I remember thinking at the time that this must have been how things looked like during the Great Depression. I remember scenes in the basement at night where the homeless gathered, guys would bring out guitars and sing songs. They created a home for themselves in this space that Olivares offered to them and they were able to give each other succor during this incredibly difficult time.
What was the high point for Olivares?
Olivares invited Reagan's western immigration commissioner Harold Ezell to La Placita. He was a restrictionist and seen by pro-refugee camp as dead set against anything that would ameliorate the situation for the refugees. Olivares, in a brilliant political move, invited Harold Ezell to La Placita for joint press conference. He lured Ezell by telling him and his office that he was going to bury the hatchet and have an honest dialogue and tone down the political rhetoric. Ezell shows up and the cameras are rolling. Olivares takes out a proclamation by the La Placita community on behalf of the immigrants and refugees telling Ezell that this was a sanctuary and that it was open to all the people that the Reagan administration had shut its doors to. Ezell just turned red, stood up and walked out. Of course, the encounter made local headlines and had reverberations back in Washington D.C.
Olivares very much wanted to push those buttons. This was part of his media strategy. The more waves he could make, the more media tension would occur and therefore, in his view, have an impact on the balance of power. I think you could say that Olivares won many of the battles and I think in the long term really won the war. The peace treaty was signed in El Salvador. Ultimately various Democratic and later Republican administrations would look at the Salvadorans among us as refugees and give them Temporary Protected Status, the TPS program which is still in place today. Without Olivares's ministry, without his activism, I think it might well have turned out differently.
What was the reaction when Olivares died in 1993?
He fell ill suddenly with meningitis. It shook people up. He was in the hospital. He came back to La Placita for one last mass. He came in on a wheelchair, with hospital bracelets on. He really wanted to be there for this Sunday mass. The pews were packed, people were in tears seeing how he was. His head was dropping. Another priest officiated the mass. When it came time for the homily, they gave Olivares a wireless mic and suddenly he started speaking, in very hushed tones at the beginning. He started weaving a really powerful sermon. He was a fantastic preacher. He was more like a Baptist fire-and-brimstone preacher than the staid, more Catholic homilies that we're used to. Pretty soon he was weaving one of his powerful sermons about social justice and how the Gospel had to be lived here on earth and not in the afterlife. He bade his parish farewell saying something like, 'I believe that the ministry that we have started here will go on forever to live out the true meaning of the Gospel.' Then his head dropped. There wasn't a dry eye in the house. He knew he was leaving.
What are your thoughts about how he's remembered, about how his actions may be slowly dissolving into the ether of L.A.'s ambivalence to recording some of its history?
It's been a long time coming that he gets this recognition. People have been talking for this for a long time. He lives on in the social justice movement in Los Angeles. Now there's a book out by UC Santa Barbara historian Mario Garcia. People are staring to write the history down. It took a while. The most troubling thing of all is that after he left La Placita, he was part of the Claretian order, the Claretians replaced him at La Placita with a really politically conservative pastor. That was salt on the wounds of the social justice community there. Within a couple of weeks of the arrival of the new pastor, every shred of evidence of Olivares's social justice ministry was erased. There were no longer homeless in the basement, no more street vendors under the eaves of the church. No social justice homilies during the masses. And even the icons, including a portrait of slain Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero, were taken down. What's been happening in recent years is that people are starting to put it back. That's a moral for L.A. and the way it deals with history. Yes, there's radical and painful erasures of history in Los Angeles but in the end those communities that have been the subject of those erasures have been able to come back and rewrite their stories.