Title: The Saint of Santa Fe
Author: Silvio Sirias
Publisher: Anaphora Literary Press
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In 1968, a young, recently ordained Colombian priest leaves behind everything to start a new parish in the jungles of Panama. Father Héctor Gallego soon discovers that his parishioners live as indentured servants. Inspired by liberation theology, he sets into motion a plan to free them. Father Gallego is successful, but his work places him on a collision course with General Omar Torrijos, the nation’s absolute ruler. On June 9, 1971, military operatives abduct the priest. He is never seen or heard from again, but he remains very much alive in the minds of Panamanians who, still today, clamor for his case to be brought to justice. Although The Saint of Santa Fe is a work of fiction, the novel is based on the real-life experiences of Héctor Gallego and the campesinos who worked alongside him to create a just society. This sweeping novel tells many stories, including that of Edilma, the priest’s sister who since age eleven has been searching for the meaning of his death. The Saint of Santa Fe is a story of faith, heroism, and sacrifice that’s reminiscent of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and Miguel de Unamuno’s San Manuel Bueno, mártir.
September 29, 1999
It’s her first time on a plane. Nervous, she follows Nubia so closely that she steps on the heel of her left foot and her older sister turns to glare for a moment. Upon reaching row nineteen, Nubia, who has been assigned the window seat, steps aside and says, “Take my place. That way you can enjoy the view.”
She makes her way across with difficulty while Nubia, the experienced traveler, places their bags in the overhead compartment. Once her sister is seated, she imitates her, fastening the seatbelt and adjusting it to fit tightly.
Earlier that morning, at Colombia’s José María Calderón Airport, in the city of Medellín, she had clung onto the temporary passport as if she feared someone would take it away. Fearful of getting lost, as Nubia checked them in at the Avianca counter she made sure her shoulder was always touching her sister’s.
After listening attentively to the pilot’s greeting, she places her purse on the floor—as she has seen her sister do. She then leans against the backrest of the seat, hoping to ease the dull, throbbing ache in her neck. That doesn’t work. To distract herself, she watches the flight attendants—three women and one man—as they walk up and down the aisle, closing the compartments and making sure that every passenger’s seat is upright.
When they are done, she closes her eyes and, still trying to calm herself, starts to recollect how this urgent trip started: with a phone call she received less than forty-eight hours ago. They were lucky to find her, for she had sworn never to return to Salgar, her birthplace. But the depression that followed her divorce, the health problems that doctors couldn’t diagnose, and the loss of her job of eight years, forced her to accept a former neighbor’s offer to care for his elderly mother.
Don Pantaleón Gómez, a family friend of old who lived seven houses down the street, had received the call. The person at the other end of the telephone line wanted to know if anyone from the Gallego family still lived in Salgar. She was out of breath when she arrived. The young boy Don Pantaleón had sent to fetch her said that she needed to hurry because the call was long-distance, from another country. With great curiosity, she picked up the phone.
“Aló,” she answered, her breathing labored
“Sí, buenos días,” a deep, attractive voice replied. “Am I speaking to Héctor Gallego’s sister?”
“Yes.” The mention of her brother’s name startled her. The simple utterance stuck in her throat and came out as a grunt.
“This is David Alfaro,” the voice said. “I’m the station manager at Radio Caracol in Panama. May I have your name?”
“Edilma. Edilma Gallego.”
“May I call you Edilma?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Edilma, I’m calling because a mass grave has been discovered on the grounds of a former military base in Tocumen, next to the international airport. The person who tipped off the authorities wants to remain anonymous, but he claims that your brother is buried there.”
“¡Dios mío!” Edilma gasped. Stunned by the news, she reached out, seeking the wall for support. Don Pantaleón quickly brought her a chair. She glanced at him, nodded her thanks, and sat down. Lord, she thought, finally, after twenty-eight long years they’ve found Héctor’s body.
“We want you to come to Panama. Immediately,” David Alfaro said. “The attorneys who are working on behalf of the families of the disappeared have managed to halt the excavation until you get here. The station will pay all of your expenses.”
Edilma didn’t know what to reply, and then, as if the Holy Spirit had whispered the thought into her ear, she said, “I’ll go if my sister can come with me.”
“Certainly,” the station manager answered. “That’s even better. And we’ll pay for her expenses as well.”
* * * *
As the plane starts taxiing toward the runway, she turns her attention to the flight attendant who is explaining the safety instructions. Edilma tries to follow these, thinking that her life might depend on the information, but she soon begins to panic because she doesn’t comprehend a word.
“Nubia, I can’t understand what she’s saying.”
“Don’t worry about it,” her sister answers as she flips through the airline’s magazine. “They always mumble. Besides, if the plane goes down little of what she’s telling us will matter.”
When Nubia sees Edilma flinch, she pats her younger sister on the forearm and says, “I’m sorry.” Smiling reassuringly, she adds, “Really, Edilma, don’t worry about it. Flying is very safe. But if you really want to know what she’s talking about, there’s a card that explains what to do in case of an emergency.”
Edilma grabs the card and starts to read, but before long, she realizes that she’ll never be able to memorize the information; plus she doubts that she’ll be able to think clearly if something awful should happen. She returns the card and, to distract herself, she leans hard into the backrest, closes her eyes, and begins to recall her brother’s life.
The last time Edilma saw Héctor she had just turned eleven. She was the youngest of eleven children and one of only two girls—Nubia and herself. A twenty-two-year gap separated her from Héctor, who was the oldest. In spite of this, she remembers him vividly. What’s more, she also inherited her mother’s memories of him. After Héctor disappeared, Alejandrina consoled herself by repeatedly telling Edilma stories about her consentido, her pampered child.
In Gallego family history, the date of Héctor’s birth, January 7, 1938, is sacred. Married less than a year at the time of their first child’s birth, Alejandrina and Horacio were living on their farm in Montebello, a small village not far from Salgar.
“As a little boy, Héctor was sickly,” Alejandrina would tell visitors during the uncertain days after her son’s disappearance, when the family still hoped that he was alive, locked up in a cell somewhere. “He was allergic to everything, so I had to be careful about what I fed him. Still, even though he was sick a lot of the time, he never complained. He was a very good child: loving and always smiling.”
Her mother would then sigh before recalling the most frightful incident of Héctor’s childhood. “When he was six years old, I gave him a purgative. I thought that maybe if I cleansed his insides he would get over his allergies. That was a terrible mistake.” In spite of the many times Alejandrina relived the episode, she always had to stop here to brush away the tears.
“The poor boy almost died. His father and I rushed him to the hospital, and right after we got there, he went into a coma. After examining him, the doctor came out of the room with a worried expression on his face. He told Horacio and me that he didn’t think Héctor was going to make it.
“As soon as I heard that, I ran out of the hospital. I was so distraught I couldn’t even hear Horacio chasing after me, calling my name. I ran to the nearest church and lit several candles at the feet of La Virgen del Carmen. I prayed the rosary, concentrating harder than in my entire life. Once I finished, I made Our Lady this promise: ‘Holy Mother,’ I said, ‘if you save my little boy, I will make sure that he becomes a priest and that he lives out the rest of his life in your service.’”
* * * *
Breaking away from her recollection, Edilma notices that the flight attendants have vanished. She sits up straight and looks toward the front and then the back of the cabin. “Where have the attendants gone?” she asks her sister. Nubia merely shrugs, too engrossed in reading an interview with Paulo Coelho, her favorite author. The plane, having reached its takeoff position, stops moving. Gradually, the engines rev up. Edilma becomes alarmed. She looks toward her sister for comfort, but Nubia, acting as if taking off is the most natural thing in the world, continues to read. Closing her eyes to try to forget that she’s about to fly for the first time in her life, Edilma returns to Héctor’s story.
“And La Virgen del Carmen heard my prayers.” Edilma smiles at the clear memory of her mother’s voice. “The moment I knew that Héctor was going to survive, I made up my mind to spoil him. And I did. I never denied him anything. You can’t really blame me, can you? He was my firstborn; the child that the Blessed Mother rescued from death. But I never imagined that she’d want him back after only a few years.
“When he returned from the hospital I made sure that he didn’t do any heavy chores. I also wanted to make sure that he would fulfill my promise to La Virgen. If Héctor was going to become a priest, he needed to study, so I sent him to an all-day school, not just half-day, as most children around here do. He was an excellent student. His teachers loved him. That poor boy had to ride to school on the back of a mule, thirty minutes each way. But he never missed a day of class, even when he was sick and it was pouring rain.
“Because he was so frail, I fed him better than the rest of my children. A couple of times a week, I made his favorite—Sopa de papa, with plenty of cilantro and chicken. On Sundays, I’d make an enormous Bandeja Paisa for the entire family, making sure that Héctor got the best portions. I’d always serve him first, loading his plate with rice, beans, avocado, mashed plantains, fried cassava, grilled beef, and sausages. But since he wasn’t a big eater, he always ended up sharing his food with his brothers, who ate like starving soldiers. Although I spoiled Héctor, my boys never got angry. On the contrary, the rest of my children were very protective of my firstborn, never letting him do much of the physical farm work.”
Edilma smiles, allowing the warmth of the memory engulf her. For a moment, the recollection has helped her to forget that the plane is about take off. As the roar of the engines intensifies, she immerses herself once again in Alejandrina’s story.
“When Héctor finished the sixth grade, he called a family meeting to announce that he wanted to become a priest. He asked his father to enroll him in Jericó—a high school and seminary in Medellín.
“I was thrilled to hear this because it meant that my promise to La Virgen del Carmen would be kept. Horacio, though, didn’t like the idea, not one bit.
“‘No son of mine, especially my firstborn, is going to become a priest,’ he said when we were alone. ‘It’s the eldest son’s duty to follow in the footsteps of his father and oversee the family business.’
“‘But, Horacio,’ I said to him, ‘you’ve got other sons who can do that. Let Héctor become a priest; that’s what he wants. It will bring the family great blessings.’
“It was difficult for Horacio to accept Héctor’s choice. He’d always grumble, saying that the priesthood was a waste. But I’m grateful that he never said anything in front of Héctor. If he had, the boy would’ve been crushed.
“I, on the other hand, was so excited by my son’s decision that the day after the family meeting I made two black cassocks for him. Héctor loved them, insisting on wearing the robes everywhere he went, even on the farm.
“Since Horacio thought the whole thing about Héctor becoming a priest was ridiculous, he kept asking me to take away the cassocks, which I wouldn’t. This went on until one day, as Horacio returned to the hacienda from an errand, he noticed that the workers were missing. That made him angry; he thought they were off somewhere, sitting in the shade and being lazy.
“After searching a while among the coffee bushes, Horacio headed for the farmhouse. As he was climbing the steps, he heard voices. He stopped to listen. He didn’t comprehend the words, but it sounded as if the workers were praying. Then he heard Héctor’s sweet voice responding to their chorus. As Horacio reached the top of the stairs, he gently pushed the door open. What he saw amazed him: twenty-three grown men were kneeling before his son, their heads bowed in reverence as his twelve-year-old boy celebrated mass.”