Grammy Award-winning Rubén Blades is a wonderfully gifted Panamanian poet and songwriter whose works often take on a political tinge. Raised in a progressive family, his grand-uncle was a revolutionary during the Cuban War of Independence against Spain. His mother was an actress, his father a musician, and the girls in his family attended college. Ruben himself studied international law at Harvard on a full scholarship.
I knew Rubén back when he lived in Santa Monica. I once had him over for my mother’s famous bolognese spaghetti, along with his wife and an architect friend, Bob Ramirez, who designed my home.
Rubén’s Grammy Award last week for Tangos and the recent news about Pope Francis’ declaration of the slain Archbishop Óscar Romero’s martyrdom brought to mind a tribute he wrote back in 1984 titled “El Padre Antonio y Su Monaguillo Andrés” (“Father Antonio and His Altar Boy Andrés”) from the album Buscando America. The song was performed by his great then-band Seis del Solar, fronted by Oscar Hernández (who now leads the Spanish Harlem Orchestra).
Archbishop Romero, like Pope Francis, championed the rights and struggles of the poor in Latin America. He was a proponent of liberation theology, an interpretation of the Scripture that dictates working actively toward social and political justice by aligning oneself with the less fortunate, like Jesus did. The Archbishop publicly opposed El Salvador’s right-wing government and its brutal military repression at the very onset of the country’s 1980–92 civil war and was consequently assassinated at the altar for his convictions, by order of the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista founder. A formal apology was finally issued for his murder by the El Salvadorian government as late as 2010.
Rubén wrote “El Padre Antonio y Su Monaguillo Andrés” during the time of the civil wars in both El Salvador and Nicaragua, the Reagan administration and the Iran-Contra affair. Former President Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, Ed Meese, et al were in support of El Salvador’s military dictatorship, working to oust leftist Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.
Buscando America has always been one of my favorite albums of Rubén Blades. And now 35 years later, thanks to Pope Francis, Archbishop Oscar Romero is one step closer to sainthood, bringing closure to “El Padre Antonio y Su Monaguillo Andrés.” Have a look at the lyrics translated below.
“El Padre Antonio y Su Monaguillo Andrés”
Searching for new promises in this land
He went to the jungle without any hope of becoming a bishop
And in spite of the heat and the mosquitoes he talked about Christ.
For those in search of salvation.
He attends Simon Bolivar Elementary School.
He still cannot recite the Holy Scripture properly
He loves the river, playing soccer, and playing hooky.
With the hope that this connection will “fix him.”
And his family is very proud because they also believe
That once you have one connected to God, by default you are connected to Him as well.
For Father Antonio and his altar boy, Andrés
Bells are tolling again, oh, oh, oh
For Father Antonio and his altar boy, Andrés, Andrés
He knows by experience that is not a solution.
He speaks to them of love and justice
The news of God shining through a sermon.War found the Father one Sunday, in Mass,
Handing out communion with his sleeves rolled up.
The killer came in halfway through the Lord’s Prayer,
and without confessing his guilt, fired at him. Antonio fell, Host in hand, not knowing why
And Andrés died at his side, without ever meeting Pelé.
Between the screams and the astonishment,
There in agony, was the wooden Christ nailed against the wall.No one ever knew who the criminal was
Who killed Father Antonio and his altar boy Andrés.
But the bells still ring, one, two, three
For Father Antonio and his altar boy, Andrés.
The classic “El Padre Antonio y Su Monaguillo Andrés,” performed live by Rubén Blades and Seis del Solar.