Magazine Feature / People

Salvadoran lecturer takes students to homeland

Zulema Lopez grew up in El Salvador and studied political science in the 1970s. That fact alone is enough to let political science scholars know that she has seen more than her share of brutality.

Today, Lopez is a lecturer in the University of Denver’s Department of Languages and Literatures — a long way from El Salvador of the 1970s, which was torn by civil war.

“When I was about to graduate from high school, the guerrilla movement started,” she says. “Students and other people disappeared or were threatened.”

In that climate, Lopez decided to attend the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) and study political science.

“I was the only woman in the poli sci class. Now that I am older, I look back and realize that I was in real danger. Students, my friends, were disappearing! By the end, there were 80,000 dead and over 10,000 missing.”

Lopez’s mentor at UCA was Jesuit priest Segundo Montes. In 1989, while Lopez was earning her master’s degree in Latin American history from the University of Minnesota, Montes was dragged from his home in El Salvador along with five other priests and shot in the head.

“I was supposed to go back and see him in December,” she remembers. “He was killed on November 16, 1989.”

Lopez had nightmares for months. She and her husband, Mario Lopez, a computer science professor, decided not to return to El Salvador. They both accepted positions with DU. 

But Lopez’s life has come full circle. She recently took a group of 10 DU students on a service-learning trip titled Project El Salvador: Transition to Democracy. The students helped build roads, spoke against domestic abuse and even spent a day picking coffee beans.

“They woke up early and went to pick coffee in a community near the mountains. There were 15 to 20 people hiking into the mountains and picking coffee all day in the hot sun. They had to carry it down themselves to be weighed. It was hard, hard work.

“At the end, all 20 people working all day earned four dollars! Some of these students make two or three trips a day to Starbucks. They were really shocked.”

Francisco Arteaga, a junior biological sciences major, participated in the program and says, “In El Salvador we had the opportunity to go into the homes of multiple families living in the countryside. Within these handmade homes, families had few materialistic objects — amongst the uncovered mattresses and weathered chairs stood a small table for the family to gather around.”

Arteaga says one of the greatest advantages was having an instructor teach the program from a native perspective. 

“It is very rare to have a professor who has a true understanding and compassion for the minor details that incorporate cultural understanding,” he says.

Lopez also took the students to UCA.

“I went to the church where Segundo Montes is buried. I used to sit there and chat with him; now I’m bringing students to see where he is buried. It was incredibly emotional for me.”

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