Column: More than 30 years ago, Father Luis Olivares brought the sanctuary movement to Los Angeles

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Sanctuary, political asylum, Central American refugees – Los Angeles has heard this before, and probably heard it first, long ago, from a man of the cloth. The Catholic priest who defied the law and bucked the church hierarchy to turn Los Angeles’ oldest church, La Placita, into a sanctuary for Central American refugees, also made the country turn its attention to the plight of all Latinos coming here for help.

Mario T. Garcia is a professor of history at UC Santa Barbara whose new biography is “Father Luis Olivares, Faith Politics and the Origins of the Sanctuary Movement in Los Angeles.” He tracks the dramatic life of the priest who went from a company man in the Claretian order, to a pot stirrer and feather ruffler who walked arm in arm with Cesar Chavez, led L.A. community organizers to face down corporations and civic leaders, and challenged the Reagan administration itself. Twenty-five years after Olivares’ death, his story and his role are as current as the day’s tweets.

His story is a remarkable and dramatic arc, because he grew up poor in Texas. He joined the Claretian order and in short order he was pretty high wide and handsome as the treasurer for the order, wearing Gucci shoes and black silk suits and eating expensive dinners with investors who may have helped the order to prosper.

And he liked that lifestyle. He'd like being wined and dined, and he liked having the power and the influence as the treasurer, which was the second highest position in the Claretian order. Some people asked me, how does a Catholic priest dress nicely? And I said, how about black silk suits and how about a black shirt with French cuffs? Years later, someone referred to him as Father GQ.

Becoming a priest was one of the few pathways out of poverty for a lot of young Latino men at the time. Why did he want to enter the priesthood?

His grandmother and his aunt who helped raise him along with his father, they were very, very religious, very Catholic, especially the grandmother. I think deep down he did feel he had a vocation to become a priest. He admired the priests of his parish and in fact even as a young boy he played saying the Mass at home. He would be the priest and then his siblings would be the altar boys and the girls would be part of the congregation.

He was prospering within the church as the treasurer of the Claretians. Then there comes an almost biblical conversion, like St. Paul on the road to Damascus, where he looks at himself, he looks around and sees the world and his own role very differently.

His conversion came in 1975 when for the first time he met Cesar Chavez and he said, ‘That changed my life.’ He just felt that the influence of Cesar, and what Cesar was doing with the farmworkers and dealing with the poor in the rural areas, just reminded him of what he really should be doing.

He begins to first of all work very much with the farmworkers. He will support the grape boycott, the lettuce boycott. And he became very, very close to Cesar. They were very close throughout the rest of their lives.

And then they became involved in the community in East Los Angeles. He became the pastor of La Soledad church in East L.A., and there he worked with a Saul Alinsky organization that developed in the mid- to late ’80s. It was called the United Neighborhood Organization. So he did a lot of community work with UNO.

He became pastor of La Placita, the oldest church in Los Angeles, in 1981, and saw a different part of Los Angeles, and people with different needs from what he might have known before.

This is another transformation in some ways, another conversion. As he comes to La Placita, many of the Central American refugees are also coming into Los Angeles and to other parts of the United States. They're fleeing the civil war in El Salvador and Guatemala, repressive governments, death squads in El Salvador, repressive military, all of which were supported by the United States. These are the client states of the United States.These are the classic banana republics.

And so these civil wars and these states of repression began to force more and more people out of those countries. many people were fleeing these countries as they're fleeing today. These were refugees. They were classic political refugees.

At the same time that Father Olivares was at La Placita church and encountered them and he says, ‘You know, we've got to work with this. They are children of God. And we have to help them in any way we can.’

He was very opposed to the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Their position was very similar to the current administration, that these people fleeing were not legitimate political refugees, that they were in fact quote unquote illegal aliens coming to take jobs from real Americans. All of this was nonsense.

So in December 1985, on the day of the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, he says that La Placita is then a sanctuary for these people fleeing the violence in Central America. What were the consequences of this declaration?

They organized for that and they worked with a lot of other religious leaders both Protestant and Jewish. And they decide that they will declare public sanctuary on Dec. 12, 1985.

What it meant was he was now saying, ‘Our church is now a public sanctuary in terms of supporting these people. And it's not a church that immigration should in any way invade or come into.’

So it was further taking on the Reagan administration. It was defying immigration law.

The Los Angeles archbishop, Roger Mahony, had been sympathetic to farmworker causes when he was in the Central Valley. One of the nicknames his critics gave him was “Red Roger.” How did all this settle out with the church hierarchy?

Well, that's part of the drama. Mahony supported the refugees. He came from that background as bishop of Stockton, worked with the farmworkers, was sympathetic to Latinos. The difference is that he and the other U.S. Catholic bishops, at least as an organization, did not support the concept of sanctuary because it was breaking the law. It was defying the law. They felt that that was going too far and they didn't want to alienate the Reagan administration to that extent.

And there begins then a period of tension between Olivares and Mahony. Mahony felt that if the law was wrong, as Olivares said, then the law needed to be changed. Olivares said if the law is wrong, it needs to be defied, because there is a higher law that’s God’s law, and that's what I obey.

Mahony came to the L.A. Archdiocese knowing that the future of the Catholic Church was its Latino Catholics. He wanted to be that leader, only when he arrived in 1985 he realized they already had a leader, and that was Father Luis Olivares. So I think there was a sense of rivalry.

Did Cardinal Mahony talk to you for the book?

No, and it's unfortunate because I wanted to get his side of the story of that relationship.

It’s not that Cardinal Mahony was against the refugees or against undocumented immigrants. It's just that he felt the strain of his position, the constraint by the church as a whole, as an institution.

As a practical and logistical matter, sanctuary was a very difficult thing for Father Olivares to pull off. In fact my old colleague Ruben Martinez suggested, as you say in the book, that La Placita functioned better as a symbol than an actual shelter and social agency.

Father Olivares and La Placita church [were] of course limited just in terms of space and resources. One has to remember that by the end of the 1980s, over a million Salvadorans alone had come into the United States; half had come to Los Angeles.

So there's no way that La Placita as one church could possibly deal with all of them and help them.

But yes, they did what they could materially. There were Protestant churches and Jewish communities’ synagogues that did declare public sanctuary, but they didn't do the material kind of help that Olivares did.

You’re right, it is a symbol to tell people, to show people of Salvadoran and Guatemalan [origin], not only here in L.A. but in their home countries, that there was one church in L.A., one Catholic church, that stood for them, that was there as a symbol to help them.

Father Olivares worked very hard to develop what I call in the book a pan-Latino consciousness and I think he very successfully did develop that pan Latino-consciousness. Overall, they were able to get the Mexican parishioners to also see that yes, they had to be part of sanctuary, they had to support the refugees.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service, as ICE was then called, was not happy about the sanctuary idea. Did the INS ever show up and take people away?

No, not at La Placita. At one point they did an investigation of Olivares and [Father Mike] Kennedy and La Placita to make sure that they were not consciously bringing in the refugees across the border.

Immigration was not going to go so far as to publicly raid La Placita. The INS would have lost the public battle -- I mean, the publicity would have just been overwhelmingly against that kind of an action, especially with all of the attention that La Placita and Father Olivares had been receiving about their role in the sanctuary movement.

Father Olivares was very canny about PR as well.

And he enjoyed speaking to the media. In fact, part of the tension with Mahony and Olivares – at one meeting, Mahony said to Olivares, ‘Luis, do you have to call the media every time you brush your teeth?’ And Olivares said, ‘Well, no, your excellency, not every time.’

He was a media star and he enjoyed it. He was articulate and he could speak both English and Spanish, so he courted the Spanish-language media because he knew he needed that media to reach out in particular through the Central American people throughout the city and other Spanish-speaking Latinos.

He was diabetic, and he died in 1993 of AIDS after having been diagnosed in 1990. You spent some time on this in the book, because the word that was put out was that he contracted AIDS in Central America from infected needles from an insulin injection. This was at a time when AIDS was still stigmatized and it was seen as the “gay disease.” It mattered so much then, it doesn't seem to be so much now except as a symbol, which his entire life was.

[A doctor advised him] you're a public person and perhaps you should go public before it leaks out. And that’s when he agreed that he would be interviewed by the Los Angeles Times.

That was the story that he told, the story that the parishioners were told, and that was the public story. Some believed it, some did not believe it. But I think there were some people who felt that either way, it was going to hurt him and it might be used against the sanctuary and so forth. So he felt he had to do what he had to do.

His last public appearance was in 1992, in January, to celebrate the peace accord in El Salvador, something that he had been working on for so long in the 1980s. He died in March of 1993.

Given the perspective of 25 years since his death, and what's going on in this country apropos of sanctuary, apropos of political asylum, where do you think he stands as a figure in this story?

I maintain that he is one of the great political and religious leaders in this country in the second half of the 20th century. I think what he did in the sanctuary movement was remarkable, both in terms of what they concretely were able to do but also symbolically. And on top of that, also to be a key spokesman against the policies of the United States in Central America and what it was doing there to further the killing of people and the torturing of people.

He was a voice for the voiceless, and I think his story is important for us today because what he did and what the sanctuary movement did in the ’80s should tell us that people in the past have stood up against injustices, against the repression of refugees and immigrants that is happening today.

And hopefully history will give people the kind of courage and fortitude and a sense that we can do it as well.

His story just gives people further inspiration that yes, we can push back, and we don't have to just stand by and allow efforts to violate … many of our democratic rights in this country. So I think that's what Father Olivares stands for.

You think he's a better candidate for sainthood than Father Junipero Serra, the founder of the California missions?

Yes, absolutely, head and shoulders. I think that what he did in his life, what he did especially in the ‘80s with the refugees and the undocumented immigrants, was saint-like.

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