I first met Marta Viscarra in her office in the basement of the Misión Catolica Santa Teresa de Ávila, on Belanger Street in Montreal’s Petite-Patrie district.
The walls of her office were cluttered with an eclectic array of objects: books, paintings, a large rosary and an even larger portrait of Saint Óscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador who was slain by the military junta while celebrating mass in 1980, for his outspoken stance on government violence, and canonized by Pope Francis in 2018.
Viscarra is the co-ordinator of the Óscar Romero Foundation, a local group funded entirely by its members, which helps immigrants and refugees navigate their new lives in Montreal.
Viscarra is tiny, the top of her head coming up not quite to my chest. But when she speaks, her voice is compelling and powerful, possessing the authority that comes from experience and wisdom.
Viscarra is from El Salvador. She spent years in prison there, after she was arrested in 1986 by the junta for her involvement in liberation theology, a movement that emerged in Latin America in the late 1960s which wedded Catholicism with anti-imperialism and the fight for equality for poor and Indigenous people.
Far from breaking her, Viscarra’s prison experience only strengthened her resolve to help people and to build co-operative solidarity networks to benefit the disadvantaged.
Members of the congregation are driven by the shared values of their faith and their passion for justice.
“It is the power to do something,” says Edith Viallalon, a volunteer at the mission. “It’s the power to help others.”
Some of the congregants are recent arrivals from Latin America; others are immigrants from that part of the world who have lived in Canada for decades. They include notaries, building inspectors, contractors and teachers.
Pooling their resources and talents, the church members run a food bank, offer French lessons and help refugees settle into their new lives in Montreal.
“There are people who come to the church only to pray, to ask for everything in heaven,” explains Viscarra. “But sometimes people don’t think about what is on earth, what it means to be a human being who eats, who must pay his rent and everything else.”
The church can be considered a commons — perhaps the oldest kind of economy, a place that is rooted in shared values as well as shared resources. Commons are neither private nor public, but denote a third order of ownership. The Romans, for instance, distinguished res communis – common property managed by communities – from res publica – public property managed by the government.
What follows are profiles of three members of the Misión Santa Teresa who live these values.
Every Wednesday the mission runs a food bank, which feeds more than 80 families. During the pandemic, it also started a program to deliver food to people who had difficulty leaving their homes.
Edith Viallalon lives in Longueuil, on Montreal’s South Shore, and every week she drives all the way to Saint-Léonard in northeastern Montreal to deliver food to one person, a single mother named Dolly Cardenas.
Viallolon knows what it is to experience hard times.
When she and her husband Ernesto Nande first arrived from Mexico 20 years ago, they had almost nothing. They were so poor, she said, they couldn’t afford soap. One day while riding on the Metro, Viallolon spied a small gold box on the floor. She picked it up, at first hesitant to open it, but in the end, curiosity got the better of her. She was ecstatic to discover that it contained a bar of soap. It felt almost like a miracle, she said.
At one point, the couple added up their savings and realized they only had two dollars a day to spend, between them. Viallolon managed to find a bed in a convent on St-Hubert Street, because her sister, an international student, was living in a room there. Her husband moved into a homeless shelter across the street.
I asked her how they were able to survive on this impossibly low sum.
One day, she said, as they walked along Jean-Talon, a stranger — also from Mexico — overheard them speaking and, recognizing their accents, approached them. After hearing how they were struggling, he invited Viallalon and her husband to live in his home and helped her husband find work driving a transport vehicle for farm workers.
This and other similar experiences inspired her in her current volunteer work, she said.
We lived with nothing, but also we received aid from people who didn’t know us at all, who were not from our family, who were not from our country. You get this help and you understand.
Before the assassination of Óscar Romero, Viscarra worked with him in El Salvador.
When he was first appointed as archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, she and others in the liberation theology movement greeted that appointment with skepticism, she said. Romero had come from a conservative society and had links to the government, while their energies were directed towards helping the poor and fighting the dictatorship.
However, Romero’s stance changed considerably after the assassination by the junta of his friend Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest and social activist who was also recently beatified by Pope Francis.
At the time of Grande’s killing, Viscarra was working as a social worker, helping women in need leave difficult situations and developing programs to help them find work. She also pushed to build a school for young children, among other projects.
We don’t wait for the government in my country. If people wait for the government to raise a hand for such and such thing, if people wait for the government they will never have it. People have to work for anything.
She was warned by the authorities that her work would not be tolerated, and eventually, in 1986, she was arrested – “disappeared” into a prison where she was held incommunicado with the outside world for three weeks. Church authorities in Canada were instrumental in finding her in detention and securing her release, so after she got out, she moved to Canada.
Her experience in prison left her with a chronic, degenerative illness that makes it difficult for her to walk, though she considers herself lucky simply because she is still alive.
In 1991, Viscarra returned to El Salvador to visit the grave of a friend, a priest who had been killed in 1979. At his grave, she said, she spoke to him.
“I was sick, and I said, ‘If you give me a little strength to live, I will dedicate my life to this, to telling the story of what happened to you,’ and this is what happened.”
After that experience, Viscarra’s condition improved.
She now dedicates her life to helping refugees and asylum seekers, and also to keeping alive the memory of the atrocities committed in El Salvador in the 1980s.
Fernando Castro, too, came to Montreal in the late 1980s, after surviving six weeks in a one-metre by one-metre prison cell.
The native Guatemalan was working in El Salvador at the time, where he was arrested for his association with the liberation theology movement.
His cell was so tiny he could not lie down: sometimes he would be given a board to sit on, and at other times, he would be forced to stand. He was not allowed to go to the bathroom, nor was he allowed to use his shackled hands to eat. Food was pushed through a slot, and he had no choice but to eat like an animal, his face in his food.
His stroke of luck came when a military official recognized him as a former teacher of one of his children and arranged for his release.
Today, Castro is devoted to keeping alive the memory of the atrocities he witnessed in Central America in the 1980s.
Originally from the Rabinal region of Guatemala, he was once responsible for running a refugee camp in northern Guatemala for people who had been forced from their villages by the military dictatorship as part of its “scorched earth” anti-insurgency campaign.
He witnessed the way many of those villagers, most of them Indigenous, were “disappeared” from the camps: executed, their bodies often never recovered.
Now at Misión Santa Teresa, he is a key organizer of the church’s social outreach work, volunteering several days a week, when he is not working at Dorval - Jean XXIII high school in the West Island, where he leads a program that promotes spirituality and social engagement among students.
“For me, it’s important to help people regardless of their origin,” he said.
“Poverty is a sin,” he said. That belief is what grounds his work at the mission.
The food bank
This story was produced by Neal Rockwell for the CBC Creator Network as part of a larger project to document contemporary situations where commons are being used to deliver social services and build community. Learn more about the Creator Network here.