Professor Emeritus Authors New Book About Experiences in Post-War El Salvador

Ralph Corrigan

News Story: October 13, 2014

In January 1992, the long and brutal civil war in El Salvador terminated with a peace accord signed in Mexico City. Six months later, Sacred Heart University sent a delegation of professors to the Central American country to reach out to shattered communities in need of help.

One of those delegates was Ralph Corrigan, a tenured writing and communications instructor. He returned to the war-scarred country twice more—in 1993 and 1996—and has documented his travels and experiences in a new book published by Sacred Heart University Press. El Salvador at a Crossroads reveals the stories of a people recovering from nearly 13 years of violence and bloodshed that resulted in as many as 90,000 dead or missing.

The professors’ mission in El Salvador was challenging from the start. “When we went down, we were told that our charge was to listen to the people and to be open to what they had to say,” says Corrigan, who taught at SHU for 33 years before retiring in 2000. “But these were people traumatized by the war, and they were terrified of talking. They could not tell their stories, because if they did, they would disappear; they would be killed.”

Corrigan also discovered that he was one of the first people to document the effects of the conflict. “As our guide said, ‘There are no more historians because they were all assassinated or they left the country.’ When you start hearing the stories of the people and what they went through, you realize that this is history in the making, and someone needs to write it down.”

During his travels to El Salvador speaking to war survivors, Corrigan compiled 50 hours of taped interviews and about 150 pages of journal writings—all of which he had trouble processing upon his return home.

“A lot of tears were shed on that first trip. It’s a very emotional thing—you just can’t believe what these people have endured,” Corrigan says. “A lot of us came back saying, ‘How can we translate this experience? What are we going to do back home?’ Because that’s the whole idea. You go down there, you have an experience, you come back and you’ve got to do something. It really changed my life. What I went through will never leave me.”

The experience also altered the culture of the entire Sacred Heart community. Corrigan says the mission to El Salvador created an impact at the Fairfield campus that solidified the institution’s charitable mission. Part of that momentum led to the creation of SHU’s Service Learning program, which integrates a community-service mindset into the curriculum. Two decades later, the University still maintains an El Salvador delegation of students who travel south to live and work in Tierra Blanca, Usulután, building homes, schools and medical facilities for those in need.

Among the memories that still resonate in Corrigan so many years after his travels is the spirit and fortitude of the men and women he met. “In spite of all the horrific events that took place in El Salvador, the people refused to give up,” he says. “They are, as I say in the book, a very warm, loving people. Everybody says their largest export is coffee. It’s not—it’s hope. They are amazing people. They touch you in ways you’d never believe.”

While Corrigan’s intent was to document the experience of a specific time and place, he hopes that readers will be inspired to pursue their own journey of humanitarian outreach. In the 22 years since first journeying to El Salvador, Corrigan has worked with disadvantaged people in Bridgeport, particularly at the Merton Family Center, where he runs a writing workshop.

Corrigan has authored several other books during his career, including Answering the Call (Sacred Heart University Press, 2001), Karate Made Easy (Sterling Publishing, 1995) and Themes for Study (Holt, R & W, 1966).

El Salvador at a Crossroads is available through Amazon.com and other major booksellers, or by calling the Sacred Heart University Bookstore at 203-365-4768.

Founded in 1995, Sacred Heart University Press is an important source for scholarly publications in the areas of the Catholic intellectual traditions, Catholic higher education, State of Connecticut government and history and the SHU Review.