by Tracey Primrose
On a Sunday in mid-June, before thousands of cheering Seattle University students, Fr. José Alberto (Chepe) Idiáquez, SJ, of Nicaragua, was presented with an honorary doctorate degree from University President Fr. Stephen Sundborg, SJ. Called “a beacon of hope, an instrument for peace and a true champion for the poor and persecuted,” Fr. Chepe flew out of Seattle a day later, returning both to his home in Managua and to the death threats that have plagued him for more than a year.
Since the spring of 2018, when the Nicaraguan government began cracking down on people peacefully protesting President Daniel Ortega’s plan to cut pension benefits, Fr. Chepe and the Jesuit university he leads, the University of Central America (UCA), have been at the center of a firestorm. Some of the first protests took place at the UCA, and on Mother’s Day last year, the government killed 21 people in two hours right outside the university gates.Fr. Chepe helped triage the wounded. Among the dead: a 15-year-old boy from the local Jesuit high school, Colegio Loyola. In solidarity with the protestors, he denounced the violence, speaking out in interviews with local media outlets and CNN. The UCA was the only university to stand up for the protestors. Because of that, the government accused Fr. Chepe of being behind a “coup d’état.” Fr. Chepe wasn’t trying to make himself a target, but there was no choice.
Speaking by phone the Friday before he was honored at Seattle University, Fr. Chepe said, “One important thing — I don’t want to be a hero. I don’t want to be a martyr or a superman, but standing in solidarity is my responsibility as a Jesuit and as a man trying to work for faith and justice. It doesn’t mean I am not afraid, but I can’t abandon my people.”
Fr. Scott Santarosa, SJ, Provincial of Jesuits West, is not surprised that Fr. Chepe is putting his life on the line, but it doesn’t make it any easier.
“I don’t want him to die and, obviously, I wish I could take him away from all of this, but this is what we do. I know he will never abandon his flock. While it’s the right thing for him to remain in Nicaragua, it’s painful. I absolutely know he needs to be there.”
The two became close friends when Fr. Chepe did a sabbatical at Dolores Mission in Los Angeles when Fr. Santarosa served there as pastor. Fr. Chepe was caring, supportive and funny — he could do a first-rate impersonation of former Jesuit Superior General Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, SJ. Probably more of an inside joke, but it made the Jesuits living at the Dolores Mission community double over in laughter.
Those days seem light years away now in Nicaragua, where Fr. Chepe reports that after 14 months, the protests have not died down, and neither has the intimidation. Several days a week, students march — peacefully and in disguise — inside the gates of the university while outside 100–150 armed officers stand guard. If the students march outside campus, Fr. Chepe reports, they will be shot. When he leaves campus, Fr. Chepe is followed.
All of this feels hauntingly familiar. The six Jesuits martyred in 1989 in El Salvador for speaking out about a repressive regime were Fr. Chepe’s mentors, teachers and friends; their housekeeper and her daughter, also murdered that day, were like family.
In his room at the Jesuit community at the UCA, Fr. Chepe prays before an altar dedicated to the martyrs. He asks them for strength. The crisis in Nicaragua, he says, is getting worse.
In Seattle, Serena Cosgrove, obsessively checks her phone with worry. The faculty coordinator for the Central America Initiative at Seattle University and the university’s director of Latin American Studies, she too is a close friend of Fr. Chepe’s.
Like Fr. Chepe, she has been through this before. In 1989, as a young human rights activist working in El Salvador, she remembers being viscerally affected by the murder of the Jesuit priests and the two women assassinated with them. “I promised myself that if I ever was in a situation where I could do something to protect people so that didn’t happen again, I would do it. Here I am 30 years later, trying to raise awareness.”
Seattle University has a longstanding partnership with the UCA. The university has hosted delegations from the UCA, and five students from the UCA attended classes on the SU campus this semester. The annual immersion trips made by SU students and faculty ended last year. Serena Cosgrove is the only SU representative to go back to Nicaragua since the violence began.
The idea for an honorary degree came from Fr. Sundborg, said Cosgrove. “He’s been very proactive in encouraging me and the Global Engagement Office to think about how we can support Fr. Chepe and the UCA.”
Fr. Chepe’s time in Seattle was a brief reprieve from the 24/7 intimidation he faces every day. A visit from Fr. Santarosa was a bright spot. Over the years, Fr. Santarosa has traveled to Nicaragua twice to see his friend, but Fr. Chepe asked him to cancel his last trip — it was too dangerous.
The two are like brothers. There was nothing particularly noteworthy about their time together. They took a ferry to an island on Puget Sound for dinner and then turned on an MLB app to watch the Dodgers play the Cubs. It felt very normal, but saying goodbye was harder this time.
“I could tell in this visit that it weighed on him to go back,” said Fr. Santarosa. “We had a very emotional goodbye, because he knows what he is going back to, and he knows the threat is real. I do think that in Nicaragua right now, he is one of the only people who is standing up to the Ortega regime and demanding justice and calling a spade a spade.”
For his part, Fr. Chepe said, “It is difficult to live this way, but I think the mother of the student who is killed or the person who is in prison is worse than I am, so I have to try to accompany them. The reality is, though, they accompany me. They give me strength.”