GATES — Cecilia Moran Santos was a student working at a government agency in the capital of El Salvador on Sept. 25, 1980, when she was kidnapped by soldiers.
On the first day of her captivity, they poured acid on her hands. She underwent electric shock.
The torture by the El Salvadoran soldiers lasted through the night. She was then placed in a cell for eight days until she signed a "confession" — a blank piece of paper she signed as her captors held her hands.
Ultimately, Moran Santos spent three years in prison and was released through an amnesty deal struck with the U.S. government. Eight days after her release, she found herself in New York City, she said.
"I was at the point of life or death," Moran Santos remarked.
She told her story on March 11 during the 28th-annual "Rice & Beans Dinner" sponsored by the Rochester Committee on Latin America (ROCLA). Moran Santos and the Center for Justice and Accountability received the committee’s International White Dove Awards. Once Again Nut Butter Collective, an employee-owned company in Nunda, received ROCLA’s local White Dove award.
Not long after arriving in New York, Moran Santos moved to Rochester and lived with the Sisters of St. Joseph in their Peck Street home. She began educating different faith groups about the human rights abuses in El Salvador. She also began meeting with legislators and led a delegation to El Salvador and to a refugee camp in Honduras.
"I understood we were not alone. There was an international movement to stop the violence there," she said.
Arnold Matlin from ROCLA said the organization wasn’t aware of her Rochester connection when it chose her for the award.
"She embodies everything ROCLA works to (support)," he added. "Beyond suffering, she was brave enough to take on the challenge and confront the people who tortured her."
In 2005, the Central Intelligence Agency brought a case against Col. Nicolas Carranza, the vice minister of defense in El Salvador from 1979 to 1981 who oversaw the country’s security forces. During the trial, Moran Santos said she and several other women who were tortured in El Salvador became the voices for those who did not survive their ordeals. Carranza was subsequently found guilty of crimes against humanity.
Such acts of courage are reasons why Moran Santos’s award is well-deserved, said Sister Barbara Lum. The Sister of St. Joseph lived with Moran Santos when she was in Rochester but didn’t know all that she had accomplished after leaving the area, Sister Lum added.
"People need to know," Sister Lum said of Moran Santos’ story and advocacy work. "When I first met her and was asking her about herself, she said, ‘I am a citizen of the world.’ I will never forget that."
Upon leaving Rochester, Moran Santos entered the national stage and led protests against the civil war in El Salvador, she explained. She also successfully lobbied for political refugee status in the U.S. for people who were forced to leave El Salvador, she added.
In the early 1990s, Moran Santos began working with the growing population of Central Americans on Long Island. Most of them did not have jobs or immigration papers to find work, she said. Her work with that population led to the creation of the Centro Salvadoreño, which she currently directs.
The center’s advocacy efforts include fighting for the federal government to grant temporary protected status and eventually asylum for the refugees the center works with, Moran Santos explained. Many of these refugees are illiterate, so the center provides assistance with legal paperwork as well, she said.
"Many of these people … could not be a part of the political process in the (their native countries) and be a voice for others," she said.
Her own life has been dedicated to being a voice for those who died in El Salvador, including her own family members. Her brother, José Gregorio Moran, died while he was leading a group of journalists reporting on the human rights abuses in her native country, she noted.
She dedicated her White Dove Award to her brother and her father, who she said first taught her to stand up for what was right. Her survival gave her a lifelong responsibility to fight for social justice, she said.
"I survived for a reason," she said. "I had no choice but to do something."