Archbishop Oscar Romero on a visit to Rome, Italy, 1978. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Romero House Centre Building, Bloor Street, 2022. Courtesy of Romero House
Governor General Michaëlle Jean at Romero House rooftop garden opening, Wanda Road, 2006. Courtesy of Romero House.
Romero House 25th Anniversary Street Party, Wanda Road, 2016. Courtesy of Romero House.
The Salvadoran Connection
The Salvadoran diaspora in Canada is one of the largest from Latin America. Upwards of 33,000 Salvadorans came to Toronto in the 1980s and early 1990s, fleeing the violence of the Salvadoran Civil War (1979-1992). Over 70,000 civilians were killed during the conflict and the atrocities of the war prompted the Canadian government to enact special immigration measures for Salvadorans: dramatically increasing the number of refugees accepted each year and halting most deportations. The relative “safe haven” Canada provided at this time led to a large community of Salvadorans to settle in Canada. A 2016 census noted that over 66,000 Salvadorans call Canada home, the majority of them residing in Toronto.
Located on Bloor Street West, the Romero House is emblematic of the influence of Latin American communities, particularly Salvadorans, in Toronto. The organization not only provides temporary housing for refugees in four homes in the city’s West End but also offers a central hub on Bloor Street for get-togethers and other community events.
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As the Salvadoran community grew in Toronto, organizations and support networks sprang up in the city to meet the needs of the new arrivals and to raise awareness for the Salvadoran Civil War in Canada. Organizations such as Toronto’s “La Farabundo Radio Working Group”, which formed in 1984, raised funds to support community radio in El Salvador. Several women-focused groups also emerged during this time, including a Toronto branch of the Association of Salvadoran Women (ADEMUSA).
Many Salvadorans participated in the city’s emergent Latin American community hubs, such as the Trojan Horse Cafe on Danforth Avenue, where Latin American musical group Compańeros often performed during the 1980s.
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Mary Jo Leddy
Refugee rights activist Mary Jo Leddy opened Romero House in 1991, naming the organization after Bishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980) of El Salvador. During the early years of the Salvadoran Civil War (1979-1992), Romero publicly criticized the Salvadoran government for their widespread human rights violations and mistreatment of the country’s poor. Romero was assassinated in 1980, leading to further escalation of violence in El Salvador.
Today, Oscar Romero is a national hero in El Salvador: his image adorns numerous public buildings and his name is often used as a synonym for social justice.
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Romero House Today
Today, Romero House is still continuing the spirit of Oscar Romero, as well as the efforts in the past that brought Central American refugees to Canada. During the COVID-19 pandemic, due to Toronto’s overwhelmed shelter system, refugees arriving in Toronto often had nowhere to stay while they began the immigration process. Through their various programs, Romero House was able to provide temporary housing for nearly 100 refugees.
Romero House also provides support to refugees through English lessons, food donations, and legal support. On Wanda Street, the location of one its four homes, the organization holds an annual block party, bringing residents of the neighbourhood together with past and current generations of refugees that have passed through the organization’s doors.