Thousands of asylum seekers arrive at the United States southern border, and an administration deems them as a threat to the country. This is not a depiction of our nation’s current immigration climate, but one from nearly four decades ago.
One Catholic priest defied the Reagan administration and the power of the Catholic Church to step up and support Central American refugees.
Father Luis Olivares, a San Antonio-native, served in the Claretian order, whose members took a vow of poverty. However, he lived a lavish lifestyle while serving as the clergy’s treasurer and often mingled with Wall Street donors. Mario T. García is a professor of Chicana and Chicano studies and history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He said Olivares’ days as the so-called “Gucci Priest” came to an end when he met César Chávez.
Olivares was inspired by Chavez’s efforts in the farm workers’ movement, and when thousands of Central American migrants began seeking asylum and refugee status in the U.S. in the 1980s, Olivares opened his church doors. La Placita Church was the first Catholic Church in Los Angeles to declare public sanctuary for refugees, and other churches of different faiths soon followed Olivares’ movement.
While Olivares’ encounter with Chávez had a significant impact on his role in the church, humanitarian activism is in his blood. Olivares was born to a family that fled the Mexican Revolution and his grandmother opened her own doors to those who were fleeing persecution in Mexico, including priests during the notorious Cristero War.
García details the life and activism of Luis Olivares, and the impact of his sanctuary movement, in his book, “Father Luis Olivares, A Biography: Faith Politics and the Origins of the Sanctuary Movement in Los Angeles.”