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Francisco Rico Martinez: Rebel. Family man. Refugee. Advocate. Born May 10, 1958, in Santa Ana, El Salvador; died Aug. 13, 2021, in Toronto, of cancer; aged 63.

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Francisco Rico Martinez.Courtesy of family

You always knew when Francisco Rico Martinez was in the room: he was brash, outrageous and had the loudest laugh. His life was characterized by feet lovingly planted in both his native, as well as his adopted, homelands. He wore the red sweater of his favourite hometown soccer team (Salvador’s FAS) but quickly switched whenever it became time to don the colours of the Blue Jays or Raptors.

Francisco’s parents modelled active leadership in the teachers’ union. Ever the educator, his mother once pulled a Canadian aside to quietly explain the intricacies of the foul slang her adored son delighted to use in Spanish. Francisco’s formal education at law school in San Salvador only enhanced a pre-existing street-smart commitment to help the oppressed.

Francisco drew unequalled inspiration from the woman he always called “the love of his life,” Loly, whom he met in San Salvador when she was in her teens. The couple became an inseparable team.

Amidst rising paramilitary violence, a bomb was planted in front of the house of Francisco’s parents in 1980. Message received – Francisco and Loly fled to Mexico where their first son, Giovanni, was born. They worked to build solidarity for their homeland, even travelling to Europe to raise money for the resistance to the regime.

When able to return to their homeland in 1984, Francisco served as a lawyer in the human-rights office of the Catholic Church. In August, 1985, he was “disappeared” by security forces. Even through torture, Francisco’s worst fear was that he would never know his daughter. Loly was pregnant when he was taken, and happily Ana was born a few days after his release.

By November, 1989, El Salvador’s civil war made safety – even for church workers – impossible. With two children and Loly pregnant with their son Manuel, the Rico family fled again. They arrived in snowy Toronto in January, 1990, at the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice. These refugees, without English, did not ask for help, they wanted to help!

Soon a community of nuns, the Faithful Companions of Jesus, appointed the couple as co-directors of what became three Toronto residences for refugee women and children. Living in one of the houses, the Rico kids shared the daily work of refugee settlement. Giovanni, Ana and Manuel continue Francisco’s work with refugees. His sons became skilled refugee advocates and Ana became a lawyer, advising the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.

Francisco bolted into national prominence as the first refugee elected president of the Canadian Council for Refugees. (Loly would later follow in this role.) For years, government ministers and bureaucrats both admired and feared his outspoken advocacy, based on his lived experience.

It was never easy for anyone to disagree with Francisco – he could be stubborn in his defence of asylum seekers needing assistance and demanding in his vision to reform Canadian refugee rules. But any serious demeanour immediately melted away when Francisco played Santa Claus at the annual Christmas celebrations for all the residents’ children – but no disguise ever quite fooled his own three grandkids!

Pope Francis says we’re morally obliged to welcome migrants and offer displaced people hospitality. “Right,” commented Cardinal Michael Czerny SJ from Rome. “When they ask: What does that mean? A very good answer is: Look at Francisco!”

Francisco always envisioned the broadest sense of family, ensuring everyone was welcome. It’s likely that he’s now inviting God into a more just and inclusive heaven.

Joe Gunn and Francisco were compadres, or godparents, to each other’s children.

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