Adolfo Pérez Esquivel (b. 1931)

I don’t think I’ve ever come across another peace activist who challenges me to reach deeper into my core spirituality. Adolfo Pérez Esquivel’s writings from prison that appear in Christ in a Poncho still move me. I didn’t realize how profoundly his voice had influenced me until I began writing a book, A Peacemaker’s Journal, filled with quotes for people to reflect on while working toward peace. As I looked over my draft, I realized the journal was far too heavy with quotes from Pérez Esquivel. He expressed so many truths so eloquently that my own spirituality in peacemaking was transformed.

Argentine Human Rights Activist & Organizer

We try to act in truth. This is what gives our movement its security: the truth—respect for the human person. Respect for the human person generates constancy and steadfastness. And constancy and steadfastness generate an attack on evil and the possibility of altering the structures of injustice.
Adolfo Pérez Esquivel

For two days in the pipe, a solitary cell in an Argentine prison, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel was in complete darkness. On the third day guards came in, and light flooded into the cell. Pérez Esquivel saw graffiti all over the walls, some prayers, some insults. What struck him the most was a huge finger-painted bloodstain that said, God doesn’t kill. Pérez Esquivel later wrote that this bloody message was engraved somewhere on my insides.

Career & Dedication to Nonviolence Movements

Adolfo Pérez Esquivel was an architect and a sculptor. He taught for 25 years at various levels of the educational system, and then his passion for justice and peace took him on a different path. In 1974, he plunged into full-time coordination of the burgeoning nonviolent movements for justice across Latin America. A loose network had been organized at a conference in 1968, but by 1974 the participants knew they needed a more substantive organization. Pérez Esquivel was appointed Secretary-General of the group Servicio Paz y Justicia (Service for Peace and Justice).

Connecting Nonviolent Movements

In that leadership capacity, he traveled throughout Latin America connecting groups that had previously been isolated from one another. There were mothers of people who had disappeared in the so-called dirty war in Pérez Esquivel’s home country, Argentina. There were tin miners in Bolivia and peasant farmers in Ecuador, Paraguay, Brazil and Honduras. He liked to talk about a battle between an elephant and ants: True, the elephant is stronger. But the ants … well, there are more of us.

As he traveled to bring the ants together, Pérez Esquivel taught about nonviolence, which he saw as the only option to bring deep change. He taught, We know too that one evil cannot be cured by another. Evils don’t cancel each other out. They total up. So the movement for transforming Latin America would have to be based on love and truth. He told stories of other movements, helping people to draw strength and insight from each other’s struggles.

We try to bring different groups into contact with one another—to set up a tradeoff of experiences and to get them to support one another. Once they were connected, they could be organized for collective advocacy about some of the root issues plaguing all the poor of Latin America. As Pérez Esquivel puts it, Once we’ve laid the foundations, the next thing is to witness—to denounce prophetically the situations of injustice in which peasants, workers, and religious groups have to live. Through Sevicio Paz y Justicia craft collectives were organized to provide a sustainable economic base for many of the movements. He also published a magazine called Paz y Justicia that shared people’s stories, encouraging and educating readers.

The Dirty War

In his native Argentina, Pérez Esquivel was immersed in the struggles for peace and human rights. In 1976, the nation’s democratic government was overthrown by a military coup, plunging the country into a dark period that eventually turned into the dirty war. Most of the war was waged by military and police kidnapping people, holding them in prison, often without anyone knowing where they were. The disappearances mounted, and it was eventually revealed that some 30,000 people had been murdered. Pérez Esquivel said,

Of course, all 30,000 were not killed at once. They disappeared one or two at a time. Though the number of victims rose to five, ten, one hundred, there was no cry of protest from society. And that is why 30,000 people died.

Protest of the War

But Pérez Esquivel and some bold women did raise a protest. Mothers and other relatives of the disappeared began silently marching once a week in the Plaza de Mayo in downtown Buenos Aires. They were ignored or ridiculed at first, then the military began repressing them. Some of the women were killed. Pérez Esquivel worked closely with the women as a consultant, teacher and guide. He challenged them to think deeply about the root issues behind the violence that had devastated their families. Your reflection in the course of this meeting has led you from the purely spontaneous and emotional actions you might undertake to an awareness that there are political and social problems to be faced, he said.

Imprisonment & Release

In 1977, Pérez Esquivel was arrested and held in prison for fourteen months though he was never charged with any offense. At times he was in solitary confinement. He was tortured severely including by electric shock. He was initially one of the disappeared himself, but international furor over his disappearance probably kept him alive. Amnesty International and U.S. President Jimmy Carter appealed for his release. As political pressure built outside the prison, spiritual discipline kept him alive through the brutal captivity and seemingly endless torture. In prison, I gained the strength to survive under extreme conditions, the strength to resist, he wrote. That strength is mental and spiritual strength. In prison, one is denied physical freedom. But the mind is free. The mind cannot be imprisoned.

Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

In 1980, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Outside of Latin America, very few people had heard of him. But people had heard of the nonviolent movements he had connected and strengthened and to which he had given visibility. In accepting the prize Pérez Esquivel continued to give visibility to those groups: I accept this prize in the name of Latin America and its workers, in the name of its campesinos and its priests who are working diligently for the peace and rights of all. But even after winning the Nobel Peace Prize he was the target of death threats and harassment. The Argentine military rulers took his award as an insult, and the national press gave no notice to his international recognition. Pérez Esquivel said, Here we always live in uncertainty, but I cannot let myself be paralyzed by it or I would not do anything. When the military dictatorship in Argentina collapsed in 1983, Pérez Esquivel continued his work for human rights across Latin America.

Involvement in Human Rights Organizations

He was a co-founder of both the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights and the Ecumenical Movement for Human Rights. These organizations linked human rights activists with groups for coordinated efforts. Since the 1970s, they participated in international efforts to create a more effective United Nations Human Rights Council, which finally was established in 2006.

A Powerful Voice

Adolfo Pérez Esquivel speaking in 2003

Marcello Casal Jr./CC BY 3.0/Wikimedia Commons

Pérez Esquivel’s life and voice weaves together a deep Christian spirituality that resonates in Latin America with the pragmatic teaching of nonviolent action. He writes:

In nonviolent combat what we do is just exactly what nice players aren’t supposed to do. We refuse to play by one of the rules the system tries to foist on us: the rule that says you have to counter violence with violence. If your opponents can get you to swallow that idea, then they can unleash still greater violence on you. The essential thing in nonviolent combat is for us to render these tactics inoperative by refusing to play by the rules and by imposing our own conditions instead.

Through such an approach, a tortured prisoner held in solitary confinement and mothers grieving their lost children were together responsible for the collapse of a powerful military dictatorship. Adolfo Pérez Esquivel has enabled many ants to bring down Latin American elephants.

See Also

Related Interfaith Peacemakers Profiles

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