By Marianne Ponsford (English translation by Rebel Girl)
She fervently wore the uniforms of the Church and the guerrilla. And she abandoned both of them in her living quest for a more just country. At a time when Colombia, sadly, is in first place for inequality in Latin America according to the World Bank, Leonor Esguerra's is an example of a life that is as atypical as it is dazzling.
How to understand a sympathetic teen, a party girl just beginning to live, to fall in love, discover the world's small pleasures and the innocent vanity of youth, who decides, at 17, to become a nun? It's hard. But Leonor Esguerra's answer is very simple. What a frivolous life that was! Living from party to party, outing to outing? Marrying one of those mama's boys? Being a housewife? Playing canasta? Well, no.
They had just killed Gaitán. Leonor had been through the best schools in Bogota, as befitted a high society girl, and that year she had entered the recently opened Marymount School.
Poor people didn't interest her much. She considered them part of the urban scenery. She believed in God and the promise of a different life than the one offered by the self-absorbed capital city. A more spiritual life. The Constellation plane in which she left for New York on June 24, 1948 towards the novitiate in the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary (the same ones who ran her school), marked the beginning of an extraordinary life, of a destiny forged by a character which, devoid of any combative ardor or useless transient vehemence, has made with the most incredible peace of mind the tremendous decisions dictated by her discreet and elegant intellectual outrage.
Of course she saw things with different eyes when she came back two years later, still an adolescent. New York wasn't surrounded by belts of misery or the appalling poverty that nested in Bogota. She liked the idea of being a teacher in a school that taught girls from the local elite. She contemplated the deep meaning of education, the opportunity to teach the girls from these elites to fill a more active role in society. She spent several years in Marymount in Barranquilla and, in 1960 and barely 30 years old, was named mother superior of Marymount in Medellin.
These were turbulent years in Latin America and the world. The Cuban revolution had just triumphed and the Second Vatican Council, inaugurated by John XXIII, had been a revolutionary call to question the role of the Church in society. Leonor, who was now called Mother María del Consuelo, came back to the United States to continue her religious formation and found a society shaken by the assassination of Kennedy, the speeches of Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers, Angela Davis and the struggle for civil rights.
Before she turned 35, Leonor was named director of Marymount in Bogota. The school was beautiful and at the foot of the hill, above the church in Usaquén. Just underneath, the same school had its social project: an earthen floor room, badly lit and poor, the little school for poor girls. The mothers of the Marymount students met to drink tea and knit lace dresses that they piously distributed once a year to the poor, who sold them as quickly as possible to get themselves something to eat.
Leonor saw that was wrong. She simply ended the Buttler Mothers' Club (that's what it was called), decided that the poor girls deserved an education and a school infrastructure of the same quality as the elite girls, and began the task of achieving it. Likewise, she thought it absurd that the education of girls who would later marry those who would become the leaders of the country, consisted of classes in U.S. geography, handcrafts and the proper directing of domestic chores. She started them reading the history of the country. She began with La violencia en Colombia ("Violence in Colombia") by Orlando Fals Borda. It was the beginning of the debacle.
Meanwhile, Leonor followed the turbulent happenings: the agitation caused by the words and actions of the priest Camilo Torres, his joining the guerrilla, which she deeply disapproved of because she didn't think armed struggle was the right way. Then stunned grief after his death in combat.
Following the dictates of the Council and the need to bring the Church up to date, Leonor continued her educational revolution. She decided to found a school in the Galán barrio and thought it would be right for the children of the workers to receive an education in accordance with their condition and time. For this, she associated with priests who, in the heat of liberation theology, sought to end social inequality in Latin America and had formed the historic Golconda association, to which the Spanish priests Domingo Laín and Manuel Pérez belonged before joining the ELN. Leonor wanted to train girls both poor and rich in authentic class consciousness.
But good education is costly. It costs dearly. And in this case the one who advocated it paid dearly. More and more uncomfortable, the parents of Bogota high society had their hackles raised. Their daughters had started to ask them impertinent questions. Questions that had to do with inequality in the country. Unable to answer, they started to complain about the changes in educational content. It was Marymount School!
After protests, meetings, the intervention of the bishops and consultations, Leonor thought that all would be resolved if she were to resign from the leadership. She did so. She went to Medellin. But it was unstoppable. Open windows cannot just be closed like that. It's that one had to understand this in light of what was happening on the continent. And of the national elites' everlasting fear of leftist ideas. Fidel's victory in Cuba, the Missile Crisis, the emergence of the guerrilla in Colombia, liberation theology -- everything seemed to foreshadow the coming of the feared monster of the old continent, communism.
What detonated the crisis seems like a silly anecdote. It was called the Song Contest. It was a simple year-end school event, in which the girls of each class in Marymount prepared a musical act. In English, of course. But the students in the last class rebelled and created an act in Spanish with a Christian social justice message based on the gospel, that criticized the Church and society. After comings and goings, consultations in Rome and New York, scandalous headlines on the front page of El Tiempo and in the tabloids, accusations of Marxist infiltration in the best school in the city, Marymount closed. The scandal grew to international proportions and the New York Times devoted half a page to the issue, with an interview with Leonor.
Of course, Marymount reopened later as a secular school (it was intolerable to waste the glamorous name). What's strange is that neither the students nor the former students of the current Marymount, including the most serious and studious ones, have the remotest idea of what happened there. The history was erased to perfection. Those events weren't spoken of again.
With canceled visas, accusations of being a communist, crazy rumors about the behavior of the nuns (and nuns who in fact left the religious life), Leonor resigned from the school and in October of the same year, 1969, decided to live out the vow of poverty mandated by the Church in a more genuine way. She went to Buenaventura to work as a teacher with a small group of women religious. She picked the place simply because she knew the priest who had a mission there. She lived in extremely humble circumstances. But towards the end of that eventful year, she received news that left her stupefied -- Fabio Vásquez Castaño sent her a message saying he wanted to get to know her. After a period of doubt and anxiety, Leonor went to the appointment because she mistakenly thought that Vasquez wanted to ask her to help the Spanish priest Domingo Laín, who had been expelled from the country, to return. She had known Laín in Golconda, had seen him again during a visit to Spain and professed great affection for him.
Leonor came back from the meeting with Vásquez in the mountains bursting with admiration for the guerrilla struggle and bursting with love for the one who at that moment seemed to her to be a heroic fighter against the appalling inequality of the country. She changed almost immediately, without thinking twice, into his happy lover. But, unable to take up arms, she started to collaborate in logistical support activities in the cities. The political upheaval continued throughout the following decade. The ELN suffered not only military disasters but the craziness of the shootings that began within the guerrilla. Leonor made a logistical mistake (some botched papers led to the capture of a militant on the run) and Vásquez, from Cuba, ordered her shooting. Gabino refused. Anyway, in 1979, Leonor had the police on her heels, miraculously escaped, and had to leave the country. She came to Nicaragua where the Sandinista Revolution had just triumphed and renewed hopes that a more just society was possible in Latin America. It's what Leonor had wanted -- simply a less unequal society. Less poverty, less suffering, less economic injustice.
Leonor Esguerra is a woman of uncommon intellectual formation. She has read the literary canon passionately and Marxist theory rigorously. Her overflowing sympathy, her strong Bogota accent, her polite manners and her advanced age are quite fooling -- one believes one is facing a cute little old woman with whom one can talk about the weather and have some tea. They fool without meaning to, because of the archetypal prejudices that condition us. But Leonor is a woman of proven intellectual breadth. And of a serene intelligence where soul, brain and heart flow together in an enviable and joyful balance.
The thirteen years she lived in Nicaragua were years of readings, participation in the Sandinista Revolution and the quiet exercise of building a political and theoretical framework that would serve as a road map for the guerrilla movement. She aimed to give the ELN an international structure and had the cosmopolitan view they lacked. She participated in the Coordinadora Guerrillera in Mexico, was in Guatemala, met Fidel in Cuba along with Navarro Wolff. She was with Comandante Tomás Borge, with Carlos Pizarro, with Jaime Bateman. With the same clarity with which, decades earlier, she had guessed the literary genius of García Márquez the same year that One Hundred Years of Solitude was published and had invited him to Marymount in Barranquilla (he accepted, curious and fascinated), Leonor worked tirelessly on her intellectual education and trying to shake up the parochialism of the Colombian guerrilla. But history is chauvinist and the guerrilla too. In that way it is identical to the elites it wanted to fight against. Her name has been discretely left aside and the contribution of her voice has disappeared in the Colombian left's history of intellectual debate.
Leonor decided, at the insistence of her great friend the Peruvian architect Inés Claux Carriquiry, to tell her story. Inés took responsibility for transcribing and writing that history over years of sporadic meeting and the result was a thrilling manuscript which last year no publishing house wanted to publish and which came to me in a modest edition titled La búsqueda ("The Search") and sponsored by friend, of which barely a handful of copies remain in three bookstores in Bogota -- Lerner Norte, La Madriguera del Conejo and La Central. But this history should be re-published by a major publisher [La búsqueda was re-published recently in 2012 by Aguilar and launched at the Hay Festival last month]. Because it is a story that is impossible to summarize here, as it is impossible to tell of the extensive work Leonor did for a decade with women in Medellin, after coming back from Nicaragua, flying the flags of a feminism that has been nothing other than a different costume for the same ideal.
History is, above all, what is spoken about history. The narration we give it. The events we choose as determinants. The people we consider protagonists. History is built and in that construction, things are discarded, omitted and ignored. And erased. So each era believes its version of history is the definitive one, the true one. They are certainties that are as necessary as they are false, and that's why they must be demolished. The marvellous life of Leonor Esguerra Rojas, the history of the participation of an individual of exceptional bravery in the History of the country is one that has been ignored, erased, and omitted from the official narrative. Something must be done to repair this error and celebrate the life of a great woman who, at almost 81, is still serenely outraged.
Today Leonor lives in Chía with her sister Milena, widow of the great Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso. "Yes, I'm a Marxist," she tells me. "I haven't found a better explanation for how society functions. If someone would show me one, I would be glad to listen. But up to now, I haven't found it. I don't know if God exists. I look at nature..., maybe I'm a pantheist. But what I do know is that it doesn't seem right that after a whole life, everything ends. I think that, somewhere in the universe, we go on being. I am not resigned to not being," she adds, and lets out a sweet little chuckle.
- Ni silencio ni olvido, por Angélica Gallón Salazar,
- "Sigo siendo marxista", por María Jimena Duzán, La Semana, 10/1/2011
- Leonor Esguerra, la exmonja guerrillera que aún busca la revolución social, EFE, 1/28/2012