Wednesday, May 13, 2015
Padre Chiqui, Jesuit in Peru: "Pope Francis is a free man who wants people not to be afraid to be so"
May 9, 2015
Father José Ignacio Mantecón is a Jesuit, a native of Spain -- Zaragoza specifically, and everyone here calls him Padre Chiqui, because he's tiny, because he has always been the shortest -- in the family, at school, on the soccer team and in the novitiate. However, the passion he has brought for thirty years to Peru is huge -- working with transvestites, in the world of gangs, educating through sport, music, painting ...
Reaching, through education, employment and recreation, the "tattoo on the heart" of the "least", the ones he has managed to reintegrate into society. The latter also concern Francis, a pope who, according to Chiqui Mantecón, speaks freely of freedom. We'll talk with him about how the values of the Gospel are expressed many times without words.
Tiny but scrappy, as to your work, what you've achieved.
Doing more or less isn't what matters, but being faithful to what you're doing. Everyone talks about success when they do something and being successful doesn't concern me at all. Excellence, and that stuff, I think are less important than faith in what you're doing in itself, regardless of the results produced.
For thirty some odd years -- a lifetime -- you've been devoted to what we in Spain know as "bands" (bandas). Gangs (maras) in Latin America.
The truth is that I've done a bit of everything. When I came to Peru, I started working at the Fe y Alegría Foundation, in working class schools. After three years, I went over to El Agustino, which is a district with many inhabitants and many problems of poverty, violence...It's the neighborhood with the highest rate of tuberculosis.
One of the poorest areas of Lima?
It has evolved a lot but when I came there, it was. There was a very serious poverty situation. I came to work in the parish, but I've been more in the street than in the church. I've worked with a Christian community of transvestites which, although something strange, was a very important experience in my life because it taught me to love those who are different. I worked with them to recover their dignity as people, after AIDS had killed many of those girls, when there were no concepts of prevention, of following a treatment, or anything.
I also got into a movement we did with the youth, of rock music. A very important movement was created from which the best rock musicians in the country have emerged. Hundreds of young people were involved in that. I sang and played with them.
What did you play?
The guitar. But mostly I organized things. They were trying through rock fused with chicha, which is music of the working class neighborhoods, to collect their experiences and launch them out there. For years we gave a concert that became famous throughout Lima.
Did you use music to bring dignity to the lives of the neighborhood kids?
It was a way of vindicating being from El Agustino, because people were afraid of this neighborhood. There are still many people who don't go to El Agustino because they say it's very dangerous. A kid, going to look for work in Miraflores, would never say he's from El Agustino, because they would look down on him and take him for violent. Then, the music, and the recognition that music got and even its professionalism, helped them a lot to feel proud of where they lived and be able to express what they had.
Rock music with Peruvian roots.
Fusing the ancient and the modern is always good.
And you were always with them.
Yes, I didn't have much time to go out and play because instead of practicing, my afternoons would be spent organizing concerts for them.
How many kids did you change?
One hundred, two hundred.
Did you practice in the parish?
I gave the movement its first drum set, because you could get guitars but a drum set was impossible. A friend of mine gave me the money and I was able to buy a very poor one. But all the drummers of El Agustino practiced there...So we held the first concerts in the various chapels the parish had. The parish, fortunately, has always been a house of faith open to the world.
Did you Jesuits always have it?
From the beginning.
And your choice was to make it open, even to the transvestites.
They managed to make it their own, by participating, although initially it was very hard. Then, when I started working with gang members, it was the same. I've always had a lot of support from the parish, for always meeting on its premises.
The hierarchy never balked?
No, although I suppose there might be many people who don't like what I'm doing. If they were to take me to task directly, it wouldn't matter much to me either.
Have they given up on you?
Maybe. But the Society of Jesus has always respected what I've been doing in El Agustino very much and, little by little, in the rest of the Peruvian province.
Not the Jesuit hierarchy, the diocesan one -- the bishop, the vicar general..Does the Cardinal view you favorably?
I don't think so, but it doesn't worry me. For example, I have worked with diocesan priests -- they've called me to support them in areas where there were similar problems, stupendously.
Because then they tried to bring the model you planted in El Agustino to other places.
To Ayacucho, also with the Jesuits, to work with the gangs after all the political violence -- the domestic war that took place -- that had strengthened them. The violence in Ayacucho was a very serious problem. I went over there, worked with the kids who were interested...
Are there fruits from this work you've done with the gang members?
Yes, because in the end people, when they feel loved, respond. Although there's everything. In El Agustino, when I began there were 37 very violent gangs. They confronted each other and, as a result, deaths from bullets, machetes, stoning. I had been to eight or nine wakes of kids I knew...I had no idea what to do. I don't think anyone did in this country. What we did was to try to find a way towards the problems around us, getting involved with those people. If we hadn't joined them, we wouldn't have found solutions, we wouldn't have known anything.
How did you connect with them? Because it can't be easy putting yourself between the gangs...
Well, I already had the image of the rock-and-roll priest and I had played soccer with various El Agustino teams and in the district league. Also, right at that time I was chaplain of Alianza Lima, a very good and popular soccer team in Lima. So those gang kids were also part of the fan club of that professional team. At least, being from Alianza, I wasn't an enemy. They had seen me in the club and I could pass as another fan. That's how I came into contact with them.
There were four ways to leave the streets -- one was education, because most of the kids had dropped out of school. Another, work. After that, recreation (in our case, sports, soccer). And the one we added was works of reparation of the community -- those who had damaged private properties or broken public ones, had to find the way to change their image in the public eye.
Then, when I was in Colombia and even in Los Angeles, California -- which is the gang capital of the world -- I saw that the things we had begun to work on, were what was working everywhere else.
Here we created an educational program so that those who had dropped out could learn to read and write because they were illiterate. Then we put together a sports club. I remember that I went to Lima city hall to tell them what we were doing and ask for help. They told me that in Lima there were gangs everywhere but that they couldn't collaborate because they didn't have money for that stuff. It was a blessing that they told me that because, to compensate, they offered me a trainer for the kids. Luck would have it that the trainer, as well as knowing about soccer, was a born educator who understood that sports offers marvelous tools to work on everything that was lacking -- rules, discipline, relationship with authority, overcoming frustration in the face of defeat, which is what used to make the boys blow up before...
In addition to this teacher, who got along great with the kids, we had an experience with a television program that was being made, that recorded our gangs to show how sports was getting them out of the world of violence. Then a businessman, who is the richest man in this country, Carlos Rodriguez Pastor, president of supermarkets, one of the largest banks, hotels ... saw that program and, as he likes sports a lot too, talked with the kids. He told me they needed work, but he wasn't going to give it to them, because it would be a failure for them and for him, because they wouldn't be able to do it, and I demand my workers make good. So he and his wife devised a program to prepare them for employment. Saturdays from 9:00 to 15:00, he used to come to El Agustino to work with groups of thirty kids.
The businessman himself?
Yes, and his wife. They did a beautiful program.
For how long?
A long time -- hundreds of groups went through it. After eight Saturdays of training, a group would go out and present themselves to the businesses.
This personal involvement by a businessman isn't usual...
So it was. And, when they found work, it was positions with paid vacations, health insurance and other social benefits.
What were the job opportunities?
Some worked carrying mail in a bank building, others as gardeners, others as stock clerks in a supermarket, as ushers in the movie theaters...everything. All these things, of course, broke the logic of violence that was in the district. And in those days, the heads of Alianza and Barras, which was the other university soccer team, lived in El Agostino and organized deadly confrontations. But suddenly, those who were separated by bullets were united by the Saturday employment programs.
A kind of miracle.
Especially because, according to the National Police, El Agostino came to be a gang-free territory.
There aren't any gangs, which doesn't mean there isn't violence.
How did you keep growing?
We created a series of associations. The first was the Martin Luther King [Association] for job training in the different parts of the district. Former gang members who needed to work were calling me. I was coordinating and accompanying those efforts, following the model we talked about earlier. When that began to work well in El Agustino, the attorney general put forward a program of the Public Ministry to work with Barras in Villa Salvador, another district of Lima where I had also worked with people from the university team.
They've even called you from other countries?
Yes, I've been to El Salvador, Jamaica, and Colombia for this purpose. To San Diego and Los Angeles, as I already said, which is where the gangs have the most power.
In El Salvador, did you meet a Spanish Passionist [Fr. Antonio Rodríguez Tercero, aka Padre Toño] who is also very involved...?
They told me a lot about him! But I couldn't meet him, unfortunately.
They threw him out...I don't know if he's been able to return for the time being but he had to go to Spain.
Yes, according to what I've been told, he's a great person.
During this whole process, have you ever felt in danger?
I've never been afraid.
Didn't the kids ever come into conflict violently with you?
I've been in the middle of complicated situations, but I've never had any problem myself.
Did they ever raise transcendental questions? Did they talk about God?
I think the first thing we must do is not to return -- because the dignity of a person is never lost -- but raise the level of dignity -- against their own shame, the abuse and judgment of others ...-- of these people who have always been singled out by society. Once that dignity has been regained, you can begin to manage other things. But if people don't feel worthy, there will never be an opportunity to talk about God or anything. This process takes years ... we must learn to be with people where we need to be so that things will be as they should. People have to recognize their dignity to respect the worth of others. To have decent health care for all, employment, quality education, everyone has to be committed to human rights, from politics or faith, but always firmly.
I hope, in my work, to show forgiveness even to enemies, the beatitudes in which I believe, the respect of Our Father (of whom we are all brothers and sisters). I hope to make the people I interact with feel them. Only when you've gone down that dignification road can you see Jesus, and not before. With the cross in front, you don't get to social commitment. Gospel values are expressed many times without words.
With those values, do the kids see you as someone authentic?
I think I'm a friend of many of them. For others, I might have been only the possibility for leaving this world. I do things because I have to do them, not because I think they'll thank me for it.
You came to the border before we talked about borders. You've been on the peripheries, existential ones too, that Pope Francis is now talking about.
Maybe, but I don't attach any importance to it.
Aren't you gratified that the Church leadership has begun to speak the same language of respect for human dignity?
I think that after many, many, many years, the Gospel is now beginning to come into the Vatican, and that's an important step.
So what does the coming of Pope Francis mean?
That the Church has begun to open its structures or leave them. Things that had been neglected a long time, like the lost sheep thing, are making people approach the Church passionately. That basic problems like justice are put in the forefront and not just sex, as it seemed a few years ago, is a change that goes back to Jesus. And therefore it gives one hope.
Is there a kind of quiet revolution going on?
I don't know, but I'm calm. I bless the fact that the Pope is someone who wants to give meaning again to the Gospel, or rather, to make the Church truly change according to it. Apart from the guidelines of the hierarchy or political leaders, when the people's conviction in favor of mercy corresponds with a clear path in the official Church -- of compassion, a desire for justice for all ...-- change will be able to take place.
That is, the fact that Pope Francis says from above that this is the path, makes your work easier.
Of course. His style helps a lot.
I guess that soaks into people more.
Of course it does.
But there may be difficulties. Is there resistance to that fine rain that comes from above and also from below soaking into the structures?
I suppose there would be a lot of resistance because he's suggesting things that go totally against some movements that have a lot of power within the Catholic Church and that have had huge support from the hierarchy. Even in things that are as basic as dress style -- that the Church hierarchs, albeit out of shame, cut down on their gold and finery, is a change they aren't going to make by choice.
In the land of liberation theology, do you feel close to that ideological current?
Obviously. I think there's no other here. There couldn't be. I think that, of all the books I studied in Theology, there was a very tiny one, by a French theologian, that was called Jésus, homme libre ["Jesus, a free man" by Christian Duquoc]. I remember that reading it had a tremendous impact on me. I think that one of the things that makes Pope Francis revolutionary is that he is a free man who wants to make people feel free to seek their path. There has been much fear of freedom in the Church -- there still is in the big movements--, as the other book, Fear of Freedom, said.
The one by Eric Fromm, a classic.
It's that the word freedom came out and then someone said, "but not license!". Let's not mix things -- let's talk freely about freedom! Forget license, because freedom will make you a better person. Jesus was above all a free man, but he came for others -- to teach us to be free. Sometimes I think that the Church has been much more rooted in the Old Testament than in the New Testament -- we're still talking about the Ten Commandments, and not the only one that Jesus left us, which is to love your neighbor as yourself!
And we have a lot of Pharisaism. The Pharisees, whom Jesus criticizes a great deal -- it's one of the greatest insults in the Gospel, made of the Ten Commandments a series of hundreds and hundreds of laws and prohibitions. It seems that those who came later liked that a lot... because they made Canon Law, which is a whole lot more prohibitions. Jesus said it clearly: I give you one commandment, which is also new: Love one another as I have loved you. To be a Christian, you don't need all that Canon Law has put into our heads.
Do you identify more with the Prodigal Son than with the older brother who stays home and then protests?
I identify more -- or I would like to come to identify -- with the father, who's a paragon of mercy and purity. There's a book written by a Jesuit, Gregory Boyle, who has worked with the gangs in Los Angeles for many years, going into that world with impressive programs of employment, recreation, education...He wrote it after being at more than a hundred wakes of kids who died violently, and it's called Tattoos on the Heart, because one of the programs they have there is to remove tattoos. Of course, they go around with their whole head and even their faces tattooed and, after having been able to leave drugs, weapons, and prepare themselves for a job, they aren't hired if they present themselves that way, tattooed, at interviews. It's a very long, hard, and expensive job, but they're removed. However, he's talking about the tattoos on the heart which we have to reach as well. Those tattoos are those of shame from always having been the despised (the son of the prostitute, the heroin addict...who's never going to change). All those stigmas that are stored up in the heart, getting so much into the person's life that they become tattoos that are very hard to erase. The subtitle of the book is "The Power of Boundless Compassion."
Here you also connect a lot with Pope Francis who, with the Year of Mercy, continually speaks to us about the tenderness of God.
Discovering compassion and forgiveness changed my life. They have impressive power to change many sad lives.
I guess you know examples of people who, even with those tattoos on the heart, were able to find their personal dignity again.
Of course. For example, one of the gang members who passed through the youth center, drug addiction, robbery...is now one of our collaborators -- he works in the social-sports schools we have with the Real Madrid Foundation for adolescent boys. They're people for whom the least bit of education -- learning to read! -- changed their lives. They've come to be people who are recognized in society despite their past. There are many cases, but there are also others who fell by the wayside.
Since we're talking about Real Madrid, I guess you're a Madrid supporter.
I have been since I was a boy, but I love it when Barça [Barcelona] plays -- I love the sport everywhere.
Do you follow the Spanish League much here?
Yes, it's a point of reference.
What agreements do you have with the Real Madrid Foundation?
One of the gang kids, who was on the football team, told me you have to work with the children, because if they had had something like that when they were children, they wouldn't have gotten into that path of drugs and crime. So we started to work with the children, and saw that the Real Madrid Foundation had schools worldwide, but not in Peru. They were told that here in El Agustino was Chiqui, working with teenagers through sports, in case they wanted to collaborate. They came, we talked and we were thinking the same thing: let's start with the school.
How long ago?
We're in the fifth year and we have some four hundred adolescent boys in that school which isn't to turn out talent or great players, but to use sports as an instrument to compensate for the shortcomings their families and the street left them. It serves as an education.
I've read that you've even gone with some of those boys to Madrid.
Yes, to some tournaments. From my experience with the gang members, I think the whole life of these guys who end up in violence, drugs, etc, is circumscribed within the triangle of school, family and the street. Fortunately, in our country there are few children who go directly from the family to the streets -- most go to school, despite the dropping out. Most who come to these situations of violence, have big abuse problems of all kinds, not just crime and drugs. The violence is within the family. In the best of cases, the parents work twelve hours -- there's no room for affection or for education. Then, when these children go to school, they bring the problems with them. Here in the public schools, there isn't a single psychologist, there are no programs to assist these children, so what happens is that, if they don't drop out, they're expelled for their behavior. What's left? The street.
We've discovered that the street becomes their educational space. So what I'm involved in now is filling the streets with attractive spaces for teenagers and young people, where they can do sports, painting, ceramics ... Children can't go through adolescence without playing. The alternative education program we have is that. But it's not enough to give them a ball to play with or that a teacher teaches them to paint -- the people who work there have to have a deep conviction that they are, in addition to facilitators or teachers, educators who have to work on the deficiencies that are in the families. The street can be revolutionized through education, working from there with the families -- we also have, within the soccer school, a school for parents: sexuality, relationships, how to educate -- based in the houses where the children go to do paintings and ceramics.
Now we're starting a new project -- Symphony with Peru, which was picked up from the Venezuelan experience, the child and youth orchestras -- which was created to assist children in more complicated situations. We're starting here in Peru to shape our orchestra with the well-known tenor Juan Diego Flores. A few months ago we started with a group -- a choir that will become a symphony orchestra.
You're looking non-stop for projects that fill these realities with content, turning the street into a school.
Aesthetic education is fundamental. Art and music, like sports, work the soul like pottery is worked in our alternative basic education workshops. We're in this because we have to flood El Agustino with these spaces, which also change the image of the district. When the community sees that the children are being tended to, it begins to be concerned about the district.
And to collaborate.
Obviously, to make the places where we are clean, for example. Usually children count for nothing in Peru, but now we're making them begin to work for them. Let's hope it bears fruit.
What do you need? A lot of funding, I guess.
Economic aid, of course. As far as people, we have a house for volunteers. When the Jesuits leave El Agustino for other places, the volunteers come and have very lovely experiences. Especially, we have a relationship with América Solidaria, a Chilean organization, that's now in the third year of sending volunteers for a year. They're professionals who come to work with us, also from Colombia and Spain, from the Comillas Pontifical University. Many guys have come from Zaragoza who've brought us a lot from their professions, helping us to be better organized and solidify the project.
You're taking advantage of all possible synergies within and outside the Society [the Jesuits].
Logically. You have to join together.
Do you have volunteers from here too?
Of course. Very good people are collaborating too. There are programs that function almost solely and exclusively with volunteers since the educational program, despite being a model in the country, doesn't have the means to pay salaries. We do personal tutoring, in groups, debates and even psychological support with volunteers. There are people who haven't missed a day of class in five years.
Is Spain far from you now?
If it weren't for sports, it would be very far away. It's what I follow the most and because of it, I go there from time to time, as I've already said.
Do you still have family there?
My parents are dead now but I have my brothers and sisters, cousins, friends...I entered the Society of Jesus at seventeen and I never went back to Zaragoza, but I lived eight years in Madrid while I was studying Theology and Philosophy, and I have friends there. I worked in Alicante for six years and I also have wonderful people there who I always go see.
Is there a web site where people can go to see what you're doing?
I'm disastrous at those things. Our organization is called Encuentros: Servicio jesuita para la solidaridad ["Encounters. Jesuit Service for Solidarity"] and it can be found on the Internet, I guess.
I've seen that by putting "Padre Chiqui" in Google, videos also come up.
The only thing I use the computer for is e-mail. And because it's now very hard to write a letter and send it the old way...I got caught up in it late. Getting into those things, what laziness! I don't know anything about social networks.
It's a pleasure to have met you and to hear about your adventures. From Spain we will follow you and support you as we can.