To read Nuns, Witches, and Teachers (Part 1: Family Values) click here.
Leonor Esguerra: Aló?
Juana Berrío: Aló, Leonor, how are you? Can you see me and hear me okay?
LE: Yes, yes! Do you see me? [laughter]
JB: Yes, perfectly. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you, even if we’re only meeting virtually for now.
LE: Same here, it’s a pleasure meeting you too.
JB: First of all, I want to thank you for your interest and for your time. I don’t know how to begin… your story has been an inspiration and a revelation for me these days. It has opened up many questions that I find relevant today and has also allowed me to connect several events, stories and people that were part of my reality growing up in Colombia. For example, in your book La Búsqueda you mention that Mario Revollo, the official priest of the Marymount school in Bogotá, ended up resigning as the chaplain and teacher of religion of the school. You say that he probably decided to leave because he felt rejected by the students who were not engaged with his old-fashioned teaching methods, precisely at the moment when you and the other nuns started to use new and innovative teaching methods to encourage students to really learn about the world that was around them. In contrast to Father Revollo’s traditional classes and sermons, the other religion teacher, Sister Claudia, who was a Colombian nun and had previously studied in New York, changed the entire content of her class, abandoning the long-established religion textbook used by the priest and previous teachers, and replaced it with a selection of contemporary texts that ranged from novels to Playboy magazine. With these readings, she hoped to motivate her students to critically analyze what it meant to be a Christian and believe in God in the twentieth century. Twenty years later, however, Father Revollo was the ecclesiastical figure invited to officiate the ceremony of my class’ first communion! He had escalated the Catholic hierarchy by then and had been named Cardinal bishop in Bogotá by John Paul II (and he also happened to be the son of a Colombian diplomat and a relative of the director of Marymount at the time). Of course, the thing that I remember the most from that day is constantly being told how “lucky” we were to have the closest possible representative of the Pope in our own little ceremony; it was almost as if we had the grand presence of the Pope, or even God himself, at the school’s small church for a couple of hours that morning.
LE: Ha! Yes, yes, that was him.
JB: But I want to start by talking about patriarchy. Throughout your life, you have actively participated in institutions that have been strongly shaped by patriarchy: the institution of the family, the educational system, the church…
LE: The church is so patriarchal, I can’t even tell you!
JB: And also the institution of war…
LE: Oh yes, yes, yes, yes.
JB: In several interviews you’ve given, you talk about your position as a feminist and mention that one thing Marx didn’t talk about was patriarchy. With Marx, we tend to talk about capitalism, class differences, the exploitation of the disempowered, but where is patriarchy in all of this?
LE: Sure, Marx doesn’t touch that topic because Marx was a patriarch himself.
JB: He wrote about labor and work and the working class, which you know something about, because you know what it means to be an employee and be part of a work structure and an economic system but you also know what it means to work in a hierarchy, a patriarchal hierarchy. I wanted to ask you about the hierarchy that exists within the Catholic Church and the one that exists within the National Liberation Army (ELN). Can you tell me a bit about how the ELN was organized? Not the guerrilla in general, but the ELN in particular? Were there similarities between it and the hierarchies that exist in the Catholic Church? What kind of hierarchy did you find when you joined the ELN? Fabio Vásquez, the charming man who was one of the founders and the leader of the group at that time when you joined the ELN, was a patriarch, just like Marx, as you say in your book….
LE: Yes. And he was also a womanizer, which completes the profile of the perfect patriarch. In the beginning, when I joined the ELN, 1 I found a clear hierarchy, and the leader was Fabio Vásquez. He was the one who decided who lived and who died. That’s why there were so many executions inside the ELN at that time. But then the ELN began a period of crisis and Fabio left the country. He was sick and went to Havana to be seen by doctors there. The people under him in the hierarchy of the guerrilla stayed in Colombia. But, you know, when there is a leader of that type, someone who doesn’t delegate anything, then none of the people under him are trained to be leaders. So the following ten years were in disarray, and the ELN only survived because the farmers and peasants truly believed that the group could fight for them and defend their rights. Finally, Manuel Pérez was chosen as the new leader, but he was a different type of leader because he was one of the priests of Golconda. 2 I knew all those priests and also participated in some of the meetings in Golconda. (There is a beautiful book called The Revolution of the Robes, which is a history of the priests of Golconda.) Manuel arrived with a different mentality because he had struggled with the horrific hierarchy within the Catholic Church. So once he was elected as the leader of the ELN, he moved away from Fabio’s type of leadership and became a different type of leader. This is one of the problems the Colombian government is currently facing during its peace negotiations with the ELN, because the ELN’s leadership, since Manuel Pérez, is different from the leadership of the FARC, which had a military leadership.
The FARC’s leaders gave orders, and people obeyed, while the ELN leadership is more discursive. Those at the bottom of the ladder can still ask questions and can accept or reject the decisions that are being made. Right now, as they are negotiating the peace agreement with the government of Colombia, this has added a layer of difficulty because not everyone in the ELN agrees or thinks the same way about how to negotiate.
JB: Yes, it seems that there are more voices and that it’s not just one person who makes the decision and everyone else obeys. It seems to be more about consensus. Is that something that you also experienced with the Catholic church? What are some differences or similarities?
LE: It is incredible, incredible, how both the church and the ELN are the same thing with different names and different points of view. The organized left also has a Pope, also has its saints, its bible, its policy of excommunication. Basically, it’s the church, but with a name given to it by the organized left. They are incredibly similar. In the guerrilla, even though they say they fight for the people, the hierarchy is identical.
It’s like they tried to copy all that radicalism from the Catholic Church where you first find the Pope, then the Bishops, then the Priests, then the nuns, and then the people. I can’t remember if I mentioned this in my book, but when I was in Mexico, I once wrote to Manuel Pérez and told him, “Listen, I realize that I left the hierarchy of the church and ended up joining another hierarchy on the left.”
LE: But there are some important differences between the Communist Party and the ELN. The ELN was born out of the Cuban revolution, and the Cuban revolution, interestingly enough, is something that is not analyzed enough. There are many important details about how the revolution was formed that don’t often get discussed. At the beginning, the Cuban revolution was not socialist. It was a revolution of liberation from the empire, from imperialism itself. It was a revolution of national liberation. However, the absolutely myopic US government closed its doors to this revolution, which gave an opening to the Soviet Union, who took advantage of the situation, and the Cuban revolution started to line up with socialism. With the Soviets involved, the Cubans had only one choice: they either had to be socialist, or nothing at all. But if the struggle between the Americans and the Soviets had not been what it was, the Cuban revolution would have led to a socialism that had a distinctly Cuban mentality, not one based on the Soviet Union, and we now know what ended up happening to that.
JB: But back within the Catholic Church, there are also important differences, no? What about between the different religious orders and congregations? For example, it seems that when you were a nun, you were part of an order that was definitely more open to what was happening in the world. It was 1968, and your congregation was very receptive to what was going on and wanted to understand and educate itself, so as to be able to have a social impact. But I can imagine that there were congregations where that was not necessarily the case?
LE: Absolutely. But all of that coincided with the Second Vatican Council, which was a beautiful and marvelous thing. The message of the Vatican II to the Catholic community was “place yourself in the twentieth century! Get out of your bubble! And when you land in the twentieth century, choose the poor as your focus!” So in that moment, with all the power and authority of the Vatican, Pope John XXIII did an amazing and invaluable good for the Church. Later on, other Popes would begin to close those doors again and bring us back to what was happening before the Vatican II. For example, that Polish Pope was a disaster for the Church. And just now, this poor Pope Francis is going through the difficulties of trying to open things up again. At least open up some windows if not doors.
JB: Going back to the notion of feminism and patriarchy, I wanted to talk about the notion of sisterhood. I’m curious to know how you experienced sisterhood with the other nuns, and if you think that other contexts in our society, outside the convent, could offer other forms of sisterhood?
LE: In terms of the notion of sisterhood between nuns, there is a terrifying truth that was not talked about until the Second Vatican Council, which was the way Christians in the monasteries as well as the convents would try to sanctify themselves by tolerating and trying to minimize the faults of others. For a long time, religious people used the faults of others as a step towards becoming holier. This is perfectly narrated in a book called Lives of the Saints by Alban Butler. With the arrival of the Vatican II, the ways Christianity had been disfigured began to be apparent, and it became increasingly clear that there was no camaraderie between fellow believers. This doesn’t mean that there was no camaraderie at all. I was lucky to have some extraordinary friends, and we loved each other very much, but this was really not that common. The nuns I met at Marymount, for example, were different because it was evident that they were friends and I could see solidarity between them.
JB: When did you begin to think of yourself as a feminist?
LE: I actually arrive at feminism in the last chapter of my life. 3 I initially found all of these furious feminists who wanted to burn men at the stake, but despite all of my experiences, I really didn’t feel that I needed to stand in opposition to men. So I became a feminist by conviction, not by reaction. I realized that one of the most terrible aspects of a patriarchal culture is that we, as women, have also conserved and nurtured the patriarchy because we have told our young boys “you’re a man, you do not cry, you do not have anything to do with the kitchen and with housework, you do not play with dolls.” What we have been destroying is everything that is feminine, which is different from everything that is related to feminism.
If we go back to Marx, we can see how he told the working class that in order to understand class and be part of a class, one has to be conscious of one’s own interests. One has to know what is right for oneself. For instance, we have all heard Colombian peasants and workers say “look how good my patroncito is! He’s such a good boss! He gave us Christmas presents and gave pretty things to our children!” But the rest of the time, that “good boss” exploits them without mercy. This is an example of not having class consciousness, and Marx’s first message to the working class was to have class consciousness and for them to know what their rights and interests are. His second message was that they needed to organize themselves in order to be able to fight for those interests. So, in thinking about the feminine and supporting this argument through a Marxist lens, I see that we are facing a global “change of modality.” What is the modality for Marx? It is the way society organizes itself when a new tool arrives to dominate the production process. Society arranges everything around this tool. The first tool was the plough, which led to an era of kings and of wealth based on the ownership or control over land. Then, when the time of the Middle Ages came, society was still not organized in classes but according to hierarchies: there was the king, then the aristocracy, then the artisans, and then the people. For centuries, there were no elections or anything like that. Finally, a new tool appeared, which was the steam engine. At that point, wealth was no longer connected to owning a quantity of land but to owning the means of production, owning and controlling the factories where things are made. This is when the working class was born, when the French Revolution happens, and when democracy is invented.
But I think democracy is starting to die. To me, this was evident with what happened with Greece and the European Union in 2015, which revealed that the vote, to which democracy had always given value, could be manipulated so as to not have any value. In fact, even the presidential candidates we are “offered” to choose from are not originally chosen by the people. They have to first be approved! By whom? By those who are in power. And who are those people right now? The political parties, the economic monopolies, and the army.
So what is today’s new tool? This precise thing that we’re using right now! This machine. Everything that has to do with technology. This is the new tool that is going to force us, or, actually, that is already forcing us to organize ourselves in a different way. How? We still don’t know because we are in the midst of figuring it out, but Marx used to say that when social turmoils occur, there are tendencies that occur in parallel that are not so obvious and that don’t appear to be significant at first. But they are there, and they become stronger over time. And the tendency that is currently gaining strength is everything around feminism. At this point, people still call it “feminism.” I don’t call it feminism anymore. I call it the feminine. The feminine in men and in women. Men are also looking for their own feminine side. For example, in Colombia, men are starting to take workshops to develop new skills, to explore different ways of being men. The feminine, both in men and women, starts with the conscious care for nature and for life. The core intention is to perpetuate life by reproducing it, by loving it, by truly loving it, by allowing ourselves to be sensitive, to manifest our own emotions. And as I said before, this is something that has been denied, especially to men, because it seems that to be men, you have to develop other skills. We have to start a frontal attack against that patriarchal culture and support everyone, men and women, including of course LGBT people. This tendency that has resurfaced and is becoming stronger is everything that has to do with the feminine. And to support and strengthen it, we need to be conscious. We need to have gender consciousness, just like Marx told us we needed class consciousness.
JB: I have been thinking about the invention of the figure of the “witch” and how the witch hunts that took place in Europe, from the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries, targeted particular women who represented a threat to the ruling patriarchal system…
LE: There is something very important to mention here. Before there was patriarchy, there was a history of women. Women were the leaders, they were the ones “running the game.” But when patriarchy triumphed, that history was destroyed, so women became a people without a history. We need to find it again! It might seem like it’s gone, but it’s in everything that this society was before the patriarchy existed. It is in our genes, perhaps. But those who tell the story of humanity are the conquistadores, and to erase the story of women, the patriarchy needed to demonize all those women who still had authority. There is a difference between power and authority: men are the ones who look for power, which is imposed from above, while authority is granted from below. Authority is something people recognize so it’s not necessary to impose it. It only requires discussion, dialogue, until you reach an agreement that respects that authority. So what does the patriarchy do when it finds authority outside of its vision? It tries to take that authority away from people. And how does it do that? By demonizing those people. The construction of “the witch” is one example.
JB: In your book, you say how in the beginning, when people were considered to be a threat to the ruling class, they would get deported or ex-patriated, which was the case of Domingo Laín and the other Spanish priests, for example. But then, those people began “disappearing” one by one. It seems as if the patriarchy is scared by the very notion of people organizing themselves, so it acts to prevent people from organizing.
LE: Sure. Because this bourgeoisie still thinks that by disappearing people, they can also make their ideas disappear. Honestly, I’m convinced that what is really going to save the world is to strengthen the feminine. In the same way that the working class had to lead the socialist revolution, the feminine has to save humanity. Not lead a revolution, but save the world from where this patriarchal era has taken us.
JB: Many people would assume that we need to create an alternative system, but based on what you’ve been saying, it seems that we should not be thinking about opposites (on one side men and the other side women), since the feminine is in all humans and in nature itself. So perhaps we should not be looking to create a matriarchal society? And if that’s the case, then what kind of system do you think we should be working towards?
LE: Our new tool, digital technology, has a characteristic that is very feminine: it works within a network. This tool works within networks and we, as women, work much better in networks than in pyramids. So what can come out of this? I don’t think it’s going to be matriarchy but as I said, we still don’t know what it’s going to be. It will take some time. That’s why, in the meantime, I talk about the feminine.
JB: What changes do you think our contemporary institutions (family, education, the government, the church) have to make in order to strengthen the feminine? It seems that many women are proudly appropriating the symbolic, as well, as the literal, meaning of wearing “pant suits” as a way to show that they are empowered, as a way to climb the professional ladder. But doesn’t this very notion of “wearing pant suits” and of “also wearing pants” imply that women should adopt the same attitudes as men in power?
LE: This is a crucial and very delicate point because I feel that that’s precisely the type of women we have to fight against. Because even if they don’t realize it, they want to be patriarchs, and they are modeling their behavior on patriarchy. Women should not replicate the behaviors that men use to gain power. We have to show these women that they are wrong, that this is not the path, and that by trying to mimic men, there will not be any change. It is only by rescuing the feminine and a woman’s way of thinking that things will be different.
JB: In your book, you also tell the story of how you were sent back to the US, after having worked in Medellin for a few years, and how you found a place that was going through many changes, with important leaders such as John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Angela Davis. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a talk between Angela Davis and Judith Butler in Oakland, and I know that Angela Davis has been a role model and inspiration for you for many years…
LE: Yes! Angela Davis is absolutely fantastic!
JB: The talk was centered around the notion of inequality in today’s society. Among many other things, they talked about how there are various key elements of our society that are intrinsically connected and cannot be separated when talking about equality, such as race, class, gender…
LE: When it comes to gender, I think it is very important to highlight the fact that we should not talk about equality but about equity. Equality implies that we are all the same, but we are not, and we should not be. So in those terms, we should look to promote fairness and justice through equity and celebrate the ways that we are different. “Sameness” is a manifestation of the norm, and the norm leads to fixed ideas.
JB: They also talked about how they found themselves ambivalently supporting same sex marriage. I also identify with this feeling of ambivalence, because it implies that we should accept the participation and the rights of homosexuals in society exclusively within the norm, which in this case is marriage. So we “accept” them, but only if they are part of a heteronormative and patriarchal vision. And one thing they said that I consider fundamental to think about is that marriage, more than a moral or romantic act, is mostly connected to private property.
LE: Yes. Marriage is part of a social organization that is starting to disappear now. That’s why the notion of family is in crisis, of that type of traditional family. Now, for example, the notion of family during the times of the hippies was a very different thing, it was beautiful. It is perhaps a prefiguration of what family could become. We cannot lose that. We have to rescue it somehow, at least its history, to show that another path is possible. At the core of their notion of family is the way they raised their children. Love was really free. And it was closer to the long period of time when women were “running the world,” especially compared to today. Their children belonged to all the women, to their community, because yes, women would sleep with whomever would show up, because there were no prejudices about this. But when the notion of the “land” appears, things start to get more complicated, because they start to think in terms of property. So men suddenly wanted to know who their children were. Each woman knew whose child was whose, but the biological father didn’t, so they privatized this concept of paternity in the same way they privatized their resources. Here you can see how, historically, society started to organize around this tool and what this tool produces. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Engels talks about this, based on the studies about different types of notions of family that had existed in the past and that existed when he wrote the book. But we are still stuck with the same idea of what family is, which seems to be the only idea, but it is not! You just have to see the many different notions of family that indigenous societies also had. 4
JB: To conclude, I want to ask you about the moment you read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, when you were still a nun and teacher at Marymount school. You say that this book had a real impact on you because it’s a perfect portrait of Colombia, and that it’s clearly a portrait made by a Colombian, not by a foreigner. So you asked your sister Milena, who was good friends with Gabo in Mexico, to tell him that you wanted to congratulate him on his book and invite him and his partner Mercedes to have dinner with you months later in Barranquilla. He accepts saying that he’s definitely curious to meet a nun who was working with Marxists! So, when you’re having dinner with him you congratulate him again but say that you found the end of the book to be quite pessimistic, since it meant the end of Macondo.
LE: Yes, his answer was beautiful. He said: “They were men condemned to be solitary because they were incapable to be solidary.”
JB: Now that the peace agreement with the FARC was finally signed in Colombia a few months ago and another peace agreement is currently being negotiated with the ELN, how do you think we should understand solidarity and be supportive of each other in a society that is still so polarized? How can we be aware and take responsibility of the fact that, in order to reach peace in the country, we’ll need to actually create and experience peace ourselves, which is something that will require lots of work and time?
LE: Yes, it will take many years for real peace to come but, more than many years, it will take courage from us all, as regular civilians, to face the fact that we all need to be willing to construct peace together and demand it. Because “peace” is not something people agree about and seal with their signatures. As you probably know, they have already started killing the leaders of the vulnerable communities. The ruling class is still the same obtuse, closed-minded class, a criminal class. And we, as society, are used to seeing the war on TV and don’t realize that we also need to participate to really reach peace. If we don’t, there will be no peace at all. If we don’t respond, nothing will ever happen. Peace doesn’t belong to President Santos or to the government. Peace belongs to the people, and as the people, we need to demand its existence. Our own voice and actions are the main elements that will allow us to finally experience peace in Colombia.
- After deciding to close the Marymount of Bogotá due to the parents’ extreme reaction to the Song Contest in 1968, things got even more complicated for Leonor. She tried to keep working as a teacher and promoter of social justice in Bogotá and other towns in Colombia but found herself surrounded by even more obstacles. Around that same time, she learned that Domingo Laín and the other Spanish priests, with whom she had built a strong friendship, had been deported. One day, out of the blue, she received a message from Fabio Vásquéz, the leader of the ELN at the time, saying that he wanted her to come to the jungle to meet with him. Since she had previously promised Domingo Laín to help him with anything he might need, she thought this meeting request was about helping Domingo re-enter the country. However, when she finally met Fabio in the middle of the jungle, not only did she find out that Domingo was already there but that they wanted her to work as a messenger for the ELN. Profoundly discouraged by the constant sabotages she experienced in her work as an educator and promoter of social justice, she accepted to work undercover, while continuing her life in the city. A couple of years later, when the Colombian authorities came looking for her at her sister’s house, she realized she was being persecuted and needed a place to hide. Her only option was to move to the jungle, where she adopted Socorro as her new name within the ELN.
- By the time Leonor Esguerra was the Mother Superior and Director of Marymount school in Bogotá and was also running the school for lower income families in the South of the city in the late 1960s, the Spanish priest Domingo Laín, among others, reached out to her intrigued by her work. Domingo Laín had arrived to Colombia with his friends Manuel Pérez and José Antonio Jiménez, also Spanish priests. All of them had experienced the lifestyle and mentality of the “Working Priests,” an initiative created by the French Catholic church in the early 1940s that encouraged priests to experience the real everyday life of the working class and to take jobs in factories and lower income neighborhoods. They were inspired by Camilo Torres, a Colombian priest and scholar who, persecuted by the Catholic hierarchy and the Colombian governing class, decided to join the Ejército de Liberación Liberal (ELN) to protect himself from “one day being shot in the corner of a street.” This was a time when people who openly demanded that attention and resources be directed to the working class and the disempowered were being assassinated. This is also the time when some Colombian priests started to reach the conclusion that to be Christians meant to be on the side of the poor. In July 1968, a group of priests met at a house called Golconda, in the countryside outside of Bogotá. They studied and discussed Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio, published a year earlier, and wrote a manifesto that declared the need for a Christianity committed to changing the current structures: “It’s not possible that, while being Christians, we remain indifferent to sufferance, to exploitation, to domination.” Leonor participated in several of these conversations, which were centered around the role the Catholic church should play in the economic, social and political situation in Colombia. Ultimately, she would come to believe that the only way to make a change was through an unarmed revolution. However, some of the other priests didn’t agree and chose to follow Camilo Torres’s example and join the ELN because they could not see another path and no longer felt safe. Despite the fact that they didn’t like the idea of war, they felt the need to slowly start arming themselves in order to face the powerful army that protected the dominant class.
- Over the course of her twenty years in the ELN, Leonor played different roles inside the changing structure of this organization: she spent seven years in the jungle without using a weapon or being in combat. Then, using María or Marucha as a new name, she went to Nicaragua to be a part of the Sandinist Revolution with the unexpected task of creating a women’s prison, and then worked on education and journalism projects until 1987. Lastly, she lived for six years in Mexico, now with the name of Mayra, where she worked in theCoordinadora Guerrillera Simon Bolivar, an international commission inspired by the Central American guerrilla, which included the ELN and other guerrilla forces, with the exception of the FARC.During these years, she became increasingly motivated to work with women and around women’s issues. However, while in Mexico, she found herself lost within the patriarchal system of the ELN and didn’t feel connected to the reality and interests of the disempowered in Colombia, after having lived abroad for so long. In May 1994, Leonor returned to Colombia, picked up her ID with her real name, and became a regular citizen again. She dedicated her time to working on social justice causes, which led her to understand that feminism was the path she and the world needed to follow next.
- To complement Leonor’s idea and learn about the notion of the family specifically in Colombia, consider reading Virginia Gutiérrez de Pineda, who was a Colombian anthropologist recognized as the pioneer scholar of family studies and medical anthropology in Colombia. She dedicated most of her life to investigating the concept of the family and the different types of families that existed in Colombia. She is the new face of the $10.00 pesos bill.