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Pérez Esquivel, Adolfo: 1931—: Artist, Activist

Adolfo Pérez Esquivel: 1931: Artist, activist


Though recognized as a sculptor, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel wanted to bring about peace and prosperity for the poor. He was honored with the 1980 Nobel Prize for Peace for his work to ease human-rights abuses in South America. Pérez Esquivel has devoted much of his adult life to championing fair conditions for the continent's campesinos, or landless peasant farmers, and he gained some measure of notoriety in his country for criticizing a brutal military regime that kidnapped, tortured, and killed thousands during the 1970s.

Pérez Esquivel was born on November 26, 1931, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where his father had emigrated from Spain. His mother died when he was young, and because of his father's travel schedule as a coffee sales agent, he was sent to boarding schools run by Roman Catholic religious orders. He was a devout Roman Catholic from an early age, and as a teenager began to read the teachings of Mohandas K. Gandhi, an Indian political leader whose passive-resistance campaigns against harsh British rule helped bring independence for India and Pakistan. Yet Pérez Esquivel was also a talented artist, and attended the National School of Fine Arts of Buenos Aires and La Plata. When he finished in 1956, he worked as a sculptor and began to gain increasing recognition for his work. He also taught architecture at his alma mater, and began a family with wife Amanda Pérez, a musician, pianist, and composer.

Argentina, during Pérez Esquivel's lifetime to date, had suffered from great political instability. A popular army colonel, Juan Perón, championed the working class but was ousted in 1955, and Argentina remained an economically depressed country. In the late 1960s Pérez Esquivel was drawn into the left-wing opposition, but unlike some of his fellow activists, espoused the use of Gandhi's non-violent tactics to effect change. To prove his point, he went on a hunger strike in 1970 that lasted nearly two months. He became a co-founder of Servicio Paz y Justicia (Service for Peace and Justice), an umbrella organization of activists who aided South America's poorest. Giving up his career as an artist, he worked to form craft collectives in communities to foster economic self-sufficiency, and published a magazine called Paz y Justicia. He was named general coordinator of the Servicio Paz y Justicia in 1974, and gave up his post as a professor of architecture at his alma mater at that point.

Pérez Esquivel traveled to many countries in South America and spoke publicly against military juntas and human-rights abuses. In 1975 he was arrested in Brazil, and the following year jailed in Ecuador. Back in Argentina, the political climate had destabilized considerably since the brief return to power of Perón in 1973 and his death a year later. The Argentinean military junta came to power in 1976, and instituted a repressive regime. Those opposed to it began disappearing overnight, with no records of their arrest; many were jailed without trial, and their families had no idea of their whereabouts. In some cases entire families disappeared, and many died. It was a dangerous time to be working for justice in the country, but Pérez Esquivel became co-founder of two groups, the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights and the Ecumenical Movement for Human Rights. He worked to link them with other human-rights groups across Latin America that helped workers and peasants, and in 1976 began an international campaign to establish a human-rights commission at the United Nations.

At a Glance . . .


Born on November 26, 1931, in Buenos Aires, Argentina; son of a coffee sales agent; married Amanda Pérez (a musician, pianist, and composer), c. 1956; children: three sons. Education: Graduated from National School of Fine Arts of Buenos Aires and La Plata, 1956. Religion: Roman Catholic.


Career: Sculptor, 1950s-1970s; National School of Fine Arts of Buenos Aires, art and architecture teacher, 1950s-1960s; Servicio Paz y Justicia (Service for Peace and Justice), co-founder and activist, 1970s; Permanent Assembly for Human Rights and the Ecumenical Movement for Human Rights, co-founder and activist, 1970s.


Awards: Premio La Nacion de Escultura, government of Argentina, for art; Nobel Prize for Peace, 1980.


Address: Office Servicio Paz y Justicia, Piedras 730 (1070) Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In April of 1977 Pérez Esquivel was arrested by Argentine police and held without trial for 13 months. He was beaten and water was withheld for him for a week. Sometimes, he recalled, his guards would open the door to his cell, which would briefly illuminate the dark room. "I would see things written on the wall," Rocky Mountain News writer Dick Foster quoted him as saying. "But one thing I noticed was a big splotch of blood on the wall from somebody who had been tortured. In that blood was an act of faith. That prisoner had written in his own blood, 'God does not kill.' It has stayed engraved in my heart."

Pérez Esquivel's release was called for by a number of human-rights groups, including Amnesty International, and even officials in the administration of U.S. President Jimmy Carter attempted to urge the Argentine government to free him. Finally, in May of 1978, Pérez Esquivel was released, but placed under house arrest for the next several months. By 1980 he was working full-time at the offices of the Servicio Paz y Justicia, which had begun working with the mothers of the 10,000 to 20,000 missing Argentines. These Argentine women became known as the mothers of Plaza de Mayo, after the Buenos Aires square in front of the presidential palace where they held regular vigils.

Despite his work, Pérez Esquivel was not well-known in Argentinaexcept to its internal security organizationand many in the country were tacitly supportive of the military regime, for it had ended much of the sectionary violence that plagued the country during the early 1970s. He had already been nominated twice before for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work, but was informed by telegram one October day in 1980 that he was that year's recipient. The Prize committee, in the official announcement, lauded Pérez Esquivel, asserting he "represents in his struggle for human rights the struggle for Argentina's image and reputation in the world," according to the New York Times. Representatives of news organizations around the world descended on his humble Buenos Aires office to photograph him. "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," he was quoted as saying by New York Times writer Edward Schumacher.

Pérez Esquivel's honor caused some controversy in Argentina. "For Argentines, a strongly nationalistic people, the award and publicity have caused a national debate over what many see as the maligning of their country," explained New York Times writer Edward Schumacher. He accepted the award's prize purse of $212,000, but donated it to charities that aided the poor across South America. Authorities continued to harass him, despite his international stature as a recipient of what is considered one of the world's top honors. Interviewed again by Schumacher months later, he recounted telephone death threats, bombs found in his office, and an incident where he and his adult son, who worked with him, were accosted by men with guns as they pulled up to the Servicio Paz y Justicia offices. "Here we always live in uncertainty," he told Schumacher resignedly. "But I cannot let myself be paralyzed by it or I would not do anything."

Still, Schumacher wrote in the New York Times, Pérez Esquivel's Nobel Prize win "legitimized the small human-rights movement in Argentina, which had been condemned by the Government and largely ignored by news organizations and the public, partly out of fear." Within a few years, Argentina's political situation deteriorated further and the military junta was ousted. Pérez Esquivel continued to speak out on behalf of the poor and oppressed across Latin America, and was still active twenty years later. He was a regular guest of honor at the annual PeaceJam Youth Conference in the United States, launched in the mid-1990s to bring attention to social-justice causes. "I think part of the goal here is to help young people sense a need to take an interest in the policies of their government," a Denver Post report by Ryan Morgan quoted Pérez Esquivel as saying in 2001. "As part of that process, they need to get involved, to participate. They need to be demanding of those who govern."


Sources

Books


Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996.

Periodicals

Denver Post, February 25, 2001, p. B2.

New York Times, October 14, 1980, pp. 1, A14; November 11, 1980; November 16, 1980, p. 18; July 28, 1981; February 26, 1985, p. A7.

Rocky Mountain News, February 25, 2001, p. 4A.

Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), March 8, 2000, p. 4B.


On-line


"Adolfo Perez Esquivel," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (March 24, 2003).


Carol Brennan

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Adolfo Pérez Esquivel

Adolfo Pérez Esquivel

Adolfo Pérez Esquivel (born 1931), distinguished as an Argentine artist, became a human rights activist based on Christian pacifism and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980.

Adolfo Pérez Esquivel was born in Argentina on November 26, 1931, the son of Spanish immigrants. His mother died when he was a young boy and his father, a coffee salesman, was often away on business. Pérez Esquivel was essentially raised by the nuns and priests who ran the Roman Catholic schools he attended. He has remained a devout Catholic. His pacifistic views are based on his commitment to the message of the Gospels and on his reading of Catholic thinkers such as St. Augustine, a 4th century philosopher, and Thomas Merton, a 20th century American monk. "I believe that one has to listen to the silence of God, what He is asking from each one of us. It's necessary to make a choice. My mission is to carry the message of the Gospel and to live it profoundly with my brothers, " he told America. Interested in art, he graduated from the National School of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires in 1956. In the same year he married Amanda Pérez, a pianist and composer who gave up her career after the couple's three sons were born. Initially uninvolved politically, he became known as a sculptor and art professor. Two themes inspired his art: Indian cultures and motherhood. These preoccupations anticipated his later activism after two developments in the 1960s and 1970s altered his noncontroversial existence.

Became Involved with Social Justice Programs

One development was the Argentine military's repeated intervention in politics. From the mid-1970s the generals were increasingly committed to extreme repression, which resulted in the "Dirty War" in which thousands of Argentine citizens "disappeared." According to Newsday retired Lt. Commander Adolfo Scilingo was the first Argentine official to admit that more than two thousand political prisoners were stripped, drugged, and thrown into the sea from aircraft under the 1976-83 military dictatorship.

The second development to raise Pérez Esquivel's consciousness was the dedication of a small group of people to peace and human rights, foreshadowing an eventual wave of demands for democracy in the 1980s. The Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith pacifist organization with origins dating to World War I, sent Austrians Jean Goss and Hildegard Goss-Meier to Latin America in 1962 to identify both Catholic and Protestant clergy who might support a nonviolent movement for justice based on Christian principles. Their travels resulted in international pacifist meetings which led to the formation of Service for Peace and Justice. The newly founded group established a small secretariat to coordinate a network of local nonviolent action groups in several countries, including Argentina.

Back home by the early 1970s, Pérez Esquivel had organized a crafts cooperative for a poor urban neighborhood and engaged in a hunger strike to protest escalating violence by both guerrillas and the police. In 1973 he founded Paz y Justicia, a monthly periodical. During the following year Pérez Esquivel began a campaign for solidarity with Indians in Ecuador. It was in Ecuador that he had a religious experience in the form of a dream in which he saw the crucified Christ in an Indian poncho. This inspired his book, Christ in a Poncho, which was published in English in 1983.

Wider travel and confrontation with authorities followed in the next three years. He supported the Agrarian Leagues of Paraguay against persecution and was arrested in Brazil, where he supported workers' complaints. Back in Argentina he founded the Ecumenical Movement for Human Rights, which assisted families of the people who "disappeared, " and he created the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, which monitored government policy. In 1976 he visited Ecuador again, but was arrested. He then traveled in the United States and Europe. When he sought to renew his passport in April 1977, the Argentine authorities imprisoned him for over a year without any charge and tortured him with cattle prods, electric shocks, and ice cold showers. "During the 32 days I spent in the torture center there were times when the morning light shone on the walls and I could see writings there: names of loved ones, essays, insults, the names of favorite soccer teams. But what impressed me most and something I'll never forget, was a big message written in blood: 'God does not kill.' the life and death, anguish and hope of the people were in that cell, " Pérez Esquivel told the Washington Post in 1984. He added that in moments of hardship he looks for signs. "I am a man of hope, " he said.

Won Nobel Prize

International pressure secured his release from jail, which was followed by house arrest for several months.

Confinement brought recognition: Pax Christi, the Catholic pacifist organization, awarded him the Pope John XXIII Prize; Amnesty International, which worked for the release of political prisoners, adopted him as a prisoner of conscience. In Northern Ireland, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Corrigan and Williams had won the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for their grassroots effort to bring peace to their beleaguered province.

In October 1980 came the announcement that the little known Pérez Esquivel had been selected over many other nominees for the prize. According to Newsweek the Nobel committee said of Pérez Esquivel: "He is among those Argentines who have shone a light in the darkness. He champions a solution that dispenses with the use of violence. The views he represents carry a vital message to many other countries, not least in Latin America." Argentine media reportage was restrained but, ironically, Argentine law required the government to pay him a lifetime pension. On December 10, Pérez Esquivel accepted the prize in Oslo "in the name of the poorest and smallest of my brothers and sisters." Before 1980 only six Nobel laureates had been Latin American. The Nobel Committee's selection of Pérez Esquivel in 1980 was one important factor in the restoration of civilian rule in Argentina in 1983.

Continued to Work for Peace and Justice

In the 1980s and 1990s, Pérez Esquivel's pacifist activism took new forms. At home he championed the Mothers of the Plaza, a group who silently protested the "disappearance" of family members. He joined other Nobel laureates who journeyed to Nicaragua in 1984 to deliver humanitarian aid, and to Asia in 1993 to support Burmese democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi. In June 1995, along with five other Nobel Peace Prize winners, he wrote to Chinese premier, Li Peng asking for the release of jailed dissident Wei Jingsheng, an advocate of democracy in China.

Pérez Esquivel offered three nonviolent steps to redress injustice: (1) call a specific injustice to the attention of appropriate authorities; (2) if that step fails, appeal to public opinion through such acts as prayer and fasting; (3) if that fails, engage in civil disobedience. He strongly believed that political stability is impossible in Latin America without social justice and the elimination of poverty. In a 1991 article in Le Monde diplomatique, reprinted in World Press Review he lashed out at the budget reducing measures imposed on Latin American countries by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund which resulted in decreased expenditure on health, education, and other antipoverty programs—"It is a policy which has caused the gulf between rich and poor nations to go on widening. A time bomb has begun ticking, and no number of promises or soothing words will defuse it. The governments of the world must come to their senses and construct the new economic order—they must rediscover the virtues of sharing."

Further Reading

To understand better the context of Pérez Esquivel's work, refer to a standard history of his native land such as Argentina (1987) by David Rock; for sources of his inspiration see Twentieth-Century Pacifism (1970) by Peter Brock and selected entries from Harold Josephson (ed.), Biographical Dictionary of Modern Peace Leaders (1985) and an entry in Nobel Prize Winners, Tyler Wasson (ed.). Pérez Esquivel's own book, Christ in a Poncho, was first published in French in 1981; it recounts stories of pacifist resistance by disadvantaged Latin American groups he supported. For additional glimpses of his philosophy read his op ed piece in the New York Times (March 30, 1985) and the interview in America (December 27, 1980). In 1992 Temple University Press released a translation of Service for Peace and Justice's report on human rights violations in Uruguay, 1972-1985. Paz y Justicia carried a biography of Pérez Esquivel in the October-December 1980 issue. See also Time (October 27, 1980); World Press Review (March 1991). □

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