By Angela J. Lederach and Jeffrey S. Yoder
As we near the end of our stay in Montes de María, we wanted to send a final reflection. Over the last year, we have accompanied grassroots peacebuilding processes that began long before the recently signed accords in communities most affected by the war.
We cannot talk about peace and violence in Colombia without also reflecting on the US. The day we returned to El Carmen, white supremacists took the streets of Charlottesville with semi-automatic rifles, violently taking the life of a young woman. White supremacy is not limited to the US, it is global, and when black lives are treated as disposable and threatened in the US – and then legitimized by those in authority – black lives are also threatened here. The communities where we work are black – descendants of a people who were enslaved by our ancestors for economic benefit and domination. The violent trade of enslaved people connects Cartagena to the US – and its legacy continues today, connecting our lives in intimate ways. There are monuments in Cartagena that glorify the colonial conquistadores and tourist shops catering to white visitors that fill the very cells where the enslaved were once chained and tortured. White collective amnesia perpetuates violent racism and demands that we be alert to the power found in what and how we choose to commemorate. Memory shapes who we are, defines our collective identity, it can prevent violence or it can stoke it.
The Alta Montaña emphasizes the need for “memoria viva/living memory” across multiple generations so that violence is not repeated. Through living memory, they reclaim stories of resilience, the possibility for justice and liberation and peace. To circumscribe the story of the enslaved to the violence they were subjected to also renders invisible stories of resilience – the ways in which Afro communities cultivated liberation in the mountains, finding freedom in sowing seeds and working the land. Today, our friends dedicate their lives to defending this territory, as generations before them did. We watched, with them, the images of white people marching, openly carrying weapons of war – assault rifles, torches, knives. The images conjured up memories of paramilitaries, who called for social cleansing, order, and security. These were deeply racist slogans, later evidenced in the communities they disproportionately massacred: black, gay, trans, indigenous, women. We cannot help but be reminded of the stories told late at night on our patio of what it meant to resist, run, fear for life, pull bodies of family members out of rivers as the result of such violence.
We listened as the president then legitimized the violence – equating it with unarmed protest for justice. Trump’s statement was an act of symbolic, state-sponsored violence. We are heartbroken and outraged. We are not, however, surprised. It was the fulfillment of Trump’s campaign promise, with that thinly veiled white supremacist rhetoric of “make America great again.”
For our friends, this is not new. When they collectively assembled to confront armed groups calling for an end to violence, they were imprisoned and assassinated through the state’s discourse of criminality. Their leader, Jorge Montes, remains in prison for leading a nonviolent march in defense of the territory. As our friend Naun Alvarez reflected, “when one is born black, just by the color of the skin one is born into the struggle, from the first day.”
To our black, Latino, indigenous, Muslim, Jewish, queer, trans, Filipino, Chinese, Korean, Indonesian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, Arab, diversely abled family members and friends, we want you to know that although we can never fully understand the pain that comes from these violent acts we want to share its weight with you.
In our work here, we have witnessed the repeated failure to listen to those most directly affected by violence. We must commit to listen carefully, to amplify voices on the margins so that they are centered. We know Charlottesville happened because racism freely operates in the everyday. Justice work is multigenerational and requires processes that are continuous, that have no end. And so, we must commit for a lifetime.
In the aftermath of the plebiscite (the rejection of the peace accords by popular vote), Ricardo Esquivia – afro-Colombian director of Sembrandopaz, reminded us that “There are three things we cannot lose in this work: hope, patience, and honesty… To be a peacebuilder is to be a vigia de la esperanza, guardian of hope.”
Let’s draw our circles wide and be guardians of hope.
Angela Lederach is a PhD candidate in Anthropology and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Angela’s current research focuses on “territorial peace/paz territorial” in Colombia to better understand how longstanding grassroots peacebuilding processes in rural, northern Colombia intersect, contest, and rework the formal implementation process of the recently signed peace accords between the Colombian government and the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Specifically, she is conducting participatory, ethnographic research in Montes de María, Colombia with the Proceso Pacífico de Reconciliación e Integración de la Alta Montaña/The Peaceful Process of Reconciliation and Integration of the Alta Montaña and Sembrandopaz.
Jeffrey S. Yoder is a registered nurse and over the last 15 months has been accompanying local peacebuilding processes in Montes de María, Colombia as an accompaniment worker with Sembrandopaz. He is Nebraskan and has found meaningful articulations in his work with smallscale farmers in rural Colombia.
Find more resources about race on the AAA website at www.americananthro.org/understandingrace.