Adolfo Pérez Esquivel: 1931—: Artist, Activist Biography
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.
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 Argentina—except to its internal security organization—and 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."
Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996.
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.
"Adolfo Perez Esquivel," Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (March 24, 2003).
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