Friday, October 28, 2011

María Eugenia Vásquez Perdomo

    María Eugenia Vásquez Perdomo was a Colombian guerrillera of the revolutionary M-19 movement that took place from 1970-1990.  In My Life as a Colombian Revolutionary: Reflections of a Former Guerillera, Vásquez gives us an insightful, ethnographic account of her political and cultural experiences with the M-19. She begins her story with her involvement in radical politics while attending university in Bogota and journeys into the 20 years she remained undetected, carrying out some of the most famed M-19 operations. This biographical account also highlights the critical relationship between gender and politics that shapes the unique experiences that Latina revolutionaries are bound to.

   This book is definitely on my to-read list, given that I've read and heard positive things about it. Plus, I have not exposed myself so much to Colombian women's experiences in the different revolutionary guerrilla groups that have formed during the late 20th century in Colombia. Seems like this would be a good place to start! It appears that María's entire biography is only available in this book--I've been having trouble finding much more in-depth details about her life as a guerrilla. But, I did happen to find a very useful interview that serves as good preliminary info which I want to share with everyone:

María Eugenia Vásquez Perdomo answers questions about her life as a Colombian revolutionary

Q: What made you write this memoir—which won the Colombian National Prize for Testimonial Literature—years after the experience?

A: Telling my life story was only a starting point for working on something that is much more important: the social, political and cultural memory of an insurgent movement active in the 1970s-1990s in Colombia, and doing so from the point of view of a woman. When I began the process of writing, there was no testimonial of any contemporary guerrillera. This was a great void. I began to write two or three years after I decided to leave the M-19, because it was only by making this decision that I could make the break that facilitated examining the experiences I had had and reflect on some of the concepts and habits I had learned. It [allowed me] to live without denying what I was.

Q: Your gender is very important to your role as a revolutionary, or guerrillera. Can you discuss your use of gender/femininity as a means of operating in a radical military group?

A: I think that being a woman is something that is very difficult to reconcile with war, because in war we women have to make an effort to acquire skills and abilities that are characteristic of men. Many times, the stereotypes that society attributes to women and that conform to "the feminine being"—women are innocent, harmless, delicate, good—are advantages for eluding controls. But don't forget that these same stereotypes make us vulnerable to sexual violence as a weapon of war, used by those who consider us the enemy. So, the stereotypes of "the feminine" can be both "weapon" and risk.

Q: Can you briefly explain the cause of the M-19, and what appealed to you about participating in the movement?

A: In Colombia in the 1970s, the M-19 arose as part of a process of modernization of the contemporary guerrilla that had been fighting in the countryside for more than a decade, mostly made up of [groups like] the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional, and the Ejército Popular de Liberación. Men and women from those groups, or other leftist organizations, who had taken a critical stand with respect to the political efficiency of the military action in the countryside, formed the M-19 to propose military action in the cities to spread the word about the political proposals of the insurgency. The M-19 movement sought to achieve radical social and political change in the country: political, economic, and social democracy to overcome exclusion, social injustice, and economic and political dependence on foreign powers. At the same time, it proposed guerrilla unity among all existing groups. It was widely accepted not only in the popular neighborhoods, but also among professionals and intellectuals. Many democratic figures were sympathetic to the proposals the M-19 made when it was active.

Q: So how did you get involved with the M-19?

A: I was one of the first members of the process that would become the M-19. I had been in contact with them since 1971 when I studied at the Universidad Nacional.
My membership was a stroke of luck, because I wanted to be part of the armed struggle, since I thought legal avenues for social change had been exhausted in the 1970s. There was no other solution. Being part of the M-19 from its inception to its end was for me—as a life project, and an experience that I value in all its dimensions.

Q: What was your most exciting/frightening/proudest moment as a guerrillera?

A: It is so difficult to name only one thing for each emotion, but I will try. The most exciting moment politically was the solution negotiated with the government that resolved the takeover of the Dominican Embassy in 1980, because it gave the country a lesson that it was possible to negotiate with no winners and no losers. The country won. Without a doubt the most frightening time in my military life was when I was captured on the Mira River, and the torture that followed. In my personal life, it was the death of my oldest son in Colombia, when I was so far away. While I was writing the autobiography, I understood that with this work I was reclaiming, for me and for the group I belonged to, the right to occupy a place in the memory and the history of my country. My pride grew during this process.

Q: Was it difficult for you to be both a young mother, and involved in the M-19 movement?

A: Maternity and participation in war are not compatible activities. Yet, your question is, more or less, the same one our children ask us. They ask, "Why did you have children if you knew that their lives would be in so much danger? Did you think of us?" I have only been able to answer that we had children because they were part of the future we dreamt of, and we never thought about death, but about life. When I was participating in an operative I was convinced that it was worth the risk so my children and all children could live in a better country.

Q: You faced death on so many levels and on so many occasions in your work. Can you discuss how you handled the possibility of being killed and watching your friends die on a daily basis?

A: There are two very different aspects in my relationship with death, but they are not contradictory. The first has to do with my life as a combatant—death is my friend, I have seen it up close and I know that it roams about me—and this is why I am not afraid to die. The second has to do with the deaths of other people. This affects me and the closer the person who dies was to me, the greater is my pain. The deaths of people who are innocent, people who have nothing to do with the confrontation, also affect me a great deal. Really, I have never gotten used to the deaths of others but I accept my own without fear.

Q: Your experiences also included jail time. Can you briefly describe how being imprisoned affected your outlook on life and the work you were doing?
A: Living in prison was a very difficult, yet at the same time marvelous, experience, because it was the door to a world that was totally unknown to me, to one part of the country that I did not imagine and it captured my attention as an anthropologist and a researcher. On the other hand, it was a test of ideological resistance. I define the time I spent in prison as the time of resistance and tenderness because it is a time when political conviction and affections are tested. Prison taught me a lot about the human condition, tolerance and strategies of resistance.

Q: What are you doing now with your life? How does it feel to have these experiences of "My Life as a Colombian Revolutionary" behind you?

A: I still think urgent changes are needed for Colombia to be the country we all dream it can be. I feel I have maintained my social vocation and I contribute in other ways. I work in the field of participative research/action with marginalized social sectors and with victims of the war, because my life commitment has always been with them. My experience contributes useful elements in this field. I am convinced that no one longs for peace more than those who have lived through war, and because of that, I work tirelessly to accumulate every minimal successful experience and every lesson learned from mistakes, for the future. I trust that there will be political and social changes and I believe that the new generations have the word. I feel that I did what I had to do in the moment in time that I had to live. I mourn so many absences and so many deaths that came about in that attempt to build a just and democratic society.



  1. I enjoyed this post especially the interview. If you could ask María Eugenia Vásquez Perdomo one question; what would it be? As for me; I guess I would ask her what some of the urgent changes are needed for Colombia to be the country she dreams it can be.

  2. Hm, that's a good question! I think I would ask her "What did you feel was the M-19's ideological attitude towards the women who fought?" or "What would you have done differently if you had a chance to go back?"

    I think it'd be very interesting to hear her responses since Colombian guerrilla warfare and women's position in it, I feel, have differences unique to them that can be compared to other military movements women have participated in. Women in different movements of different countries will experience a different form of unity and treatment, depending on how strong the patriarchal/traditional order is embedded in daily social life.

  3. Highly personal/individual accounts of notable historical events is extremely important. So much more is gained through viewing the event through the eyes of an individual like this. I'm glad you posted this.