She says: “And when we are with the others, on the edge of an eternal morning, will all of us have eaten breakfast?” (Cesár Vallejo, Peruvian poet).
She says also: “The worse attack on human rights is poverty”.
And she says: “The terrible poverty, and the desire that I felt together with the need to try to do something to remedy this situation, developed my religious vocation”. (Read about Sister Elsie Mong).
Elsie Monge – Ecuador
She entered the missionary community of Maryknoll and worked with people who had gone astray. She denounced a murder during a radio transmission in Panama and was forced to leave the country. Back in Ecuador, her native country, Elsie Monge collaborated with agricultural cooperatives of afro-descendent peasants. Later, she started working with the Ecumenical Commission of Human Rights, which she has directed since 1986.
She is helping refugees, denouncing crimes and other abuses. Eternally young, Elsie Monge (72) continues to lead the Commission.“Regarding the case of young Pablo Jaramillo, who was shot to death by a member of the United States Embassy, the Defender of Human Rights expressed that this cannot go unpunished. With all the criticism, the attitude of the government was to hasten the departure of this member of the diplomatic corps from the country, and his trial was initiated in the United States. ‘This immunity, whether parliamentary or diplomatic, cannot allow immunity for murder’, she emphasized.” (Ecuadorian newspaper LA HORA, June 29th, 2003).
The defender who speaks with so much courage is Elsie Monge. Journalist Simón Espinoza of Diners Magazine described her as follows: “Middle age, a face set with deep wrinkles, sometimes a redhead, cold gray eyes, lenses of academic thickness, Sister Elsie answers questions with clarity, directly, although she returns and repeats the same in larger detail. She has an air of amiable effectiveness.” And, yes, Sister Elsie Monge appears to have remained with that vague middle age look, even though this year (2005) she turns 72.
She was born in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, although she spent most of her childhood in another coastal city, Guayaquil. She says that her inspiration was her grandmother, whom she remembers as being charismatic. Her grandmother’s two younger daughters died when they were only ten and 16 years old, and her grandmother channeled her sadness into servicing others: she founded the Red Cross of Ecuador.
“When we went to Quito, we were involved in Red Cross campaigns. We lived in Guayaquil and my mother organized events to help children with disabilities. My sister and I participated in the evenings. I remember that once I danced a typical dance called Jarabe Tapatío. I also did rhythmic gymnastics and Spanish dances.”
In the state of Kentucky, in the United States, she finished secondary school and then studied sociology and trained in horsemanship. Four years later, she returned to Ecuador, but a few days before leaving she took an unforeseen but definitive step in another direction: she asked the Maryknoll Catholic missionary organization for information. In Ecuador, she took up old friendships and old hobbies like swimming and playing tennis. Meanwhile, she wondered what to do with her life. When she returned to the United States to celebrate her sister’s graduation, she declared that she would enter the missionary organization. This caused an enormous family upheaval.
Her father was anti-clerical, “I do not agree, but…” … Her mother cried incessantly … Philosophical, the grandmother argued, “It will soon pass…” And they took her to Europe to see if the idea would pass, but it did not.
At 19 years of age, this rich young woman decided to dedicate her life to the poor. She got on an airplane and entered the Maryknoll. Maryknoll is an open community with its origin in the United States. It began by sending missionaries to work and share with the people of China, demonstrating their faith through examples and without trying to proselytize.Elsie continued her studies and, after two years, she achieved her bachelor degree in education, with a minor in sociology. She took her religious vows. Her family attended the ceremony and afterwards her grandmother said, “Come on, get your hat and let’s go.”
She ended up going to the department of Huehuetenango, in Guatemala. This is a place where there were no roads. Elsie and another Sister traveled far on horseback over hills and through valleys to isolated communities. Her horsemanship skills served her well, but she still had sore legs at the end of everyday. “It was a year of discovering beautiful people. The people of those little Mayan towns are generous; it is a characteristic of poor people…”
She also worked in state schools giving religious instruction. Self-taught in music, Sister Elsie began a school band. A fan of gardening, she grafted roses in the garden. Even though the armed conflict was at times bloody in this Central American country, very little was felt in Huehuetenango.
After attending courses in Mexico, and with educator Paulo Freire, in Chile, she went to live in Panama. It was 1967, and she worked in a radio station founded by the bishop of the diocese of Veraguas (in the province of the same name located in the central part of the country). The radio programs are meant to help the farmers and they touched all the aspects of rural life.
“In 1971, two things happened: General Omar Torrijos (president of Panama, between 1968 and 1978) wanted to control the peasants’ organization, but rural people opposed to it. This resulted in the murder of Héctor Gallegos, a Colombian priest who rallied the peasants to defend their land. The Torrijos family owned land in the zone. One midnight, Gallegos was detained and this was the last we knew of what happened to him. Through radio announcements, we denounced his disappearance and I was forced to leave the country.” Much later, after the invasion of Panama by the United States, in December of 1989, former dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega, who, during the 1970s was the head of intelligence, recounted from his prison “that the Gallegos had been thrown into the sea.”
After Panama, she returned to Ecuador and made contact with Monsignor Leonidas Proaño. She did not return alone but with Sister Laura, an American who identified with Elsie’s efforts. In the valley of Chota, the religious young women worked with a community of afro-descendent peasants amongst the round huts with straw roofs. The community members had forgotten their African roots and bringing attention to their African ancestors was the equivalent of calling them wild or savage.
They attempted to take them in another direction, to help them see how their history dignified them. “Without memory, there is no identity. Without identity, what is there?” she reflected.
These were times of agrarian reform. They collaborated, but not without challenges, in the formation of the Federation of Agricultural Workers of the Chota. By then, the peasants took control of the land and the authorities tried to evict them. During the conflict, one of the peasants was killed. The hospital staff refused to treat the wounded because one of the nurses belonged to the family of one of the landowners involved in the conflict. The Sisters contacted the Ecumenical Commission of Human Rights. The peasants were given what they needed – land as well as an irrigation channel. The Commission was given the people it needed: Elsie and Laura.
They started working with the Commission in 1981, and, in 1986, Elsie was named Director. They supported political refugees from dictatorships or wars in Chile, El Salvador…however, few dissidents arrived from the near Uruguay. Elsie explained that, “There, in Uruguay, they simply murdered them all.”
After 1985, she was called on to face the dictatorship of Leon Febres Cordero, in Ecuador. The police were taking prisoners that later were reported to be subversives. She went to the jails bringing legal and humanitarian assistance to those who were detained. She was accused of belonging to a revolutionary group called Alfaro Vive and the police fabricated an incriminating video to discredit her. Political prisoners were tortured to get them to testify against her.
“We have always worked openly, never in a clandestine manner,” counters Elsie.
It was difficult to break the bonds of silence and to help people understand that to speak of the murders was life insurance. She convinced the parents of two boys who disappeared to testify. They were the first examples. Every Wednesday, they met in the Independence Plaza demanding liberty and justice. “One can not give up; the government relies on people’s forgetfulness.” There was an international intervention. After many protests and fights, a policeman confessed that the boys had been put into bags and thrown into the lake.
Elsie pushed for the creation of the Provincial Commission for Human Rights that later became the Ecuadorian Front for Human Rights, which she currently directs.
The worse attack on human rights is poverty. We still owe an answer to the question of the Peruvian poet César Vallejo: ‘And when we are with the others, on the edge of an eternal morning, will all of us have eaten breakfast?’. (Read all on 1000peacewomen).
Inter American Commission on Human Rights, Case no. 11.868;
THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN THE SOCIO-CULTURAL TRANSFORMATION OF LATIN AMERICA FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF HUMAN RIGHTS;