Maritze Trigos’ optimism cannot be dampened. She is very easy to listen to. Captivated, I hold on to her words, the tone of her voice and her noble smile that hides nothing.
I remember that day I met her. I had just crossed half the country to get to Tulua in Valle del Cauca. It was early in the morning and Maritze left her house to come pick me up for us to travel together to Trujillo, a place where she accompanies a group of victims who survived events that I will explain later. The affectionate welcoming hug that she gave me made me feel that the person I had in front of me was my grandmother.
Maritze is an unconventional nun, who has spent more than half a century working to defend human rights. Her biography, more than being emotive, is that of a tireless woman, a fighter, a dreamer devoted to other people.
She grew up in an environment full of love, sensitivity and freedom. She laughs as she recalls that in that time, it was rare to see girls riding bicycles in trousers: “You’re going to lose her!” the sisters would cry to her mother, meaning Maritze. Despite the fact that the family environment was not very religious, she was educated with Dominicans from the age of three, a very disciplined education that she is very thankful to have received.
It was in Bucaramanga, where she arrived when she was fourteen to finish secondary school, the city where she began to open her eyes a little more. Despite being a dancer and a lover of life, she got to know the reality of the poorest neighbourhoods of the city, which touched her conscience. She also discovered that a religious life was a good option to fight for others and for a more dignified society. So, to the surprise of many, she took her first big decision at the age of seventeen: to enter a convent.
Six months later, during an exchange between European and Latin-American nuns, she set off on one of the most decisive journeys of her life, going to France to continue her theology studies. The existentialist current had just reached its peak and young Maritze, thirsty for knowledge, could study the texts of Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre. It was also there that she discovered Paulo Freire and his proposals for liberating education, Simone de Beauvoir and her writings on the value of woman, and where she could soak up the words of Marie Poussepin, founder of the Dominican Congregation of the Presentation in the XVIII century, a “sensitive, audacious, creative woman who really held a position of social leadership in her time, despite the obstacles in life”. In fact, that description made me think a lot of Maritze.
It was the beginning of the 1960s and France was in a volatile situation with many protests against a certain way of life and restrictions on rights. In that same decade, Maritze witnessed moments that shaped history, such as the Second Vatican Council or the revolution of May 1968. But perhaps one of the most vibrant and impacting moments for her was the feeling that “in Europe they were paying tribute to Father Camilo Torres”, for his contribution as a priest, sociologist, humanist, social leader, pioneer in liberation theology, despite his decision of joining the ranks of the guerrilla organisation the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) at the end of 1965.
Maritze returned to Bogota at the beginning of the 1970s, with more political conviction and a firmer life choice than ever, that of wanting to live a religious life in a different way: “I didn’t join a religious order to live in a convent, but to live amongst the people”. A freethinking and stubborn woman, she did not want to agree to all the rules of her order and broke several times with Dominican tradition; giving classes in public institutions, not wearing a habit, participating in marches, living with the people. For that, she was expelled three times. Finally, after years of going back and forth, when they saw her firm devotion to community causes, and how this was her life, they let her take her permanent vows, accepting her as she is and letting her live a religious life with more freedom.
Since then she has been living and working in the most wretched areas, affected most by the Colombian armed conflict. She remembers, for example, her years of working with drug addicts and homeless people in the area of Bogota known as El Cartucho, where the city’s biggest narcotics distribution centre was operating.
She has had to live difficult moments by giving herself to others in a human rights perspective, which has been costly to her. She describes how she lived and had to face a paramilitary incursion, or the time they pointed a gun at her when she thought she was living the last moments of her life.
I have walked the streets, squares and corners of Trujillo at Maritze’s side, and she walks with confidence and misses nothing and nobody. She greets everyone with spontaneity and warmth, they call her ‘little sister’ with reciprocal affection.
This municipality, which seems to breathe tranquillity in the middle of the mountains and abundant vegetation, was the scene, in 1986 and 1994, of acts of cruelty that go much further than anyone can comprehend, and that stained the community with the innocent blood of 342 people. This systematic act of annihilating the civilian population, known as the sadly famous ‘Massacre of Trujillo’, happened in the context of a struggle to control this strategic corridor to the Pacific, in the midst of which the population was constantly accused of helping the illegal armed insurgent groups that were present in the area.
In Trujillo, Maritze has accompanied the Association of Relatives of the Victims of Trujillo (AFAVIT) for over fifteen years and gives them support in processes for reparation and collective memory like a “cry for justice, a permanent testimony, a claim for our rights”. She started a human rights training process with AFAVIT, from which good leaders have emerged. She retrieved the remains of 66 tortured bodies from the earth, with her own hands, during an exhumation process of people who were forcibly disappeared during the massacre. These remains now rest in ossuaries of the emblematic and beautiful Monument Park which commemorates the victims, who were dignified through sculptures made of clay by their relatives, which serve as a homage and a way of facing the grief of losing their loved ones.
Having accompanied Maritze and having had the opportunity to see her relationship with the people of Trujillo, you glimpse in her gaze the admiration that she feels for the family members of the victims. Twenty years after the facts, this small group of young and old continues to exist and call for justice, despite the adversity it carries with it, turning them into symbols of moral strength and resistance.
I could write you a whole novel on Maritze’s life. In fact, many of them, because it is difficult to imagine all the experiences of pain and hope that she has lived in just one life. In this sense I have inmense admiration for Martize: such a low profile, and such a great woman. Nonetheless, what makes me feel the most privileged, is that with the passing of time she has become a very special person in my life, a great friend and a source of inspiration for all of us women who want to contribute to the transformation of our reality with a special focus on human rights.