“Peace is the grand revolution that humanity has been waiting for.”
Adolfo Pérez Esquivel was born on November 26, 1931, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Adolfo’s father was a fisherman in Spain but after moving to Argentina, he held various odd jobs that paid very little. When he was still a young boy, Adolfo took a job selling newspapers to help support the family. By the time he was 10, he was working as a gardener.
Adolfo’s mother died when he was just three years old, and he was raised largely by his grandmother. His father was Catholic and his grandmother was Guarani Indian. Those two different backgrounds and cultures gave Adolfo a unique spiritual perspective that would influence him throughout his life.
In spite of their poverty, Adolfo went to school and became a well-known artist. His large-scale murals and art works can be viewed in parks across Latin America and Europe. His faith in humankind and his belief in God are reflected in his paintings, drawings and sculptures. He also worked as a professor of architecture and a teacher in secondary schools and at the university.
Argentina’s political history is one of great turmoil. Between 1930 and 1973 there was a military coup overthrowing the government almost every other year. In 1976, after yet another coup, a military dictatorship took power. This military government carried out a policy of repression, torture and murder called the “Dirty War.” The brutal crackdown on democratic rights was aimed at artists, professors, school teachers, journalists, activists, and intellectuals, basically anyone who could reach a wider audience.
Censorship was strictly enforced and people who spoke out, or were suspected of “subversive” behavior were put in jail. Sometimes, arrests were made in the middle of the night and the people arrested would never be heard from them again. Their friends and family would go to the police only to be told that there was no record of the arrest. The people who were taken this way are known as the ‘disappeared.’ Later it was discovered that some of the disappeared were thrown out of airplanes over the ocean. Others were tortured and killed. Some of the disappeared had children who were stolen by the military and given out for adoption.
In response to the disappearances, a group of women, including mothers, wives and daughters of the disappeared, began to march in the central “Plaza de Mayo” (May Square) in Buenos Aires. The women walked around the square with photographs of their missing loved ones and demanded information about them. These women brought global attention to the disappearances happening in Argentina. In response to the protests, the violence of the government became even worse. Some of the women who founded this group were disappeared themselves.
Even before the 1976 coup, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel had become very concerned about human rights abuses in his country, especially the treatment of local leaders who had been working for peace and democracy. In 1974 he gave up teaching and devoted his time to building nonviolent movements for change in Latin America. That same year, he was named secretary-general of the newly formed Servicio Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice Service or SERPAJ) a group that coordinates nonviolent movements in the region.
Because of his work for human rights across Latin America, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel became a target of the military dictatorship. In 1977, he himself was “disappeared” and was imprisoned and tortured by the Argentinean military for 14 months. He was released after being named Amnesty International’s Political Prisoner of the Year in 1978, which led to thousands of letters being written to the Argentinean government demanding his release. Upon his release, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel continued his work leading SERPAJ.
Adolfo Pérez Esquivel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for his leadership for human rights and true democracy for the people of Latin America. In 1983, the military government was thrown out and members of the dictatorship were brought to trial. However, the full story of the dirty war remains to be told. Today, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel helps support two groups called the “Mothers” and the “Grandmothers of May Square” women are trying to bring out the truth about the crimes of the dictatorship, to bring justice to their families and to locate the children of the “disappeared” and reunite them with their biological families.
Today, he continues his work with SERPAJ. One of their main campaigns has been to call for a cancellation of the debt of third world countries. He has also started two “Peace Villages” which provide training and housing for homeless and orphaned children in Argentina. As he said in his Nobel acceptance speech, he continues to believe in, and work for, “A change based on justice, built with love and which will bring us the most anxiously desired fruit of peace.”