Sunday, December 27, 2009

Esther Chavez Cano, Human Rights Fighter, Dies

The streets of Cd. Juárez rang out with the chimes of a single mobile church bell that sounded out as the coffin of Esther Chavez Cano passed by. "Each chime that rings out symbolizes the appeal to justice that Esther fought for all her life," said Irma Casas, who operates Casa Amiga, the first rape crisis center and women's shelter in Juárez, founded in 1999 by Esther Chavez. "The chimes should remind the authorities of each dead woman, of each unpunished crime. It should remind them of the more than ten thousand orphans lying in the wake of the war on drugs, and how the ensuing poverty is helping to mold the assassins of the future," she added. In the funeral cortege were dozens of women, some from the poorest sections of town, many of them victims of violence.

Esther Chavez Cano, who died Christmas day after a lengthy battle with cancer, seventeen years ago began writing down a list of known facts about the female victims of homicide, during a time when these were not taken seriously by authorities. More than any single person, Chavez brought these crimes--and the failure of authorities to even care about them, much less investigate them--to the attention of the world.

A year ago, in early December, she was awarded the Cultural Freedom Award from the Lannan Foundation and a few days after that President Felipe Calderon presented her with the National Human Rights Award. A few days ago, on Dec. 10, 2009, the city council of Cd. Juárez passed a resolution ordering a street to be named after her.

I met her only a few times, and I wrote about one encounter with her (click here) on September 26. I heard her speak at several forums dealing with security issues and I ran into her a few months ago by chance in Juárez.

Esther Chavez Cano symbolized the moral authority of a citizen confronting a corrupted political class to speak truth to power and demand action. I've seen her scold proud bureaucrats so cleanly and articulately with just a few well chosen words that they flinched visibly, unable to answer her challenge. Her words, of course, were profoundly true, but that doesn't explain the flinch. There was something about her gaze and her demeanor that made you realize she was also conveying to them, wordlessly, her personal expectation for them to be better, like a mother whose moral authority derives from her inner character, demanding respect and shame when you fall short. They must have dreaded that unanswerable, withering glare and the unspoken, personal challenge that went with it.

Cesar Chavez had that same quality of making you want to rise to his level. He made it seem easy to do so, although it was not, but you felt good about yourself anyway for just lending a meager helping hand. This quality was one of the secrets of his success. With Esther you understood the danger she was courting to challenge authority so directly, and the dramatic confrontation between moral and corrupted political authority placed you irresistibly, and maybe nervously, on her side. Only someone whose inner moral compass was quite secure could have gotten away with it. Like Archbishop Romero in El Salvador a third of a century ago, when she spoke to authority everyone understood she represented the unwashed masses, the voiceless victims of violence and their yearning for ordinary justice. In all three cases the people being represented understood what was happening in this three-way relationship between authority, moral courage, and the lowly, and responded with an intense and heartfelt gratitude.

And therefore never send to know for whom....

Quotes by Irma Casas are my translation from La Jornada en Linea.

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