Viviana Meza Guerra (right) and Yaqueline Morelno Morales hang up a vibrantly colored quilt, the fruit of a quilting group and trauma healing project that an MCC worker began in the small Colombian community of Mampuján in 2007. Through the techniques of quilting and appliqué, women could document the horrors they’d experienced in Colombia’s long-running armed conflict. They went on to make quilts showing memories of the town they were displaced from 10 years ago and another series that traces the history of Colombia’s Afro-Colombian communities from capture and slavery to freedom. And they continue to document the cost of today’s armed conflict, both through their own quilts and by traveling to teach other displaced communities how to work at trauma healing through story quilts. “Sometimes people write it down in letters,” says Juana Ruíz Hernandez, who, along with Alexandra Valdez Tijera and Tatiana Maza Alcala, leads the quilting group today. “Other people tell their stories in pictures. We do it this way – fabric over fabric.”
The project in Colombia grew out of quilting work that MCC worker Teresa Geiser, now of Elkhart, Ind., had begun while she and her husband Charles served with MCC in El Salvador from 2003 to 2006. Women, Geiser found, were both fascinated by the quilting she was doing and deeply scarred by the nation’s civil war. “We got to El Salvador 11 years after the war had stopped, but within five minutes of meeting someone, they would be talking about the war,” Geiser remembers. After the quilting group she started creating a quilt about community life, they talked and grew excited about the possibility of using quilts to talk about historical memory. Some 125 women, far larger than the original group, helped make a quilt to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the El Mozote massacre, one of the most infamous of El Salvador’s civil war. “It was a wonderful experience. People cried. They talked. They shared from their hearts,” Geiser said. “It was empowering to the women to see what they could do. They were creating this beauty, and they were sharing about their lives as they were sewing. It, just by nature, creates this space for sharing that goes deeper.”
After documenting their community’s displacement which occured 10 years ago, women began a series of quilts that highlight the story of their Afro-Colombian roots. The story begins in Africa with a vibrant scene of a land of plenty. Wild animals roam and play on the edges of the quilt. People are in motion. A whole pig roasts over a fire – a vivid sign to the women who made the quilts of the wealth and abundance of this African community.
The harsh details of history did not escape the quilters. The quilt titled Travesia, or crossing, shows slaves crammed together below the deck, one leaping overboard and others hanged from the masts. The community’s Afro-Colombian history is a story of injustice, of losing home. “It’s the reality for generations of our people. They displaced them and they massacred them. As the story is not shared, we are condemned,” says Juana Alicia Ruíz Hernandez, who now leads the quilting group with Alexandra Valdez Tijera and Tatiana Maza Alcala.
The next quilt, titled Subasta, or Auction, shows people chained together as they come onto land in Cartagena, a coastal Colombian city where they will be sold. The series goes on to depict the rebellion that led to the freeing of the slaves.
With the freedom of the slaves, which happened in Colombia in 1851, the scenes in the quilts change dramatically in tone. There are groups dancing joyfully around a fire, mothers with children, people working together in the fields. Over an open fire, an enormous pot of soup boils. It’s an image that appears in nearly every quilt that shows the daily life or memories of this community. It is sancocho, the name for a traditional Colombian soup wherein the community would make soup together, each family adding ingredients. “In almost every quilt there’s a community soup pot,” says Juana Alicia Ruíz Hernandez.
The harmony and unity of the community was disrupted once again as the effects of the armed conflict struck this region hard. As the government and paramilitary troops fought against guerrilla groups, remote communities such as Mampuján were caught in the middle. Mampuján, in particularly, was along a remote mountain road. When guerrillas kidnapped people, they often brought their prisoners along this road and therefore through part of the town.
On March 10, 2000, paramilitary troops swept into town, rounding people into the plaza and accusing them of collaborating with guerrilla groups. People were hit and kicked. They feared for their lives. Later, the commander told them they would be spared but that they must leave town the next day, on March 11. No one has lived in town since. When former MCC worker Teresa Geiser began the quilting group, she asked them to revisit their memories of these days. They began stitching the way troops held down one member of the community, the men brandishing weapons, old people carried off in hammocks because they could not walk. At first, remembers Julia Ramirez, a member of the sewing group, “I thought, ‘Why are we doing this? Why are we going to be remembering so many things that hurt us?’”
“At the beginning it was really difficult because we had to remember what had happened,” says Gledis López Maza, another member of the sewing group. “These were things where one preferred to forget them, just leave them. But then we started working on this. We took the lid off. We uncovered these things that had happened ...” “Before, when we started doing this, we were all weeping. Today, we don’t. We can remember but that’s all. It has really worked for us,” López Maza says.
The women went on to document the displacements and killings that have plagued this region. Leaders also now travel to teach other displaced communities how to share their stories in fabric. Where the most overt violence in this, the first quilt depicting the story of Mampuján’s displacement, was a soldier with a boot on a man’s neck, the quilts that commemorate examples of violence throughout the region or in other cities are much more intense. Blood pools under a door. A woman is raped. Tears run down the face of woman whose clothes have been stripped away. There are bodies in the river. But, quilting group leader Juana Alicia Ruíz Hernandez notes, this only reflects the violence that communities in Colombia have actually experienced. “I’ve heard stories of massacres from the mouths of women. When you hear stories about this, they cause you a lot of pain. You hear so many things and it’s always in your mind and you think, ‘when is it going to leave me?’ Ruiz Hernandez says. “But the moment that I draw this and appliqué it on, it passes.” Through telling the stories, she says, “I felt like I was liberated.”
Today, the community continues to quilt. In addition to bearing witness to the horrors of Colombia’s armed conflict, the women also document their heritage and traditions and recreate in fabric their memories of the old town of Mampuján.
Originally, the group was primarily made of women from Iglesia Puertas Abiertas de Mampuján, Church of the Open Doors. Today co-pastors Alexandra Valdez Tijera and her husband Libardo López Vergara, along with Ruíz Hernandez, hope to expand the group to encompass more of the community. “We believe what the Scripture says – give thanks for what you have received. It was very important to receive this technique, to learn different processes,” says Ruíz Hernandez. “We have a different way of seeing things, and we have been molded in how we see things by doing this.” (Read more about this community and the cost of Colombia’s armed conflict in the fall issue of A Common Place magazine.)