Friday, April 1, 2011

Remembering María Julia: Defender of Human Rights in El Salvador

Our struggle to exercise these rights here in El Salvador continues, we will keep searching for this truth and justice in El Salvador's courts. I don't know when, but one day truth and justice will flourish in our country for the victims who abandoned this utopia with their blood.”
  - Dr. María Julia Hernández

Dr. María Julia Hernandez, long-time director of Tutela Legal, The Salvadoran Archdiocese's human rights office, and defender of the victims of horrific human rights violations, died March 30th four years ago. 

SHARE worked with María Julia, Tutela Legal, and the Archdiocese on many human rights initiatives over the years, including human rights campaigns during the war, coordination with the movement of refugees repopulating communities in the late 1980s, and working on the initial design for a memorial wall dedicated to the civilian victims of the war. SHARE brought María Julia on tour in the U.S. to promote and fundraise for the construction of the memorial wall. Says SHARE Executive Director José Artiga, “María Julia is one of our most prominent women leaders in El Salvador. She worked closely with all the Archbishops, and was a defender of human rights who promoted denouncements, justice, and reparations.”

In honor of María Julia Hernández, Wednesday March 30th 2011 members of Tutela Legal organized a mass and forum in the Crypt of the National Cathedral, where María Julia, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and a number of other priests and religious persons are buried. María Julia is one of the only women buried in the Crypt. A group of forty people gathered to commemorate her life, including members of COMADRES, the Committee of the Mothers of the Disappeared, and many others who knew her. In the spirit of María Julia, during the opening prayer, one of the priests proclaimed, “We are gathered here for the dignity of all, no matter their social class.”
Decorating María Julia's tomb
with flowers

Following the mass, Luis Morales and Dr. Aceda Díaz shared reflections about María Julia's personality, work, and legacy. María Julia first became involved in working for human rights after meeting Archbishop Romero in 1977 at a gathering of student groups. Archbishop Romero called on the students to aid the victims of disappearance and genocide, and María Julia decided to accompany him in this work. She took on a preferential option for the victims, committing the rest of her life to defending human rights.

In 1983, María Julia took leadership of the newly formed Tutela Legal. She and her team worked tirelessly and systematically to investigate, record, and denounce massacres, murders, disappearances, and other human rights violations, and to protect victims. While these atrocities stopped happening systematically with the end of the war, they remained covered by silence, impunity, and the amnesty law. María Julia continued to work for the truth to be known and acknowledged. Together with Tiberio Arnoldo Romero, brother of Archbishop Oscar Romero, she brought the case of Archbishop Romero's assassination to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. She also played an instrumental role in coordinating the exhumations of the El Mozote Massacre, bringing irrefutable evidence to light. She helped facilitate the planning and construction of the Monument to Truth and Memory as well, a memorial wall with the names of nearly 30,000 civilian victims killed or disappeared during the war.

Lic. Luis Morales,  Dr. Díaz, and Ovidio Gonzalez, current
director of Tutela legal. Mexican singer-songwriter and
defender of immigrant rights performs a song.
Luis Morales emphasized the importance of María Julia's work for truth, justice, and reparations, naming each as a fundamental right of victims of grave human rights violations, violations that impact not only individuals or families, but whole communities, countries, and even humanity at large. He referenced a 2004 UN Development Project report declaring that in El Salvador two genocides have been carried out: the mass murder of indigenous rural farmworkers in 1932 known as La Matanza, and the political repression in the 1970s and 1980s. Morales warned of the need for truth, justice, and reparations to keep this piece of history from repeating once more.

Dr. Aceda Díaz, a lawyer and long-time friend and acquaintance of María Julia, shared personal memories of María Julia. She painted a picture of the male-dominated society they both grew up in. At the time María Julia attended the University of Central America, majoring in philosophy, very few women went to university at all and even fewer studied law or philosophy. University was for men, and men filled nearly all seats in the government, and other positions of public authority.

Dr. Díaz first heard of María Julia in the early 1980s. As a young lawyer with a small office during a time of mounting repression, she often received visits from people whose family members had been disappeared or assassinated, and felt completely impotent, with no idea how to help them or where to refer them to. Then she heard of a little office, Tutela Legal, run by María Julia Hernández. Dr. Díaz reminded everyone that to hold the position María Julia held during the war, documenting disappearances, torture, and massacres, and traveling to other countries to share and denounce these cases, meant running risk of her life, yet María Julia showed no fear. During an interview Dr. Diaz once heard, a reporter asked María Julia, “So what have you really achieved? Peoples' human rights continue to be trampled daily.” María Julia responded, “As Christians we do not have the right to give up hope. We must keep working so that one day things will be better.” When Dr. Diaz remarked how impressed she was with María Julia's answer, María Julia replied, “We cannot lose hope.” 
Dr. Díaz sees María Julia's life, deep faith, and clear commitment as a reminder that we all have a commitment to transform the place we are at, to put our gifts to the service of others. Long live María Julia!

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