From One to Three: The Hopeful Piecing of a Movement

Clockwise: Ramon Mejia (treasurer), Gabriel Chaves (secretary), Ricardo Gonzalez (president), and two members of the movement meet to discuss the details of an upcoming speech.

Clockwise: Ramon Mejia (treasurer), Gabriel Chaves (secretary), Ricardo Gonzalez (president), and two members of the movement meet to discuss the details of an upcoming speech.

BY SOMMER SAADI

Ramon Mejia has spent the past 10 years at the helm of an organization intended to quell the violence in his Colombian homeland. He called the group Movement for Peace in Colombia, though even he concedes that membership — at best 40 and at present, merely 12 — hardly justifies the name. But just because Mejia can’t prove the group’s impact, he says, doesn’t mean it hasn’t had one. And that’s why he held off retiring from the leadership until he could find a worthy replacement.

“I would have stayed in the movement many more years until I found the ones that would carry the torch,” said Mejia, age 70. “I felt somebody’s got to believe in the same things I do—believe that in the same way the opposition to the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan grow, maybe one of these days the Colombian situation will reach a critical point and the movement will grow. This organization has always been a way to contribute a part to a bigger picture.”

Since last month, Mejia has pulled back on his activities with the group. He’ll still act as treasurer for one more year, but he’s leaving the duties of president, vice president and secretary to his three successors, men in their 30s and 40s. Mejia likes to call them “The Three Musketeers.” Since their election last month, the three have been reshaping the Movement’s mission and relentlessly advertising to recruit more members.

The problems in Colombia remain pressing. Last year, 22 new paramilitary groups mobilized, adding thousands more to the unofficial military forces, according to Human Rights Watch. The number of people forced to flee their homes reached nearly 300,000 — almost four times the population of Colombians in New York City — according to the UN High Commissioner of Refugees. And more trade unionists are killed in Colombia every year than in any other country, according to the AFL-CIO. All of which convinces Mejia and the Three Musketeers that the need for the organization’s work hasn’t waned.

“Social change has always depended on people not giving up, continuing to struggle in spite of apparent powerlessness,” said Howard Zinn, a historian of civil rights and anti-war movements and the author of several award-winning books on the subjects. “At certain times in history, unpredictably really, small movements merge into great ones and change takes place.”

A serendipitous surge of action is what Mejia hoped for when he helped create the Movement in 1999. He and co-founder Martha Hauze had marched alongside an estimated 3,000 Colombians at the United Nations to demand an end to kidnappings in their homeland and were inspired to harness that energy for a longer-lasting impact. By that point Mejia had protested wars of one kind or another for nearly 40 years, first as a college kid against the Vietnam War, then against other invasions around the world.

Mejia called for a meeting of anyone interested in a non-partisan, non-violent solution to decades-old land disputes between the military and the guerillas in Colombia. About 40 people attended. But the interest spurred by the peace process between the Colombian government and revolutionary forces waned after the Sept. 11 attack shifted focus to the Middle East and the war on terror.

“Suddenly people were afraid of getting involved,” Hauze said. “A lot of the people at our meetings were immigrants hesitant to participate because they didn’t want attention drawn to them.”

In time, some of the Colombia peace organizations in the metropolitan area dissolved, but Mejia made sure the Movement held on, albeit with only a handful of members and only a few events. Money grew tight as donations dwindled. Mejia did his best to organize forums, conferences, candlelight vigils, petitions and mail campaigns, figuring that the more he could educate Colombian ex-pats, the more likely they’d be to lobby U.S. lawmakers to press Colombia for change. When speakers passed through the city, Mejia — who separated from his wife in 1979 and now lives alone — offered them a bedroom in his apartment, found places for them to speak and corralled a small army of volunteers to canvass the neighborhood with posters.

Mejia has no kids, was married for only five years, and only his aunt and cousin live in the city. The Movement’s members are his family, the speakers his extended family, and its cause, his cause.

Nevertheless, Mejia is eager to pass on the mantle, because the workload is wearying. At a recent Movement meeting, Mejia sat with a clipboard on his lap, in a circle with four other members. They were making last-minute plans for the following week’s speaker. The conversation turned to advertising and Mejia gave his usual plug to call everyone on the membership list and send e-mails to the listserv. Two hours into the meeting, the four others began discussing iTunes and Podcasts and a potential broadcast of the lecture, and Mejia fell silent. His chin dropped slightly. His head bobbed as his eyelids closed. Just as the others noticed and chuckled, he jerked upright and smiled.

It doesn’t happen often, he promised. Just lately, he’s particularly tired.

Already enrolled in Janus Collaborative School of Art on the Upper East Side, he wakes at 6 a.m. every weekday for class that begins at 9 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. Finally, after a career in civil engineering and after-hours dominated by activism, he has gotten a chance to paint. Maybe one day, he says, he’ll paint images that tell stories of massacres in Colombia. For now he paints portraits that remind him how beautiful people can be.

The Movement will go on without him. Ricardo Gonzalez, who joined one year ago and updated the Web site, is the new president. Gabriel Chaves, joined in 2006, is now the secretary and Julio Bodeya, who joined last year, is the vice president.

So when the Movement for Peace arranged two lectures in Brooklyn and Queens for Bela Henriquez, a 25-year-old Colombian activist whose father was reportedly killed in 2001 by the paramilitaries, the Musketeers were in charge of the event preparations and presentation. In a conference room on the seventh floor of a Brooklyn office building, the three arrived an hour early to fold pamphlets, set up the audio equipment and line up the chairs. The lecture began and Bedoya delivered an introduction.

An hour into the presentation, Mejia slipped in to enjoy the post-lecture refreshments, socialize with the 30-person audience and take Henriquez home.

As the three Musketeers packed up, they talked about their first foray into leadership. Planning Henriquez’s speech had required several meetings—some of which were cancelled last minute and some held at midnight over beers. Gonzalez is worried about the workload, a complaint he had heard from Hauze, the previous president. And he worries that a leadership of three, not one, will require reconciling differences.

During his ride home to Upper Manhattan, Gonzalez wondered how he became president. Hauze handed it to him when she left earlier in the year, frustrated by dwindling funds, droopy membership and conflicts among board members. He wonders how to keep the Movement alive. It’s barely an organization, he says fretfully, just a tiny group of people who sit and share ideas. He worries Mejia is the real community organizer, and who is Gonzalez to change things? But then he confessed that he wants to shift the group’s mission to focus on education, cooperation and communication.

“It’s not clear what we’re doing,” Gonzalez says, settling into another round of worry. “In some ways, we’re making a difference bringing these people but…”

He stops short. His nose wrinkles as he thinks it over. He’s not sure what else to say.

Asked if he could picture himself not working toward a solution to the Colombian conflict, Gonzalez says no. As does Chaves. And Bedoya.

Mejia understands their concerns. But he tells them their unwavering passion is all they need to make a difference. Because, really, it’s all Mejia ever had.

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