When the women of Mampuján, Bolívar, first started quilting, their fingers hurt for days. Not yet used to holding a needle, it was a struggle to pin and connect each piece of cloth. Even more painful was the act of speaking their stories, but as they sat together and sewed, they slowly opened up about their past. As Juana Alicia Ruíz Hernández reflects, it was through sharing their stories, first with each other and then with their country, that they began to heal and move forward in a tapestry of community transformation.

Ask anyone in the Montes de María, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, about the years from 1997 to the early 2000s and they will refer to la violencia (the Violence). During this traumatic period, the right-wing paramilitary group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) battled the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for territorial control of strategic drug trafficking routes. Local communities were stuck in the crossfire.

On March 10, 2000, la violencia fully arrived at the Afro-Colombian community of Mampuján. As the sun set over the campesino town, paramilitary troops seemed to appear out of nowhere from the surrounding hills. They accused the community of being FARC supporters, threatening to kill every inhabitant. In a moment that many community members consider a miracle, the commander received a phone call. As he hung up, he informed the community that they were saved: a higher-ranking official had declared Mampuján to be innocent. They, however, were given 24 hours to take what they could carry, ordered to leave and never return, upon pain of death.

Juana was born in the nearby town of San Pablo in 1973. Her future became connected with Mampuján’s when she met her soon-to-be husband, Alexander Villareal Pulido, shortly before the displacement, through activities with the local evangelical church. Although Juana was not displaced with the community, her child and young adulthood were difficult. She understands intimately what it meant to be a victim of violence.

“The women suffered from low self- esteem and a profound sadness, as they were forced to assume the role of both men and women and I realized how much war impacts women and children in a different way.” Juana was shocked and concerned by the conditions she encountered after the displacement. Tensions ran high. No longer able to farm their land, men could no longer provide food and took their anger out on their wives. Multiple families lived together in single room shelters. Community spaces were nonexistent. “Spiritual accompaniment was good, but it was not enough,” Juana remarks when she recalls those early days.

Along with other church leaders, Juana was fundamental in creating an income generating productive organization. But psychosocial healing was still missing. Finally, in 2006, thanks to Juana’s insistence, Teresa Geiser, from the United States, arrived in Mampuján to meet with a group of church women for a workshop on trauma healing. Her method? Quilting.

The group began to turn what they were learning into something uniquely Afro-Colombian. Instead of piecing small geometrical shapes together, they began to sew their stories, starting with displacement. Each figure they cut out represented someone in the community: a neighbour, a husband, a daughter, a friend. “It was a way to recover from trauma, a strategy to narrate and tell what had happened, to sit and to talk,” Juana remembers. It was through those healing conversations that the women decided to sew their entire history, from life in Africa, to slavery, to agriculture, in a series of tapestries.

 The women of Mampuján stitching their quilts.
The women of Mampuján stitching their quilts.

“As Afro-Colombian pueblos, we share the tradition of oral history, where one person tells the story, and the next person passes it one.” Juana explains. As the women, however, dug deeper into that history, what they discovered sur- prised them. “We learnt that violence is cyclical. We, today, were not the only ones that had been victims. Rather, our ancestors had arrived in Colombia as victims of this violence, and their own displacement from Africa. So we started to tell this entire story, because by telling it, we could work to stop the cycle of violence.”

For Juana, moving from individual healing to collective recovery became an important step in changing cycles of violence and creating peace. This meant learning about rights and “finding out what are the legal routes to access our rights, to minimize violence, rage and feelings of helplessness. Peace is generated when people are able to see the results of their initiatives.”

In 2008 the community was selected to attend the first court hearings under the Justice and Peace Law of 2005, as part of the demobilization process of the AUC. In return for a lighter sentence the commanders behind the displacement of Mampuján confessed to their crimes. In a historic court ruling, the Colombian state was ordered to pay reparations to the victims of Mampuján.

During one public hearing in Bogotá, Juana’s husband, Alexander, presented the commanders on trial with Bibles and publicly forgave them. Juana, watching in Mampuján as the proceedings were live streamed to the community gathered in the soccer field, was nervous, even though the quilters had worked to psychologically prepare the community. What would be the reaction of their neighbours, people who had lost everything because of these men? To her surprise, the community broke with court protocol and spontaneously rose to their feet for a three minute round of applause as Alexander finished speaking.

“You have to be willing to forgive, and to work hard to achieve real healing, independent of state justice toward victimizers, although, of course, it helps if there is justice,” reflects Juana on how forgiveness has played an integral role in Mampuján’s ability to work without bitterness. Juana states, “In Colombia, we need reconciliation and the willingness to forgive, to move forward.”

The reparations process has not always been smooth. The community is still advocating for the promised return to the location they displaced from. Juggling motherhood, a full time teaching job, and directing the sewing project is not easy. Juana, however, is still eager to pass on to other communities lessons from Mampuján. “We have learnt how work as a team and to attend meetings with the government. We don’t need to block the highway, throw rocks, or burn cars. We believe in dialogue and in non- violence actions.”

Through the legal process, Juana became connected with the National Museum in Bogotá. Mampuján’s tapestries are now on display in the new permanent gallery, Memory and Nation, in recognition of the unique contribution of Afro-descendant communities to Colombia’s identity and history. The latest work is called Mi Gente Negra (My Black People). It includes the entire story: Africa, slave ship, auction, rebellion, campesino life, displacement, court hearings, peace marches, and ends with the dream of returning to their land.

This honouring of their journey holds great significance for the women, who never imagined that their story would be considered important enough to put on display. As Juana puts it, the tapestries are “a way of narrating our history in a way that has not been done before, and making that history visible.” This publicity also means that, “People can see how we have evolved, how we started out enslaved, and then passed from being victims to being subjects with rights. They witness how we have survived and recovered from the many things that have happened to us. It is a display of hope.”

Today, as they sit on a street corner, the women of Mampuján laugh and joke, fingers strong and steady as their needles flash through the cloth with determination. The current tapestry, just like their history, continues to unfold. The next canvas is still bare. But as they work together, Juana and the quilters continue to stitch a community story filled with hope, faith and peace.