By Gail Kregel
On Christmas day, 2008, Guatemalan Congresswoman Anabella De Leon, called me. A new president had taken office earlier that year and he decided to eliminate Anabellas bodyguards. They cost too much money, he had claimed. The new president and his wife had been denounced for money laundering, drug trafficking and other crimes by Anabella and the journalist, Hugo Arce. And Hugo Arce had been found dead in his hotel room.
I first met Congresswoman De Leon in June of 2006 at the Biltmore Hotel in Miami. A conference honoring Latin American women leaders was being held by the Vital Voices Global Partnership, an NGO that honors women leaders around the world. I had been asked to collaborate with other women playwrights on the play, SEVEN, bringing to life seven of these women leaders. I was assigned to Anabella, known as a fearless fighter against corruption and a champion of the poor.
The first thing I noticed about all the Latin American women at the conference, including Anabella, was that they were wearing stilettos. Right away, I, who cant balance on anything above a quarter of an inch, was impressed. And after Anabella addressed the conference, there was a standing ovation. She was beautiful, and very theatrical – modulating her voice, and raising her fists.
But later, in the quiet of her room, I learned how difficult it had been for this celebrated attorney and beloved Congresswoman to rise up out of the poverty of her childhood.
My mother, my brother and I lived in this small, dark room. From a little window I could see mi madre outside stooped over a pot cooking a meal for us. I remember once I saw a woman throw dirt in the pot my mother was stirring our only meal and my mother began to sob. It is this beginning of my life that is responsible for my way of being. I was very young, but I knew I wanted to get out of that world: a world where the women being so angry and hopeless, they throw dirt in your food; or like my mother, all the time in the silence, praying and crying. The beginning of my life, I call it the darkness, she said.
Even as a young girl, Anabella knew that education was the way out of poverty and after winning excellent grades through primary school, she won a scholarship to study law at a private university.
Discrimination she calls that stage of her life. Classmates told her that she didnt belong. Anabella replied: If you discriminate against me for being a woman and being poor, I am going to discriminate against you for being stupid!
Anabella remembers telling her mother that one day she would have la gire silla, a swivel chair, and many people under her command. And she has sat in many swivel chairs by now, as signer of the 1996 Peace Treaty, as Chief Treasurer heading up eight departments with over 400 employees, as an attorney who filed more than 85 lawsuits against corrupt officials and as Congresswoman re-elected four times. But with that came some grave consequences. I have plenty of powerful enemies. Those who fight corruption dont make many friends, she said.
In 2001, living with bodyguards became a way of life for Anabella and her family. When she denounced the Vice President for using the national printing press to print false identity papers so his supporters could vote many times, men with hidden guns came to her office, announcing: She is on the list. We know her death date. The InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights granted Anabella special protection status. Anabella said, Sometimes I feel the loneliness and the sorrow, but I feel proud I am a Congresswoman; I feel proud too that I am not dead.
Women are especially harmed by corruption, according to the Congresswoman. There are more women killed in Guatemala than in any other country in the world. There is a message in the violent killing of women. It is to maintain women without power. And none of these murders have been investigated. Impunity is the Queen of Guatemala, she said.
Yet theres another Anabella who sings in the National Theatre and in hospitals for sick children. When we were in Miami at an evening gathering, it was Anabella who had us all dancing.
So on that Christmas day when she called me, I gathered 500 e-mails and sent them to the Human Rights Commission. Alyse Nelson, President of Vital Voices also made Anabellas cause known, and her bodyguards were restored. I still expressed my concern for her safety. Anabella replied. Most of the people who grew up like I did have remained in the poverty and misery. Los pueblos are looking to me to speak out for them. And then she invited me to come to Guatemala. We will visit mi madre. We will eat delicious food and then we will dance and sing!
February 25, 2010