Written by Andrew Song
Maria Eugenia’s narrative of her experience as a M-19 guerrillera is not a story about military conflict and guerilla strategy. Rather, “My Life as a Colombian Revolutionary” is an autobiography that describes underlying issues with which the individual and nation grapples: the female struggles against traditional gender norms, the effects of war on personal identity, and a nation’s social victims of a history of violence.
Maria’s journey towards becoming the most recognized female militant leader of M-19 began when she was incidentally raised in Cali, Colombia. When explaining her childhood, Maria leaves us with small Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs to highlight influential activities that steered her into entering a life of rebellion and female empowerment. She grew up with a single mother and learned about the countryside through her time in Cali with her grandfather, Papa Marcos. She had moved frequently as a child, following her stepfather, El Pato, into Bogota, and then to Valle de Sibundoy, where she befriended the indigenous Camsa. These experiences prefaced the characteristics of her later life as a constantly-moving guerrillera sympathetic to the disenfranchised agrarian class.
I find that Maria’s transformation into a contrarian stems from her early dissatisfaction with Colombia’s relegation of women in society as a child. Maria grew up hoping to become a vigilante, but her dream of being a female hero was actively suppressed at an early age by her male cousins and by the strict conservative nature of her Catholic boarding schools taught by sisters. Maria’s breakout into a full-fledged independent woman occured in college. In fact, this section of her autobiography gives us a fuller image of the role of universities – untouched by the texts in our classes – during the periodic rise in immense popularity of Fidel Castro and Communism. Maria illustrates in this particular section how these embryonic political factions that existed in universities evolved into the intellectual wings of guerilla groups later in the 1970s. Here, we encounter an issue with the book – the proliferation of names and people and acronyms – which makes it hard to keep track of who is who and how they affected Maria. I personally strained to remember the names of Maria’s many lovers and to recall the names of her comrades. I had forgotten who Ivan Marino was until Maria introduced him again in the 1984 Ceasefire Accords in Huila. In this effort, I came to realize that Maria’s deep, but temporary, relationships were the harsh cost of guerilla life. In other words, the book’s apparent shortcoming in throwing too many names out should not be treated as a poor organization of Maria’s writing, but should rather reveal how the life of a guerilla involved the painful “coming and going” of people.
In fact, the book centers on this theme of organized chaos. Her life was in many ways untraditional and unstable, but she manages to process all her memories of family and “military” life to produce this text. Her life was of partial identities and the quest to rebuild herself after moments of contradiction – almost symbolic of Colombia’s infighting and constant attempts at peace treaties. Moreover, her struggle seems to an outsider as one concerned with political and economic ideologies, but I would argue that Maria’s central desire to fight extended beyond her admiration for Mao and had formed from her loyalty to her companeros, her lovers, and to her gender. The prison part of Maria’s life summarized her fight; in translation, the prison served as a microcosm of Colombia’s injustices which galvanized her in the first place. She explains how even the prison evinced social classes and inequality. The lawyers who represent her with the exception of Eduardo were complicit with the military prosecution and corrupted fair trials. The privileged lived in separate yards. The nuns resemble conformity by acting as household wives who focus on traditional aspects of womanhood in Latin America and frowns at rebellious women. Maria’s strongest life relationships resulted from her fellow prison inmates like Beatriz because the prison was “women without men. Nothing more, [to be] said” – words evoked from Garcia Lorca’s “La Casa de Bernada Alba” (Eugenia 175). In essence, Maria’s devotion to her the people she briefly met is admirable, but I cannot say that it leaves just optimism.
Maria’s time as an urban guerilla was traumatic and gave her schizophrenic episodes. As a woman, she was more likely assigned to deceive authorities, and she would exploit images of femininity for M19. She would state that female guerrilleras were punished twice as hard when caught for being subversive and again for being women. Gender stereotypes were challenged by women like Maria in the PLA, ELN, FARC, and M19. Their presence should be noted as a triumph, but her autobiography gives face to how even in political struggles, the biological differences of her body pushed and injured her potential into becoming a greater icon. Maria’s story is well-written and one deserving more press and literature exaltation. Little do we know about the personal experiences of urban guerrillas in comparison to the more frequent media coverage of jungle camouflage guerrilla troops made up of macho men. Even less do we hear about the complex, fascinating lives of guerilla women like Maria.