Maria Felicita Lopez and her daughter Hilda Paola. Photo courtesy Luke Stocking

Luke Stocking: What’s in a name? People like Maria

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  • March 25, 2021

“You say you care about the poor … then tell me, what are their names?”

This quotation from Gustavo Gutierrez is something I often think about in my life and work. Responding to poverty in the world must first and foremost be rooted in relationship. “The poor” are not an abstract concept, but all too often we are guilty of making them so as Christians.

When it comes to responding to global poverty from a place like Canada, it becomes even more of a challenge. It is not difficult (or should not be difficult!) to ask a panhandler on the street what their name is and to share with them your own. It is not difficult to get to know a community at a soup kitchen or Out of the Cold shelter if you hang out there long enough. But how do you get to know the names of people who live and suffer thousands of miles away from us?

I have always advocated for knowing the names of the people whose photos we feature in our materials at Development and Peace. So, I would like to introduce you two people you will see smiling from a Honduran hillside in our 2021 Share Lent materials: Maria Felicita Lopez and her daughter Hilda Paola.

Maria’s name and story are known to us thanks to Jess Casey, a journalist with the Irish Examiner who visited Maria’s home in Honduras with our sister agency in Ireland, Trócaire. Development and Peace and Trócaire both work with the same Honduran partner, CEHPRODEC, that has been helping Maria and her people (Catholic agencies often pool resources to make their support go further). While the photo is a happy one, Maria, a 31-year-old Indigenous woman, has known many hardships.

Maria belongs to the Lenca people, who live between Honduras and El Salvador.  There are approximately 300,000 Lenca in Honduras today and an estimated 90 per cent of the children in the community live in extreme poverty.

When Maria was seven years old, she was sent to live with a family in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa who forced her to care for their baby. After that she was forced to work as a maid in another home, feeding five men three times a day in a house. For this she was paid the equivalent of $10.50 a month and all the money was sent to her grandparents.

After her mother tried to force her into marriage at the age of 10, she fled and spent her teenage years in the city of La Paz. She lost her first child at nine months old to pneumonia but now has three other children in addition to Hilda.

“I want my children to have a different life than mine,” she says.

For this reason, Maria serves as the women’s co-ordinator of the Lenca Indigenous Independent Movement of La Paz-Honduras (MILPAH). She is a committed land rights and women’s rights activist. This has required sacrifice and struggle. MILPAH spoke out against the arrival of a hydro-electric dam company on the Chinacla River that encroached on their Indigenous territory without free prior and informed consent of the community. Free prior and informed consent is something guaranteed Indigenous people under ILO Convention 169, an international treaty ratified by Honduras.

The arrival of the company created division within the community itself. People living in poverty easily fell prey to promises to provide people with jobs and prosperity while overlooking the serious threats to their food and water supply that were not being adequately addressed.  Such promises in Honduras almost always are broken.

Maria’s own children were bullied for their family’s opposition to the dam. They left the community with other Lenca who were against the way the project was moving forward and formed a new community.

In 2015 her home was raided by military police, police and civilians armed with sticks and machetes. Her eight-year-old son was shot at three times during the raid and survived only because he had slipped and fell as he fled, narrowly avoiding the bullets. Maria suffered a miscarriage because of the ordeal. Despite filing a complaint, no one has been held accountable for the attack.

Things have remained tense since 2015 as the MILPAH’s struggle continues.

Women land defenders like Maria are the first to be targeted in these struggles because of the sexism that is prevalent in Honduras. “Everyone suffers under the machista culture,” she says. “I want my sons to unlearn this culture that, ever since we are born, teaches us that girls are worth less than men.”

Maria recently passed by a gatepost with a skull painted on it that had the words “Felicita – Death” written underneath. The image we see is not one of death though, but of life — Maria smiles and hugs her daughter. Through her work with MILPAH she educates girls on their right to be treated with human dignity and to care for our common home. “The first school is at home. All we want is a life free from violence and femicide.” That desire shines forth in the protective embrace of her daughter.

If we care for the poor, we must know their names. Her name is Maria Felicita Lopez and we should be awed by her courage.

(Stocking is Deputy Director of Public Awareness & Engagement, Ontario and Atlantic Regions for Development and Peace.)

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