For the Nobel Peace Prize Forum last week, Winds of Peace had invited several cooperative members from Central America to join in a panel discussion about cooperativism and its impact as a peace-building movement. One of those invitees was Jacinto Peña Abrego from Panama, a member of Cooperativa Esperanza de los Campesinos (Hope of the Peasants Cooperative ). Like many of the fascinating people I have met from Central America, Jacinto had a pretty interesting story to tell.
Closing in on nearly 50 years of collaborative work for the common good, Jacinto has served as the coop’s manager on seven different occasions, and still works to teach and advise it younger members. He is gifted with storytelling ability, his voice carrying the gravitas of experience and age, his eyes reflecting the sparkle of youth and exuberance. Among the stories that he shared with the members of our dialogue was one about Father Hector Gallego, and the unlikely beginnings of the Esperanza Cooperative.
“One day in 1968, I was walking along and saw a stranger riding a mule. He reached out his hand to greet me: ‘I’m Santa Fe’s priest,’ he told me. ‘I don’t believe you, priests only greet rich people,’ I answered him. He said: ‘There’s always a first time…. I want to invite you to a meeting this Thursday.’ ‘I don’t have time for meetings,’ I said, lowering my head. ‘No? Those are the very people I’m looking for, people who don’t have time,’ he told me. And he left me bowled over. I went to the meeting. I saw him greeting children and that impressed me. We sat down in a circle. What I saw and heard that day, made me think differently. That day I changed forever.”
“We woke up to the injustice of the wages, the fraud that the stores pulled off with the weighing of the products and their prices. So we decided to form a cooperative. But how could we start a cooperative if we did not think we had any resources? So Fr. Hector threw out a 5 cent coin in the middle of where we were seated, and asked, ‘How many pieces of candy can we buy with that coin?’ ‘Five!’ we responded. Others present looked in their pockets for a 5 cent coin. And others as well. The priest held up 10 coins and said that we had enough for 50 pieces of candy and sent a young boy off to buy them. It was 12 noon, we were all hungry. That same boy passed out the candy to the 50 who were present. The priest asked us again, ‘what does it taste like?’ Someone shouted, ‘it tastes like heaven!’ The priest concluded, ‘that is how cooperativism is done.’ The next week a group from Pantanal bought 1 quintal of salt to sell, and in El Carmen each person began to save 10 cents a week. That is how the hope of the peasants got started, our cooperative.”
Father Hector eventually was “disappeared,” never seen again nor his body ever recovered. I found it interesting that Jacinto, in telling this story, never added the fact that the priest had been a guest at Jacinto’s home at the moment of the abduction. I suspect that omitting that detail keeps the focus on the part of the story that Jacinto wishes to emphasize: the priest was taken in the dark of night, but his lessons about humility, cooperativism and stewardship continue on as lights in each day. In Jacinto’s thinking, the story is all about the man and his message, and not the details of a midnight atrocity.
Jacinto says that his job is to keep telling the tale and teaching the cooperative youth the profound lessons of the humble priest, that cooperatives can be life-saving structures when they are founded upon and operated for the common good. Even as an elder of the cooperative, his appetite to represent the lessons of Father Hector pushed him to board a plane in Panama City, fly through the questionable skies of Hurricane Irma, visit the foreign land of the U.S. for the first time, navigate a language barrier and offer himself as a testimony to successful cooperativism.
I never met Father Hector Gallego. I never even read much about him before the last several weeks. But I feel as though I somehow know exactly what kind of a man he was….