Born in 1943, I have lived all my life in and around New York City. I have worked as a teacher and artist, and have always been involved in social justice activities. My husband, Orlando, and I have a daughter, Julia, and four grandchildren.
In 2001, our 31-year-old son died in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Besides our being distraught and grief stricken, we were frightened by what we thought the govenment of George W. Bush would do in reaction, justifying it in the name of the victims. We wrote an open letter, “Not In Our Son’s Name”, calling on President Bush not to resort to a military retaliation against Afghanistan. As a result of our letter circulating on the internet along with several others by victims’ family members calling for non-violent solutions, we were put in touch with others of like mind. From these connections, Peaceful Tomorrows was born on February 14, 2002.
I was born in Havana, Cuba in 1942, and migrated with my parents to NYC in 1955 at the age of 13. I am a social researcher and professor of sociology and criminology at Fordham University, Bronx, NY. After our son, Greg, perished in the attack on the north tower of the World Trade Center, I created a course called Terrorism and Society with a police captain and attorney who had lost many friends that day in the line of duty. We hoped to stimulate students to think and analyze what is meant by “terrorism” and its effect on society, and to look for similarities and differences between other examples of violent extremism – as well as the various approaches taken by governments in dealing with them. It is still a popular course.
In October 2001, Zacarias Moussaoui, was indicted on 6 charges of conspiracy to commit violent acts related to the attacks and faced the possibility of execution if convicted. Again we wrote a letter, this time in opposition to the death penalty. That letter appeared in the NY Times. One of the outcomes was that we were contacted by members of Murder Victim Families for Reconciliation.
In November 2002, the two of us and several other relatives of victims were invited by human rights workers to meet Aicha el-Wafi, the mother of Zacarias Moussaoui. We were all nervous, but the afternoon meeting was a life changing event. Through telling our stories, we all were able to see each other as people who were suffering, and who were joined by our mutual humanity and desire for peace.
Two stories of reconciliation stemming from that meeting in 2002, can be found at www.theforgivenessproject.com/stories. The Forgiveness Project is a London based organization that promotes non-vengeful responses to violence. It has a traveling exhibit called “The F Word”.
My commitment to nonviolence and reconciliation has deepened since 2001. I am involved with the Westchester Martin Luther King, Jr., Institute for Nonviolence, as well as community and interfaith groups working for mutual understanding. Much of this was started in response to a disturbing rise of Islamophobia in NY and the nation. I also am part of a group helping formerly incarcerated men and women re-enter sociey. In 2006, I was introduced to Healing of Memories workshops led by Father Michael Lapsley of Cape Town, South Africa. He is a survivor of violence who received a letter bomb in retaliation for his anti-apartheid outspokenness. (www.healingofmemories.co.za) Through my continued connection with Father Michael and his work, I have had the opportunity to participate in workshops Sing Sing Correctional Facility. It is an inspiring experience for me when I hear stories from people serving time for serious crimes who are using their incarceration to grow as human beings and come to terms with their past lives. By facing the consequences of their acts they are I feel a connection to their suffering, and they empathize with me. Their ability to change and learn restores my hope for the future, and further teaches me the universality of suffering. Listening to them, too, gives me some insight into why some people do terrible things to others.
After the death of a child or someone close to you, it is impossible to stay the same. I have chosen to use the tools of my profession to try to do some good for society. At Fordham, I’m teaching a course that is an introduction to Peace and Justice Studies called “Global Conflict: War and Religion”. I have created a criminology course, “Harm and Justice, Crime and Punishment”, and I am teaching the Sociology of Religion at Greenhaven Correctional Facility as part of Rising Hope, a college level certificate program. By teaching in a prison I think I’m making a statement to myself about what I feel toward the men who killed Greg, that I wish I could teach them. I wish I could have conversations with them. But I can’t, so this becomes a kind of substitute, a way of lightening the load.
As the tenth anniversary of the attacks approaches, we want to work with Peaceful Tomorrows and groups in the NY metro area, as well as in Westchester County where we live, toward creating events and memorials to highlight messages of peace and unity in the names of our family members lost on that day.
A documentary is being made about us which has a good chance of being aired in September 2011 on PBS. The writer, producer, director is Gayla Jamison, a fine filmmaker. We all hope that we can contribute to good will and more understanding of the need for peace and reconciliation. That is why it is called “In Our Son’s Name”. You can view the trailer at www.inoursonsname.com.