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Juan Luis Moyano SJ

14 February 1946 05 April 2006


Juan Luis Moyano: Carrying the burden of reality

José M. Meisegeier SJ


Juan Luis was deeply committed to his time. With the courage of his convictions he lived out strong choices in bravery and freedom. He was a man of action and at the same time a man of reflection ...He lived his life accompanying many people with affection and serenity. In difficult moments – and he had many in his lifetime – and even in the face of illness he lived dramatically.”

   These are the words with which Patricia Valdez(1) paid tribute to Juan Luis on behalf of many family members and friends, moments before Fr Cantó blessed his final resting place in the cemetery of the Colegio Máximo.

   To confront reality is to take up its burden. For him, this was to be done in a concrete and committed way, to be critical, and at the same time constructive and active. I think that this was one of the most distinctive characteristics of Juan Luis. Taking on reality, as Jesus did, was to take on and bear the very real crosses he encountered throughout his life. In the words of Gustavo Gutiérrez, “To act is to take on the reality of God, primarily from the perspective of those who are most at risk.” To remember this we believe we need to look back on Juan Luis’s life and I will do so by referring to his testimony given at ‘Memoria Activa’ in July 2002.

   Juan Luis entered the novitiate of the Society in 1964 and studied humanities at Carlos Paz. In 1968-69 he studied philosophy at San Miguel. There his concerns led him to establish the Student Centre, of which he was first secretary-general. In 1970 and 1971, while attending teacher training classes at the Immaculada, his interest in social issues led him to accompany a Christian community at Alto Verde and participate in the teacher’s union of the province of Santa Fe. He was secretary-general of the provincial office and attended various national congresses.

   During his first year of theology (1972) in San Miguel, he lived in a small community in Ituzaingó, working as a builder and at the same time taking exams. He says in his testimony: “I wanted to have an experience of manual labour and accompany, even if it was on a part-time basis, the reality of the people living in our neighbourhoods.”(2) The following year this small community was dissolved as his three companions decided to leave the Society. He continues, “After a difficult period of discernment with my superiors I moved to the neighbourhood(3) of San Martin de Mendoza, where I continued my studies in theology, taking my exams as an external student in spite of living a thousand kilometres from the university… There were five Jesuits (in Barrio S. Martin). Two of us lived in an adobe house with mud floor, with no running water and electricity hooked onto the public pylons. I worked as coordinator of a literacy campaign for adults organised by the DINEA (The National Directorate for Adult Education), from the Ministry of Education.” Apart from his theological studies, which he attended by regularly travelling to the Máximo [Theological Faculty],(4) he adds “I took advantage of the fact that the time-table of my theological studies allowed me to obtain a licentiate degree in Philosophy as well at the National University of Mendoza.

   In 1974, a State of Emergency was declared throughout the country. Some days later, following a meeting of the DINEA, the police of Mendoza province arrested all literacy teachers from Barrio San Martin. The next day Juan Luis and another teacher were detained at the police station. There, Juan Luis discovered that there were others from Barrio San Martin who had been detained incommunicado since the previous week. On the third day he was able to have an interview with a lawyer sent by his father, and he explained to himthat he had nothing to do with the charge brought against him. The lawyer told him he would be released soon, and ten days later he was given released on bail. He then met his companion Benjamín Villalba who informed him that when he had returned home to Barrio San Martin following Juan Luis’s detention, he found that the house had been turned inside out and that they had dug holes in the floor, presumably looking for weapons. Juan Luis says:

   From the moment of my release, the real problems began. Though I was officially free, having signed out from the police station, some federal police officers kidnapped me, taking me through the back door (of the Residence in Mendoza). For three days I was categorized as ‘having disappeared.’ I was questioned and tortured continuously… We arrived at the federal police [station] of Mendoza and I was put into the first cell, on the left hand side, of the three next to the patio. I was stripped naked. The beatings were at different times on different days. One tall, thin man and another bigger man beat me through half-hour sessions. They would make me stand against the wall, almost diagonally and beat me with truncheons and sticks all across my body continuously. Also, they used ‘the telephone’, that is to say, repeated smacks against my ears with open palms, etc. Shortly after they left, another officer would enter and try to convince me that he was not in favour of this violence and that he wanted to help me. Then he would ask the same questions. They were following the ‘bad guy’/ ‘good guy’ technique…

   Two or three hours later, the same operation would be repeated and it went on like this for three days, with four or five sessions a day. When I didn’t answer, they just hit harder. They knew everything about what I did in the neighbourhood, in the National University of Cuyo and with the priests of Tercer Mundo (Third World). They wanted to know names and who was in charge. Every time they would come in I would panic, but I decided that I would not give them names and addresses of the people belonging to the Peronist Youth, the University, the neighbourhood, or the priests I knew. Since I wouldn’t talk, they would insist that I was obviously an important member and trained to withhold information.

   …Before releasing me they ‘transferred’ me, shutting me in a wicker basket in the trunk of a car. The took me to an isolated place and left me alone standing in front of two or three of them. They were armed and threatened to kill me; they stood as if they are going to shoot me, they kept on asking me the same questions. I am not sure if I fully realised that they could in fact do more than just threaten me; nevertheless I didn’t tell them anything

   … I presume that through pressure from my family and the Church, seeing that they couldn’t get anything out of me although they continued to consider me dangerous, my detention was made official and I was placed in the custody of the National Executive Power (Poder Ejecutivo Nacional (PEN).”

     On the 5th of December 1974 he was transferred to the prison of Mendoza.

   One of the first days in the prison, whilst I was washing myself with water from a bucket in the patio, Carlitos, an ordinary prisoner with whom we were detained, said to me that he was scared to see that my body looked like one big bruise.

   In the prison the conditions changed completely. He was able to receive visits from his family, the Jesuits of Mendoza, people from his neighbourhood, religious sisters. He remarks, “…it was with some surprise that the prison guards wondered how a ‘subversive’ could have so many ‘catholic’ friends.” His friends from the faculty brought him the books he needed and he was able to study and complete the monograph for his degree. Under the supervision of Enrique Dussel he wrote his thesis entitled ‘Towards a break from the totalitarianism of the Hegelian State’.

   He was held at the prison in Mendoza for four months. He tell us that on 7th April, 1975, “…they called me because I had a visitor. I went as I was, in my slippers, and suddenly I was in a small airplane on my way to the prison of Resistencia. My family and the Jesuits told me later that they were desperate; for days they had no idea where I had been taken. I don’t have clear memories of that transfer. It was my first time on an airplane.”

   The prison conditions were much stricter there: “…we weren’t allowed to read anything, not even the Bible, nor have the Eucharist on Sundays.” Then when he was granted permission to leave the country. “… I was taken to Buenos Aires and three days later, once my papers were arranged directly by the federal police, I left, on the 1st of July 1975 for Frankfurt, Germany, to finish my theological studies.” Once he had finished his Licentiate in Theology in 1977 at S. Georgen, Frankfurt, he moved to Peru. The State of Emergency continued in Argentina and the PEN banned him from returning to Argentina or any of the bordering states.

   In October of that year he was in Peru. On the 24th February 1978, Juan Luis was ordained in Lima by Mons. Bambarén (a Jesuit called ‘the bishop of the young’ for his commitment to the “tugurios,” the large slums of the Cono Norte and Sur de Lima). In 1978-79, when he arrived in Peru, he was sent to Jaen where he worked as an ordinary priest. He then did his tertianship in Lima (1982) and took final vows on the 15th August 1983.

   Afterwards, in 1989 he was sent to Ilo on the coast, a mining and fishing city in the south of Peru. There, in addition to his pastoral activities in the Jesuit community in one of the new areas on the outskirts if Ilo, Juan Luis taught at the CENECAPE (Centro de Capacitación, Orientación y Promoción or Centre for Formation, Orientation and Promotion). Later he established and directed the Centre ‘Pedro Pescador’ (Peter the Fisherman), a vocational training centre for young people.

   Once democracy was re-established in Argentina and the State of Emergency lifted, Juan Luis returned to Buenos Aires .“…At Christmas, in 1983 I was able to return for the first time to Argentina to see my family and friends. I had not seen some of my brothers and sisters for nine years and I was able to meet fourteen nieces and nephews who had been born in the meantime.” That is how the testimony he gave at Open Memory concludes. In 1990 he returned finally to Argentina. Juan now took on a variety of responsibilities. He was made Socius of three provincials, Consultor of the Province, Director and Superior of CIAS, National Director of Fe y Alegría and a member of the Pastoral Social Commission. It is worth highlighting some of the other ‘responsibilities’ he took on over time:

   At CIAS he managed the CENPROSIN (Centro de Promoción Sindical or Centre for the Promotion of Trade Unions). He also looked after the prayer groups and Ignatian spirituality groups related to CONFAR and was part of the editorial team of the magazine CAMINOS de CONFAR. On weekends he did his pastoral work in Las Catonas (Pfizer Barrio), work which the Bishop of Merlo-Moreno, Fernando Bargalló, commended during Juan Luis’s funeral mass in the chapel of Máximo. He also wrote articles for the CIAS magazine, in CAMINOS de CONFAR, NUEVA TIERRA, and other publications, and worked at the José María Llorens Foundation.

   Another important aspect of Juan Luis’s work was the attention he gave to students and priests who had been some years with the Society and left their ministry. Through meetings and discussions he was able to ease some of the tensions that had risen during a period which had marked them all deeply.

   I would also like to mention his work with Fe y Alegría. Shortly after his arrival he found he had to take up the burden of dealing with the misdeeds of the previous Governor of Corrientes. This person had built a large school in the outskirts of the city of Corrientes. He had appointed as teachers almost a hundred members of his own political group. When later the government of th province was suspended, the wages of the teachers were withheld, and they then took Fe y Alegría to court. This was a difficult situation that he had to face, and it was further exacerbated by a court case put by the Ongay family who charged the governor with having built the school on their land without prior authorisation.

   There was one thing that Juan Luis was however unable to accomplish to his satisfaction . He often mentioned that he wanted to continue his duties but live with other Jesuits in a poor community. His experiences in the neighbourhood of Nylon, an area of Ilo where he lived for fourteen years with other Jesuits including Francisco Chamberlain, Santiago Vallebuona, Luis Sauto and others, as well as those in San Martín de Mendoza, had certainly helped him find the meaning of his vocation in sharing his life directly with those most in need.

   It maybe that this overview of the ‘burdens of reality’ that Juan Luis took on during his lifetime appears too long. Perhaps some may find the story of his arrest, torture and imprisonment inappropriate; it was something that he himself seldom spoke of. Nevertheless, I think it is worth remembering these details in his own words.

   Pedro Casaldáliga, in his latest book, provides a semi-autobiographical account of his years as Bishop in Mato Grosso. He says we must learn to dirty our hands in the waters of history and that the worst thing that can happen is not missing the train but missing the God who travels on that train.“Only those who get it wrong, find love / and receive much more than they give / Later, all hope will not be enough” (Nicolás Guillén).

   We cannot forget his last days, illness and death. On the 18th February 2005, he wrote an email to his friends:

   In the face of death, faith and the certainty that the Lord is waiting for me - that [death] is not a leap in the dark –are mixed up with a psychological reaction which tries to make sense of the death as something natural, something that will happen to me too. At the bottom of this lies the tranquillity of knowing that I have taken a path which has enabled me to live my life and expectations to the full. The knowledge that I have loved and felt loved and accepted by those whom I love, that I have been able to make a contribution to make another world possible. All this expresses quite well what I feel and helps me to face peacefully enough the likelihood of taking this final step. However, I continue to believe in the present and our commitment to ‘building the Kingdom’ here and now.’

   “And what if the reaction is then one of rebellion? It is possible and probable. I have faced death before and it did not appear. For now I continue to deal with the situation in this way. If I share this with you it is not because I am depressed but so that I may help you to follow me closely during this time.

   With these two sentences the message for that day ended. As the time of his final Easter drew near, many friends and family members gathered. I would like to mention his sister, Josefina, to whose house in Los Nogales he was transferred at the end of last year. Also, his mother, who spent large parts of the day with him every day. And I would like to remember José Molina, who apart from being a doctor, could engage closely with Juan Luis, especially in those final days when he was able to communicate with Juan Luis almost to the very end, understanding his basic needs even when he found it very difficult to speak.

   Pepe Molina, in agreement with Alfonso and Cantó firmly refused to consider leaving him in intensive care in the FLENI. They brought him to the CIAS on 4th April and he died the next day at about 6.30 pm. Moments earlier his mother had said “Tini, you can rest now, go to heaven to meet your father.”

   Sister Maria Luisa Berzosa, who worked with Juan Luis in Fe y Alegría, wrote in a note from Rome “… thanks for your self-gift, solid and without strings, impervious to discouragement, and growing in adversity. Thank you for your encouragement to continue along the chosen path.”

   And Patricia Valdez ended her farewell with these words

   Juan Luis, you leave us before your time. We had still so much talking to do, much to celebrate and share. You still had so much to do in order that this world may resemble a little more the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. … I hope that we can take from him some of the ways in which he was able to live his Christian faith.


Original Spanish

Translation by Susana Barnes


José Mª Meisegeier SJ


O'Higgins 1331

C1426BHA Buenos Aires, ARGENTINA



(1) Patricia Tapatá de Valdez is the president of Memoria Abierta (Open Memory). This is a network of human rights NGOs (APDH, CELS, Fundación Memoria Histórica y Social Argentina, Madres de Plaza de Mayo-Línea Fundadora, SERPAJ). The main objective of this organisation is to collect testimonies of those who played a leading role before and during the years of the military regime.

(2) All the material in italics that follows are quotations from Juan Luis Moyano’s testimony at Memoria Activa, July 2002.

(3) The term neighbourhood translates the Spanish “barrio” which is closer to ‘poor quarter’ or ‘slum’ [Editor’s note]

(4) Editor’s note.