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When she was 14, Maria Cristina Gutierrez sat at her kitchen table in Bogotá, Colombia with five siblings while watching her mother and father argue over dividing four pieces of bread among her father’s co-workers.
In the 1960s, Gutierrez’s father organized the first trade union of telephone workers. They were on strike and hungry, so her father sacrificed two pieces of bread and told her mother, “We have to fight to change the conditions of our country.”
“That was one of the most profound experiences I’ve had in my life because I knew that my father really believed in justice,” Gutierrez said.
Her father’s words have been a guiding light for Gutierrez, who calls herself a revolutionary organizer.
Now 67, the former “Frisco 5” hunger striker continues to follow in her father’s footsteps.
Activism in Colombia
If you ask Gutierrez about her passion for activism, she immediately thinks back to Colombia and breaks into tears.
“The murder of my people is something that I cannot stand,” she said, referring to the Colombian police. “I cannot believe how they handle people, and I have children and grandchildren, so it really affects me.”
Gutierrez says Colombia is one of the most dangerous places to be a trade unionist, and her father’s involvement with organizing put her family at constant risk. She remembers sleeping on the floor with no electricity, but she was always very impressed by her father continuing to organize.
Gutierrez is one of the few women who participated in protests. When she was a teenager, she and her boyfriend at the time, along with many others, protested to defend the autonomy of the Universities in Colombia.
Gutierrez was a prankster back then. She laughs at the memory of watching the Colombian police slip and fall because of she and her friends threw marbles to the ground.
As she grew older, Gutierrez joined the a group called M-19, a Colombian guerrilla movement and political party.
She had to keep her involvement with the group a secret, but her father knew and was fearful of what could’ve happened to her.
Her father told her it is important to be a pacifist.
“I keep saying to my father, ‘When someone comes into your house to rape your kids, you want to fight against that. You cannot be pacifist and watch them do it,’” Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez once lived in constant fear of the police breaking into her home, which made her feel angry, but she has since changed her perspective.
“I don’t want to feel hate in my heart. I want to feel love for my people,” Gutierrez said. “We have to be proud of who we are. We are beautiful people, we are survivors, and we are people that love life.”
Activism in the United States
Seeking stability and safety, Gutierrez and her family moved to the United States on Dec. 24, 1965 and have lived in San Francisco’s Mission District the past 35 years.
Her passion as a revolutionary organizer has not subsided. She joined the Mario Woods Coalition, hoping to unify the black and brown communities.
“My first impression was her sincerity and having a very clear understanding about the issues that we’re facing and her commitment to unifying the community to fight the police murder of black and brown community,” said Archbishop Franzo King, co-founder of the St. John Coltrane Church in the Fillmore.
The San Francisco residents killed by the SFPD continued to fuel Gutierrez’s activist flames. There was Alex Nieto in 2014, Mario Woods and Amilcar Perez Lopez in 2015, and then the killings of Luis Gongora Pat and Jessica Williams in 2016.
In May 2016, Gutierrez along with four other men, including her son Ilych “Equipto” Sato went on a 17-day hunger strike, abstaining from solid foods, to protest the police shootings of members of black and brown communities and pressure San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee to resign Suhr from his position.
“When we went on the hunger strike I had my fear, but I knew and I asked him,” Gutierrez said with her index finger pointing up. “‘Are you gonna let me die or let me come out alive?’ And … I felt he told me, ‘I’m gonna let you come out alive, so don’t fear.’”
Suhr resigned from his position in 2016, shortly after the Jessica Williams shooting.
But Gutierrez continues to participate with the community. She is often invited as a guest speaker for the Amor for Alex Nieto Coalition.
As soft spoken as she is, once she gets ahold of the microphone, she puts her diaphragm to work.
When she speaks, people keen in and really listen.
“I think she’s given the community hope and belief as well as a voice,” Equipto said. “Sometimes a lot of the survivors don’t have a platform or the confidence to address their personal issues. I think my mother helps out with that.”
Gutierrez is a mother of two and a grandmother of six.
She volunteers at a preschool called Compañeros Del Barrio, where she’s been for 30 years.
Every Wednesday she meets with the Mario Woods Coalition, and every Friday she protests outside the Hall of Justice Building to pressure San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón to reopen the cases for Alex Nieto, Jessica Williams and others.
Gutierrez feels she may go on another hunger strike, but as a spiritual woman she looks to God for guidance.
“I would be worried as a son,” Equipto said. “But I would totally understand and respect her decision. She’s a great mother and grandmother that has accomplished a lot and has been putting her life on the line for her people. Not just with the hunger strike, but for many decades before.”