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Speaking Their Peace : Stoked by a Spiritual Fire That Grew Into Political Activism, Blase and Theresa Bonpane Have Dedicated Their Lives to Justice for the Poor


Housed among the da Vinci folios and Napoleon Bonaparte's hat in the UCLA library's special collections repository is a 94-box archive donated by activist Blase Bonpane: appointment books, reel-to-reel tapes, newspaper clippings and hundreds of personal letters. If Bonpane said or wrote something, UCLA wanted a record of it.

Perhaps the most enlightening materials, however, are those that document his surveillance by the U.S. government. From 1967 through the mid-'80s, the FBI, CIA or some other government agency witnessed or kept track of nearly all of Bonpane's public appearances. And, judging from the casework, a few of his private events as well.

There was, after all, a lot to witness.

Such as December 1969, when, responding to a plea from the Black Panthers, he talked the police into holding fire long enough to let a group of Panthers holed up in South-Central Los Angeles surrender. (That performance, he says, made the local news, costing him a teaching job.)

Or the two years the then-newly wed Bonpane and wife Theresa (both former missionaries with the Catholic Maryknoll order) spent at the United Farm Workers headquarters near Tehachapi. There they earned a combined $10 a week publishing a newspaper and running a graphic arts workshop for migrant workers.

Then there were the trips to Cuba. Bonpane, always happy to meet a fellow American, once introduced himself to the G-man sent there to tail him.

Still another report noted, with alarm, that Blase had long admired Abraham Lincoln.

At last count, government agencies had compiled several hundred pages of information on the Bonpanes, a number that rivals similar files on big-time cocaine smugglers and other ne'er-do-wells.

But then, to some people, the Bonpanes were trafficking in something far more dangerous than organized crime or drugs.

They were working for peace.


Office of the Americas, the nonprofit educational group the Bonpanes have directed since its founding 13 years ago, is housed on the second floor of a building known as the Peace Center along a funky stretch of 3rd Street in West Los Angeles.

It's one of few grass-roots peace organizations to withstand the winds of political change. And it's a strange paradox that keeps the group in business: If not for the continued suffering of the poor Latin Americans OOA has been helping through the years, the Bonpanes might too be out of business.

"We'd always love to work ourselves out of a job," says Blase, 66. "I doubt if it would ever happen in my lifetime, but it's certainly a goal. . . . The last thing we'd want to do is to have the problems continue."

OOA has an annual budget of about $100,000--which comes from donations, OOA members and special fund-raising events. It delivers little in material aid to the countries it emphasizes--Mexico, Cuba, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Instead, its mission statement dedicates it to "furthering the cause of justice and peace in the hemisphere through broad-based educational programs."

Toward that end, OOA has helped bring a long parade of Latin American leaders--former Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega; Miguel d'Escoto and Ernesto Cardenal, former cabinet-level ministers in Ortega's Sandinista government; Salvadoran rebel leader Ruben Zamora; and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu--to this country, where they have appeared on college campuses and in other forums to talk about the effect of U.S. policies on their countries.

The Bonpanes have also led dozens of delegations and thousands of American citizens to areas of conflict in Mexico and Nicaragua. Blase also tapes up to a dozen radio and television programs a month--most for public-access cable channels or small public radio stations--and will speak before any gathering with a microphone.

With his barrel chest and bald pate, and dressed in a sharp suit and tie, Bonpane is a slightly taller version of actor Ed Asner. That seems fitting since Asner is one of the many celebrities who have actively supported the Bonpanes' work through the years. Casey Kasem, Martin Sheen, Kris Kristofferson and Richard Masur, among others, have worked or traveled with Bonpane, while writer / directors Oliver Stone and Gregory Nava used him as a resource in making the films "Salvador" and "El Notre," respectively.

But Blase hasn't confined his pedagogy to well-known personalities. He's spent much of his life in a classroom and still teaches a class in political science at East Los Angeles College, following earlier stints at Cal State Los Angeles, UCLA and Cal State Northridge.

That teaching stipend represents an important part of the Bonpanes' household budget. While both Theresa and Blase draw small salaries from OOA, as recently as three years ago they had to go on unemployment to keep the office and its education programs going.

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