On a hot Sunday evening in early June, Maria Cristina Condori brought us together in the sanctuary at Binghampton’s Commons on Merton.
Folks carrying foil-covered trays of food filled the space. Cristina, as she was known to friends and comrades, taught us to always bring something to share. She was always the first to pass her canteen of hot water around for maté, the brewed comfort of her former home in Argentina.
Arriving guests started to outnumber the chairs, so those already seated quietly sprang into action to find more. Chairs were passed down and passed out. Like at many memorial services that land in a Southern summer, the folded program served both as a meditative point for remembrancer and a fan cutting against the oppressive heat.
On its cover was a photograph of Cristina, adorned in rendered roses, joined by Major, the family Yorkie and her frequent accomplice. She transcended this plane on May 29 at the age of 55, following a prolonged battle with cancer.
Cristina was a mother to her daughters, Iris and Aylen. She was a partner to her husband, Mario. She was a freedom fighter, a Quechua woman, a photographer, a fearless organizer and an unflinching friend to many, and so very fortunately, to me.
She taught us all the ease of intersectionality and the innate nature of collective liberation.
Cristina and Mario made me feel cared for. As a person who has experienced displacement because of neocolonialism and capitalism time and again, that feeling can seem like a mirage. My parents are Peruvian immigrants who brought my little sister and myself to this country without a plan. We were undocumented, but we arrived in 1989 just before the immigration system we know today was fully realized – about a decade before Cristina and Mario moved their family first to Miami and then Memphis in the early aughts.
Citizenship was attainable for my family simply because of our timing. Cristina and her family were not afforded that. Their status limited what jobs they could work; they often navigated exploitative labor practices to survive. They knew they needed to build community in order to thrive.
Cristina’s vision and vigor showed up when she helped steer the (now closed) Latino Cultural Center, strengthen the Workers Interfaith Network and establish the Mariposas Collective. Her love appeared at its truest measure when she took the mundane tasks of organizing for collective liberation. Over the years she took to the radio to keep folks in the Spanish-speaking community connected, helped Comunidades Unidas En Una Voz move with urgency following Trump’s election, she volunteered with Tennessee Immigrants & Refugee Rights Coalition and she nurtured a deeper community ritual around celebrating El Dia de los Muertos.
She was more likely to pass the mic than reach for it. She engaged boldly, simply unconcerned with a language barrier when it came to creating a new world (she spoke limited English, but rarely struggled to communicate.)
She would often be floating alongside me at protests and events, making photos on her phone, telling me about an upcoming event I absolutely needed to go to and pointing out people she thought were brilliant. She would slow down to catch bystanders who were witnessing resistance and try to explain how this might affect them (sometimes she would wave me or another bilingual speaker over so nothing was lost in translation.) An interaction with her was like crossing two live wires to spark a lesson on what it means to be connected.
Letting grief get its hooks in you is easy these days. The last few years of undiluted isolation, loss, pain and oppression can obscure life’s already devastating knocks. But Cristina made sure that her departure would be one where love, not absence, reigned.
In early April, when it was still chilly before noon, she sent out an invitation to her friends to join her at Overton Park. Her cancer had progressed over the pandemic and the family announced she was starting a hospice program. She wanted to spend time with the people with whom she had shared her world, so she called for a picnic.
More than 200 people gathered at the park, filling tables with food as they cast laughter, copal and music into the air. Cristina was in a wheelchair and supplemented her breathing with an oxygen tank. It was the first time I had seen her in two years and I wasn’t alone in being overwhelmed with the love I felt for her. She sat and greeted everyone who stood in a line, for what felt like hours, to see her.
Back in Binghampton, as the memorial service wrapped up, sweet stories and pointed verses were shared about Cristina in English and Spanish. We learned that she was unsurprisingly selfless even in her final act, donating her body to science. She had one parting request: that those at her service turn to someone they didn’t know and find what connected them.
Maria Cristina Condori taught me that everyday radical action takes place in between protest and providing.
Que descanse en paz.
Andrea Morales is the visuals director for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Email her at email@example.com
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