There are many homeless people who have become known, as a result of their particular idiosyncrasies, to Washingtonians and visitors to the capital over the years. For example, there is “the whale guy”, a heavyset man who is usually seated around the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and M Street in Georgetown, wearing a foam hat in the form of a giant whale. Or there is the super-jacked, somewhat aggressive “workout guy”, who is usually shirtless and sporting a big pair of headphones that are not plugged in to any listening device. And then there was “the tent lady”, whose passing you may have missed during the massive blizzard that hit the city last weekend.
Concepción “Conchita” Picciotto died on January 25th at the estimated age of 80. She was a fixture of Lafayette Square, the park located just across the street from the White House, for more than thirty years. I first met her when I was in Washington for the March for Life, some decades ago, and she spoke to me and some other teens whom I was with about how killing people with nuclear weapons and killing people through abortion were all of a piece.
Hard as it may be to believe in a post-9/11 world, at one time she was not the only protestor living in a tent in the President’s Park, but by the end of her life, she was the only one allowed to remain there. After a recent accident she moved into a residence for homeless women, but still came out to her peace post in the park on a daily basis.
María de la Inmaculada Concepción Martín, to use her maiden name, was an immigrant to this country from Spain. By the time I became aware of her, she was already so well-known back in her native country that my relatives called her “la gallega loca”, the crazy Galician lady, as she hailed from the city of Vigo. She claimed to have been orphaned during the Civil War, and that tragedy plus her subsequently turbulent personal life most likely contributed to her later mental imbalance. For Conchita was undeniably mentally ill: if you spoke with her for any length of time, that fact was readily apparent.
Like all Iberians worthy of the name, Conchita was as stubborn as a bull. Whether or not you agreed with her views on nuclear disarmament, Israel, the military-industrial complex, or any number of conspiracy theories which she latched onto and proclaimed to anyone who would listen, her beliefs were most sincerely held. Once a Spaniard becomes convinced of the veracity of their position, he would die or lose all he has rather than concede it.
I recall that when I was a college student, and found myself wandering my way through the park on a quiet weekday morning when there were virtually no tourists about, I sat down with Conchita and had a long conversation about Spain. We exchanged some very old jokes about Franco, but we also shared what we loved about Spain, a country that had passed into Conchita’s distant and dented memory. All Spaniards when they meet, particularly when not in Spain, must sit down and almost immediately begin to talk about food, but one also must inevitably come to have an argument of some sort about Catholicism. Even though Conchita had long ago given up on organized religion, there were still popular stories and devotions which, when recalled to her, held a faint, but rose-colored glow of her long-gone Catholic childhood.
We parted on good terms, even though she could not agree with me on the Church, and even though I was not particularly interested in her tinfoil hat theories. Though I never had a long talk with her again, whenever I found myself in the area I would drop by to say hello, or I would exchange passing greetings with her in Spanish – “God bless you, auntie!” I would say, on my way to somewhere else. “And you too, handsome!” she would inevitably call back. In a sort of way, Conchita became part of my routine, whenever I found myself around the White House.
It would be easy to dismiss the life of Conchita Picciotto as little more than that of just another mentally unbalanced homeless person, howling into the wind against all reason – as if “just another” was enough of a justification for ignoring her, or indeed anyone else in similar circumstances. She was not, at least not intentionally, a fool for God, in the way that St. Francis of Assisi or St. Benedict Joseph Labre were, raising eyebrows with their bizarre views and behavior put to His service. Her yearning for peace was at best parallel to the peace which Christ wants all of us to pursue, and no doubt God has been able to work through that in some of the lives whom she touched. However I do think that hers is an example of how to draw people’s attention to something in which one passionately believes, through little more than perseverance and determination.
That Conchita later came to be profiled in newspapers and magazines, lauded by leftist filmmakers and political activists, was not something she set out to achieve, like an internet celebrity seeking clicks and followers. Rather, she set about doing her work, and kept at it, night and day, rain or shine, heat or chill, demonstrating a resolve which I daresay is rarely met among those of us who play it safe in life. She was no Mother Teresa, but we can still learn from her example. And I shall miss our greetings which, I suspect for both of us, were like a little reminder of a well-loved, but faraway place.