Interview: Miguel La Serna on research in the aftermath of Peru’s Shining Path insurgency

[This article is crossposted from]

Miguel La Serna, History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.From the 1980s through the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Shining Path—a Maoist guerrilla group in Peru—promoted its radical political agenda through a bloody insurgency. During the peak of the violence, from 1980 through 2000, 69,000 people, many of them Indigenous peasants, lost their lives. Between 2005 and 2008, Miguel La Serna, author of The Corner of the Living: Ayacucho on the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency (UNC Press 2012), conducted ethnographic and archival research in Peru, concentrating on the Andean communities of Chuschi and Huaychao. His research highlights the vastly different responses that Quechua-speaking villagers had to the insurgency and contributes to a deeper understanding of the long-term internal dynamics that shaped the civil war histories of these communities. Moving beyond traditional theories of social movements, La Serna weds individual voices, local histories, and cultural understandings. Here, he discusses state and local responses to the insurgency and its aftermath and also reflects on the dynamics of conducting fieldwork in the highly politicized context of very recent conflict.

Your book introduces a twist to the common narrative about the Shining Path insurgency and why people chose to support or resist it. Could you briefly explain some of the community responses you uncovered through your research?

The Peruvian highland department of Ayacucho has gained a good deal of notoriety in recent years as the wellspring of the Shining Path guerrilla insurgency. Yet, not all Ayacuchanos walked the Shining Path, and in fact many formed counterinsurgency militias to combat the rebels. I entered this project trying to understand how it was that people from similar racial, social, and geographic backgrounds could have such divergent responses to the Shining Path insurgency. With this in mind, I compared the long-term histories of two Ayacuchano communities—Chuschi, whose local populace initially supported the Shining Path guerrillas, and Huaychao, whose peasants mobilized against the rebels. Chuschi and Huaychao played an important role in the history of the armed conflict. It was in Chuschi in May of 1980 that the rebels launched their national guerrilla campaign. Not three years later, the Indigenous peasants of Huaychao were the first villagers to take up arms against the insurgents. It turns out that the local experiences—both historical and cultural—of these two Indigenous communities had a profound impact on their responses to the insurgency.

You write that many Peruvians were originally convinced that Indigenous peasants couldn’t have acted alone in the counterinsurgency against the Shining Path. Why do you think it was so difficult for people to believe that Indigenous communities could have actively supported the counterinsurgency against the Shining Path group?

The Corner of the Living: Ayacucho on the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency, by Miguel La SernaI think it’s important to consider the historical context in which the Shining Path and the counterinsurgency militias emerged. In the early 1980s, Peru was on the heels of a 12-year military dictatorship. The political future of the country was still uncertain. The economy was spiraling out of control, and conditions for many Quechua-speaking highlanders were deplorable. These circumstances set the stage for the emergence of an armed insurgency like the one carried out by the Shining Path in Ayacucho. Peruvians and non-Peruvians alike had trouble believing that Indigenous peasants would take up arms against a guerrilla group that was ostensibly fighting on their behalf. At the time, people didn’t quite understand the kind of threat that the Shining Path posed in some communities. This threat was as much cultural as it was physical, and some Andean peasants risked life and limb to defend their way of life.

Your presence and research so close on the heels of the period you were studying must have meant that your research itself became a part of how the events were remembered and talked about within the communities. What are some of the ethical considerations of a researcher becoming part of the historical moment itself—especially when that period was highly political and violent?

Any kind of research dealing with living human subjects is sensitive, even more so when it involves recent political violence. One thing I was reminded constantly was that my very presence in the field stirred up a host of issues and anxieties that villagers had either suppressed or were still dealing with. I never asked anyone to disclose information that they weren’t comfortable sharing. Even so, I had my share of doors slammed in my face, interviews cut short, and appointments broken. This is why I find ethnographic research so valuable. People are simply more comfortable sharing intimate information with those whom they know and trust. At the same time, a researcher is more inclined to respect the privacy and character of people with whom she has established intimate personal bonds. Ethnographic field work enables researchers to earn the trust of the people in their host communities while also producing more culturally sensitive scholarship. This isn’t exactly a news flash for anthropologists, but it’s something that historians and other researchers can learn from.

In research on a multi-dimensional history of conflict, I imagine you encountered various and sometimes competing narratives. How did you handle different versions of the story in the book and still manage a cohesive and comprehensible narrative?

Having the ability to dialogue with the people one writes about is a luxury that most historians simply do not have. I was lucky in this regard, and it allowed me to collect a wide variety of perspectives on the period leading up to and including the Shining Path insurgency. At the same time, this variation in perspective provided challenges when it came to constructing a smooth narrative about any given historical event. This is where prolonged archival research came in handy. I typically brought photocopies of archival documents with me to my field sites. These documents not only helped me to jog my informants’ memory, but the texts also prompted them to address any discrepancies between the written record and their own recollection. Even so, there were still some cases of contradictory narratives, either between different informants or between them and the written sources. In the book, I try to acknowledge these instances and discuss their implications for local memory and culture rather than offer an authoritative narrative voice.

What are your thoughts on how the conflict is being commemorated in Peru today and what the state is doing to help its citizens recover from trauma, specifically through either the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or the Museo de la Memoria?

To its credit, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made the recording of Indigenous voices a top priority for the national healing process, as thousands of Indigenous peoples testified before the commission in their native language. To this effect, the Truth Commission sought to open up a fruitful conversation between Indigenous peoples, the state, and civil society in Peru. Still, this process has been incomplete and there remains much work to be done. As anthropologist Caroline Yezer notes, some Quechua-speaking highlanders greeted the Truth Commission with suspicion, keeping their most haunting secrets to themselves.[1] Given the Peruvian state’s track record of deception, corruption, human rights violations, and incomplete reforms, this reaction is understandable. The problem here is one of trust. A citizenry cannot enter into any kind of meaningful dialogue with a state that it cannot trust. In order to earn that trust, the Peruvian state must address the economic, political, educational, and racial injustices that gave rise to the political violence.

Miguel La Serna is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His book, The Corner of the Living: Ayacucho on the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency, is now available from the University of North Carolina Press.

  1. [1]Yezer, Caroline. “Who Wants to Know? Rumors, Suspicions, and Opposition to Truth-telling in Ayacucho.” Latin American and Caribbean Ethnic Studies 3:3 (November 2008): 271-289.