Notes from the Field: Miguel La Serna Returns to Ayacucho

The Corner of Living: Ayacucho on the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency, by Miguel La SernaPeru’s indigenous peoples played a key role in the tortured tale of Shining Path guerrillas from the 1960s through the first decade of the 21st century. The villagers of Chuschi and Huaychao, high in the mountains of the department of Ayacucho, have an iconic place in this violent history. Emphasizing the years leading up to the peak period of violence from 1980 to 2000, when 69,000 people lost their lives, Miguel La Serna asks why some Andean peasants chose to embrace Shining Path ideology and others did not. The Corner of Living: Ayacucho on the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency illuminates both the stark realities of life for the rural poor everywhere and why they may or may not choose to mobilize around a revolutionary cause.

Miguel La Serna, author of The Corner of the Living: Ayacucho on the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), recently returned to his research communities in Peru in order to donate a copy of his published work to local archives. Here, he shares excerpts from his field notes from that experience, including some sobering updates on his community collaborators. La Serna wanted to publish these reflections as part of his continued efforts to raise awareness about the lasting affects of the Shining Path insurgency on the individuals who both participated in and were victims of the violence. [This article is crossposted at firstpeoplesnewdirections.org.]

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Field Notes: Huaychao and Huanta City, July 2012, by Miguel La Serna

Communal authority of Huaychao with the book, "The Corner of the Living."

Communal authority of Huaychao with the book, “The Corner of the Living.”

My old research assistant Julián Berrocal and I rented a truck today to go to Huaychao with the objective of giving the community a copy of my recently published book, The Corner of the Living. Although the book was published only in English during this first run, we hope to find a Peruvian press willing to publish a Spanish translation so that the Huaychainos can actually read about their own history. For the time being, we hoped that this symbolic gesture would at least show that their history has not been forgotten, and that they could take some comfort in having the pictures from the book, which were taken and generously donated by Caretas magazine photographer Oscar Medrano.

Julián brought with him, for the first time, his wife, Zenobia, and 8-year-old daughter, Ashley, so that they could see the community to which he has dedicated so much of his time and energy over the years.

When we arrived to Huaychao, we were greeted by the handful of villagers who were resting in the square. After exchanging pleasantries, we asked for my compadre Leandro, only to learn that he had left for Huanta City that morning.

“Is Don Fortunato here?”

Manam, no, he’s in the field.”

“What about mama Juana?”

“In the field.”

Mama Alejandra?”

“Field.”

We were getting nowhere in a hurry. I decided to ask about some of the elders, reasoning that they probably wouldn’t be out working.

“Surely tayta Mariano and tayta Inocencio are home.”

“They died, hermano.”

How could that be? I wondered. I just talked to them both last time I was here and they were perfectly healthy. That’s when I realized: It had been five years since I had visited the community.

After offering our condolences, we decided to share some snacks of the highland flat bread, pan chapla, and pose for a picture with those present.

“Where should we take the picture?” I asked.

Researchers Miguel La Serna (second from left) and Julián Berrocal Flores (third from right) pose with villagers in front of juez rumi.

Researchers Miguel La Serna (second from left) and Julián Berrocal Flores (third from right) pose with villagers in front of juez rumi.

Everyone nodded toward the center of the main square: the juez rumi, of course. I should have known. The juez rumi, or the rock of justice, is the center of gravity in Huaychao and the pride of the community. It was on that five-foot tall boulder that villagers tied and killed the seven Shining Path guerrillas who entered the community on January 23, 1983—nearly 30 years ago. The episode marked the first act of armed resistance to the Shining Path in Peru, leading to the formation of the famed counterinsurgency militias, the Rondas Campesinas.

After posing for some group photos and handing out candy to the local children, my comadre Alejandra came into the square and invited us into her home—a thatched roof, dirt-floored hut about 75 meters beyond the main square. Inside, Alejandra’s mother-in-law, children, and husband Narciso, were awaiting us.

Narciso was one of many Huaychainos who risked life and limb defending his community against guerrilla incursions during the Shining Path insurgency. During his years of service in the peasant counterinsurgency militia, Narciso had multiple battles with the guerrillas, who attacked the village nine times in order to teach a lesson to the first village to take up arms against the Maoists.

Narciso was all smiles, scrambling to find a stool or sack for his guests to sit on. Once seated, we began to talk as Alejandra served up a dish of potatoes and rice.

Narciso was almost unrecognizable. He had aged considerably since the last time we saw him, his 41 years looking more like 60 (later, Zenobia would confess that she, having only heard of our compadre, had assumed that the man with whom we spoke was Narciso’s father). Narciso’s face was hardened and he had a defeated look in his eyes. We asked how he’d been, and his reply was sobering.

As with many of his neighbors, Narciso is marked by the scars—emotional and physical—that his service in the counterinsurgency militia entailed. The bullet wounds he incurred to both of his legs during his time as a militiaman were now taking a toll on him, rendering it increasingly difficult to get around. For Narciso, this was not just a question of physical ability, but survival. Narciso must perform back-breaking labor in the fields all day to feed his wife and eight small children. He explained that we were fortunate to have caught him during his lunch break and that before long he would need to return to work. More often than not, Narciso finds himself working through the entire night. While the demands of feeding his family are partially to blame for this, there is also another factor at play. Between the intense headaches, physical restlessness, and feelings of perpetual anxiety, Narciso finds it increasingly difficult to sleep. On the few nights where he does manage to fall asleep, he is usually haunted by night terrors. Narciso admitted that he was not sure how much longer he could keep up this routine, for in addition to his physical incapacities, he was becoming increasingly unpleasant to be around. Narciso asked if there was anything we could do to secure some form of assistance—be it from the state or NGOs—for him and his fellow villagers.

But hasn’t the Peruvian government already helped communities affected by the political violence through civil reparations programs and aid initiatives such as Programa Juntos? Didn’t I read somewhere that nearly 80% of the affected communities have received some form of government aid? And wasn’t Huaychao one of those communities?

Yes. Yes. And yes. The Peruvian government and NGOs have indeed worked with a number of peasant communities and families to help victims of the political violence. In addition to the many families that have received cash reparations, individual communities have received material reparations on their own terms. Some villages have taken reparations in the form of new schools, others through irrigation channels, and still others—like Huaychao—through livestock. Why, then, are Huaychainos still asking for more?

While Huaychainos are grateful for the aid they have received thus far from NGOs and the Peruvian state, much of this assistance has been short-sighted and incomplete. Almost all of the animals that Huaychainos received as a result of the reparations program are now dead, having fallen victim to malnutrition, disease, and starvation. The few families that have received financial support have spent it all on much needed—but short-lived—commodities such as food, clothing, and work supplies. Others—including Alejandra, whose father was killed during the political violence—have yet to receive any financial assistance at all. Moreover, in defining “victims” of the civil war deserving of civil reparations, the government has included only individuals who have experienced the death or disappearance of an immediate family member, or those who have been physically tortured or raped. Not included in this definition are the hundreds of thousands of peasants who, like Narciso, have experienced the kind of physical and psychological trauma that did not result in torture, rape, or death.

“I risked my life defending my community and country and I have the scars to prove it,” Narciso reminded us. “Still, my family gets nothing just because those bullets didn’t kill me.”

Narciso Huamán with the book, "The Corner of the Living."

Narciso Huamán with the book, “The Corner of the Living.”

Before leaving Narciso’s home, we took out the copy of our book, The Corner of the Living, for him to observe before we delivered it to the local authorities for the community archive. Flipping through the pages and looking at the pictures, Narciso asked us why we didn’t have a copy for him. We explained that this was just the first run, in English, and that we would return with multiple copies for him and his neighbors once we found a publisher willing to print a Spanish translation.

“Please do, compadre, because it is very important for me to have this book. This is our history. I need to have a copy of this book so that I can teach my community’s history to my children.”

I offered to read a passage from the book aloud, translating it on the fly into Spanish. I read a passage from chapter one, about a case of cattle-rustling in 1967 Huaychao. Narciso listened intently to my translation. Afterward, he reminded me again of my obligation to bring him a Spanish copy, telling me that when I did he wanted to see his name underneath mine on the cover page since, as he put it, he was also the author of this book.

Before parting ways, we asked Narciso if there was anything else that his community needed. He said that there was, that they needed a posta médica (clinic), potable water, a road connecting the community to the jungle, and a secondary school (these were the same answers we got from all villagers who were asked).

“Isn’t there already a school here in Huaychao?” I asked.

Ari, yes, but it’s only a primary school.”

“Where is the closest secondary school?”

“In Uchuraccay, but that’s a two-hour walk. It’s too far and my legs can’t take it anymore.” I wasn’t sure if he was referring to walking his kids to school, or if he intended to take classes on his own.

Julián and I promised to do whatever we could to help get his message out. Narciso then asked us to deliver a formal petition for aid to the government, or the NGO Aprodeh, or whoever else would hear his case.

After our conversation, I performed a hair-cutting ritual to become the godfather of Narciso and Alejandra’s two-year-old son, Franklin Narciso. Frank had a stomach that was swollen from bacteria, something I noticed when he got changed into his nice clothing for the picture. This really affected me. The boy had no idea that he suffered from a medical condition that could be treated by something as basic as a small medical clinic and potable water.

On our way home, we stopped by Duraznopata (Huanta City) in the hopes of tracking down our compadre Leandro at his father’s house. After knocking on about half a dozen doors with no success, we found the house of Leandro’s father, tayta Isidro. Tayta Isidro didn’t recognize us at first, and I was convinced his dog would bite my leg off, but fortunately Leandro was inside and was thrilled to see us. Our comadre Petronila was out, but we saw his (five!) sons and my godson Robert, who is all of eight-years-old now and not the least afraid of me like he once was.

We also asked Leandro some of the same questions we asked the other Huaychainos about what they needed, and his replies were the same. His emphasis was on education, and he explained that the school in Huaychao is terrible, that the teachers only teach when they feel like it and sleep in a lot. He said that because of this, and in the interest of giving his children opportunities that he never had, he has enrolled them in Huanta City schools and lives there with his father for half of the year. Leandro and Petronila are model examples of the kinds of sacrifices highland families make for their children and of the necessity of quality schools and education in Huaychao.

When I asked how the state of things in Huaychao compared to that of nearby towns such as Uchuraccay, Leandro didn’t quite understand the question. So I rephrased.

“Would you say that compared to neighboring communities Huaychao is—”

Olvidado (forgotten)?”

Olvidado. That wasn’t the word I had in mind, but I can’t think of a better one.

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Miguel La Serna is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of The Corner of Living: Ayacucho on the Eve of the Shining Path Insurgency. (University of North Carolina Press, 2012). Follow him on Twitter @Miguel_La_Serna.

For more on Peru’s Shining Path insurgency and Dr. La Serna’s research, see his previous guest blog posts on the topic:

Peru and the Shining Path: Mission Accomplished?

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

Interweaving Archival and Ethnographic Research