“We have always been told that
the kitchens and the Glass of Milk
committees put the people to sleep
and serve as a mattress for the system.
We say this is not so...”
Mariá Elena Moyano
“Hurrah for the just sanction
to the imperialist, counterrevolutionary
agent, the recalcitrant, revisionist,
and traitorous María Elena Moyano!”
Shining Path leaflet
Like the original mother Mary, Mariá Elena Moyano – known affectionately as la negra by the masses – was considered a mother not just to her own two sons, whom she adored, but also to the thousands of children of Villa El Salvador, the largest shantytown in Lima. She had run hundreds of communal kitchens and the extensive Glass of Milk program since her days as president of the Women’s Federation of Villa El Salvador. By February of 1992, by which time she was vice-mayor of the town of three hundred thousand people, the program delivered a glass of milk each day to sixty thousand children and elderly who would otherwise succumb to malnutrition. By that time, the black woman was known as the most active social activist in all Perú, and at the end of 1991 the La República newspaper had declared her to be the “personality of the year.” People were also beginning to call her madre coraje – mother courage – because of her unyielding resistance to the Shining Path.
Mariá had received warning after warning by Sendero – sometimes in the form of corpses of other community activists – telling her that her efforts to help the poor through the Glass of Milk programs were inherently “revisionist” and contrary to the project of the Shining Path. The threats of the Shining Path to punish her with death unless she desisted could not have been made clearer. In the view of Abimael Guzmán – leader of the senderistas – social programs to help the impoverished citizens of Villa El Salvador only served to mitigate their revolutionary fervor and made it less likely that they would join the “people’s war.” Those close to la negra told her she was in danger and convinced her to walk about town with two bodyguards, even advised her to leave the country, but Mariá was unperturbed. She was willing to be a martyr for her people – she would not back down after having walked so far – and her primary concern was the well-being of her two sons.
If she was murdered by Sendero, who would take care of Gustavo and David? On the morning of February, the thirteenth, knowing what she planned to do the following day, she had a long and painful conversation with the two boys and told them that even if she were killed, she would continue to take care of them from Heaven.
“But why would anyone want to murder you?” asked her eldest son, Gustavo. He was eleven years old and, unlike his younger brother David, could understand the gravity of his mother’s words. “I thought only criminals were killed,” he added.
“It’s very difficult to explain,” said Mariá. She was at a loss for words. How to make intelligible to a child something which was completely unintelligible to adults? But she felt she had to prepare them for any eventuality given the decision she had taken.
“By now you’ve heard of the Shining Path, haven’t you, Gustavo? They want the people of Villa El Salvador to be so outraged by their misery that they’ll think the only solution is to resort to violence. They want the people of our town to engage in a war.”
“In a war?” echoed Gustavo. “Why would they want to kill you in a war? I thought wars were fought between different countries. I’ve learned about war in school. Bolognesi fought against the Chileans and Tupac Amaru against the men from Spain. You don’t have an army. You don’t even have a gun. How could you be killed in a war?”
“It’s very difficult for me to understand as well. The Shining Path began with good intentions. At first, I supported them because I felt they were condemning the lack of social justice in Perú, but with time they started to kill anyone who disagreed with their methods. It’s gotten so bad that they are now threatening to kill anyone who seeks social justice through nonviolent means. Their strange new world is totally upside down.”
“What does that mean?” asked Gustavo. “Social justice?”
“Well, how can I put it? Social justice is when everyone is treated fairly. It’s when everybody – black, Indian and white – is given the chance to live a life of dignity, to earn a decent day’s wage, to feed and support their families. Men and women should not have to live a life crushed by despair. Do you understand?”
“Now I’m confused,” responded the eleven-year-old. “You’re for social justice, right? And the Shining Path say they’re for that also, don’t they? Why would those men want to fight a war against you? Why would they want to take your life?”
“It’s very difficult to explain madness to anyone, much more to a young boy like you. The men of the Shining Path are crazy, to put it in simple terms. They have lost all sense of right and wrong. If you don’t understand them, you’re not alone. All of the people of Perú are perplexed by their actions.”
“What have they done?” asked Gustavo.
“They’ve killed other women involved in providing food for the poor. I’m sorry to have to tell you this. They’ve bombed a Glass of Milk Center even though all the program does is lessen the hunger of children whose parents cannot find a decent job. They shot my friend Doraliza, who also ran a Glass of Milk program, because she refused to back down when they ordered her to stop distributing milk to the children of the shantytown of San Juan de Lurigancho. And they’ve declared that tomorrow there should be an armed strike in Villa El Salvador. They want everyone to stay in their homes to prove they control our town, but I’ve decided not to allow it. Instead, I shall lead a protest against the Shining Path, men and women marching with white flags, defying Sendero. And that is why I’m speaking to you today, because I’ll be putting my life in mortal danger.”
“Then don’t do it,” said Gustavo. “Let the armed strike go forward. What do you care?”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Gustavito. If good people don’t resist, the evil ones will prevail. Don’t think I’m doing this without thinking about you. But I can’t let you live in a world run by the Shining Path. That would be even worse for you than living your life without me.”
“Why do they commit evil acts – I mean Sendero?”
“That’s something I can’t explain to you. I’m not a philosopher or a priest. In the case of Abimael Guzmán, it’s an overriding ambition. He’s willing to do anything to control all Perú and be its only master. In the case of others, it’s a product of their despair. They have suffered injustice for so long that they feel violence is the only option.”
“That’s not what they teach us in Church.”
“I know, Gustavito, I know. No right-thinking person, Catholic, Protestant or atheist, can support their decision to harm and even kill those whom they claim to protect. They’ve already devastated the Peruvian sierra, killing thousands of peasants for no good reason. Now they’ve come to Lima, to sow terror among the people.”
“Is that why they’re called ‘terrorists’?” Gustavo asked.
“It is, my son. You’ve heard the word. But you must not be afraid, no matter what happens to me. The forces of good are always more powerful than those of darkness.”
“Be careful, Mami.”
The thirty-three-year-old black woman smiled.
“I promise you, my son.”
Then the boy began to sob. At first it was just quiet tears running down his face, but then he began to weep uncontrollably. He understood what his mother had told him, that she was presaging her own death. His younger brother David started to weep as well. He hadn’t understood a word of what Mariá had said, but he knew that it was something horrible. Then Mariá wasn’t able to maintain her composure and started to cry also.
“Promise me,” she wailed, trying to muffle her tears as she hugged both her children, “promise me that if they ever come for me, if they start shooting and you are close to me, promise me that you’ll escape, that you’ll get as far away from me as possible.”
How the Shining Path had become her implacable nemesis was inscrutable to Mariá. Her work with the Glass of Milk program and the communal kitchens was improving the lives of the impoverished of Villa El Salvador, the same people the Shining Path was sworn to defend. Yes, there was still massive poverty. Yes, hyperinflation was having a disproportionate impact on the poor. Yes, President Fujimori’s austere economic program, known as the fujishock, was especially painful to the destitute masses of the shantytown. Indeed, Mariá had repeatedly gone out to march in the streets to denounce Fujimori’s economic policies, protesting with empty pots and pans, crying out, “Shock for the rich and not for the poor!” But thanks mostly to the work of the indefatigable women of the barriada, there had been no return to the wrenching misery of old. There was still potable water, there was still sewerage, there was still electricity in most of the shantytown, except in the areas inhabited by the newly arrived. The children were still not well fed but neither were they starving as they once were. An industrial park had been established, where new businesses had sprung up like flowers, giving men and women the dignity of work. It was so different from the days when Mariá and her family had first arrived to Villa El Salvador, days of hunger marked by a desperate destitution, dark nights marked by a frightening lack of light given the complete absence of electricity. And most of the denizens of Villa El Salvador now lived in houses built of concrete, not the precarious huts built of calamine and cane matting where they lived when the thirteen-year-old Mariá first moved to the shantytown. No, things were still not right, the struggle for social justice had not been won, but the women of Villa El Salvador had proved that it was possible to improve conditions through collective action. There was no reason to blow everything up as Sendero wanted. The Shining Path wanted to destroy what had been achieved through so many years of hard work, mostly women’s work, relentlessly petitioning the government, tirelessly marching for reform, pooling together scant resources to improve the lot of all, making sure all the children were fed as if they were all members of a single family.
It was the women who had slowly transformed Villa El Salvador, at first without any government aid, although some help was received from the Catholic Church and certain charitable organizations. Mariá recalled the women, some still dressed in the raiment of the highlands, with wide multilayered pollerones and white fedoras, working laboriously like ants. Mariá’s mother was chief among them, a battle-hardened Afro-Peruvian woman raising seven children on her own, teaching her daughter about her civic duties through her example rather than her words. Years later, Mariá remembered the enormous pots where her mother cooked potatoes for thirty families, never worrying about the expense since other women took on the charge of collecting the money to buy the tubers. At some point the women, industrious as ever, began to grow the potatoes themselves in a small plot of land on the outskirts of the shantytown. Everything was done collectively, costs reduced through economies of scale, women improving their lives on their own since there was scant help from other quarters.
At first, the Glass of Milk program helped only a few hundred children. By the time Mariá was president of the Women’s Federation of Villa El Salvador, the organization that administered the project, thousands of children received their daily glass of milk from the program and, to a lesser extent, even lunch and dinner from the communal kitchens. After Mariá became deputy mayor of Villa El Salvador, largely due to her successful administration of the Glass of Milk program for six years, most of the children in the barriada of three hundred thousand people were being fed. The self-sufficiency of the women of Villa El Salvador was praised throughout Perú, indeed throughout the world. When Pope John Paul II visited Lima, he made sure to celebrate a Mass in Villa El Salvador to celebrate how poverty could be addressed through sustained communal work instead of violence. Even the United Nations gave the name of “City Messenger of Peace” to Villa El Salvador. Everyone seemed to agree – the women of the shantytown had to be praised for their relentless efforts to eradicate hunger from their town – but there was one organization which did not agree.
Its name was Sendero Luminoso.
The Shining Path increasingly set its sights on Villa El Salvador and other shantytowns with similar programs, calling the Glass of Milk program inimical to the people’s struggle and promising to crush it with all the might of the Shining Path. To Abimael Guzmán, the shantytowns of Lima remained “an iron belt of misery,” and to some extent he was right. Before going forward, he proposed taking a great leap backward to make the situation in the shantytowns utterly intolerable so the people would have no alternative but to rebel. Before liberating the poor of the country, the masses first had to experience a chaqwa – a time of limitless suffering and chaos. Thus said Mao. Thus said Abimael Guzmán. If the military decided to intervene, so much the better. If a hundred thousand children died as a result of malnutrition, so be it. Abimael Guzmán scoffed that the women of Villa El Salvador were “selling out the revolution for a plate of beans.”
At first, Mariá decided to live a sort of modus vivendi with the Shining Path. She had long ceased believing that they were valiant fighters for social justice, knowing of the massacres of quechua peasants in the highlands, knowing about the enslavement of the defenseless Ashaninka people of the Amazon rainforest, knowing that to achieve its purposes the Shining Path had announced it would first be necessary to immerse all Perú in “a river of blood.” But initially Mariá did not do anything to publicly denounce Sendero. She saw the slogans of the Shining Path on some of the walls of buildings in the shantytown – “¡Viva Mao!, “¡Viva Presidente Gonzalo! “¡Viva Sendero!” – but she gave them little importance. She realized that some of them were living and working in Villa El Salvador, giving classes on the “armed struggle” to the denizens of the shantytown, but she decided to let them be and did nothing to expose them. It was only after the Shining Path began to target the women of the shantytowns who ran most of the Glass of Milk programs, first with threats and then with actual violence, that Mariá decided to oppose them.
That was when Mariá earned the sobriquet madre coraje.
Until late 1991, the Shining Path had limited its reaction to the women’s work in the shantytowns of Lima to public denunciations of the Glass of Milk programs in Sendero newspapers like El Diario and in leaflets distributed in the pueblos jovenes. By then, it was clear that the Glass of Milk programs and similar projects were undermining the Shining Path’s efforts to incite the urban masses towards revolution. If poverty could be alleviated through communal work and self-help women’s programs, why would anyone want to endure the bloodshed and horror of the revolution without end promised by Sendero? The Shining Path began with threats before it turned to violence. Its first victim was Juana Lopez, who had been forewarned in the symbolic fashion used so often by Sendero, ever since it hanged the carcasses of twelve dogs on lampposts in Lima to announce the commencement of the revolution. One morning, Juana Lopez found an envelope in her mailbox containing a bullet and the words “stop attempting to destroy the people’s project.” Nothing more needed to be said. Juana Lopez was the organizer of the Glass of Milk program in the Juan Pablo II pueblo joven in Callao, a program very similar to that organized by Mariá in Villa El Salvador, and she knew the Shining Path wanted to shut the project down. But instead of acceding to the demands of Sendero, Juana Lopez redoubled her efforts and publicly announced that she was purposefully defying the Shining Path. Less than a week after her “revisionist” speech, on August 31, 1991, Juana Lopez was assassinated as she was distributing milk to the children of Callao. Mariá saw the death of Juana Lopez as a personal warning. Mariá well knew that the shantytown of Villa El Salvador was much larger than the one in Callao and that the senderistas were more interested in controlling Villa El Salvador than any other pueblo joven in the so-called “iron belt of misery.” Soon, Mariá herself received a missive from Sendero. “Juana was the first but not the last,” said the letter. “Stop opposing the people’s project by lulling the people into complacency! The more hunger there is, the more successful will be the armed struggle to liberate Perú.”
The Shining Path’s next act of intimidation against Mariá was the bombing of one of the Glass of Milk distribution centers run by the Women’s Federation of Villa El Salvador only a few days after the assassination of Juana Lopez. Once again, the attack was more symbolic than practical. It did nothing to slow down the distribution of the milk in Villa El Salvador, but it sent Mariá a very clear message: if we can bomb your Glass of Milk center, we can easily bomb you as well. Then the Shining Path began to distribute leaflets in the shantytown, making all sorts of uncanny accusations against Mariá, not only the manifestly false claim that she was siphoning off funds received for the Glass of Milk program for her own benefit, but also the outlandish contention that it was Mariá herself who had orchestrated the bombing of the milk distribution center. Soon la negra decided to defend herself. Her steadfast mother had not raised her daughter to cower in the face of lies and threats. On September 26, Mariá joined in organizing a massive demonstration against the violence of the Shining Path under a banner seeking an end “to hunger and terror.”
Mariá decided to publicly denounce Sendero, even though it increased the likelihood of her assassination exponentially. Not surprisingly, her speech during the demonstration focused not so much on her own work, but on the work of the women of Villa El Salvador. "Women are very strong," María said. "We believe in what we are building. There is no need to be afraid. We seek people's welfare, solidarity and justice. I tell the senderistas that, like them, there are many others who are willing to give their lives in the struggle for development and justice, but without terror and killing.” And then Mariá upped the ante. In the last interview of her life, given to La República Magazine on December 22, 1991, she formally accused the Shining Path of being terrorists, not revolutionaries. “I no longer believe that Sendero is a revolutionary group,” she said. “The Shining Path is now a terrorist group.” She also said that the Shining Path was not invincible, that they could be defeated by a popular reaction.
“If the pueblo gets organized,” Mariá said, “coordinates its efforts, we can defeat Sendero. Things aren’t easy but neither are they impossible.” Then she said the people had no other option but to resist the Shining Path. “We women are not with those who assassinate popular leaders, who massacre those who run the communal kitchens and the Glass of Milk program. We are against those who undermine the peoples’ bases and want to impose themselves on the people through force and brutality.” Finally, she concluded: “I shall continue to be next to my people, to the women, youth and children. I shall always struggle for peace and social justice. Sendero is going further and further from the people. The only thing Sendero does is increase misery. ¡Viva la vida!”
Many of her friends counseled Mariá to leave the country, go to Mexico City or Madrid, at a minimum, leave Villa El Salvador. Then they found out she had the opportunity to do so and encouraged her to leave. Soon after the Shining Path began issuing death threats against Mariá, King Juan Carlos of Spain invited her to his country to award her the Principe de Asturias award for her humanitarian work. Many of her friends told her to stay in Europe, reminded her that there had been several deaths at the hands of the Shining Path in the last few months and emphasized in desperation that in all likelihood she would be next. “Please, I beg you,” wrote one of her friends. “Don’t return to Villa El Salvador. The barrel of a gun awaits you!” Mariá knew the names of all of the dead – had even spoken to some of their family members – and yet decided to return to Lima from Madrid. If she got killed, she got killed, but she would not be silenced.
The list of those killed by the Shining Path for their work helping the poor during the last few months of 1991 and the beginning of 1992 shocks the conscience. On September 15, 1991, community leader Alberto Pipa Toscano was assassinated in the Horacio Zeballos shantytown while attending a neighborhood fiesta. On December 6, Doraliza Espejo Marquez, who ran the Glass of Milk program in San Juan de Lurigancho, was killed by Sendero while delivering milk. On December 31, the house of Emma Hilario, another Glass of Milk program supervisor, was riddled with bullets by Sendero in a failed attempt to kill her. On January 5, 1992, Luis Pomasunco Constanza, the neighborhood director of the El Agustino shantytown, had been assassinated in broad daylight. On January 12, Ernesto Lopez de la Cruz, community leader of the pueblo joven of Atocongo, was found dead, shot by the Shining Path. On January 19, Nelly Torres Pascual from the shantytown of Santa Anita was blown up with dynamite.
It would be an understatement to say the writing was on the wall for Mariá. It would be more apt to say the writing was on the walls all over Perú, on the muros of Villa El Salvador, in the prison compound at Lurigancho and everywhere else.
“Death to the revisionists! Death to the traitorous dogs! ¡Viva el Presidente Gonzalo! ¡Viva Mao!”
Mariá felt that her days were numbered. But she was resolved to die if necessary.
At some point, the Shining Path declared that February 14, 1992, would be a day of paro armado – an armed strike – for the citizens of Villa El Salvador. The ciudadanos of the shantytown were told that if they left their homes for any purpose they would summarily be executed. La negra knew that it was a show of force on the part of Sendero to demonstrate their power in the most multitudinous of the shantytowns of Lima. If they could wrest control of Villa El Salvador, perhaps the most prosperous pueblo joven in what Abimael Guzmán called “the iron belt of misery,” there was no doubt they could achieve hegemony over every other shantytown in Lima and thus be in a position to encircle the city from the outside as proscribed by Mao.
Mariá’s first instinct was to defy Sendero and organize la marcha por la paz – a march for peace – and to instruct all of the citizens of Villa El Salvador to disregard the threats made by Sendero. She told her conciudadanos to go about their business as usual on the fourteenth of February, never mind the warnings of the Shining Path, and to join her in her protest at the end of the day. Mariá was not just resisting the Shining Path she was quite clearly spitting in their faces. Early in the morning of the fourteenth, Mariá left her small home in Villa El Salvador and started to walk through the pueblo joven. She was disappointed – the streets were barren, and it was apparent nobody had listened to her directive – but she figured she’d give them a little time. Perhaps they were ambivalent and were thinking through what they should do, she told herself, perhaps by eight o’clock they would leave their homes and go to work, but as the hours passed, Mariá was certain that nobody in the town was about to defy Sendero. There was simply too much anxiety among the men and women of Villa El Salvador, and nobody wanted to gamble with his or her life. Then Mariá started to knock on doors, deciding to encourage the people to go about their daily business without fear. She first appeared at the house of Doña Juana, her next-door neighbor, whose son worked as a construction worker in Lima.
“Isn’t your son Guillermo going to work today?” asked Mariá. “I haven’t seen him leave your home.”
Doña Juana responded, “It’s too dangerous. Better to miss one day of work than to be riddled with bullets on the streets of Villa.”
“Unless the people resist the Shining Path,” responded Mariá, “they will be victorious. Your strength has to be greater than your fear. Tell your son to get dressed and go to his job as usual.”
“You are very brave, Mariá. I know everyone is calling you ‘Mother Courage.’ But there’s a fine line between being courageous and being foolhardy. Your decision to organize a march today is an invitation to violence. You’re basically daring the Shining Path to come after you. And you’ve seen what they can do. If I were in your shoes, I’d just keep mum for a while, leave the country with one of your rich friends perhaps. Don’t wait for something irreparable to happen. You have to think of those two kids you have. In any event, my son Guillermo is staying home today.”
Mariá then knocked on the door of the home next to that of Doña Juana. It was the house of Federico Escobar, a heavyset man who worked as a blacksmith. He welcomed Mariá with a big smile on his face but immediately told her he had no intention of risking his life merely to engage in a symbolic protest.
“You’re a woman, but you have big huevos,” he laughed. “After the Shining Path has killed so many of your colleagues, you’re organizing a march against them. What do you think Sendero is going to do? Don’t forget the old expression. Don’t try to hold a cat by its three legs. If you do, be prepared for its reaction.”
“Don’t you see,” asked Mariá, “that if everyone goes to work in defiance of Sendero, they won’t be able to kill us all. There is strength in numbers. But if everybody cowers, eventually they’ll control all of Villa El Salvador. I plead with you, Federico. Go to work. If you do, it is certain that others will follow.”
“I’m sorry, negra. I wasn’t born to be a hero. The Shining Path doesn’t make empty promises. If they said they’d kill anyone who goes to work today, they mean it. I’ll just keep my head down. If you want to risk your life, so be it. But don’t expect anybody will follow you, certainly not me.”
“If everyone goes to work, Federico, they won’t kill all of us. But if we give in this time, we’ll forever have to be at their beck and call. We’ll have to close down the communal kitchens. We’ll have to stop giving children a glass of milk each day. We’ll have to accept whatever demented plans they have. Don’t forget that their paro armado is a raw exercise of power.”
“I support you in principle. Believe me, I do. Your idea might work if everybody in Villa El Salvador went to work today. But that isn’t going to happen. Anyone crazy enough to leave their home will be alone in their bravery, if you can call it that. The Shining Path will make an example of anyone who disobeys.”
At some point, Mariá knocked on the door of the home of Evaristo García, who worked collecting fares on buses that traveled throughout Lima. She knew that the quechua man detested the Shining Path ever since he had been forced to leave his village in the province of Ayacucho after Sendero had killed both his sons, members of a ronda campesina that had resisted the terrorists. Mariá had heard him openly criticize the Shining Path without fear or compunction and reasoned that if anyone would be willing to defy the Shining Path’s order not to go to work it would be Evaristo García. However, after he greeted her, he made it quite clear that he had no intention of disobeying Sendero.
“Haven’t you heard what happened this morning?” he asked Mariá in his old man’s gravelly voice.
“I haven’t,” replied Mariá.
“The terrucos bombed the home of former mayor Michel Azcueta shortly before dawn, punishing him because he had publicly announced that he would be joining in your march tonight. I tell you, under the circumstances it would be suicidal for you to go forward with your plans.”
“Was he killed?”
“No, but that was just blind luck. They’re warning you, Mariá. They don’t like the interviews you’ve given on television. And if you lead your march tonight, you would be openly provoking them. In light of what happened to Michel this morning, you should just call the whole thing off.”
“I think,” replied Mariá, “that the brazen attack on Michel this morning is all the more reason to go forward with the march. We can’t let Sendero intimidate us.”
“Let me say it again. It’s suicidal. Your husband has told me they’ve been calling you on the phone to warn you. In a perverse way, the Shining Path is doing everything in their power to prevent having to kill you. Don’t corner them like rats. I know what happens when you resist them. My sons also ignored their warnings and then Sendero made it quite clear that you cannot ignore the Shining Path. They blew up my sons with dynamite while they were eating at the breakfast table.”
“If the good people cower in the face of evil,” responded Mariá, “then evil will prevail. The people must stand up against hunger. The people must stand up against terror.”
“You’ve already done enough,” answered Evaristo. “You’re a young and beautiful woman, with your entire life ahead of you. Let the government take over the Glass of Milk program. Nobody will benefit from your death. Go work at the Flora Tristán Center in Lima. You know the feminists venerate you. Then you won’t be killed for what the Shining Path calls ‘assistentialism.’”
“I can’t call off the march after what they’ve done to Michel,” countered Mariá. “It would be teaching the Shining Path the wrong lesson. Perhaps next week I’ll leave the country, but for now I’ll continue with my plans, even if tonight I’m the only woman hoisting the banner of peace. I think you’re being unduly afraid. Nothing happened after the mass demonstration protesting the murder of Juana Lopez in September. We must all struggle for peace in the name of social justice.”
“Let me say it a third time, negra. It’s suicidal. It’s simply suicidal.”
Mariá spent the rest of the morning trying to convince someone – anyone – to defy Sendero and go to work. She was certain that if a few brave souls set the example, others would soon follow. But it seemed that no one wanted to be the first to cross the Rubicon. Suddenly she saw a group of about twenty women – it was always the women! – who were on their way to the rich suburbs of Lima in open defiance of Sendero.
“We’ll be with you tonight, negra,” one of them said, an Afro-Peruvian woman about twice Mariá’s age. “Even if it’s only the twenty of us, we’ll stand in solidarity with you. If they kill you, another one of us will take your place. ¡Viva Villa El Salvador! ¡Viva el Perú! ¡Viva la madre coraje!”
At night, about fifty people, mostly women, participated in the march for peace. Mariá was extremely disappointed. She had expected a multitudinous march like the one that followed the assassination of Juana Lopez, but the women made enough noise with their pots and pans to make up for their lack of numbers. Her mother Eugenia, jocular as ever, impervious to fear, was among them. At the last moment, Mariá had decided to bring her two children with her, against the wishes of her husband. He was growing ever more exasperated by her increasingly public repudiation of the Shining Path. But she told him she wanted to make an example of her fearlessness, and there was no better way to do it than by bringing Gustavito and David to the march. Her husband begrudgingly agreed, thinking that in the end Mariá’s appearance at the march would be no more inviting to violence than all of her other acts. So about fifty people paraded through the streets of Villa El Salvador that afternoon, bearing white flags symbolizing peace and carrying banners proclaiming, “No to hunger and no to terror!” A television crew was there for the occasion, for Mariá was already something of a celebrity. The white television producers and newspaper editors in Lima thought it was marvelous to have a black woman as the public face of opposition to the Shining Path. That should show beyond all doubt that Sendero was not a champion of the oppressed classes of Perú. On the contrary, the Shining Path was a merciless verdugo to Peruvians of every race, station and social class.
On the morning of the fifteenth, Mariá got up early to take her boys to the beach at Pucusana. When she arrived, she had the feeling that she was far – oh so far! – from the travails that awaited her in Villa El Salvador. At the same time, she had the strange foreboding that she would never return to Pucusana, that she would soon die in her beloved shantytown. But that conviction, rather than leading her to despair, made her appreciate the beauty of the occasion all the more. Here she was, on the sand, playing volleyball with her two sons and then drinking cool piña coladas under a parasol. The foreknowledge of her death led her to realize the beauty of life in a way she had never done before. She suddenly became keenly aware of the multiple wonders of the ordinary world, of how wonderful ordinary life can be. She delighted in the cool waters of the Pacific Ocean, the small rock formations off the coast where pelicans congregated before plunging into the water to catch fish, the ceviche cooked in lime juice, which she ate with a plastic fork, all the fishermen’s vessels in the distance like distant sentries. But her greatest delight was seeing the beautiful smiles on the faces of her two boys, who seemed impervious to the realities of life despite her warnings and were enjoying a day at the beach as if it was an ordinary day. Mariá knew that it was no ordinary day, that she was living in mortal danger, but that did not make the day any less wondrous. She felt a strange mixture of joy and sorrow when she remembered dancing in the salsodromo with her friends, listening to her mother Eugenia’s dirty jokes, succumbing nightly in the loving arms of her husband Gustavo, delivering milk and other foodstuffs to thousands of children who would otherwise starve to death. All of that was behind her, she was sure. Everything magic and wonderful and marvelous would be consumed by death. She had made plane reservations to fly to Madrid on the seventeenth of February – in only two more days – but something in her gut told her that two days was more than enough time for her to be assassinated by the Shining Path. Why had she not flown out of the country immediately as her friend Rocío encouraged her to do? Because she needed to prepare her boys for her departure and needed to figure out how the Glass of Milk program would continue without her. At any event, she thought that everything was in God’s hands anyway. Uno muere en el dia, no en la vispera, they say in Perú. One dies on the day chosen by God and never a day before.
At some point, her son Gustavo returned from the water and lay on a towel next to his mother. Little David was building sand castles nearby.
“Did you see you were on the news last night?” Gustavo asked in a mirthful voice. “I was on television as well. You should have seen me. I was next to you as you were peeling the potatoes.”
“So soon you shall be a television superstar,” joked Mariá.
“It was odd though. On television, it looked like there were hundreds of people at the rally. And you know only a few people were actually there.”
“I’m sure that was intentional, Gustavito. Everyone in Lima was hoping for a huge turnout like when Sendero killed Juana Lopez. So, to make people happy, they made it seem like there were more.”
“Why would people feel happy if the crowd was bigger?”
“Oh, Gustavito, do we really have to get into this? I was hoping that by coming to the beach I could forget everything happening at Villa El Salvador.”
“My dad told me that you were planning to leave Perú and go to Spain. That’s where Francisco Pizarro was from, right? My father said that was the best for us all. Why do you want to live in a country so far away from us?”
“I’ve discussed this with you before and don’t want you to obsess about it. Let’s just say that I would be safer in Spain.”
“La madre patria, right?”
“Yes, Spain is la madre patria.”
“Why would you be safer? Don’t they have terrucos in Spain?”
“As a matter of fact, they do. They’re called ETA. They’re Basque people who no longer want to be part of Spain. But they would have no reason to hurt me, so I’d be safer.”
“So, they have terrucos everywhere?”
“Not as bad as in Perú,” replied Mariá. “Certainly not as bad.” But she had already explained the circumstances to Gustavo and didn’t want to spend all afternoon talking about Sendero. “Listen, let’s go back into the water,” she said as she began to run toward the shore, her youthful silhouette gleaming in the sunshine.
Around seven o’clock in the evening, Mariá and her family arrived at a pollada organized by the Glass of Milk committee. Polladas are events where chicken dishes are served, typically with music and dancing, and the dishes are bought with special pollada tickets as a way of fundraising. Mariá had bought the tickets for herself and her family long before and felt she could not avoid the obligation to attend. Her friend Rocío had warned her not to do so – her escape to Spain was now so near! – but Mariá made short shrift of her friend’s advice.
“It’s just a bunch of neighborhood friends,” said Mariá. “And my bodyguard Roger Bocanegra will be with me. It’ll take the Shining Path more than a single day to coordinate un atentado against me, assuming that they will.”
“You’re gambling with your life, negra,” said her friend.
But Rocío wasn’t the first person whose advice Mariá ignored. Everyone in Villa El Salvador was telling her to be careful – that an imminent atentado could not be more certain – but Mariá continued to downplay the peril she was facing.
So, at the appointed hour – la mala hora, some would say – Mariá, her husband Gustavo and her two sons arrived at the pollada, bringing with them the sound system so everyone could dance and be entertained. Mariá felt a sense of safety there, surrounded by the familiar faces of the other women who worked with her in distributing milk and food to the children of Villa El Salvador. Perhaps everything will be well, she thought. Perhaps she would soon be across the Atlantic, safe and sound in an apartment in Madrid. As more guests arrived, the feast became a great parranda. Mariá was an excellent dancer and she and her husband soon showed off their salsa and merengue steps in perfect coordination in the patio de baile, Gustavo twirling her in the air with ease, Mariá moving back and forth seductively. Then Mariá and five other black women moving their hips in rhythm began to dance traditional Afro-Peruvian dances – the lando, the tornero, the zamacueca , the atajo de negritos – as six black men joined them in the center of the patio, with everyone about them watching and clapping. The culmination of the show was when Mariá and an Afro-Peruvian man named Arturo danced to the traditional rhythm of the Alcatraz, with papers attached to Mariá’s backside as her partner, holding a lit candle, tried to light them as she moved in front of him.
Mariá drank pisco sours to excess – she was celebrating after all! – and soon she became a little tipsy.
“Those terrucos can’t do anything to me,” she slurred as Rocío approached her. “The women of Villa El Salvador are with me!”
“You should cut down on the cuba libres,” counseled her friend, laughing. “The night is young, and you’re already loaded.”
“Me cago en los terrucos,” exclaimed Mariá in her drunken voice. “I shit on them. Do you understand? I am a valiant negra like my mother! Nothing they do can frightens me.”
“Let’s hope we get to Tuesday safely,” said Rocío pensively. She had advised her friend to seek asylum immediately in the Spanish embassy, but Mariá would have nothing of it.
“Esos terrucos son una mierda!” cried out Mariá as she put her hand on Rocío’s shoulder, trying to keep her balance. “They are shit and they can’t fuck with me!”
Rocío felt that beneath Mariá’s bravado, there was fear.
“Maybe you should go home now,” advised Rocío. “In the tumult, I see some faces I don’t recognize. You’ve already fulfilled your duties in the fundraiser.”
“Do you think they’ll get to me?” asked Mariá, the tone of her voice suddenly changing. “Are they here at the pollada? I don’t want flowers at my funeral. I want my ashes to be spread through the streets of Villa El Salvador where my children hunger.”
Suddenly they heard gunshots. Without seeing it, Mariá knew that the Shining Path had killed her guardian Bocanegra as he was standing at the door. The black woman was sober in an instant. Seeing little David at her feet, she screamed at him, telling him to run far away from her as fast as he could.
“Where can I hide?” she asked Rocío in a voice full of terror. “Is anybody here armed?”
Rocío didn’t have time to respond to Mariá’s question. Four men with rifles burst into the living room of the house and shot Mariá repeatedly in the face and chest. Once she was bleeding on the ground, another man, emerging from the shadows, put ten more bullets into her body. Her husband Gustavo immediately ran to her side, but before he could reach her, the Shining Path guerrillas blew up her body with five kilos of dynamite, everything done in the presence of her two sons. Gustavo lived through the horror of having to wipe pieces of his wife’s bloody flesh off his olive green guayabera. Gustavo was shocked but not surprised. Long before, Gustavo already thought of his wife’s death as of something which had already happened.
“¡Viva Mao!, “¡Viva el Presidente Gonzalo! “¡Viva Sendero!” cried out the senderistas as they disappeared into the night. “If you fuck with the Shining Path, know that sooner or later you will be fucked.”
There was never a death in all Perú which was more expected.
Three hundred thousand people attended the funeral of Mariá Elena Moyano, blacks, whites, Indians and mestizos, the rich and the poor, the urban and the rural. Soon it became clear that la negra had not been defeated. Although Sendero thought it would terrify the masses through the killing of Mariá, their actions had the opposite effect. The vast majority of Peruvians of every social class saw the wanton murder of the black community activist as a bridge too far. There was simply no justification for dynamiting a young mother merely because she committed the “crime” of dedicating her life to feeding destitute children. So, the assassination of Mariá ultimately resulted in the wholesale rejection of the Shining Path’s ideology. Some people say that the death of Mariá Elena Moyano was just as important in sealing the fate of Sendero Luminoso as the capture of its leader several months later.