By June Carolyn Erlick
I’m long past the point of being a tourist in Peru, although I’ve never lived there. I first arrived by bus in 1977 on an Inter American Press Association fellowship and I’ve been going back ever since. I’ve explored its cities, mountains, jungles, lakes and beaches, been invited to countless hospitable homes, been robbed twice, enjoyed its ceviche and pinchos and, of course, its pisco. I’ve bought way too many handicrafts—the cornucopia of carved gourds, alpaca sweaters, intricate woodcarvings and a host of other delights still tempts me. Wandering the streets of Lima, I’ve observed transformations from a pleasant backwater to a cosmopolitan city, from dictatorship to democracy, from struggling development to growing prosperity.
On my last trip to Peru in March 2014, I decided to go someplace new to observe how the country’s transformations had played out in a place I'd never been to. I chose Ayacucho, the heart of the horrendous violence that swept the country from 1980-2000. A historically impoverished city nestled into the mountains of the southwestern region, it’s also a handicraft mecca with more than sixty types of crafts, ranging from ceramics to textiles.
At the Ayacucho airport, a floor-to-ceiling retablo—a box structure filled with intricate carved figures—greeted me. This was the handicraft to beat all handicrafts. I was totally unprepared for its stunning intricacy, although I’d seen many retablos in small, portable box form. I was even less prepared for the view of the dazzling green mountains and unexpectedly blue sky (I was lucky—Ayacucho is known for rain). Yet I knew that the mountains of Ayacucho held much pain—many of the country’s 70,000 violent deaths, including many massacres, had taken place there.
Despite its beauty, Ayacucho’s painful past was not hard to find. On a visit to the Museum of Memory, I asked to be put in contact with the local president of the Association of Relatives of the Kidnapped, Detained and Disappeared. I was told a meeting was about to begin—a total coincidence. I met the president, gave her a copy of last fall’s Memory issue of ReVista, and she invited me to stay on for the meeting.
The group—mostly women with large embroidered aprons and billowing skirts who would have looked at home in any market—was meeting with government forensics experts, who were encouraging the use of DNA samples to identify remains.
The conversation brought home both a transformed and untransformed Peru. The women had voice, and they seemed unafraid to express their concerns. The government representative listened. But some of the problems remained so basic, such remnants of a past lacking in infrastructure and hope. Transportation was lacking to get to the centers to give DNA samples. And if transportation were to be provided, who would take care of the kids? Who would work the fields? Why couldn’t mobile centers be established for market days?
I emerged from the meeting and walked past the cellphone and video shops. The streets were bustling. A very good classical group was playing just outside the cathedral—a rehearsal, I was told. Restaurants were filled and the town was preparing for carnival. Later in the day, I would watch from a second-floor coffee shop as brightly costumed men and women from the countryside swirled in the plaza, practicing their dance steps. Army soldiers—who seemed to be recruits, mostly men with a sprinkling of women—were practicing their music and carnival parade formations on the other side of the plaza. I asked a woman I’d met if the soldiers inspired fear nowadays. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “They’re ours.”
I left Ayacucho with its green mountains wondering about transformations, about the legacies of the past and the durability of the economic future. I may have gotten beyond the tourist stage in Peru, but I’m still missing many of the answers. The authors writing in these pages—Peruvians and Peruvianists—understand far more. They can answer many of these questions and raise even more. All the more reason to return in the near future to learn more about the country (and, yes, to buy more of its splendid handicrafts).