Six Young Peruvian Poets

"The Three Trapped Tigers" are the Peruvian poets Raúl Mendizábel, José Antonio Mazzotti and Eduardo Chirinos. Photo courtesy of Paolo de Lima.

Making Verse During Times of Conflict 

By Paolo de Lima

The years 1980-1992 marked an electoral democracy in Peru; a period that is a parenthesis between two dictatorships, one military and the other civic-military—but a period strongly affected by bloody civil conflict. Framing this democratic period, two new constitutions (in 1979 and 1993) actually took effect during two dictatorships. Political analysts, sociologists and journalists can help us understand this contradictory period. Poets, from their different perspective, examine the reality of political violence in a powerful way that transcends a mere thematic concern. 

Six Peruvian poets came on the scene as writers during the most difficult decades of our history, with 69,000 dead and thousands disappeared. I selected 41 poems, defined by their direct or indirect relationship with the war. This in no way implies that the literary production of the six authors is limited to this historical period and to the context of political violence. Their work, both in theme and form, is diverse and varied. 

These poets are the “Three Trapped Tigers,” Raúl Mendizábal, José Antonio Mazzotti and Eduardo Chirinos, and the members of the group “Kloaka”: Domingo de Ramos, Róger Santiváñez and Dalmacia Ruiz-Rosas. All of them, born between 1956 and 1961, began to publish their first texts in Lima towards the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s. The six authors belonged to the erudite petite bourgeoisie; Mazzotti, Chirinos and Ruiz-Rosas came from residential neighborhoods in Lima and the Peruvian coast; Santiváñez and Mendizábal hailed from the small northern city of Piura and de Ramos from a village in the department (state) of Ica south of Lima. Their vision of the country was filtered through a geography historically associated with the Spanish colonial tradition, rather than the Andean highlands or the Amazon jungle. Their sites of origin, more directly linked to Peru’s large western metropolis were also more influenced by a native middle class rather than a dominant elite. 

During the 1980s, these authors studied in two prestigious centers of learning: the Catholic University (PUCP) and the National University of San Marcos, while Mazzotti studied at both and served as a link between the two groups. The “Three Trapped Tigers” studied at the private Catholic University, and the “Kloaka” at the public San Marcos. 

These six poets had an active presence in “official” literary circuits, as I have discussed in my book Poesía y guerra interna en el Perú (1980-1992), published last year (2013) in New York by Edwin Mellen Press. These were all professional poets or with aspirations to be such, conscious of both the Peruvian and western literary traditions, as evidenced by the references incorporated in their work. In Peruvian literary criticism, the “official circuit” refers to a published body of work in refined Spanish that conforms to a western concept of literature, accepted as the only valid form by the state ideological apparatus—that is, in school programs, universities, newspapers and publishing houses. It is “official” (in quotation marks) not because it necessarily intersects with a given political program or government, but because it conforms to the system of the reigning cultural domination; what Swiss literary scholar Martin Lienhard called the prevalence of “cultural diglossia,” that is, a ranking that does not recognize the literary and even cultural validity of the vast oral literary production nor literary works in indigenous languages. 

Without simplifying the complex period 1980-1992, let’s look at the milestone year of 1980 with its two events of crucial importance. One, the election of Fernando Belaúnde Terry (1980-1985) to the presidency, marked the return to constitutional democracy after twelve years of military dictatorship. This return had implications in the economic sphere, with the market opening to imports, reprivatization of industries, and the initial entry into the global economy. This economic opening coincided with the second event: the beginning of armed struggle by the Communist Party of Peru-Shining Path that gave rise to a spiral of violence and the state’s response, with the subsequent “dirty war.” The beginning of the Alberto Fujimori dictatorship in 1992 marked the end of this period. Fujimori was democratically elected in 1990, but on April 5, 1992, conducted a “self-coup” with the support of the armed forces, with subsequent restrictions on individual liberties, justified by the government because of the capture of Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán on September 12 of that year. 

Historian Alberto Flores Galindo, in a text written in 1987 but not published until 1999, nine years after his death, creates the metaphor of a pendulum to describe the period. This metaphor can help us understand with greater clarity the democratic parenthesis between 1980 and 1992. In his book La tradición autoritaria (The Authoritarian Tradition), Flores Galindo observes that Peru’s republican history can be seen as “the movement of a pendulum in whose extremes are found civilians and the military, respectively synonymous with democracy and militarism.” However, during the period of political violence, “the image of the pendulum blurs, since in practice, civil and military became indistinguishable.” Why is it important to stress this image? Because it is at that moment that the six poets worked on their body of poems as the country teetered within the rule of law, if somewhat blurred because of the fusion of the civil and military, the democratic and the dictatorial. Their production arises within the context of a relative state of freedom of expression that, however, was co-opted by the state strategy of neutralizing radical dissident voices. With a sense of anguish and fear, therefore, these poets witnessed in a direct manner the deterioration of civil society rapidly heading toward increased militarization. During this period of 1980-1992, in the midst of a democratically led nation, a large part of the territory was militarized, above all the Andean highlands, Peru’s vertebral column. Cities were subject to tight and indiscriminate control. 

The violence exercised both by the state’s repressive apparatus and the armed rebels, with variants such as ethnocide and genocide, is related to the “neoliberal air” that, in the cultural aspect of Fernando Belaúnde’s second period, was consistent with literary trends that seemed compatible with the economics of late—or multinational—capitalism and the consequent liberation of imports. In the political arena, the face of the neoliberal state was revealed in its dirtiest dimensions. In the 41 poems I chose to include in my book, one can see signs of this feeling of unease and mistrust that arises in the 1980s and becomes much clearer and rebellious than in previous decades as it appears in the fresh vision and language of the new subjects of writing.

Paolo de Lima is a Peruvian poet who holds a doctorate in literature from
the University of Ottawa. He is the author of
Poesía y guerra interna en el Perú (1980-1992), Edwin Mellen Press, New York, 2013.