A life of struggle

Now Peru is Mine: The Life and Times of a Campesino Activist
Manuel Llamojha Mitma and Jaymie Patricia Heilman
2016, Duke University Press
239 pages, plates, paperback

THE Peruvian highland department of Ayacucho has certainly thrown up some exceptional Quechuan individuals whose testimonial literature is almost without comparison, from Lurgio Gavilán Sánchez to Manuel Llamojha Mitma, among many others.

The life story of the latter, as told here to and contextualised by Jaymie Patricia Heilman, chronicles incredible struggles against indigenous oppression, dispossession and exclusion while laying bare the indomitable spirit that characterises the people of this hinterland.

Llamojha’s tale, however, also navigates Peru’s momentous 20th century with all its turbulent political and ideological currents, a tsunami of mobilisation, conflict and change that washes over the interior of a country that has struggled to make its slow journey to modernity.

A celebrated indigenous activist, Llamojha dedicated his life to leading mobilizations for land rights in the 1940s and 50s, becoming secretary general of the Confederación Campesina del Perú (CCP) and thereafter a protagonist in the divisive disputes that split the Peruvian left in the 1970s.

One symptom of those bitter splits was the emergence of Sendero Luminoso, of which Llamojha was falsely accused of being a member. The subsequent civil war between Sendero and the Peruvian state imposed a high cost on the campesino leader, costing him both a son and his home as he fled the highlands into internal exile in Lima.

According to Heilman, this life – characterised both by the harsh reality faced by the activist of poverty, imprisonment and often vilification – chronicles above all the realities of anti-Indianism, something the author points out has long flourished in Peru, a third of whose population is indigenous. Racism was and remains a reality for these people, and the struggle against it was the single most important principle defining Llamojha’s work and beliefs that found its most concrete expression in the fight for land – a problem not just of economic injustice but of historical exclusion originating with the European conquest and remaining unresolved to this day.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this story, however, is the insights it provides into the reality of activism on the left during the long Cold War in Latin America, and the divisions and realignments that plagued it.

In particular, Llamojha’s life story helps scholars to understand the most devastating period in Peru’s 20th century, the civil war initiated by the Peruvian Communist Party-Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) in which up to 80,000 people died.

Heilman notes how Sendero turned its extreme violence against local officials and wealthier peasants who had exploited their poorer, indigenous neighbours whose complaints had been ignored by the authorities. For Llamojha, the personal cost would be high, and for a long time he was associated incorrectly with the insurgents, forced to uproot himself from his homeland and live as a displaced person.

His son, Herbert, jailed for being a Senderista – although it would appear that this, too, was incorrect – disappeared after being liberated in the guerrilla movement’s attack on Ayacucho jail, a trauma that would affect Llamojha thereafter.

This is a moving and fascinating account of indigenous activism in a turbulent era that will be of great value to historians and political scientists seeking to understand the motives and sacrifices of those at the heart of their disciplines. – EC