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María Elena Moyano: A Symbol—and Victim—of Peru's Transformation

Carolina Trivelli

This article is part of the Heroes of Social Inclusion series from the Spring 2012 issue of Americas Quarterly. View the full list of heroes here.

María Elena Moyano was born in Lima in 1958. Her life spanned a period of intense change and upheaval in Peru. And her death in 1992 at the hands of Sendero Luminoso symbolically coincided with the end of that period.

Protesters hold a picture of María Elena Moyano outisde the prison where Sendero Luminoso founder Abimael Guzmán was being tried, November 5, 2004. (Mariana Bazo MB/SV/Reuters)

Beginning in the 1960s, Peru’s modernization was driven by millions of citizens who sought to improve their lives, moving from rural areas to cities, and exercise their rights: to a life of dignity, education, a patch of land—or even some space on the sidewalk to sell goods. These millions of small decisions built a new nation, with the dream that everyone would find a place. Beyond, or rather beneath politics, a history of exclusion was transformed and the basis for a country for all Peruvians was constructed.

María Elena gave a voice to that cause. A woman of African descent, she came from the “pueblos jóvenes,” or shanty towns, on the wastelands of the capital’s outskirts where hundreds of thousands (millions today) of Peruvians found a space in which to build a future. And with the community organizations that she and others helped create and lead, they helped transform these squatter wastelands into new cities.

It was in these pueblos jóvenes that people from all over the country and from all cultural traditions came together to build schools, houses and public places. María Elena’s awareness of how women were excluded even in the poorest settings drove her to community work. At 25, she was elected sub-secretary general of the newly-created Federación Popular de Mujeres de Villa El Salvador, and two years later was elected its president.

Seven years later, the violence of Peru’s internal struggle caught up with her. Seizing and eliminating the independent leadership of the popular neighborhoods around Lima, and specifically of the emblematic Villa El Salvador, was part of the strategy of the Sendero Luminoso. On February 15, 1992, Sendero Luminoso forces marched into the town, killed her, and then dynamited her lifeless body—perhaps as an example and a threat, or even as an expression of racism.

Today, we are living through different times. Leaders and organizations that advocate violence are weaker and the politics of inclusion have learned from those lives which, with dedication and solidarity, raised up a new city and a new country. Women occupy broader spaces, and new organizations of people of African descent are working against discrimination. The road to inclusion remains long, but with María Elena Moyano’s examples, its path is clear.

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