My initial firsthand experience of the actions of the Shining Path took place immediately after I arrived at the airport in Lima during my twenty-second year, returning to a country I had not visited since I was five. Soon after I arrived, there was a general blackout – un apagon – and my first memory of that trip to Peru was of the total darkness of that airport. The only light came from flashlights, which everyone seemed to have ready for the occasion. At some point I asked somebody – I think it was a cleaning woman – what was going on and she answered it was “los terrucos.” I had not heard the word before, but I suspected that she meant “the terrorists.” Prior to making my trip, I had read about Peru, and I knew that there were two separate terrorist groups operating in the country at the time – the “Tupac Amaru” revolutionaries and the much more lethal “Sendero Luminoso,” or Shining Path. In retrospect, it is astonishing that my mother allowed me to go to Peru at that time, but I think she was not aware of the extent of the terrorists’ activities, nor of the fact that they operated not only in the Peruvian highlands but in the capital itself. At any event, I was alarmed. I was not sure what the woman meant when she said the blackout was the work of los terrucos. Were they at the airport? Would they soon be shooting? Was the total darkness a prelude to a bomb?
I kept asking, in the dark, and someone finally told me the terrorists were not at the airport and that I should not worry about it. It was commonplace for the Shining Path to blow up electric power stations and immerse the whole city of Lima in darkness. I also knew – this I had been warned about – that there was a general curfew in Lima at the time, and my mother had arranged for Andres Chiarella, the husband of Norma Iparraguirre, one of the daughters of my grandmother’s brother Alfonso, to pick me up at the airport and take me to stay at his home. Chiarella was allowed to travel in his car at night despite the curfew because he was in the military and he had some high rank, although now I don’t remember what it was. At any event, the light soon came back on – the airport apparently had its own generator – and Chiarella appeared to pick me up with one of his friends from the military. After we loaded my bags into the trunk of his car, we began the trek from the airport to his house, which was in one of the wealthier parts of Lima, a suburb called Monterrico.
I still remember that surreal trip in the total darkness from the airport to Chiarella’s home as if it had happened yesterday. The streets were completely deserted, and even the traffic lights weren’t operating. It was a little voyage back to a time before modernity, like entering a city before the discovery of electricity. There were also tanks everywhere, a troubling reminder that I had arrived at a country at war. At some point, a police vehicle flashed its headlights behind us, and we were forced to stop. The patrullero was a stout Amerindian man who spoke with a great deference to Chiarella, even before the policeman learned that Chiarella was a man with a high military rank. After Chiarella showed the policeman his salvoconducto – his safe conduct pass – the man apologized profusely and waved his right hand in the air to tell us we could continue on our way. I eventually learned that despite the nightly curfew – a rule meant to limit the actions of the Shining Path but which affected everyone – Peruvians continued to party throughout the night. Their soirees were called fiestas de toque a toque, in other words, parties that lasted from sunset, the time the curfew began, to sunrise, when the curfew was lifted. Even terrorism and the ubiquitous military presence wasn’t enough to quench the Latin American penchant for celebration.
It was also during that first trip from the airport to Chiarella’s home that I had my first inkling of Peru’s pervasive racism – one of the causes for the initial popularity of Sendero Luminoso among the quechua classes, a popularity which by the time I arrived in Lima was waning everywhere as a result of the Shining Path’s acts of terrorism against the peasants themselves. But Chiarella still blamed the Indians for the violence with derision and contempt. I had been raised by a mother and a grandmother who were both Peruvian, and thus I wasn’t unaware of the country’s strict racial hierarchies, but neither my mother nor my grandmother was a racist. Although my grandmother Graciela Iparraguirre was the daughter of a landed gamonal, who hired about a hundred Indians to work at his three haciendas – Ichabamba, San Elias and Chuburbamba – she did not feel superior to the Indians and late in life recognized that the system – called gamonalismo – had been oppressive and unjust. When I married a Puerto Rican woman of partial African descent, both my mother and grandmother accepted her with love. By contrast, during that first car ride through the vacant alley ways of Lima, Chiarella made it clear that if he did not hate the Indians, he was very close to it. He accused the Indians of being lazy layabouts and blamed them for the demented acts of the Shining Path despite the fact that by the time of my arrival in Lima it was the very Indians who were being decimated by Sendero.
At some point during that initial ghoulish night in Peru, Chiarella expressed the feeling that the solution to the country’s problems was to sterilize all the Indian women. Chiarella, proud descendant of Italians, felt he had a greater right to the country than the quechua peoples who had lived there for millennia. In retrospect, the only way the Shining Path phenomenon can be understood is by remembering that the Indians had been little more than slaves ever since the arrival of the Spaniards. When Abimael Guzman initially offered the peasants a solution, many runa people flocked to him in droves. Of course, that changed with time, as the Shining Path increasingly turned its wrath against the very peasants it claimed to defend. Following the example of Chairman Mao, Sendero did not hesitate to massacre indigenous people in the highlands and jungles of Peru if they failed to toe the party line.
The next morning, after the apagon was over and electricity returned, I listened to the news on television intently. Apparently, despite the curfew, the Shining Path had bombed a number of banks, television stations and newspapers. If memory does not fail me, El Comercio was among them. The purpose of the explosions was to terrorize the citizens of Lima and show everyone that Sendero had power even in the capital. The Shining Path wanted to demonstrate that they were in the final stages of their Maoist revolution when the urban centers would be overrun by rebels coming from the rural areas. I soon learned that a certain fatalism had invaded the denizens of the capital, that some feared the triumph of the Shining Path was a foregone conclusion. At the same time, I discovered that the citizens of Lima had learned how to make a strange peace with their adversity. The relentlessness of the apagones somehow made them less frightening, as Peruvians grimly accepted that acts of terror were commonplace. Even I learned how to deal with the ubiquity of terrorism. I remember one night when I was awakened by a loud boom – a distant explosion – and knew it was the handiwork of the Shining Path. Rather than getting alarmed, I simply turned on my bed and went back to sleep. The next day I learned that a nearby police station had been bombed.
I spent three months in Lima before I returned to the United States, where I went on to attend law school at Harvard. All law students had free unlimited access to Nexis, and I used it frequently to learn about the news coming from Peru. I closely followed the 1990 elections, which pitted Mario Vargas Llosa, the great Peruvian author, against the upstart Alberto Fujimori. Although I greatly admired Vargas Llosa as a novelist, I felt he was not the right man to lead Peru at that particular point in history. Vargas Llosa was too closely identified with the white coastal elites to rescue a country being torn asunder by racial and class divisions. I did not think he would know how to counter the depredations of the Shining Path in a meaningful way – by improving the lot of the poor who lived in the Andean highlands and the shantytowns of Lima. The Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez had written that “titanic efforts” were necessary to crush the violence of Sendero, and I didn’t think Vargas Llosa would know how to put such efforts into place. At heart, the novelist was a white pituco, a common pejorative term applied to a son of privilege. When Gutierrez, father of “liberation theology,” spoke of “titanic efforts,” he wasn’t referring to a military response against the Shining Path. He was referring to “titanic efforts” to bring the Amerindians of Peru to some semblance of modernity by providing schools, hospitals and a means to escape multigenerational destitution and oppression by the white man. Without such efforts, it would be impossible to eradicate violence from Peru regardless of how much money was given to the military.
Fast forward thirty years. After retiring from the practice of law, I decided to try my hand at writing. I wrote a long autofictional novel which I gave to Marcela Landres, a fellow South American who had worked at an important publishing house for years. She told me that I should try my hand at short stories instead, to learn the craft, before tackling a novel. Soon I enrolled in a UCLA Extension course on writing short stories. From the outset, all my stories had to do with Latin American historic or mythical themes. Subconsciously, I wanted to tell the entire story of the Shining Path insurrection during the years from 1980 to 1992. Given my deep interest in that episode in Peruvian history, I decided to write a piece very loosely inspired by Lorie Berenson, the American MIT graduate who was convicted as a terrorist in Peru. The piece, titled “Comrade Juana,” details the life of an idealistic American woman who becomes a ruthless Shining Path guerrilla even after she discovers her lover, Comrade Carlos, had been involved in the massacre of two hundred peasants who resisted Sendero. The initial scene in “Comrade Juana” – and thus of the whole novel – relates how Comrade Juana and her lover escape during a blackout after having bombed a transmission tower in Lima. I wrote the scene directly from the personal experiences I relate above. At some point, I realized that Comrade Carlos’ story would also be worth telling, so I wrote “Comrade Carlos and the Sadness of His Quena.” After that, I had the impression that I could tell a novel-in-stories, not only about Comrade Juana and Comrade Carlos, but also about other characters involved in the Shining Path war. My project was to write a novel-in-stories about all the important events in Shining Path history as well as all its players: the guerrillas, the military, the Catholic Church, the runa peasants, the Ashaninka natives, and of course Abimael Guzman himself, the brutal mastermind behind it all.
Now I have a complete novel on my hands. And most of my stories have been accepted for publication by various journals, including The Write Launch, which has kindly provided a home for several of my stories. I’ve written chapters on Comrade Dolores, a nun who becomes a Shining Path guerrilla; Comrade Barbara, a lesbian who suppresses her sexuality to comply with the homophobic rules of the Shining Path; Sister Rosemarie McKillop, an Australian nun who gets killed by the Shining Path because she obstinately says Mass in a peasant village; Lieutenant Colonel Rodrigo Huaman, a Peruvian military officer who refuses to obey an illegal order to massacre a group of peasants by his general and is killed for following his conscience; Chayeki Quintimari, an Ashaninka indigenous man who lives in the Amazon rainforest peacefully until he is confronted by the Shining Path; and Champi, a quechua peasant who believes the leader of the Shining Path is an evil spirit who can turn himself into a wolf or a rock.
Of course, I have also written about Abimael Guzman himself, founder of the Shining Path and husband of the ruthless and suicidal Augusta La Torre. In the end, my stories seek to address a question I’ve had in mind since that first journey through the dark and deserted streets of Lima. I want to understand and possibly explain how such horror could have happened in my mother’s country, a land of deep divisions but also a place of great beauty, wonderful traditions and a resilient people who came out stronger after the twelve-year insurrection in Peru. As is true of many writers, I want to say something meaningful about the human condition. Moments of war bring out the best and worst in human beings, and that was also the case with the Shining Path insurrection. Some of my characters exemplified an unusual heroism while others succumbed to evil, first and foremost Abimael Guzman, whose unbridled ambition and penchant for brutality led to a twelve-year chaqwa in Peru – a quechua term for a time of limitless suffering and chaos.