Images of 1980s Peru: migration & food poverty
It’s election time in Peru’s capital. Speeding through the city in the back of Julio’s taxi, local election candidates smile down on the chaotic streets from massive, colourful billboards. Julio collected us from the airport and his wife Ana came along for the ride too. The airport’s in a part of town where you don’t want to be stationary at the lights for too long and I clutch at my seatbelt and cross myself like a local as Julio’s car screeches across lanes, bobbing and weaving furiously as car horns blare all around us. Amazingly, by the end of the week Julio turns out to be the most careful taxi driver we’ve experienced in Lima.
We’re here to research Peru’s comedores populares: the vast network of community kitchens which provide food for the nation’s poorest people. Administered by local women, the community kitchen movement became a political force in Peru during the 1980s and 1990s, eyed nervously by the state and targeted by the country’s violent Maoist insurgents Sendero Luminoso (t
he Shining Path). Today communal dining persists, with many dining schemes (and a plethora of other services) in the hands of local government. Recent moves towards decentralisation help explain why the municipal elections are so fiercely contested here and why every other wall is daubed with painted election slogans.
Surveying Lima, it’s easy to see why community kitchens have proved so important. To Herman Melville the city, permanently blanketed in a white-grey fog, had the drab colour and appearance of a whale’s belly. Lima is sprawling and chaotic and its growth simply astounding. The city’s metropolitan area was home to 661,000 people in 1940. Today, this figure is a whopping 9 million. Most migrants come from the Andes and most dwell in shanty towns when they reach Lima. It’s a manic metropolis of toothless beggars, careless drivers and a nascent middle class. The whole place reeks of smog and dog piss. Unless, that is, you live in one of Lima’s few affluent pockets.
Viewed romantically, Lima’s population growth – the result of enormous in-migration – constitutes an Andean re-conquest of the conquistadors’ colonial capital. Viewed realistically, it has created huge social problems, particularly during the ’80s and ’90s: a period of hyperinflation under the populist presidency of Alan Garcia followed by hard-hitting neoliberal austerity under Alberto Fujimori, the Peruvian-Japanese former premier currently imprisoned for corruption who ruled Peru between 1990 and 2000.
This week I’ve seen various sides to the city
On Friday I gave a guest lecture at the prestigious Newton College, a private educational institution for the offspring of Lima’s elite. The pristine sports pitches and lake were bathed in sunshine. It could have been Beverley Hills. I was there by invitation of Ned Riley, head of history, who was very understanding of our horrendously late arrival – the result of the snarling central Lima traffic and a taxi cab which, despite the best efforts of the gaffer tape holding it together, was quite literally falling to bits. The pupils of Newton College were polite, bright and attentive and the facilities were first rate.
By contrast, some of the communal kitchens in pueblo joven (young towns) such as San Juan de Mirraflores service the wretched of the earth. Poor people struggling with serious health problems such as AIDS and tuberculosis. Scarred individuals. Kids dependent on the basic nutrition of their state-subsidised morning Vaso de Leche (glass of milk). People old before their time. As the needy queue for their soup, corner boys hover outside and carry out their cocaine deals. All the while women like Berna Rios Escobedo, the sole worker at the municipal kitchen in the Barranco district, stir up big steamy vats of hot soya milk and soup for the community.
The kitchens did not merely provide sustenance for needy populations. Against the backdrop of the state’s conflict with the Shining Path in the ’80s and ’90s, communal dining emerged as a third way between the state authoritarianism and the brutal Maoism of the guerrillas. The women who ran comedores came to be seen as agents of struggle for sustainable food policy and human rights. Since this narrative did not chime with the Shining Path’s bleak and dogmatic version of communism, comedores populares were targeted and leading proponents executed.
Middle aged women such as Nancy and Estella (who we meet through Columban priest Father Ed O’Connell, a gentle giant in a blue jacket bearing the Columban insignia) dished up cheap grub for thousands every week. As well as keeping people alive, women like Nancy and Estella struggled for legal recognition and for the state to donate more food to the poor. They bring along some of their literature – now sun-faded and crumpled – as proof.
Eventually, they won the battle for recognition. But with state support of the comedores populares came a surrendering of independence and an increase in clientelism and corruption. President Fujimori manipulated the comedores for his own ends while attempting to replace their organic communitarian ethic with a spirit of privatised individualism. Community kitchens still exist, but some have made the transition to become ‘Menu restaurants’: very cheap, privately run diners roughly equivalent to British greasy spoon cafes.
The Peru of Nancy and Estella’s youth is different to the Peru of today. After Fujimori’s fall in 2000, there has been a concentrated national effort to re-brand Peru’s image. Seeking to move beyond the Incan past, on the one hand, and the recent terrorist period, on the other, the last few years have witnessed the promotion of Peruvian gastronomy. Gaston Acurio, an internationally renowned chef, has worked to promote healthy eating and cooking skills in slum areas while simultaneously appealing to the tastes of Peru’s growing middle class.
And in the last three years, president Ollanta Humala (2011-present) has attempte to set himself from his predecessors by establishing a Ministry of Social Protection in order to root out some of the corruption involved in the administration of social projects.
But while food has been central to the attempted rebranding of the country’s international reputation, many of Peru’s poorest people evidently still experience food poverty.
More worryingly, altruistic schemes such as the Vaso de Leche have been scarred by political violence, with local politicians assassinated for favouring the wrong company as food corporations jostle with one another for the contracts to provision state social schemes.
Yet despite the poverty and corruption, the Lima I’ve witnessed this week has charmed me. Peruvians are warm, generous people and the spirit of Andean cooperation is not merely an Orientalist myth dreamed up by naïve gringos. We have come across many vibrant people. Women, young and old, who cook and struggle for their communities. Poor people who work hard and rest little. Old gentlemen, like Juan Aybar, who have seen such change in their lifetimes. Priests who display the very best of the progressive Christian spirit. Young, politically-attuned professionals like Paola Fattorini and Bruno Portillo. Socially aware expats like Ned Riley and Amy Powell.
And, of course, there are the real ‘characters’ you find in a city like this: the cake seller bravely navigating his way through traffic with his dainty wares while dressed as Elvis, the theme to the Bond movie ‘Goldfinger’ spewing out of his enormous ghetto blaster; Paku, the hairless Peruvian dog, who launches into a barking fit if the wind so much as rustles the trees; and the toothless old beggar with two melons stuffed up his jumper vainly attempting to convince people to part with money in recognition of his outrageously unconvincing transvestism.
Next week, we travel to comedores populares in the district of Carabayllo and then on to more kitchens in the southern city of Arequipa.