Peruvian Indigenous Women: In Defense of Land, Culture and the Female Body

Interview with Lourdes Huanca
By George Ygarza

During the Fujimori regime the progressive left was decimated. Dissidents were quickly branded as terrorists and silenced through defamation, marginalization or disappearance. But far from being frozen in the past, the Peruvian left was kept alive in the periphery, as clandestine student groups, indigenous people and women continued to organize. Following the downfall of Fujimori, these groups took to the streets never to lose it again. One of the first post-Fujimori organizations to emerge was FENMUCARINAP.

Lourdes Huanca Atencio is president of the National Federation of female peasants, Artisans, Indigenous, Natives and Salaried workers of Peru or FENMUCARINAP. The organization was founded in 2006 with the purpose of defending and fighting for the rights of women in Peru. These include struggles for the control and defense of the female body and political, economic and social empowerment. Rooted in an ancestral cosmovision of their indigenous communities, a central struggle has been the fight for their subsistence, in maintaining land, water and seed sovereignty. FENMUCARINAP currently finds itself in 19 regions throughout Peru and counts on over 126,000 members.

This interview was conducted in Spanish on April 7th, 2016 during the last days of campaigning for the first round of the country’s presidential and congressional seats. It was translated by the author.

George: Can you give a general background into FENMUCARINAP and the work it does?

Lourdes: FENMUCARINAP was born on August 18, 2006. Our main goals, which as an organization comprised of women is nothing easy, is control and defense of the territory of the female body which is often violated. Also for political, economic, social and cultural empowerment, as we [women] are the ones that sustain society and yet our work and contributions are not recognized. Finally, we also defend the sovereignty of our subsistence which is the land, water and seed, because for a campesina without those things has no choice but to move to city where she then becomes extremely impoverished. It’s been a hard fought struggle for recognition because in this country, as in other countries in Latin America, it comes up against patriarchy, machismo and sexism.

FENMUCARINAP also involves itself in the political, which is currently manifested in the electoral campaigns. During the era of Fujimori and to a certain extent today, anyone [of the marginalized groups] that spoke out politically was labeled a terrorist. This was meant to instill fear into the indigenous people even after having experienced massacres ourselves committed with complete impunity. Despite all this, we continue to break through taboos of the political because we understand how important it is and if we didn’t our organizing would be useless. Besides defending our nutritional sovereignty and subsistence we also demand education for our children, complete health insurance so that hospitals and clinics treat us like human beings and not base our treatment on how much money we have.

One of the ways we organize to accomplish our goals is through the formation of decentralized workshops. One of our main themes of our workshops is highlighting the economy to which we contribute so much to as women. It is important to understand the power of our resources and for that it is imperative we understand the judicial process, which at the very least can help us in understanding how our country operates.

Peru is politically illiterate. I shouldn’t be voting for the candidate that offers up the nicest words or is presentable, I should be voting based on their proposals for the development of my country. With that, having looked at all the candidates’ proposals for one that has a place for indigenous groups, we found the best one to be Veronika Mendoza. The other candidates just offer crumbs, enough to just hold back the masses. But with Mendoza we have worked, coordinated and spoken with since the start. Now, this is not to say that we are entrenched in politics. N o, we are in a learning process.

Too often we are labeled as anti-development, as if we do not want any development. We want development. At the same time we push for social justice, we cannot completely say NO to mining. Here are two contrasting examples from the North and South of the country: In Maquegua where I migrated from to Tacna over 20 years ago is Southern Peru Copper Corporation which arrived more than 50 years ago – it lives there. You can’t just tell them to get out because they are rooted there. What you do is confront them —

“Hey, you have to pay me. You have to pay for all the damage you have done to the land because the land IS life”.

You have to demand their compliance with the laws; that they stop poisoning and killing. Of course, radically speaking, we can demand they completely shut down, but how many people who are working there will be left in limbo? This is why analyzing the situation through its social context is imperative.

Now, what is different is the situation with the Yanacocha mine which, in order to sustain itself, it wants to kill the water. And what is water? It is life, without it we cannot live.

So these are different conflicts with different context, yet they label us rebels, terrorists, reds, but despite that we continue our struggle.

G: How have the different intersections of race, class, ethnicity and gender come to define the state of Peruvian women today?

L: This society today remains deeply racist which is why we are engaged in a permanent struggle against it.

By simply saying… the beautiful feature I have, that you have…you [George] may have been born abroad but your blood is Peruvian and no one can deny you that. We have to be proud of who we are. This is important to acknowledge not only here but throughout Latin America.

We suffer from multiple oppressions; we are women and indigenous. We used to see businesses put up help wanted ads asking for women with “good appearance”. Now, what did they mean by this? When we walk into a restaurant a staffer will often look you up and down as if you don’t belong there. We had a compañero a couple years ago who was thrown out of a business because he was wearing traditional clothing.

We struggle so our ethnicity does not disappear; so that our bloodlines do not disappear. We’ve been working with the ministry of Culture on the Law of Languages for example in order to preserve our traditional languages.

There is a long struggle for social equality in the criminal justice system, in health care, in education, centered around languages. For example, people that come down from the provinces face many difficulties. New generations are often prohibited at home from speaking their maternal tongue, not out of shame but because their parents do not want them to have a hard time in the cities. Let’s say someone from the Andes or Amazon who only speaks their own dialect and no Spanish goes to a courtroom and can’t understand the judge, we end up with many innocent people in prison. Under this Law of Languages we’ve proposed that multiple languages and dialects be made available in public institutions. Public defenders need to be able to speak the language of their clients.

In the Universities now they are requiring students learn English. That is great because it opens many doors and helps people defend themselves but, we are also demanding that they learn Quechua. Because these professionals have to represent their country, and for that they cannot forget their culture. We cannot forget the traditions of our ancestors who never taught us to work individually but communally – We must cherish this. Our life goals are not to have two cars parked outside. We want our land, water and seeds – self determination!

We face many obstacles. The current president Humala hasn’t referred to us as third class citizens or “dogs in the manger” like Alan Garcia did but has sent the military after us while passing laws which keep us from raising our voices. You say something to an officer or get in a scuffle and are automatically sentenced to 8 years.

G: The law of impunity is still on the books, right?

( The law of impunity or Law 3051 declares police forces “exempt from any responsibility” if a civilian is injured or killed in a protest while police carry out their responsibilities (Dearden & Independent, 2014) )

L: Yes. We have yet to receive any justice for the dozens of campesinas and campesino who have been killed.

More than 300,000 women were forcibly sterilized. They blamed us, the women, for the rise in poverty; for this we continue to struggle. And now that [Alberto] Fujimori is in prison they are asking us to forgive him. God can forgive him but I am not the one to forgive. He must pay for his crimes here and rot in that cell. Who was he to take our fertility from us? With what right did they have to say we were responsible for poverty? There are things that hurt you deep in your soul. Centuries will pass but the wounds will remain. This is what our original people are suffering from.

I often imagine what it would have been like if 300,000 men had their testicles removed.  Would it have been forgotten?

Because we are rural women, because we cannot read or write, our rights our taken from us.

G: But they’ve mistaken, because organizations like this have raised hell…

This is what we’re proud off. We are working with 126,000 women. We have a congress in August and are going region by region meeting women on the frontlines struggling for justice. We are proud of a shifting consciousness in society demonstrated this past April 5th in the national mobilization against Keiko Fujimori. Plaza San Martin in Lima was overflowing with over 50,000 people. The collective consciousness is finally awakening. We have to analyze this politically and see what it means for our country; what it means for establishing a lasting unity. Unity is crucial in order to forge lasting development here.

G: Can you expand more on the hegemonies – social, political and economic – that hold back women and indigenous people in this country?

Under neoliberalism we have major exporting enterprises that send well-packaged goods abroad; but you have to ask yourself, who does this employ? In the provinces some 70 percent of those workers are women, where these companies get richer at the expense of their exploitation and health. In 2008 unions were beginning to organizing in places where it was previously prohibited. The conditions were atrocious: there would be one bathroom in every 2 hectares of land. Workers had 5 minutes to reach bathrooms that were blocks away or got it deducted from their pay. Workers would have no lunch breaks; working from 4am and not leaving till 6 or 7pm. This is what is going on in these major capitalist corporations. In some, women who worked in and out of freezers were not allowed to wear sweaters, causing many women to get sick. These women do not have insurance and while working till 6pm have no time to go to the clinic during the day when it is open. And being a woman you also put up with sexual harassment; all of this if fomented by these large companies that claim they generate prosperity.

What do these free trade agreements mean for the people? It means displacement, it means increased poverty and marginalization for indigenous communities.

Monsanto for example wants to introduce genetically-modified seeds. A recent moratorium has succeeded in halting their entrance into the country. If they proceed we will be turned into consumers as we become dependent on only their products. These seeds typically only have a 2-year lifespan, affecting the campesinas. We live by planting, growing and picking the best seeds and repeating the process; Monsanto would prohibit this autonomy. It is important to keep the presidents who would let them in out of office. If these presidents came in and allowed Monsanto to operate in the country, poverty would skyrocket. We have power at the moment precisely because we have secured our food sources and homes. But we are up against a neoliberalism that is destroying Pachamama and she is reacting the way she should and she has the power to cause great damage as we are seeing with climate change.

Neoliberal education offers many professions but their central theme is the self – it’s me first, second and third. They only teach you to generate profits like a robot. These universities are teaching to keep people in the urban setting never to return to the provinces. This is aided by a flawed thinking in our communities that the only way to get out of a cycle of poverty and to see our children do better than we did is by sending them to the city. But why don’t we place good schools in the countryside?

G: Women are often the first affected and the first to confront economic changes. The feminization of poverty sees the women in the frontlines establishing for example communal kitchens, working in the black markets – traditions brought in from the rural areas. What makes these regional women so well-suited for these initiatives?

L: Without self-venerating ourselves, we women, through our life experiences and makeup as women have this sixth sense. When we see a person we do not see a stranger but a family member. A mother who is thirsty will think of her own children before quenching her own thirst.

Wherever we find ourselves we organize ourselves. In our own organization we have campesinas, artisans, indigenous and salaried women. And although we come from different walks of life a sense of camaraderie always brings us together. This gives us strength and makes us fearless. This courage has gained us the label of rebels from others.

You mentioned the communal kitchens. We also have milk distribution. The government only provides us with 18 percent of the funds to sustain these projects. The rest is put by the women who cook and are not paid while they help combat hunger. Now we are trying to expand because we have the capacity to grow the economy, it is a matter of not being complacent. The woman always finds a way to provide. We think more collectively and in the well-being of others. This is reflected in politics, in the University and street markets.

This organization is not exclusively rural but involves city aspects as well. When someone hosts a meeting they welcome dozens of members. Women from different regions then get together and help set up and cook for these meetings. In working together we teach collectivity; sometimes we find professors and other professionals who are not used to working with their hands but quickly find out when we are together we work together to achieve our goals – we’re here to prepare ourselves to grow.

Another important aspect is the happiness of women – the intimate. Rural women, and even those from the city, do not know the word orgasm. Those of us that have experienced it know it is a great thing to have with a partner. It isn’t something for only the man to have who uses you as a sex object, climaxes and that is it. Women have to love themselves and their bodies. We have to learn that we are not simply there to please, get pregnant and raise children.

When do we smile? When do you get to know yourself? These are topics we discuss with rural women.

G: Returning to the issue of mining, what alternatives or routes guided by social philosophies beyond the state are developing strong challenges to the hegemony of extractivism in certain regions?

L: The main problem with mining is water.

Those of us confronting the corporations are few. We can not rely on NGOs because some of them have been influenced by mining corporation’s money.

These mining companies want easy profits.

Our ideology is of course considered that of the left. Today the left is fragmented in a million pieces – it’s screwed. Frente Amplio has tried to form a coalition but we have failed to bring in most of the left.

In Cajamarca we have Goyo (Gregorio Santos) who is in prison. Now, I welcome anyone to run for president but one must look at what the best way forward for our country is.

Selfishness divides organizations in a way that makes it harder to bring them back together.

If we do not come together we are relinquishing our country to the others. It becomes harder when many NGOs come offering money. For this reason FENMUCARINAP does not work with the World Bank. We learn our lessons as we go along as to who we consider allies.

G: Finally, the Peruvian woman has a rich legacy and a fascinating history. What can this generation learn from the past and what does the future hold for the Peruvian woman?

L: As women we have to honor our grandmothers and grandfathers that taught us how to stand up for ourselves. They may have been illiterate but they taught us dignity; they taught us how to defend our rights; they taught us how to work. This is why  Peruvian women are creative and always moving forward.

Micaela Bastides, María Parado de Bellido, Bartolina Sisa, we have to mention all our heroines. We hear, Tupac Amaru! But were they alone? Manuelita Saenz was fighting alongside Simon Bolivar. How do we remember these women, as the wives of these powerful men? But these men wouldn’t be who they are without these equally powerful women who often times were the brains of the operations and did complimentary work.

So where are we going? To take power. We are not looking to be handed any power out of pity but because we deserve it and should be recognized for our work. Our ascension shouldn’t be put into question because we are women. This is what they are doing to Mrs. Mendoza now, questioning her ability. But how can you question our ability if we come with the experience of managing our households, where we are educators and doctors? Therefore we are well prepared to acquire power in leadership.

For the younger generations, the women, we teach them to never lower their heads in shame.

If your father is a campesino or your mother is indigenous you should feel proud of them. You should feel proud that that blood that runs through you is one of struggle.

What young people have to do is honor their elders. They have to go out to the provinces and talk with rural folk; that helps you grow and develop as a person. Without the qualities of dignity and compassion we will only grow to be robots and tools of the neoliberal project. We have to take the wisdom of our Apos, of our mothers and apply them to the development of our country, to keep in mind our pueblos and sow a future of hope. We must braid together the experiences of the rural and city. It is important to learn all we can from women, we do not minimize our men but women always put family before the self.

We also must believe and respect in the Pachamama through a collective cosmovision. We have to articulate our strength and look at ourselves as equals. Your academic background is not superior to the University of life which I learn from everyday – that makes me a survivor. I earned my doctorate in the streets taking over highways and I earned my Master’s when they took me off to prison for defending my territory. These two experiences, the intellectual and non-intellectual, are complimentary. It is similar to the yoke in the field that has two oxes. You need to have two ox, a young strong one and an elder one. The older ox will lead along the proper straight line and the young ox provides the strength. We must look at life in the same way; respect our elders and respect young people. If our mother chews coca leaves we must respect that. Respect our cosmovisions, it’s a beautiful thing.