It’s never easy to break with your parents’ world view. Especially when they are willing to die for it.
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Translated by Patrick Moseley
[Camila Segura, Senior Editor]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Camila Segura. Maybe some of you don’t know it, but here at Radio Ambulante we had five seasons before we joined the NPR family. So, every now and then, we like to go back to those our archives to share with our new audience some of our favorite stories.
So, today we’ll start in Lima, Peru, with a story from our executive producer, Daniel Alarcón.
[Daniel Alarcón]: José Carlos Aguero’s mother is named Silvia. Silvia Solórzano.
[José Carlos Aguero]: My mom was really small. She was about one meter fifty (4’9”), I don’t know, one meter fifty-two. They called her “La Flaca”, the skinny lady.
[Daniel]: She had long black hair.
[José Carlos]: She put it up in a ponytail. She was a really simply dressed woman, done up simply. She wasn’t really done up, actually. She was a very liberated woman. She had a very strong character but she was also very lively.
[Daniel]: Silvia grew up in Lima, Peru. Her mother, that is, José Carlos’ grandmother, was a seamstress. Silvia’s uncles sang criollo music in different bars in the capital.
And Silvia liked music. Since she was a girl. José Carlos remembers that his mother sang about everything. Constantly. Ballads, boleros, waltzes, criollo music, folk songs, protest songs. While he told me this, José Carlos was playing Johnny Pacheco in the background.
[José Carlos]: “Mom, play this one,” we would say to her. And she sang the songs, and her repertoire was huge. And her voice was… Maybe it’s not my place to say, but I think she has one of the most beautiful contraltos voices I have ever heard. Very clear, strong and projected. Beautiful.
[Daniel]: And at one point, yes, what she really wanted was to be a singer. A professional singer. It was her dream. But everything changed when a relative came.
[José Carlos]: An uncle of hers, a Brazilian communist –well, a Peruvian who lived in Brazil and was part of the Brazilian Communist Party. He came when she was young and was starting her musical career, and she was going to be on TV. And he said to her, “Do you want to be a whore? Do you want to be a whore? Because that’s what you’re going to be. Dedicating your life to music, right? Going on those TV shows. You don’t have to do that.”
[Daniel]: “You have to do something else”, her uncle told her. “You have to dedicate your life to others. To politics. To the struggle”.
And that’s how it was. She never became a singer. And she ended up on a beach in Lima, years later, killed by three gunshots.
Today we have the story of Silvia Solórzano; the story of a mother and her son, of a war, and an ideology, of a country and a family that was falling apart.
And the story starts here, with three key characters.
The first is Silvia, of course: Silvia Solórzano, José Carlos’ mother. From Lima, a bit of a hippie. In the early seventies she was twenty years old and was studying to be a secretary –and she followed her uncle’s advice. And soon as she graduated she got a job as a secretary for the high command of the Communist Party. That was her way of supporting the cause. Every day she went to the Party offices in la Plaza Dos de Mayo in downtown Lima.
Second character: José Manuel Aguero: A little younger than Silvia. Charismatic, a good talker. He was from the provinces, from Pruno, but he moved to Lima with his mother and his siblings to study engineering in the Univsersidad Nacional. A degree he never finished. Like many people in his generation, he got involved in the radical politics of the day. He became a student leader and then a factory worker in Lima in order to get close to his fellow workers and convince them of his ideology.
The third key character is José Carlos, Silvia and José Manuel’s son, who has studied this story, trying to fully understand who his parents were and how they ended up where they did.
In the early seventies, Silvia had left her job at the Communist Party and had gone to Junín, in the central mountain range of Peru, in order to gain a political education. The same thing José Manuel did for another party on the left, also in Junín.
[José Carlos]: So they worked with labor unions for miners and famers, and they traveled throughout the country doing that for their parties.
[Daniel]: But their respective parties collapsed and both ended up in the home of a leftist family in the area. They met there and fell in love.
They returned to Lima and started a family. They had three children. José Carlos is the second. He was born in 1975. He has an older sister and a younger brother.
They lived in a working class neighborhood and Silvia and José continued being active in radical left parties. Their house…
[José Carlos]: Was always full of people. People coming and going, union meetings, union leaders, you know?
[Daniel]: But listen, at that time, they were part of the legal left. But that was about to change. Around 1982, when José Carlos was 7 years old…
[José Carlos]: It was obvious that they were involved in something that wasn’t normal. It was less normal than before.
[Daniel]: They changed their routines. Sometimes their parents didn’t come home. They had secrets. And José Carlos confirmed it one day, while he was looking through the pockets of the leather jacket his father wore. He would find political flyers. And although he couldn’t read very well, José Carlos could identify a few letters. And one day he said to his dad…
[José Carlos]: “You’re in the PPC,” I said. Sometimes… I got letters mixed up. The Christian People’s Party [Partido Popular Cristiano]. And he told me, “no, no, no, no, no. I’m in the PCP.” He told me, “I’m going to explain what the PCP is.”
[Daniel]: The PCP. The Peruvian Communist Party. But not the one that Silvia had worked for years earlier. This one was different… A party better known as the Shining Path. The bloodiest, most notorious terrorist group in Latin America.
And that changed everything.
But to understand all this, a little history… Just a little. In 1980 a Maoist group started an armed conflict against the Peruvian State. They called themselves the Peruvian Communist Party, but they were generally known as the Shining Path. They imagined a state ruled by the people and a rigidly centralized government. And they were violent, and ready to shed blood for whatever reason. It all started in Ayacucho, a department in the southern part of the country, but it didn’t take long for the violence to reach Lima, the capital.
And yes, the response of the Peruvian government was brutal; a lethal repression that cost thousands of lives. There were paramilitary groups and killings on the part of the state. There were many. When we talk about Peruvians living in rural areas in the 80s, we are generally talking about innocent people, trapped between two lines of fire: the Shining Path’s, spreading terror mercilessly, and the military’s. And so thousands of displaced individuals arrived in Lima.
That is, in broad terms, what was happening in the country.
But we’re only going to talk about one case here. One family: Silvia, her husband José Manuel and her three children.
In 1983 a group from the Path fell into the hands of the authorities and gave away several of their follow party members. José Carlos’ parents were among them. So, both his father and mother were put in different jails in Lima for several months. All the while, José Carlos and his siblings went to live with their father’s mother.
Both were released due to lack of evidence, and after resting for a few weeks with the family, their father went into hiding. From then on, he spent very little time around the house. It was too dangerous.
And we don’t know what he did for the Party, although we can suppose that it wasn’t just a matter of meeting and talking with people anymore. He was probably engaged in violent military action. He was already a trusted soldier and the Path had declared war on the Peruvian government. In rural areas under their control they massacred entire villages on the mere suspicion that they opposed their ideology. And in the city, they blew up electrical towers, killed police officers and planted car bombs.
[Journalist]: “At exactly 6 in the morning terrorists elements detonated several explosive charges in front of the seventh precinct located on the 13th block of Avenida Alfonso Ugarte”…. “We cannot currently make an account of how many individuals have been injured or killed as a result of this attack made against the premises of Canal 2”.
[Daniel]: José Carlos, his two siblings and his mother went back to his grandmother’s house in another neighborhood.
[José Carlos]: Very poor, very poor. We lived in a very precarious home.
[Daniel]: And it didn’t take the neighbors long to realize that José Carlos’ mother was involved in something dangerous.
[José Carlos]: You can’t keep a secret like that in a neighborhood like the one we lived in. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing.
[Daniel]: José Carlos’ parents were never high up in the command of the Party, or anything like that. In fact, they were simple soldiers, cannon fodder. They believed in a perverse, violent ideology but they were thinking of a better future. It’s hard to understand, because those years, the 80s, were years full of blood, war, and hunger.
They rarely saw their dad. All the while, Silvia managed to keep them above water. She didn’t have a steady job, because she had been accused of being a terrorist before. She did simple odd jobs, whatever it took to support her children, and she also recruited people to the Party, getting the people involved, little by little, with the Shining Path.
[José Carlos]: And what my mom did, very skillfully, was get to people’s sensitive sides. It’s an interesting process of seduction. What they called “mass work.”
[Daniel]: And it seemed uncomfortable to José Carlos. Silvia identified people who could serve the Party and she asked them for things, little favors.
[José Carlos]: “Hold onto this for me”, “if you give me this little thing”, “if you give food to that person”, small things, right?
[Daniel]: And the idea was that small things would bring them to bigger things. More compromising things.
[José Carlos]: I never liked it. I never liked it. And I saw it. I was with her and I saw, and I felt bad for them.
[Daniel]: He felt bad for them because he could tell, even as a boy, that things were going to end badly for them, that his mother was putting them in danger.
And he was right. The people he saw come by the house…
[José Carlos]: They all died. And the ones who didn’t die were put in jail.
[Daniel]: Like his dad. When José Carlos was 9 years old his dad was arrested for the second time. It was toward the end of 1984. It happened like this: he and four militants attacked a police post in downtown Lima. They were trying to steal weapons, but they were caught by surprise by security agents. There was a firefight and the senderistas, members of the Shining Path, killed a police officer. José Carlos’ father and the others fled and there was a chase.
This time they wouldn’t let them get away. They took José Carlos’ father to a prison known as El Frontón.
[José Carlos]: El Frontón was impressive. Impressive.
[Daniel]: These memories are rather clear for José Carlos. It was a correctional island. To get there…
[José Carlos]: We took a boat at the Arcena dock in Callao, along with a bunch of relatives. We got there early. We got in line.
[Daniel]: Sometimes they went with his mom. Other times José Carlos and his siblings went alone, and those times they pretended to be other adults’ children because minors aren’t allowed to enter el Frontón on their own.
[José Carlos]: The people sang. The relatives sang music about the Shining Path. The Path adapted popular songs and changed the words and made them “revolutionary”, in quotes.
[Daniel]: The prisoners welcomed their visitors singing as well. The Path had taken over the island. It was –it is– a rocky, dry, dusty and deserted island. For many months out of the year it’s engulfed in fog. And despite being inhospitable, by the end of 1985, the senderistas –including José Carlos’ dad– had made the prison their home.
[José Carlos]: So, since the island is made of stones, what they did was convert it into a beautiful place.
[Daniel]: With the permission and complicity of the authorities, of course. One of the first things they managed was…
[José Carlos]: That they got them not to shut the bars of the pavilion. Then they got them to leave the tower –there was a guard tower– they got them to leave the guard tower unattended, there wasn’t supervision anymore. Later they…they got access to the beach. And in the end they got everything.
[Daniel]: At night they let the guards come to close the gates to the pavilion. But aside from that gesture, within the island, they were free.
They decorated the walls with murals and set up comfortable spaces so that kids could spend a nice day with their parents.
The last time José Carlos saw his dad, he told him something was going to happen. It was June, 1986.
[José Carlos]: He told us, my dad told us to wait and not to worry, and in reality we said goodbye too. Really, not just us. All of the prisoners said goodbye to their families. Everyone… My sister and my brother, we were always like old children. We were…very knowing people. And we knew something was going to happen.
[Daniel]: On June 18th the senderista prisoners in three prisons in Lima, including el Frontón, rose up, taking some guards and three journalists as hostages.
Hours later the state gave its counter strike, regaining control of the prisons by force.
[Archive]: The government will succeed in recovering the national order that had been disrupted.
[Daniel]: And the Peruvian navy and the Republican Guard attacked El Frontón. After a few hours the senderistas surrendered, and according to the report from Truth and Reconciliation Commission more than 200 prisoners, accused of or sentenced due to terrorist activity ,were executed extrajudicially by agents of the state. And among those killed was José Carlos’ father.
That was when the hardest years started. José Carlos’ mom didn’t have a job. She lived on what in Peru is called “el cachueleo.” Odd jobs. Favors. Economic improvisations. They had to go out to get water and bring it back to the house in buckets. They stole electricity from lamp posts. But…
[José Carlos]: Even though it was a shack, it still became a center for Shining Path activism, that’s how it was. I think at that that was my mother’s role to some extent. And a lot of people came to sleep, eat and do the same things always.
[Daniel]: But for José Carlos and his siblings not everyone that came to visit was welcome the same way. They liked some more than others. That is to say, they were better friends with some than others. He remembers one of them in particular.
[José Carlos]: Almost all of them were, like I said, young, young. But he was, I don’t know, he seemed older to me, but he was about 30, I think. And he was different because he was very nice. Like, very, very tender. He was shyer, more caring.
[Daniel]: In 1988, Silvia got a job selling pencils and poster boards at a shop at the Universidad de San Marcos. And it seemed like things were going to get better. But one day she came home with news: the militant they liked so much…
[José Carlos]: “He has been detained. He has fallen,” she said. “He has fallen.”
[Daniel]: The police had him. The military. They would have been interrogating him at that very moment. José Carlos’ family didn’t have many options if they wanted to survive.
[José Carlos]: She knew what she had to do. Pack up the few things we had –it was something but it wasn’t a lot– and leave the shack. To close up and get away.
[Daniel]: Why? Well, for rather clear reasons.
[José Carlos]: What they do to people, what they did to people, was torture them.
[Daniel]: And José Carlos’ mom, the widow of a senderista who died at El Frontón, couldn’t stay put to see what happened. Waiting to see if her friend was able to resist the torture or not. She had three children.
[José Carlos]: And we left. We left.
[Camila]: We’ll be back after a break.
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[Camila]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Camila Segura. Before the break, Daniel was telling us how Silvia and her children abandoned their house after an associate was captured by the police. The house served as a refuge for the Shining Path, so they didn’t wait to see if the young man gave up information on them.
They kept a low profile. They didn’t return to the house until a couple weeks later.
[José Carlos]: To get some things that we hadn’t been able to bring with us. Also things that weren’t really important, but that had some kind of value to us. Pots. Things like that. Clothes.
[Camila]: And when they got there they realized that everything had happened as they had predicted. Yes, the police had gone to the house and had ransacked everything and had interrogated the neighborhoods.
[José Carlos]: At that moment it looked like a robbery, right? Basically. Either a robbery by the police or the people who were there.
[Camila]: And this is the interesting part.
[José Carlos]: The neighbors –the neighbors we had for years, you know, people that… The people we had lived with for a long time– had different attitudes toward the issue.
[Camila]: Daniel continues the story.
[Daniel]: Although they were all poor, there were levels. The ones who had houses made of wooden planks were different from the ones who lived in houses made of matting. And those differences manifested in the most unexpected ways.
[José Carlos]: What later had me thinking for the rest of my life was what one neighbor did.
[Daniel]: The neighbor was one of those people who you don’t know what she does for a living. She didn’t have a job but she had two babies. She had a lot of problems. José Carlos’ mom had helped her many times with food and money. But still…
[José Carlos]: The neighbors that came to us that day told us that she was one of the ones that accused my mother most aggressively. Saying, “she was the leader,” you know. “She is the leader. She is a terrorist, she’s evil.” I don’t know. But she said it angrily, you know?
[Daniel]: And we have to make this clear, this is not the type of neighborhood –or even the type of country– where people normally help the police. Especially so enthusiastically. For José Carlos, that anger had a very clear explanation.
[José Carlos]: A poor person isn’t stupid, just poor, you know? You know that you don’t have anything. And you know that possibly… That you are something small. And that maybe you’ll never get out of it, and your children won’t either.
I think that she felt in that moment, when the police arrived, that there could be someone beneath her on this misery scale.
[Daniel]: At last. Someone beneath her. Worse than everyone.
[José Carlos]: Someone who was not just miserable and poor, but and outcast, you know?
My mom and I were great friends for a long time. We were no longer just mother and son. What is most interesting is how my mom becomes disenchanted with her war, her revolution.
[Daniel]: Around the start of the 90s, José Carlos was already a teenager and he realized that something had changed. As if his mom was tired. At this point José Carlos and his siblings had stopped believing…
[José Carlos]: …Like we believed in the revolution when we were children, you know? In fact, at that point we were completely against the Party, and we wanted to get her out.
[Daniel]: Any way they could. They hated the Party. They hated it. For its violence and its hypocrisy. A few arguments that were obvious to thousands of Peruvians that had been terrorized by the Path. But growing up in that environment, it’s harder to recognize the Party for what it was. And José Carlos had already realized…
[José Carlos]: …That they were against what they were preaching. That they killed people. They killed innocent people.
[Daniel]: And he and his siblings started to use whatever resources they had to convince their mother to leave.
[José Carlos]: Emotional blackmail, tantrums, fights, philosophical arguments, political arguments. We used everything to get her out.
[Daniel]: But nothing worked.
[José Carlos]: I don’t understand my mom. Really, I, I don’t understand her behavior in those years, in that year. In that last year.
[Daniel]: The year 1992.
[José Carlos]: The year 1992. I don’t understand it.
[Daniel]: According to José Carlos, by 92 his mom didn’t even believe in the Party anymore. Because she wasn’t stupid, right? And she already knew that the war wasn’t going anywhere. But there was no going back.
[José Carlos]: I think she was aware that doing what she was doing she was already screwed.
[Daniel]: And she saw it as her destiny. Hers. Not her children’s. For example when a fellow Party member tried to recruit José Carlos, Silvia became furious and told him:
[José Carlos]: “I’m the one getting screwed in this war. Me. Not you,” she told me.
[Daniel]: But still it was clear to everyone that sooner or later they were going to kill her.
[José Carlos]: We had no doubt. I mean, we had not doubt they were going to kill her, you know? At a minimum they would put her in jail for 20 years, you know? But it was very possible that they would kill her, because let’s say, it was logical for us to think that. And we all knew it. That was the crazy thing, we knew.
[Daniel]: And her too?
[José Carlos]: Of course she knew. She was so sure, that when I… We asked her to leave the country. We asked her to leave. And I asked her every time we came home in the car, we argued and she didn’t… She didn’t listen to me.
[Daniel]: Despite all of the pressure from her children, Silvia stayed in Lima. She stayed in the Party. She even made a plan so it would be clear what would happen to her children if she died. Which child would go to which uncle. She wanted all of them to finish school, even if she wasn’t around.
[José Carlos]: That was the most unbelievable thing in the world to me. Because she could have left. I mean, all that time she spent taking those precautions she could have gotten out of the country.
[Daniel]: And she didn’t.
[José Carlos]: And she didn’t. And I don’t know why.
[Daniel]: Several things happened that year, in 1992. The President of Peru at the time, Alberto Fujimori, dissolved congress in April. It was an internal coup that began nearly a decade of authoritarian rule.
All the while, the violence in Lima was ruthless. The Shining Path detonated a car bomb in Miraflores, on Tarata Street, in the middle of a neighborhood that was emblematic of Lima’s upper class. Twenty-five people died.
And it was also the year that José Carlos entered into the public university, San Marcos. He was used to the place, equally because of his mother’s little store and the political environment. The university had been a meeting place for Silvia and José Carlos for years. Sometimes she slept somewhere else, but they always saw each other there.
But there was a day in May when José Carlos’ mother didn’t come home. Or to San Marcos. José Carlos opened the store, and a little later someone came. It was a man he didn’t know.
[José Carlos]: Very dry. Very sparing. He asked me, “Does Mrs. Silvia Solórzano work here?”
[Daniel]: José Carlos was well prepared for this kind of conversation. He said yes. He knew immediately that the stranger in front of him had been sent by the Shining Path.
[José Carlos]: “Well, she died.” “Alright, thank you very much.”
[Daniel]: “Thank you very much.” That’s how he responded. Nothing more.
The people who worked in the stores on either side came over right away. It was like they all already knew. Everyone but José Carlos. One of them said they had seen his mother on TV. José Carlos didn’t have a TV.
[José Carlos]: But her picture and her name was on there. It was deformed, you know? They got the last name wrong, but she…
[Daniel]: That is to say, her body. Killed by three gunshots.
[José Carlos]: With a sign on the beach. The sign read: “This is how snitches and traitors die.”
[Daniel]: José Carlos supposes that the sign was put there by the military or the paramilitary group that killed her, to confuse people.
A little later an uncle arrived, who was actually the owner of the little shop, and José Carlos told him what the others had said. The uncle went to try to get more information and José Carlos stayed. Waiting.
[José Carlos]: So it was time for me to go home, that was all. There was nothing else I could do. And it’s a long trip. It’s very far. At that time it took about two hours going by public transport. I was taking my time getting there because I didn’t want to talk to my family, to be honest.
[Daniel]: A difficult scene was waiting for him and José Carlos wasn’t eager to face it.
[José Carlos]: I sat at the back of the bus and took off my glasses. I had crooked glasses; you know? They were old. What I felt when I took off my glasses was that all of a sudden I had turned invisible. Seeing everything blurry…it’s not that the world is blurry, suddenly, I was…I was on the outside. I was alone in my own space, we’ll say, on that bus.
And then I immediately felt relief. But it was a physical, physical relief. I mean, the most concrete thing I could feel in the world.
[Daniel]: It sounds terrible, but it was that it was over.
[José Carlos]: Finally, my mom died. That was it. Finally, that’s it. I had been waiting for her to die. Eventually they are going to kill her and you’re waiting.
[Daniel]: And once she was dead they couldn’t do anything to her. The worst they could do was done, it was over. And because of that, relief, followed immediately by the guilt. It struck him.
[José Carlos]: But I loved my mom. I mean, she was, she was the person I loved most in my life. Then the relief –it was selfish, right?– but I also felt the greatest guilt I possibly could.
[Daniel]: We spoke for a while, José Carlos and I. And our lives and experiences couldn’t be more different. But I understood that you always carry that guilt, all of the time. Even though you don’t deserve it.
[José Carlos]: I mean, I know it’s not my fault, I didn’t ask for the burden, you know, the burden of being the son of senderistas. I didn’t want to feel relief when my mother died. But these things do happen.
[Daniel]: I told him that it seemed even cruel to be ashamed for feeling relieved. And this is what he said to me:
[José Carlos]: I understand what you’re saying. I even agree with you. Unfortunately, agreeing isn’t enough.
[Archive]: “The news you are about to hear is likely the most anticipated news of the century. Tonight, according to police reports, the DINCOTE captured Peru’s main enemy, in Lima, Abimael Guzmán Reinoso, the terrorist who has caused the deaths of 25,000 people…”
[Camila]: Four months after Silvia Solórzano was killed in September 1992, Abimael Guzmán, the founder and leader of the Shining Path was arrested in Lima. This marked the beginning of the end of the war.
According to a report from the Truth Commission, 69,000 Peruvians died during the internal conflict. José Carlos’ parents, José Manuel and Silvia, were among them. It is estimated that the Shining Path is responsible for the death of more that 30,000 Peruvians.
José Carlos Aguero lives in Lime and told part of his family’s history in the book “The Surrendered,” published in 2005. His most recent book “Persona” is an essay with autobiographical sections that also deals with the armed conflict in Peru.
“Persona” won the National Literature Prize in Peru in 2018
This story was produced and written by Daniel Alarcón, with editing by Silvia Viñas and me. Thanks to Caro Rolando for help with production. Mixing and sound design by Martina Castro and Andrés Azpiri, with music from Luis Maurette.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Jorge Caraballo, Rémy Lozano, Patrick Moseley, Ana Prieto, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, and Luis Fernando Vargas. Our interns are Lisette Arévalo, Victoria Estrada and Andrea López Cruzado. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
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Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Camila Segura. Thanks for listening.