Translation: The Mayor
Translated by Patrick Moseley
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Nélida Silva was 11 years old and lived in the province of Raimondi in Peru. It’s far from Lima in a department called Áncash. She had a peaceful life: a life in the country, in a small town. An Andean life.
Her siblings lived in the capital. And of course, Nélida knew she was going to leave at some point. But her parents weren’t the kind of people who gave any warnings or consulted. So when they left Raimondi, they did it overnight. Without warning. That was it.
Nélida Silva: It was a shady night, with some light starting to appear with the sunrise, you know, when the sun starts to rise, but it’s still a little dark because, you know, the mountains are so tall and because of the shade from the trees.
Daniel: She traveled with her mother who was going to leave her in Lima and go back to her town. They made the first leg of journey on horseback. She remembers how it sounded…
Nélida: It was like: “Bada-bum, bada-bum, bada-bum”.
Daniel: And it was almost completely silent. Because at that hour, all you hear are the roosters, some animals, maybe a few other people getting up to work in the field.
Nélida: And I remember, by the time the sun came up we were already in Puna, you know, really high up. And we felt a really cold wind.
Daniel: They stopped by a stream and her mom took out something to eat. Food that she had meticulously packed.
Nélida: I remember those little napkins neatly tied up, all embroidered and white, all tied up.
Daniel: Each one had a piece of cuy and corn.
Nélida: Those are the things that stuck with me. And well, the water, the water from the stream, which we could drink then, you know.
And so we made it to the bus…
Daniel: The bus to Lima. A place that’s so different from Raimondi, it could have been an intergalactic journey. And well, that is where Nélida grew up, and even though she went back to Raimondi a lot, she wouldn’t live there again for three decades.
This is the story of her return to her province. A kind of quixotic return. Because when Nélida returned in 2014, it was so she could run for mayor of all of Raimondi.
Song: Raimondi does deserve progress. We deserve change. Not the past of deceit and deception. The time for Raimondi has arrived.
Nélida: Sisters and brothers of Raimondi: with a few days left until the regional and municipal elections, I want to give you a warm greeting. I’m Nélida Silva, my family has lived in Llamellin for many generations. I’m new to the electoral race. I’m a fighter and an entrepreneur, like everyone in Raimondi.
Daniel: Three decades had passed. The country and her province had changed tremendously… And so had Nélida.
Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
For this story we are collaborating with filmmaker Mitch Teplitsky and his production company Lúcuma Films. Some of the audio you’re going to hear comes from scenes that Mitch and his team recorded.
So, when I heard Nélida’s story, I was left with several questions. For example, how complicated can going back be? And how seductive is it to imagine yourself still belonging to the place where you were born?
Well… We’ll see.
In order to understand what’s coming up, we need to understand how shocking Nélida’s arrival in Lima was for her. In the province of Raimondi, in the Andes of Peru…
Nélida: Everything is above and everything is below, you have a kind of mental reference for where you’re going: north or south, you know? And where the sun rises and where it sets.
Daniel: But in Lima…, well that’s not the case at all. It may sound like an exaggeration but outside of summer, the sun never comes up. It’s a coastal city, yes, but in some neighborhoods you can barely tell you’re near the sea. To Nelida, at 11 years old, everything seemed strange.
Nélida: The taste of the water…the air…and the… Everything. It was a nightmare. Like: “When do I wake up and go back where I can…where I can feel good?”
Daniel: She was surrounded by people she didn’t recognize, who she didn’t understand.
Nélida: And the children, you know, wouldn’t play with me and I didn’t understand why, because at that time I didn’t see myself as different from them. I saw them as different. But I didn’t know I was ‘the outsider.’
Daniel: When I asked Nélida if she managed to feel at home in Lima she said no. That she never felt like a limeña, despite the 12 years she lived there. But in Lima she was able to go to college to study accounting, and then she did an internship for a mining company that had contracts in the UK.
Nélida: And that was the connection…
Daniel: In other words, how she wound up moving to London. At first, it was just for a week, but…
Nélida: While I was on my trip, the company closed here in Peru. It was the ‘80s, when…it was very…everything was unstable. So I decided to stay in England on my own for a year. But after a year I said, “I have to go back home. But before I go back, I’m going to stop in New York.”
Daniel: And she ended up staying in New York for nearly two decades.
During those years she worked with NGOs, in organizations that promoted Andean culture. And every once in awhile she went back to her town, her province, for holidays and to see her parents. And every time she went back it seemed very concerning to her how things were changing.
Mining had always been part of the local economy, at least since the ‘50s. But starting in 2001, a megaproject started up in San Marcos, a town in Áncash, a project that started to cause environmental harm to the whole region. And at the same time, money.
Money which in a lot of cases was wasted. I’m know. My grandfather comes from that region and I have visited several times. He’s told me that the authorities never want to spend money on public health, for example, but they do want to repave the town square. That they don’t spend money on education, but they do put it into another coat of paint on the front of town hall.
Nélida: They set out to build monuments or building projects that the town doesn’t need.
Daniel: You can see this throughout Peru, not just in Raimondi. But it bothered Nélida.
Nélida: To me it seemed so inefficient, you know, like they don’t care at all. We do it to fulfill our duty, and if the money comes, how nice that it comes, because we need to pour cement here or there, you know?
Daniel: To her it seemed like development at random, without planning, without thinking about what the people needed. Mayor after mayor spending just to spend.
In some cases, mayors would order construction in exchange for a what’s known as a coima or “backhander”, in other words, a percentage of the contract is always inflated.
Nélida saw other possibilities. She had other ideas. She had worked with groups of female entrepreneurs. She had seen firsthand that investing in human talent often gave more in return.
Somewhat idealistic? Yes. But every trip she took to her town, she spoke with people and everyone said the same thing. She heard a lot of the same complaints that she had…
Man: There’s no progress in this town! Are these streets!?! Are these streets!?! Come on, are these streets!?!
Man 2: This is the most forgotten province in the department of Áncash. Look, the candidates get rich but day after day the town gets poorer.
Woman: They come into power and forget everything. They forget about us.
Man 3: You’ve seen for yourself how Llamellín is. It’s a disgrace. When it rains, it’s impassable: it falls apart here, it falls apart there.
Woman 2: There’s no education here.
Woman 3: We don’t even have bathrooms.
Woman 4: We don’t have specialized medicine.
Man 4: The authorities are nowhere to be found. We need a mayor who really cares about our province.
Daniel: Little by little the thought came to her that she could be that person.
A lot of people in the area knew her, in part because she had lived abroad… And because she always came back. Her successes abroad were a source of pride.
Nélida: So people said to me: “Nélida, why don’t you become a leader? Why aren’t you one of the candidates?”
Daniel: Do you remember any conversation with a friend or a relative or a loved one who told you, “Nélida, don’t get mixed up in…that shit?”
Nélida: You know, I had nearly my entire family telling me that. And many of my close friends too.
Daniel: And even though she had her doubts…
Nélida: When I saw the work they do…It’s really a very basic. And I said: “I can do better than them.” And so the idea that I could be one of the candidates came up.
Daniel: And her family was terrified. For example, this is her sister Noelia:
Noelia Silva: When she said “yes,” and the time passed she said: “Yes, I’m going to do it… I’m going to run.” “Ahhh! Oh no! Please no! More craziness!”
Daniel: But she had already made up her mind.
Orlando Sáenz has known Nélida since they were children. And he became her campaign manager.
Orlando Sáenz: She came back to Peru… For a woman who has seen the globalized word, coming back to Llamellín is like a step backwards, you know?
Daniel: And according to Orlando, Nélida’s experience, which was so unusual, was her advantage.
Orlando: People are already tired of traditional politicians. They have always wanted a change, they just haven’t been given the opportunity.
Daniel: And at that time, all of Áncash —the department that Raimondi belongs to— was controlled by a mafia. The head was one César Álvarez. According to police reports, he and his people divided the money that came from the mines and kept themselves in power by intimidating their opponents. In May of 2014, Álvarez was arrested after being accused of organizing the murder of a political enemy, Ezequiel Nolasco.
This was the world Nélida wanted to get involved in. The very same month Álvarez was arrested, Nélida started her political campaign.
Nélida: So it was seven against Nélida.
Daniel: Seven men?
Nélida: Seven men, seven male candidates against Nélida.
Daniel: One of them was Félix Lora, known as Pachi, who had been an official with the Ministry of Education in Lima.
Félix: This is a great land. Despite all of the problems that I have just mentioned, this land possesses human capital, which is the more important thing: the simplicity of the people, the solidarity of the people, the special quality in their traditional dishes, the indigenous dances we have here…
Daniel: All of the candidates would agree with this. It really is a beautiful region.
And well, if she won, Nélida would be the first woman elected mayor of Raimondi.
Nélida: Going into the campaign I was afraid of violence. It’s not that I was afraid they would kill me, but I was really afraid of…some physical aggression.
Daniel: For example, that someone would block her way by placing stones on an extremely isolated road. Those are things that happen. So, what does it mean to run for office in a province like Raimondi? How does one do it?
Well, it’s a rural, mountainous area and it’s very poor. Being a candidate in a province like this requires extended trips along badly worn roads. On top of that, it was the rainy season. Nélida herself was the driver.
One night they had to sleep in the truck.
Woman 5: Neli, hello! How are you?
Nélida: We’re in Parpa.
Woman 5: Where are you going to sleep?
Nélida: In the car. Because there are cliffs. You slip a little and there are cliffs…
Daniel: But despite all that, Nélida liked it. That’s how she got to know her province better, and she made it to the small towns which were more secluded, where a candidate’s visit was always an event. The people living there would see a truck arrive and come out to see what it was all about just out of curiosity.
Nélida: Good afternoon.
Indistinct voices: Good afternoon.
Nélida: Good afternoon. How are you, dear? Tell your mom, your dad: Now there is a woman candidate who is going to make things better! Good afternoon? How are you? How’s it going?
Daniel: And Nélida’s message, her proposal, was a little different. It was supporting women. Investing in small businesses. Making alliances so that agricultural products make it to market.
Nélida: And so, my proposal, as don Pedro just said, is that it is agriculture that must pull us out of poverty. I don’t think it’s fair that farmers are the ones who work, who provide others with nourishment and the others are the ones who are better off than the farmers, don’t you agree? In this province we barely plant enough to eat and we don’t plant enough to sell. Why? Because…
Daniel: But it’s not enough just to offer the details of a platform. One of the things Nélida understood very early on in her campaign was that you can’t show up to a village empty handed. It’s just part of the culture in Áncash. It may seem good or bad to us, but the point is that’s how things are done. So Nélida…
Nélida: As gifts we had little bags of detergent for them to wash their clothes, we had pens…and since I saw that the women knitted a lot it occurred to me to bring a lot of material for knitting.
Daniel: And here is the difference between her campaign and those of some of her opponents.
Nélida: Everywhere they went they brought crates of beer or they bought it there. And they drank. They drank a lot. And that was their campaign.
Daniel: And well, imagine you live in one of these small towns. There is a candidate that offers you food, beer, a party…and then comes Nélida with pens and detergent.
Nélida quickly realized that this campaign wasn’t going to be easy. The geography, the rain, the lack of infrastructure… But also the culture, and the simple fact that Nélida was a woman.
Nélida: In the Andes region…well the whole country, I think we are very chauvinistic.
Daniel: You need to see it in Mitch’s documentary: again and again Nélida finds herself in community meetings, packed rooms with forty men and, I don’t know, three women…and the only woman who speaks is Nélida.
Nélida: Just a few words. I’m Nélida Silva, for those of you who still don’t know me. This meeting is to talk about…
Daniel: And when it’s Nélida’s turn to talk, she’s like a school teacher trying to control a room full of rebellious students. They just don’t pay attention.
Nélida: …And there, some people don’t even have creativity, and they haven’t had it for many years… Listen, just listen…
Daniel: She asks them quiet down…
This may not come as much of a surprise: a room full of men not paying attention to a woman. But according to Nélida, it isn’t just the men.
Nélida: The women? They’re chauvinists too. It’s a chauvinist culture. That’s why they raise their children the way they do, unequally. No…no…there’s no equality. It’s like men get preferential treatment, and women don’t.
Daniel: And that was maybe one of the biggest obstacles for Nélida’s campaign. But there was also something else…
Woman 6: I’ve heard bad things. The woman who’s running is…very stuck up.
Daniel: This older woman from the country is summarizing the way some people reacted to Nélida. And she repeats the rumor that would do so much damage to Nélida’s campaign.
Woman 6: She’s gone to the communities… When we met her, when we greeted her, when we shook her hand, she washed her hands, going somewhere else. Really… I think she doesn’t like people like us.
Daniel: Many people started repeating this same accusation.
Man 5: I’ve heard that the lady, after greeting farmers, goes back into her car and washes her hands with…alcohol.
Daniel: And that rumor is particularly cruel and ironic, because…
Nélida: My party’s symbol is a hand. And so the whole slogan was “give me your hand and I’ll give you mine.” You know?
And the truth is I never even had hand sanitizer, never. It was a really rough campaign because they didn’t say anything else about me. I never stole from anyone. I never lied to them…
Daniel: We’re talking about a political landscape in which there are candidates accused of misuse of public funds, threatening journalists and committing voter fraud. But the accusation that had the greatest impact on the voting population is that Nélida washes her hands…
That she’s a pituca.
Explain what pituca means.
Nélida: Well, pituca is a term… Listen, it’s rather hard to explain. It’s a term that is used for…really for people from Lima, who belong to a very…elevated social class.
Daniel: Rich people. White people. And the irony is that when Nélida grew up in Lima, she was marginalized for being Andean. Now, back in her province, they put her down for being from Lima.
Here a man summarized the criticism against Nélida.
Man 6: Acting like a countrywoman, putting on a hat, putting on a traditional skirt, to convince and seduce the people of Raimundi.
Daniel: It’s the first time in your life someone calls you pituca.
Nélida: The first time in my life, there.
Daniel: This is Orlando Sáenz, her campaign manager:
Orlando: People say “she doesn’t walk.” Well that’s not true. We walk. We eat what you eat. We eat potatoes. The woman is so humble, she even sits to chat with people on the streets. But since her enemies don’t have anything to say, what do they say? “No, she washes her hands. She doesn’t greet people. She doesn’t walk.” They say, “she gets carried around.”
Daniel: Carried? The Queen of the Andes. Give me a break…
We all know politics is dirty. But, how dirty?
We’ll see after the break.
Daniel: The Oscars are right around the corner. And well, what do I know? I haven’t been to the movies since my son was born four years ago. So, to stay on top of things I recommend NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour with Linda Holmes. On Pop Culture Happy Hour you will always find an intelligent conversation about pop culture. Find it on npr.org/podcasts or the NPR One app.
We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
And this is Nélida Silva, a few weeks before election day, speaking to a producer with Lúcuma films.
Producer: Tell us, how is the campaign going.
Nélida: Well, the campaign… It’s a little bit like I expected when I got started in all this. Although sometimes it even surpasses what I expected. Right now we are one of the favorites to win, and I think that is why the attacks started…
Daniel: On top of the rumors going around, in certain towns in Raimondi many of Nélida’s signs were destroyed. They cut her face on posters. But despite all of the challenges, Nélida felt optimistic.
Nélida: And, well here we are in the struggle, you know? Continuing to fight.
Daniel: But there was another challenge that was perhaps more complicated than the handwashing rumor. And this is already an electoral issue, one dealing with fraud: people called golondrinos, literally “swallows”.
Nélida: A golondrino is a person who is being paid to go and vote for X person.
Daniel: But this voter doesn’t live in the area where they go to vote.
Nélida: So I could pay a golondrino, let’s suppose, from the Amazon or the coast. I could pay several golondrinos. And I could pay for their trip, for their change of residence, and then they would come —the day of the election— and arrive in my area.
Daniel: It’s basically buying the vote. And during the campaign, Nélida was afraid that some of her opponents were going to do this. And that’s not paranoid thinking. Here is Marco Antonio Garrido, regional head of the RENIEC, el Registro Nacional de Identificación y Estado Civil [the National Registry of Identification and Civil Status].
Marco Antonio Garrido: It’s common knowledge that whenever the elections come up, there are always some candidates, some bad candidates or some bad authorities, who even through the exercise of their power, official power, promote the issue of massive address changes. With the intention of putting the odds in their favor with some extra votes.
Daniel: And in rural areas, influencing the results of an election isn’t so hard. There are relatively few voters. A hundred here, a hundred there and that’s it. Everything changes.
According to the RENIC there were more than 11,000 golondrino voters in regional elections in 2014 when Nélida was a candidate. With cases as absurd as:
Nélida: The night before an election, a pregnant woman goes to the hospital, to the clinic and gives birth. And this woman obviously can’t vote because she’s… She just gave birth to baby. However, on her ID card it appears that she voted…
Daniel: So, here’s the context: Six male candidates and Nélida, an outsider, the only woman, running a different kind of campaign, with clear a proposal and a message of long term change.
The day of the election, Nélida voted early.
Nélida: I am very calm, very happy and rather confident that the results are going to be in our favor.
Daniel: And they went to her house to wait. The whole day, Nélida was in constant contact with her friends and supporters. It was a tense time.
Nélida: Hello? How are you, Rontoy? Nothing, nothing, nothing because the election officials still haven’t come out.
Daniel: And besides, there is no local television in Raimondi. There are two radio stations, but there was only music. So…
Nélida: The way we find out who the potential winner here is…is just that the election officials come out right after the count. And they say who won at their table. And according to that, people arrive at their own conclusions about who’s ahead.
Daniel: But officially…
Nélida: You don’t know. And things can change. In a country like Peru, where there is a large mafia presence, where organized crime in the world of politics is tremendous…
Daniel: And the official results can even take days to be released. This is an interview Nélida gave on the afternoon of election day.
Nélida: In Llamellín we hope….maybe in less than an hour we should know more or less who’s ahead.
Daniel: But, at this point, they already knew more or less what was coming.
She lost in San Juan de Rontoy. She lost in Chaccho. She lost in Chingas. She didn’t win in any municipality. Pachi Lora won, the candidate we already met, from the Alliance for Progress party.
After the election he spoke about his plan for the government.
Pachi Lora: Basically, we’re starting to build businesses to improve the economy of our province.
Daniel: Emphasizing, in particular, the role of women in development…
Félix: One of them for example, is the one that…a little while ago we connected a group of mothers, of women, who are going to drive knitting and the art of crochet and the little sticks so that that project can at least come out ahead. For example in May…
Daniel: On the very night of the elections, Mitch, the producer of the documentary, interviewed Nélida. You can tell she still hasn’t processed the news.
Nélida: We still live in a country where there is still no political consciousness. And there is no education that people can count on for sustainable development. We always think, “well, where is this going to come from… What tree is this money going to fall from”…
Daniel: Months later in New York, I spoke with Nélida and we picked back up on the story of her campaign. The difficulties and the challenges. In particular on being a female candidate in an area where there is so little understanding of political processes.
She told me, for example, that there were many incorrectly marked ballots.
Nélida: Many women told me that in the end. “We didn’t see you…the hand. We didn’t know what it looked like, so, nothing, we put an ‘x’ on the whole page. Or wrote…” some of them who knew how to write “Nélida”. And, I don’t know, but that’s what they told me.
Daniel: Null votes.
We spoke about what she had learned from the experience, if she really thought she could win. She said she did. But when the results came in…
Nélida: I felt relieved…
Daniel: That you didn’t win…
Nélida: Yes, because, I mean, after having gone through everything we went through on the campaign trail. And all these attacks and all these people wanting to… I said: “Wow if you were in power you’re just as hysterical and negative” And in the end they won’t let you work, you know?
Daniel: And the truth is that surprised me. If she had asked me from the beginning, I think I would have told Nélida not to get involved in politics, that it’s not worth the trouble. At the same time, I admire that desire to face the reality in her country and try to change something. Maybe more people like her should take risks like that… I don’t know.
Daniel: You were just telling me that you felt relieved… Did you express that to your relatives and the friends who were with you?
Nélida: Yes because many were on the verge of tears. Because they couldn’t believe that so much work, I mean, so much… And a lot of people saw me as someone who could change things. You know? They honestly saw it. They said: “Oh finally, we’re going to have a change, such a radical change, something different,” you know? And these people were really really hurt.
Daniel: But she doesn’t regret it.
Nélida: I would say that the whole campaign, despite taking a lot of effort, was very gratifying for me, you know? I learned a lot. I met a lot of communities that otherwise it never would have occurred to me to walk through.
Daniel: And well, I’m left with this. With this image: a girl, pulled from her home at 11 years old, and dropped in a strange and hostile city; who grows up longing to go back, and who years later has that opportunity. How wonderful. What an experience. And even if she didn’t win, at least she tried.
Tell me, do you think that when you went back, after the elections, people saw you differently?
Nélida: Yes. And I don’t know if I’m paranoid, but I feel like there is a difference.
Daniel: What’s the difference?
Nélida: Well nothing, some people who just don’t like me, I mean, they’re distant, you know?
Daniel: The difference, Nélida says, is that now they see her as a candidate. Like someone who tried to get involved in a world that was- that has been- in essence, restricted from women.
And well, it’s a world that, for now, still is.
A new documentary about Nelida’s return to Peru and her campaign for mayor will be released in late Spring this year. Visit soyandina.com for more information. Thanks to documentary makers Mitchell Teplitsky y Palu Abadía.
This story was written by my and edited by Camila Segura, with the support of Caro Rolando. The mix and sound design is by Ryan Sweikert. The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Silvia Viñas, Luis Trelles, Fe Martínez, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, Barbara Sawhill, Melissa Montalvo, Désirée Bayonet, Luis Fernando Vargas and David Trujillo. Our interns are Emiliano Rodríguez and Andrés Azpiri. Carolina Guerrero is our CEO
Learn more about Radio Ambulante and this story on our website: radioambulante.org. Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.