Thursday, August 28, 2014

Of martyrs and popular memory

As we here, in the United States, are now soul searching in the aftermath of the civil unrest and heavy-handed police response in Ferguson, Missouri, I am reminded of an encounter I had recently in Ayacucho and what it revealed to me regarding a set of events that took place in Ayacucho in 1969.

In Huamanga -i.e. the city of Ayacucho-  four students were shot dead by the Sinchis -the police's specialized counterinsurgency battalion- during protests.  In nearby Huanta the toll was higher.

Here is what I wrote about them in my university thesis:

"In January, 1969, the military government had passed Supreme Decree 006 which restricted access to free public education by retroactively instituting a 100 sol  monthly tuition of all students who failed a course the previous year.  Naturally, this measure affected the poor far more than the rich as it was already an economic burden for many families to spare the children long enough for them to attend school, and the very conditions imposed by poverty  made it far more likely that they would fail a course.    Not surprisingly, D.S. 006 proved very unpopular and provoked a four-month-long series of protests in Huamanga and Huanta.   In Huamanga the protests were primarily led by the [Communist Party's local committee] through the Frente de Defensa del Pueblo de Ayacucho (Front for the Defense of the People of Ayacucho, FDPA) and the FER [Revolutionary Student Front].   In Huanta, where the degree of organization was lesser, the protests were more spontaneous and also more violent.   At least 18 people lost their lives and many more were wounded during street battles with police in both cities."

The events are memorialized in a popular song, "Flor de Retama", composed by the late Ricardo Dolorier.   Among the lyrics are the lines

Ay! Come all to see.
By the plaza of Huanta
the Sinchis are coming in.
They're going to kill students,
Huantinos at heart


Although the military tried to suppress it, the people's memory persisted and in 1974 the Front for the Defense of the People of Ayacucho placed plaques at the spots where each of the four students were murdered.

When I was in Ayacucho in July, attending a colloquium on the role of women in armed conflict and pacification in Peru from 1961 onward, I met a gentleman who had been a student at the time of the protests and continued to be involved in the local movement for human rights.   

He told me about the plaques, which to my surprise had been completely unknown to me.

One of them had been placed on the front of a building that was then torn down and the plaque lost.  This gentleman had managed to locate it after several years of searching and the owners of the new building were persuaded to allow it to again be placed at the spot.  I neglected to note the location of it [It is at the corner of Jiron Munive and Jiron Madrid, in the San Juan Bautista district (1/3/15)], and of one other, but I did remember that one was located at the end of Jiron Tres Mascaras, near the "new bridge" over the Alameda River, which runs through town The fourth plaque was, to my surprise, one I had walked past without noticing on many occasions when passing through the archway near the market, on Jiron 28 de Julio.

On my last afternoon in Ayacucho, I made a sort pilgrimage to that spot, and for the first time beheld what had been so often bypassed by me: the plaque, placed by the people of Ayacucho, in memory of one whom they regarded as a martyr in their struggle for social justice - young Eulogio Yaranga Saune, killed on that spot on the 21st of June of 1969, while defending the right of the people to a free public education.