At the beginning of 1992, a Moaist guerrilla group known as the Shining Path had been terrorizing peasants and community organizers in Peru for nearly a decade as part of a campaign to topple the government and install a communist regime. Tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children had already been murdered or simply disappeared by both the senderistas and the Peruvian military. Five female organizers were assassinated by the Shining Path in the previous seven years.
María Elena Moyano, their current target, was being labeled a government lapdog in senderista publications, and she had been receiving death treats for the past few months. For her part, the 33-year-old activist accused the Shining Path of having abandoned its revolutionary credentials and becoming as great a threat to the Peruvian people as the Fujimori administration’s neoliberal policies and mano dura tactics.
Moyano had begun her political career in 1984 as the undersecretary of the newly formed Federación Popular de Mujeres de Villa El Salvador, a women’s advocacy group in the shantytown on the outskirts of Lima which she had called home since she was a girl. Describing machismo as the “grave societal problem that women in Peru face,” Moyano promoted the transformative potential of women’s empowerment to form a foundation for a new, more vibrant kind of democracy. Under her leadership as undersecretary and then president beginning in 1986, the women’s federation in Villa El Salvador operated 800 communal kitchens and distributed powdered milk through its Vaso de Leche program. Moyano also helped organize defense units which protected poor neighborhoods from attacks by the Shining Path, which in the late 1980s was looking to capture Lima and thus all of Peru.
In 1990 Moyano stepped down as the federation’s president in order to run for deputy mayor of Villa El Salvador, a position which she won.
Despite her popularity among Peru’s most vulnerable communities, however, by February 1992 Moyano’s outspoken criticisms and progressive stances had made her an enemy of the Shining Path, the Fujimori administration and Lima’s police force. In September of the previous year, the Shining Path blew up a milk distribution center in an effort to frame Moyano, who responded to the plot by stating she “could never destroy what I have built with my own hands.” She called on the people of Peru to rise up against the senderistas, who “fight against the people,” and described the community groups she had worked with for the past decade as the only truly revolutionary movement in the country.
On February 14, 1992, Moyano led march in Villa El Salvador to protest the violence of the senderistas. She was shot dead at a fundraising meal the very next day.
Till her last breath Moyano believed in the power of women to be the catalysts for the kind of revolutionary change society needed. Writing in her notebook only a couple of weeks before her death, she betrayed no regrets for the life she had led up until that point, only considering herself lucky to have been of some use to her community:
I understood how difficult sacrifice is.
I thought about my children, my life and my history.
But close to death, I felt love, too,
that love I now feel for you,
my children and my people,
and I felt life rise within me again.
In spite of the deep sorrow I might cause,
I had lived the best years of my life. …
I recall the interminable and innumerable marches
and the women—organized.
Our happiness, pain and accomplishments …
Then I continue to remember
and know I’ve already lived the most beautiful years of my life.
the tenderness of David and the shyness of Gustavito.
This infinite love
for my children,
for my people whose souls are consumed,
yet they are happy at the barbecues and sport celebrations.
My God, how I’ve lived.
Thank you for giving me so much!
the opportunity to give my all —
Remembering María Elena Moyano — and remembering, as she did, how fortunate we are when we serve one another — is how we celebrate our heritage.