In their introductions, Orin Starn and the late Carlos Iván Degregori use the terms “remarkable” and “exceptional” to refer to Lurgio Gavilán Sánchez and his memoir. This is not hyperbole. Gavilán joined the Shining Path as a twelve-year-old, fighting for three years. When members of the army trapped him on a bleak mountain peak, they took pity on the emaciated, lice-ridden teenager and at the last minute spared him from execution. He was brought into the barracks as a servant or errand boy but, showing his smarts and perseverance, impressed officers enough that they allowed him to become a soldier. This was not his last stunning transition. He left the military after seven years, just when he had a clear path to becoming an officer, to join the Franciscan order. Gavilán underwent the rigorous ordainment process only to leave the priesthood after a few years. He began to study anthropology and is currently a PhD candidate at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico, where he wrote much of this memoir. It’s an astonishing autobiography, told with style and sensitivity, that illuminates much about late twentieth-century Peru.
The first chapter stands out because we count on so few inside accounts of the Shining Path. It’s a spellbinding read. Lurgio left his Andean village to join his older brother, already a Sendero member. Lurgio could not read or write and only spoke Quechua. He remembers many of his compañeros fondly, recalling acts of solidarity and humanity such as sharing a piece of bread or overlooking a minor fault, acts that could have earned them the death penalty from Shining Path commanders. In contrast, he paints a searing portrait of the Shining Path itself, a rigid hierarchy in which the leaders showed little concern for the lowly guerrilla fighters and relied on brute force to stem any form of questioning of the party or disobedience. When Rains Became Floods punctures the myth of an omnipotent Shining Path that outfoxed the military and counted on loyal and efficient commandos. Instead, Gavilán underlines the guerrillas’ frequent hunger and lack of medicine and describes “victories” that consisted of vicious revenge against defenseless peasant communities deemed unsupportive of the revolutionary cause. His stories make it clear that while the Shining Path moved freely across vast swaths of the Ayacucho highlands, army helicopters or patrols posed a constant and deadly threat. The young guerrilla constantly feared for his life, worried that the Shining Path would execute him for a minor act such as falling asleep on guard duty or that he would be captured by the armed forces. Hunger, fear, and doubts gnawed away at him as he watched comrades die, become disillusioned, or desert.
His portrayal of army life is also ambivalent and insightful. He mentions horrifying rituals enacted upon recruits (eating excrement) as well as the rape of Shining Path prisoners and the abuse of prostitutes. On the other hand, he survived due to the kindness of one officer and provides other examples of generosity and solidarity. His rise in the army is a testament to that institution’s populist tradition. When considering the priesthood, Ayacucho’s ultraconservative bishop (now the controversial archbishop of Lima) Juan Luis Cipriani discouraged him because of his licentious sins as a soldier. Nuns of the Congregation of Jesus Word and Victim, however, guided him into the Franciscan order. His description of monastic life, the simplicity and harmony of the Franciscan community, is blissful, his honesty unimpeachable. Even as he delights in this humble life, his restlessness becomes apparent, and his eventual departure from the priesthood does not prove that surprising. Gavilán does not describe his timeas a and anthropologist, although the book testifies to his ethnographic skills.
Lurgio Gavilán Sánchez is a splendid writer who finds his voice from page 1. He is laconic, rarely using adjectives or delving into the fascinating and often-horrific events that he describes. People die, are raped, suffer, or show kindness; the passive voice and a minimalist narrative take hold. This reflects the fact that he “joined” the Shining Path so young, a monolingual Quechua speaker who, although quick to learn, was a child. He neither takes nor dodges responsibility but rather tells his story, allowing others to judge, condemn, and, perhaps, learn. As a campesino-guerrilla-soldier-priest-anthropologist, he has spent most of his life in the countryside, and vivid descriptions of birds, mountain passes, or rivers, often with their name in Quechua, enrich his spare prose.
Published originally in Spanish in both Mexico City and Lima, When Rains Became Floods continues to be the subject of much praise and discussion in Peru. It has reached a wide readership, including people with little interest in the Shining Path. The insightful introductions by Degregori and Starn, as well as Margaret Randall’s graceful translation, make it accessible. Lurgio Gavilán has been a guerrilla, a soldier, and a priest, and he is now an anthropologist. In addition, he became an extraordinary writer. His story should and will reach a broad audience.
* Published in The Hispanic American Historical Review 94.4 (november 2015). Image: Museo Virtual de Arte y Memoria