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The Autobiography of Maria Elena Moyano

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The Autobiography of Maria Elena Moyano
Edited and annotated by Diana Milosavich Tupac
Translated (with a prologue and afterword)
by Patricia S. Taylor Edmisten (Peru 1962–64)
Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida
128 pages
October 2000

Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 1991–93)

THERE’S A TRAGIC MORAL TO THE LIFE of María Elena Moyano: all acts in a war-torn country are political. The moral is illustrated in Moyano’s autobiography, which details her efforts on behalf of Peruvian women and her death at the hands of Shining Path guerrillas.
     If Moyano had been born in the United States, her life would have followed the script of the American Dream: Grow up in a shack, graduate from high school, marry, become a leading advocate of women’s rights, appear on the Oprah Winfrey show.
     But Moyano was born in Peru, and her story had a different ending — and no appearance on “Oprah.” After rising from an impoverished background, Moyano was twice elected president of the Popular Women’s Federation of Villa El Salvador, and she was one of the main organizers of Vaso de Leche, a program that aimed to ensure that every child drank at least one glass of milk a day. In addition, Moyano was instrumental in setting up communal kitchens around the town of Villa El Salvador.
     Her acts of selflessness ran afoul of the Shining Path, which, because it was attempting to turn Peru Communist, didn’t want the lower classes to be fed lest they lose their revolutionary ferment. In doing good for the people Shining Path was supposed to represent, Moyano was putting her life in danger.
     Moyano believed in working within Peru’s existing political system, empowering people through democracy. “They have always said that the [communal] kitchens and the Vaso de Leche committees weaken the people and rob them of initiative,” Moyano writes in her autobiography. “We say that this isn’t so, because what we support is self-government. That is, we believe that people have to learn to govern themselves.”
     A number of women’s rights advocates in Peru proceeded Moyano as victims of left-wing terrorism, and Moyano knew she was a target. Nevertheless, she persisted in her work, and her story is both tragic and uplifting.
     Although it’s called The Autobiography of María Elena Moyano, the book’s first 34 (out of 94) pages are devoted to a prologue written by the translator, Patricia S. Taylor Edmisten. The prologue is effective both as an introduction to Moyano’s story and as a concise history of Peruvian women. Indeed, it makes Moyano’s particular story all the more interesting.
     Moyano’s words constitute the rest of the book, which Diana Milosavich Tupac, the editor, divides into two sections. In the first section, Milosavich gathers quotes from interviews Moyano did to present her thoughts on such topics as women’s rights and the Shining Path. The brief final section fits the conventional definition of autobiography, with Moyano telling her life’s story chronologically. “My name is María Elena Moyano Delgado” is the opening sentence, and the rest of her autobiography maintains this direct, simple style.
     Some of the most interesting aspects of Moyano’s autobiography don’t involve her political life, but her personal relationships. When she became pregnant by her boyfriend, Gustavo Pineki, she didn’t want to pressure him to marry her. “Gustavo had his own economic problems,” she writes. “He was the oldest of seven orphaned brothers and sisters, and his father was in prison. He also had a pregnant sister . . . I would have been too much.”
     It was Moyano’s mother who asked Gustavo to marry her daughter.
     Moyano writes with admirable honesty about her relationship with Gustavo, which overall she characterizes as good. She does, however, find occasional fault with his machismo: “There were occasional fights because I wanted him to assume some of the household chores.”
     Moyano concludes her autobiography with a poem summarizing her life. It was written in the same month in which she was assassinated, and includes this poignant, telling line: “I’ve already lived the most beautiful years of my life.”
     Although a short book, The Autobiography of María Elena Moyano is an excellent introduction to women’s struggles in Peru and stands as a testament to the courage of Moyano, who was only 33 years old when she died.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of The River of Lost Voices: Stories
From Guatemala,
winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and Steal My Heart, a novel. His stories, poems and essays have appeared in The Sun, Beloit Fiction Journal, Notre Dame Review, Atlanta Review, Shenandoah, and other literary journals. He is an assistant professor of English at West Virginia University.
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