In Ayacucho, the Andean city known for having an abundance of churches, Elizabeth and Mariah have an extra measure of family members.
Elizabeth lives with Pastor Dionicio Bautista Gomez and Elizabeth Huarcaya Yarasca and their five children: Luis, Herbert, Diego, Wendy and Wanda. Mariah lives next door with Nieves Bautista Gomez, who is Dionicio’s sister, and her son, Javier.
The Goshen students have the run of both houses. It’s not unusual to have supper in one house and dessert in another — or even to have two suppers on the same night!
During our visit we enjoyed pachamanca (plates piled high with chicken and several varieties of potatoes) in Mariah’s home, and then fried trout and potatoes (served with Qapchi, a sauce made with fresh Andean cheese, peppers and scallions) with Elizabeth’s family.
Dionicio and Elizabeth are the founders and administrators of several schools, including the Institución Educativa Privada William Thomson, a private Christian primary school where both students work one day a week, helping with English instruction.
Mariah and Elizabeth turned the game musical chairs into a teaching tool the morning we visited. While they sang “Caminamos en la Luz de Dios” (“We are Walking in the Light of God”), children circled the chairs. Whoever ended up without a chair could move safely to the next round only by giving the English equivalent for queso (cheese) or other Spanish words.
Mariah and Elizabeth also work at Institución Educativa Inicial Privada Vidas, a preschool, one morning a week. On the other weekdays, Elizabeth and Mariah help to care for toddlers and preschool children at Hogar Casa Luz, an orphanage that presently serves 27 children.
Ayacucho is located in a valley about 2,761 meters, or 9,058 feet, above sea level in the Andes mountain range. The city of 151,000 people is known for its colonial architecture, 33 churches (one for each year of the life of Jesus Christ) and religious observances.
The central park, or plaza mayor, draws a crowd by day and by night. We watched at least half a dozen different processions, whether to mark a graduation or saint’s day, slowly circle the park while we were there. Often these processions are accompanied by fireworks. On our last evening there, children singing traditional Ayacuchan songs in one corner of the park competed with a graduating class of young soldiers who danced to a brass band just down the street.
The Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro founded the city in 1540 as San Juan de la Frontera de Huamanga and intended it to be a bulwark against a possible Inca rebellion. The city is celebrated throughout South America because of the critical battle for independence that was fought in 1824 in the nearby highlands of Quinua.
General Antonio José de Sucre, who had been appointed by South American liberator Simón Bolivar, commanded troops that defeated Royalist forces, setting the stage for independence of Peru and the rest of South America. In honor of the victory, Bolivar changed the city’s name to Ayacucho. A statue of Sucre in Ayacucho’s main plaza commemorates the battle and its significance for the Americas.
Bloodshed and conflict returned to Ayacucho 156 years later with the advent of the violent revolutionary movement known as the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path). Abimael Guzmán Reynoso, a philosophy professor at the San Cristóbal of Huamanga National University in Ayacucho, founded the Shining Path and launched a conflict that spread throughout the country.
More than 70,000 Peruvians died in the 1980s and 1990s. Ayacucho was the departamento (state) that suffered the greatest number of killings – by the Shining Path as well as the military and police. That sorrowful era is remembered at the Museo de la Memoria, which relates the stories of the victims and the survivors, “so this never happens again.”
We toured the museum one afternoon, feeling the sacredness of the space, which included walls with photos and articles of clothing of a sampling of the casualties in the civil war, victims of mass murders, torture, rape and forced disappearance. The museum was founded in 2005 by a group of Quechua-speaking women who lost close family members during the war.
At the William Thomson school, the children sang a song that envisions a world where Christian love (amar) triumphs and where neither one’s race (raza) nor skin color (color de la piel) are of any consequence: “Cristo te necesita para amar, para amar, Cristo te necesita para amar. No te importan las razas ni el color de la piel. Ama a todos como hermanos y haz el bien.”