This week, our guest contributor José Ignacio Mogrovejo discusses his use of oral history narratives to explore Peruvian War veterans’ recollections of their youth prior to the Peruvian Ecuadorian War of 1941.
By José Ignacio Mogrovejo
Childhood, both as an idea and a biological experience, has been a highly contested concept in the social sciences in the decades since the publication of Philippe Ariès’ book Centuries of Childhood. Consequently, contemporary works that emphasize the constitutive dynamics of personhood have trended toward analyzing childhood as a social and cultural construction, rather than as a natural phenomenon. This perspective applies to the narrative component of life history interviews, in which memory gives shape to past experiences, with interviewees recalling “childhood” or “adulthood” as constitutive elements of a life. For Peru, a nation immersed in the legacy of its conflict-ridden recent past, highlighting the life testimonies of aging war veterans can be useful to unveil frequently absent stories that took part in the collective signification of historical events, and whose transversal issues still define the country’s memory landscape.
As a young and still emerging scholar of modern Peruvian history, I knew that studying the lives of the last surviving generation of my country’s oldest war veterans posed a challenge, not only because of their almost nonexistent relevance as a social group in the media and public commemorations, but because the Peruvian Ecuadorian War of 1941 has predominantly existed in historiography as a conflict with nearly zero social and cultural repercussions.
Trying to look beyond the war, when interviewing veterans I asked them to reconstruct a personal narration of their lives. I noticed that they associated the idea of childhood with the ability to freely decide their fate. In contrast, the early 20th-century view prior to the war approached childhood from a paternalistic perspective, in which children should be protected from social vices and the hardships of industrial labor under the restrictive wing of a nuclear family. Coming from a low or low-middle-class background, the veterans I spoke with found purpose in searching for an individual path towards “success,” especially when they recalled the beginnings of their childhood and acknowledged the struggles they had to endure with their families to survive, an issue that eventually led them to part ways. Having separated from one of the most important tutelary institutions of postcolonial Peru (the triad being composed of the family, church, and the armed forces), they found themselves working in various occupations until the war inserted them into the government’s efforts to discipline its citizens. Although the military experience reinforced their persona as proud symbolic bearers of “the first conflict we (Peruvians) have ever won,” it also meant the death of childhood, as they ceased to be independent youngsters, having transitioned to disciplined recipients of the fruits of a modernizing nation-state.
Although the military experience reinforced their persona as proud symbolic bearers of “the first conflict we (Peruvians) have ever won”, it also meant the death of childhood, as they ceased to be independent youngsters, having transitioned to disciplined recipients of the fruits of a modernizing nation-state.
For the veterans, recalling their youth produced different individual trajectories that didn’t defy preexisting socio-economic hierarchies, but were aimed at finding better opportunities if it was possible. To provide an example, education has continued to be viewed by many societies in the Global South as one of the main tools to escape from poverty and—from the perspective of pedagogic bureaucrats—to reduce the gaps that characterize historically-entrenched inequalities. For Humberto Tejada, it meant acknowledging the limitations of his working-class Paiján childhood, as he couldn’t attend private schools in the region’s capital according to his mother’s desires. Without it, the only option left was to work at an early age, and by the time he was prepared as a soldier, he had sufficient knowledge to instruct young recruits and fulfill his country’s expectations of discipline and order: “I was drafted because of my age, and I fulfilled my civic duty…By the time my service ended, I had to stay to train the newcomers, and half a year later, I received my certificate as a soldier.”
When the conflict against Ecuador erupted in January of 1941, almost every corner of Peru mobilized in optimistic public manifestations of support, with mayors and governors organizing military parades every time the conscripts gathered. Thousands of people were drafted, especially those coming from the Highlands with an Indigenous background, who were then transported up north to the front lines in the Amazonian jungle.
“I’m not from the chacra (small farming land),” recalled Máximo Teodoro Jara, “I’m from Wari province in Ancash, and we saw them (as different), the cholitos de chacra (poor indigenous peasants).” His childhood was shaped by navigating the internal hierarchy of the Paramonga estate, despite not being in charge of productive activities or being responsible for recruiting wage laborers from the Highlands. In a country profoundly marked by racism and discrimination, Máximo pretended to act like an “adult” to gain respect and admiration from other workers by buying expensive clothes and dominating the estate’s soccer games when he was 12. For him, military instruction meant giving up this earned autonomy to gain social recognition, as being a military officer allowed you to be seen as “a respectable and powerful person,” without belonging to the elites. Máximo embraced that, and his words reflect how living under hardships defined his identity. He refused to remain stagnant in a powerless condition, and instead used the military discipline to improve his material and social situation: “I’ve always liked to be the best, and I’ve never been anyone’s servant.”
Recalling the first time I went to talk with the veterans, I found myself in their association headquarters with no idea of what to expect from their testimonies. I feared silence or an unwillingness to speak, rather than my own ability to ask the right questions. However, my motivation to listen and make sense of their identities before becoming soldiers elucidated the ideas that shaped their experiences between the collective struggle of their youth just to survive and the brief moment of militaristic enthusiasm offered by the 1941 war. I also discovered how they as a group were able to internalize both processes as a constitutive part of their current self.
The legacy of their memories has left a door open for a detailed analysis of the lives that often disappear into commemorative acts of patriotism, but also in the recollection of earlier epochs when they had to find a purpose for the future yet to come.
In February of 2020, one of the workers at their association told me that no more than fifty veterans were still living across Peru, and now with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s uncertain how many of them have passed away. Nevertheless, the legacy of their memories has left a door open for a detailed analysis of the lives that often disappear into commemorative acts of patriotism, but also in the recollection of earlier epochs when they had to find a purpose for the future yet to come.
José Ignacio Mogrovejo obtained his BA in History from the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú and is currently finishing his undergraduate dissertation about the medical origins of a national racialized geography in late-nineteenth-century Peru. Between 2019 and 2020, he interviewed seven Peruvian war veterans about their life experiences before, during, and after the Peruvian-Ecuadorian War of 1941, as part of an ongoing project titled “Testimonies from the War of ’41 Oral History Project” for the digital collections of the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History.