By Sandro F. Piedrahita
Torn between allegiance to his parents and the demands of his conscience, the son of two ruthless guerrillas makes a dangerous pilgrimage to become a peaceful soldier for Christ.
“The loss of Eden is experienced
by every one of us as we leave the
wonder and magic and also the pains
and terrors of childhood.”
When Abimael Jones meets Abimael Guzman, his namesake and the head of Peru’s Shining Path guerrilla movement, the young Abimael is surprised by how ordinary and undistinguished the older man looks. Abimael Guzman, a.k.a. Presidente Gonzalo, is a short, rotund figure with squinting eyes that look through bottle-bottom glasses and a thin scraggly beard.
He looks so different from the poster above Abimael’s parents’ bed, the place where a crucifix or an image of the Sacred Heart would ordinarily go. In the poster, the older Abimael is fully bearded, robust but not obese, with dark, penetrating eyes and stripes of red and yellow emanating from his person, as if he were the sun itself. Not surprising that his followers hail him as “Puka Inti,” Quechua for “red sun.” Behind him are the figures of at least two dozen Amerindians bearing clubs, rifles and swords, marching as if they were in a parade and following a shining path.
“I want you to meet someone,” Karen Jones, now known as Comrade Juana, says to her blond son as she moves him toward the older Abimael. The man is dancing in the living room with his arms up in the air, his fingers snapping. There are more than forty people in the living room, celebrating as if it were someone’s birthday or the twenty-eighth day of July, Peru’s fiestas patrias. As soon as Comrade Juana introduces her son to his older namesake, the obese man stops dancing, hugs the younger Abimael and gives him a wet kiss on the cheek.
The older Abimael, despite the images of swords and guns in his posters, despite his history of ruthlessness, despite his reputation for calm, intellectual cruelty, is said to love children like the Christ. Sometimes – before he went completely underground – after a village was “occupied” by his men, he would sit surrounded by children in the center of the town plaza and preach to them about the wonders of the revolution.
The older Abimael tells the younger one, “You should be proud of your father. Comrade Carlos was a great man, a hero in the struggle to oust the white oppressor from power in the land of the Incas.”
The young Abimael does not understand why the older Abimael is speaking of his father in the past tense. Comrade Carlos has been missing from the house for about a week, but that is nothing unusual. The young Abimael is used to his father’s frequent absences.
“Why do you talk about my father as if he were dead?” the young Abimael asks.
The older Abimael looks askance at the boy’s mother, as if he doesn’t know what to say. Tears begin to well up in the eyes of the younger Abimael.
“Your father has died, Abimael,” says Comrade Juana. “That is why we’re all celebrating his life. All these people have come to pay their last respects. Even Presidente Gonzalo, who is such an important man, fourth sword of international Communism, after Marx, Lenin and Mao.”
“That shouldn’t make you feel sad,” the older Abimael intervenes. “Your father was one of the most valiant warriors in the fight to liberate the peasants of Peru. And he died as a martyr, at the hands of the police.”
“So you’re telling me that someone has killed my father?”
The older Abimael inanely quotes the last Inca, Atahualpa. “Such are the laws of war,” he says, “to defeat or be defeated.”
The younger Abimael collapses at the feet of the older Abimael and begins to sob.
“Why did he have to be in a war?” cries out the young Abimael. “Why couldn’t he be like the fathers of all the other children and be a carpenter or a butcher?”
Suddenly, out of the shadows, Comrade Barbara appears. She is a stout Amerindian woman, olive-skinned, her hair cropped short, wearing olive-green pants and an alpaca sweater. Comrade Barbara has been living with the family of Abimael Jones ever since her own husband was killed by the military in the Andean town of Cajabamba.
“I think you should leave Presidente Gonzalo alone,” Comrade Barbara says starkly, addressing the young Abimael. “You should just go to your room and let us be.”
The boy does not like Comrade Barbara. She is bossy and once called him an “imbecile” when he opened the door to the bathroom when she was using it. Another time she called him a “rubio desdichado,” an unfortunate blond boy, when he complained of the meager food she had served him for dinner on a rare day when his nanny Winnie was absent. The young Abimael wondered if Comrade Barbara disliked him precisely because he was blond.
The young Abimael does what he always does when he wants to circumvent Comrade Barbara: he speaks to his mother in English. The English language is his secret weapon, a connection to his mother with which nobody can interfere, the language she first spoke, before the American Karen Jones became the Peruvian Comrade Juana. Just like Quechua was once his secret link to his father, for his father proudly taught him the language and the history of the Amerindian.
“I don’t want to be alone,” he tells his mother in English. “I shall miss my father. What does it mean to be dead?”
“Leave your mother in peace,” Comrade Barbara again interrupts. And the young Abimael wonders what Comrade Barbara means when she uses the word “peace.” Is it peace to be drinking and eating, dancing and carousing, all because his father is dead?
The boy looks to his mother, searching for consolation, but as usual she agrees with whatever Comrade Barbara says.
“I think you should go to your room now,” says his mother. “We can talk about all of this later.”
And the young Abimael does what he always does when his mother rejects him. He goes outside, into the garden, where his beloved Winnie has a room of her own. Winnie is what they call a zamba in Peru, of mixed Amerindian and African blood. Her tawny hair is curly, her skin a soft brown color, and she has soft hands that the young Abimael likes to feel on the surface of his skin. Ever since he was about three years old, she has helped to raise him and filled the void left by his mother’s indifference and her overriding dedication to “the armed struggle.”
“Mama Winnie,” he cries out to her as he knocks on her door. The woman greets him with a hug and asks him what is wrong when she sees his face.
“They say my father is dead,” he tells her.
Winnie knows that Comrade Carlos had been a kind father, despite the extremity of his views and his role in the Shining Path’s millenarian war. But while the young Abimael’s mother had hardened with the years, Carlos had softened instead. Not that Winnie was ever told exactly what Abimael’s parents were doing. But sometimes they were absent from Lima for weeks.
Indeed, that is why Winnie had first been hired, to take care of the young Abimael when his parents left Lima in one of their “expeditions.” Soon she became a permanent presence in their home and even traveled with them when they left Lima for Andean towns. Winnie always told the young Abimael wonderful stories, tales about Saint Martin de Porres, a man of African blood just like Winnie, about Saint Rose of Lima and how roses fell from the sky on the day of her death, about Jesus the Lord and Mary His mother. In his earliest childhood, she told him stories about Sinbad the sailor, Snow White, and all sorts of fairy tales.
Winnie listens when the young Abimael tells her, “I guess my father is now with the Lord in Heaven.” Winnie has been expecting this moment, ever since she learned that Comrade Carlos had been shot by a policeman.
“I’m sorry, Martin,” she says. “But I’m sure he is with the Lord now. Do you want to say a prayer for him?”
And the young Abimael nods and says, “Yes, the Hail Mary.” He knows that she calls him Martin when they are alone. It is a secret between them, that when he was about six years old she had taken him to a priest in Magdalena Nueva and had him baptized as Martin, in honor of the saint to whom they sometimes pray at night when nobody sees them. Winnie didn’t like the fact that the young Abimael’s parents had named him after an unrepentant killer.
“We can pray the Rosary,” Winnie tells him. She begins the first half of the Our Father, then Abimael completes it. They do the same with all the Hail Marys. Winnie mouths the beginning, the salutation, and Abimael says the rest of the prayer, “Holy Mary, Mother of God,” he intones as he bows his head down devoutly, “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, amen.” Then he adds some words of his own: “Also pray for the soul of my father in Heaven.”
* * *
Eighteen months before the death of Comrade Carlos
The young Abimael is used to moving from apartment to apartment, often without much notice from his parents. But this time he is roused in the middle of the night as his mother cries out at him with urgency.
“Hurry, hurry,” says his mother. “We have to leave this apartment now!”
“What about my clothes?” asks Abimael. “Do I get to take my bicycle with me?”
“Just put on a jacket,” his mother orders. “Snap to it!” she commands in English.
When they go outside, his father is already waiting for them. Abimael notices that in addition to a single valise, his father is loading several rifles into the trunk of the vehicle. Winnie is already sitting silently in the back of the white Chevy Impala, holding a small bag of clothing.
“Where are we going?” the young Abimael asks once the car is running. “And what is Papi doing with all those guns?”
His mother is nervously looking out the window as his father drives with great speed, not stopping for any red lights.
“Don’t worry about it,” she says to her son. “Just sit tight.”
They continue to drive until they reach a small apartment. A woman is waiting for them outside. All the young Abimael sees is a shadow.
“Just wait till I speak with Comrade Barbara,” his father says, and after a quick conversation, he comes back into the car. “I have the money now,” he tells Abimael’s mother. “That will be enough for a month in Huanca Sancos.”
“How did they find out about us?” Comrade Juana asks.
“I have no idea,” responds Comrade Carlos.
“Duermete, mi niñito,” Winnie says as she caresses the young Abimael’s hair. Sleep, my child.
“Aren’t you scared too?” the child asks Winnie.
“Just place your faith in Saint Martin de Porres,” she whispers in Abimael’s ear. He knows she doesn’t want anyone else to hear.
After about an hour, Abimael’s father finally speaks. He is already on the Panamericana, the highway that will take them all the way to the province of Ayacucho. He looks behind him to see if his son is asleep and thinks he is. Winnie is certainly asleep. But the young boy hears everything.
“How they figured out we had anything to do with the bombing of the Banco Wiese, I will never understand,” says Comrade Carlos to Comrade Juana.
“There must have been an informant. I don’t trust that new fellow, Castelblanco. I’m going to ask Presidente Gonzalo to launch an investigation. If Castelblanco’s guilty, I shall demand revolutionary justice. According to Gonzalo Thought, all traitors must be hanged.”
“Still, it’s a good thing we were forewarned. Now I see the value of having spies within the government. Presidente Gonzalo is a genius.”
At some point, the young Abimael falls asleep, unsure of what he has heard. Even at his young age, there are things that intrigue him. Why would anyone bomb a bank? And what did that have to do with escaping in the night? Why does his mother call Presidente Gonzalo a genius? Who is this strange man who is venerated like a god?
Abimael sleeps for about six hours, cradled in Winnie’s lap. When he wakes, his father is still talking, but the boy remains silent. His parents have never before discussed their business in front of him, and now he has a morbid curiosity about it, drawn to his parents’ words like a moth to the heat of a lightbulb. So he feigns that he is still asleep even as Winnie seems to move restlessly.
“You know what awaits us in Huanca Sanco,” his father says. “They will be stoning the mayor, a fellow named Rodrigo Huaman.”
“I can tell he’s an Indian by his name,” says the mother of the young Abimael. “That is the worst kind of revisionist. The natives who side with the oligarchy are the greatest enemies of the revolution. And I’ll be the first to throw a stone.”
There are a lot of words Abimael does not understand. Revisionist. Oligarchy. Revolution. And yet he realizes they are talking about stoning an Indian man to death. He’d like to think he’s just dreaming, going through a nightmare, but he knows that he isn’t. There’s a world beyond the confines of his home, far from the prayers he and his Winnie pray whenever they can, and it is a world where killing men is possible. It is a place where his own mother would help stone a man because he is – what were his mother’s words? – “a traitorous revisionist.”
“They should just make it easy and shoot him,” says the father of the young Abimael as he continues to drive, his car hugging the mountains. “No sense in torturing the man.”
“Since when have you had scruples?” asks the boy’s mother. “What difference does it make?”
“I’m an old revolutionary by now,” responds his father. “I’m no longer given to the excesses of youth. Revisionists must be killed – it is the law of Gonzalo Thought – but there is no reason for human beings to be tortured.”
“You’re forgetting something,” Comrade Juana responds. “By forcing the people to participate in the stoning, we’re leading them forward in their movement toward the armed struggle. That is why women are often asked to fire the final shot in an execution. Once they participate in their first homicide, the rest is easy. And they can then follow the shining path toward liberation without a second thought.”
Suddenly Winnie has had enough.
“Must you speak of such things in front of the child? Don’t you realize he can hear everything? Can’t you talk about movies or about the beauty of the Andean highlands instead? Why must you speak of revolution, bloodshed and war? You are going to destroy his childhood.”
“Don’t act so surprised,” says Abimael’s mother. “You’ve known for a long time that Carlos and I are disciples of Presidente Gonzalo.”
“You know I only stay with you because I love your son. I know your activities all too well. And your words about violence and immorality will only startle him. At some point, of course, he will know, but you should preserve his innocence as long as possible.”
“Don’t get sassy with me,” cries out Comrade Juana, turning her face toward Winnie. “Don’t forget your only role is to take care of Abimael, not to give me advice about what you consider morality.”
“Please,” interrupts Abimael, no longer pretending to sleep. “Please stop fighting over me.”
He’s deathly afraid that Winnie might be fired.
But Winnie continues, perhaps too angry to control her words.
“I am but a humble, penniless zamba, but I know the difference between right and wrong. And stoning a man merely because he does not follow your demented faith is wrong itself.”
“All right, let’s change the subject,” interjects the boy’s father. “I didn’t realize you or the boy were awake, Winnie. I’m truly sorry. And I’m sure Juana doesn’t mean to offend you. She’s just a little hot under the collar, given everything that’s happened over the last twenty-four hours.”
* * *
The following Monday the young Abimael hears a commotion coming from the plaza, which is just below the apartment his parents have rented in the Andean town of Huanca Sancos. His parents left early in the morning and he’s alone with Winnie. When Winnie realizes he is going toward the window, she tries to stop him.
“Don’t look outside,” she tells him, but it is too late. He has already seen the crowds congregating in the plaza.
“What are so many people doing outside?” he asks Winnie.
“Martin, don’t worry about it. Come with me to the kitchen and we’ll make some picarones.”
“No, I want to see,” responds the young Abimael. “Is it a celebration? Or is it some important man giving a speech?”
Suddenly the young Abimael notices that the people in the plaza are casting stones at a man tied to a tree. From the window, he cannot see the face of the doomed revisionist, but he can definitely see he is the object of the crowd’s fury. And sometimes amid the clamor, he can hear the man’s wails.
“What are they doing?” he asks, terrified by the man’s cries. “Is that the stoning my father spoke about last week while we were driving in the mountains? Are they really doing it?”
“Yes,” Winnie assents, shaking her head in disbelief.
“Are my parents among them?” asks the young Abimael. “I pray they’re not among the killers.”
“I’m sure they’re not there, Martin,” Winnie lies.
“Where else could they be? They talked about it in the car.”
“They might be,” Winnie replies. She doesn’t know what else to say. And then they hear once again the man shrieking in the distance.
“Wouldn’t they be guilty of a great sin?” ask the young Abimael. “You’ve taught me about all the Commandments, and I remember the commandment not to kill.”
Winnie responds, in a thoughtful voice. “Yes, the stoning of that man is not pleasing in the eyes of God. Come, Martin, let’s say a prayer for the man being stoned and another for the conversion of both your parents.”
“What do you mean by ‘conversion,’ Winnie?” Abimael asks. “Are we praying to deliver them from evil, as it says in the prayer which you have taught me?”
“Conversion means that they will repent of – I don’t know what word to use, Martin – that they will repent of their extreme conduct. I don’t want to alarm you. Let’s just say we should pray that your parents get closer to God, that they abandon the wrong path.”
“Are they on the wrong path, Winnie? Do you mean the stoning of that man?”
“A long time ago there was a man named Saint Paul, Martin, and he participated in the stoning of a man called Stephen. Paul persecuted the followers of God and even consented to their killing. But through the actions of the Lord, he converted and recanted his wicked ways. So never stop praying for your parents.”
“Why do they want to kill him, Winnie? Do they think he is a bad man?”
“Let’s just say, Martin, that your parents are staunch followers of an ideology that is extreme. How can I put it? They’re so interested in saving the poor people of Peru that sometimes they do bad things.”
And the doomed man wails again.
After hearing the tumult of the death of the man in the plaza, the young Abimael returns to his room and waits for the return of his parents. When he hears the door of the living room opening, he sees that it is only his father returning, but that is just as well. It is his father with whom he wishes to speak.
“I saw something from the window early this afternoon, and I didn’t like it, Papi. People throwing rocks at a man tied to a tree. I heard him cry. I think it really hurt him.”
“Oh, you saw that, huh? I thought you might.”
“Papi, tell me you didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Comrade Carlos lights a cigarette, weighing the words he will say.
“I don’t want to lie to you. You’re no longer an infant. I was there this afternoon, as was your mother.”
“Did you throw a rock at him?”
“You have to understand it’s all part of a great war. Haven’t you heard in school about the heroes Bolognesi and Miguel Grau, about the martyrs Tupac Amaru and Atahualpa? They had to do stuff they didn’t like. Your mother and I are involved in a war now, and to win a war, sometimes you have to do ugly things.”
“But I don’t think the Lord Jesus would like it.”
“Who has taught you about Jesus? Did you hear about Him at school? Or was it Winnie?”
“Don’t get mad at her. Sometimes she tells me stories.”
“You love her, don’t you?” Comrade Carlos asks.
“As much as I love you, Papi. As much as I love my mother.”
“Well, that’s all right. I don’t mind her telling you stories. If only reality were as simple as Winnie’s tales.”
“Why did you hurt him? I mean – the man…”
“Have you noticed while walking close to the Plaza de Armas in Lima that there are sometimes women on the ground, dressed in rags, begging for help? Have you seen their skinny children?”
“And have you noticed that others – very few – go about town in fancy new cars, driven by chauffeurs?”
“Well, your mother and I believe that is unjust. We’re fighting for a world where man’s exploitation of man will be a thing of the past. Do you understand me?”
“I don’t understand the word ‘exploitation.’”
“How shall I put it? That means when a person takes advantage of another. Like the way rich white Peruvians abuse the Indians and let them live in poverty when it doesn’t have to be that way. We want a government run by the peasants.”
“And you need a war to fix that?” asks the young Abimael. “I don’t think the Lord would like it. If war means throwing rocks at a naked man until he dies...”
“Jesus was a great man. I won’t disagree with that. But He was also the first true Communist. Just like Presidente Gonzalo is a true Communist. In the first Christian communities, everything was shared. The rich Christians gave their wealth to the poor, and the poor gave to those who were poorer.”
“So why not just do it that way?”
“Over the years, people forgot His true message, son. Many Christians follow the letter of the law, but not its spirit. And it’s gotten so bad that it’s not enough just to ask people to give alms to the poor. We need a world where there are no longer a few rich people on the one hand and millions of desperately poor on the other. With time, you will understand. Is that enough for today, my son?”
“I love you, Papi.”
As the young Abimael is leaving, Comrade Carlos calls him back.
“Son,” he says.
“What?” responds Abimael.
“Don’t talk about all this with your mother. And please never tell her that Winnie has been teaching you about Jesus or about religion in general. I know how important Winnie is in your life.”
“Why would it make a difference?”
“Well, your mother at some point in her life was very Catholic. And she’s sort of rejected all of that. Now she has very strong feelings against religion. So she might tell Winnie to leave if she hears that she’s been teaching you anything about Jesus. Sometimes it’s best just to keep mum.”
* * *
If anything, the young Abimael is more loving toward his parents in the week after his father’s explanation of the stoning than he has ever been before. He gets up early and sometimes serves them breakfast in bed, and when they come back home at night, he’s usually waiting for them, ready to give them a hug. His father responds in kind and tells him, “What’s up, champion?” His mother, on the other hand, averts her face as the young Abimael attempts to kiss it.
“You don’t need to slobber all over me,” she tells him, surprised by the sudden new display of affection. “It’s not as if I’ve just come back from a long trip or been killed or something. And you don’t have to call me Mami. You can just call me Juana, as you always do.”
And the young Abimael is surly when he interacts with Winnie. He refuses to speak with her as they share lunch and dinner, no longer sits with her as in the past when she watched her telenovelas on television. Finally, one day after she has served him a plate of aji de gallina – one of his favorites – he explodes in anger.
“I don’t want to eat,” he cries out. “You know I hate your chicken dishes and everything else you cook!”
“What’s wrong?” Winnie asks him. “Sit down and eat your dinner. You’ve already missed lunch this morning.”
The young Abimael takes the plate of aji de gallina and throws it against a window. The yellow stew drips slowly down the glass as Winnie shakes her head, not knowing what is happening.
“Now why did you do that, Martin? You’ve never behaved this way before.”
“I did it because I felt like it. I’m not hungry. And don’t call me Martin. My name is Abimael, and it always will be. It is the name of a great man.”
“Eat your dinner right now! Let me serve you another plate. Sit down, young Martin.”
“Get away from me, you dirty zamba!” he says with pent-up rage.
Winnie pulls him by the ear and forces him to sit at the table. “Where have you learned to be so disrespectful?”
“Leave me alone!” he cries out as he begins to bawl. “You think God hates my parents!”
“Where have you gotten such an idea? I’ve never said anything like that. Of course God loves both your mother and your father.”
“Don’t you understand they’re in a war? That is why they have to do mean things. Haven’t you told me the story of Tupac Amaru, how his arms and legs were attached to four horses in order to kill him? All because he had killed some Spaniards. Didn’t he also do mean things because he was in a war?”
“It’s complicated, Martin. Come, sit on my lap. You don’t need to cry. I see why you are so perturbed.”
“Didn’t you tell me Tupac Amaru was a hero? My father says he is like Tupac Amaru, that all he wants to do is help the poor people. That is why he threw a stone against that naked man in the plaza.”
And with those words, the young Abimael buries his head in Winnie’s chest and begins to cry.
“Tell me about Saint Paul,” Abimael says, “how he stoned a man, and God still loved him. How he was blinded on his horse because God wanted to convert him.”
“That’s right,” Winnie responds, caressing the boy’s blond hair. “Saint Paul was blinded on his way to Damascus. God wanted Saint Paul to see how much He cared for him. And by making him blind, the Lord made him see for the first time, not with the eyes of his face, but with the eyes of his soul.”
“Do you think God is going to blind my parents, to make them see it was mean to throw rocks against that naked man in the plaza?”
“I don’t know, Martin. God makes His presence known in people’s lives in different ways. With Saint Paul, it was blindness. With others, it’s the birth of a child or a cure for cancer. All you can do is pray for your parents, that they recognize the Lord when He appears before them.”
“I pray for them every night,” the young Abimael responds. “Even this week when I haven’t been praying with you.”
“You have to be stubborn. Don’t ever give up on prayer. Ask Jesus to enlighten your parents. And perhaps God will respond with a miracle.”
Read the second half of this story here.
Sandro Francisco Piedrahita is an American Catholic writer of Peruvian and Ecuadorian descent. Before he turned to writing, he practised law for a number of years. He is Jesuit-educated, and many of his stories have to do with the lives of saints, told through a modern lens. His wife Rosa is a schoolteacher, his son Joaquin teaches English in China and his daughter Sofia is a social worker. For many years, he was an agnostic, but he has returned to the faith. Mr. Piedrahita holds a degree in Comparative Literature from Yale College and a law degree from Harvard Law School.
Sandro's other work on Foreshadow:
The Crucifixion of St. Peter (Part 1 of 2; Fiction, August 2022)
The Crucifixion of St. Peter (Part 2 of 2; Fiction, August 2022)