Witness to a Painful Past

UC Davis graduate student interviewing a villager in Peru

The Maoist Shining Path guerrillas of Peru are more than just an academic subject to Renzo Aroni.

The history graduate student grew up in the rebels’ mountainous home-base region during their 20-year war against the government.

With the help of a Mellon International Dissertation Research Fellowship, Aroni is documenting a portion of that history — the Shining Path’s massacre of 18 peasants in 1992.

As part of his doctoral research, Aroni is interviewing survivors and some perpetrators of the slaughter in the village of Huamanquiquia, located in the Ayacucho region where the Shining Path recruited armed supporters during its 1980-99 guerrilla war.

He was among 70 fellows selected by the international nonprofit Social Science Research Council from 988 graduate student applicants at universities nationwide. The fellowship awards, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, support travel, housing, and other expenses through December 2019.

Aroni is conducting his interviews in Spanish and his native Quechua with village leaders, widows, former guerrilla militants, and peasant supporters of Shining Path.

The people of Huamanquiquia had initially sided with the Shining Path, leading the Peruvian army to kill at least 30 indigenous peasants in August 1984, Aroni said. But by 1992, the villagers had shifted to actively opposing Shining Path, killing some of its members. In retribution, the Shining Path killed 18 men.

“My dissertation explores a previously undocumented story of shifting alliances, of retributive violence, and of memorialization of the 1992 event through the experiences and firsthand accounts of massacre survivors and former guerrillas,” he said.

Aroni has done fieldwork in the region before. He wrote his undergraduate thesis on the last massacre of the Shining Path in Ayacucho. His master’s thesis focused on how social and historical memories of violence find creative or artistic expression in contemporary Peru.

Before starting graduate studies at UC Davis, Aroni contributed to research projects on human rights, missing persons, and historical memory. He has worked with the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission Archive, the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team, and the Place of Memory, Tolerance and Social Inclusion Museum in Lima.

“The SSRC fellowship will allow me to deepen my work and produce a detailed portrait of how indigenous people experienced and influenced these horrible years,” Aroni said.

— Kathleen Holder, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science