Positively Quilca St.: Lima losing its alt culture

Lutxo Rodríguez at his Barricada Discos, in Jesus Maria, near Quilca, with a record by Autonomia, the legendary Lima anarcho-punk band. Photos by Bill Weinberg

BY BILL WEINBERG | When Lutxo Rodríguez recalls the local punks and social outcasts of the downtown district he habituates “dressing in black in the ’80s,” I smile wryly, remembering the Lower East Side of my own youth. But the urban decay that allowed for the florescence of bohemia and an anarcho-punk scene in this small enclave of a South American capital came “in the context of political violence,” he says.

This is Jirón Quilca, a narrow street just off downtown Lima’s Plaza San Martín. Follow it west, and the stately old hotels and restaurants around the plaza quickly give way to dusty secondhand bookstores, where surviving murals on the exterior walls speak to a recent past of oppositional culture. Quilca, with the warren of small streets surrounding it, was long the haunt of Lima’s “poets, punks, writers and marginalized people,” Rodríguez recalls.

A veteran leading figure in the scene, Rodríguez himself looks like he’s changed little. He’s still dressed in a black-and-red color scheme, with long partly dyed hair, black beard and nose ring.

“But Quilca is not the same,” he says. “It is full of lumpen, as well as bohemia. There are still lots of bookstores. People still gather in the evenings to drink and talk. But it isn’t a focus of resistance the way it used to be.”

In the ’80s and on into the ’90s, Peru was wracked by the Shining Path and other guerilla insurgencies. Lima suffered a lawless atmosphere, and much property was abandoned, especially in the downtown area. In outlying areas, there was massive colonization of vacant land, as peasants fleeing violence in the countryside established squatter communities and “informal” barrios, creeping up the rugged slopes that overlook the city. As in North American cities in the ’70s and ’80s,   crime and insecurity were endemic.

Rodríguez is keeping alive a stubborn remnant of alternative Quilca’s heyday — El Eskupitajo (an alterno-spelling of the Spanish word for “expectoration”), a little stall in a pedestrian mall off Jirón Camaná, one of Quilca’s feeder streets, selling punk records (yes, vinyl) and regalia, along with fanzines and some anarchist literature.

Much of this latter is published by Rodríguez’s own imprint, Editorial Anarcrítica. Its most recent effort is a Spanish translation of Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” with an introduction by Rodríguez. “Desobedencia” is also the name of the anarchist zine he has sporadically published since 2001.

He also peddles anarchist lit at Barricada Discos, the record stall he runs at Galerias Brasil, a mall in the nearby working-class neighborhood of Jesús María. Downstairs, traditional bookbinders work alongside Internet connection points, while one flight up, punk and metal blare from numerous stalls that now constitute the city’s principal magnet for “rockero” youth. Punks (especially the more political ones) are also called “subtes” in limeño argot — short for “subterraneans.”

Rodríguez poses for my camera in Barricada Discos while holding aloft a slab of vinyl from Autonomía, the most iconic band of Lima’s subte scene. The sleeve sports a black cat and a black flag with the anarchist circle “A.”

Counterculture murals were still on the outside of El Haberno community center back in 2013, when this photo was taken. They have since all been painted over.

The changes to Quilca were clear to me when I passed through and met with Rodríguez in November. I had last been there four years earlier, in 2013. Back then, a hub of the scene, El Haberno community center, had just recently been evicted. But the colorful and whimsical murals on its exterior walls were still intact. One read, “14 years of counterculture,” an obvious epitaph for the center, painted with eviction impending. Today they are all painted over — but the building remains vacant, “Se vende” (For sale) scrawled on the bare streetfront.

The lifespan of El Haberno (“The Devil’s Pit”) is telling. When it opened in 1999, the property was disputed pursuant to its abandonment years earlier, allowing the activists and artists to move in, paying little or nothing in rent. It was a sort of hippie-punk hybrid entity, attracting subte and DIY culture, as well as followers of musica folklorica. One mural was a portrait of El Jilguero del Huascarán (real name Ernesto Sánchez Fajardo), the folksinger from the mountainous Áncash region who was also an advocate for the peasants, and was part of the constituent assembly that crafted Peru’s new constitution after the end of the military dictatorship in 1979.

And when dictatorship briefly returned in 1992 — as President Alberto Fujimori declared his “self-coup,” suspending Congress and the constitution — Quilca had been a rare outpost of open defiance. After democracy was restored a second time and Fujimori was put on trial for corruption and ghastly human-rights abuses, El Haberno pressed the question, with, as Rodríguez recalls, “murals and concerts openly opposed to Fujimori.”

The demise of El Haberno is, of course, the bitter fruit of Lima’s “recovery.” With stability restored, property values are rising, and disputed titles are being cleared up. Space for alternative culture is fast shrinking.

Another great loss was the closure of the Boulevard de Cultura Quilca, the enclave’s biggest pedestrian mall, filled with stalls selling books, zines, political or psychedelic T-shirts and other such alternative accoutrements. Rodríguez tells me how the mall used to host an annual “Anti-Patriotic Festival” every July, when Peru celebrates its Independence Day. The site was owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Lima, which in 2016 finally evicted the peddlers. It is now a parking lot.

Space has been closing more rapidly since Lima’s 2014 mayoral election. When I visited in 2013, the city was still under the progressive administration of Susana Villarán. One of her more visible programs was encouraging the painting of murals on the city’s blank walls, bringing a community touch, and often political and ecological themes, even to busy commercial districts.

Now, the conservative Mayor Luis Castañeda has had nearly all of the murals painted over and is aggressively touting a cleanup of the city — much in the style of New York’s Rudy Giuliani a generation ago.

Even if it lacks for meeting space, Lima’s anarchist scene survives. Rodríguez tells me it is divided between a “more conventional” current and an “anti-todo” (“anti-everything”) tendency — meaning “anti-intellectual, anti-organization.”

As I write, in the closing days of 2017,  Lima is exploding into protest following the pardon of Alberto Fujimori by the scandal-embattled sitting president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. After a decade behind bars, the ex-dictator has been transferred from his prison cell to a private clinic, in what looks like a sleazy deal with the hard-right fujimorista bloc in Congress to keep Kuczynski in power. Rodríguez tells me by Internet that an emergency assembly has been called by the city’s anarchist networks to respond.

With Peru plunging into political crisis, Lima’s anarchist survivors may be looking at an opportunity to test their mettle —eviction, property squeeze and “cleanup” notwithstanding.

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