Feature Stories

Mayta Relive Their War-Torn Youth in Peru on "Mujer Villa"

Renato Rimach can still remember what it was like to grow up in a civil war. "Car bombs were going off everywhere," he says. "One was so close to our home that it blew all the window glasses in our house." It was the late 1980s, and his family was living in Peru while the country was rocked by terrorism. "Cops were shot and killed on the streets every day and the country even had a curfew for about six months or so. Nobody could go out past 10 p.m. or they would be shot by military police. The level of fear was ridiculous.”

Today, that fear courses through the music Rimach and his brothers play here in Dallas with their band, Mayta. The band is named after the Incan emperor Mayta Cápac and is anchored by Rimach and his brothers Victor and Ivan, who split their time growing up between Peru and the United States. Now Mayta are using their music to honor the life of one of Peru's great activists, María Elena Moyano.

It is often hard for Americans to comprehend the conflict and struggle that occurs in the countries to the south of the Texas-Mexico border. Our navel gazing leads us to react with dismay when something major happens in a Latin country. A notorious narcotics leader waltzing out of prison in Mexico becomes national news only because A) we love prison escapes and B) Donald Trump managed to get involved. We really only know about this because it occurred in Mexico, which is such a vacation spot it at times feels like it’s closer to becoming a state than Puerto Rico.

But more often than not we are completely unaware of the strife in countries like Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Peru. For those who are children of immigrants, or immigrants themselves living in this country — folks like the Rimach brothers — it’s hard to live a “hybrid life,” one where you are truly dedicated to embracing an American lifestyle. You’re influenced by your past, those memories you’ve attained while visiting and living in the country you and your family came from. It bleeds into your everyday life.
Mayta decided to honor Moyano's story on their latest song, "Mujer Villa," and its accompanying video. Together they make for a terse five-and-a-half-minute lesson on the life of not a revolutionary, but an organizer, a social worker and a person who tirelessly worked for the betterment of her people. “Moyano was a single mom, a strong woman that was both an activist and a community organizer in a newly formed town called Villa El Salvador," Rimach explains. She focused her efforts on helping single moms through an organization called Vaso de Leche, or "Glass of Milk" in English. "This organization’s goal was to deliver milk to Lima's poor neighborhoods so that children could have at least one cup of milk a day.”

This was an honorable and brave thing to do, but as in so many of these stories, her deeds were met with opposition. Moyano ran afoul of Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla group in Peru who were trying to take control of the country through building power in the country's poor neighborhoods. “The Shining Path tried to shut her activities down, which she refused to do. Then she began to publicly bash Shining Path and to say that she was not afraid. This was very, very brave for her to do. Nobody ever did this.”

Like many female activists who opposed guerrilla groups in Central and South America, Moyano was assassinated for her beliefs.

“She was murdered because of that in a very horrible way. They shot her in front of her kids and then threw dynamite at her dead body," Rimach says. "There was a huge outcry in Peru for her assassination. I was 9 years old and I remember exactly the moment I saw that on the news.”

This tragic event stuck with Rimach 20 years later, even after a move to the United States and a new life. When Victor wrote an instrumental piece in honor of the brothers' uncle, Rimach was struck with inspiration. “Chino wrote the melody on the piano after a very loved uncle died," Rimach says. The uncle had raised the brothers' father. "He named it 'Death of Love.' After I heard the melody I was really in awe. It's a beautiful yet somber melody ... but it was powerful also."

Rimach liked the idea of honoring their uncle, but soon felt there was an opportunity to give the melody an even broader significance. "Right around that time I saw on the news that it had been 20 years since the assassination of Maria Elena. It brought back so many memories. I'm a dad now, so it particularly got me when I read she was killed in front of her kids for the way she thought, for her ideals. It was fucked up. It got me good.”

“Mujer Villa” is an atypical Mayta song. It contains the usual Latin influence that's present in their rock songs, but its lyrics are in English, not Spanish. “I asked myself, 'In what language do I write this? English or Spanish?'" Rimach recalls. "I decided to write it in both English and Spanish and I thought about recording two versions in the studio, but due to money issues we couldn't do it. We stayed with the English version since I wanted the message to break more barriers where I live. I wanted to share the message with those around me, with people that live in this country mostly.”

The choice between Spanish and English is a tricky one, especially when you’re trying to tell a story about someone 99 percent of the United States population knows nothing about. But it’s a choice many in this country face everyday, and it’s a choice that’s going to become much harder as the nation becomes more and more Latino. At the very least, the members of Mayta are showing there’s a balance to be found. 

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Jaime-Paul Falcon