Pueblo is a Spanish word that for me does not have an exact English equivalent. In its most literal sense it means village or small town, but beyond that it also carries an infectious and emotionally charged quality of proletarian community. El Pueblo is more often a force or an attitude than it is a means to describe a modest settlement.
The nuance of the word was only reinforced for me when I attended a public assembly last week in Villa Maria del Triunfo, one of the southern districts where we work in Lima. Large banners hung from the stage and plastered on the walls of the makeshift tent proclaimed the event to be a time for “Escuchando tu Voz, el Congreso y el Pueblo,” which loosely translates to “Listening to your voice, Congress and the People.”
The guest of honor was Peruvian Congressional President Daniel Abugattás Majluf, who greeted attendees before seating himself on stage alongside the mayors of seven participating Lima districts. More than 2,000 people attended the assembly where representatives of various social factions, including students, teachers, local community leaders, and workers, were given three minutes to speak directly to their elected officials.
At political meetings and rallies I have attended in the past in the U.S. I have seen the same kind of grassroots public participation, complete with stomping and yelling and demands for change and improvement. What was strikingly dissimilar about this Peruvian assembly was the content of the Peruvians’ appeals. They were not holding their elected officials responsible for inconsistent voting records — nor were they demanding wage increases, job security, or tax breaks. Among the seven, largely impoverished districts that were represented, the vast majority of community members appealed to the Congressional President for the most basic forms of social inclusion. Local leaders asked for running water, sewage, electricity, nutrition programs, urban infrastructure, and an augmented police force to fight increasingly hostile gang and drug-related violence. Their requests resounded as further proof that long overdue improvements to basic infrastructure and health are consistently the things keeping these people from living better lives.
While their humble requests left me feeling frustrated that such basic necessities were being left unmet, I also returned feeling proud of the work MEDLIFE is doing. The very things that local community members were banding together to request from their elected officials, MEDLIFE has been quietly working towards over the past two years here in Peru. Listening to the poor has always been one of the main goals of MEDLIFE — finding solutions to the problems they see, not the ones we do. More than 2,000 community members had just resoundingly told me that we were doing just that.
Laura Keen is a MEDLIFE Intern in Lima, Peru