Maria Elena Moyano was born in 1958 in one of Lima’s numerous shantytowns. At the age of 13 she moved with her family to Villa El Salvador, Peru’s first planned urban community, located to the south of the capital, where President Alvarado had relocated migrants from the interior and inhabitants from Lima’s poorest districts.
Maria Elena – or Malena for short – spent her adolescence in conditions of extreme poverty. Her family lived in a makeshift shack and her parents and brothers did not always have enough work to make ends meet and support her or her other six brothers and sisters. With brilliant results at school, Malena managed to get a scholarship to go on to university, but after two years she decided to suspend her degree course in sociology to devote herself full time to her social commitments.
When the leaders of the Villa El Salvador community decided to build a community school for 3-5 year-olds, Malena was asked to launch the first Programma di Educazione Iniziale Non Escolarizado. She also worked hard in other social initiatives, such as soup kitchens, a Mothers’ Club and the Glass of Milk project. She was a founder member of FEPOMUVES, the Popular Federation of Villa Salvador Women. When the Peruvian Communist Party – known as Shining Path – started attacking the grass-roots organizations and popular leaders, she entered into open conflict with them; although she had joined the movement in her youth, she later left because of its policy of violence and terror. Her opposition led to continual threats on the part of her former companions.
By 1992 FEPOMUVES had grouped together 112 soup kitchens serving 30 thousand meals a day and 507 "Glass of Milk Committees " serving some 60 thousand rations of milk to children and the elderly. Shining Path was suspicious of their work and refused to accept a peaceful revolution within bourgeois institutions, and in the same year they called for an armed strike on 14 February. Malena proposed contrasting the strike with a “Peace march”, but the left-wing parties failed to participate and only fifty people turned up at the starting line. Malena went ahead just the same, leading the procession, which bore white flags as symbols of peace. The next evening, while taking part in a fund-raising event, she was machine-gunned to death, at the age of just 33, by two assassins. Her corpse was then dragged outside and blown apart with 5 kilos of dynamite.
Shining Path claimed responsibility for the attack as a response to the Peace March. Malena’s assassination resonated throughout the country and her funeral was attended by 300.000 people.
Her life is summed up in her own words: “… the revolution opens up to life, to individual and collective dignity; it is a new ethic. The revolution is not death, or imposition, or submission, nor fanaticism. The revolution is new life, convincing people to struggle for a fair, decent society, side by side with the organizations created for our people, respecting its interior democracy and grafting new buds of power for the new Peru. I shall continue to stand alongside my people, women, youngsters and children; I shall continue to struggle for peace in the name of social justice”.