Andrea Román Alfaro has always been fascinated by her Peruvian hometown’s struggle with violence and crime – the subject of her doctoral studies.
With support from the the School of Graduate Studies’ Connaught PhDs for Public Impact Fellowship Program, the PhD candidate in the University of Toronto’s department of sociology in the Faculty of Arts & Science says she is both learning about life in Callao’s most dangerous neighbourhoods as well as inserting herself into the vigorous social life of Puerto Nuevo – effectively a suburb located on Callao’s outskirts.
She is also taking steps to bring hope to its youth through an innovative arts program.
“My interest in doing this research comes from the fact that I grew up hearing people say ‘Oh, Callao is so dangerous,’” she says. “So that is how I got interested in the topic – trying to understand how violence works there. How people understand it, how they respond to it and how they survive it.”
In many ways, Peru is a country in crisis. Since the arrest of former president Pedro Castillo in December, approximately 60 people have died and more than 600 have been injured in violent clashes between protesters, the military and police.
In Callao – a seaside city immediately to the west of Lima that is part of the Lima Metropolitan Area – the murder rate is twice as high as it is in the rest of the country. As Peru’s major seaport and the location of its biggest airport, the city is rife with organized crime, political corruption and gang warfare centred on the cocaine trade. Life is especially difficult in tiny Puerto Nuevo, one of Peru’s oldest asentamientos humanos, or shanty towns. There, the community largely comprises Black and Indigenous migrants who have settled there seeking work in the fishing industry.
The government recently extended a state of emergency in Callao, severely restricting the rights of its citizens – a development that echoes the federal government’s decision several years ago to impose a six-month sentence on the city in a bid to stop rampant crime.
Román Alfaro’s ethnographic research covers the entire ecosystem of violence, from politicians and police on one end to marginalized citizens on the other. She focuses in particular on two groups: women and young people.
“Women help us to understand that connection between what is happening in the home and what is happening outside,” Román Alfaro says. “Young people tend to experience the most police violence –especially young men. They also get involved more in different forms of violence.”
Román Alfaro was introduced to Puerto Nuevo years ago while helping her uncle, who worked for an environmental NGO, with a successful cleanup effort. At the time, trucks trundled through the streets carrying minerals from mining sites. Lead dust spread through the air, poisoning local citizens. The situation was made even worse when people who lacked money for basic necessities jumped aboard the trucks, stole bags of lead and sold them from their homes.
It was in Puerto Nuevo that Román Alfaro saw someone shot and wounded before her eyes. And yet, she affirms that there is much more to the community than pain and violence.
“People there love bands and parties. They also experience joy and make the most out of their social situation,” she says.
While her research involves many interviews with government workers, politicians, ex-prime ministers, police officers and academics, she also converses with locals in “kitchens, dining rooms, streets, at parties – everything that makes up everyday life for them.”
Román Alfaro is an advocate of participatory action research, where scholars seek to improve an environment while learning about it.
She has always been an activist, organizer and volunteer. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, she co-founded The People’s Pantry, which continues to provide homecooked meals and care packages to those struggling with food insecurity.
“I can’t get involved with people and do nothing about their problems,” Román Alfaro says. “My research can’t just be knowledge for knowledge’s sake – and that’s especially true when you research violence. I can’t exist in a world with this much suffering and not do anything.”
In Puerto Nuevo, Román Alfaro organized a Christmas party last year, with gifts for 350 children and the delivery of 50 grocery baskets. She also organized workshops for kids in the community that were centred around drumming, arts and crafts, boxing and music. In addition, she’s now working toward the opening of a youth-led community centre.
This spring, she plans to engage teachers who’ll teach young people about photography and videography, as well as helping them to construct a community archive project. A key part of Román Alfaro’s work is getting youth in the community to help with managerial responsibilities and learn job skills.
As the city of Callao grapples with crises old and new, Román Alfaro remains cautious about the possibilities for peaceful transformation.
“In many ways, the vision of young people there is limited in terms of what they think they can do. So seeing them say: ‘Wow, I did this!’ makes me realize something good is happening. Hope is the last thing you lose, but hope is not enough. That’s why I think it’s so important to keep working.”