The Heart That Bleeds

Between 1989 and 1993 Alma Guillermoprieto traveled over much of Latin America reporting on current events in “Letters” published in THE NEW YORKER. During these years, sixty-four journalists were killed on the job in Latin America, and Guillermoprieto clearly took risks herself. Her reporting technique stresses going to a key city such as Bogota or Lima, meeting people from all walks of life who offer differing perspectives, and then weaving together her impressions in straightforward, compelling prose. She breathes life into these impressions by a novelist’s genius at quick character sketches and a sure instinct for the telling detail.

Beginning with Bogota in 1989, the reports are datelined Managua, Mexico City, Lima, Medellin, Buenos Aires, Rio, La Paz, Panama City, Mexico City, Lima, Rio, and Bogota. The report from Mexico City in 1990 focuses on the lives of the estimated 17,000 people who work—and live—in Mexico City’s garbage dumps. Despite the horrors of an existence surrounded by rats and filth, some hardy souls have triumphed. Thanks to the Urban Services Department, a residential neighborhood for 500 garbage pickers and their families now offers a kindergarten, a school, and apartments with running water and electricity. For Maria de la Luz Lopez, who has spent nineteen of her twenty-one years in a dump, a washing machine and a television are godsends in her new apartment.

The two reports from Lima survey the political turmoil in Peru, split by racism and class hatreds and terrorized by the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path guerrillas. Under Alberto Fujimoro’s presidency, inflation has been brought down, new bank debt arrangements have been negotiated, and the budget has been balanced. Nevertheless, whereas seven million people lived below the poverty level in 1990, the figure had risen to twelve million, or almost half the population, by 1993. In Alma Guillermoprieto’s vivid accounts of nations under stress, perhaps none emerge as more desperate than Peru.