Re-Writing the Revolution: In Conversation with Jesús Cossio and Carla Sagástegui

It’s been just over half a century since left-wing populist (General) Juan Velasco Alvarado led a military coup d'etat in Peru and brought the Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces to power. An early Alvarado initiative was the Agrarian Reform of 1969. This radical project sought to overthrow the haciendas, a Latin American incarnation of European feudalism which the Spanish conquistadors introduced to the country in the 16th century, and redistribute land to peasants under cooperative ownership schemes. Thanks in part to mismanagement and poor health, Alvarado was dethroned in 1975, although the military dictatorship lasted until 1980, characterised by its restrictions of basic civil liberties.

A key refrain during the Reform was “Ya nadie te sacará de tu tierra” (“Nobody will take you from your land”), a slogan calling back to the perceived dignity of the Inca Empire and the various anti-colonialist revolts led by the indigenous population. That phrase is now also the title of a new two-volume documentary comic by writer Carla Sagástegui and artist Jesús Cossio.

Separately, the pair have been deeply embedded in the Peruvian comics scene since the early 2000s. Cossio has gained recognition thanks to his various historical narratives and comics journalism work. This is the first comic Sagástegui has written; her background is as an academic researching the role of comics in Peruvian culture. Among her research topics has been Lima-based small press Contracultura, through whom Ya nadie is being published. Respected comics journalist Joe Sacco was recently photographed with a copy!

2019 has seen a flurry of discussion in Peru about the revolutionary project of 1969. As well as various TV debates and this comic, a Gonzalo Benavente Secco directed documentary film has also been released. In an early talk with her, Sagástegui outlined to me how Ya nadie has been produced in order to complicate two misleading presumptions about the Reform in Peru. The first myth is that the Government didn’t pay the landlords of the haciendas for the redistributed land. The second is the perception that the period of Reform was quasi-utopian. As with everything, nothing is ever that simple.   

Volume one of Ya nadie is a typical example of comics journalism, and is mostly focused on the socio-political-economic forces that were at play before and during the Reform. Volume two is set to be more polemic and outline the Reform’s consequences. Rather than towing party political lines, both volumes attempt to trace the history of the Reform from the perspective of the indigenous population which was the most exploited by the haciendas.

I spoke with Carla and Jesús over e-mail to discuss the importance of telling history through comics and about the historical moment their book depicts.

Acknowledgements: thanks to Isabel Palomar for translations, and Esteban Valle-Riestra for background.

I’d like to start with both of your relationships with comics - as researcher and artist respectively. Apart from the obvious ones, what are the differences in the way you approach the medium, and the creative differences you had to negotiate between yourselves when making Ya nadie?

Jesús Cossio: I’m more drawn to document factual anecdotes by fictionalizing very specific parts in them. Carla, on the other hand, takes different sources to come up with a historical narrative that includes various fictional elements. From what I remember, one of the most striking creative differences that we encountered between us was the way we approached portraying Perú’s situation in the years depicted. Carla wanted to use metaphors and I was more interested in blending parables with comic strips about specific historic events. Talking through that difference ended up being a very rich learning experience.

Carla Sagástegui: There are two elements in my formation that affect the way I approach documentary comics. Since I have a career in literary studies, it’s hard for me not to tend towards fiction. I also studied screenwriting, which is why I would say my descriptions and comic strips are cinematic in style. My scripts for Ya nadie included many more elements than what Jesús ultimately illustrated, this was a matter that had to be negotiated. Agreeing on the general content of the comic was easier.

Carla, you’re associated with the academy, and Jesús, I understand you to be involved with human rights organizations. Were you involved with comics before you entered these sectors, or is the creative practice something that came later?

Jesús Cossio: I’d like to clarify that I’m not associated with human rights organizations, at least not in a direct way. I do collaborate occasionally with some of them. I had already started drawing comics years before meeting my current friends and contacts from such organizations.

Carla Sagástegui: The academy lead me to comics. When I was studying at university, back in the late 1990s, I signed up for what was then a new course called “Narrative”. It involved teachers and students working together in order to find new narrative discourses that could enhance literary studies. That was when I discovered Juan Acevedo’s Anotherman, and since then I haven’t ceased to discuss comics as literature - a statement that Jesús strongly disagrees with. I believe literature is an example of the human propensity towards Aristotelian mimesis, the practice of taking words and turning them into books, songs and drawings.

While you were thinking of writing Ya nadie, what made you both think “we have to tell this story”?

Carla Sagástegui: Because the information that has always been out there about this great historic moment in Perú’s history can’t escape ideological, legendary and academic distortions… We Peruvians have been made to believe that Perú is a great agricultural country with the potential to feed the world, which is meant to help explain the fact that we had haciendas and enslaved farmers. An agricultural reform was necessary because in actuality we had (and still have) very little farmable land. Furthermore, academic texts didn’t seem to talk about people but instead about numbers and classes. We wanted to show the complexity of the story. Perhaps we might seem ambitious, but we wanted to show all of the Reform’s dimensions.

Jesús Cossio: We thought about it months before starting the book. 2019 is the fiftieth anniversary of the Agrarian Reform, so we were very sure in advance there would be a general debate about that fundamental event. We were also interested in offering a counterweight against the various denials that journalists and right wing analysts have vocalized regarding Peru before and during the Reform, as well a nostalgia that has emerged around the haciendas.

Could you speak a little bit about your research for the book. What materials and methods did you engage with in order to bring these events back to life?

Jesús Cossio: Basically, I dedicated my time to read several books, and I watched Carla’s method for building the script. 

Carla Sagástegui: We have used academic materials for our research, as there are many socio-economic studies that address the reform. We’ve also looked at testimonies, both historical and recent, as well as interviewing civil servants and rural leaders. These interviews and testimonies have been particularly useful in order for us to create the two main characters of Ya nadie and for us to portray the little that we know about women’s participation in the Reform.

Although it’s a topic too big for this interview, I wondered if you could make a brief overview on the Peruvian state’s relationship with the country’s indigenous population, and whether that political and social situation informed this work at all?

Jesús Cossio: Our book directly addresses this topic. Historically, Perú’s indigenous population has been denied its basic rights. They used to belong to a very poor and marginalized social class. Part of their disgrace was due to the haciendas and landowners’ régime, which the Agrarian Reform put an end to. This is the change we wanted to talk about. 

Carla Sagástegui: The comic shows the oppressive and forgotten conditions that the rural population lived in in traditional haciendas (in the second volume we will address the Agrarian Reform’s effect on a different kind of hacienda). We basically sought to explore an exploitative weapon - the haciendas - that have typically been understudied. In the case of Peruvian haciendas, landowners were in charge of deciding whether there could be a school or not in their land. Illiteracy was a form of domination over indigenous populations, both in the countryside and in cities. Fifty years after the Reform, indigenous people still don’t get quality education in their native languages. Instead, they get an intercultural program in Spanish taught by teachers with very questionable professional skills. The contemporary working classes in the agriculture industry get a below average wage and suffer from a lack of labour rights.

From the first chapter, the mythical boogeyman figure ñakaq, also known as Pishtaco, becomes a specter in the proceedings. Could you explain what the implications of that folktale is for a native Peruvian reader?

Carla Sagástegui: In Peruvian folklore, Pishtaco is a character linked to moments of social crisis, and is often represented taking part in political conflicts, as well as sometimes taking criminal risks. The indigenous population sees Pishtaco as a fearsome attacker. For instance, when it comes to the impoverished, Pishtaco represents the gringos that come to get their flesh in order to sell it. When the arrival of this figure is announced, people hide in their homes to protect themselves, nobody goes out alone and everybody begs the police to arrest him. The tabloid press also uses this figure in their pages.

Language plays an important role in the story: you include some dialogue in indigenous languages alongside Spanish, and one of the central characters is illiterate. How does language affect Peru’s contemporary political discourse?

Carla Sagástegui: We had to take decisions about the use of Quechua. Firstly, in Perú, there are various Quechua languages that oppose normalization, which is why we chose not to use them a lot, so that readers wouldn’t associate the characters to a specific geographical area. Secondly, as schools teach in Spanish (especially secondary schools), we needed our comic to be written in the lingua franca so that everyone is able to study it. If you think about it, there wasn’t a single reference in our bibliography written in Quechua. Velasco’s government was the only government that aimed to make Quechua a mandatory language in schools, but his educational reform was never achieved.

Does the accessibility of the comic form influence your decision to tell history in this medium, or does it present its own barriers to comprehension?

Jesús Cossio: We wanted to tell this story in this way not only because of comics’ accessibility as a medium but also because we were interested in turning into images some of the stories that aren’t usually taken into consideration when talking about the Agrarian Reform. Such forgotten narratives include the haciendas’ inhabitants, represented in Ya nadie by Cloris and Saturnino, or about how the 1940s’ generation gained awareness about the necessity to reform the agricultural sector.

Carla Sagástegui: Our project was born as a comic because it is the comic form that our publisher, Contracultura, promotes as a medium that can well represent the topics that we wish to depict, as well as being an entertaining one. I personally see in the comics medium more possibilities than obstacles, because it can be published sequentially and over a long amount of time, which is very different from academic articles which are published once and long after they’ve been written.

Is putting certain histories onto the page a way to force people to recognise events that have happened, that they’d rather ignore? What’s the political purpose behind making these memories public?

Jesús Cossio: I wouldn’t use the word “force” but “attract”. It’s pretty difficult to define the line between what people would rather ignore and what the news media prefers to leave out. Rather than a political purpose, I think we have the cultural goal: to offer knowledge through all the potentials that comics have.

Carla Sagástegui: Perú has been governed by right politicians since 1990, who follow the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund’s economic models, which are mostly beneficial for landowners, mine owners, and builders. In fact, many of the family names linked to these industries are the same ones as were prominent before the Reform. The government controls the biggest media group, which has TV channels, radio platforms, and print publications. The story we’ve told has indeed been a hidden story. Mostly, people only know that Velasco had offered to the owners of the haciendas rewards in exchange for their land. It is commonly understood that he never paid them and that financial debt ended up being the major cause for bourgeois consternation of the military and revolutionary government by the mid 70s.

At the time of writing, a lawyer for landowners in southern Perú is still waiting to enter the constitutional court. They are campaigning for thousands of millions of dollars to be paid by the government, when in reality they have already received bonus rewards thanks to taxes they agreed not to pay with the government. We were all surprised in this anniversary year, because this debate has suddenly come back into public view.

Jesús, there’s a moment towards the end of the book where you insert a photograph into the artwork, of Juan Velasco Alvarado giving a speech on TV. I was wondering about your reasons behind this?

Jesús Cossio: On this particular strip, which is the only one I’ve used this technique for, I did it to emphasize the “historical” quality of that moment, a blend between the medium of photography, History (represented by this screenshot of a broadcast on TV), and representation (exemplified here by the use of a photo in an illustrated comic).

The statistics you mention in relation to the social makeup of Peru before the Reform echo quite a few of the statistics that point towards inequality at a global scale today. Is that mirroring between then and now something you were thinking of when writing the book?

Jesús Cossio: Probably, but to be more precise we wanted readers to make the connection between social conditions before the Agrarian Reform and contemporary environmental issues, where prejudices against indigenous populations and native people are rising, tagging them as “prejudiced enemies”.

Carla Sagástegui: Certainly. As we have socially agreed after the two decade-long internal armed conflict: we must know our history so we don’t repeat the worst parts of it. If the true reasons for the Agrarian Reform were hidden in the past, today, it is the inequity of the laws regarding the export of agricultural products which is hidden, meanwhile unionization has been demonized.

How has Ya nadie been received by readers and critics in Peru thus far? Have you had any unexpected responses?

Jesús Cossio: To be honest, it’s been received pretty well, even though it hasn’t had a lot of coverage in the popular press, which is partially due to the fact that the topic of the Agrarian Reform is still taboo (unless it’s to talk negatively about it), and because spaces for reviews and critiques have decreased significantly in Perú.

Carla Sagástegui: We have received very good critiques so far. We have even had a somewhat unexpected response from one of Perú’s more serious newspapers, El Comercio, in which there was a very small review of Ya nadie published despite the fact that we had thought they would refuse to say anything about it.