Political Children
Violence, Labor, and Rights in Peru
Mikaela Luttrell-Rowland



Learning How to Describe the State

The Everyday Lives of Young People in Lima

ELENA’S MEMORIES OF HER CHILDHOOD growing up as a little girl in the northern highlands of Peru came to her in waves. She remembered the animals, the bird sounds, the clean air (aire puro). She remembered the lush green landscape, how you could pick fruit off of trees. Prompted by the death of her grandfather on her mother’s side, when Elena was 9 years old, her family migrated from the highlands of Peru to Lomas de Carabayllo in search of work in an area where Elena and her siblings could also go to school. Elena, three of her siblings, and her father moved first. Her mother came later with their youngest child. At the time, Elena was the eldest of their five children, which would later become seven.

When Elena and her family moved to Lomas de Carabayllo in 2010, the area was home to the largest landfill in Lima. Located in the northern margins of the capital city Lima, Lomas is largely an urban shantytown. Previously considered an industrial garbage zone, much of the infrastructure necessary for habitation was not provided, despite the large numbers of people who had lived there for some time. In the early 1990s, families like Elena’s migrated from the highlands and began to occupy the neighborhood while they worked at the landfill or in recycling jobs. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the area became recognized by the state as a residential zone, more than a decade after Elena’s family, and others like hers, had been living there.1 Lomas was marked by a large garbage dump and landfill on one side, and a large rubber factory on the other.

In Lomas, Elena’s father secured work at the landfill driving a garbage truck. Her grandfather, on her father’s side, found work at the landfill sorting trash and looking for items that could be sold as recycling. Elena also worked, both inside the home and outside, doing a range of jobs from sewing clothes, to selling breads, to working at a small restaurant adjacent to the landfill. The transition to life in Lomas wasn’t easy for Elena—the shift in landscape from the highlands where they had been living to the dusty shantytown was jarring, and she didn’t like the smells of burning plastic and trash in the air. She described the move from the highlands to Lomas as one of the most difficult and transformative moments of her life.

“I couldn’t get used to it here,” Elena told me when I met her several years after she migrated to Lomas. “When I was a girl, I used to say, no, here I don’t see the hills. These are not hills. These hills are naked. There [in the highlands], it was all green. Here, you wanted to play, but you couldn’t. It is pure rocks.”2

When I first met Elena, it was just before her 18th birthday, and by then she had lived in Lomas for eight years. As the oldest child in her family, she had many daily responsibilities, and she was a major caretaker for her six younger brothers and sisters. With no running water or sewer system in Lomas, her daily tasks such as cooking and cleaning took up a great deal of her day. These tasks required significant physical labor, such as fetching water for the family from the large plastic bins that sit throughout the neighborhood. At the time, the blue water bins were the only source of water for many of the people who lived in the area—a fixture of the neighborhood, their bright blue color a notable contrast to the gray, sandy hills.

Elena wasn’t alone in her longing for clean air, water, and plants. The families of Lomas had begun to organize, calling on the local municipal government to provide running water and a sewer system in the area. In April 2014, after more than two decades of habitation, then-President Ollanta Humala made a rare appearance in Lomas de Carabayllo. He announced that his administration would bring infrastructure for running water and a sewer system to the district. He told the crowd:

We are performing this work with money that comes from every Peruvian who pays taxes, but it is worth the effort so that our children won’t have the same lives as us. They won’t have to be searching for water in water tanks. Now they will have pipes [in their houses] and this is improved quality of life.3

Despite wishing for the kind of improvements Humala was proposing, Elena told me she had long been skeptical of such politicians and their promises. While political slogans fill the walls and neighborhood murals surrounding Lomas, Elena felt it was just talk—“propaganda” she called it—and that it was politicians in search of votes. When multiple Peruvian news outlets covered President Humala’s speech and his visit to Lomas, they did not mention the many young people like Elena present in the audience. Nor did the journalists report on the years of ongoing organizing and lobbying by Lomas residents that had preceded the president’s announcement. Instead, Peruvian news outlets focused on the words that Humala spoke, including “our” children “searching for water.”

In development discourse, state actors and politicians, like Humala, often call forth images of vulnerable children and their futures when promising to deliver basic services to marginalized areas or when evoking images of nation building. Categories of childhood, and children, are often used to elicit calls for economic and political investment, and to legitimize state development projects.4 Dominant policy discourse and metaphors of children as representatives of hope for the future—and stereotypical tales of innocent girls and boys in need of protection by the state—are all familiar. It is less common, however, to hear politicians talking about the actual lives of young people, the physical conditions in which they live, the concrete economic and political interests of the state that shape such conditions, and the specific historical processes and environmental factors that influence such quotidian experiences.5 Even less common: to hear of politicians listening to how children themselves describe and talk about these everyday state processes, especially in ways that move beyond only symbolic participation.

Based on research conducted during different periods over a ten-year span in Lima, Peru, this book highlights how two groups of working young people, all living in Lima and whom I first met in 2007 when they were ages 7 to 18, provide key insights into the working of state power.6 They reveal a state that is maintained by the promulgation of disparity and imbued with multiple forms of violence. Since the 1990s, the state has done this largely through a neoliberal discourse that declares children’s rights and children’s individual voices a priority, while at the same time deepening inequality and structural systems of harm. That is, young people in both of these contexts expose a range of ways that state violence in Peru reproduces itself through sustained disparity, while at the same time relying on a logic that imagines children as actors located first and foremost in families and “far from politics.”

The first group of children the book looks at, discussed in Part I, lives in Lomas, and it includes Elena and her siblings. Many of the young people in this group come from families who migrated during the 1990s from the highlands.7 The second group of young people, discussed in Part II, are members of a political activist working children’s movement in Lima named the Movement of Working Children and Adolescents from Working-Class Christian Families (Movimiento de Adolescentes y Niños Trabajadores Hijos de Obreros Cristianos or MANTHOC). MANTHOC, founded in 1971, was one of the first organized children’s workers’ groups in Peru. The organization, which is dedicated to advancing children’s rights as citizens and workers, has led many high-profile political campaigns in Peru and internationally.

Critical race, gender, and decolonial theorists, as well as activists, have long argued that those closest to injustice, and with lived experience of it, have access to understanding and epistemic knowledge that others may not.8 This book’s methods and findings builds on, strongly affirms, and is shaped by this scholarship and analysis. Attending to the words, hopes, fears, and commentary by these particular young people—who have been directly impacted by austerity and various forms of state violence, whose lives and labor are depended upon by the state, even as they are simultaneously “made marginal” by the state—provides an important lens on (re)considering what “the state” itself is in Peru and how state power and state violence play out in everyday life.9

In Lomas, for example, when Elena discusses what makes up daily life, what she underscores most are details about her longings, fantasies, and everyday observations.10 As discussed in the first three chapters, other comments by the young people in Lomas provide similar insights: They speak of the regular burning of trash that hurts their lungs; the poison in the streets that kills their beloved dogs; and the kicked up dirt, dust, and pollution on the unpaved roads that interrupts their ability to play. These examples, at first, don’t seem to be about the state at all, but rather about place. Yet all of these comments point to the way environmental degradation is a central mechanism of state power and injustice. Through their descriptions of daily life, labor, and environment, young people help explain how Peru’s recent political, economic, and policy models maintain not just disparity but also a form of violence. For them, state violence includes not just hyper-localized experiences of life in the shantytown of Lomas, but something wrapped up in, and necessarily dependent on, translocal patterns of both capital and environmental inequity that manifest in their bodies and lives, as well as those of their family members.11 Their voices are influenced by their direct relationship with state power, both in terms of their spatial marginalization and by the historical and contextual factors shaping the very place of Lomas, and Peru.

Peru’s internal armed conflict in the 1980s and 1990s, which killed and displaced tens of thousands, is known for how it both reflected and reproduced patterns of social hierarchy and exclusion, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación or CVR) that was charged with investigating the conflict. They found that over 70,000 women, men, and children were killed or disappeared during the conflict.12 In 2003, Salomón Lerner, the president of the CVR, noted Peru’s deeply entrenched inequality when he remarked that Peru is “a country where exclusion is so absolute that tens of thousands of citizens can disappear without anyone in integrated society, in the society of the non-excluded, noticing a thing” (as quoted in Drinot 2014: 3). Since then, conflict, inequality, and exclusion have continued, albeit in different ways. Even with a newly established middle class in Peru, there remain many young people living in dangerous environmental and deeply unequal economic conditions.13 Feminist scholars of Latin America have long argued that the failure of the state to guarantee a life free from violence is itself a human rights violation.14 In Peru today, this failure, as the young people discussed in this book make clear, is manifest in interlocking forms of environmental, structural, historical, and political violence.15

Although they do not always name it as such, the young people featured in this book provide unique insight into how violence and state power coalesce in their lives. Listening to the particular ways they narrate their experiences—sharing their knowledge and affect and even fantasies for the future, or, on the other hand, discussing political campaigns, children’s rights, and workers’ rights—provides important commentary into the ways the state in Peru operates as a purveyor of inequality and disparity among the country’s children. But to be able to hear their comments as particular insights about state power in Peru, it is also necessary to move past conceptualizations of childhood that frame them as without subjecthood or political agency.

Reconceptualizing Childhood in the Context of the State

In recent years, important scholarship on Peru and Latin America explored how best to listen to young people, especially those in Lomas and the members of MANTHOC, who in multiple ways have been made marginal by the state. This book draws inspiration from this scholarship, while also suggesting some new approaches. Recent works on this subject could be said to fit into two main categories. One of these categories, which includes a number of compelling and moving accounts, many from across Latin America, emphasize children’s individual stories and voices and how their perspectives can shed light on key issues in our understanding of politics and society (see Bellino 2017; Crivello 2015; Taft 2019). There are also important historical and legal writings on the institutional and structural context of place, through the perspective of adults, that frame how children’s voices are heard and that help explain the dominant spatial scheme in which children are contextualized, understood, and often erased (see Albarrán 2014; Han 2021; Katz 2004; Leinaweaver 2008; Premo 2005; Simmons 2015; Webster 2021). Many of these books have helped provide a shift toward a reconceptualization of childhood in both scholarship, NGOs and human rights organizations, and in public policy. This impetus matters for decolonial approaches particularly because dominant understandings about childhood and child development grow out of a Western developmental-psychological view of children.

Over the last three decades, Peru’s government has instituted a number of new laws and policies aimed at children and children’s rights. These policies, like in many Western countries, have been partly grounded in an understanding of childhood as a time to be protected. Often credited to scholarship by Talcott Parsons or Jean Piaget in much of this dominant understanding, children are seen as sites of future investment and in terms of who they will become, rather than who they are now.16 From this point of view, childhood is something to be protected, and ultimately, as a time viewed as apolitical.17

The 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is the most ratified human rights treaty in the world, which is likely due in part to the neutral ways childhood tends to be viewed by state actors.18 Indeed, the overwhelming global consensus about children’s rights is arguably a reflection of the ways politicians paternalistically rally around vulnerable subjects to protect. Almost every country in the globe has ratified the CRC, which, unlike women’s rights or Indigenous and Native peoples’ rights, is arguably due to the ways that children’s rights are largely seen as a neutral issue. Put differently, because of how children are widely dismissed, infantilized, and treated as apolitical subjects, nearly all state actors see children’s rights as an automatic good.19 The categories of children and childhood are often subsumed in the public imagination under the umbrella term “the family.”20 Such erasure contributes to why “children are largely absent from our texts, missing from our studies of human life and cultural production” (Theidon 2013: 303). Yet all erasures are not equal, and recent scholarship highlights the politics and power of ways that certain children, and bodies, have been largely, and intentionally, written out of historical and social accounts.21

Part of the erasure of particular kinds of children in social life as political subjects is not just about how children are imagined or understood in public policy, but also because of a certain doctrinal reading of the state and state power. In numerous academic fields, scholars have documented how the state and state processes are often seen by policymakers as somehow “outside” of society and social processes. Socio-legal, critical race theorists, and feminist scholars have collectively disputed this framing and have made clear in recent decades the non-monolithic nature of “the state,” as well as the need to question what constitutes state power.22 Relatedly, rather than imagining law and legality primarily in terms of rules and norms as dictated from “above,” a number of scholars have demonstrated the need to understand law as expressed through the consciousness embedded in everyday lives and practices.23 Together, this work sheds light on a problem in the very spatial imagining of “above” and “below” language of rights—both by uncovering that lived experiences of law (i.e., law “from below”) is often just as formative in legal consciousness and by showing that the very binary framing itself can be limiting.24

Rather than a state working as a static, coherent, cohesive entity—with a set purpose to undermine children’s rights—the story of children’s rights in Peru is much more nuanced and complex. Commentary about state power by the young people most affected by state violence is reflected through imagined absences, definitive logics, and affective longings. That is, in their discussions of everyday life in Lima, two groups of working young people featured in this book put forward specific new insights and political knowledge about the state and state power in Peru. But these insights were only able to come about over time, and through what I term “relational listening” practices.


1. See “Plan de Desarrollo Concertado de Lomas de Carabayllo 2004–2015,” a community action plan that is one of the few documents to outline a historical analysis of Lomas and that has been written collectively by local community leaders, families, and NGO workers.

2. Elena interview, 2012. All names in this manuscript have been changed for anonymity, and all translations are my own.

3. See distritos/carabayllo/6971-ollanta-humala-inauguró -las-obras-de-agua-de-san-pedro-y-las-lomas-de-carabayllo.html

4. While there are expansive examples of this, some works that have influenced my thinking on this point include: Ennew 2002; Invernizzi et al. 2017; Malkki 2010; Malkki 2015; Pupavac 2001; Ross and Solinger 2017; White 2007.

5. While much of the discourse around children’s rights focuses on the importance of the interconnection of rights, only a select handful of authors directly engage in discussions that link the everyday, material conditions of children’s lives and wider structural and societal analysis. As Cindi Katz (2004) powerfully shows in her longitudinal, ethnographic study of children growing up in Sudan and New York, this often means that particular political ecologies are overlooked in discussions of children’s rights.

6. The majority of this book is based on fieldwork I conducted between 2007–2009 in Lima, Peru. I then made additional trips in 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016, which included archival research, interviews, focus groups, and participatory and visual research.

7. Most of the young people of Lomas did not identify as “Indigenous,” and so I don’t name them as such in this book. Part of my argument, however, is that the young people of Lomas have specific political knowledge based on their experience being descendants of families who migrated from the highlands of Peru.

8. This point has been a major feature of social movements as well as critical theory. See Anzaldúa 1987; Brown 2013; Bueno-Hansen 2015; Chua 2018; Collins 2000; Collins 2019; Crenshaw 1991; Hernández 2016; Incite! 2017; Katz 2008; Leinaweaver 2008; Perry 2018; Taylor 2016.

9. I use the term “made marginal” to highlight the multiple ways state violence shapes people’s lives and experiences with living in conditions of marginality or poverty. I share Kathleen Millar’s overarching critique, and caution against, those who write of “scarcity as a persistent paradigm for understanding lives lived in precarious conditions” (Millar 2018: 8).

10. See Sara Ahmed (2014) The Cultural Politics of Emotion in which she describes how emotions “should not be regarded as psychological states, but as social and cultural practices” (9). Jennifer Nash’s scholarship on love and emotion in Black feminism has also shaped this idea. See Nash 2013.

11. For a robust discussion of interrelated crisis and a political economy approach that attends to both the local and the global, see Britton-Purdy et al. 2020.

12. Details of this conflict will be discussed in Chapter 1, along with the ways human rights language came to be framed since that report. See Bueno-Hansen 2015; CVR 2003.

13. See Boesten 2010; Drinot 2006; Ewig 2010; Thorp and Paredes 2010.

14. See Rosa-Linda Fregoso and Cynthia Bejarano (2010) Terrorizing Women: Feminicide in the Americas. See also Cecilia Menjívar (2011) Enduring Violence: Ladina Women’s Lives in Guatemala.

15. One of the co-directors of the Peruvian feminist organization Flora Tristan stated in a 2011 interview with me: “The problem here [in Peru] is that children’s rights are used to justify religious ideological positions that go against, in this case, the rights of women. So this is a very brutal use of what is, in reality, a holistic conception of the rights of people.”

Much of the public policy discourse treats women’s rights and children’s rights as basically compatible policy enterprises. However, in Peru children’s rights begin at conception, making the very concept of children’s rights already a complex one given how it clashes with women’s reproductive rights. One question in the classification of childhood is the age at which it ends. My study uses the same standards as the CRC, where “childhood” is understood to end at 18 years of age. Another question, often overlooked by academics, is when the concept of childhood begins. While the CRC classifies childhood beginning at birth, the Inter-American Convention on the Rights of the Child that is used in Peru distinguishes childhood as beginning at conception. This is a loaded issue, and international state parties deeply disagree about when the rights of a child should begin. Obviously, therefore, in speaking of experiences of “childhood,” the range of who is imagined in this terminology can span from unborn fetuses to 18-year-olds depending on the reader and context.

The framework of “reproductive justice” developed by women of color scholars and activists in the United States has had a crucial and often overlooked contribution to these discussions. They suggest that the individualistic rhetoric of “choice” is often meaningless for many women of color and marginalized groups and argue for a need to move beyond the familiar pro-life/pro-choice binary. For a history and discussion of the reproductive justice movement see Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger (2017) Reproductive Justice.

16. See Qvortrup et al. 2009. For a general overview of this topic, see Nick Lee (2001) Childhood and Society: Growing up in an Age of Uncertainty. See also Hart and Boyden 2018; Invernizzi et al. 2017; White 2002a.

17. Much of the discussion about children’s rights has been located within the academic literature called “the sociology of childhood” (see, for example, Mayall 2000; James and Prout 1997). This literature emerged roughly around the same time as the CRC and positioned itself as emphasizing children’s agency and participation, which these authors juxtaposed against classic understandings of children as passive and vulnerable. Indeed, the sociology of childhood aims to understand the category of childhood as a “social construction” (James and Prout 1997: 8). Key themes such as child participation and child voice were developed in this literature, along with the notion of child standpoint and representation. While Parsons and Piaget have important differences in their views, they both believe that the child develops from “disorder, instability, and confusion to order, stability, and confidence by transcending their mere biologically classifiable human body. In both cases the process of supplementation allows the child to come into possession of and control over themselves” (Lee 2001: 42).

18. Robin Bernstein’s critical book Racial Innocence (2011) traces the history of such presentations of the “neutrality” of childhood, and argues that in the U.S. context, such presentations of innocence played a pivotal role in all major racial projects, including slavery and abolition, but also anti-Black violence. The general international performance, or widespread consensus, of childhood as a time and place far from, or outside the polity, is wrapped up in both national and international systems of power. Barry Mayall (2000: 246) notes:

The spaces and times of childhood are proposed as, ideally, protected from politics. Children are to be protected, in an a-political arena of thought and practice. Just as women have been assigned to the private and the domestic, so we are taught to think of children as growing up there, too, in a happy domain which enables them to develop, unmolested by the stresses of public life. Children therefore are presented to us as pre-people, outside the polity.

I am interested in both the spatial logics needed to imagine children as “outside the polity,” but also, as Bernstein notes, the historical and place-specific stakes in doing so.

19. By 2003, an unprecedented 191 countries had ratified the CRC, making it the most ratified treaty in history. Under the CRC, children are entitled to rights that are encapsulated by four overarching principles: nondiscrimination, the best interest of the child, survival and development, and the right to child participation. These overarching principles combine and include the civil, political, and social rights of children. While the integration of rights (civil, political, and social) is one of the primary goals of all human rights treaties, the CRC proved to be a departure from previous international declarations regarding children (namely the 1924 and 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child) because of the shift from a primarily welfare framework to a participatory one. Further, it is distinct because of the ways the overarching principles (particularly that of child participation) are presented as being interconnected with one another, making it not only a right but also a framework for the realization of other rights. The global historical shift from “needs” discourse to “rights” discourse with regards to children, as well as the way children’s rights are now viewed as interconnected, are two features of the historical shift in how children themselves were viewed and understood in human rights law. For information on how the “child” is understood in international law, see Bernstein 2011; Van Bueren 1995. See also Holzscheiter 2010; Linde 2016; Rehfeld 2011.

20. Cynthia Enloe (1990) noted in her analysis of the Persian Gulf War that “women” and “children” were so often placed together that the phrase rings as though it were only one word: “womenandchildren.” Recent research has shown that this dyad is not just an elision that only happens during wartime but can also be central to state making and state policy (see Luttrell-Rowland 2012).

21. The emergence of Black girlhood studies as a field has been critical to the making visible of this erasure—how certain bodies and people are made more invisible than others. For some influential work who speak to this from both a historical and social perspective, see scholarship by Brown 2013; hooks 1997; Ibrahim 2021; Webster 2021; Wright 2016.

22. There are robust discussions on this point from a range of disciplines; some authors that have shaped my thinking on this include: Abrams 1988; Alvarez 1999; Alvarez et al. 2017; Bhandar 2018; Blackett 2019; Chowdhury 2011; Escobar and Alvarez 1992; Eslava et al. 2017; Hernández et al. 2019; Quijano 2000; Santos 2005; Sharma and Gupta 2006.

23. See Engle 2020; Ewick and Silbey 1998; Levitsky 2014; McCann 2014; Merry 2006a.

24. Colonization and colonial legal frameworks that rely on particular notions of the state and Euro-American law is one example of this. The scholarship of Lila Abu-Lughod, Elora Chowdhury, Kiran Asher, Sonia Alvarez, Cheryl Harris, K.-Sue Park, Aída Hernández Castillo, Akhil Gupta, and Max Liboiron among others is useful here in lodging both the critique and alternative views of understanding.