Villa El Salvador: A Self-Managed Experiment in Peaceful Development

A view of Villa El Salvador from the desert in Pachacamac

Today I joined in on home-visits of five elderly residents of Villa El Salvador with Sister Jackie, an American-born nun who has been living and serving in Villa for the past thirty years.  Benedicta, Juana, Domingo, Irene, Urbelina.  All are regulars at Martincitos, a community center for the elderly that provides meals, activity, and an extended family of sorts.  It’s a place that is heavy with love– the “love thy neighbor” kind of love– done very well.

We drove through the narrow dirt roads of the residential area in a white van.  Passersby holding the hands of small children stopped, stared, and smiled back when I waved.  The homes are small but most are painted bright colors, at least on the exterior.  The residents greeted us with hugs and kisses and adamantly insisted we sit down when we walked into their homes.  Most had to pull up small chairs to accommodate our group, which consisted of five very gringo volunteers and one street smart nun.

Sister Jackie asked them how they were feeling, when they’d last been to the doctor, and whether they were eating regularly.  Answers were always in the affirmative. “Sí, Madre.”  “Ya, Mami.”  Jackie would turn to us with raised eyebrows and say with a hint of an eye-roll, “It’s always yes, yes, yes with these ladies.  They’re old school.  They’ll always ‘yes’ the nun.”

Some of the homes had linoleum floors, but others were just on packed dirt.  The nicer ones had wallboards and televisions; the poorest had bricks and chickens.  They all were guarded by somber images of Christ and the Virgin Mary hanging on the walls.

Housing in Villa El Salvador was built in the mid-seventies in a planned community structure on top of sand flats, after the impoverished founders were forced out of another neighborhood in which they’d been squatting.  Over 5,000 families converged in what was an area called Pachacamac (Quechua for “creator of the earth”) from the highlands, jungle, and countryside to construct a community based on a “culture of peace and equality of opportunity.”  Residential areas were split into sections, blocks, and lots; an equal amount of square footage was given to each family.  Community leaders and secretariats were named and charged with organizing programs in healthcare, education, and sports (the importance of which is still evident in the number of parks, playgrounds, and fútbol fields in Villa).

Although its people were poor, Villa El Salvador grew and prospered.  Comedores were opened to feed the hungry and day-cares were created specifically to support working mothers, all by concerned residents.  An entirely new district of Lima was built on bricks, sand, and love in a single decade.  Villa became a global inspiration with its progress and its message, enough to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

We questioned one abuelita nearing her ninth decade about her life in the early days of Villa El Salvador.  “Oh I forget.”  Her son chimed in, trying to jog her memory.  “Were there houses here when you first came?”   Something clicked.  “Ohh, no, there was nothing.  No houses.  No water.  No food.  No streets.  I walked several kilometers to the farms every day, and walked back with sacks of sweet potatoes on my back, 30 to 40 kilos, and sold them here.”  She went on to explain that she thinks the manual labor was the cause of her current ovarian cancer.  Funny, I come from a country where we blame our ailments on a lack of activity.

The biggest load I carried in my younger years was a full backpack.  The only thing I lacked was a dependable dial up connection… and that was only while we had AOL.  Now as a volunteer, I find myself careening back and forth between poverty and luxury, highlands and coast, indigenous and colonial, work and leisure.  There is value in exposure to new cultures but for me it often comes with the price of guilt and confusion.  My life is very, very good, by any standard, but Villa has shown me I still have a lot to learn about the meaning of community and commitment.

A glimpse of green in the Pachacamac desert behind Villa

Selling flowers

More to come about life and volunteer work in Villa El Salvador in the coming weeks, but for now, if you’d like to learn more, check out Slum Upgrading and Participation:  Lessons from Latin America by Ivo Imparato and Jeff Ruster, or Villa El Salvador’s municipal website (in Spanish).

Sands of Pachacamac, or what Villa El Salvador would have looked like sixty years ago


  1. Pingback: Things I’ve learned by volunteering – Soulshine Traveler

  2. First of all, Meghan, these photos are astounding. I especially like the sepia-toned image at the end of the post. Secondly, this reminds me so much of my own experiences in Ciudad Bolivar, a shanty-town in Colombia, where Hermana Dorris was my guide through life (what is it with you, me and the Latin American Hermanas?) I am having trouble wrapping my mind around the different layers of your experience: from pisco sours to sunsets to volunteering to Villa El Salvador to disciplining teenagers. It is such a treat to travel vicariously through you. [in case you cannot tell, I’ve returned to internet and safety for the day and I’m using it to catch up on your posts!]

    • Twin, you described it perfectly. I’ve been struggling with how to grasp the different strata of Limeño society, and where, if anywhere, I fit in. Weekdays are spent working in Villa, weekends are spent sipping pisco sours and dancing to Latin music all night long. I don’t know if I should feel bad about that or just soak it all in. I wanted “immersion”, and I am getting more than I expected, in so many odd nooks and crannies of Lima.

  3. Kim

    I love the story of the history of Villa El Salvador. I’m glad to know it was recognized for its achievements and must have been a huge asset in planning other human-focused communities like this around the world.

    • I agree with you complete, Kim. Villa El Salvador is an incredible place to be and work. They’ve been through so much hardship, especially in the last decade (which I’ll write more about later), that it’s impossible not to be inspired by their resilience.

  4. Meg, I love your posts! I can only imagine that the same emotions/thoughts would be going through my head if I was gin Villa El Salvador. Love you, be safe.

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