August 08, 2022
Big Shot
Life in a People-Powered Shantytown

Photographer Dan Bannister visited the Lima suburb of Villa El Salvador to teach children something about photography. He learned something himself.

“It looks awful and it looks terrible, but it’s not,” says photographer Dan Bannister, of his visit to the famed Lima suburb of Villa El Salvador, often lauded as a shining example of Latin American people power and a model city for the poor. “They’re some of the happiest, friendliest, well-adjusted people I’ve ever met.”

Bannister, a Calgary, Canada, industrial and travel photographer, spent several weeks in Villa in the winter of 2007, teaching photography to local children as part of a volunteer service for an NGO, and shooting his own work as well.

The neighborhood was born in 1971, when some 200 impoverished families “invaded” a tract of empty land on the edge of Lima. Cecilia Blondet chronicled those events in a chapter in The Peru Reader. Word of the invasion spread, and within two days, another 9,000 families had rushed to join them. A standoff between the military government of Gen. Juan Velasco and the settlers ensued.

Upper class Lima residents “with terror watched the fulfillment of their own prophesy: the poor, the mountain hicks, the resentful and angry cholos were taking their city, and were at the point of invading their very homes,” Blondet wrote.

But Velasco happened to be presiding, right then, over a development meeting of the Inter-American Development Bank in Lima. After several failed military attempts to evict the squatters, the government bowed to international pressure, and deeded the settlers a piece of desert-like scrub land nearby.

The settlers built the city themselves. Nearly 400,000 people live there today. About a third of Lima’s people - some 2 million residents - live in such informal settlements.

Bannister traversed the streets carrying $20,000 of camera equipment, but was never threatened or accosted. He was invited into houses, and to dinner. He met the mayor.

Most observers refer to Villa as a slum. It’s the largest and best-known of the shantytowns ringing Lima, collectively referred to as pueblos jovenes, or young villages. But to Bannister, Villa didn’t function in any unusual way.

“There are bakers and shoemakers and people selling coal,” he said. “Cabdrivers and babysitters. “It’s just like everywhere else.”

The foreign volunteers he worked with seemed to feel sorry for the impoverished residents. But Bannister detected other traits, such as a spirit of neighborly cooperation.

“I’d show up [at a schoolyard] and see kids playing foozball at the table at 7:30 a.m. Kids would volunteer their spot at table to other kids. A kid would cede his place! Fascinating.” – Mary D’Ambrosio

Find out more about Villa El Salvador

Villa El Salvador municipal website

Friends of Villa

Microlending efforts

A Villa Story

2 comments about “Life in a People-Powered Shantytown”

  1. Pat Bianculli says:

    Beautiful photographs that depict the “spirit” of the residents and not the “plight”. Even in poverty, these people are to be admired for creating a community that works. Good story!!

  2. Jose says:

    Good story!! Amazing how people can live happy with the minimal core things you need in life: homemade food, roof, bed, maybe a pet!! This is a very common story. In one case, I am not a big fan for people ‘invading’ land anywhere but certainly understand the need for having homes. Certainly have ramifications for the people who live nearby and earn the right to have it. In these cases, governments have to work very closely with these commnunities and ensure people are empower to work and earn a decent living. This impacts the government ability to cope with additional resources and infrastructure. But happy that this one had a happy ending.

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