Just one hour south of Lima, Peru's capital, lies Villa El Salvador, a town created from scratch in the desert in 1971. Its first residents were migrants from indigenous communities who moved to Lima because of the great earthquake of 1970, and to flee armed conflict. They were prevented from settling in the city's residential areas and were instead offered land in its outskirts, then called ‘el arenal': the sandy place. Arturo Mejia, co-founder and director of the performance troupe Arena Y Esteras (‘sand and mats'), and his parents were one of approximately 8000 families who moved to the desert to realize their shared vision: an independent, self-sufficient town with quality education for children and a vibrant culture.
In its infancy, Villa El Salvador was no more than a collection of shacks made from tarpaulin and sticks, with no running water, electricity or infrastructure. But with careful participatory planning, it soon flourished into a thriving town with a unique design—each residential ward comprised 16 manzana (blocks of 24 family units), built around central community facilities including a health clinic, kindergarten, a community office with a library, and a park. Until 1983, Villa El Salvador was governed exclusively by its inhabitants. Due to its expanding population, however, the Peruvian government established a municipal office in the town in 1983 to oversee local affairs, but the original settlers continued to run many programmes to improve the community.
However, on February 15, 1992 tragedy struck. Maria Elena Mayano, the much-loved community organizer and activist, was murdered by Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a terrorist group. The town was gripped with fear with many people scared to leave their homes. Still grieving from their loss, Arturo Mejia and his peers organized themselves with the goal of returning hope and confidence to the people of Villa El Salvador. They took to the streets demanding the "right to smile". This was the birth of Arena Y Esteras. The group began offering classes in theatre, dance, music, circus and sculpture to empower young people in the community through art. Children were also encouraged to discuss issues including gender equality, human rights, and identity, amongst others.
On February 16 and 17, 2017, a group of Peace Boat participants visited Arena y Esteras, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. After arriving at the centre, participants and the local children changed into colourful circus attire and took part in an animated parade on the nearby streets. As well as experiencing dance and acrobatic workshops, participants enjoyed breathtaking performances by members of Arena y Esteras. The exceptional level of skill, dedication and professionalism exhibited by the children—many of whom were younger than 16—was humbling. All the children in Arena y Esteras live in Villa El Salvador, which, despite receiving many awards, including the United Nations title of Peace Messenger City, still struggles with poverty and a lack of access to quality education and healthcare.
But Arena Y Esteras inspires youth to seek meaning in life and nurtures their artistic potential. Angel, a 16-year-old girl, explained to participants how joining the group two years ago opened her eyes to a new world. "What I love the most is being able to travel to different parts of Peru, as well as internationally, to pass on our new-found skills to other young people." Takeuchi Atsuko, a Peace Boat participant who attended the two-day study tour and participated in onboard theatre workshops led by Arturo Mejia, echoed Angel's sentiment: "Arena y Esteras is building the confidence and sense of identity of Villa El Salvador's future leaders through art. Moreover, once they have learned new skills, they can pass them onto the next generation—what a fantastic cycle."It is grass-roots, long-term initiatives like this which—in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals—can achieve lasting resilience and sustainability of cities and local communities.