Fighting destiny

By Chris Hufstader
Celia Candiotti is a security officer for the city of Huamanga, the capital of Ayacucho. She and other members of the staff at the city hall took a training course in preventing racism and discrimination. "Now we see all people have rights,” she says. Photo: Percy Ramirez/Oxfam America

First in a series of four

Celia Candiotti works as a security guard at the main municipal office of Huamanga, the capital of Ayacucho province in Peru. She’s tall and thin, and has a narrow face and severe eyes. She’s pleasant, but professional, as you would expect from a uniformed officer who commands respect.

Several years ago she was at work when she saw a 12-foot-high wall of water, mud, boulders, and cars flooding down one of the main streets in the city.

Cadiotti ran straight into the maelstrom to rescue people.

“You can’t fight your destiny,” Candiotti says, citing her training as a nurse and a firefighter. “I didn’t even think, I just responded -- I waded right in.” She rescued several injured people before she found a young girl, perhaps seven years old, trapped in a car. “She said to me, ‘I’m gonna die.’ I said ‘no’. But the water was coming in the window fast.”

That day the landslide killed about a dozen people, but thanks to Candiotti, that one young girl survived. The Ministry of Women gave Candiotti an award for heroism.

Candiotti noticed something then: people lined the street, horrified by the disaster, but did not help. She remembered this later when she went to a training session for the staff at the municipal office. The topic was how to understand and reduce racism and discrimination at their work, so they could ensure equal access to the services citizens need from the local government.

When it came to the pervasive racism in Ayacucho, Candiotti was much like the bystanders she saw on the street that day: concerned, but not sure what to do.

Learning to relate

The training session was organized by APRODEH, a human rights group Oxfam has been funding to work on ways to reduce racism and discrimination in Peru. The organization led efforts to help local governments pass new laws – ordinances – that require equal access to services, equal treatment by officials, for everyone, whatever their gender or ethnicity, whatever language they speak, however they dress, and whatever their age or appearance.

Addressing the racism and discrimination directed toward indigenous people, women, and handicapped people is an important component of Oxfam’s work to reduce barriers that keep people in poverty. And training for municipal workers, who play an essential role in helping citizens gain access to crucial services from local government, is one way APRODEH and Oxfam are working to changing the way people think about each other—and themselves--in Ayacucho.

For Candiotti, a woman who grew up on the coast in a family of Italian immigrants, understanding and confronting the racism and discrimination she could see in Ayacucho since she moved here eight years ago is a tremendous blessing. She says APRODEH’s training helped her and others understand that all people have basic rights. “People from the highlands are not any less than me, and we all have to learn to relate to each other. I could see the changes in the staff here,” she says, standing in her uniform near the front of the municipal hall. “We left the training calm and happy, a joy has taken over us.”

Now, Candiotti says the staff of the municipality behaves completely differently. Whereas before the indigenous staff would be reluctant to even speak Quechua, the local indigenous language, they are now happy to help indigenous people who come to the office no matter what language they can speak. “When people come and inquire in Quechua,” she says, “we all speak Quechua now, our attitude has really changed. We used to make fun of an elderly señora dressed in traditional clothes, but not anymore.”

When she’s at work, Candiotti wears a uniform slightly too large for her slim, athletic frame, with a cap pulled low over her forehead. She’s got a serious look about her, but when she describes the changes in the staff attitudes her eyes get a little wet.

Near the front entrance, she meets with some indigenous, Quechua speaking women under an arch leading in to the massive, Spanish colonial courtyard. Her warmth comes through as she answers questions, gives direction, and laughs at a joke.

Candiotti acknowledges that perhaps some destinies can change: “There’s always been discrimination,” she says near her post at the front entrance. “But little by little, this is changing.”

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