The Huayno Murders

Bad things are happening in Peru's biggest music scene.


Queen of the Andes

dina paucar is peru's beautiful goddess of love

By Adri Murguia
Photos by Adrián Portugal

Dina Paucar shows off her dress to fans. The embroidery translates to “Feelings of America,” which doesn’t make sense in Spanish either. Photo by Adrián Portugal.

It’s Saturday night in Lima, and we’re crawling through the endless rush hour traffic to meet Dina Paucar. Dina is one of Peru’s biggest stars and the reigning queen of huayno, the country’s most popular music. As we approach the stoplights outside the upscale La Molina neighborhood, people from every corner crowd the car windows trying to sell something. The most typical example of this is a woman with a baby strapped onto her back or chest, wearing a traditional Andean outfit: extremely colorful, patterned, and detailed. You see a lot of this in Lima: people still wearing the garments they had on their backs when they lived in the Andes, where huayno comes from.

Before attending Dina’s show, she’s asked us to meet her at her home, far away from the fans who swarm her outside the venues she plays. She greets us in a standard huayno dress, which are inspired by traditional Andean garments, but are bejeweled and embroidered to a starting cost of $1,000 (hers are much, much more expensive). Dina’s the best-selling singer in the country, considered the fairy godmother of huayno, and also goes by the stage name “The Beautiful Goddess of Love,” which is sewn onto a big golden heart at the front of her dress. As we sit underneath a massive portrait of her and surrounded by shelves of trophies, Dina describes how she left her Andean hometown of Huánuco in 1979 for the city.

“One afternoon, eight or ten people showed up while we were around the bonfire, and they started beating my parents. One of the men grabbed me by the throat and threw me on the ground. They said, ‘If we find you here tomorrow, you and your children will be dead.’ That was the reason why we left everything we had behind.” As her eyes well up, she says, “It fills me with nostalgia… and indignation… because it hasn’t affected only me but so many other families in this country.”

During the 1970s and 80s, as terrorist movements like the Shining Path and the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) attempted to replace the government with a communist one, Lima absorbed a massive migration of rural Peruvians. In the provincial Andes, long ignored by Peru’s financial and political elite, indigenous people who refused to join terrorist movements were either killed or forced to flee to the capital. The Shining Path and MRTA were mostly wiped out by Peruvian strongman Alberto Fujimori in the 90s, but Andean natives remained in the city—and in poverty. Even now, despite Peru’s rapid economic growth, life for the migrants has improved little.

The Andeans brought their music to the city, where their new experiences became a source of inspiration. As Andean music collided with the capital, the lyrics grew to reflect both the rural lives people exchanged for the overcast skies of Lima and their lives in the city, where they continued to get screwed over. Thematically, most of the songs are about poverty, leaving the mountains for the big city, missing the mountains, getting drunk, and being in love with someone who cheats on you or who won’t love you back. It’s pretty straightforward stuff.

Eleven-year-old aspiring huayno star Doris Maria primps for a photo shoot. Doris is mini-famous because in 2009 she played Sonia Morales—the Biggie to Dina’s Tupac—in a television biopic. Photo by Max Cabello.

City living further modernized the genre by adding electronic beats, complicated outfits, and booze—huayno promoters started renting giant venues for shows, which turned into ragers. But despite the urban glitz, huayno performers, like the stars of American country, still cling tightly to their working-class roots and their struggle for success.

“It wasn’t easy coming to the city,” explains Dina. “I was 11 years old, I came from the Andes, and I didn’t know Lima at all. My first job was selling tea on the streets. I also worked as a maid, but I always dreamt of singing the music from my homeland. I wanted to find that dream here.” Today, Dina’s rise to success has been such a Cinderella story that it’s been adapted for Peruvian TV into its own miniseries, The Struggle for a Dream.

Even though huayno is extremely blue collar getting started is tricky and expensive. Buying a huayno dress is the key for entry to the scene, and for people living under the poverty line is nothing less than a gamble. Since it’s their one shot at ending up like Dina, aspiring young singers find a way to raise enough money to get a dress and hit the music scene hoping to strike it big. They’ll travel any distance to participate in folk-music fairs and sing about how difficult it’s been so far, because despite all the glitter on the dresses, most of these girls live a harsh reality offstage in the slums of Lima in houses with no running water.

As we enter the venue, we hear the MC hyping up the crowd and becoming progressively louder. There are hundreds of people in line for drinks (most of the money comes from alcohol sales and not the actual tickets). Considering that huayno is the music of the “poor,” no one seems to have a problem with sharing their drinks, and a plastic cup is passed over to us almost immediately upon arrival.

Watching huayno in action, its popularity and the rabidity of its fans make perfect sense. It’s a form of self-expression for the majority of the country, whose needs have not been met. It’s a reality not everyone gets to see up-close, but it’s also a reality many “privileged” Peruvians are completely unaware of.

As far as the songs go, you’ll definitely catch a few irrational tunes in the mix, but you’ll also find great social truths like Dina’s hit “Volvere,” in which she sings, “Today I find myself far away/ From the town that I was born in/ My family thinks that I don’t love them anymore/ But the truth is that I cannot go back/ And I have goals to reach/ Someday, I will come back for them.” And so everyone held their beers up and sang back to Dina with arms in the air while tears streamed down their faces, because they all knew what she was talking about.