'I like simple': Peru's first family proud of rural roots

Up until now, Peruvian President-elect Pedro Castillo, his wife, Lilia Paredes, and their children have lived in a rural, adobe house in the Andes built by Mr. Castillo two decades ago. Now, as a presidential palace awaits them, the family reflects on their roots.

Franklin Briceno/AP
The future first lady of Peru, Lilia Paredes, starts a fire in her wood-burning stove in her adobe home in the rural hamlet of Chugur, Peru on July 22, 2021. Her husband, Pedro Castillo, popularized the slogan “No more poor in a rich country."

The humble two-story, adobe home of the Castillo family, located in one of the poorest districts of Peru deep in the Andes, feels a little empty now. Lilia Paredes packed up the family’s belongings within the last week, neatly folding her husband’s shirts and picking some plates and silverware in between visits from farmers from nearby villages stopping by to say goodbye.

A neo-baroque presidential palace awaits Ms. Paredes, her husband, and Peruvian President-elect Pedro Castillo, and their two children – should the family chose to live in the historic building.

Mr. Castillo will be sworn in as president Wednesday, less than two weeks after he was declared the winner of the June 6 runoff election. The leftist rural teacher, who has never held office, defeated his opponent, right-wing career politician Keiko Fujimori, by just 44,000 votes.

Mrs. Paredes is not sure where she, her husband, and two children will live starting Wednesday. She also does not know where the children will go to school once classes begin.

“We don’t have any property in Lima,” she told The Associated Press last week on her foggy patio in Chugur while she rubbed her hands amid the cold of the Andean winter. “We are people from the countryside, and almost always, the provincial have to wait years to have a property in the capital. If they tell me to live in another place, it would also be the same, we are not kings to live in a palace, we go to work.”

Mr. Castillo’s supporters included the poor and rural citizens of the South American nation. He popularized the phrase “No more poor in a rich country,” and stunned millions of Peruvians and observers by advancing to the runoff.

The economy of Peru, the world’s second-largest copper producer, has been crushed by the coronavirus pandemic, increasing the poverty level to almost one-third of the population and eliminating the gains of a decade.

The typical presidential transition process was derailed after Ms. Fujimori tried to overturn the result, asking election authorities to annul thousands of votes alleging fraud, an accusation she could never prove. That left the Castillo family little time to make plans and say their goodbyes.

Unlike all of Peru’s former presidents of the last 40 years, the Castillos have no home in Lima. Ms. Paredes, also a teacher, said she and her husband have to decide whether they will live in the presidential residence, but it is likely they will call it home. She has seen it from the outside but has never stepped inside, not even on guided tours that were offered during pre-pandemic times.

Choosing their home is a significant decision given Mr. Castillo’s anti-elite rhetoric. His campaign slogan could be called into question if the family moves into the ornate presidential palace.

Mrs. Paredes is taking to Lima some bags with food, including peas, beans, sweet corn flour, and cheese that the family makes at home after milking their cows at dawn. The family’s house – which Mr. Castillo built more than 20 years ago – will be in the care of Ms. Paredes’ elder sister.

The family has also packed study materials for children Arnold and Alondra. Mrs. Paredes would like her children to attend a university and a state college. She said Arnold wants to study civil engineering because he likes math.

“Alondrita will continue studying in a public school, but I would like it to be one of nuns,” Mrs. Paredes said. If that happens, it will be the first time in decades that the children of a president enroll in public education. The powerful in Peru have long preferred private schools.

Some local media outlets had suggested that Ms. Paredes would wear an haute couture dress from a Lima-based designer, but she categorically denied that option. She chose Lupe de la Cruz, a seamstress from a town near Chugur, to make two suits for her.

“I like simple... My husband likes what I wear, and I like what he wears,” she said.

Ms. Paredes recently brought Ms. de la Cruz two cuts of brown and green wool fabric. The seamstress showed her a fashion magazine, and the next first lady chose the designs of two discreet suits.

“She does not like embellishments nor scandalous colors,” Ms. de la Cruz said days later at her workshop, cluttered with fabrics, scissors, needles, threads, and rulers.

Before leaving for Lima, Ms. Paredes and her family attended a service in the Nazarene church that is located a few meters from their home. Pastor Victor Cieza invited dozens of pastors from other evangelical churches from the surrounding villages.

The church with yellow walls and a tin roof filled up with neighbors dressed in hats and woolen ponchos like those worn by Mr. Castillo. Some sang accompanied by a guitar; others reflected on vanity and the importance of humility.

“Everyone knows us, we will never forget where we are from and where we have to return because the positions are not forever,” Ms. Paredes said at the end of the service.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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