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Norwich resident showing support for Peruvian homeland

Presidential elections, impeachment, protests, a suffering economy, and a growing pandemic is the focus of a recent discussion led by Norwich-area youth.

However, the talk didn’t examine conditions here in the United States, but instead addressed what is happening in the South American country of Peru.

The discussion led to the creation of a banner stating “We are with Peru” that is hanging on the Route 82 eastbound bridge near the American Wharf Marina.

The awareness campaign is the impetus of 17-year-old Valeria Yraita-Zevallos. The Norwich Free Academy senior is vice president of the Norwich NAACP Robertsine-Duncan Youth Council and chairman of its Political Action Committee. The Peruvian native immigrated to Norwich, along with members of her family, when she was 6, to join other relatives already in the Rose City, She has kept in close touch with those back home, and discovered there are many Peruvians living in the Norwich area.

Yraita-Zevallos said she wanted to make people in the local area aware of the political, economic, and social turmoil that has plagued her native land for many years, especially in advance of presidential elections scheduled for April. Peru has had four presidents in the past five years, due to on-going disputes between the administrations and Congress. Popular President Martin Vizcarra was impeached in November, which caused public protests throughout Peru, said Yraita-Zevallos.

“Things were starting to get better under Vizcarra, as he started to address some of the government corruption in the country,” she said. “But then Congress impeached him.”

Vizcarra’s successor was in office only five days before being replaced by current President Francisco Sagasti. Yraita-Zevallos said the main problem in her country is that those serving in Congress are immune from any criminal charges while in office.

“Any criminal activity they’re charged with, or pending criminal trials, is put on hold, as long as they stay in office, which has led to long-standing government corruption,” she said. “President Vizcarra started to turn things around, and then he was impeached.”

The NFA student said she approached Leo Butler, the school’s diversity director, about organizing a rally or protest at the Norwich marina to inform the public about Peru’s plight.

“Unfortunately, we couldn’t do that, due to COVID-19 restrictions,” she said.

So she decided to organize some sort of virtual event. She, along with the chairwoman of the Norwich NAACP Shiela Hayes, and Youth Council president Karen Lau, organized a Peruvian Awareness Committee, which included members of the NAACP, NFA’s Successful Hispanic Alliance Club, and others. The group held an on-line discussion which included a video produced by Yraita-Zevallos, outlining the situation in Peru, as well as students, teachers, and others who either were from Peru, or had family members there. Some 30 people participated.

Out of that event came the idea of a public display to show that the Norwich community supports those hoping for better times in Peru.

“At first, it was just going to be a bunch of red cups outlining the words ‘We are with you Peru’, which is a phrase often used in the country to signify unity,” said Yraita-Zevallos.

However, Laura Harrington, who does marketing work for Canggio Restaurant and Bar, a Peruvian eating establishment in Norwich, designed a more elaborate banner that includes the Peruvian national flag, and the words “We are with Peru.”

The banner went up Dec. 2, and is expected to remain there at least through February.

“We will then probably store it until the Peruvian Independence Day in July,” said Yraita-Zevallos, “when hopefully Norwich will able to hold its Peruvian Festival in the downtown; COVID restrictions canceled last year’s event.”

Hayes said she’s proud of the banner effort.

“Norwich is so diverse,” she said. “We need to to embrace and understand what the people from the various cultures are facing in their home countries, and how that’s impacting the youth and their family members. The banner was a way of expressing support for their home country.”

“There’s a large Peruvian community in Norwich, and we thought it would be great to show solidarity with Peru, and show that our hearts go out to them,” Lau said.

Yraita-Zevallos said she frequently speaks with her relatives still living in Peru. She said while there are still protests, the situation is going “back to a type of normal, with everyone just praying for a successful election.”

She said voters hope to “kick some corrupt officials out, at least in Congress.”

She hopes to resume her annual visits soon to her home country to see family members and friends. COVID travel restrictions prohibited such a trip in 2020.

As for her future, Yraita-Zevallos plans to major in political science in college, and hopes to seek a law degree, majoring in immigration and civil rights legal issues. She looks forward to eventually residing again in her native land.

Kevin Gorden lives in Norwich.

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