Zenon Colque: Building a community of success stories & sharing “the real Peru”
Since it first began building homes in 2009 in the dry, highland area of La Florida, The Fuller Center for Housing of Peru has been a favorite of Fuller Center Global Builders teams.
Volunteers have fallen in love with the country, its remarkable scenery and the Peruvian people — especially the residents of the transformed La Florida community.
But perhaps the biggest reason that volunteers enjoy working in La Florida — and often returning for multiple trips — is that they can see that their efforts are making a real and tangible difference in people’s lives.
One man in particular has spearheaded this ongoing community transformation — Zenon Colque. He brought The Fuller Center to Peru in 2009, but his experience in helping his fellow countrymen have simple, decent places to live goes back to the early days of the Fullers’ affordable housing movement.
“The first time that I talked to Millard Fuller about housing was in 1980,” Colque recalled while hosted the most recent Global Builders team to work in La Florida. “His idea of building houses around the world was very impressive at that time to me because I was looking for something that I could do to help my people in Peru. At that time, the housing problem was a big issue among people with low income. Also, the political situation was not helping.”
Inspired by Millard Fuller’s vision and enthusiasm — traits that he embraced and incorporated into his own life mission — Colque brought the Fullers’ movement to a place very special to him. He founded Habitat for Humanity Peru in 1982 in his hometown of Puno on the shores of legendary Lake Titicaca, often called the “highest navigable lake in the world” with a surface elevation of about 12,500 feet on Peru’s border with Bolivia.
The concept took off and spread to other places. After a decade at the helm of the organization, Colque believed that things were running smoothly enough that he could hand over the reins. He left the nonprofit world and went back to being a businessman … for a while. Then, the world shook.
An 8.0-magnitude earthquake struck just off the central coast of Peru, rattling the Ica and Lima Regions of the country. More than 500 people were killed, and more than 58,000 houses were destroyed. Another 13,500 houses were severely damaged. The event would bring Colque back as a leader in the affordable housing movement, but not exactly in the way he had envisioned.
“For two years, I drove from the south to the north to see if there was anything I could do for them,” Colque recalled. “There was great need, and there was nothing I could do because we could not build thousands of homes. So after two years of looking for a place we could do something, I found a place where nobody wanted to do anything. It was La Florida.”
The high-elevation, arid community was a disaster area, but not so much from the earthquake. Poverty housing was rampant in the area with almost non-existent infrastructure even before the quake.
“Few houses were destroyed by the earthquake, but most of the houses were bamboo houses,” Colque said. “But it was the place of most need. I came up with the idea and talked to Millard about this place. So I decided to stay there.”
Work there has proceeded continuously ever since, boosted by a steady stream of Global Builders teams through the years. The people of La Florida warmly embrace the mostly American teams today, but they were wary in the beginning.
“The first group of volunteers came from California,” Colque remembered. “When they were walking through La Florida, people were afraid to even face us. They were looking at foreigners as if they were coming to invade the city or something. But today everybody feels like they are friends. Children run up to shake hands and say hi. So, it’s a big, big difference today.”
He strives to make sure that volunteers have plenty work to do when they arrive, but he also wants them to have a total Peruvian experience. After the work is done, volunteers usually stay extra days to expand upon their Peruvian experience with sightseeing, often including treks to see Machu Pichu, also known as “The Lost City of the Incas” and one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World.”
“We try to do our best and not just because they are coming to help build houses,” he said. “When everybody comes, it is serious work and we accomplish a lot. But we accommodate our visitors the best we can. Our visitors deserve to have the best — the best attention, the best in accommodations in hotels and meals and the best of showing what Peru is. This is the real Peru. I think after a week or more, people go back to their home and think that this was a great experience.”
Volunteers may return to their home country as changed people, but the community they leave behind also is changed with each visit. It certainly has changed from the first builds of 2009.
“La Florida is completely different,” Colque said. “Now it looks like a town. Back then it was like a ghost town — no streets, no water, no electricity, nothing. Today, it looks like a town. It has a water system, a sewer system and electricity. Every street you can see houses — not just by The Fuller Center but by others, as well. Today, it seems that this is the most dynamic town in the entire region.”
Fuller Center for Housing President David Snell said that dynamism is the result of Colque’s leadership.
“Zenon exemplifies what The Fuller Center is all about: A passion for the ministry, a vision for his community and unrivaled support of our most valuable asset — our volunteers,” Snell said. “Zenon is working to remake La Florida from a dusty village of daub-and-wattle shacks into a community of solid, brick homes. He is a blessing to the ministry.”
With 109 safe, new homes to date, La Florida is indeed a changed landscape. However, the real transformation, Colque insists, can be measured in the way it not only brought hope to parents that their children might have better futures but also in the way that hope has manifested itself through the years. Those are the true blessings, he insists.
“Some of the children that were going to schools 10 years ago, today they are professionals,” he said. “Some of them are working in the highest positions in Lima. To me, that is the reward of working here for more than 10 years.
“After many years of building houses, La Florida is no longer just about building houses,” he continued. “It’s about building community. I’m very grateful because I feel like we are changing the lives of people and changing how people think. We’re changing little by little. People may not think it’s that different, but I can see it. After more than 10 years of working in La Florida, it’s completely different.”
One of the earliest partner families offers one of the best examples of transformed lives. Colque met Ana, a mother of two with a third child on the way, on the streets of Peru. She was homeless at the time and desperate. He told her about his plans for La Florida and suggested she try to start a new life there.
“She had no job, no home, no family,” he said. “I asked where she lived, and she said, ‘On the street.’ She said she could cook, and I told her to come to La Florida. I said, why don’t you come with us so that you can have a chance at a different life?
“She came up with a backpack, two children and that’s all.”
Today, her son is a civil engineer, while her daughter is studying law and working with the Congress in Lima. Her youngest daughter is in high school in Lima. And Ana would go on to not just build a home but also become mayor of the town for a while. Today, she works with the city government in Lima.
Those success stories — and the success stories ahead — are what keeps Colque going in his second run as an affordable housing leader in the country.
“Sometimes I have my ups and downs in my life, and every year I keep saying this is my last year, that maybe somebody else should take my place,” he said. “But every time we have a house dedication and I see tears of the homeowner, usually a mom, I wonder: How can I stop? Why should I stop? I have to do one more house, one more year.
“Seeing the children growing up secure and having hope makes me think that I can go a little more.”
He cites Millard Fuller when he thinks about his goals for La Florida. His mission is to finish the job … completely.
“I’d like to expand upon what we are doing in building a community in La Florida,” Colque said. “I think this can be an example for other towns. I believe in the future it’s an example that neighbors are going to follow. My hope is that I can leave something that is already finished. I would like to see La Florida be a town with a future for its children.
“Like with the homes, we don’t celebrate the beginning — we celebrate the completion,” he concluded. “I remember telling Millard, ‘Let’s celebrate the last brick, the last stone instead of celebrating the first stone.’”
So, until Colque sees the last brick set in the community, he remains committed to helping build more homes and more family success stories in La Florida.
And he invites you to join him for a true Peruvian experience.