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Race and racism in Peru: It’s a strange thing

Sadly, there are few places on earth where racism doesn’t exist. To tie in with the United Nations’ ‘Week of Solidarity with the Peoples Struggling against Racism’, we want to talk about a topic that doesn’t get talked about much in Peru: Race. While we don’t claim to have all the answers, we are pleased to publish a post by Julianne Ezra and Ella Smyth from the UK. Both have lived, worked, and volunteered here for two years, and they reflect on race in Peru based on their personal experiences from living in Arequipa and traveling the country.

Peru. Sounds exotic, far away. We’ve heard about Paddington bear and deepest darkest Peru. We see pictures of Andean women in traditional dress, holding baby llamas, the men playing pan pipes and wearing ponchos. The stereotypes are of the indigenous people of the mountains with sun-kissed faces and almond-shaped eyes.

Yet arriving off the plane from London into Lima, not one billboard, not one TV advert, not one poster or shop front shows an indigenous face. No magazine or newspaper shows a face darker than my own.

It almost doesn’t register at first, carried away with the fun and excitement of a new place, volunteering and travelling. Then as I make friends with local Peruvians and start discussing topics beyond when the next hiking trip will be, someone points out to me the dual meaning of the word ‘cholo’. On the face of it a term of endearment for his younger sister because she happens to have a darker skin tone than her older brothers, it’s harmless and funny, but something doesn’t sit right with my politically correct British middle-class upbringing.

Like the skin colourings of the Peruvian people, the word ‘cholo’ has a full spectrum of meaning. And it has a dark side.

“I am so ugly. I wish I could have beautiful white skin like you.” A young girl, aged 15, says to me in the girls’ home where she lives. Her perception of beauty framed almost entirely around skin colour. At first I feel a wave of sadness that this young girl has such a low opinion of herself, her self-esteem founded on the fact that she doesn’t look like any of the models in the magazines. Then as time goes on my sadness converts to shock, indignation and finally disappointment as I discover the unspoken reality of race and racism in a country where diversity is its brand.

‘Cholear’ is a verb particular to certain parts of Central and South America that has a meaning along the lines of ‘treating someone disrespectfully; insult’. What the Oxford Spanish Dictionary doesn’t point out, however, is that this insult is almost always about skin colour. As with ‘cholo’ there’s a playfulness to the word, but that very playfulness is telling. It makes it ok. It turns a racial slur into an acceptable joke.

This is the unsettling position of being a white-skinned outsider here. Because it works the other way round. On one occasion, heading into the local night club with mixed a group of international volunteers and locals, the first few in the group who are clearly not from around here (light hair, light skin) walked straight in, the next un-white few were stopped and had to pay to get in. The door policy seemed to favor Western tourists – whether for their money or their skin colour, it was outright discrimination against our friends. We walked out in disgust and headed for the more relaxed club round the corner.

Not only is there a perception among many people that ‘white is beautiful’ but there is a perception that ‘whiter is better’. The strange fact is that the door policy was not actually about money or skin colour, but both. Money makes you ‘whiter’, therefore ‘better’. As a Peruvian your wealth, your private education, your western friends, your designer clothes, your salaried employment, the spattering of English words you speak can signify an elevated social status for which there is another verb – ‘blanquearse’ to whiten yourself. This is physical, in the whitening creams that line the pharmacy shelves, and social. Adopting the perceived characteristics of a ‘white Westerner’ can elevate you in the eyes of your peers, making you less susceptible to insults for the darker hue of your face.

Skin colour, money, power and opportunity

A friend of mine tells me about the first time that she came to Peru, back in 2011 during the last Presidential election campaign. She says that she was baffled by the fact that every election poster showed a candidate that looked completely European (with the notable exception of a candidate of Japanese descent), when she had never encountered such a white Peruvian in everyday life. It wasn’t until she travelled to the upscale district of Miraflores in Lima that she saw Peruvians as white as those represented in the political campaign. This shows again the sad but inexorable link between white skin, class, money, power and opportunity.

And yet this is not something that sits easily in dinner table conversation. There are very few Peruvians I can talk to about this without a cloud shading their face and a quick subject change. Race is everywhere and in everything but ‘racism’ is nowhere – that is, nothing is labeled ‘racist’.

So from the outside we observe in amazement. A respected Peruvian politician makes derogatory remarks about the ‘natural’ and unavoidable melancholy of indigenous Peruvians. My friend’s mother commented to me on how proud she was of the beautiful white colour of her granddaughter’s skin. The whiter person getting on the bus insults (‘cholea’) the more indigenous-looking person standing in their way in the isle and no one bats an eyelid. Everyone I’ve seen in the local villages, countryside and shanty towns right across Peru is dark-skinned, yet most politicians are white, TV presenters are white, the majority of senior executives in companies are white. So it’s no surprise that being whiter, having white friends and dressing in a more Western way can seem to get you further in life.

And being darker skinned is seen to equate to a lower socio-economic status. La Paisana Jacinta is a popular TV programme depicting a caricature of an indigenous woman (played by a man in drag, incidentally). Jacinta is uneducated, uncultured and has terrible teeth. Many Peruvians, and not just the whiter ones, find this hilarious.

I love Peru, I love it’s diversity of people, climate and landscapes. I love the warmth of the people, their hardworking attitude and their creativity. Peruvians are proud of all these things and herein lies the strangest thing: despite all of these things making Peru the enchanting country it is, many people who live here, people of so many colours and rich cultural histories, have a closely held value system of ‘whiter is better’ – the one track ‘white train’ to success.

But things are changing. The revolution has started from within – check out this fascinating documentary for example. As for what can we do to help? Well, as an outsider I’d feel weird sitting here telling Peruvians how they ‘should’ act or think, but what I can do is speak to other outsiders who come to Peru, and simply point out that this situation exists, in itself a surprising revelation for many.

Even though we may not wish it, even though awareness of it is uncomfortable, the fact remains that the colour of our skin, our ‘western-ness’, automatically gives us status as soon as we get off the plane. To be aware of this is the first step. Perhaps the only way that we can make a difference is to constantly check that privilege and respectfully challenge disrespectful behavior where we come across it. But don’t be downhearted, small stones can cause avalanches.

Julianne Ezra is a former HOOP volunteer and current Trustee of HOOP UK

Ella Smyth is a former HOOP volunteer and former President of HOOP UK

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6 thoughts on “Race and racism in Peru: It’s a strange thing

  1. I lived in Peru 7 years, my wife is Peruvian. You touched on the word Cholo, most accept that they are Cholo and it has nothing to do with skin color, but relates to indigenous roots. Now the deragatory word you may be speaking of is SERRANO, that is a direct racist insult.

    Peru does have discrimination based on color, but it is very different from the racism in the US.

    Jim Crow laws in the US were meant to segregate and separate race.

    Peru’s racism is more akin to colonial classism. Instead of segregation, there was integration, people of darker complexion who would marry up to better their race and opportunity.

    I am African American, my wife is Peruvian (Afro).

    My experience the lead me to this is, I get respect from the people of Peru, when I am there, based on the money I earn, I have been treated quite well.

    Contrary to the US , my birth country, it does not matter how much money you have, you are still THE N WORD.

    I plan to retire in Northern Peru, end of year, I would prefer living in Peru as compared to the US. The classism in Peru provides me certain advantages, though I am Black.

  2. Thank you both for this article and God bless you for this organization. Having been born in Peru but raised in the US and also looking Peruvian I have faced a lot of discrimination on the job here in America. Today I decided to get online and research discrimination in Peru and found this article. You have understood my country very well. Though I left Peru in the early 80s as a little kid everything you say is on point. No matter what people tell you, the word “cholo” is just another way to say “n-gger”, the South American version. While indigenous looking people may use it among each other in jest, usually when the word is directed at them either by less indigenous looking people or white Peruvians it is meant as an insult with all the Jim Crowness associated abeit the South American version.
    I loved the line that “small stones can cause avalanches “. Thank you.
    It will be help me deal with the racism I face at times in different ways .

    1. Thanks for your kind words about this post. We’re glad we were able to talk about this issue and highlight discrimination, even if it’s from the point of view of foreigners not directly affected. Increasing awareness is key if we are to stand up against racism.

  3. Very, very interesting article. I myself am of Peruvian descent though I was born in the United States and will be the first to admit my family in Peru is considered “higher class.” As a kid when visiting family in Lima’s suburbs (Miraflores, La Molina, etc) I remember everyone looking more ‘American’ than what you would find walking around in the city. As someone with whiter features than most Peruvians (most people in America don’t know how to classify my ethnicity) I remember aunts and uncles telling me how blessed our family was to be of true Spanish descent and not of inca origins. I do think race in Peru is rampant albeit in a different way than it is here in the US. Class is everything in Peru l, you’re either socializing at The Regatas or your struggling to put food on the table. I feel much more at home in the US in my uppper middle class upbringing than mingling with judgmental 1 percenters in Lima. I will go back and visit sometime, but I’m in no rush.

  4. Yes, interesting comments as above and well written too. Thank you.
    I was born in Peru of British parents – in 1942 – and left there in 1968 when Odria was president and ‘ gringos ‘ were regarded as the exploiters of the poor and land distribubution was the order of the day with disastrous results. Hence my exit. Europeans and North Americans did not mind being referred to as gringos, but maybe there were other words used to describe us ! Back then the word cholo was derogatory as well as the word chuncho. The word ‘ salvaje ‘ was used to describe people living in the jungle regions. Serranos were just people living in the high lands. The small black population of people living mainly in the Rimac district of Lima were ok with referring to themselves as zambos. But that may have have now changed.
    All the same, when i lived there, race was never a big deal and hardly ever discussed. Many of the small shops there were owned by Chinese. And going ‘ El Chino ‘ just meant that you were going to your local shop.
    I now live in South Africa where race is a very big deal – so different to those far off days in Peru.

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