A brief history of racism in Peru
I wanted to write a rather cold article regarding the intricate relationship between classism and racism in my home country of Peru. However, considering how these issues have shaped my view of the world regarding politics, race, etc., it has inevitably become more personal than I intended. Therefore this should be treated as an average Peruvian citizen’s testimonial.
Peru is a developing country located in South America; it faces many economic, social, and political challenges. It’s a constitutional republic and closely resembles the American model in that regard. A person might guess that it’s an ethnically homogeneous country, yet that doesn’t fully apply in this case. As you may already know, the Inca Empire ruled modern-day Peru until the Spanish invasion of 1532; the “Viceroyalty of Peru” was born after the defeat of the Incan forces. Long story short, the Spanish rulers decimated the indigenous population, exploited the Peruvian natural resources (gold and silver mostly), and tried to assimilate the native population to strip them from their cultural heritage.
Unlike the British, the Spanish often engaged in interracial marriages with the indigenous population; the offspring of such unions would be called mestizos, Spanish for half-blood. After the Spanish crushed a series of rebellions led by indigenous forces, we finally obtained our independence in 1821 with the help of the liberating army of Don José de San Martín. Unfortunately, demographic records of the early republic are unreliable, and we don’t have exact figures about the ethnic distribution of the time. Nevertheless, data suggests a predominantly indigenous population, oscillating around 62% in 1876
The first leaders of the republic adopted liberal economic policies that destabilized, for example, the already fragile textile industry which could’ve helped the indigenous peasants gain financial independence. Initially, the state forced so-called Indians to pay a Contribución de Indígenas; this form of tribute later became various forms of taxes for indigenous citizens (personal). The true nature of these policies was most likely to strip the native population of their cultural traditions and transform them into citizens (as this would legitimize the state’s power over them). Keep in mind that the upper classes, composed mainly of white Europeans, still treated the indigenous population harshly, often in conditions similar to enslavement, now also justified by financial debt when they couldn’t afford to pay with money.
We can say that institutional racism, which goes back to the Spanish Empire, has hampered every chance for true indigenous emancipation, we also need to factor in the capitalist shift the republic went through that practically turned the indigenous servants into debtors. During the first half of the 20th Century, the situation seriously deteriorated, and this system hardened the grip of haciendas (equivalent to latifundia) over peasants, particularly, but not limited to, those living in the sierra. The government attempted to alleviate the situation in the 1950s; they enacted land reforms to give peasants control over their historic lands. It culminated in the Reforma Agraria of 1968. There’s still debate on whether these measures were successful in the long term. Now let’s consider the absurdity of this semi-feudal economy (in the 1960s!) and start guessing what the reaction might be.
Unfortunately, these factors laid out the foundations for the spread of left-wing terrorism during the following decades. The main one’s Shining Path, which either recruited peasants or killed them if they didn’t embrace the armed struggle against the government. Since terrorism was mainly active in the sierra, many chose to migrate to coastal cities such as Lima, Trujillo, and Arequipa. Lima currently has a population of 9,7 million people, the massive migrant influx and the lack of affordable housing culminated in the creation of slums. Migrants often settled in the urban periphery and hills with no running water nor electricity. The government calls the slums Asentamientos Humanos (literally human settlements) as if people need to be reminded that actual human beings live in such horrible conditions. Terrorist organizations often recruited indigenous people in rural areas, which led to further stigmatization.
What about today? What does racism look like in everyday life? Well, this is where my personal opinion comes in. Unfortunately, racism is still very much present in Peruvian society. Growing up, I often heard racial slurs used in the streets, and disturbingly, in school. As you might imagine, this mentality permeates every aspect of life. What if you’re an indigenous person looking for a job? It’s not uncommon for people to be discarded just for the color of their skin. In need of medical treatment? Some physicians might deem you more pain-resistant. During the 1990s the Fujimori regime enacted forced sterilizations on indigenous women. One physician went as far as saying to a woman that she would “never breed like an animal again” after the procedure.
What about the media? How are indigenous people portrayed? Unfortunately, indigenous people, and even mestizos, are underrepresented. Pick a random Peruvian TV program, be it a news show, soap opera, etc., the people in front of the camera will most likely be white, even though they are only 6% of the population. The most insulting example is the use of blackface to portray both afro-Peruvians and indigenous Peruvians in mainstream comedy shows. We grow to perceive these twisted and racist portrayals as normal, it is inevitable since they’re everywhere. Newer generations are starting to grow aware of these issues and are already taking action, but it’s still far from over.
And classism? Is the class divide that big? Yes, racism and classism are often intertwined. Many people don’t even try to hide their disdain for the lower classes. Perhaps the worst example of this is the Wall of Shame in Lima: this concrete wall separates an upper-class district from one of the previously mentioned asentamientos humanos.
Pedro Castillo’s presidential campaign is worth mentioning. Please note that I neither support nor oppose him in this article. He won the 2021 presidential elections in June. He’s the son of 2 illiterate peasants, which created a lot of interesting interactions with the media previously described in this article. Racially charged comments were often made by news anchors, not to mention racial slurs that regularly flooded social media. All of this was made worse by unfounded allegations of electoral fraud; these were supported by highly prejudicial and racist assumptions about the voting process in the Peruvian highlands. Lima’s elite, feeling threatened by the prospect of a socialist indigenous president, called for the cancellation of half a million votes, most of them from rural regions.
And we haven’t even mentioned the many ethnic groups that are collectively called indigenous Peruvians: Quechua, Aymara, Shipibo, etc. These afflictions are common throughout the world. Does it come down to greed? Hatred? A mix of both, as many experts have already concluded. We must also point out the apparent inability of high-profile academics and novelists to comprehend the true nature of the indigenous Peruvians’ cultural heritage. Most notably, Nobel Prize winner for literature, Mario Vargas Llosa, has often stated the incompatibility of indigenous culture and modernization. He was the highest-profile figure to oppose Pedro Castillo’s campaign and famously stated that Castillo’s victory would be “a catastrophe for better-informed Peruvians, especially in big cities”. Vargas Llosa himself was the front-runner for the 1990 Peruvian elections; he ran on an economically liberal platform and ultimately lost to Alberto Fujimori, who eventually became a dictator.
There is no clear end to this; the class system and institutional racism are still deeply embedded in Peruvian society. Besides this, Peru also faces many economic challenges; rampant corruption definitively makes things worse (I explored this in a previous article). I intended to give some insight into these issues to an audience that has probably never seen them at this level. In the end there is so much waste, wasted human potential, and avoidable suffering; there is also some hope, younger generations are already taking action, but when will this truly emancipate the lives of all indigenous populations around Peru? A decade? A quarter of a century? Maybe even a century. What about the ones suffering right now? It is an ugly reality. We can all do our part within our little environment; I hope you do yours, I sure as hell try. I want to close this article by sharing a quote by Bertrand Russell:
“Love is wise; hatred is foolish.”
^Demographic records of the time often use the improper term “indian” to refer to indigenous populations in Latin America.
^Ibid., pp. 3 – 4
^In Latin America the term “sierra” indicates a range of mountains with a serrated or irregular outline. The Inca Empire populated the mountains more than it did the coast or rainforest.
^Chirinos Almanza, Alfonso. “La Reforma Agraria peruana.” Nueva Sociedad, no. 21, 1975, pp. 47 – 64, in Spanish.
^The documentary “Runan Caycu” (1973) explores the inner workings of peasant trade unions and the struggle that led to major land reforms. Youtube link – with English subtitles, courtesy of director Nora de Izcue.
^Alberto Fujimori was the President of Peru from 1990 to 2000. He is currently in prison for crimes against humanity.
^Angela Davis explored this twisted relationship extensively in her book “Women, Race and Class”.