Afro-Peruvians Ensnared in Poverty, Racism
Peru has one of Latin America's fastest-growing economies, but Afro-Peruvians are still overwhelmingly mired in poverty.
Those lucky enough to work in unskilled jobs their ancestors had three or four centuries ago -- as pallbearers, hotel bellhops and restaurant wait staff -- hope they may finally be on the cusp of meaningful change.
"More than 34 percent of Afro-Peruvians are poor. And that means they do not have a chance to pursue higher education, which would help them break the cycle of poverty that sees them limited to a handful of jobs," said Rocio Munoz, an Afro-Peruvian affairs expert and researcher at the culture ministry.
Black Peruvians, whose ancestors came from west Africa as slaves during the 1500-1820 Spanish colonial era to work in mines and on fields, today make up three to seven percent of Peru's 30 million people.
At 47 percent, almost half of Peru's population is indigenous -- mostly ethnic Quechua and Aymara in the Andes, plus lowland Amazon basin natives. Another 37 percent are multi-ethnic with a mix of indigenous, white, black and/or Asian ancestors.
Black Peruvians are well represented in the country's music and sports scenes -- especially wildly popular soccer. But they are largely, strangely absent from politics, television, business, diplomacy and the media.
Even in the armed forces, it is uncommon to see many black Peruvians.
Of all Afro-Peruvians, just a tiny six percent make it to university. And just two percent of those finish their degrees, Munoz said.
Ironically, the ethnically white Peruvians who controlled politics and the country for centuries until less than two decades ago seem to have made big strides toward overcoming racism against their indigenous countrymen.
They democratically elected their first indigenous president, Alejandro Toledo, in 2000. He went from being a shoeshine boy to becoming a U.S.-educated economist, to the presidency -- long unthinkable in Peru, where the moneyed and powerful kept "mountain people" as household staff and on separate beaches.
Current President Ollanta Humala is also an indigenous military man turned politician from the highlands.
But fading racism has been slower to benefit Peru's blacks, a small minority compared to its indigenous near-majority.
In many of Lima's chicest restaurants, the dessert tray is brought around by black women in petticoats and headscarves recalling the colonial era.
"This social categorization, which locks people of African heritage into certain service jobs, has its roots in slavery, and in the colonial era," Munoz said.
"Even though we live in a democratic society now, these things have not changed. And dead people's families continue to seek black pallbearers as were de rigeur in the colonial era," she explained.
In the capital's wealthiest neighborhoods, government campaigns against associating Afro-Peruvians and funerals have so far fallen on deaf ears.
"A lot of our clients specifically ask for black pallbearers in the belief that that will make a burial more elegant or prestigious," said Alejandro Cano, who owns a funeral parlor in the upscale San Isidro neighborhood.
"People who are looking for (black pallbearers in suits) are looking for excellent service," said Cano, arguing that: "there is nothing discriminatory there."
Some of those affected appear to agree.
Humberto Guerrero, in a tux and white gloves, said he is proud of his pallbearer-for-hire position.
"People always say that they want (to hire) black pallbearers. And it is not to marginalize us but rather it's a custom that people just like," Guerrero said.
"People think a black guy looks really elegant in a tux. And I don't feel discriminated against; it's my job, and I respect that."
Relations between black and indigenous Peruvians have often been strained, largely because indigenous people saw blacks as a type of legacy of the colonial era.
And the colonial era, from a Peruvian point of view, is already complicated by a love-hate relationship with Spain, from which an external culture was slapped on top of one that had been in Peru for millennia. It became the dominant one for centuries -- until the recent rise of Peruvian multiculturalism.
Still, some progress has been made in recent years.
The government does keep track of data on Afro-Peruvians to help on health and employment fronts, said Owan Lay, another culture ministry official.
In 2009, under then president Alan Garcia, Peru became the first Latin American nation to apologize to black Peruvians for centuries of "abuse, exclusion and discrimination." It also acknowledged racism played a role in blocking their professional and social advancement.
In 2011, Humala called for "social integration for all" and named Grammy-winning singer Susana Baca, who is black, as culture minister. She resigned later that year to resume touring.
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