Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Ramble About Race and Ethnicity. Blog 2 for Peruvian Social Reality.

(This is my second blog for my class Peruvian Social Reality.)

I saw the scene below at one of the "Incan markets" here in Miraflores. I was shopping for gifts for friends and a purse for me with some United States friends, the majority of which were blonde and blue-eyed, which made us all immediate targets for aggressive sales-men and women. (One blue-eyed male friend was told by the saleswomen "Quiero vender tus ojos!" which is a little weird.) We walked along, feeling all of the alpaca scarves and ooohing and awwing over baby panchos. Then we ran into the shirts below (actually, we saw them in multiple locations). And I will admit, my first reaction was to laugh.
I mean, the image of Harry Potter in a chullo (Peruvian hat with ear flaps) is pretty funny. Of course, after I laughed at the shirts I felt guilty. Cholo is a word that originated as an ethnic slur against people of mixed race and indigenous ancestry (though in the US it usually just means Mexican gangster). Here in Lima, I hear it mostly as a term of endearment and in jokes to friends but that doesn't mean this is a term that should be taken lightly.
But then, these shirts were made by Peruvians to sell to tourists, right? Not my fault. But then, why sell if there isn't demand?
I was really surprised these were sold at a market that caters to tourists. Do many tourists from outside Peru understand the implications of the word cholo? I didn't before I had spent a few weeks in Peru. My reactions to these shirts were based on the myriad discussions of the word in my class and, as I mentioned, hearing it in everyday conversation.
This got me to thinking - what is the relationship between us outsiders, whether we be tourists or students, to the racial establishment in Peru? Do we perpetuate it? Do we consume it in a differently packaged form? Do most even notice it?

In Marisol de la Cadena's "Silent Racism and Intellectual Superiority in Peru" (1998: 144) she writes:

Disavowing biologically defined race, while simultaneously considering that exclusions legitimately resulted from 'natural' cultural features or 'inevitable' class hierarchies, intellectuals are trapped in a discourse of silent racism that continues to abide by the historically forged Peruvian definition of race that privileged invisible, yet innate, qualities over biology and phenotype. Rather than cancelling it, 'culture' and 'class' silently reproduced the Peruvian scientific version of race coined at the turn of the century...

I found this quote useful in thinking of how "outsiders" may (or may not) interact with race in Peru. I propose that tourists from the US prefer to think of "culture" and "class" rather than race, that they are (naturally) bothered by any racism they encounter but that they do buy in to "inevitable" class hierarchies, and (to connect it to my last blog post) are Andeanists to the nth degree.

I cannot prove my proposals (nor can, I think, anyone fully and statistically prove a proposal like this) but I would like to discuss them from my daily experiences. Being from the US, spending time with other US students, and meeting US expats and workers in Peru has given me some informal research on the topic. (I stress informal, this is all based off my own experiences.) Since I'm discussing outsider/tourists interactions with race and racism I'm going to work with only what's readily observable. Treating my daily experiences, readings, conversations as a field of data, let me break it down.

Some observable racial tensions:

  • There are obvious differences in skin tone in a district like Miraflores (wealthy) and one like Villa El Salvador (poor).
Many tourists, of course, would never go to Villa El Salvador. But there is "voluntourism" groups that would. Also, the differences in skin tone of the students sitting in Cafe Zeta and the children or adults attempting to sell you candy is fairly obvious.
  • Nicknames are often based on race or physical features. For example, "Negra" or "Chino". Blonde people are shouted at.
When hanging out with a group of Peruvian friends one of the guys was introduced to me as Chino. No one seemed to know his real name. At one point I asked if I could have a glass of water and the Peruvian who was hosting the gathering said "Don't worry, I have a cholo. Chino!" Everyone thought this was a grand joke and even repeated it throughout the day. If tourists spend anytime with diverse groups of local Peruvians, jokes or nicknames like this may be apparent.
  • I have had numerous Peruvians tell me there is discrimination against people from different regions or indigenous people. I have heard one say there is no racism in Peru.
A tourists may not have conversations about discrimination with Peruvians, but then again, they may.
  • Reactions to the election results in Peru displayed themselves in some very racist comments on Twitter, Facebook, etc. (Check out a story on it here)

Faces of candidates on masks in Villa El Salvador

Unless tourists read Peruvian newspapers or have Peruvian facebook friends they might not see this. But even some graffiti joins in on the discussion.

Some reactions to these instances:

Non-white districts: I had a US friend who became very uncomfortable when we were outside of Miraflores at one point, mostly around less "white" Peruvians. An awkward situation had arisen and the friend wanted to return home. "I just want to get back to Miraflores," the friend said. She claimed it was "the poverty" that made her uncomfortable. When I spent a few days in Villa El Salvador for the first time I felt the same way - I just wanted to be around some people who spoke a little English, where I understood the system and where I wasn't the only white face around. (I am since much more comfortable in Villa and go there twice a week.) How does this preference for being around the "whiter" districts by the US tourists affect tensions between these districts or the image of these districts? I have also been warned about how dangerous districts like Villa are, which can be true. But is this just an acceptance of the "inevitable" hierarchy? Is this playing into stereotypes?

Nicknames/physical features: I interviewed an activist (from the US) who works in Villa El Salvador. She had lived in Lima for a year and still split her time between Lima, the US and England. She told me that those nicknames bothered her and that she refused to call her friend Negro, though no one knew who she referred to when she used his given name. She became pretty heated about the topic, and angry when she recalled the arguments she had had with Peruvian friends over this issue. I have heard Peruvians say it is we from the US who are racist, as we are far too PC to even comment on anyone's features. I don't think this fact proves racism, but people from the US are very uncomfortable pointing out features that could allude to a race. What impact does it have when people from the US refuse to call someone Chino or Negrita? None at all? Does it only come off as snobby?

Discrimination: A Peruvian friend who grew up in a district in the jungle told me about how much discrimination there was against those from la selva. Once a Peruvian told me his empleada was from la selva. He couldn't tell me where in la selva and I laughed, jokingly responding "Come on, not every empleada is from la selva, contrary to popular belief." He got fairly upset.

Elections: Living in Miraflores, I found most of my social group to be very upset about the election results. I saw friend's statuses complaining about the ignorants who voted in these people, and heard people say that Peruvians always "vote badly".

So there's the observable data of discrimination and race. What I want to know is, how do US visitors play into it? From my informal life experiences I have found many US students uncomfortable talking about race and racism and instead they put discussions into the words of class and culture - "its just their culture" when they talk about being shouted at for being blonde. "It's the poorer class" when they talk about danger in districts such as Villa. These are true statements, but are we simply avoiding bringing up the "silent racism" around us?

I also find that many US visitors are not surprised that Miraflores is "white" and other districts less so. Have we just become so used to this phenomena, echoed all around the world? Are we numb to these "inevitable hierarchies"?

And in my very intensive research speaking to tourists, students, expats, and reading guidebooks and anthropological writings (read: chatting and doing my homework), I have come to the official conclusion that US outsiders are incredibly strong Andeanists, an attitude I find disturbing. While we may prefer to travel away from the crowded streets of Lima, who are we to say what is "authentic" culture? Is our outpouring into Cusco or rural villages only perpetuating attitudes of commodification of culture? On one hand, perhaps this is making indigenous culture more "cool" rather than discriminated against, but on the other hand, is this just a sort of reverse discrimination? The poor people of the mountains are cool, but those poor mountain people that have moved to Lima in search of a better life make us uncomfortable, please keep them away from our hostels with their inauthentic t-shirts and chocolates. In this sense we de-value other cultures of Peru by bringing our own judgement of what is "authentic" to the forefront.

As visitors from the US, how do we (to use some overused, intelligentsia words) engage in a sincere dialogue about racism in both our own country and Peru? How do we take a stand against acts or customs we deem racist without being the heavy-handed foreigner? How do we stay safe and face reality whole not buying in to a sense of "inevitability"? How do we stop being so Andean focused we de-value other cultures? How do we react to Cholo Potter shirts?!

I don't know the answers, but by continuing to experience Peru with an open mind, I hope to find them.

Works cited: de la Cadena, Marisol, "Silent Racism and Intellectual Superiority in Peru," in Bulletin of Latin American Research , v. 17, no. 2, pp. 143-164, 1998.

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