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An Andean Country in the Making

Part 2: Complex mix

Other racial and ethnic distinction were imported. Up to the 19th century, landowners brought in African blacks to serve as slaves on their coastal haciendas and frequently used them to repress the Indians. Between 1850 and 1920, Chinese coolies and Japanese provided the hands and backs to build railways over the Andes or farm the land when there was a scarcity of labor. Still today, the Nikei (as the Japanese community is called) are the largest ethnic migrant communities among Peru's 22 million inhabitants. They number about 60,000.

European immigrants, mainly Spaniards, Italians, Germans, Lebanese and Jews, arrived in the 19th and early 20th centuries to take a place in the caste system alongside the original Spaniards. American and English businessmen arrived to run foreign companies and stayed.

Over the past 400 years, there has been a long process of inter-marriage and mixing of bloods, creating the mestizo, of part Amer-Indian, part European heritage. Indeed, today the majority of Peruvians would fall into this category. (In this regard, it is important to note that in Peru, you can become a mestizo not only by birth, but by choice. Indians who renounce their culture and assume western dress are automatically mestizo and are sometimes referred to as cholos. Peruvian social divisions are therefore not so much racially as culturally defined.)

Even among the elites, racial stock has not remained pure. Cross-ethnic marriages, common-law unions, and just plain rape, while frowned on by the most recalcitrant, have occurred frequently. In fact, this permeability led many Peruvian to deny that there was a racial problem in the country until the late 1970s when Indians and cholos began to acquire rights and property and encroach on the privileges of gente decente ("decent people," as they called themselves).

From the oligarchy's stronghold on its landholdings in the Sierra and on the coast, which were crucial for its economic power and political leverage, it retreated to the cities in the first half of the 20th century. The Club Nacional, an exclusive private club located on San Martín Plaza in downtown Lima, was a symbol of this class. In its high-vaulted dining rooms and smoking parlors, the oligarchs and conservatives plotted military coups to get rid of uncomfortable reformist governments that did not serve their purposes between 1900 and 1962. Today, the sons of the plotters no longer frequent the Club Nacional, leaving it to dozing old men. Instead, they have shifted their headquarters to the Club de la Banca y Comercio in San Isidro. Businessmen and bankers do not scheme to overthrow a distasteful government, but how to make a profit in a topsy-turvy economy. They spend their summer weekends at beach resort towns, little colonies of comfort, within driving distance of Lima, on the Pacific Ocean. They also congregate at bullfights and cockfights.

In all fairness, this same privileged class has produced the great intellectuals, progressive businessmen and political reforms of the 20th century. These were the men who believed in universal rights and progress and wanted to extend them to the hard-bitten Indians and mestizos.

The most difficult social terrain to define is the middle class. Up to the 1960s, it was the poor cousin of the oligarchy, providing clerks, merchants and civil servants to service the dominant class. Once modernization started in earnest in the 1960s and 70s, the middle class grew into its own, both in Lima and provincial cities. This growth was due to the diversification of the economy and to the expansion of the Peruvian state, both as a purveyor of public services and as an entrepreneur. It has brought political reform and change. The middle class's composition is less defined by racial or ethnic characteristics, leaning more towards education and aspirations. As recent developments have shown, however, the middle class is also precarious because it depends on salaries, which have been eroded by inflation or job loss. It has slid backwards into the hardship of survival.

A people coping with geography

One reason that it has been so difficult to unify Peru into a single society is the hard, complex and hostile geography. Rising 6,000 meters (19,860 feet) above sea level, the Andes comprise about a third of Peru's territory, while the Amazon jungle and barren desert coast make up the rest. But precisely, because of these demanding conditions, the Andean people have been challenged to come up with creative solutions. The Andes always have privileged organizations willing to work with labor-intensive methods, abnegation, patience, discipline and long-term strategies. The pre-Columbian cultures were admirably equipped to manage and prosper in these Andean micro-climates.

But for the modern nation-state of Peru, this mountain mass poses major problems for development and integration into a single society. It throws up huge physical barriers in providing basic services, like transport and communication. Some analysts have described Peru as an archipelago, small pockets of population scattered in isolated regions. This means that heath, education and law enforcement must cover immense territories to be successful.

Even capitalism has found it difficult to put down firm roots in the Andes. Aside form mining and metallurgical enclaves and trading cities, the Andean version bears little resemblance to what Adam Smith had in mind. Peru's elites forged alliances with international interests -- for investment, manufacturing patents, technology and capital goods. But some communities in the Andean Sierra existed with a fragile link to the money economy.

The Andes are still a refuge for Peru's underprivileged Quechua- and Aymara-speaking Indians. The Sierra region today holds 40 percent of the total population and 60 percent of the rural population. There are 5,000 peasant communities located in the Sierra now. The communities sustain themselves with a pastoral and farming economy, plus other secondary activities, like crafts, trading and services. Almost by definition, the zone is marginal and impoverished, removed form the modernizing influences of the national economy. The Andean peasants, however, do not want to remain poor, even if it makes for picturesque postcards. They are proud of their past, but also want a piece of the future.

Decade of change

In the 1970s, several trends began to break down the isolation of much of Peru. Roads penetrating into the Sierra and Amazon jungle started to link up the hinterland with Lima and coastal markets. Mass communication reached out to new audiences. In 1970s, the Peruvian football team's participation in the World Cup, which was broadcast nationally on radio and television, drove home to remote communities that they were Peruvians. Modern preventive health measures began to lower child mortality rates.

These social changes were matched by political changes. A military regime under Army General Juan Alvarado Velasco broke the stereotype of Latin American strong-arm governments. The military enacted progressive programs, expropriating large land holdings, nationalizing foreign companies, asserting a more independent foreign policy. This approach, at times demagogical, at times nationalistic, marked a change in attitudes. The peasants and shantytown residents began to raise their heads and challenge those who held power by virtue of birth.

The humble Ayacuchan artist, Don Joaquín Lopéz, might be seen as a symbol of the changes at work in Peru. In 1975, he was awarded a National Art Prize for his innovation and creativity in shaping folk art and the retablo. The award set off a bitter controversy in Lima. Mainstream art critics and artists were scandalized that folk artists were given the same status as the fine arts in the Western tradition. They claimed that the humble origins of the crafts disqualified them as a creative medium. The public debate, which was put in aesthetic terms, was in fact a racist slur, a denial of Peru's ancient Andean traditions.

But in Ayacucho, the retablo underwent even more changes. It was no longer Lima intellectuals who were buying them. The craftsmen were gaining access to mass markets. Foreign buyers, tourists and even middle-class Peruvians now wanted a piece of the Andes on their mantelpieces.

A new generation of image-makers, like Florentino Jimenez, gave the retablo new dimensions. He started working themes that asked broader questions, like: where does the Andean peasant fit into national history and identity? He made massive retablos that portrayed national events, like the battle for political independence from Spain. He also narrated events from local history, like protest marches.

This shift in theme and content would not have been possible without the explosion of public education in the latter half of the 20th century. Peasants and their recently migrated cousins in the cities struggled and sacrificed to gain an education -- not just the three R's, but even university degrees -- so that they could gain access to status and income. Thousands of peasant communities built one-room schools with dirt floors and painted blackboards. They paid their teachers with their produce. The sharpest students were sent off to the provincial cities to finish their schooling. Learning to read and write was equivalent to gaining full citizenship and a ticket to progress. It also meant opening new horizons beyond the outskirts of the small towns and villages scattered across the Andes. Meanwhile, the new retablos being made provided an alternative reading of Peruvian history, a view from below.

Go to Part 3