Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Peruvians fight patchwork prejudice
By Hal Weitzman in Lima
Published: August 13 2007 22:25
The advisory notices are like scars on the voguish dark wood-and-concrete exterior of the Café del Mar, a chic nightspot in the upmarket Miraflores neighbourhood of southern Lima. Plastered across the club’s door, they declare in large red letters: “CLOSED for breaking the law”. Last month, the Café del Mar became the first such establishment in Peru to be shut down by local authorities for racial discrimination. It was also fined 241,500 soles ($77,000, €56,000, £38,000).
The case has shed new light on a society whose various elites have long been dominated by lighter-skinned descendents of European immigrants. “This was an incredibly important step forward,” says Edwin Aldana, of the office of consumer protection at Indecopi, Peru’s competition authority. “It’s sent out a message that we have laws to protect all consumers – and we will enforce them.”
The action followed an undercover investigation by Indecopi in January 2006 in which a mestizo (mixed-race) couple were turned away from the club, while a whiter couple were allowed in. Café del Mar was fined, but a further investigation in October by a television news team found more of the same behaviour.
Indecopi then secured a judgment to force the club to close for 60 days and to impose the maximum fine. After generations of inter-marriage, most Peruvians do not fall easily into racial categories. The vast majority are mestizos and can trace their heritage back to combinations of indigenous, black, Chinese and white ancestors. There is also a large minority of purely indigenous Peruvians, particularly in the high Andes, and much smaller numbers of whites and blacks.
This patchwork masks a deeply entrenched system of prejudices. Peruvians are acutely aware of a plethora of subtle social and cultural distinctions that are almost imperceptible to outsiders. Prejudice is not a simple matter of skin colour, and this is one reason why the authorities find it hard to prove that the law has been broken.
“Peru is not a racist country, but that’s not to say there isn’t widespread discrimination by race and class,” says Julio Cotler, a political analyst in Lima.
Historically, those with darker skin and more indigenous characteristics have been marginalised from power and wealth. This has fuelled resentment against traditional elites.
Ollanta Humala, a radical nationalist who came close to winning last year’s presidential election, played on that anger during the campaign, casting himself as an “outsider” who would challenge Peru’s traditional decision-makers.
The flip side is what many see as a kind of self-loathing among some of the more indigenous Peruvians. “Discrimination is a cultural problem,” says Mr Humala. “Peru has a social pyramid based on skin colour – with white descendents of the Spanish at the top, mestizos further down and cholos [more indigenous people] at the bottom. The result is no one wants to be a cholo.”
Many Peruvians want to marry “whiter” than themselves – an impulse that can be traced back to the 19th-century idea of “improving the race”. “There is a widespread notion that if your children are whiter, they’ll have more opportunities,” says Wilfredo Ardito, a Lima anti-racism campaigner.
This attitude also fuels racial prejudice further down the social spectrum. “A cholo who becomes a bit whiter is often more racist than a white person,” says Mr Humala.
Some of the worst prejudice is suffered by Peru’s small black minority. “Black people are right at the bottom of the pile,” says Alfredo Perez Samame, of the Afro-Peruvian museum in Zaña, a northern coastal village. “Everyone feels they can discriminate against us.”
There are some signs of positive change. In 2001, Alejandro Toledo, an indigenous former shoeshine boy, won Peru’s presidential election and served until last year.
In recent decades, a growing number of darker-skinned Peruvians have become relatively well-off, and there is a developing and increasingly vocal anti-racism movement.
Six nightclubs have been fined in recent years. None has paid up, but the latest move to enforce anti-racism laws is a fresh sign that things may be improving.
“Since Café del Mar closed, a lot more people have come forward to report incidents. They now feel something will be done about it,” says Mr Aldana.