Long after slavery, inequities remain in Peru
Date: Tuesday, August 24 @ 18:55:28 UTC
Topic: Racism Watch
BY TYLER BRIDGES, www.miami.com
August 01, 2004
LIMA - The cover of the 2004 Lima phone book features a white doctor, a white nurse, a white chef, a white man on the phone, two white men doing home repairs -- and a black bellhop carrying luggage.
Jorge Ramírez winced as he examined the cover.
"This only perpetuates racism in Peru," said Ramírez, a self-described Afro-Peruvian who heads a civil rights group in Lima. "It puts blacks below everyone else."
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Peru, and a few determined Afro-Peruvians are using the occasion to tell their countrymen that racism is alive and well here, in ways both similar to and different from racism in the United States.
Their counterparts throughout Latin America tell a similar story as blacks throughout the region are increasingly expressing black pride and creating political movements -- 50 years after the civil rights movement mushroomed in the United States.
Blacks in Latin America report regular acts of racism: that whites sometimes cross the street to avoid them, that waiters at exclusive restaurants ignore them and that security guards often follow them through store aisles while they shop.
Few countries -- Brazil being a major exception -- even keep separate socioeconomic statistics on blacks, which effectively hides their lagging status, said Josefina Stubbs, a World Bank official.
All Latin American presidents are white or brown-skinned, as are the overwhelming majority of their Cabinet ministers and the leading businessmen throughout the region.
But unlike the United States, where anyone with a drop of black blood was once legally considered black, racial distinctions in Latin America are harder to pin down. Also unlike the United States, Latin American governments have not systematically practiced racial segregation or deliberately repressed their black citizens.
"Racism here is more subtle," said Rafael Santa Cruz, a black actor who in 1991 portrayed the first successful black professional in a Peruvian soap opera when he played a doctor. "In Peru, you're black if you look black. The darker you are, the lower you are socially and economically."
Nowhere is this truer than in Brazil, which has the world's second largest population of blacks, after Nigeria.
On the surface, Brazil appears to be a racial idyll, with the incredible range of skin colors attesting to the ease with which blacks and whites have long mixed.
But lighter-skinned Brazilians are clearly better off.
"While 45 percent of the country's 170 million people defined themselves as either black or pardo -- mixed race -- in the 2000 census, only 17 percent of university graduates are of mixed race and only 2 percent are black," the U.S.-based Chronicle of Higher Education reported earlier this year.
In 2001, Brazilian whites 15 to 24 years old averaged 8.3 years of schooling, compared with 6.4 years for blacks, according to a World Bank study, and blacks were twice as likely as whites to be illiterate.
Only 18 of Brazil's 594 members of Congress are black, while the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus has 37 members out of 535 House and Senate members.
Still, there are signs of racial progress.
In 1988, Brazil had only seven black members of Congress. Today, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has four blacks in his Cabinet, and he appointed the country's first black Supreme Court justice.
Because blacks in Brazil have never been officially segregated, they appear not to have developed a strong identity as black people and have not developed an empowering political movement like those led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X.
The same is true in Colombia and, indeed, throughout Latin America, said Edgar Torres, an Afro-Colombian who is the second vice president of the country's Congress. Torres recently hosted a conference of black members of Congress from throughout Latin America.
"Here in Colombia, there is a lack of unity and consciousness," Torres said in a telephone interview. "We're 26 percent of the population, but only 2 percent of the university students are black. There are no black [Cabinet] ministers or black generals. But I think we're creating a sense that we have to work together to move forward."
Black leaders in Peru, where 8 percent to 10 percent of the 27 million people are considered black, express similar hopes amid their frustrations.
Jorge Ramírez, who heads the Black Association for the Defense and Advancement of Human Rights, said blacks on television tend to play thieves and maids. On a weekly variety show, he noted, a black actor plays an African savage -- with a bone attached to his head. On a comedy program, a white man in black face spoofs the day's news. When video of black people flashes on the screen, the announcer makes monkey sounds.
Newspaper job ads request someone with a "good appearance," which blacks here say is a code for no blacks need apply. Peru has no black Cabinet ministers, no black ambassadors, no black bishops, black leaders say.
"Racism in Peru is not in the laws," Ramírez said. "It's in the mentality of people."
While there is a black army general, there has never been a black admiral, and the navy actively discourages black officers, said José Luis Risco, one of Peru's three black congressmen.
"The navy doesn't permit the color black except in uniforms and shoes," Risco said.
Not so, said José Cueto, a navy spokesman: "People who say there is racism in the navy are themselves racists."
Black leaders also note that relations between blacks and Indians, who make up about 45 percent of Peru's population, have often been tense.
"Indians and blacks often compete for the same jobs," said Oswaldo Bilbao, an Afro-Peruvian who is executive director of the Center for Ethnic Development. 'Indians say, `We came first. We're owners of the land.' Blacks say, 'I didn't want to come here. But I'm here, and I'm Peruvian.'"
After winning independence from Spain in the early 19th century, Latin American countries abolished slavery over a 60-year period, with Brazil, a former Portuguese colony, being the last to do so, in 1888.
This Dec. 4 will mark the day that Peru's president in 1854 freed the last of the 3,000 to 4,000 remaining slaves.
Venezuela, which also abolished slavery in 1854, marked its anniversary on March 24 with speeches and recognition of the date from President Hugo Chávez.
Risco and several other black leaders in Peru are organizing a panel discussion on race issues as well as cultural events to commemorate the Dec. 4 anniversary.
But Peru's government has no plans to mark the anniversary for this day.
"We don't exist," Risco said. "The government is doing nothing, nothing, nothing."