Peru Table of Contents

Concentrated in the provincial, departmental, and national capitals, Peru's upper class was the other side of the coin of peonage. Whereas the Quechua or Aymara native population was powerless, submissive, and poor, the regional and national elites were Hispanic, dominant, and wealthy. The inheritors of colonial power quickly reaffirmed their political, social, and economic hegemony over the nation even though the Peruvian state itself was a most unstable entity until the presidency of Ramón Castilla. They continued to strike the posture of conquerors toward the native peoples, justifying themselves as civilized, culto (cultured), and urbane, as well as gente decente (decent people), in the customary phrase of the provincial town. Such presumption of status is a powerful but unwritten code of entitlement. It permits one to expect to have obedient servants, to be deferred to by those of lesser station, and to be the first to enjoy opportunity, services of the state, and whatever resources might be available.

The modern national upper classes of Peru are today a more diverse population than was the case even at the end of the nineteenth century. They have remained essentially identified with the Costa, even though they have controlled extensive property in the highlands and Selva. Nevertheless, these elites are highly conscious of class integrity as social life unfolds in the context of private clubs and specialized economic circles. The predilection of the upper-class families to show the strength of their lineages is revealed not only in the use of full names, which always contain both one's father's and mother's last names in that order, but also the apellidos (last names) of important grandparental generations. Thus, magazine society pages report names like José Carlos Prado Fernandini Beltrán de Espantoso y Ugarteche, in which only Prado is the last name in the American sense. Use of the family pedigree to demonstrate rank is common among the elite when the names are clearly associated with wealth and power.

As Peruvians have become more cosmopolitan, foreign names from Britain, Italy, Austria, and Germany have appeared with increasing frequency among those claiming upper-class credentials, leading to the conclusion that it is easier to reach elite status from outside Peru than to ascend from within the society. There are, of course a number of families who can trace their lineages to the colonial period. However, families of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century immigrants constitute about 40 percent of Peru's most elite sector, indicating a surprising openness to cosmopolitan mobility. In a 1980s list of Peru's national elite containing over 250 family names, for example, only one of clearly Quechua origins could be identified.

The racial composition of the upper class is predominantly white, although a few mestizos are represented, especially at regional levels. The social structure of the country follows a Lima-based model. The national upper class is located almost exclusively in the province of Lima, the second strata of elites is provincial, residing in the old principal regional cities, such as Arequipa, Trujillo, and Cusco, but not in Huancayo, Chimbote, or Juliaca, whose populations are predominantly of highland mestizo and cholo origins. Upper-class status in provincial life generally does not equate with the same levels in Lima, but rather to a middle level in the national social hierarchy.

Traditionally, the upper classes based their power and wealth on rural land ownership and secondarily on urban industrial forms of investment. This situation has changed in part through the rise of business, industry, banking, and political opportunities, and also because of the Agrarian Reform Law of 1969, which forced dramatic changes in land tenure patterns. It was, however, a change as difficult to make as any that could be imagined: the fabled landed oligarchy greatly feared any alterations in its property rights, which included the colonos and yanaconas attached to both highland and coastal estates. Their control over Peru's power, purse, and peasantry bordered on the absolute until the second half of the twentieth century, when the great highland migrations took hold of coastal cities and industrial growth exploded. Ensuing social and political demands could no longer be managed from behind the traditional scenes of power.

Vested interests of the landed upper class were ensconced in the National Agrarian Association (Sociedad Nacional Agraria-- SNA). Until the first government of Fernando Belaúnde, it had been impossible to discover just what the property and investment interests of this group were because government files on these subjects were closed and, indeed, had never been publicly scrutinized. All of this changed abruptly after the peasant land invasions of estates in 1963, when the need for solutions overcame the secrecy. In 1966 economic historian Carlos Malpica Silva Santisteban identified the landed oligarchy as a relatively small group, with 190 families owning 54 percent of the irrigated coast and 36 families or persons holding 63 percent of titled land in the Selva, for a total of over 3 million hectares. In the highlands, the data were similar in content but hard to verify.

Although upper-class wealth was founded on rural properties, it is evident that elite urban, mining, and industrial interests were also extensive. An indefatigable compiler of data on Peru's elites, Malpica annotated an extensive catalog of modern business and banking concerns showing the concentration of economic control in the hands of a tiny group of elite families, many being familiar traditional members of the oligarchy, now deprived of their land base by the agrarian reform. Of the seventy-nine families holding significant blocks of shares in the twelve principal insurance and banking operations in 1989, almost 50 percent were descended from the aforementioned European immigrant groups. Despite this Eurocentric trend, descendants of Japanese and Chinese immigrants have also entered the economic elites, if not with the equivalent social status. At least one Chinese-Peruvian family, which holds substantial banking, commercial, and industrial investments, descends from immigrants who arrived as indentured laborers in the nineteenth century.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress