Urban Classes

Peru Table of Contents

Between the extremes of wealth and power represented by the white upper class and the native caste is the predominantly mestizo and cholo population, which largely comprises the lower and middle sectors of rural and urban society. These are the most numerous and diverse sectors, constituting the core of Peruvian national society in culture, behavior, and identity. Together, these sectors include a wide range of salaried workingclass families, persons in business and commercial occupations, bureaucrats, teachers, all military personnel (except those related to elite families), medical, legal, and academic professionals, and so forth. In terms of occupation, residence, education, wealth, racial, and ethnic considerations, the population is diverse, with few clear-cut markers differentiating one segment from another. Yet, there are obvious differences among the regions of the country that combine with those indicators to suggest a person's social position in relation to others. The importance of the regions derives from the fact that the urban and rural areas of the Sierra are, as a whole, measurably poorer than the Costa and Selva, and the various occupational groups less well-off in proportion. As in the case of the provincial upper class, being middle class in the regional context does not necessarily mean the same thing in the capital, although being marked as lower class would translate to the same category in Lima or Trujillo.

An important study by anthropologist Carlos E. Aramburu and his colleagues in 1989 provides a graphic outline of how levels of living vary throughout the nation. Analyzing the 1981 census, they ranked the 153 provinces on the basis of five variables: the proportion of households without any modern household appliance; the average per capita income; the percentage of illiterate women over fifteen years of age; the number of children between six and nine years of age who regularly worked; and the rate of infant mortality. These indicators were representative of involvement in the economy, participation in state-operated institutions, and access to health services, each of which is critical for marking advances in the level of living from the perspective of the modern state. Only 9 of the 100 highland provinces were represented among those in the top two levels of wealth, and only Arequipa was in the top rank. In contrast to the Selva provinces, which lacked any rank, eighteen of the twenty-eight coastal provinces registered in the top third of provinces according to wealth. At the other end of the scale, all but three of the poorest fifty-three provinces with 20 percent of the population were in the highlands, and none were on the coast. These data, when juxtaposed with the distribution of monolingual Quechua and Aymara speakers, confirm the poverty status of Peru's native population at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale.

Thus, the provincial upper classes, with few exceptions, do not equate with the Lima-based national elite, whose socioeconomic position is vastly enhanced by their status as Lima residents and, subsequently, by their international connections. The same can be said for the other middle and lower sectors of the provincial population in comparison to Lima. In a very real sense then, Peru has two levels of class structure layered in between the national extremes of the oligarchic elites and the rural native peasantry: one in the context of Lima's primacy, the other with reference to the rest of the nation.

Although the role of racial phenotypes and associated ethnic behaviors is clearly seen at the extreme poles of Peruvian society, it is somewhat obscured in the middle sectors. In general, the more closely one approximates the ideal of Euro-American appearance, the greater the social prestige and status derived. On the other hand, Peru is a country whose majority population is darker skinned, with distinctive facial and bodily features. The varied shades of meaning attached to the designations mestizo and cholo are as much socioeconomic and cultural in import as they are racial. Thus, in the Peruvian vernacular phrase, "money whitens" one's self-concept and expectations.

With other non-native groups, such as the Japanese, Chinese, and Afro-Peruvians, status and class considerations are structured somewhat differently, yet exhibit the same tendencies toward ethnoracist marking. Just how strongly stereotypes have prevailed over facts was witnessed by the 1990 presidential election of the Japanese-Peruvian Alberto Fujimori, who was constantly referred to as el chinito (the little Chinaman). Racial terms are frequently employed in normal discourse in ways that many foreigners find uncomfortable. Afro-Peruvians are referred to as zambos negritos, or more politely as morenos (browns). In many instances, this terminology implies behavioral expectations and stereotypes, and yet in others the same term is simply used as an impartial means of description.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress