The Society

Peru Table of Contents

PERUVIANNESS (PERUANIDAD) has often been debated by Peruvian authors who evoke patriotism, faith, cultural mystique, and other allegedly intrinsic qualities of nationality. Peru, however, is not to be characterized as a homogeneous culture, nor its people as one people. Peruvians speak of their differences with certainty, referring to lo criollo ("of the Creole"), lo serrano ("of the highlander"), and other special traits by which social groups and regions are stereotyped. The national creole identity incorporates a combination of unique associations and ways of doing things a la criolla.

The dominant national culture emanating from Lima is urban, bureaucratic, street-oriented, and fast-paced. Yet the identity that goes with being a limeño (a Limean) is also profoundly provincial in its own way. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Lima cultural character transcended class values and ranks and to a significant degree was identified as the national Peruvian culture. The great migrations from 1950 to 1990 altered that personality substantially. By 1991 the national character, dominated by the urban style of Lima, was complicated by millions of serranos, whose rural Spanish contrasts with the fast slurring and slang of the Lima dialect. Highland music is heard twenty-four hours a day on more than a dozen Lima radio stations that exalt the regional cultures, give announcements in Quechua, and relentlessly advertise the new businesses of the migrant entrepreneurs. The places mentioned and the activities announced are in greater Lima, but unknown to the limeño. The new limeño, while acquiring creole traits, nevertheless presents another face, one with which the Lima native does not closely relate and does not understand because few true limeños actually visit the provinces, much less stay there to live. Nor do they visit the sprawling "young towns" ( pueblos jovenes) of squatters that are disdained or even feared. Urban Hispanic Peruvians have always been caught in the bind of contradiction, at once claiming the glory of the Inca past while refusing to accept its descendants or their traditions as legitimately belonging in the modern state. In the early 1990s, however, this change was taking place, desired or not.

Events have been forcing the alteration of traditions in both the coast (Costa) and highlands (Sierra) in a process that would again transform the country, as did both conquest and independence. The peoples of the Altiplano and valleys of the Andean heartland--long exploited and neglected and driven both by real needs and the quest for respect and equity--have surged over the country in a "reconquest" of Peru, stamping it with their image.

For respect and equity to develop, the white and mestizo elites will have to yield the social and economic space for change and reconcile themselves to institutional changes that provide fairness in life opportunities. Up to 1991, the highlanders (serranos) had seized that space from a reluctant nation by aggressive migration, establishing vast squatter settlements and pushing hard against the walls of power. As with the Agrarian Reform Law of 1969, the elites and special interests that benefited from traditional socioeconomic arrangements had protected these old ways with few concessions to wider public and national needs. For the cholo, Peru's generic "everyman," to gain a place of respect, well-being, and a sense of progress will be a test of endurance, experiment, and sacrifice as painful and difficult as any in the hemisphere. With the agony of terroristic and revengeful revolution perpetrated by the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso--SL) and the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru--MRTA), on the one hand, and the chaotic collapse of the institutional formal economy, on the other, average Peruvians from all social groups were caught between the proverbial "sword and wall."

Just as the highland migration to the urban coast was the major avenue for social change through the 1980s, increasing numbers of Peruvians sought to continue this journey away from the dilemmas of their homeland by moving to other countries. About 700,000 had emigrated by 1991, with over 40 percent going to the United States. Catholic University of Peru professor Teófilo Altamirano has documented the new currents of mobility that went from Lima, Junín, and Ancash to every state in the United States, with heaviest concentrations in New Jersey, New York, California, and Florida. In 1990 about 300,000 of Altamirano's compatriots (paisanos) lived--either legally or not--in the United States.

In the early 1990s, Peru's identity as a nation and people was becoming more complex and cosmopolitan, while the distinctive traits of the culture were being broadened, disseminated, and shared by an increasingly wider group of citizens. The crosscurrents to these trends were configured around the struggle for retention and status of the native cultures: the Quechua, the Aymara, and the many tribal societies of Amazonia. Whereas tens of thousands deliberately embarked on life-plans of social mobility by altering their persona from indio (Indian) to cholo to mestizo in moving from the native American caste to upper-middle class, a new alternative for some was to use ethnic loyalty and identity as a device of empowerment and, thus, an avenue for socioeconomic change. How Peruvian institutions, state policy, and traditions adjusted to these trends would determine what Peruvians as a society would be like in the twenty-first century.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress