Peru Table of Contents

A large part of Peru's complicated modern social system started with the hierarchical principles set down in colonial times that remain as powerful guidelines for intergroup and interpersonal behavior. Peru's ethnic composition, however, is mixed. In the early 1990s, Europeans of various background made up 15 percent of the population, Asians from Japan and China and Africans formed 3 percent, the mestizo population constituted 37 percent, and the native Americans made up 45 percent, according to various United States and British reference sources. However, it is difficult to judge the composition of the native population because census data have generally undercounted or frequently failed to identify ethnic groups successfully. Even using language as the primary criterion does not take bilingualism adequately into account and omits other aspects of cultural behavior altogether. Thus, although Cajamarca Department is 98- percent Spanish-speaking, the bulk of the rural population lives in a manner identical to those classified as native people because they speak Quechua. The question as to who is a native has been an oft-debated issue. But how the individual chooses to classify his or her cultural identity is determined by the forces of society that give ethnic terms their social meaning. Because of Peruvian society's longstanding negative attitudes and practices toward native peoples, persons who have become socially mobile seek to change their public identity and hence learning Spanish becomes critical. Denial of the ability to speak Quechua, Aymara, or other native languages often accompanies the switch.

Another separate dimension of the "Indian problem" so widely discussed by Peruvian essayists has to do with the natives living in the Selva and high Selva, or Montaña, regions of the country. The tribal peoples have a tenuous and generally unhappy relationship with Peruvians and the state, evolved from long experience along the tropical frontier. The Incas and their predecessors ventured only into the fringes of the region called Antisuyu, and the Spanish followed their pattern. The inhabitants were known collectively as savages (chunchos). In documents they are politely referred to as jungle people (selvícolas or selváticos). Thought to be savage, wild, and dangerous but usually described as "simple" and innocent, they are also widely considered to possess uncanny powers of witchcraft and healing. Here, the sixteenth-century concept of the "noble savage" vies with equally old notions that these are lazy, useless people who need to get out of the way of progress. Indeed, modern currents of developmental change, the expanding drug trade, oil exploration, the clearing of the forest, and the search for gold in Madre de Dios Department have placed native peoples under great pressures for which they are little prepared. The Selva tribes, like native highlanders, Afro-Peruvians, and other people "of color," are those who feel the discriminatory power of the colonial legacy as well as modern stresses, especially if they are poor. In demographic terms, the impact of poverty and oppression has been, and remains, considerable. Thus, the mortality rates of native peoples and especially their children are much higher than those of the general population. Tribal peoples are still widely susceptible to numerous uncontrolled infectious diseases and outside the religious missions have little or no access to scientific medical care.

The tribal peoples of the lower Selva along the major rivers have endured the stress and danger of contact with outside forces longer than those groups located at the upper reaches of the streams. It is in these "refuge areas" that most of the present tribal populations survive. More than any other sector of the population, the rural peoples of the Selva, and especially the tribal groups, live at the fringe of the state both literally and figuratively, being uncounted, unserved, and vulnerable to those who would use the area as their own. According to anthropologist Stéfano Varese, there are about 50 tribes numbering an estimated 250,000 persons and maintaining active communities, scattered principally throughout the departments of Loreto, Amazonas, Ucayali, Huánuco, and Madre de Dios. The national census, however, has lowered its estimates from 100,830 in 1961 to 30,000 in 1981 for the tribal peoples, even though field studies have not supported such conclusions.

In the Selva, tribal lands in the early 1990s were in even more jeopardy than the Quechua and Aymara farmland in the Sierra. Although community rights were acknowledged, if not respected, in the Andes, outsiders have virtually never accepted this fact in the case of the Amazonian peoples. Nevertheless, apparently many tribal societies, such as the Shipibo, have held their traditional hunting, fishing, and swidden lands in continuous usufruct for as long as 2,000 years. As a result of the land reforms under the Velasco government, however, laws established the land rights of Amazonian native communities. Consequently, some groups, such as the Cocama-Cocamilla, have been able to secure their agroecological base.

The Afro-Peruvians who came as slaves with the first wave of conquest remained in that position until released from it by Marshal Ramón Castilla (1845-51, 1855-62) in 1854. During their long colonial experience, many Afro-Peruvians, especially the mulattos and others of mixed racial parentage, were freed to assume working-class roles in the coastal valleys. Even fewer blacks than Europeans settled in the highland towns and for virtually all the colonial epoch remained concentrated in the central coastal valleys. Lima's colonial population was 50 percent African during much of the era. Indeed, the term "criollo" was originally identified with native-born blacks and acquired much of its special meaning in association with urban, streetwise behavior. The social status of blacks in many ways paralleled that of the native Americans in rank and role in society.

Completing the human resource mix in Peru were the immigrants from Europe and Asia. The former arrived with the advantages of conquest; the latter arrived first as indentured laborers and later as Japanese and Taiwanese immigrants who pursued careers in truck farming, commerce, and business. The Chinese who were brought to Peru from Macao and other ports between 1849 and 1874 numbered about 90,000. The Chinese influx occurred in the same period as the United States' importation of Chinese coolies, and many of the latter were eventually shipped from San Francisco to Lima. Most Chinese eventually survived their indentures and took up residence in the coastal towns where they established themselves as active storekeepers and businesspeople. The growth of the Japanese presence in Peru began early in the twentieth century and quietly increased over the 1970-90 period. In 1990 Japanese immigrants constituted the largest foreign group in Peru and were rapidly integrating into Peruvian culture, gaining positions from president (Fujimori) to popular folk singer (the "Little Princess from Yungay"). In the middle range of Peruvian class structure, the Chinese and especially the Japanese have achieved status and mobility in ways the native peoples have not.

The key to understanding Peruvian society is to view aspects of its dynamic ethnoracial character as a set of variables that constantly interplays with socioeconomic factors associated with social class configurations. Thus, a native American might acquire the Spanish language, a university education, a large amount of capital, and a cosmopolitan demeanor, but still continue to be considered an indio (Indian) in many circles and thus be an unacceptable associate or marital companion. Yet, there is opportunity for socioeconomic mobility that permits ambitious individuals and families to ascend the hierarchy ranks in limited ways and via certain pathways. Such mobility is easier if one starts on the ladder as a mestizo or a foreigner, but especially if one is white.

Indigenous Peoples
Legacy of Peonage
Military Classes
Urban Classes

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress