Indigenous Peoples

Peru Table of Contents

The word indio, as applied to native highland people of Quechua and Aymara origin, carries strong negative meanings and stereotypes among non-native Peruvians. For that reason, the ardently populist Velasco regime attempted with some success to substitute the term peasant (campesino) to accompany the many far-reaching changes his government directed at improving the socioeconomic conditions in the highlands. Nevertheless, traditional usage has prevailed in many areas in reference to those who speak native languages, dress in native styles, and engage in activities defined as native. Peruvian society ascribes to them a caste status to which no one else aspires.

The ingrained attitudes and stereotypes held by the mistikuna (the Quechua term for mestizo people) toward the runakuna (native people--the Quechua term for themselves) in most highland towns have led to a variety of discriminatory behaviors, from mocking references to "brute" or "savage" to obliging native Americans to step aside, sit in the back of vehicles, and in general humble themselves in the presence of persons of higher status. The pattern of ethnoracist denigration has continued despite all of the protests and reports, official policies, and compelling accounts of discrimination described in Peruvian novels published since the beginning of the twentieth century.

The regions and departments with the largest populations of native peoples are construed to be the most backward, being the poorest, least educated, and less developed. They are also the ones with the highest percentages of Quechua and Aymara speakers. The reasons for the perpetuation of colonial values with respect to autochthonous peoples is complex, being more than a simple perseverance of custom. The social condition of the population owes its form to the kinds of expectations embedded in the premises and workings of the nation's institutions. These are not easily altered. Spanish institutions of conquest were implanted into colonial life as part of the strategy for ruling conquered peoples: the indigenous people were defeated and captured and thus, as spoils of war, were as exploitable as mineral wealth or land. In the minds of many highland mestizos as well as betteroff urbanites, they still are.

Although the Spanish crown attempted to take stern control over civic affairs, including the treatment, role, and conditions of native Americans who were officially protected, the well-intended regulations were neither effective nor accepted by creole and immigrant interests. Power and status derived from wealth and position, considered not only to be in the form of money and property, but also coming from the authority to exercise control over others. Functionaries of the colonial regime paid for their positions so that they could exact the price of rule from their constituent populations. Encomenderos, corregidores, and the numerous bureaucrats all held dominion over segments of the native population and other castes, which were obliged to pay various forms of tribute. With the decline of the colonial administration and the failure of the many attempts at reform to control the abuses of the native peoples, Peru's political independence saw a transfer of power into the hands of Creoles and mestizos, the latter of whom comprised the majority of Peru's citizens in the early 1990s.

The growth of large estates with resident serf populations was an important feature of this transition period. The process benefited from the new constitutional policies decreeing the termination of the Indian community (Comunidad Indio)--the corporate units formerly protected by the crown. The subsequent breakup of hundreds of communities into individually owned properties led directly to these lands being purchased, stolen, or usurped by eager opportunists in the new society. The most critical native American franchise was thus lost as entire communities passed from a relatively free corporate status to one of high vulnerability, subject to the whims of absentee landlords. Although the development of haciendas occurred rapidly after the demise of the colonial regime, the system had long been in place, established through the assignment of property and people to benefit particular individuals for their service to the crown, to institutions such as the church, and to public welfare societies intended to offer succor to the poor by maintaining hospitals and orphanages. Debt peonage constituted the basic labor arrangement by which landlords of all types operated their properties nationwide. The system endured until it was abolished by the land reform of 1969.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress