Peru Table of Contents

Much has been said about kinship and family in Latin America. The "Peruvian family" is of course not a homogeneous entity, but rather reflects both ethnic and socioeconomic factors. If there is a generalization to be made, however, it is that families in Peru, no matter what their status, show a high degree of unity, purpose, and integration through generations, as well as in the nuclear unit. The average size for families for the nation as a whole is 5.1 persons per household, with the urban areas registering slightly more than this and, contrary to what might be expected, rural families, especially in the highlands, being smaller, with a national average size of 4.9 persons. This apparent anomaly runs counter to the expected image of the rural family. This is because the highland families that constitute the bulk of rural households have been deeply affected by the heavy migration of their members to the cities, coastal farms, and Selva colonizations.

The roles of the different family members and sexes tend to follow rather uniform patterns within social class and cultural configurations. In terms of family affairs, Hispanic Peruvian patterns are strongly centered on the father as family head, although women increasingly occupy this titular role in rural as well as urban areas, amounting to 20 percent of all households. As is the pattern in other countries, women have increasingly sought wage and salaried work to meet family needs. This, coupled with the fact that social and economic stress has forced a departure from the traditionally practiced versions, the patriarchal family is gradually losing its place as the model of family life. Contributing to these changes are the neolocality of nuclear families living in cities and the loss of male populations in rural areas through migration and various povertyrelated conditions that lead men to abandon their families. Families are patricentric, and the male head of household is considered the authority. His wife follows him in this respect, yet exercises considerable control over her own affairs with respect to property and marketing. This gender and lineage hierarchy is to be seen as families walk single-file to market, each carrying their bundles, the husband leading the way, followed by his wife and then the children.

In many Quechua communities, the ancient kinship system of patrilineages (called kastas in some areas) survives. It is thought to have been the basis for the Incaic clan village, the ayllu. In a patrilineal system, wives belong to their father's lineage and their children to their father's side of the family tree. This differs from the Hispanic system, which is bilateral, that is, including one's mother's kin as part of the extended family, as in the British system. Where the native Americans follow a patrilineal system, families are at once at odds with the formal requirement of Peruvian law, which demands the use of both paternal and maternal names as part of one's official identity, thus forcing the bilateral pattern on them.

In many Hispanic mestizo homes, fathers often exercise strong authoritarian roles, controlling the family budget, administering discipline, and representing the group interest to the external world. Mothers in these homes, on the other hand, often control and manage the internal affairs in the household, assigning tasks to children and to the female servant(s) present in virtually every urban middle- and upper-class home. For children school is de rigueur, and the more well-to-do, the more certain it is that they attend a private school, where the educational standards approach or equal good schools in other countries. The home is prized and well-cared for, with patios and yards protected by glass-studded walls and, in recent years, by electrical devices to keep out thieves.

The lower-class household in the urban areas--such as Lima, Trujillo, or Arequipa--presents the other side of this coin. In metropolitan Lima, 7 percent of the population lives in a tugurio (inner-city barrio) and 47 percent in a squatter settlement. The older pueblos jovenes erected in the 1950s had the look in 1990 of concrete middle-class permanency, with electricity, water, and sewerage. The newer invaded areas, however, had a raw and dusty look: housing appeared ramshackle, made of bamboo matting (esteras) and miscellaneous construction materials scrounged from any available source. Here, as in the tugurios, the domestic scene reveals a constant scramble for existence: the men generally leave at the crack of dawn to travel via long bus routes to reach work sites, often in heavy construction, where without protective gear, such as hard hats or steel-toed shoes, they haul iron bars and buckets of cement up rickety planks and scaffolding. With an abundance of men desperate for work, modern buildings are raised more with intensive labor than machinery.

Women's roles in the squatter settlements cover a wide variety of tasks, including hauling water from corner spigots and beginning the daily preparation of food over kerosene stoves. In the 1975-91 period, the food supply for substantial numbers of the urban lower class in Lima and other coastal cities came from the United States Food for Peace (Public Law 480) programs administered by private voluntary organizations. Women also keep their wide-ranging family members connected, seeking the food supply with meager funds, and doing various short-term jobs for cash. According to social scientist Carol Graham, the poor urban areas have a high percentage of female-headed households, as well as a large number of abandoned mothers who are left with the full responsibility for supporting their households and raising the children.

Urban Informal Sector

In 1990 the vast "informal sector" of Lima's economy was the most striking feature of its commercial life. There, 91,000 street vendors, 54 percent of them women, sold food in the streets or public squares of central Lima or the residential area of Miraflores, the upscale mecca of the city. Street vendors have been a part of Lima life and culture since early colonial times, and the city government has persistently attempted to remove them to fixed market places. Nevertheless, street commerce in Lima throughout the colonial period and until the twentieth century was generally regarded as a colorful, folkloric aspect of urban life and was often depicted in period paintings and descriptions. Since the great migrations began in the early 1950s, however, the city elites have come to disdain the street vendors who swarm over the Rímac Bridge every afternoon. As Hernando de Soto has abundantly documented in El otro sendero (The Other Path), this freewheeling entrepreneurial sector of the labor force was, in the 1980s, producing the equivalent of almost 40 percent of the national income. As "unregistered" business, this activity is outside the control of the national economic institutions, whose cumbersome and often corrupt bureaucratic regulations stifle initiatives, especially if one lacks resources to pay all the bribes and formal start-up costs. In the circumstances of 1991, the public need to participate in the economy had, in essence, neutralized and bypassed the official system.

Domestic Servants

The urban middle-class family without servants is incomplete. Although household servants constitute a major element in the urban informal economic sector, they are rarely analyzed as part of it. The retaining, training, disciplining, or recruiting of domestic help is constantly in progress under the supervision of the wife of the household head. One of the most common sights in Lima is therefore the small printed sign in front of houses reading "Se necesita muchacha" ("girl needed").

There is a constant flow of young highland migrant women to urban areas, and a very large portion of them seek domestic positions on first arriving in Lima. Although census figures were dated, it appeared that about 18 percent of all women employed in metropolitan Lima in 1990 were domestic servants. Domestic service work of course pays poorly, and social and sexual abuse appear often to accompany such employment. Nevertheless, in the absence of other alternatives, migrant women find these jobs temporarily useful in providing "free" housing and a context for learning city life, while also having some opportunity to attend night school to learn a profession, such as tailoring or cosmetology, two of the more popular fields. As domestic work has been increasingly regulated, the term empleada (employee) has begun to replace the use of muchacha as the term of reference. Over the 1960-91 period, households have been obliged to permit servants to attend school and to cover other costs, such as social security.


Family life at all levels of society is nourished by an ample number of ceremonial events marking all rites of passage, such as birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, or important religious events, such as baptisms, confirmations, and marriages. Family life is thus marked by small fiestas celebrating these events and passages. In this context, Peruvians have greatly elaborated the Roman Catholic tradition of godparenthood (padrinazgo) to encompass more occasions than simply celebration of the sacraments of the church, although following the same format. The parties involved include the child or person sponsored in the ceremony, the parents, and the godparents who are the sponsors and protectors. The primary relationship in this triad is between the godchild (ahijado) and the godparents (padrinos). The secondary bond of compadrazgo is between the parents and godparents who after the ceremony will forever mutually call each other compadre or comadre. For the child, the relationship with the godparents is expected to be one of benefit, with the padrinos perhaps assisting with the godchild's education, finding employment, or, at the least, giving a small gift to the child from time to time. For the compadres, there is the expectation of a formalized friendship, one in which favors may be asked of either party.

Ritual sponsorship has two dimensions with respect to its importance to family and community. On the one hand, the mechanism can be utilized to solidify social and family relations within a small cluster of relatives and friends, which is generally the case for families concerned with enclosing their social universe for various reasons. Among the top upper class, it may provide a way of concentrating power relations, business interests, or wealth; among the Indian caste, the inward selection of compadres may follow the need to protect one's access to fields or to guarantee a debt. On the other hand, many families deliberately choose compadres from acquaintances or relatives who can assist in socioeconomic advancement. In this fashion, the original religious institution has lent itself to social needs in a dynamic and flexible manner. In the more closed type of community setting, there are only five or six occasions for which godparents are selected; among more socially mobile groups, there may be as many as fifteen or more ways in which a family may gain compadres. Thus, it would not be unusual for the parents of a family with four children to count as many as forty or more different compadres. In a more conservative setting, the number might be less than ten for a similar family.

Rural Family and Household

The Andean peasantry, often maligned by those who discriminate against them as being lazy and poor workers, are the reverse of the stereotype. The peasant family begins its day at dawn with the chores of animal husbandry, cutting the eucalyptus firewood, fetching water, and a plethora of other domestic tasks. Field work begins with a trek to the often distant chacras, which may be located at a different altitude from the home and require several hours to reach. Where chacras are very distant from the home, farmers maintain rough huts in which to store tools or stay for several days. Andean peasants of all ages and both sexes lead rigorous lives, hustling about steep pathways carrying loads of firewood, produce, and tools on their backs.

Although horses and mules are of greater market value than burros, they are more expensive to maintain, and thus burros are the most common beasts of burden in most of the highlands. Native Andean llamas and alpacas are commonly found in the central and southern Andes, where they are still widely used for transport, wool, and meat. Peasant women and girls, although carrying a burden, perpetually keep their hands at work spinning wool to be hand woven by local artisans into clothing, blankets, and ponchos. Although there are few who approach full selfsufficiency in the Andes (and none on the coast), the Andean peasantry make, repair, invent, and adapt most of their tools; they also prepare food from grain they have harvested and animals they have raised and butchered.

Although modern amenities and appliances have found their way into most nonfarm households, the rural poor by necessity must conduct their affairs without these instruments of pleasure and work. Even though consumer items--such as electric irons, blenders (especially useful for making baby food), televisions, and radiocassette tape players--are keenly desired, surveys have shown that 25 percent of all Peruvian households possess none of these things. The great majority of households (more than 50 percent) lacking modern appliances were in the rural areas of the Andes. The contributions of many hands, therefore, are vital to the rural economy and household. The same survey by Carlos Aramburu and his associates also showed that the poorest and most rural areas were also the provinces that in demographic terms had the highest dependency ratios (the largest number of persons--the very young and the aged--who were only limited participants in the labor force). Consequently, the loss of youth to migration cuts deeply into the productive capacity of hundreds of families and their communities. In those districts in the central highlands especially, where the Shining Path has been active since the early 1980s, the absolute decline in work force numbers has left a third of the houses empty, fields in permanent fallow, and irrigation works in disrepair, losses which Peru could ill afford in view of its declining agricultural production and great dependency on imported foodstuffs, even in rural areas.

These demographic changes also threaten other community and family institutions like the use of festive and exchange-labor systems (minka and ayni, respectively) that have been such an integral part of the traditional peasant farm tradition. The minka involves a family working side by side with relatives and neighbors to plant or harvest, often with the accompaniment of musicians and always with ample basic food supplied by the hosts. On some occasions, invited workers may request token amounts of the harvest. Exchange labor, or ayni, is the fulfillment of an obligation to return the labor that someone else has produced. The communities of peasant farmers, whether native or cholo, utilize these mechanisms to augment family labor at critical times. Minka work crews, however, are often inefficient and overly festive, and their hosts are unable to keep activities task-oriented on a late afternoon. As a consequence, farmers who are mainly concerned with monetary profitability, tend to utilize paid temporary workers instead of the minka, whose ceremonial aspects are distracting. On the other hand, the purpose of the minka is obviously social and communal, as well as economic. Family economic activity in rural communities has invariably relied primarily on unpaid family labor, augmented by periodic cooperative assistance from relatives and neighbors to handle larger seasonal tasks.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress