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Peru’s Afro-descendants: from invisibility to a national ‘month’

Afro-Peruvians, who make up around 10 per cent of Peru’s population, have long suffered marginalization in every area of their lives. From health to education, many community members have limited access to basic services and few are able to rise up to senior positions in business, government and other fields. But while their status as a readily identifiable minority has often led to direct discrimination and even racial slurs in the street, in public life the problem they still struggle with most is invisibility –a challenge that anti-racism and human rights organizations in the country have worked hard to confront.

Historically, Afro-Peruvians had relatively little in the way of community organizations until the emergence in the 1950s of a cultural revival, with dance and theatre groups providing an important platform for a broader mobilization. While the Afro-Peruvian community has arguably not managed to achieve the same recognition as Afro-descendant communities in some other South American countries, their advocacy has nevertheless delivered some important milestones. In 2006, the Peruvian government formally inaugurated the first National Afro-Peruvian Culture Month, centred around 4 June, to promote awareness of their history and contributions through conferences and activities. These events, held every year since, have managed to attract both national and international coverage. The beginning of the 2015 celebrations was marked by the Minister of Culture, Diana Alvarez-Calderon, formally petitioning the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to add the Afro-Peruvian dance Hatajo de Negritos y las Pallas to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.

Despite the government’s attempts to provide greater recognition of Afro-Peruvian culture, the issue has caused some division among activists within the community. While many believe that these are important public initiatives that acknowledge the contribution of Afro-Peruvian heritage –something largely absent until recently–others argue that these alone do not address Peru’s deeply embedded ethnic inequalities, still so powerful in the country’s popular beliefs.

Indeed, some have even argued that the emphasis on areas like cooking, music and other cultural aspects may serve to reinforce stereotypes about the community. According to this perspective, without a wider social transformation, these official celebrations risk being a token gesture that distracts from the real issues. Among other efforts, activists are currently advocating for the expansion of ethnic classifications in the 2017 National Census to include Afro-Peruvians. This initiative stems from the fact that Peru has not included its Afro-Peruvian population in its census data collection since the early 1940s. Another issue is popular attitudes of racism, a widespread but rarely acknowledged reality for many Afro-Peruvians. However, 2015 saw an important step forward, with the country’s first ever conviction for racial discrimination in November. The case concerned an Afro-Peruvian woman who, after being racially abused at her work for a municipal water utility by a colleague, found her complaint ignored by her supervisors and was subsequently fired from her job after filing a criminal case. The ruling found both her former manager and head of human resources guilty, sentencing them to a prison term as well as a fine.

This progress testifies to the enormous efforts made by the Afro-Peruvian community to achieve greater respect and equality within society –though the struggle continues. Denial of Peru’s Afro-descendant population is now hopefully being superseded by greater recognition of the community’s rich and distinct identity. While the celebration of Afro-Peruvian culture is only one part of this, it does offer an invaluable public platform to articulate the community’s urgent social and political concerns. By maintaining control over their heritage and traditions, including but not restricted to artistic mediums such as theatre, music and dance, Afro-Peruvians can engage their rich culture in their struggle to end discrimination.

by Genna Naccache

This case study was originally published in State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2016

Photo: Afro-Peruvian woman. Credit: Annabelle Avril.