Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Afro-Peruvians live primarily in the southern coastal region, in cities such as Ica and Nazca, and have contributed a blend of religion, language and cuisine to Peru’s cultural heritage. The country’s Afro-Peruvian population is estimated to be around three million people, however the last time a national census attempted to count Afro-Peruvians was in 1940. In the past decade, black civil rights groups have been pushing the government to collect statistics including the category of race. Their advocacy has gained ground, and the 2017 census included for the first time in decades the possibility for respondents to self-identify as Afro-descendant. Generally, Afro-Peruvians do not hold leadership positions in government, business or the military, and it is a common criticism that blacks face widespread racism and are discriminated against in the job application process or relegated to low-paid positions.
The first slaves arrived in Peru in the sixteenth century. Many came via the Caribbean or Brazil and had already lost touch with their African identity. The majority lived in Lima. By the nineteenth century, slaves formed the heart of Peru’s plantation labour force. Despite opposition from local slave owners, José de San Martin – the ‘liberator’ of Peru – ordered that slave trade be abolished in 1821. Slavery itself, however, was not finally abolished until 1854.
Most Afro-Peruvians had little sense of collective identity until the 1950s, when there was a reaffirmation of Afro-Peruvian culture with the emergence of dance and theatre groups, such as the Grupo Cumananá. Influenced by the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s, social groups formed to trace their African roots. Although these groups were short-lived, other organizations have taken their place, including the Asociación Cultural de la Juventud Negra, the Instituto de Investigaciones Afro-Peruano, and the Movimiento Negro Francisco Congo. The Asociación pro Derechos Humanos del Negro, founded in the 1990s, provides legal aid and human rights support.
In July 2011, Susana Baca became the first Afro-Peruvian government minister when she was named Minister of Culture. Baca is an internationally renowned singer in the rich Afro-Peruvian musical cultural tradition and winner of a 2002 and 2011 Latin Grammy Award.
While Peru was the first Latin American country to issue a public apology to its Afro-descendant community for the historical injustice of slavery, racism, discrimination and poor living conditions persist.
Afro-Peruvians have experienced economic stagnation, with no important reduction of poverty standards during the country’s recent years of fast economic growth. They disproportionately suffer urban poverty and its accompanying problems of alcohol and drug abuse, and households in rural areas also suffer extreme poverty and dire living conditions as they are often without basic services or social programmes. In accessing public services that do exist, Afro-Peruvians continue to face social barriers: for instance, according to a 2013 report by the Lundu Centro de Estudios y Promoción Afroperuanos nearly 75 per cent of the Afro-Peruvian population failed to seek medical attention in the past year due to fear of discrimination.
The challenges facing Afro-descendants in Peru are heightened by their invisibility. While the Constitution also contains a number of provisions for indigenous communities, endowing them with legal status and rights to identity, autonomous administration of their land and communal work, no article of the Basic Law refers to Afro-Peruvians. There are in fact few specific references to Afro-Peruvians in the whole of Peru’s legislation. Despite the high level of black group identity, Afro-Peruvian citizens are not officially recognized as a distinct cultural group and they have no special collective rights.
The Afro-Peruvian movement in Peru may be less visible internationally than its counterparts in Brazil and Colombia, but anti-racism working groups have been formed in Lima, and organizations such as the Asociación Palenque, the Asociación pro Derechos Humanos del Negro, the Centro de Desarrollo Étnico (CEDET) and the Lundu Centro de Estudios y Promoción Afroperuanos have managed to make their voices heard. An important step forward was achieved in 2015, with Peru’s first ever conviction for racial discrimination. 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 then 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. The expansion of ethnic categories to include Afro-descendants in the 2017 census was a further major victory for Afro-Peruvian community groups.