Race, Ethnicity and Identity in Peru

About 50 percent of the time, Peru’s Canal Sur is playing on our TV at home. Sometimes I watch it, but it’s really J. Miguel’s source of news and entertainment from the homeland and not something I pay much attention to. However, it doesn’t take a casual viewer to notice how Peruvian popular television under-represents the country’s actual demographic make-up.

For someone who isn’t well tuned into the broader Latino world, it would be hard to tell if Canal Sur is coming from Spain or South America. Most people on the channel’s programming are South American Caucasian, and there is almost no representation of the country’s indigenous or Afro-descendant populations. (And forget about Peru’s Asian citizens with roots from China and Japan, despite the fact they have had a Japanese-Peruvian as president whose daughter is now running for her father’s past post.)

J. Miguel and I have spoken about Peruvian television’s whitewashing before, but the whole notion of self-identifying one’s race and ethnicity is hard for him to wrap his mind around.  For example, it wasn’t until he came to the United States that J. Miguel had to answer questions asking him to self-identify himself as White, Black, Hispanic, Asian-Pacific Islander, Native American or Other. “We don’t think about that stuff back in Peru,” he’s told me many times before. “We’re all Peruvian. And I don’t even know how to answer this question in the U.S. I mark the box saying I’m Hispanic, but I could also be White. What I really consider myself to be Latino — but that’s never an option in these surveys.” (We’ll hold the whole debate of Hispanic vs. Latino for another blog post as this also has generated some interesting discussion in our household, too.)

When asked why Americans are so concerned about race and identity, I have to go back to our country’s shameful history concerning race relations dating back to slavery, the Civil Rights Movement and even today. Even with a black president in office, the United States still has not completely healed from its past offenses when it comes to the treatment of minorities. So why is it important we continue to keep track of race and ethnicity in America? Trends and statistics are important. I know this as a professional grant writer — we need these records to examine trends and progress — or lack thereof.

While Peru doesn’t have a history of tracking such information, that is going to soon change. And it’s important that it does as there are many minorities in the country who are under-represented in all aspects of Peruvian society — not just on TV. What is striking about it all is the country’s overall lack of understanding as to why it is so important to ask people to self-identify their race and ethnicity. I keep going back to J. Miguel’s reasoning, “We’re all Peruvians in Peru. We aren’t Asian, Black or White. We don’t think that way. It doesn’t matter.”

But see, it does matter.

The Ford Foundation summed it up perfectly:

If a census does not accurately account for all populations, it is an ineffective tool. In these countries [Peru and Columbia], inaccurate data has resulted in an incomplete picture of the population, leaving government agencies without the information they need to make responsible decisions. Colombia’s most recent census, in 2005, reported that Afro-descendants make up 10 percent of the population. Yet experts estimate them at more than 20 percent. In Peru, the number of Afro-descendants has never been officially measured by the national census.

Without a census, all we have to go on is what we see on Canal Sur. (Half joking there.) And I know that’s not accurate because all I have to do is look at J. Miguel to see the indigenous bloodline running through him. (His mother’s side comes from Spain, but his father’s side is Quechuan.)

It’s a mindset change for sure. And it will take time to form a nationwide appreciation for such data. But I hope that once it catches on, it leads to good things for all Peruvians.


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