January 10, 2010

Yo Soy Negro: Blackness in Peru

It was a typically hot September afternoon in Ingenio, a small village in northern Peru. The Ingenio soccer team had won a match with the neighboring village. The losing team had gone back to their village, and a few men from Ingenio gathered around in a circle, passing a pitcher of chicha (corn beer) and a poto (gourd) from one person to the next. I sat on a bench near them, and saw one of the men pour the dregs from his gourd, wipe his mouth with his sleeve, and declare loudly “yo soy negro” (“I am black”). This got my attention, and when the men invited me to sit with them, I joined them. When I introduced myself, I told them I was visiting from the United States and was conducting research on the people and history of Ingenio. They offered suggestions of people I should talk to that would be able to tell me more about the history of the town.

Don Esteban, the man who had declared “yo soy negro,” asked me if there was racism in the United States, and if it was true that, in the US, blacks lived separately from whites. I started explaining segregation patterns in the US, when another man, Don Isaac, interrupted me to tell me about racism in Peru. He said that, in Peru, whites regard blacks as lesser, and as undesirable, and that racism is a problem in Peru.

Our conversation turned quickly to romance, and to the fact that, although there is racism, people often marry across color lines in Peru. Don Esteban said that, when he was younger, he wondered how anyone would want to be with him, since he is black. He and Don Isaac agreed that they both had desired white partners. Don Isaac said he wanted a white partner so that his children wouldn’t be as dark as him. Don Esteban also pointed out that “opposites attract.” They concurred that it was better for darker people to seek out lighter partners.

This conversation about race, color, and racism was one of many such discussions I would have in Ingenio while conducting ethnographic research between 2002 and 2007. The preference for lighter skin in intimate relationships was a common theme in these exchanges. Despite this preference, people in Ingenio did not hesitate to call themselves or others black. I often heard people claim the label negro (black), as Don Esteban did. I also heard people use the label as an insult, and in a more neutral fashion. Sometimes residents hurled insults in the context of an argument, for instance, when one woman called another a filthy black in a heated discussion over who had the right to build a house in the center of town. On other occasions, people used “black” in a teasing fashion, like when a brother called his sister an ugly black. And, sometimes men used “black” while flirting, such as when several young men called out to a woman “hola negrita” (hey, black girl) when she passed by the town square. Other times “black” was simply a descriptor, as when people referred to SeƱora Negra, a woman who lived on the edge of town.

When I first arrived in Ingenio in 2002 I was surprised to hear people using the word “black” with such frequency and variety, running the gamut from prideful to neutral to offensive. I was surprised because many scholars argue that most African-descended people in Latin America reject the label, “black,” in favor of other labels such as “moreno” (see Wright 1990; Wade 1993, 1997; Twine 1998; Whitten and Torres 1998; Lewis 2000). However, I soon realized I could not make any assumptions with regard to what people mean when they use the word “black.” I could not take it for granted that the claiming of blackness entailed an expression of solidarity with others of African descent nor that it indicated any ethnic allegiances. This was made clear by the fact that many people in Ingenio insisted to me that blackness is no more than a skin color, with no cultural or historical connotations. Any preference for lightness was simply aesthetic. When I asked people in Ingenio what it means to be black, they consistently told me that it means having dark skin.

In Yo Soy Negro: Blackness in Peru, I explore the ways people in Ingenio talk about blackness in the context of Latin American studies and African Diaspora studies. When contemplating the meaning of blackness from the perspective of African Diaspora studies, we can think about the degree to which either the denigration or the embracing of blackness is common in diasporic communities. From a Latin American studies perspective, we can consider how regional particularities must be taken into consideration to understand fully the meanings of blackness in Peru. Neither perspective provides a complete answer to what blackness denotes in Peru. However, by bringing Latin American studies into a dialogue with Diaspora studies, we can draw a more nuanced map of the complexities of blackness in Peru.

The local discourse of blackness in Ingenio centers on skin color, with subtexts related to sexuality and physical attraction. The existence of this local discourse of blackness raises questions with regard to how we can conceptualize and theorize the African diaspora. Specifically, it points to the need for a fluid conception of the African diaspora that allows for localized differences in ideas of blackness. In addition, the primacy that people in Ingenio give to skin color when talking about blackness defies the contention that, in Latin America, race is based on social status and cultural features. My argument that the discourse of blackness in Ingenio is primarily a discourse of color constitutes a challenge to scholarship on the black diaspora that points to the centrality of slavery for defining blackness in the diaspora and to scholarship on race in Latin America that places cultural and class differences at the core of racial discourses in the region.

The material in this book is based on fieldwork and interviews I collected in Ingenio de Buenos Aires and with migrants from Ingenio who live in Lima. Ingenio is a small town that sits on the lands of the former Hacienda Buenos Aires, in north coastal Peru. The name of the town – Ingenio – refers to a defunct sugar mill that was in operation until the early twentieth century. The majority of the inhabitants of Ingenio are the descendants of African slaves from haciendas in the region. The enslavement of Africans and their descendants in Peru ended in 1854 and the hacienda system came to an end with agrarian reforms in the early 1970s (Cuche 1976). Today, most families in Ingenio own a plot of land from which they eke out a meager existence.

No comments:

Post a Comment