Living within the Collapsed Myth of Multiculturalism: Afro-descendent Women during Covid-19

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By Daniela Rivera Antara

On July 28th, Peruvian independence day, I had just finished listening to the two-hour presidential speech discussing the government response to the country’s multiple crises. I headed out to meet Rosita, as she prefers to be called, at noon while she delivered a lasagna to a retired colonel living around the corner from the house she worked in. At 70, she was caring for a 95 year old woman despite having knee problems. She had been previously employed for more than 30 years as a full time housekeeper for a Spanish lawyer who died in 2017 and was in no position to reject work offers. So as Peru celebrated 199 years of independence and 166 years of official abolishment of slavery, Rosita was working at significantly below minimum wage an overnight shift that involved cleaning her employer’s bottom and taking care of her every need.

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Rosita inside the living room of her house, where she lives with her husband and one of their sons.

 

As I listened to the speech before meeting with Rosita, I was struck by the fact that the president left out the plight for survival of Peru’s indigenous populations, often portrayed as distant and almost foreign. Most unsurprisingly, the speech failed to acknowledge the needs and demands from the Afro-Peruvian people who have been experiencing increasingly precarious conditions, despite their large presence in Lima. “Indigenous populations are seen as their own people for being far away from the capital, but because Afro-Peruvians live on the coast, we are not taken into account as a population with pressing needs. There aren’t neighbourhoods of Afro-Peruvians as we are scattered amongst the most segregated districts,” said Angie Campos, an Anthropology Ph.D. candidate and activist I met in early June.

As an independent photographer born and raised in Lima, I felt the urgency to document the daily lives of women of different ages and backgrounds starting in late May as I began realizing the worldwide protests were not resonating with Peruvian society at large. Throughout the documentary process, it became apparent to me how Afro-descendent women were being impacted economically and psychologically by the Covid-19 crisis, in particular inside their own homes. “The only governmental entity that mentions Afro Peruvians, is the Ministry of Culture. As if we only exist to contribute to Peru’s cultural image without addressing that we were already living through systemic crises,” said Melody Palma, a law graduate and activist, in a mid-August video conversation. “Everyone talks about the doctors working in the frontlines but there is no talk about the Afro-Peruvian women living in the frontlines.”

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Late afternoon in the district of Chorrillos, where Rosita grew up and where a few of the other women live.

 

Around May 28, a heated debate arose as the Ministry of Culture published specific health guidelines for Afro-descendents and on June 22, the Alicorp company announced their removal of the figure Negrita, similar to Aunt Jemima. Both instances were received with indignation and arguments stating these decisions were unnecessary especially with the Covid-19 crisis. As worldwide experts have noted, racism and segregation does contribute to the increasing health crisis. Making Peru no different but instead highlighting a complicated national narrative.

Talking about this subject has proven to be as unpopular as it can get, along with a significant lack of intersectional studies and statistics available. Most Peruvians still hold onto a narrative of multiculturality as a national identity without realizing the extent that it fogs and distracts from all efforts of engaging in thoughtful and proactive change. “Many women have not gone to the hospital or clinic out of fear they will be treated worse than they were before Covid-19,” said Campos. As a Peruvian myself, it was upsetting to understand this sense of multicultural pride contributes to a lack of sensitivity and enables recurring arguments such as “we are all the same,” “they are just resentidos sociales” or “racism doesn’t exist”.

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One of the youngest members of one of the families in Chorrillos, waiting for her mother to come back with the boiled water for her bath. Most of the houses in the neighbourhood don’t have water heaters and she spent more time playing than bathing, cooling down the tempered bath.

 

Consequently, leaving aside the pain of being confused for a prostitute (this happened to one of the women going back home from the bodega), the frustration of not being able to access basic healthcare services or the denigration of being impersonated and mocked on national television and social media (the most recent case was of a Peruvian athlete painting her face as a stereotyped Andean woman on Instagram in mid August). Within a society of normalized machismo and sexist violence, non-white women are still perceived and expected to act as servants, maids, objects of entertainment or of pleasure. A story that repeats itself for Afro-descendents, indigenous women and even Venezuelan migrants, with haunting testimonies of being followed, harassed, abused or confused for prostitutes purely for their physical appearance. Having spent January through March doing photo documentary work with Venezuelan women in Lima, it was eerie to find many similarities between the experiences of Afro-descendent women with forced migrants.

Afro-Peruvian culture is very alive and present in our day-to-day lives which led me to be surprised by how difficult dialogue turns when asking to be recognized as active parts of Peruvian society and for a structural reform in the way we relate to each other. “You can be friends with someone that calls you negrita but if there is ever an argument or a fight, race is brought up as an insult. As if the color of your skin is insulting,” said one of the mothers involved in the project. What stood out from our conversations was the common feeling of exhaustion. An exhaustion that each woman managed differently and was not correlated to the degree to which they challenged the status quo. In Lima, the status quo for most women is very similar to that of our time as a Spanish colony, with the role of serving and sustaining the household with the myth that she could take on anything and everything. For racialized (non-white looking) women, the full emphasis went towards serving.

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Sunday morning, preparing breakfast for 13 people inside one of the homes of Chorrillos. She is the mother of the young girl inside the bath. She works from 6.30am to 3pm in the local Military Hospital as maintenance staff and then returns home where she is in charge of her two children, their meals and keeping the household clean.

 

Lima is a large city with only 6.8% of people who identify as Afro-Peruvian nation-wide, suggesting that many women for various reasons do not identify as such. With or without the political identification, our conversations reflected they felt isolated and some still felt uncomfortably aware of their bodies. Some of the older women described themselves as mestiza or felt more comfortable with terms such as zamba or morena (terms related to colonial concepts of castes which are more generally accepted than saying negra and which establishes a manageable psychological distance from the racial violence experienced, explained Campos). As a consequence of the daily harassment and economic difficulties, most of the women I documented believed they did not belong in academic spaces. A study done by CEDET with UNICEF and Plan International in 2013 showed that an estimated 20% of Afro Peruvian girls and young women drop out of school because they didn’t like it. As of the recent 2017 census, only 11.5% of Afro Peruvian women pursued higher education.

Many of these women did not have a choice about what became their life stories. Rosita, for example, was sent to a convent at 14 because her mother was afraid she would be harassed or raped like her younger sister later was and at 18 she wanted to study to become a nun but had to start working to help her mother raise her nine younger siblings. “What happens to a woman when you tell her she has a choice for what her life can be and suddenly her whole identity of having to serve and take care of others, is taken away from her?” said Campos, whose work is dedicated to the personal and political growth of the Afro-Peruvian population. ”It's a process that takes time.”

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One of the sisters of a different household (left) with her niece (right) taking orders from customers that come to buy homemade food and beers on a Sunday afternoon in June.

 

It is very tempting to paint the Peruvian experience with a single brush under the umbrella term of Latin American. However the story of multiculturality easily overlooks stories such as Rositas and exacerbates apathy. Stories that are so common and normalized within the society I grew up in, that too few bat an eye at the idea of an elderly woman having to commute to work as a carer of an even older woman whenever she needs her during the day or overnight without health insurance or a proper salary.

As the project expanded to more women and other life stories, I was astonished that a few people I spoke with asserted that the conversation about race is a foreign trend that does not apply to our country. I believe that we as Peruvians desperately need to be more active in relating to each other’s experience and to be willing to be uncomfortable, just as people in the United States or in Europe are in regards to the issue of race. “Peru is still taking baby steps,” Campos observed. Despite the fact the Afro-Peruvian movement began in the 1980s and we all have felt the impact of the recent Black Lives Matter protests.

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19 year old sociology student, inside her grandmother's bedroom which is adjacent to her family house in the northern district of Lima, San Juan de Lurigancho. She, along with some friends, created a university group of Afro Peruvian studies, along with the youth activism she participates in

 

Much of the local Afro-feminist activism happens through social media, and with Covid-19 I was venturing out to specific home addreses up until the end of July, as the situation got worse within the city. Peru has been heavily impacted with 72.5% of the population working informally; with 164,476 confirmed cases and 4,506 deaths by the 31st of May and with 407,492 cases and 19,021 deaths by the 31st of July (Ministry of Health). With the restrictions that took place, most of the women documented could not afford to stay quarantined and had been working in and out of their homes before it was officially lifted on the 30th of June. Unfortunately, there are no statistics or recent studies available on the impact of these last few months on Afro-descendents.

These last few months raised more questions than answers about the experiences and foreseeable futures of Afro-descendent women in Peru, despite the activism taking place in Latin America and worldwide. With a significant lack of studies or investigations, I wonder how much of Peru’s development would continue or be further stunted without an active governmental and societal reckoning of the self inflicted pain caused through stereotyping and adhering to judgements which only achieve further divisions. Within the desert that is Lima, I wonder if these women would be taken into account if we begin experiencing drastic environmental challenges such as water scarcity or if this would exacerbate the already existing stereotypes and gendered-violence. As we have seen, it will be the women responding to these foreseeable crises, while cooking, feeding, cleaning, bathing their children, running errands, working and hoping they will be well enough physically to repeat the same thing the next day. Something already happening with Covid-19.

 

Daniela Rivera Antara is a multidisciplinary artist, photographer and writer on intersectional issues related to gender, environment and identity. She has been published by The Guardian and hopes to begin her MA on Women and Environmental Sustainability. www.dra.com.pe

Contact: daniela.rivera2707@gmail.com 

 

See also: Peru