The contemporary art museum MALI brings together people form different social classes. Photo courtesy of MALI.
Culture and Class in Peru
By Víctor Vich
In Peru, the upper class does not like to mix with those they consider different or inferior. Their maids on the beaches south of Lima are not allowed to swim in club pools and, sometimes, not even in the ocean. The VIP boxes at sports and theater events maintained by the government are a public display of a private practice that reproduces in the public sphere the worst aspect of private hierarchical structuring.
What are the “contact zones” between Peru’s different social classes today? Where do they meet each other? Where do they share things? Where is there a playing field where the mutual stereotypes can begin to be dismantled? On a recent Sunday, I was visiting MALI, the contemporary art museum, to enjoy an exhibit of the work of Fernando de Szyszlo, a Peruvian artist from the 1950s who captivated the world with his abstract art. The museum was overflowing; people from different social classes were looking at the paintings, listening to the guides, standing in line and conversing among themselves. This exhibit—a notable art show—has been a success not only from a cultural point of view in its excellent curating, but also because it has attracted a massive number of people. The show’s organizers have made a superb effort in outreach and transformed the museum into a true “meeting place” for all Peruvians.
The fact is that Peruvians from different social strata no longer mingle at the beaches; we get into fights in heavy traffic; we put bars on our houses to separate us from the street and the community; and we even find that political rallies are no longer public spaces. In the 2011 Peruvian elections, candidate Pedro Pablo Kuczynski gave out VIP tickets to a rally.
We talk about violence a lot in Peru, but we don’t talk about social classes. Violence is not restricted to gang attacks or drug trafficking; all cultures experience violence, but some foster it more than others, doing little to contain it and not learning from the lessons of the past. Violence is not a problem that can be solved by legal means and exemplary punishments. Violence—in Peru and beyond—is a cultural problem. It is a problem of power relations, the permanence of hierarchies and discrimination, the crisis of representation, ongoing authoritarianism. These are political challenges, but they are cultural ones as well, and thus the Culture Ministry has to take a stand as the institution in charge of the symbolic mediations aimed at changing the existing culture.
Many Latin American cities such as Medellín, Colombia, undertook successful cultural policy attempts not only to offer cultural services but to construct citizenship through the generation of visible spaces where diverse social groups can mingle—to use the Spanish phrase “convivir,” to co-exist, to live together in harmony.
These cultural policies are always conceived as a way to confront the powers that segregate, marginalize and generate all types of violence. They are designed to construct spaces for mutual recognition within the context of social heterogeneity. In Peru, we are generally far off from creating such spaces.
The decade of the 1990s inaugurated an anti-state attitude in Peru, and I am not only referring here to privatizations. Peruvians began to belittle and lose interest in anything collective. The state’s loss of prestige has meant that the sense of a public sphere has also been degraded and a sense of community has been lost. Today, we citizens only worry about ourselves and concern ourselves with the “other” only as competitors. On the highway, one needs to get ahead of the others, and in the sports stadiums, one needs to put down—or even kill—members of the opposing team. The deterioration of human ties in Peru worsens every day, especially in relation to those from a different class, race, sexual orientation or ideology.
Our democratic culture continues to be precarious because many officials view the president as a monarch, seeking to satisfy all his wishes in ways reminiscent of old colonial practices that have impeded the construction of full citizenship. In the last couple of years, a stadium was remodeled without providing a public concourse; it was a very serious example of how political pressure prevails over democratic culture, and in this case, even over technical advice that recommended the public concourse. It is unacceptable to accept reckless inaugurations of hospitals without beds, a National Theater without bathrooms, government VIP boxes for sporting events. We keep on sustaining a culture in contemporary Peru in which no questions are asked, no public responsibility is demanded, and where private culture is idealized and public culture discredited.
Víctor Vich, a Peruvian writer, is a professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú (PUCP) and researcher at the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos (IEP). He was the 2007-08 Santo Domingo Visiting Scholar at DRCLAS.