Suppose that the country I’m writing about today is not a “blessed island” in the midst of the unknown, in the way that medieval geography portrays it to be, nor are the events that happen within it so unusual that it can be considered a country from another planet. Although it’s considered mystical by apathetic countries stunted by gold and disillusionment, and its rebel poets died signing that their “homeland is as beautiful as a sword wielded in the air,” writing about Peru 200 years after it attained its independence is, truthfully, like writing from the darkness of the unknown.
The promises that symbolized the birth of Perú have not been fulfilled. The public health and political crisis, the fragility that allowed antiquated racism to rise during this year’s presidential elections, the existence of second class citizens and poverty, the violence against women, the degradation of state institutions, the press, the words “freedom” and “democracy,” among other tragedies, confirms how necessary it is to reevaluate everything that divides us. Today, after celebrating the Bicentennial of the foundation of the Republic of Peru, there is talk of union and national identity, but how has that identity been reaffirmed by its people?
In his book Perspectives on Nationalism in Perú, the Peruvian sociologist Gonzalo Portocarrero writes: “In Perú, there is no collective national imagination that is even moderately developed. That is to say that there is no set of beliefs that makes all Peruvians see themselves as a part of a community of citizens with a shared past and a common future.”
What should we do to see ourselves as part of a collective group? Academics argue that we need common concerns. I think of the armies of Indigenous people who fought a war of independence, led by Creole elites, who had their own aspirations. I think of 18th century revolutionaries, precursors to the nation’s independence, like Túpac Amaru II, Micaela Bastidas, and Juan Santos Atahualpa. All of the multi-ethnic patriots, heroes, who we share and should honor properly, but over the years, have gone unnoticed in the official history of Perú. A history filled with shadows and absences. Despite these glaring ommissions, there are legislators in Congress who, to this day, fight to erase the word “decolonization” from cultural initiatives. They argue that the term is Marxist and negates the colonial past of the country.
Maybe Peru’s misfortune is in the institutionalized denial that has made its people rabidly dissatisfied with their Indigenous identity.
There is a deep disaffection towards one’s own, and I’m not talking about the food, folklore, or the national soccer that we successfully display to the world. “Neoperuanity,” sociologists argue, does not excite Peru’s people or invoke the history of the past thousand years quite like the things we truly enjoy, like the food and our dancing. This dissatisfaction prevents us from unifying ourselves, it makes us insensitive to those we refuse to recognize as our own. Awake or unconscious, we choose to dehumanize the other in order to make them submissive, because that behavior is what we’ve seen and what we’ve been taught (you can only trample on that which is inferior and worthless, that which has lost its significance). You only have to ask a Peruvian “what does ‘la pendejada’ (stupid thing to say or do) mean?” or — in softer terms —ask them about the Creole way of life. It’s the most painful tradition that has befallen us, alongside individualism and paranoia, not only because it truncates our efforts to promote peace and well-being for all, but also because evidence suggests that – in order to defend our precarious economy and our unmet needs – one must do so with a knife in hand and ready to stab.
In spite of everything, the key to understanding Peruvianism in the 21st century is in the mestizaje, the process of interracial and/or intercultural mixing.
Born in Lima, “the strangest and saddest city,” according to Herman Melville, I am the product of the cultural mestizaje of the 20th century and of the emigration processes that followed. For many years I lived in another city founded by gold-seeking men: San Francisco. Since I left Peru, I often asked myself what Peruvian identity was and in which ways I am Peruvian.
One survey from the Institute of Peruvian Studies published in 2019 found that half of the participants considered Peruvian identity to be founded upon a mix of cultures and identities. However, 56% of the people surveyed said that all it takes to “feel” Peruvian is to be born in the country and to love Peru (all of the participants lived in the country when the survey was conducted).
It’s alarming that emigration around the time of the Bicentennial has not been considered a fundamental part of the construction of Perú’s national identity. The subject was certainly discussed more following Bicentennial celebrations, but more state policies and efforts are required to integrate Peruvian emigrants into the collective national imagination. A Peruvian identity that doesn’t include the three million Peruvians who live outside of the nation is incomplete.
I know Peruvians who live and were born in other nations. Their love for Perú is unquestionable. Many of them recognize and celebrate their Indigenous and Black origins, strengthen their communities through diaspora-related podcasts; others, like the community of Peruvian transracial adoptees, seek to bring their knowledge to a country they have never visited; I know there are Peruvians who write novels about the families of Peruvian immigrants in the U.S. in the 90s; I know of consultants, programmers, journalists, and civil engineers who speak passionately about Perú in their dining rooms at home. They worry, they carefully follow the local news by internet, they proudly wear the traditional clothing of their region of Perú, and they vote on election days. How Peruvian are these Peruvians?
Five years ago, I returned to live in Perú. Since then, I have come to understand that enthusiasm and hope are undeniable traits that every Peruvian carries with them wherever they go. That being said, a deep collective sadness is an undetachable aspect of our being. This sadness, I feel, lies in our inability to grow as a unified nation, and it reemerges each time we recall how we have been abandoned in adolescence, that our nation is incubated alone and orphaned in an avenue without street lights, a darkness that nobody dares travel through. This fogginess impedes our ability to genuinely feel self-compassion or to reach the golden doors of self-love that might also lead to a love for others. If we let down our guard for a moment and improved our sense of self-awareness by choice, and not by obligation, we would cease to be the remote and isolated Perú that the medieval cartographers mapped us to be, and we would find a common future within our place of belonging on Earth.