Fix the Cholo Divide in Peru

Standard disclaimer: I am a partisan Creole. I say politically incorrect things like “un criollo que se respeta” before an activity that I myself do in order to signal desirable behaviors. Un criollo que se respeta has at least three children (as opposed to one is the new two). Un criollo que se respeta drinks the leche de tigre at the bottom of the ceviche plate, etc.

That said, how can the racial divide in Peru be fixed? I don’t know. I don’t know if anybody knows.

I’d take a page from Mexico’s PRI, which embarked on a rhetorical “revolution” for decades to keep anarchists and Marxists at bay. While it was coupled with policies like agrarian reform which had only marginally better results than they had in Peru, the soft side was subsidizing the arts to promote a new “cosmic race.”

Peru’s government tries to showcase the beauty of native cultures, but you only see it on TV Peru, the much less popular equivalent of PBS. Their attempts are noble, but not very compelling. I’d give money to street artists to cover the urban infrastructure with indigenist and mestizaje murals, especially in Lima and the cities.

Such a campaign was initiated by Lima mayor Susana Villaran, only to be undone by her villainous successor Luis Castañeda. Beyond continuing a public arts campaign led by artists themselves, I don’t know what government could do.

Another message for the creoles, albeit inappropriate for government to deliver, would be that the cholos are Peru’s only draw for international tourists. Nobody outside Peru thinks creole Peru is cool. Trust me, I’ve tried to sell Peruvian criollismo with a website and a book. Nobody cares!

As the partisan creole, I love Lima/Callao, gastronomy, bullfighting, Catholic history in the Americas and Señor de los Milagros, Carmencita Lara and Zambo Cavero, marinera, pisco and guisos, wooden balconies and sillar. I love it all, but my fellow gringos don’t. Neither do other Latins.

What do the foreigners want from Peru? Machu Picchu and Chan Chan, Inca/Nazca/Moche/Shipibo, ayahuasca and siete raices, Pachamama and her apus and the music of Brisas del Titicaca. If it weren’t for the cholos, Peru’s tourism would be about the same as Chile’s. A few naturalists coming to experience the sierra y selva, then skipping through Lima even quicker than they do now.

I learned that if you’re not selling Cusco, Iquitos and Puno, you’re not really making money in Peru tourism. Fortunately the creoles are a mostly educated class, especially with business. Those who don’t suffer from pituco pomp are aware of the cholo attraction, and the lack of interest in criollismo.

It’s become popular for haughty white dudes to cite some great-grandparent’s Inca surname. Gianmarco’s daughter plays huaynos. And the art students too smart for their own good decorate their apartments with Elliott Tupac-inspired graphics and listen to Chacalon, or even make their own trip-hop versions of it.

Maybe we just need to wait for these forward-looking creoles to keep working their magic. It takes a long time to forge a national identity.

On the other hand, some of the cholo divide comes from cholos themselves. Or at least people who look like cholos and have cholo names. In my experience, the people who watch La Paisana Jacinta to laugh at the ignorant Indian in the big city are not the creoles, but the children of cholos! The LPJ-branded circus was in San Juan de Lurigancho, an area your average pituco will only see on the news or in that awful Paolo biopic.

Lurigancho and the periphery districts are filled with indigenous families that moved to the big cities. Their children who grew up in Lima or wherever are urbanized, and they know firsthand how rural peasants aren’t. They don’t want to be that way, and so they laugh. I imagine actor Enrique Espejo justifies his portrayal of the cholita by looking at his audience. How offensive could it be if that’s who watches?

It’s not the elite creoles tuning in to Esto es Guerra to worship the PED bods of the white models from Lima. I only catch cholos watching that show, and I only see creoles making fun of it. There may be a self-loathing among the urban cholos, I don’t know. But it’s unlike the Black-White Divide in the States, where more white youth enjoy black culture.

Also unlike the racial divide in the United States, the Cholo Divide in Peru is not necessarily race-based. The vast majority of Peruvians are somewhere on the spectrum. Almost nobody is all white or all indigenous (or other). So the government asks in the census, and this is not a joke, and I agree with this approach: how do you self-identify?

In the same way Joe Rogan or Sopranos writer David Chase identify as Italian-Americans, the surname matters less than the predominant culture of their families. Many of the most hardcore neoliberals and urban intellectuals in Peru are as brown as Pedro Castillo. And some of the most devout worshippers of ayahuasca and Pachamama are as white as PPK.

Maybe the young cholo-looking Peruvians who identify more with creole culture infuriate the indigenous leaders and drive the animosity against Lima. I don’t know. I don’t have ties to that world, pure speculation.

But it doesn’t always work in the creoles’ favor. In 1990, Mario Vargas Llosa’s presidential campaign was doomed because he was a rich white creole from Miraflores. Fujimori only defeated him because he presented himself as a humble, nonwhite farmer.

Again, I’m a partisan creole. And of course there are still reactionary creoles who remove beautiful murals at taxpayers’ expense and self-respecting cholos who would consider voting for an old white neoliberal capitalist.

Maybe there is a whole world of slights and insults that the cholos suffer that I don’t know about and haven’t mentioned here.

I walked the streets of downtown Arequipa after the day of looting and talked to a few shopkeepers. The mantra they seem to have worked out was “Hoy nos defendemos.” One old woman opened a closet to show me a long lead pipe she claimed she’d use if they came back. I put my money more on the tanks and platoons situated strategically around the city center.

Most of the corporate retailers on Mercaderes were closed well after 10 a.m. A restaurant manager said the mob looted the Estilos department store because they hadn’t closed and respected the strike. One prick in the group throws a brick at the glass and the opportunists descend on the merchandise. Then all the neighbors decide it’s better to take a few days off work.

The image above became an early icon of the protests after they captured the Arequipa airport. This poor bastard isn’t creole elite. He’s an upwardly mobile mestizo working for a better life than his parents had. Same with all the shopkeepers downtown. I believe images like this are why more didn’t join the protests.


  1. As it relates and compares to Mexico:

    “I’d take a page from Mexico’s PRI, which embarked on a rhetorical “revolution” for decades to keep anarchists and Marxists at bay. While it was coupled with policies like agrarian reform which had only marginally better results than they had in Peru, the soft side was subsidizing the arts to promote a new “cosmic race.”

    You are right about the campaign — and it was beyond the arts — to promote a narrative that “en Mexico somos mestizos” and have some type of unity among the people after the Mexican Revolution.

    And I have it myself of obviously white passing Mexicans telling me “soy mestizo” when the dude is clearly white lol.

    Having said that, such a campaign can’t hide the reality that Mexico is more than mestizo and racial divides do exist in the country.

    You have white Mexicans that know they are white, indigenous Mexicans that aren’t mixed, black Mexicans, some Asian ones (though I rarely see any of those).

    At the public university UNAM, I’ve seen mini posters proclaiming something along the lines of white Mexicans not welcome.

    Just recently a meme that went viral talking about how to make your neighborhood less gentrified and kick out the white Mexicans from your neighborhood.

    When you really look into some of the subcultures of white Mexicans — including say white Mexicans of German heritage for example — you realize too the degree to which they are kinda segregated from other parts of society.

    Including those of other immigrant backgrounds (Lebanese for example but those more segregated were the richer ones and the poorer ones were more assimilated).

    In contrast, plenty of people clearly see indigenous people for what they are and treat them accordingly for being indigenous (and presumably poor) and worse.

    Like that story of an indigenous Mexican chick who was confused for an illegal Guatemalan and taken into custody by migration.

    There was an article the other day I read about a black Mexican chick who was refused a passport because they didn’t believe she was Mexican.

    I don’t mean to distract from the broader point of your article however. I’m not as familiar with Peru.

    And I agree in part with some of what you are trying to say by bringing up the Mexican example.

    I just think that it’s a lot more complicated and that Mexicans are not truly as unified along racial or ethnic lines as some (including some Mexicans) believe.

    If we were to look at similar conflicts along indigenous lines in Mexico, perhaps the Zapatista uprising of 94 would be a good example? Based on what I’ve read though from what you’ve written about Peru, there are clear differences between the two (the Zapatistas never had their Cowboy President in office) but also many similarities (especially if we were to discuss racial or ethnic differences in Mexico).

    “I learned that if you’re not selling Cusco, Iquitos and Puno, you’re not really making money in Peru tourism.”

    While Mexico does have a lot more to offer to tourism than just all things indigenous, I know personally that — and it’s probably to other countries of Latin America — you have no shortage of products (coffee, artisan stuff, health products, etc) that get sold in part due to their affiliation with indigenous people.

    Marked as fair trade to help some indigenous group or somehow tied to them.

    Not to forget also a lot of the tourism sites connected to indigenous civilizations way back (though, in the case of Mexico, they’ve done a good job also making tourism money from places not tied strictly just indigenous groups).

    “Also unlike the racial divide in the United States, the Cholo Divide in Peru is not necessarily race-based.”

    I think there are a lot of similarities to that in Mexico also. Most are on a spectrum also and not entirely white or indigenous. A lot of Mexicans will say “en mexico no hay racismo, solo clasismo.” As to say also that the divide is more on class lines.

    I’d agree that Mexicans can be very class conscious (and perhaps it has similarities to Peru?) but that racism and behavior based on race or ethnicity does exist also. When Mexicans say that though, it’s usually from a point of ignorance or a refusal to acknowledge internal problems in the country.

    I would wonder how much the classism or class divide and socioeconomic inequality has a role in the divide in Peru. I’d imagine it must have some role.


    1. I have heard there is a little racial animosity in Mexico. But it’s just nothing like Peru. That “whites not welcome” stuff, that would not happen in Peru. Maybe someday. I bet that’s partially an import from the empire (USA).


      1. The racial animosity never had any press until Maria del Carmen Alva insulted Pedro Castillo on his inauguration, after which the media joined in mob handed and the scale of the hidden “discrimination” began to be revealed in full.

        This reaction has crossed a red line hitherto covertly maintained for a couple of centuries. The true feelings and motivations of the dominant class are now out in the open and hence have become a subject of debate, one which will not go away.

        Well done, there!


      2. I think any country that isn’t the US — including Mexico — isn’t as race obsessed as the US is.

        I always say that Americans are race obsessed and Latin Americans are class obsessed.

        Even though racism and classism go hand in hand and exist in both areas of the world.

        I agree and disagree though with your take on this being an import from the US.

        The US does have a lot of influence to be fair.

        But that’s a common take from gringos — left wing or right wing — who don’t like discovering things down here are sometimes similar to things back home.

        I’ve heard gringos say equally that feminism or gay rights is imported from the US to Latin America (among right leaning gringos who say such).

        And right wing gringos who believe Bolsonaro is the Trump of the Tropics because they read a headline saying so and can’t imagine that ordinary Brazilians would support him without US influence.

        Not to be much of an ass about it but I always find it weird when people say “this came from the US” as to brush away any local influences that would support feminism, race based ideologies in this case, hard conservatism, etc. in Latin America

        But, if we were to again compare Mexico or Peru to the US, it’s definitely not the same

        Americans are definitely way more race conscious — for better or worse.

        And Mexico is definitely a country — especially Northern Mexico — that does get more US influence than say Juliaca of Peru.

        I would wonder though — and perhaps it’s the American in me — how true is it that no racial animosity exists in Peru?

        If you say it’s not a factor, then fair. I don’t really know Peru beyond a very small trip I took.

        But race and economics do mix together and I find it hard to believe that some racial animosity doesn’t exist (either be it envy against whiter looking Peruvians who got it easier or racism against more indigenous passing Peruvians who are assumed to be slum living and are biased against).

        But, like Mexico, it isn’t anything like home where race is much more in your face in terms of daily conversation about the latest events going on.


  2. I remember laughing when you wrote about Creoles hating panpipe music because it’s so true. You never hear it in Lima – I do find it strange how tourists spend a night or two in Lima and dash off to Cusco to eat cuy and listen to panpipe music whilst trekking the Inca Trail which is fine because if you are going to pay all that money to get there then do what you want but personally, I have never seen the attraction of Cusco and still haven’t been! Not tried cuy either. My Creole family in Lima haven’t got a massive interest in going to Machu Picchu either and have yet to visit.

    It’s telling how the people of Callao turned the Andean protesters around when they tried to block the airport road off with the cry of ‘let us work’ you might think the poor people of Callao and the Andean protesters would have a lot in common but the people of Callao are Creole first and foremost.

    And the people of places like Juliaca, Puno and Ayacucho feel the same about the Creoles – there were a lot of facebook posts about Puno and Juliaca joining Bolivia with the Creoles saying ‘let them go’. I don’t think they are going to come together any time soon. Saying that, you can see when you are out and about the indigenous are forming a nice sized middle class, it’s a common sight to see them driving nice cars, living in the nice neighbourhoods and shopping and dining in the best malls and restaurants.


    1. I almost inserted a special mention for Callao, which probably has a lower-than-average all-white population than the country, but identifies as more creole than Lima itself. Salsa every day!

      My next post addressed the very real “cholo con plata.” There has been undeniable, palpable progress just in the 15 years since I landed.


      1. Callao is hardcore creole in culture – I was thinking just now and it made me chuckle that even in Beijing there are panpipe bands as there are in the vast majority of capitals in the world but none in Lima (or if there are I have never seen or heard of one) but if a panpipe band tried to make a living in Callao, they would probably be disappeared and murdered within a day.


        1. Callao is black! as far as culture goes. I should use the Peruvian term “Negroide”.

          Andeans have a great sympathy for their black minority, both here and in our neighbour nation.

          There are several music groups that cross and recross the divide.

          What the European and North American immigrant (families) think or opine is strictly irrelevant to the Andean mind. But the self-worship of the former is a good insulation bubble.

          Probably the most successful Andean “panpipe” (actually: siku) genres is the Saya, developed in La Paz from a traditional Selva rhythm and dressed up (I’m reliably informed) as “We Can Out-Hollywood Hollywood”, in Bolívia second only to the Huayño and in Perú probably third after the Wayno and the Huaylas/Huancayo, indeed that some of our most respected Peruvian songwriter-performers are now feted in the neighbour country, that which has the rights of the inventor.

          You might need to redigest that sentence, I can’t be bothered LOL.

          Credential: learning and playing andean music since around 1980.


          1. What has their skin colour got to do with it? If you asked a Callao native what they are, they would self identify as ‘criollo’. If they are or aren’t according to the original definition of the term is beside the point – that is how they see themselves and to them, the term is about culture. I wouldn’t say they were all black either, there are just more black people there than there is anywhere else.


            1. If “WHO” asked what they are…

              The answer depends on if you’re the same identity or different, if you are white or dress white or have white attitude then the answer you get from others will be “what they want YOU to think”, will be different from use within the group.

              I can use terms like serrano, cholo, indio, within family or close friends but nowhere else. I try not to behave TOO white, but my appearance me desmiente.

              If you relate to a particular group, you share that identity. If you are consciously mestizo, your identity is confused. People with confused identities do not make accurate, useful judgements about identity.



              1. What are you going on about?

                You missed the bit about ‘self identifying’ that is how the people of Callao see themselves, as they do in places like La Victoria, Brena etc.

                I don’t have to ask them, ‘criollo’ culture is alive and well in Callao.


                1. Just for interest CWH, what’s YOUR social identity?

                  That will also answer the question you just asked me.

                  For a moment I’ll bypass the farandulistas of Punta Hermosa demanding the cholos come down from their barrios and sweep up some huaico pong.


                  1. What has my social identity got to do with the people of Callao, La Victoria, Brena etc self identifying as ‘Criollo’?

                    Criollo in modern day Peruvian parlance has nothing to do with the original meaning of the word and it has nothing to do with skin colour.


                    1. Fair enough, except that what you say, what you claim, what you want others to believe, depends on what group you belong to.

                      Mine for example is a gringo settled among what north of the Río Grande would be termed Native Americans.

                      Colin’s, very clearly in his own words, is something of a bipolar mainly gringo but occasionally of sympathy to the predominant Peruvian people.

                      If you want to talk about Criollo, to favour, criticise, or diminish it, it is helpful to understand where you are coming from in respect of that. One issue is that white narcissism (I speak as one with that fault) always unconsciously seeks to belittle The Other, in culture, physicality, politically, or in whatever comes to mind in the heat of the moment.

                      Separation from Origin, as attempted in your final sentence, is one of our favourite tricks.

                      It peeves me somewhat when people of other skin use our own arguments to belittle their fellows. I hope & trust that in your case I’m not applying this.


              1. What on earth are you going on about, Dave?

                Criollos of Lima self identify as Criollo – who are you to say otherwise? ‘My case’ is that if the people of Lima want to identify themselves as ‘Criollo’ then I accept it. You’re the one not accepting what they self identify as and want to put your own terms and your own labels on these people without their permission.Who are you to do this?

                And no-one is belittling you either, stop playing the victim, if you want to go to Callao and argue with the people there they’re not Criollo but ‘Negroide’ then go there, do that and let us know how it goes. Not very well I suspect.


            2. I wanted to add something like this in here but decided against overcomplicating the predominant divide. Peruvian criollismo is indivisible from Afro-Peruvian culture because so much of it was created by black Peruvians: Zambo Cavero, Eva Allyon, Susana Baca, Nicomedes & Victoria Santa Cruz, San Martin de Porres, Señor de los Milagros, tacu tacu, carapulcra/sopa seca, anticuchos con picarones, Alianza or La U doesn’t matter … you don’t have much Creole Peruvian culture if you discard what was done by black pioneers. But as a whole they’re not many. Getting bred out of existence. We spent a day in Cañete during this last visit, didn’t see one black person from San Vicente to Nuevo Imperial and back. If I had to guess, Callao itself isn’t far from a single-digit percentage.


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