Peruvian Americans

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by John Packel


The third-largest country in South America, Peru borders Ecuador and Colombia to the north, Brazil and Bolivia to the east, and Chile to the south. At 496,222 square miles, it is larger than Spain, Portugal, and France combined. In 1993 Peru had a population of over 22 million, and its capital, Lima, was home to fully one-third. This picturesque land is divided into three main geographic regions: the costa, along the South Pacific; the sierra, or highlands of the Andes mountains; and the selva, or jungle, in the east.

The costa is a thin, mostly barren strip of desert between the ocean and the mountains. Except for a few valleys where mountain rivers have brought enough water to make farming possible, the Peruvian desert is the driest in the world, with some areas never having seen even an inch of rain in recorded history. This region is prone to earthquakes, such as the one in 1970 that killed 66,000 people. Every few years in late December a warm Pacific current called El Niño (the Christ child) brings serious weather conditions that have disastrous effects on Peru's fishing industry and, in turn, its economy.

The upland plateau known as the sierra represents about one-fourth of Peru's land and holds a majority of the country's population. Its average elevation is 13,000 feet, making the air rather thin and cold, and ten peaks top 20,000 feet. (The highest is Mt. Huascarán at 22,334 feet.) Called the backbone of the continent, the Andes Mountains stretch from the Caribbean Sea all the way down the Pacific coast. Rivers flowing eastward to the Amazon Basin have cut scenic gorges as deep as 5,000 feet, at the bottom of which the climate becomes tropical. On Peru's southeast border with Bolivia, Lake Titicaca spans 3,200 square miles at an elevation of 12,507 feet, making it the world's highest navigable lake.

Peru's largest geographic area, the selva or montaña region, begins with the eastern slopes of the Andes and stretches eastward to include part of the Amazon River Basin's tropical rainforest. The lower elevations contain very dense vegetation and there are virtually no roads, with transportation taking place on the rivers.


Most anthropologists believe that the first inhabitants of the Americas crossed over from Asia during an ice age about 30,000 years ago across a land bridge connected to Alaska where the Bering Strait is now. Some of these people migrated down the Pacific coast and arrived in the Andean region about 20,000 years ago. Little is known about this time, but the first settlements were along the coast and relied mainly on fish and wild plants and animals. Agriculture probably began around 4000 b.c., and by 2000 b.c. civilization had advanced to the point where ceremonial centers were being built in coastal areas and the skill of making pottery had developed.

The early peoples of the montaña grew river valley plants such as peanuts, cucumbers, manioc, squash, beans, sweet potatoes, and chili peppers. Those in the tropical forests also grew cotton and plants used for medicinal purposes. The coastal peoples farmed the sea for fish, which they at times traded to those in the highlands for the grains and potatoes cultivated there. They probably did not use boats for fishing but rather cotton nets. Anchovy runs allowed for the collection of fresh fish which could by dried and ground into a meal that was preserved for months by covering it with earth. Beached whales provided the opportunity for an immediate feast, as the meat could not be stored.

Up to approximately 900 b.c. the Andean region saw a number of small states existing relatively independently. But advances in agriculture occasioned a growth in population and the first truly urban societies in Peru. These urban environments provided the structure and personnel required for a more specialized society. A measure of communication between neighbor societies helped provide the right conditions for expansion to full-fledged empires, and a number of these rose and fell prior to the Inca empire.

The first known of these empires was the Chavín, which expanded to encompass much of northern Peru and the central coast and lasted perhaps 1500 years. In a narrow Andean valley there are the remains of Chavín de Huántar, a city with extensive architecture. The inhabitants' stone carvings, pottery, textiles, and metalwork feature a god in the form of a fierce puma, or jaguar. The Chavín people's Akaro language was the predecessor of Aymará, which is still spoken by a small minority of Peru's population today. The Chavín were also adept at farming in the mountains and cultivated maize up to elevations of 9,000 feet.

Roughly contemporary with the Chavín was the Paracas civilization in the south. Their elaborate fabrics, woven on looms from cotton and alpaca wool, are known today because they were used in a type of mummification process. The coastal heat created oven-like conditions in the tombs and dried the contents out, thus preserving them.

The Nazca people ruled to the south of the Paracas for over a thousand years beginning about 500 b.c. They also produced wondrous fabrics, but their finest work was colorful pottery featuring birds, fish, fruit, and mythological creatures. The Nazca era is best known, however, for the mysterious lines cut into the earth by scraping away sunscorched brown rock to reveal the yellow sand underneath. These enormous patterns, some of which are five miles long, form outlines of birds, spiders, monkeys, and other unidentifiable shapes. Scientists speculate that the shapes may have had something to do with astrological studies or an ancient calendar.

The Moche River valley, on Peru's north coast, was home to the Mochicas from about 100 to 750 a.d. They were gifted engineers and developed irrigation systems employing canals and aqueducts. The Mochicas were among the first to build roads in Peru; this facilitated the movement of their armies and made possible a messenger network in which runners carried messages marked on beads. They also pioneered the use of guanothe droppings of coastal birdsas fertilizer, a practice still in use today. They harvested the guano by paddling rafts out to off-shore islands.

The Tiahuanaco culture was based near Lake Titicaca on the high plains of present-day Bolivia at an elevation of about 15,000 feet. Its capital featured a pyramid-shaped fortress called the Acapana and courts that consisted of huge platforms made from stones weighing as much as 100 tons. In about 500 a.d. the Tiahuanacans extended their influence up the coast, bringing a religion that portrayed a weeping god with bands of tears around his eyes. With the fading of this culture came a return to the rural village life of disparate tribes.

This tribal period ended around 1000 a.d. with the ascendence of the Chimu kingdom, which had grown out of the Mochica empire and spanned nearly 600 miles of coast from present-day Lima to Ecuador. The Chimu capital, Chanchan, was a meticulously laid out 14-square-mile city with 40-foot clay walls featuring intricate, repeated patterns of birds, fish, and geometrical shapes. The primary building material was large adobe brick, and huge pyramids towered above the city. The Chimu people's advanced irrigation systems included reservoirs lined with stones.


The Incas of Peru were one of the most advanced civilizations in pre-Columbian America, rivalled only by the Mayans and the Aztecs of Mesoamerica. We know more about the Incas than their Andean predecessors because of their fateful contact with the Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century. Though the Incas never developed a written language, a number of Spaniards chronicled the Incan oral history and legends. One of these was Garcilasa de la Vega, who was born in Cuzco in 1540 to an Inca princess and a Spanish conquistador and governor.

One legend told of the sun-god, Inti, creating a brother and sister, Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, on an island in Lake Titicaca. He gave them a golden staff and told them to wander until the staff sunk into the ground, at which point they would show humans how to build villages, cultivate the land, and appreciate the sun-god's wisdom. The brother and sister wandered northward through the mountains to a beautiful river valley, where Manco Capac threw the staff and it disappeared into the ground. They named the place Cuzco, "the navel of the world," and the Inca nation was born.

Manco Capac was the first of eight Incan rulers from approximately 1200 to 1400 a.d. who built a small state centered in Cuzco. The expansion to a mighty empire began after 1430, when the powerful Chanca nation to the west of Cuzco attacked the Incas. Prince Yupanqui, who had been exiled to a distant llama ranch by his father, returned and defeated the Chancas. He became the ninth Incan ruler in 1438, renamed himself Pachacuti"he who transforms the earth"and set about unifying the Andean tribes into a powerful empire. He expanded the empire to the point where it reached from Lake Titicaca in the southeast to Lake Junin in the northwest.

Pachacuti and his successors would first send ambassadors to a rival tribe to try to persuade them to join the prosperous nation, which had storehouses to guarantee food in times of famine. If neither this nor the sight of the Inca army won the tribe over without a battle, the Incas used their superior weaponry. This included the bola, a series of thongs with stones attached which wrapped around an enemy's legs; rocks propelled by slings swung over the head; stone clubs and double-edged wooden swords; and protective gear such as helmets, shields, and huge spans of heavy cloth, which repelled sling-stone attacks.

Pachacuti's son, Topa Inca, expanded the empire northward almost to what is now Quito, Ecuador, and then turned west toward the coast. He persuaded the Chimu people to join in the empire and then continued southward down the coast beyond Lima into the northern territories of present-day Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina. His son, Huayna Capac, became the eleventh Lord Inca in 1493 and pushed the boundaries of Inca control into the highlands of Ecuador. At this point the Inca empire was at its peak, extending 2,500 miles north to south and covering 380,000 square miles. Close to 12 million people, speaking 20 languages and comprising at least 100 distinct tribes, had been unified under the all-important Inca ruler.

When a new tribe was brought into the empirewhether peacefully or through forceInca soldiers were stationed in the land, and then government officials, called curacas, arrived to take a census, divide the land according to the Inca labor structure, and teach the Quechua ("KESH-wah") language. Members of the nobility were brought back to Cuzco to learn the Incan customs, and the tribe's religious idols were taken hostage to dissuade the local people from rebelling. When conflicts arose the Incas were likely to remove the troublesome element of the local population and replace it with loyal Inca mitimaes, whose purpose was to set the proper example.

Essential to the Inca empire building was their vast network of roads, which grew to an amazing length of 10,000 miles. The Royal Road was carved out of the mountain walls in the high Andes. Cutting switchbacks to climb mountainsides and at times tunneling through the mountain itself, the road was as narrow as 3 feet in places but stretched from one end of the empire to the other. The coast had a companion highway, wider and straighter, that ran from the southern city of Arequipa to Tumbes in the north. Shorter roads connected these two main ones at periodic intervals spanning the empire. Rest houses called tampus dotted the highways and were spaced about a day's journey apart. Storage spaces were often nearby and contained supplies for the 25,000-member Incan army.

The Incas were also adept at engineering bridges over the many rivers and ravines of their mountainous land, as well as causeways over tracts of swampland. A number of the bridges continued to be used during the Spanish colonial era, including the 250-foot suspension bridge over the Apurimac River, which lasted from 1350 to 1890. The suspension bridges consisted of five braided cables, each a foot thick, made from the fibers of the maguey plant. Three of the cables formed the base of the walkway, the other two were the side rails, and all were attached to beams sunk into piles of rock and earth. Though they swayed in the wind, the bridges were crossed safely by people, pack-laden llamas, and later the Spaniards' horses. Other types of bridges included pontoons of reed boats strapped together and baskets suspended from cables which ferried people and supplies across a ravine.

These roads and bridges were used not only by the army and by pedestrians granted permission by the government, but also by those performing a function essential to maintaining the empirethe messengers known as chasquis. These runners carried oral messages, small packages, or quipus (Incan counting devices made from strings with a series of knots in them) from village to village and from the capital to all parts of the empire. Every mile or two there were two huts, one on either side of the road, which housed runners who would continue the relay on to the next station. This communication system could transmit a message 420 miles from Lima to Cuzco in just three days. This speed was critical for quelling rebellions by conquered peoples.

Also important for Incan military success was their network of fortresses, or pucaras. Constructed on hilltops with views of major valleys, the pucaras had barracks, houses, reservoirs, and a sun temple. When an enemy tribe approached, the Incas of a nearby city would flee to the fortress for protection. Machu Picchu, the most famous of these pucaras, was never found by the Spanish and was only rediscovered by modern explorers in 1911. Machu Picchu had terraces for farming, palaces, and an aqueduct that carried in water from a spring a mile away and channeled it down a series of 16 stone basins. Because the Incas did not use cement to hold their structures together the stones had to be cut with such precision that they would fit together snuglyso close, in fact, that even today a knife blade cannot penetrate the spaces between them.

The Incas relied on a high degree of social stratification and specialization to accomplish their military and organizational feats. Believed to be a direct descendant of the sun, the king was a divine ruler, and he had two classes of nobility serving him. The "Incas by birth," who could claim decent from Manco Capac, made up the Incas' advisory Council of Nobles and were governors and administrators of the empire's provinces. The lower "Incas by privilege" held honorary titles and served as curacas responsible for a specific number of people. Military heroes and the leaders of vanquished tribes often had this status conferred upon them by the ruling Inca.

In 1525, the Inca Huayna Capac died in an epidemic that may have been smallpox or the measles, diseases introduced by the Spanish for which the native population had no immunity. Because the ruler had failed to designate his successor, two of his sons shared the role for a timeAtahualpa ruling the north from Quito and Huáscar the south from Cuzco. But soon tensions broke out between the two and Atahualpa sent his father's army against Huáscar, who was defeated and later killed. This civil war lasted a number of years and severely weakened the empire at an inopportune time, for reports of strange white-faced, bearded men in "sea houses" were brought to the Inca, who thought it best to ignore them and hope they would go away.


In May of 1532, Francisco Pizarro, a Spaniard seeking to conquer land and plunder gold for himself and his king, landed near the coastal city of Tumbes with a force of 180 cavalrymen and foot soldiers. He was aware of the civil war and set out toward the mountain city of Cajamarca, where Atahualpa and 30,000 Incas waited. Apparently, the Inca thought that the foreigners were there to surrender. But when Atahualpa furiously rejected a Spanish priest's offer of a prayerbook and an explanation that Spain now ruled the land, a massacre ensued in which the Spaniards used crossbows, cannons, and muskets to slaughter 2,000 Incas and take their leader prisoner.

Atahualpa tried to ransom himself with the promise of enough gold and silver to fill his cell. For two months works of art made of the precious metals poured in from the surrounding areas and were melted into gold bars, 20 percent going to King Charles I and the remainder to Pizarro and his men. This did not help Atahualpa or the Incas, however, because the invaders feared a rebellion and thought it safer to have the ruler burned at the stake. Atahualpa objected that this would deprive him of proper burial and an afterlife, and so he was given the option of being baptized a Christian and then strangled. The last king of the majestic Incan empire was killed in this manner on August 29, 1533. For a number of years Huáscar's half-brother and his sons battled the Spanish fruitlessly; the last resistor, Topa Amaru, was executed in Cuzco in 1572.

Spain ruled Peru as a viceroyalty for nearly 300 years after the conquest and regarded it more or less as a huge mine that existed to fill the crown's coffers. The Spaniards felt that as a superior culture their customs and particularly the church brought civilized society to the natives. The political and economic system they instituted to carry out their aims, called encomienda, granted soldiers and colonists land and mining permits, as well as the slave labor of the natives. Living and working conditions for the native Peruvians on the farms and especially in the mines were horrendous: hard labor, malnutrition (exacerbated by the Spaniards' introduction of European crops and the elimination of many native ones), and especially diseases wiped out an estimated 90 percent of the pre-conquest native population within a century.

During this colonial period Spain passed legislation attempting to protect the native population, but it was virtually ineffectual. Practices specifically outlawedsuch as debt peonage, where subjects are trapped in an unending cycle of indebtedness for necessities of life which cannot be overcome through their laborwere in reality widespread. The influx of Spaniards taking advantage of these opportunities, as well as 100,000 African slaves, became part of a highly stratified society with European-born Spaniards at the top, Peruvian-born Spaniards (Creoles) next, and the urban working poor, the black slaves, and the indigenous population at the bottom.

In 1780 a descendant of the last Inca took the name Tupac Amaru and led a rebellion by the indigenous population. The rebellion began to gain wider support by condemning the corruption of colonial officials, but promptly lost it with indiscriminate attacks on Spaniards and Creoles. Ultimately, the campaign for independence resulted from conditions outside Peru and had to be led by outsiders. When Napoleon invaded Spain and imprisoned the king in 1808, the vacuum of authority allowed the Creoles in the colonial capitals set up autonomous regimes. Then between 1820 and 1824, José de San Martín and Simón de Bolívar, two generals who had liberated Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, and Colombia from Spanish rule, completed the process by adding Peru to the list. Elected president-for-life, Bolívar attempted to modernize the country by cutting taxes, funding schools, and lifting many of the worst abuses against the indigenous population, but conservative Creole opposition forced him to leave after only two years.


After two decades of chaos, including wars lost to Bolivia, Colombia, and Chile, General Ramón Castilla brought a measure of stability and prosperity to Peru during his control of the country from 1845 to 1862. He exploited the economic benefits of guano, a bird dung collected from islands off the coast of Peru and sold to Europe for fertilizer, as well as desert deposits of sodium nitrate, which was used to make munitions and fertilizer. The general also organized a public school system, built the country's first railroad, ended the tribute tax paid by indigenous people, and abolished slavery, which led to the importation of Chinese laborers.

Peru's defeat by Chile in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), fought over lands with rich nitrate deposits, was a humiliating experience that led many to call for an improvement in the lot of indigenous Peruvians so that they might contribute more fully to the society. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries showed evidence of efforts to modernize the society and economy. Public administration was improved, the armed forces were professionalized, public education was fostered, and modern labor legislation was enacted. These contributed to the conditions that encouraged foreign investment capital in the burgeoning sugar, cotton, copper, and rubber industries. This, in turn, created an urban industrial proletariat and strengthened the middle class.

In the 1930s the Great Depression had a crippling effect on the Peruvian economy as export markets collapsed and foreign loans dried up. This situation seems to have contributed to the rise of a political movement known as the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance (APRA), which was anti-communist but borrowed from the ideologies of Marxism and Italian fascism and advocated agrarian reform, the nationalization of industry, and opposition to U.S. imperialism. APRA's leader, the formerly exiled student organizer Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, never won the presidency, but the party maintained a major presence in the political scene for over 40 years, both through bloody conflicts with the armed forces and through congressional coalitions in the years APRA was not banned.

The Peruvian military had long played a large role in the state, either through generals assuming the presidency or by influencing elections. In 1962, for example, a slight plurality by APRA brought a nullification of the results and the election of Fernando Belaúnde Terry a year later. From 1968 to 1975 General Juan Velasco Alvarado and the Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces ruled in an attempt to create a new and prosperous Peru that was "neither capitalist nor communist." The general forged ties with socialist countries and made Peru a voice for third world interests. He nationalized most of the country's banks, its railroads and utilities, and many foreign corporations.

Central to this effort to control the economy and increase social justice was Velasco's land reform, which was among the most extensive in Latin America. Ninety percent of Peru's farmland had been owned by a landed aristocracy comprising just two percent of the population, so the administration appropriated 25 million acres of this land and distributed it to worker-owned cooperatives and individual families. This failed to achieve the farranging effects hoped, however, in part because of the insufficient amount of arable land relative to the large number of people, and also because of the absence of policies giving the poor a greater share of the benefits.

Civilian rule returned with the reelection of Belaúnde Terry in 1980 after a constituent assembly had drawn up a new constitution. The presidency was transferred peacefully in 1985 to Alan García Perez of the APRA and again in 1990 to Alberto Fujimori, a Peruvian university professor of Japanese decent who won in a run-off against the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. Peru's poor economic performance, including inflation that soared as high as 2800 percent annually, continued to wreak social havoc. After a period of accepting austerity measures as conditions for aid from the International Monetary Fund, under García, Peru declared a severe reduction in the debt payments it would make to foreign investors and nationalized an American oil company, which resulted in a cut-off of needed credit and U.S. aid.

In addition to these economic woes, Peru suffered from social disruption caused by leftist terrorist groups and the governmental response to them. A guerrilla organization founded by university professor Carlos Abimael Guzmán Reynoso and guided by the principles of the Chinese dictator Mao Zedong, the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), specialized in assassination and the use of violent intimidation against the peasants, such as cutting off their fingers to prevent them from voting. In a period of less than 20 years, 30,000 people were killed. The Tupac Amarú movement was another group carrying out equally vicious attacks in Peru's urban areas. The coca harvests, which supplied much of the United States' huge cocaine market, also brought violence as U.S. pressure to destroy crops led to terrorist attacks on local officials by those profiting from the drug trade. In the midst of these social woes, the country's pride received a boost in 1981 when the United Nations elected a Peruvian, Javier Pérez de Cuellar, to a five-year term as Secretary General.

In 1992 President Fujimori responded to these economic and social crises by dissolving the congress and judiciary and consolidating power in a Government of Emergency and National Reconstruction, while promising to submit a revised constitution to a referendum and hold elections at some point in the future. Referred to as an autogolpe, or self-coup, Fujimori's takeover also involved a suspension of civil liberties. These bold moves were well-received by the public, however, and his popularity increased further when Sendero leader Guzmán was captured and the movement's stronghold on certain rural areas, such as Ayacucho, was broken. As of 1994 Fujimori was attempting to improve Peru's standing with international creditors and lending agencies and to lure foreign investment back to the country, but the task remained a daunting one.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Peruvians began immigrating to the United States in small numbers early in the twentieth century, but the vast majority have come since World War II and especially in the last 20 years (when the United States has been the destination for more Peruvians than any other country). Official statistics show a Peruvian population of 162,000 in 1990, but other estimates put the number beyond 300,000. Some of the disparity may have to do with illegal immigrants who were not counted in the former number. It is more clear where the immigrants have settled. The largest concentration, over 80,000, reside in the New York metropolitan areaparticularly in Paterson, New Jersey, and in the New York City borough of Queens. Peruvians are also clustered around the cities of Miami, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.

Peru's social and economic crises are at the root of internal migration from rural areas to the cities, as well as immigration to the United States. Unemployment rates of over 50 percent have left many without a means to earn the basic necessities of life, and others are chronically underemployed. An unstable political climate and especially political violence by terrorist groups have caused many to flee. Peruvians are attracted to the political and economic stability of the United States, the work opportunities, and the chance for their children to go to school and have a better future. A majority of these immigrants have family or acquaintances established in the United States who serve as intermediaries in their transition to a new culture.

In addition to the family, there are social institutions that aid the Peruvians' assimilation to American culture. The Catholic Church is important to newly arrived Peruvians because of its familiarity, the services it often extends in terms of finding work and applying for citizenship, and the opportunity it affords for meeting other Peruvians, including those of a higher social class. Also important is the broader Latino community. Peruvians benefit from sharing a language and many cultural traits with other more established groups. The travel, legal, and labor services that already exist in these communities assist newer immigrants. State social service programs are also available to the most indigent.

Peruvians from the upper class have benefitted economically from their immigration to the United States because on the whole they have been able to transfer their capital and business expertise. They range from owners of factories and large stores to accountants for major banks and corporations to agro-industrial managers. However, this group has faced major obstacles to its assimilation. Although they are well off financially, these Peruvians do not have the economic or particularly the political power they had in Peru. Yet, because of their background, they tend not to identify with the middle-class Americans whose status they share. Many try to compensate by joining relatively exclusive associations that have social gatherings for holidays and weddings.

Middle-class Peruvian immigrants did not arrive in large numbers until the 1970s, when the exodus was led by doctors and engineers. Assimilation has been relatively easy for this group, and consequently they have been labelled the "children of success." Like those from the upper class, they had been familiar with American cultural practices before their arrival. The difference was that these middle-class Peruvians did not lose any prerogatives or privileges. This group tends to maintain a stronger cultural and religious identity through participation in church and other social activities.

Peru's lower classes were the last to take advantage of the opportunities in America and have immigrated in increasing numbers since the mid-1980s. These immigrants have come from positions ranging from low-level bureaucrats to manual laborers. They have had the most difficulty assimilating on account of their tendency to lack formal education, to have a greater difficulty learning English, and to cling more tightly to their home culture. They generally live in areas of urban poverty and have a lot of pressure to send money back to families in Peru. Many in this group have only recently made the transition from rural to urban life in Peru, where they have learned or improved their Spanish in order to come here.


As is the case with the nation's standard of living in general, there is a great disparity between rural and urban health care in Peru. Most health services are located in the cities; residents of Lima have the best access to health care and about 60 percent of the country's hospital beds. Only about one-third of the rural population sees a doctor even once a year. Part of this is owed to the fact that many in Peru's indigenous population are superstitious and reluctant to use Western medicine, preferring instead home remedies and in some cases even ritual magic. Respiratory diseases are common, and many diseases are spread through parasites and infection. The infant mortality rate in Peru is very high84 per 1,000 live birthsand the life expectancy of 61 for men and 65 for women is low.

A major medical catastrophe struck Peru in 1991 when an epidemic of cholera broke out. A result of dismal or nonexistent sanitation systems that left the vast majority of rural residents without clean drinking water, the cholera spread quickly to over 50,000 people and killed hundreds. Health officials estimate that only five percent of those living in rural areas have access to potable water, and in the cities the figure is a still dangerous 80 percent.


Spanish has been Peru's official language since the Spanish conquest. Approximately 80 percent of all Peruvians speak Spanish today, including some who also speak one of the indigenous languages, Quechua ("KESH-wah") or Aymará. A language that grew out of the Latin brought to Spain by conquering Romans, Spanish has a vocabulary and structure similar to other Romance languages, such as French and especially Italian. Its alphabet generally overlaps with that of English and contains 28 letters: "k" and "w" occur only in words of foreign origin, and additional letters are "ch" (as in "chest"), "ll" (generally pronounced like the English "y"), "ñ" (like the "ny" in "canyon," which comes from the Spanish cañón ), and "rr" (a rolled "r" sound). The "b" and "v" are interchangeable in Spanish and are a bit softer than an English "b." The "h" is silent, and the "d" can have a soft "th" sound within a word. Spanish vowels have one primary sound, making spelling and pronunciation on sight much easier than in English: "i" (as in "feet"), "e" (as in "they"), "a" (as in "hot"), "o" (as in "low"), "u" (as in "rude"). Words ending in a vowel, "n" or "s" are accented on the next-to-last syllable, those ending in other consonants have stress on the last syllable, and any exceptions require an accent mark.

Some common greetings and expressions include the following: hola hello; buenos días hello, good day; buenas tardes good afternoon; buenas noches good night; como está usted how are you?; adiós good-bye; hasta mañana good-bye (literally "until tomorrow"); hasta luego good-bye (literally "until later"); por favor please; grácias thank you; feliz navidad Merry Christmas.

When San Martín issued proclamations declaring Peru's independence in 1821, he used both Spanish and Quechua (the Incan language, also known as Runasimi) and made both official languages. Bolívar, however, did not favor Quechua, and thereafter Peruvian governments ignored the language, hoping it would die out. This changed in 1975 when, in an effort to promote cultural pride among the indigenous population as a means to increasing their stake in Peruvian society, the military government declared Quechua an official language along with Spanish. Today Quechua is the most widely spoken of any Native American language, with perhaps seven million speakers in South America. Though there is a social stigma attached to the language because virtually all of its Peruvian speakers are members of the underclass, still the two million Peruvian highlanders who speak only Quechua are proud of their linguistic and cultural heritage and have resisted the forces of Europeanization.

These are a few Quechua expressions: allillanchu ("ah-yee-YAN-choo")how are you?; allinmi ("ah-YEEN-me")I'm fine; maymantam ("my-MON-tom")where are you from?; imatam sutiyki ("ee-MAH-tom soo-TEE-kee")what is your name? The English word "jerky" comes from the Quechua word for dried meat, charki, and the Spanish coca plant, which is the source of cocaine, gets its name from the Quechua word kuka.

A smaller number of Peru's indigenous highlanders, probably about half a million, speak Aymará, the language of a tribe conquered by the Incas. Also, in the rainforests of eastern Peru the 40 or so tribes speak a number of ancient tribal languages.

Family and Community Dynamics

Approximately 45 percent of Peruvians today are descendants of Peru's indigenous population, often referred to as Indian, while about 43 percent are mestizos, people of mixed indigenous and Spanish heritage. Another ten percent are of unmixed European ancestry, almost all Spanish. The blacks who are descendants of the slaves from Africa, and those whose ancestors were imported Chinese and Japanese laborers, together make up less than two percent of the population.

Spanish colonization left a legacy of social stratification that is for the most part unbroken today. Traditionally, the small Spanish upper class ruled the native and mestizo underclass. In the twentieth century a middle class of whites and some mestizos has developed, but most mestizos and almost all of the indigenous population belong to the underclass.

About half of Peru's whites belong to the elite class that runs the country's political and economic affairs. They speak Spanish and dress much like their counterparts in the rest of the Western world. Family ties are particularly important for this group because they help maintain their powerful status in the society. Whites seldom associate with people from other classes, and their children usually marry into other upper-class families. Most of these families live in the prosperous areas of Lima and the other major cities. Most of Peru's upper- and middle-class families have a varied diet consisting of meat, fish, poultry, vegetables, and cereal products. Main dishes are heavily seasoned with onions and hot peppers. Most main dishes are accompanied by rice, potatoes, and bread.

The mestizos also generally speak Spanish and dress according to Western styles. They are the group that has had the closest relations with the ruling elite, such as when they would be hired by the whites to supervise native workers in mines or on plantations. As the middle class has grown the mestizos have found other avenues for advancement, such as going to college and becoming involved in government, business, the military, and various other professions. These opportunities have not been enough, however, to raise a majority out of the underclass.

Peru's indigenous population lives predominately in the rural highlands, the coast, and the selva. The people are nearly all poor and lack formal education. They subsist mainly through farming and cling tenaciously to their culture. While the young often wear Western-style clothing, the older Peruvians wear more traditional handwoven garments such as ponchos and sandals. Traditional costumes are increasingly saved for special ceremonial occasions. Rural Peruvians live mainly by agriculture. On the Pacific Coast they grow rice, cotton, sugar cane, and barley for sale. Maize and rice are the food crops along with grapes, olives, and oranges. The coastal dwellers also catch pilchard and white fish. In the highlands the staple crops are maize, potatoes, barley, and wheat. The diet of the poorest Peruvians is a fairly monotonous one and often lacks complete nutritional valuepotatoes, beans, corn, squash, wheat or barley soups, and occasionally fish. The highland population frequently chews the leaves of the coca plant to suppress appetite and fatigue.

All social classes and ethnicities in Peru place a great deal of emphasis on family, often extending it to include distant relatives and godparents. Frequently chosen from a superior social class, godparents are sponsors at baptisms and other rites of passage, and this relationship maintains bonds of mutual assistance between the sponsors and the child's family. Peruvian social life often revolves around the extended family, especially among the indigenous Peruvians, who may have few important social ties beyond the family. The extended family commonly serves an economic function, as well, with members working together and pooling their resources. The nuclear family tends to be male dominated, and fathers have great authority over the children even into adulthood.

Though the indigenous families tend to be less patriarchal than white and mestizo families, there, too, the husbands dominate the household. Particularly in the shantytowns around the large urban centers, known as the pueblos jóvenes (young towns), harsh economic conditions result in mestizo families that are more fragile than elsewhere. Many marriages among this population consist of consensual unions rather than legal marriages.


Peru has made great strides this century in educating its people. Education's share of the national budget rose from three percent in 1900 to over 30 percent in the 1960s, and school enrollment increased at double the rate of population growth. The literacy rate of those over 15 years of age is 87 percent, one of the highest in Latin America. Education is free and compulsory between the ages of six and 15. However, the vast majority of the uneducated are those in rural areas where there often are not enough schools and teachers. Great disparities also exist between the sexes in terms of the quality and number of years of education. Most middle- and upper-class students attend private schools in the cities.

Peru has more than 30 national universities, though most of them are relatively new and of lesser quality. They also tend to be very political, engendering student radicals on campus. However, San Marcos University in Lima is the country's most prestigious public university and South America's oldest, having been chartered in 1551. The National Engineering University, the National Agrarian University, and the Superior School for Business Administration are also highly regarded. The elite sectors of society tend to favor private universities, such as Lima's Catholic University, because they are less political. Peru's important research centers include the Institute of the Sea and the International Potato Center.


Peru's constitution guarantees freedom of religion. About 95 percent of Peru's population is at least nominally Roman Catholic, a legacy of the church's deep-rooted involvement in the country's affairs since the Spanish conquest. The state supports the church through an annual grant, and the president is involved in the selection of its hierarchy. There are also small numbers of Protestants, Jews, and Buddhists; they comprise only about one percent of the population.

There is a wide range of religious commitment, and women tend to be far more devout than men. Agnosticism is common in the cities, especially among intellectuals. Despite this, Catholicism is firmly woven into Peruvian culture. The Catholic religion is taught in public schools throughout the country, and fiestas corresponding to Church holidays are among the most important social events of the year, even in larger cities. A list of national holidays reveals religion's prominence: New Year's Day (January 1), Holy Thursday and Good Friday (variable), Labor Day (May 1), Day of the Peasant (June 24), St. Peter and St. Paul's Day (June 29), Independence Day (July 28 and 29), St. Rose of Lima, patroness of Peru (August 30), Battle of Anzamos (October 8), All Saints' Day (November 1), Immaculate Conception (December 8), and Christmas Day (December 25).

While middle-class Peruvians tend to be strict in their religious beliefs and adherence to ritual, further down the social scale one finds an increasing tendency to blend elements of superstition, folk religion (including the worship of Incan gods), and magic with formal Catholicism. Many of the beliefs and practices of ancient Peru persist in this form. A number of local shrines and icons that have survived earthquakes or other natural disasters are revered as evidence of miracles or divine intervention.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Peru's economy is hampered by the inefficiency and obsolescence of many of its structures. In each of the major areas of the economy there are a few productive modern enterprises outnumbered by inefficient traditional counterparts. The modern units of the economy employ about one-third of the work force but are responsible for about two-thirds of the nation's income. The modern sectors also support Peru's politically powerful middle class and its militant labor unions. Another duality in the economy exists between low-income subsistence agriculture in the sierra, and the wealth produced on the large, productive farms of the coast, in off-shore fisheries, and in the city of Lima. Few jobs are available to the more than 200,000 people who enter Peru's work force each year, with the result that fewer than half of the country's workers are fully employed.

Approximately 42 percent of the Peruvian work force is employed in agriculture, fishing, or forestry, though these sectors represent only 14 percent of the national income. Manufacturing, mining, and construction employ 18 percent of workers and generate 38 percent of the gross national product. The service sector (which includes Lima's 200,000 street vendors) employs 40 percent of Peru's workers and contributes 48 percent of the nation's income.

Peru is a net exporter of raw materials and unfinished products and a net importer of manufactured products. It also has to import much of its food because domestic production is inadequate and because transportation is severely limited by the small percentage of roads that are paved. The leading exports are petroleum, copper, silver, zinc, lead, fishmeal, and coffee. Cocaine exports are not part of official figures, but they are estimated to bring in as much foreign currencyalmost all U.S. dollarsas petroleum and copper combined. The United States is Peru's largest trading partner, buying one-third of its legal exports and supplying about 40 percent of its imported goods. Japan and Germany are also major trading partners.

Politics and Government

Peru's 1979 constitution was the first in its history to extend the right to vote to all citizens aged 18 and over without any literacy requirement, and voting was made obligatory up to age 60. The people elect the president and two vice-presidents to five-year terms, though the president may not be reelected to a consecutive term. Since 1985 a presidential candidate must get at least 50 percent of the vote or else a run-off ensues between the top three candidates. The president heads the executive department, which carries out government operations through a cabinet led by a presidentially appointed premier.

The Peruvian legislature is made up of a 60-member Senate and a 180-member Chamber of Deputies, all of whom are elected to five-year terms concurrent with the president's. The congress convenes twice a year, from April 1 to May 31 and from July 27 to December 15, and either house may initiate legislation. The president reviews legislation but has no veto power. The judicial branch consists of judges appointed by the president to terms that end at age 70. The 16 justices of Peru's highest court, the Supreme Court in Lima, are selected by the president from a list submitted by the National Justice Council.

Peru's governments have been highly centralized since Incan times, and this is still true today. There are 24 political departments plus the constitutional province of Callao. Each department is divided into provinces, which are further divided into districts. The departments and provinces are headed by prefects appointed by the president to carry out the policies dictated by the central government. The people elect local councils to govern their districts and municipalities.

At the end of 1994 President Alberto Fujimori still ruled with the virtually dictatorial powers assumed in his 1992 presidential coup, in which he suspended the congress and judiciary, ostensibly to deal more forcefully with Peru's economic and political instability. Elections were scheduled for 1995 to determine the status of the constitution and the future of the country.

Individual and Group Contributions

Peruvian Americans have contributed to American society in various waysfrom the large numbers of doctors and other medical specialists, to those in education and business, to those who provide manual labor or child care. The following is a sample of Peruvian Americans who have achieved recognition in their field.


Carlos Llerena Aguirre (1952 ) is an artist and educator born in Arequipa, Peru. He received a bachelor of arts degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York City in 1979, a master's from Hunter College in 1982, and a master's of fine arts from the University of Illinois in 1994. He was an instructor at the School of Visual Arts and has been an associate professor at the University of Illinois since 1989. He is a member of the Society of Newspaper Designers and has had exhibitions of his woodcuts and engravings in Urbana, Illinois, Lima, Norway, and London.

Isaac Goldenberg (1945 ) is a poet and novelist living in New York City. Born in Peru, he is the co-director of the Instituto de Escritores Latinoamerican in New York as well as the Latin American book fair. Isaac was a New York State Council of the Arts Writer in Residence in 1987-1988. His books include La Vida Contado (1992), Tiempo al Tiempo (1984), and La Vida a Plazos de Jacobo Lerner (1980).

Luís John Kong (1956 ) maintains various roles as poet, arts administrator, and TV and radio producer. Born in Pisco, Peru, he attended college in California, receiving a B.A. in English and biology from Sonoma State University in 1982. He directed the university's intercultural center and was a producer/programmer for a bilingual public radio program. Most recently Kong has served as poet, teacher, and consultant for the California Poets in the Schools program. He received the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Silver Award for his production "En Camino" in 1989.


Virginia Patricia Rebata (1953 ) is a business executive with the Marriott Corporation. Born in Lima, she graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a B.A. in 1975 and received an M.P.A. from California State University, Hayward, in 1980. Virginia served as youth employment services director for the San Mateo (California) County Board of Education before going to work for Marriott as director of Human Resource Field Programs and Services in 1992. She established the first English as a Second Language program for Hispanics at Marriott's headquarters and received the National Alliance for Business President's Award in 1989.


Maria Azucena Arbulu (1956 ) is an official in the Michigan state government. She was born in Pueblo, Colorado, and got her B.A. at Oberlin in 1978 and her M.A. in 1984 at the American Graduate School of International Management. She worked for the Detroit Board of Education and the Motorola Corporation before taking a position as international trade specialist with the state of Michigan. She now serves as the state's trade officer for Canadian operations.


Pedro M. Valdivieso (1932 ) is the editor of the paper Actualidad in Los Angeles. He was born in Piura, Peru, and studied journalism and public relations at San Marcos University and Lima University, respectively. He edited newspapers in Lima before moving to the United States and editing Noticias del Mundo (Los Angeles) and El Diario de Los Angeles. Valdivieso has reported for Channel 34 TV in Los Angeles and is a member of the Association of Journalists in the Spanish Language and the Federation of Journalists from Peru.


César Rodríguez (1945 ) is a university librarian born in Callao, Peru. He received a B.A. from Queens College in New York City in 1970 and an M.A. from Columbia University in 1983. He was the Yale University Social Science Library's acquisition librarian from 1976 to 1986, after which he became the curator of the library's Latin American collection. Rodríguez is a member of the Latin American Studies Association and a contributor to a number of Latin American bibliographies. He served as a corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam from 1965 to 1969 and received three medals.


Graciela Solís Alarcón (1942 ) is a physician and educator originally from Chachapoyas, Peru. She earned her M.D. in Peru in 1967 and an M.P.H. from Johns Hopkins University in 1972. She did her residency in Baltimore and in Peru and has been a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham since 1980. She is a member of the American College of Rheumatology and the American College of Physicians and has authored a number of articles in her field.

Carlos Castaneda (sometimes Castañeda) is perhaps the best known Peruvian American. While attempting a thesis on medicinal plants for the University of California, Los Angeles, in the late 1960s, he met a Yaqui (Mexican) brujo, or medicine man, living in Arizona and became heavily influenced by his way of life. Carlos began a series of best-selling books based on these experiences, beginning with The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge in 1976. The books relate a hallucinogeninduced search for a non-rational reality and an attempt to become a Yaqui warrior. The author considered them anthropological field studies, and indeed they served as his master's and doctoral theses, though critics within the field of anthropology say they are more properly regarded as fiction. While Castaneda seems to be purposely elusive regarding his biographical details, he is thought to have been born in Cajamarca, Peru, in 1925. He received his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from UCLA in 1962, 1964, and 1973, respectively.


Jaime A. Fernandez-Baca (1954 ) is a physicist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He earned his B.S. in Lima in 1977 before coming to the United States for a M.Sc. and Ph.D. at the University of Maryland (1982 and 1986). Fernandez-Baca has done his research at the Instituto de Energia Nuclear in Peru and at the University of Maryland. He was awarded a fellowship by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1977 and has published numerous technical articles.




Scholarly journal covering Latin American literature.

Contact: David William Foster, Editor.

Address: College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia 23187-8795.

El Diario/La Prensa.

Founded in 1913, this Spanish-language daily has a circulation of 67,000 and includes coverage of Peru in its international pages.

Contact: Carlos D. Ramirez, Publisher.

Address: 143-155 Varick Street, New York, New York 10013.

Telephone: (212) 807-4600.

Fax: (212) 807-4617.

El Nuevo Herald.

This Spanish-language daily includes Peru in its coverage of South America. It was founded in 1976 and has a circulation of 98,000.

Contact: Barbara Gutierrez, Editor.

Address: Hometown Herald, 1520 East Sunrise Boulevard, Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33304.

Telephone: (954) 527-8940.

Fax: (954) 527-8955.


WADO-AM (1280).

"Perú Cerca de Ti" (Peru Near You), a magazine type program featuring music, news, and tourism information related to Peru, airs on Saturdays from 7:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.

Address: 666 Third Avenue, New York, New York 10017.

Telephone: (212) 687-9236.

Fax: (212) 599-2161.

Organizations and Associations

Great Lakes Peruvian Club.

Contact: Victor Figueroa.

Address: 8752 Lilac Lane, Berrien Springs, Michigan 49103-1445.

Movimiento Popular Peru.

Founded in 1980. Provides research, informational, and educational programs. Publishes The New Flag (La Nueva Bandera ), a free bimonthly newsletter.

Address: 30-08 Broadway, Suite 159, Long Island City, New York 11106.

E-mail: [email protected].

The Peruvian-American Medical Society.

This professional organization of Peruvian American doctors raises money for equipment needed by Peruvian hospitals.

Address: 313 Heathcote Avenue, Mamaroneck, New York 10543.

Telephone: (914) 381-2001.

Museums and Research Centers

American Museum of Natural History.

This New York City landmark museum has a wing dedicated to South American peoples that features Peruvian civilizations, especially the Incas.

Address: Central Park West at 79th Street, New York, New York 10024.

Telephone: (212) 769-5100.


University of California, Berkeley.

The Center for Latin American Studies, founded in 1956, incorporates social science and the humanities in its scope. It gives particular emphasis to the native populations of South America.

Contact: Harley Shaiken, Director.

Address: 2334 Bowditch, Berkeley, California 94720-2312.

Telephone: (510) 642-2088.

Fax: (510) 642-3260.

E-mail: [email protected].


University of California, Los Angeles.

Founded in 1959, the Latin American Center coordinates research on the region's socio-politics, environment, technology, literature, and arts.

Contact: Dr. Carlos Alberto Torres, Director.

Address: 405 Hilgard Avenue, Los Angeles, California 90095-1447.

Telephone: (310) 825-4571.

Fax: (310) 206-6859.

E-mail: [email protected].


University of Florida, Gainesville.

The Institute for Latin American Studies was founded in 1931. It features studies in the humanities and social sciences and has a project on Aymará language and culture.

Contact: Dr. Charles H. Wood, Director.

Address: 304 Grintner Hall, P.O. Box 115531, Gainesville, Florida 32611-5531.

Telephone: (352) 392-6548.

Fax: (352) 392-7682.

E-mail: [email protected].


Sources for Additional Study

Arden, Harvey. "The Two Souls of Peru," National Geographic, March 1982; pp. 284-321.

Blassingame, Wyatt. The Incas and the Spanish Conquest. New York: Julian Messner, 1980.

De Ferrari, Gabriella. Gringa Latina: A Woman of Two Worlds. Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996.

Dostert, Pierre Etienne. Latin America 1994. Washington, D.C.: Stryker-Post Publications, 1994.

Martín, Luis. The Kingdom of the Sun: A Short History of Peru. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974.

Monaghan, Jay. Chile, Peru, and the California Gold Rush of 1849. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

The Peru Reader: History, Culture, Politics, edited by Orin Starn, Carlos Iván Degregori, and Robin Kirk. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.

Stavans, Ilan. "Two Peruvians: How a Novelist and a Terrorist Came to Represent Peru's Divided Soul," Utne Reader, July/August 1994; pp. 96-102.

Werlich, David P. Peru: A Short History. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.

Wright, Ronald. Cut Stones and Crossroads: A Journey in the Two Worlds of Peru. New York: Viking Press, 1984.