Where are the black Peruvians? It is the beginning of the third day of the HASTAC 2014 conference and we have yet to hear from perhaps the most marginalized ethnic population in Peru: Afro-Peruvians. Forming between 3-5% of the population, Afro-Peruvians face historical disrimination and unequal access to government services, political power, and upward economic mobility. Their histories are not often represented in popular images of Peruvian culture, and as a result many foreigners never learn about Peru's history of slavery and the contributions of Afro-descendants to the Peruvian nation. But, if I can help it, this unintentional, collective "forgetting" will not be the case for participants of HASTAC's 2014 Conference; the conference is taking place at the Ministry of Culture in Lima, Peru. Yesterday, I skipped the afternoon panels to find out how the Peruvian Ministry of Culture has addressed the problems facing Peruvians of African descent.
In June of 2013, the Ministry of Culture formed a new branch over Afro-Peruvian Policy. This branch has operated as a structured group for eight months and is a parallel group to two other sections of the ministry, the Directive on Indigenous Policy and the directive on Policy Against Racism in the country. For about an hour during the afternoon, I had the great priveledge of meeting with members of the Ministry of Culture's Afro-Peruvian Policy team, Oswaldo Bilbao, Ana Lucía Mosquera Rosado, and Owan Lay González, who discussed their work and the challenges facing the Afro-Peruvian community.
Although the numbers are estimates, the team stated that there are about 300,000 Afro-Peruvians in the country. Afro-Peruvians reside mostly in coastal regions and in areas where large haciendas (planations) were formed during the colonial age. There are about 900 small communities where Afro-Peruvians have historically lived. Currently, the team is working to map these communities. It is a tough task since they are not able to visit every town, and thus rely on community leaders' knowlege, known familial networks, and the oral record. Another challenge of this work, is that there are no protected territories for Afro-Peruvians like there are for Indigenous populations across the Andean region. Although Afro-Peruvians benefitted from the agricultural reforms of the 1970s when poor campesinos were granted land, they have slowly been losing this land because of their impoverised state. Oswaldo Bilbao explained that poverty has forced many Afro-Peruvians to sell their land and thus they have returned to a share-cropper status. "Someone else owns the land," he said, "and you work it." These conditions have accelerated migration and the disintegration of traditional communities, making the mapping of Afro-Peruvian populations all the more difficult.
Like in other countries across Latin America, black consciousness is another issue that makes it difficult to estimate the Afro-Peruvian population and limits policy change. "We can not speak of a [black] movement" said Bilbao. "Everyone thinks diferently. Everyone self-identifies differently...We are not like the United States. For example, here black and indigenous people mix and people choose what side they want to identify with." He explained to me that his neices are mixed and have African and Indigenous heritage, and they claim to be black. He then said, "but there are people who are darker than me who say 'I am not black.'" Ana Luísa Mosquera Rosado agreed and added, "Everything depends on the census. That is how we get policy changed, but people have to self-identify." The team also pointed out that other challenges inhibit collaboration among those who do self-identify as Afro-Peruvian. People work isolated from one another. They do not have the same goals and objects, and they do not have the resources. Bilbao explained that most people who work on Afro-Peruvian issues have jobs and can not dedicate all of their time and energy to the cause.
Despite these challenges, the team is working to enact change in Afro-Peruvian communities. I asked them "What is the process of identifying Afro-Peruvian communities, learning their needs and then implementing policy?" Owan Lay González explained that the team is in the middle of conducting a large survey of the Afro-Peruvian population. The survey is funded by the Ford Foundation, the International Development Bank, and the World Bank, and will be published in June of this year. It will also be made accesible online. González shared a version of the survey with me. The document is about 30 pages long, and I was told that it takes each family 1.5-2 hours to complete. Needless to say, the study is intense. The questions range in theme from access to water and electricity to migration and intra-familial violence. The team will use the results of the survey to create developmental policy and community projects over the next two to three years. In this way, the survey will help them to identify and address the most pressing issues facing the Afro-Peruvian community. González also said that over the next few months the diretive will be hosting a number of seminars to debate relevant issues pertinent to the Afro-Peruvian population and to raise consciousness.
So, what are the biggest challenges facing the Afro-Peruvian population? "Education!" said Bilbao and Mosquera Rosado together. "This is the biggest issue because there are so few [AfroPeruvians] that graduate from college." Less than 1% of Afro Peruvians, I learned, go to university and even less grauduate. It is a matter of costs and access. "Beginning in the 1990s, there was an effort to privatize education," Bilbao explained. Privatizing the education system meant that the Peruvian population had to pay for higher-quality education. Since Afro-Peruvians traditionally are found among the country's poorest populations, they have little resources to pay for private education. Another problem is distance. The best schools are in the cities, far from where Afro-Peruvians traditionally reside. Bilbao explained that the most effective way to increase social mobility is to educate the Afro-Peruvian population. Yet, social marginalization means that Afro-Peruvian history and culture is undervalued, and policies that would grant better access to education, like affirmative action, are highly controversial.
At a time when we are reaching across boarders to rethink the future of higher education, we must take into account the challenges that limit access to edcuation for marginalized groups like Afro-Peruvians. We also must include marginalized groups in the discussions. Working across borders is not just a matter of traveling outside of the United States to host a conference. It is also a matter of breaking traditions in social structure. The "Who" question matters. Who gets to direct the future of higher education, health care, development programs, etc.? The Peruvian Ministry of Culture has begun to make imortant structural changes in order to address the plight of Afro-Peruvians and integrate Afro-Peruvian leaders in the conversation on how to change society for the better. The challenges are overwhelming, but the promise of change and the potential for making an impact are inspiring. As we near the end of the HASTAC 2014 conference, let's remember that our discussions and our sharing of innovative practices are only one part of a broader movement to change society for the better. Through them and through our collective action, we have the potential to make a real impact on communities that seemed far removed from our lives, although they are actually quite close.