Yo Soy Negro: Blackness in Peru
University Press of Florida - 2011 Tanya Golash-Boza, PhDIntroduction
It was a typically hot September afternoon in Ingenio de Buenos Aires, a small village in northernPeru. The Ingenio soccer team had won a match with the neighboring village. The losing team hadgone back to their village, and a few men from Ingenio gathered around in a circle, passing a pitcherof
(corn beer) and a
(gourd) from one person to the next. Sitting on a bench near them, Isaw one of the men pour the dregs from his gourd, wipe his mouth with his sleeve, and declareloudly “yo soy negro” (I am black).
This caught my attention, and when the men invited me to sit with them, I joined them. When I introduced myself, I told them I was visiting from the UnitedStates and was conducting research on the people and history of Ingenio. They offered suggestionsof people I should talk to who would be able to tell me more about the history of the town.Don Esteban, the man who had declared “yo soy negro,” asked me if there was racism in theUnited States, and if it was true that, in the United States, blacks lived separately from whites. Istarted explaining segregation patterns in U.S. cities when another man, Don Isaac, interrupted meto tell me about racism in Peru. He said that, in his country, whites regard blacks as lesser andundesirable, and that racism is a problem.Our conversation turned quickly to romance and to the fact that, although racism exists,people often marry across color lines in Peru. Don Esteban said that, when he was younger, he wondered how anyone would want to be with him, a black man. He and Don Isaac agreed that they both had desired white partners. Don Isaac said he wanted a white partner so that his children wouldn’t be as dark as him. Don Esteban also pointed out that “opposites attract.” They concurredthat it was better for darker-skinned people to seek out lighter partners. This conversation about race, color, and racism was one of many such discussions I wouldhave in Ingenio while conducting ethnographic research there between 2002 and 2007. Thepreference for lighter-skinned partners in intimate relationships was a common theme in theseexchanges. Despite this preference, people in Ingenio did not hesitate to call themselves or othersblack. I often heard people claim the label
(black), as Don Esteban did. I also heard people usethe label as an insult in some situations, as for instance, when one woman called another a “filthy black” in a heated discussion over who had the right to build a house in the center of town. On