Incas, Quechuas, Aymaras, Negroes & gringos

Cajamarca is a city of historical importance to Peru, because of the battle against the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, which resulted in the capture and murder of the Inca Emperor Atahualpa. Pizarro managed to defeat 80.000 men with only 106 foot-soldiers and 62 horsemen, with a horrifying massacre as a result. As a matter of fact, as they were so completely outnumbered, the emperor didn’t consider the Spaniards as a real threat and failed to take any kind of measures in order to defend himself.

After being made a prisoner, in order to escape the death sentence, Atahualpa offered the Spaniards to fill a large room once with gold and twice with silver within two months. He did keep his promise but was brought to trial and executed anyway. This marked the end of the Inca Empire, in 1533.

Inca emperor Atahualpa.
Inca emperor Atahualpa.

The Incas had conquered the area around Cajamarca between 1463 and 1471. This means that they ruled there for less than a century. When talking with Herbert, he explained that, as an architecture professor at the local university, he tried to teach his students to get away from trapezoidal shaped doors and windows, which are often used as an attribute of their identity, as a reference to the Inca temples. Brand marking an own style is important but Peruvians have an older history and other symbols they can bring up to differentiate themselves.

During my rather short stay in Peru, it appeared to me that this country, as many other South American countries, was struggling with the definition of its identity. The immense cultural diversity, which should, in my opinion, be regarded as a richness and an opportunity, is often considered a problem.

Mention Peru to any European and the first – and maybe only – thing that will come to his mind are the Incas and Machupicchu. I have to admit that, although it was one of the factors through which I was attracted to South America, I ignored how much Peru was confronted with this reality. Until now, I had considered Colombia as the most representative country for pluriculturalism in the sub continent. According to Wikipedia, 47% of the population in Peru is a mix of European and indigenous ancestors. One third is still purely indigenous (Quechua and Aymara, amongst others) and the rest is a combination of white, black and Asians. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to grasp the complexity of this reality to the full but, as said, the Peruvian society has a hard time defining itself and discrimination is still a pre-eminent problem. But prejudice is not only based on race. It is also – and, from what I sensed, foremost – based on social class, with a strong rejection, in the cities, of the rural population. On the other hand, I noticed there is a sensitivity that is very different from the one I am used to with regards to the use of some words, that, as a matter of fact, should be quite insignificant. In Europe, it is not politically correct, no to say offensive, to designate someone with the colour of his skin. In South America, they call someone “negro” without having the intention to denigrate the person who they are talking to. In the end, words are just that. Words. What really counts is the intention of the person who speaks them I just had to get used to it, making abstraction of my own frame of references, the same way I did when Colombians were calling me “hermosa”.

Machupicchu, Peru's most famous view.
Machupicchu, Peru’s most famous view.

So far for the theory. In practice, I never got used to, I never liked, to be called “gringa”, the feminine of “gringo”, which designs the inhabitants of the United States – from “green go”, as a reference to the green uniform of the US army during the Mexican revolution. With “green go”, the Mexicans were asking the North Americans to leave – and, by extension, is used for any Westerner. Other than with “negro”, “gringo” is often used in a disparaging way. And always gave me the feeling of “not belonging”. Everyone should be confronted with it at least once. If for nothing else, at least to develop some empathy and understand how it feels to be rejected.

I am probably taking the risk of over simplifying the whole situation but this is as much as I could understand – and feel. More than an analysis, this is foremost an account of how I perceived things with my own senses. What I also sensed, is that they have a strong “Latin American” feeling of belonging. A sense of unity and brotherhood that, in Europe, is only starting to germinate, mainly amongst younger people and thanks to the Erasmus exchange programme between the universities of the continent. Although they do have their local issues as well. But sharing a same language does help to keep them close to each other. As is the case with the U.S. With 27 official languages – and many more regional tongues – Europe, from that point of view, is much more complex.

Brussels, however, the capital of Europe, has made its pluriculturalism a symbol, which takes the form of a mutt. A “zinneke” in Brusseleir, the local language of Brussels. Its multi-ethnicity is quite new compared to South America, but the city has clearly decided to make it one of its assets. There is still a gap between wish and reality but it is certainly the right way to go. Every two years since 2000, when Brussels was the European Capital of Culture, there is even an event called “Zinneke Parade”. Its objective is to showcase the multicultural richness of Brussels neighbourhoods and restore connection between its fragmented districts.

I guess that, today, there are still many challenges to overcome to achieve multicultural societies and however complicated it sometimes is, as highlighted right now with the terrorist attacks in Paris and the stigmatisation of the Muslims, I am still confident that it can be done. I don’t think we have much of a choice anyway. Heterogeneous populations are a thing of the past. If they ever existed.


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