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(Anna Seward)– I haven’t visited Peru in more than six years. Usually my father can’t get away from summer projects so my mother and I go alone for a few weeks on a vacation uncomfortably situated somewhere between tourism and homecoming. Uncomfortable for me now, anyway. I remember as a child quickly making friends with the other children in my grandmother’s housing complex and drawing all over the outside courtyard in chalk. My grandmother, my mother, and I tended to the cacti and other plants outside and went to the market for exotic fruits and I played with the various hand-made dolls scattered around the house when company came over. Lima reminds me of my childhood more than anything else.
When I started school, I made an announcement to my parents: I will only speak English. I don’t remember deciding this or what exactly my motivations were. My maternal grandparents had lived with us until I went to kindergarten, so Spanish was just as natural to me as English was. My mother thinks I made the decision to drop Spanish because of the confusion our trilingual household caused. My parents met while they were doing graduate programs in Brazil, so they spoke to each other in Portuguese, my father spoke to me in English, my mother in Spanish. I wonder if I would have felt more connected to my Peruvian side if I had continued to speak Spanish; if I would have responded differently to my father in a home video when he asked me about it. I was eight years old when I looked into a camera and said, “I don’t feel Peruvian at all.”
Around that time my mother’s close family moved to Portland, Oregon; specifically a mile down the street. It wasn’t the same as when my grandparents lived in our own house, obviously, but I started to feel less divided about my identity. Even though the language wasn’t there, Peru was a part of where I came from. It was everywhere, in the food I ate, the clothes I wore, even the way our house was decorated. It wasn’t until senior year of high school that I felt like my ethnicity was something I had to justify. With college applications looming, everyone seemed to take a sudden interest on what racial box I would check. Girls like Abigail Fisher said “I mean, sure you’re technically half Peruvian… but, like, really you’re white.”
I started lying about my Spanish fluency. I exaggerated how long I had spent in the country. It was the only way to get people off my back about telling the truth on a piece of paper, but it also felt like a performance. The Supreme Court ruled in Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003 that colleges had a right to admit a diverse class, nearly every teacher or counselor I spoke to told me I had every right to mark “mixed race, Hispanic and white” on my application; but in some ways the damage was already done. I felt like I’d used my ethnicity, but to ignore it would’ve been worse.
Like I said, I haven’t visited Peru in six years. I got a grant to do so this summer to do background research on my thesis, a series of short stories on women in families and friendships. I don’t want this article to come across as a “poor little white girl” post. There is no “reverse racism” going on here. Even in Peru where my white skin does set me apart, it still puts me into a privileged category. When Pizarro defeated the Incan civilization and brought colonialism to Peru in the 1500’s he also forever changed the racial demographic. Like in many Caribbean countries, there were many degrees of “mixed race” that each had their own social status. Peruvians now range from very dark to very light. Skin color and race are much more discussed in Peru, but also much more nuanced. My mother’s friend gave me several colorful bracelets at the end of our trip and said when she went to shop for me, the shopkeeper had said bright colors look beautiful on blanquitas (white girls).
I stayed in Lima for two weeks with my mother this time around. We skipped the usual Machu Picchu 3-day tourist trip to see Huancayo, where her two cousins lived with her families. I had tried to study Spanish before we left, but the language barrier was hard. Still, everyone was incredibly welcoming and I felt so much more comfortable there, at a forty-person family Pachamanca lunch (a feast of meats and potatoes prepared in an earth oven and warmed by coals), than I did trying to figure out how “tourist-y” I should be in Lima. Ultimately, I settled for a foodie journey of sorts. I ate dinner at Chifa Chung Yion in Barranco that is supposed to serve the best Chifa (a unique Chinese-Peruvian blend) in Lima, I had a meal at Chez Wong of Anthony Bourdain fame and had superb ceviche practically hidden behind a normal residential edifice.
But even wonderful restaurants aren’t the real Lima. And maybe that’s not something I will ever really discover. In my entire trip I probably related most to Mario Testino when I went to his museum, MATE. Mario Testino, now famous in the fashion world for not only routinely working for Vogue but for photographing Princess Di, was raised in Lima and only left in his twenties to study photography in London. The main exhibit in his museum featured his photographs of traditional Peruvian dress in various regions. While the clothes themselves display art and dedication to tradition, Testino’s photographs bring out the energy in the fabric and the models themselves. He seems to tell the story of both an outsider and an insider, looking at Peruvian culture for the first or millionth time. In his gift shop amonst fashion books of Kate Moss and Gisele Bündchen and buttons with slogans like “Per(u)fection” or “Que dificil debe ser no ser Peruano” (how difficult it must be not to be Peruvian), he featured plates, split between two styles of design.
I couldn’t help but feel these reflected not only Peruvian culture (a native civilization violently and abruptly mixed with “civilized” European society) but Testino’s identity as well. Split between an insider and an outsider, a native and an ex-pat.
I visited another one of my mother’s cousins on my second to last day in Lima. She told me, on the drive to her house, that she was a host mother for study abroad students from America. She had a new student from Iowa, who had been whisked away by his university program after only one night with her to Cuzco and that he would be returning that evening during our tea. I quickly forgot about this fellow American as everyone caught up and took family pictures until he arrived, red faced and shaking, in front of us.
“Did you like Cuzco?” one of my cousins asked him in Spanish.
“Sí,” he responded hesitantly.
“Estas asustado?” another asked.
“Qué?” he answered, clearly not understanding the question.
“Estas asustado?” my cousin said more clearly. Then, in almost perfect English, “Are you scared?”
“Oh,” he paused as he looked at the ten of us who were staring expectantly at him, “Sí. Sí estoy asustado.”
Peru may never be a home for me and I may never feel Peruvian in the way my mother or her side of my family does. But I can certainly relate with Testino: Que dificil debe ser no ser Peruano, indeed.
Photo credit: featured image, Mario Testino; plates, my own photo.