AFTERLIFE OF CULTURE Stephen Henighan
The divisions in Lima, Peru, are pronounced; they are not unique
A City for All
Peru was created to divide its citizens. In 1532, when Francisco Pizarro’s Spanish conquistadors invaded and colonized the vast, populous Inca Empire, they spurned its mountain capital of Cuzco. The Spaniards built a new capital on the coast. The Spanish Empire’s centralized administrative procedures decreed that Lima would govern all of Spanish-speaking South America. By ignoring Cuzco and beginning a new civilization on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, the Spanish crown in Madrid believed it was uniting a continent; in the end, it divided a country. Coastal Peruvian society grew more racially mixed in the nineteenth century with the importation of enslaved Africans and Chinese indentured labourers, and in the twentieth century with the arrival of British and European business people. These newcomers, however, entered a society shaped by oppressive colonial legacies, divided between a coastal culture that was Spanish in its architecture, language and customs, and an indigenous culture in the Andes. Lima lacked any connection to Inca civilization. The early twentiethcentury Peruvian cultural theorist José Carlos Mariátegui wrote: “Lima has no roots in the indigenous past. Lima is the daughter of the conquest.”
Lima today is a city of ten million people built in a desert that receives less than five millimetres of rain a year. The Spanish squares of the colonial centre are spacious and imposing, yet the capital is no longer oblivious to the country’s large indigenous population. From the late 1960s onward, indigenous people came down from the mountains to seek employment
in the more vibrant economy of the coast. The narrator of Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1977), returning to Lima after years in Europe, finds the city transformed by the “peasant migrations to the capital which in that decade doubled the population of Lima and caused the outbreak, on the hilltops, in the desert, on the garbage heaps, of that circle of neighbourhoods which became the arrival point for thousands and thousands of beings who had abandoned the provinces because of drought, difficult working conditions, lack of prospects, hunger.” The brutal war between Maoist Shining Path guerrillas and the Peruvian Army, which raged in the Andes from 1980 until the late 1990s, accelerated the exodus from the mountains. In the wake of this influx, Lima remained a city in which two distinct cultures regarded each other with hostility: racism was the currency of daily interaction. Mark Malloch Brown, a political consultant for British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was sent to Peru to assist Vargas Llosa when he ran for president in 1990, wrote of his first days in Lima: “When I looked behind the venerable Castilian façade of Peru, I found overtones of white Rhodesia. Many members of the ‘old elite’ were relatively new settlers who had expected a European lifestyle—built, if necessary, on the backs of the Indians.”
Lima’s divisions are pronounced; they are not unique. Many cities in Latin America are surrounded by shantytowns that sprang up in the final decades of the twentieth century. The problems of poverty, exclusion, racism and gang violence persist. The twentyfirst century has discovered that one of the keys to confronting these dilemmas is not to invest in the traditional Latin American remedies of gated communities and heavily armed security guards, but rather to connect people who fear each other via cheap, reliable transportation. In the last five years, some of Latin America’s most troubled cities have implemented innovative transportation systems. Lima is in the forefront of this movement. Not only has it built a subway, but, more importantly, it has created a system of long, articulated, high-speed buses, known as the Metropolitano. These buses travel on four dedicated lanes, speeding past cars stuck in traffic as they whisk people from privileged clifftop neighbourhoods in the south through the colonial downtown to poorer neighbourhoods in the north. For anyone without a car, getting across Lima on public transit used to require joining a huge queue on an ancient avenue and squeezing into a small, overcrowded bus that spent hours stopping and starting as it inched across the city. The motto on the card passengers load up with credit to board the Metropolitano makes the aim of integration explicit: Lima, una ciudad para todos (“Lima, a city for all”). The Metropolitano’s fare of roughly one Canadian dollar may exclude the poorest of the poor, but it attracts, and brings together in the same place, a far broader range of the population than any previous Peruvian transportation system.
The insight that social inclusion improves the economy is seeping into even the most hierarchical Latin American societies, displacing the notion that the poor are an obstacle to growth who must be kept out of sight. The city of Medellín, Colombia, once the world’s drug trafficking capital and now an optimistic boom town, lies in a valley. The poor, perched in makeshift houses up the mountainside, look down on the centre; until recently, few could make the exhausting hike downhill and back up again every day to work. The Metrocable, a series of gondola lifts, having expanded from one line to five over the last dozen years, now carries 30,000 people a day to and from these marginalized areas, enabling those who live in the hills to work in the centre. Even in smaller countries with very conservative elites, change is evident. Two months before my visit to Peru, I was in Guatemala City, one of our hemisphere’s least attractive, most dangerous capitals. Here I rode the Transmetro, a new dedicated-lane bus system similar to, though smaller than, Lima’s Metropolitano. With a fare of about fifteen cents Canadian, the Transmetro is accessible to all. In a country whose social divisions are among the harshest in the Americas, I was surprised to see municipal civil servants in suits and ties sitting or standing next to women who sold fruit in the street. The divisions that separate these people are not about to go away. Yet by crossing town in the same physical space, people from different social classes absorb the previously remote notion that this city belongs to all of them. Stephen Henighan’s most recent novels are The Path of the Jaguar and Mr. Singh Among the Fugitives. Read more of his work at geist.com and stephenhenighan.com. Follow him on Twitter @Stephenhenighan.
Detail from Panorama de Lima (2017) by Mariano Mantel. See more of his work at flickr.com/mariano-mantel