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Peru: The Preference for Afro-Peruvians at Funeral Services

Peru is a country with such ethnic and cultural diversity that one might think that Peruvians are accustomed to seeing different faces and customs than one's own, and that there is an adequate level of respect and tolerance towards others. However, the reality is quite different and in Peruvian society, there are examples of underlying, as well as overt racism, many of the examples have been covered on Global Voices.

However, there are often strange situations that upon first glance appear to be racism, but upon further investigation, may not necessarily be. A recent debate has emerged as a result of a communique released by the Ministry of Women and Social Development [es] (MIMDES for its initials in Spanish), which as directed towards funeral companies so that they change “their policies of only hiring people of the black race for the jobs of casket carriers, because they are performing a clear act of discrimination [es],” as informed by the newspaper El Comercio [es].

This issue, as any Peruvian who has had to hire these types of services or attended a burial knows, is that it is the clients and not the businesses that prefer that these individuals who provide these services are of the black race. The blog Living in Perú publishes the statements by business owners of this field “Minister Vilchez is wrong. We do not practice racial discrimination. It's our clients who ask us to provide black pallbearers for their funeral ceremonials” and later states: “We cannot antagonize our clients. If they want either black or white pallbearers, we do need to meet their requirements.” In fact, funeral agencies in Peru charge higher fees for ceremonials with black pallbearers.

Why do so many Peruvians prefer Afro-Peruvians as the ones providing this service? Chuto of the blog Choledad Privada [es] may have a theory and presents the following questions:

¿cuál es mensaje que se quiere transmitir a los presentes al velorio con esa imagen racistoide acompañando el dolor de los “blancos”? ¿Será acaso que se mezcla cariño y paternalismo racial con una necesidad de que los OTROS sean los que se encarguen de mis pompas fúnebres (o en un velorio de puro negro también hay negros cargando al muerto?)? ¿Será que esta costumbre está inspirada en el luto que sigue a la pérdida de cualquier ser querido? Quizás inconscientemente pero bien intencionalmente nos sentimos aliviados si no sólo contamos con un perucho de clase/raza considerada inferior lustrándome los zapatos, sirviéndome el café en el Club Nacional, abriéndome la puerta en el Casino Atlantic City o con un gran sombrero de portero en el Hotel Sheraton, sino que además queremos que sean nuestros carontes de a pie que nos lleven hacia el otro mundo cargado en hombros?

What is message to be conveyed to those attending a wake with that racist image alongside the “white” pain? Could it be a mix of love and racial paternalism with a need that the others are the one who take care of my funeral (or in a wake where those who are purely black be the ones carrying the dead?) Is this practice inspired by the mourning that follows the loss of any loved one? Either intentionally or perhaps unconsciously, but we are relieved if we have an Peruvian of a class/race considered inferior that polishes our shoes, serves coffee in the National Club, opens the door to the Atlantic City Casino or a great bellboy at the Sheraton Hotel, but we also want to them to be the ones carrying us on their shoulders taking us into the next world?

Regardless of the real reasons, it is a commonly seen practice. So many are left wondering, where is the racism? On the part of the businesses, the clients, or both? Has the Ministry intruded in the affairs of the free market? Some bloggers are asking the same questions. Martín Soto of the blog sNm writes about this issue:

No me parece que este sea un tema de discriminación hacia afroperuanos, y si un desacierto ministerial (oficiar a privados, pidiendoles “modificar” el asunto?). … que el MIMDES, en cabeza de su ministra (nada más, nada menos) oficie a algunas agencias funerarias no resuelve ni por asomo ningún problema vinculado a la comunidad afroperuana; que se ocupe sobre el oficio de los cargadores de ferétros y le reclame modificaciones a la empresas privadas, sólo escapa a sus funciones y competencias, sino que es un claro sin sentido, una pérdida de recursos públicos en temas menores.

I don't think that this is an issue of discrimination against Afro-Peruvians and it is a ministerial miscalculation (officiate private companies asking them to ‘modify’ the issue?… that MIMDES, through its Minister (nothing more, nothing less) officiate some funeral companies does not resolve the problems linked to the Afro-Peruvian community; worries about the work of the pallbearers and calls for modifications by the private companies, not only goes beyond its duties and responsibilities, but it is a clear sense of a waste or public resources on minor issues.

And finishes the post with a reflection:

qué “clase” o “tipo” de personas deberían ser empleadas en este oficio?, es el oficio indigno?, es la persona la que hace indigno al oficio?, de qué hablamos cuando hablamos de discriminación aquí?

what “class” or “type” of persons should be hired in this field? is the work undignified? does the person make the work undignified? what are we talking about when we talk about discrimination here?

Álvaro Zapatel of the blog El Gato del Hortelano [es] provides some notes about racism:

Las funerarias ofrecen un servicio en respuesta a la demanda de los consumidores. Los consumidores, arguyen los “funerarios”, prefieren por lo general que los cargadores sean afroperuanos. Se podría hablar de un acto discriminatorio de los consumidores, mas no de las funerarias quienes ofrecen un servicio en función de lo que la demanda pide.

queda claro que el afroperuano que entra a trabajar como cargador, está ejerciendo su libertad para trabajar como tal. Es obvio que en contra de aquel argumento se hablará de la falta de oportunidades que los afroperuanos tienen para acceder a un trabajo en nuestro país, y que, lamentablemente por necesidad y falta de oportunidades en otros rubros entran a trabajar de cargadores en las funerarias. Entonces, a mi parecer, el problema ya no compete al MIMDES sino más bien al Ministerio del Trabajo.

The funeral companies offer a service in response to the demand of the consumers. The consumers argue with the funeral companies, and generally prefer that the pallbearers be Afro-Peruvian. One could talk about the discriminatory act by the consumers, but not of the funeral homes that offer a service based on what demand calls for.

It is clear that the Afro-Peruvians that work as carriers are exercising their freedom to work a such. It is obvious that against that argument, the response will be the lack of opportunities for Afro-Peruvians who want to work in our country, and that, unfortunately out of necessity and a lack of opportunities in other areas, they work as pallbearers in the funeral field. In my view, it is not MIMDES responsibility, but the Ministry of Labor.

It also noteworthy that the job of pallbearer is not the only job “apparently” exclusive for Afro-Peruvians, but the job of hotel bellhop, of which black Peruvians are often found. These individuals often take these part-time jobs while they finish their university education, so speaking about “a lack of opportunities” could be incorrect in these cases. Zapatel continues to provide his opinion:

los empresarios fúnebres sostienen que el servicio funerario llevado a cabo por afroperuanos es de mayor costo que el ofrecido con peruanos de otros rasgos étnicos – léase, no afroperuanos. … En este caso, podríamos asumir que se considera un “servicio de lujo” puesto que a medida que su precio aumenta, la cantidad demandada aumenta también. Claro que, si nos remitimos al tema de que este incremento en el precio se deba únicamente a una característica física, esto es totalmente condenable. Pero ojo, ¿condenable en qué sentido?

¿No estamos frente a un caso de “discriminación inversa”? Si el tema en cuestión es el racial, ¿por qué el servicio fúnebre ofrecido por afroperuanos cuesta más que el ofrecido por no afroperuanos? Aquí más bien podríamos incluso hablar de un sector del mercado “copado” por afroperuanos y que, en realidad, está discriminando a los que no son afroperuanos. Si un asiático-peruano entra a trabajar como “cargador” y percibe que su trabajo es considerado “de menor valor” al de aquel que es ejercido por afroperuanos solo por una cuestión étnica, mas no por habilidades, creo que el tema discriminatorio iría no solo para el afroperuano sino para aquel asiático-peruano.

The funeral companies say that the funeral services carried out by Afro-Peruvian are more expensive than the services carried out by Peruvians of other ethnic features – in other words, those who are not Afro-Peruvian.. I this case, we can assume that it is considered a “luxury service” in that the price increases, the demand also increases. Of course, if we only refer to this issue that the price increases only because of the physical characteristic, then it is totally condemnable. But, condemnable in what sense?

Are we facing a case of “reverse discrimination?” If the issue in question is racial, then why are the funeral services offered by Afro-Peruvians cost more than those services offered by non-Afro-Peruvians? Even more, we could even discuss this market “cornered” by Afro-Peruvians and that in reality, are discriminated against those non-Afro-Peruvians. If an Asian-Peruvian begins to work as a “pallbearer” and perceives that his/her work is considered “less valuable” than the work done by Afro-Peruvians only because of ethnicity and not because of abilities, then the issue of discrimination would not go against the Afro-Pervuian, but against the Asian-Peruvian.

In regards to this issue, Juan Arellano of the blog Globalizado [es] writes:

Acá la suspicacia me gana y me pregunto si no estaremos simplemente frente a una movida de las empresas funerarias deseosas de reducir costos y dejar de pagarles más a sus empleados afrodescendientes. Con lo que al final la supuesta medida en contra de la discriminación terminaría perjudicando a los “discriminados” pues reduciría sus ingresos y limitaría sus opciones laborales… todo un contrasentido!

Here suspicion wins and I wonder if we are not simply facing a movement by the funeral companies to cut costs and stop paying more to their African-descent employees. Thus, in the end, the measure against discrimination will stop harming the “discriminated” because it will reduce their wages and limit their work options… it is all a contradiction!

It is obvious that there may or may not be racism in these commercial practices and it remains a sensitive topic for many Peruvians, regardless if they are of Afro-Peruvian descent. It will continue to be a debate in Peruvian society and whether or not it is the business of the government to stop something that is deeply-rooted in society.

Translation by Eduardo Ávila

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