Friday, 5 February 2010

Social Contrasts in Peru’s Capital

Social Contrasts in Peru’s Capital

By A. Hyatt Verrill

Travel magazine, March, 1925. Digitized by Doug Frizzle February 2010.

The Fine Art of Amiability in Lima—Business Methods of the Middle Ages—The Childish Heart of Latin Peru—The Fine Feathers of Lima's First Families—The Saving Undercurrent of Indian Blood

LIMA in summer is very different from Lima in winter, and fortunately for visitors, the Peruvian summer is in full sway at the time when fugitives from our own bleak and slushy winter weather voyage southward to the shores of Latin America. When I returned to Peru's capital a wonderful transformation had taken place. Gone were the dull-gray lowering skies; gone the everlasting drizzle, the muddy streets and the depressing, dreary, chilly air. From a cloudless sky the sun blazed down upon the ancient city and its environs; the air was as balmy and mild as June in the north, and Lima was like a butterfly just emerged from a dull-gray chrysalis. The endless mud walls were flecked with light and shade; the buildings of soft cream, pink, lavender or blue, fairly glowed; the bare, austere brown mountainsides were softly golden in the rays of sunlight or deepest mauve in the deep ravines, and even the people seemed to have thrown off their hopeless, listless expressions and appeared gay, happy and light-hearted. Personally I had come to like the Peruvians, although many Americans I met could not say enough harsh and unpleasant things against them. To be sure, their ways are not our ways, and no doubt there are many things that may be criticised and might be improved. But if all races were alike, if in all lands we found North American methods of business and life, the world would be a dull and uninteresting place for travelers. And no doubt, also, the Peruvians' ways and methods are quite as satisfactory to themselves as are ours to ourselves. Moreover, the people of Inca Land have adapted themselves to no little extent to the ways of other lands and races. And, finding that they must depend largely upon foreigners and foreign capital—and more especially upon North Americans and Yankee capital—for the exploitation and development of their wonderful land, they are becoming more and more imbued with North American ways and habits. But the Peruvian—nor any Latin American—can ever be wholly North American or vice versa, thank God.

Compared to the Latin Americans of the more tropical republics, the Peruvians are, however, a very superior and more admirable race. Perhaps they are a bit behind the Chileans in some ways, but in others they are, in my opinion, preferable.

Compared to their more aggressive southern neighbors they are docile, law abiding, peaceful and democratic, which is exactly what might be expected from their blood and ancestry. The mass of the people are of Indian or mixed Indian blood and whereas the tribes ruled by the Incas were docile, timid and peaceful people, the aborigines of Chile were a haughty, nomadic, warlike race never really conquered by the Spaniards. And these characteristics still among the Peruvian and the Chilean people are still their outstanding features. Moreover, in more recent times considerable European blood has been added to the Indian and Spanish of the natives. In Peru this has mainly been Italian, British, French and North American, whereas in Chile, it has been largely Slavic and Teutonic and, as a result, we find the Peruvians more reserved, more polite and more hospitable than the Chileans with their brusque, suspicious and obtrusive manners. It has been said that one way of distinguishing a Peruvian from a Chilean is to slap his face. If he apologizes he is a Peruvian and if he promptly returns the slap with a blow he is a Chilean.

But I do not advise any one experimentally inclined to try this test. The Peruvian may be quiet and peaceful, but he is no cringing timid man to be insulted with impunity. Much, too, has been said regarding the inferior quality of Peru's fighting men—her army and navy—as compared to those of Chile. But this is problematical. Even though Chile had the best of it in the last unpleasantness between the two countries, I question if it was due so much to the superiority of her forces as men, as to their training. The Peruvian soldiery is under French officers, whereas the Chileans look to Germany for army training, and if the numbers of contestants were equal I imagine the outcome of a land battle between the two would not warrant odds being laid in favor of Chile. As far as the navies are concerned, Chile has the best of it by far. In number of vessels, armament, size of ships and number of men she far outranks Peru, and even though the latter's navy is now under North American naval officers she would stand little chance in a naval battle with Chile. Her police, who, to show the impartial character of the government, are under Spanish supervision, are excellent. They are always neat, snappy, and in their red and blue uniforms add color and picturesqueness to the surroundings, and they are ever polite, courteous and obliging, especially to foreigners.

To be sure, their duties cannot be onerous, for crimes, especially of a serious nature, are not frequent in Peru, which by the way is in striking contrast to Chile where the most revolting and fearful crimes, especially against small children, are common. Most of Lima's police force appears to be engaged in conducting traffic. I say conducting, but that is far from the right word, for Lima's traffic could not be properly conducted even by the entire traffic squad of New York City unless the laws and regulations, if such there be, are completely altered or new ones made. Normally, for example, vehicles are supposed to keep to the right and to pass other approaching vehicles on the right, but on certain streets, where there are trolley tracks, this rule of the road is reversed and vehicles keep to the left and pass approaching vehicles on the left. Cars are allowed to park on either side of the street. Many of the streets are very narrow and congested, and yet there are practically no one-way streets, and while circular traffic is supposed to be in force at the Plaza de Armas one sees vehicles cutting corners and running in the opposite direction to the circular flow of traffic. Indeed, the exceptions to the rule in their traffic are as numerous and as difficult to master as the exceptions to Spanish verbs, and all credit is due Lima's traffic cops for succeeding as well as they do. Why or how any autos escape annihilation, or how passengers survive, is a mystery, for Peruvian chauffeurs are perhaps the most reckless in the world. Accidents nevertheless are few, and serious ones still fewer, and during all my residence in Lima I have never heard the clang of an ambulance gong as the vehicle was rushed to the aid of the victims of an auto mishap. Even easier than the duties of the police are those of the fire department. Fires are not infrequent, but adobe is not an inflammable material, and serious conflagrations are almost impossible in mud-built Lima. As workmen and laborers the Peruvians are not to be despised, and after a long experience in Panama, with its worthless, incompetent, so-called native labor, it did my heart good to watch the toilers in Lima's streets and fields. Not having employed Peruvian labor to great extent I cannot pass upon the endurance or steadiness of the unskilled workman, but from personal observation I can affirm that when the Peruvian works he works with a will and with a strength and energy, as well as with an amount of intelligence totally unknown to the laborer of the more northern South American or the Central American republics. He is also a far more robust, healthy and superior man, and with little training can handle a machine tool, an air drill, concrete mixer, engine or even electrical tools to good advantage and without immediately wrecking them. Possibly, even probably, judging by my own observations and the experiences of others, the laboring class of Peru is superior in its way to the business class. To earn his few soles a day the laborer works like a Trojan during working hours, or if on piece work, as are the adobe brick makers, he works steadily and industriously from dawn to dark, and often on holidays and Sundays as well, in order to increase his income. On the other hand, the business man has short hours, he closes his place of business on the slightest provocation and on every possible holiday, and he never seems to care whether he does business or not. Never have I seen a place where the tradesmen appear to care so little about making a sale. Indeed, the average shopkeeper acts as if it were a great condecension to wait on a customer, and often informs one that he has not the desired article rather than take the trouble to hunt it up or even take it from a shelf. Also, the Peruvian idea of doing business is rather remarkable.

To clean out an old stock at a cut price would be almost heresy, according to Peruvian ideas, and if the stock is limited the shopkeeper takes the point of view that it is better and less trouble to sell a few articles at an exorbitant price than a number at a reasonable price. That the terrific price asked discourages purchasers does not trouble the seller in the least. Rather he prefers it, for in that case he does not need to replenish his stock and he has less work to do waiting on customers. As a result, prices of practically everything are almost prohibitive in Peru, for in order to maintain themselves at all the merchants are forced to make a profit of several hundred per cent.

In addition to all this, the Peruvian has little or no conception of the meaning of a contract, verbal or written. He will, with few exceptions, always try to get more or do less than agreed, though he will usually back down and make the best of things when he finds his bluff is called. Of course this does not apply to the large houses, the established firms of good standing and reputation which conduct their business along very similar lines to our own, as they have been forced to do through their dealings with the outside world of finance and business. In private life the Peruvians have advanced far beyond most of the Latin Americans. Although the old Spanish custom of keeping the women more or less secluded still prevails to some extent, the majority of the women have almost as much freedom as in any European country or the United States. Very many have been educated abroad and have imbibed North American or British ideas, and they mingle freely with friends and acquaintances of the other sex in public and drive about or go shopping unattended and unchaperoned. In dress they follow Paris more than London or New York and the display of sheer hosiery and the contents thereof on Lima's streets would be shocking were it not so altogether admirable. There is no denying that the Limeñas, even of fairly mature years, believe thoroughly that the public should know that they possess legs, but as they are usually most shapely extremities, and as the Peruvian women are as a whole really beautiful creatures, no one should object. It is to be regretted that so many of the handsome girls have adopted henna-dyed hair, rouged and powdered faces, mascara-touched eyes, and carmined lips. Seldom do Peruvian women's eyes need added black, their lips are naturally vivid enough and their complexions are usually flawless. Au naturel a Peruvian girl of the upper class is a sight to make one take more than a second glance, but with dyed hair, powder and rouge, she becomes a mere painted doll, indistinguishable from the demi-mondaine in appearance. But apparently neither the female nor the male of the species cares how ridiculous she or he may appear, provided they are exact counterparts of the impossible beings depicted on the pages of Parisian fashion magazines. The woman, in paint, powder, a skirt skin tight above the knees, and preposterously high-heeled shoes, is no more of a monstrosity than her male relative in belted, short-waisted coat, tight trousers, lavender spats and yellow gloves, with a monocle glued in one eye and a malacca stick that would serve as a baseball bat in one hand. Dress, to the average Peruvian of the middle class, is paramount. He judges the station, family, salary and intelligence of his fellows by their clothes, and he knows he will be judged in the same manner. Of course he or she knows that friends or acquaintances are not hoodwinked in this way, any more than he or she will be fooled by the friend's or acquaintance's raiment, but there is always the hope that strangers will be impressed. A poorly paid clerk will array himself like a stage millionaire prince and will stroll up and down Calle Union, or sip chocolate and smoke high-priced cigarettes in the Palais Concierge, and be absolutely, supremely happy. Likewise, his feminine compeers will parade the street and pause before the windows of the most exclusive shops feeling that they are the observed of all observers, and desiring nothing more.

Indeed, it is doubtful if, by a sort of self-hypnosis, they do not actually believe for the time being that they are what they seem. For the same reason, whenever a steamship arrives or departs, or a train halts at a station, people will flock aboard, crowd aisles or decks and fairly beam with delight, not that they have any intention of going on a journey but merely for the thrill of pretending to be passengers and to make others think they are travelers. But after all it is a most innocent and harmless sort of amusement, and if the Peruvians obtain any satisfaction from it why should any one object?

Childishness, in fact, is rather typical of Latin American people and it is no more marked among Peruvians than among their neighbors. In many ways it is a really delightful and admirable trait. We of the north are ever prone to take life and other matters far too seriously, to grow old—mentally if not physically—too early in life, and to frown upon spontaneity and a juvenile excess of enthusiasm or spirits. But the Latins, though they mature at an early age and appear old at what we would consider the prime of life, remain merely grownup boys and girls in many ways. A man may be a statesman, a merchant, a captain of industry, a jurist or a general; a leader in his line; a man of the soundest and most profound judgment and serious thought, but he will take delight and find joy in incidents and matters which would scarcely amuse a North American or British boy in his teens. One often sees a group of Peruvians talking together, gesticulating excitedly, emphasizing their words; almost shouting one moment, lowering their tones to hoarse whispers the next, until one feels sure they are plotting a revolution or are about to break into open hostilities. But the chances are that they are merely discussing the merits of certain cigars, the proper manner of cooking some national dish, or the features of a movie comedy. They will devote an inordinate amount of time and a vast quantity of breath to discussing some trivial and utterly frivolous matter which, nine times out of ten, can never be settled. Once, when waiting for a friend who was tinkering with his car in a garage on a holiday, I overheard two of the employees talking. They were apparently having a heated argument over some most vital matter and I listened attentively and to my amazement discovered that they were merely discussing my friend.

"Why should he work on a holiday?" demanded one.

"Quien sabe? Perhaps he has to," replied the other.

"But perhaps he doesn't. Pues, it may be he wants to."

"Perhaps he has a wife to support."

"Or children."

"And perhaps he has not and is in debt."

"No, amigo, but I think he has a mamá."

"But it may be he has not."

"At any rate he is a Gringo."

"Maybe he is a Chileño."

"No, he is a German."

"Or perhaps English."

"No, I think him a North American."

'Well, a Gringo at any rate."

"And they are all mad."

This seemed to settle it, and shrugging shoulders expressively, as though to indicate that the ways of Gringos were past understanding, the two began a new argument over an equally trivial matter.

Perhaps it would be well for us to pattern our lives more after the Peruvians, in so far as their temperament is concerned. And then again, it might be a great mistake, for seldom will Latin character and Anglo-Saxon methods go hand in hand. Indeed, it is very largely this very combination that is the trouble with the Peruvians, or rather, I might say, that causes strangers to criticise them and find fault with Peruvian ways. They have tried to follow us in progress and development and business and have failed to qualify in many ways because they are mentally different. With open arms they have welcomed North American capital, have seen North Americans and British develop their resources and build up their cities, construct their roads, increase their prosperity, make fortunes out of industries and business. They have admired, envied, tried to follow in the Gringo's footsteps.

"We have a wonderful country," they say to themselves. "A great city, a chance of big business. The Gringos are making money in our own country, let us do as they do and we too will be rich and up to date."

And so they erect fine buildings, open shops with every modern idea from plate-glass windows to electric signs and alluring display; put up residences and apartments, and invest in mines, farms, factories and other lines of endeavor. But they have overlooked the one great factor in Anglo Saxon progress and success. They do not, cannot, realize that the Gringo mind goes with Gringo energy and inventiveness and progress; that our methods and minds and point of view have developed along with the development of other things; that our brains, our ideas, are as quickly and readily altered by requirements as the models of our motor cars or the designs of our machines. The Gringo's brain is adaptable; he thinks in terms of today—or even tomorrow—while the Peruvian thinks in the manner of yesterday or of generations ago. In a thousand ways he is adaptable. He may alter his houses, his buildings, his army and navy, his transportation, his clothing and customs, even his home life, to meet modern conditions, but he cannot alter his line of thought; his mental processes or his psychology. Though he dwells in a home equipped with American sanitary plumbing and electric lights. Though he drives the latest of motor cars. Though he dresses and eats and lives as much like a Gringo as possible. Though his business is as much with foreigners as with natives, and even though he speaks English fluently and may have visited Europe and the United States, still he thinks like a Peruvian and his mind is fettered by tradition, age-old customs and conventions. It is not his fault. He can no more alter these ingrown ideas than he can alter his stature or the color of his eyes. In short, the mentality, or perhaps better, the mental attitude of Peruvians has not kept pace with the country's material progress and development and while, under foreign capital and supervision, his land has raced onward to keep pace with the twentieth century, he has been left far behind, floundering mentally in the dust of a century ago. Few Peruvian merchants can be made to see the advantage of large sales and small profits as compared with small sales and large profits. Few can understand the principles of keeping stock in trade moving and money in circulation. Few can see the losses entailed by high overhead expenses, a rapidly deteriorating stock unsold, losses of interest on money invested in stock, or the losses of customers by failing to keep goods in demand in stock or overcharging for standard goods. Neither can the average Peruvian, —even of the most intelligent class — realize that the most important member of the community is the husbandman; that a country's true prosperity and place in the world are measured by the status and condition, the thrift and per capita wealth of the farmer and the laborer. Ninety per cent of the farmers and laborers in Peru are Indians, and the comparatively few Peruvians of Spanish blood—pure or mixed— despise the Indian and look down upon him. They disparagingly refer to him as a Cholo—and loudly and assertively deny a taint of Cholo blood, even though features and skin speak eloquently of the Indian strain. It is a point of view inherited from the old Dons, from the men who maltreated, despoiled, massacred, looted and enslaved the aborigines. And yet, today, scarcely a wheel would turn in Peru, not a crop be raised, not a ton of ore mined; hardly a train, trolley car or motor bus be operated; a street cleaned, a pavement laid, a building erected, a burden carried, a store or office swept, were the Indians to refuse to work. Even more, were the Cholos to strike en masse; were they to be suddenly wiped out, there would be scarcely a servant left in the homes, hardly a meal cooked, and the inhabitants would starve for lack of food raised, brought to market, sold and prepared by the Cholos.

Even the personnel of the police, army and navy is mainly Indian, and if Peru is to keep pace with the rest of the world, if her prosperity and progress are to be lasting, and if the Peruvians are not looking for future troubles and calamities, it behooves them to alter their attitude towards the Indian population and place their laborers, their farmers and their artisans on a better footing. Fortunately for the country and the people, the Cholo is a most docile and long suffering individual. He is easily satisfied and asks little, and I doubt if the most eloquent and inimical agitator could organize labor unions or foment a strike among them. From what I have seen of Indians of many tribes and in many places, I am far from being in favor of educating or civilizing them more than is absolutely essential. But in most respects the great majority of Peruvian Indians are already civilized. Many can read and write, most of them are, nominally at least, Christians, and all they need is to be taught cleanliness, sanitation and practical things. There should be manual and agricultural instruction, enforced sanitation in their villages and their quarters in the towns, medical inspection and treatment, and means of entertainment provided. I have been told by many Peruvians and by an equal number of foreign residents in Peru, that it is impossible to better the Indians. That they prefer their filthy, squalid huts and dreary lives to clean houses and good times. That they resent kindness and a helping hand and that it is a waste of time and money to try to do anything for their betterment.

I don't believe this in the least. Wherever I have observed conditions among the Indians in Peru I have noticed that they are only too willing to better themselves. Whenever they are in a position to do so they have built better houses, have adopted doors and windows, have installed cheap but serviceable furnishings and have improved. Where they are employed in the homes of foreigners they soon abandon their filthy ways, take pride in neat, clean clothing and improve in every way. Of course the Indian of Peru cannot be driven or forced to change his ways. No Indian can be driven. We have proved that with our own North American redmen, and Panama discovered the fact at the cost of numerous lives. But the Indian is imitative, he is always anxious to outdo his neighbor, or at least not to be outdone by him, and all that is required is to excite interest, get a few Indians started on the right road and the others will follow.

In Peru, unlike most Latin American countries, politics are not a hampering factor in the country's progress and development. Nominally, Peru is a republic, but practically it is, under the present administration, a dictatorship. To us, the idea of a dictator may seem repugnant, and a republic wherein the elections are a farce, where might is right and the people have little or nothing to say in the matter, is to North Americans all wrong and unthinkable. But we have forever been making grave and costly mistakes by judging Latin Americans by ourselves and sticking our official fingers into Latin American political pies, and it is very doubtful if a dictatorship is not the best form of government for many if not most of our South and Central American neighbors. Of course a great deal depends upon the dictator. If he is a rascal, a grafter, a despot or a narrow-minded bigot or fanatic he most assuredly will play the devil with his country and his people, and no one can blame anyone who dares to put his career to an abrupt and final end. But if, on the other hand, he is a patriotic man, a just, fair-minded, honest fellow who has his country's and his people's good at heart, he may and usually will do far more for his country than half a dozen duly elected presidents who are swayed first one way and then another by politics, who are in office for what they can make, and who feel that whatever they do— aside from their own personal benefit —will be undone by the next man in the presidential chair. At any rate, wherever a really big and strong man had become a dictator of a Latin American country, that country has had more peace, prosperity and progress under his rule than under that of any preceding or succeeding presidents. Mexico was never better off than under Diaz. Guatemala prospered amazingly under Cabrera. Venezuela has been far more peaceful under Gomez than under many a president, and Peru is doing very well, thank you. Of course it takes an exceptional man to be a dictator, and a still more exceptional man to be a good dictator. But Señor Leguia is beyond doubt a most exceptional man. Though undersized physically, he is a giant in intellect, energy and personal magnetism. As one American put it, "he has more pep, horse sense and business ability than all the other Peruvians together." This, of course, is an exaggeration, for no doubt there are others of his countrymen as capable as himself. But there is no doubt that Senor Leguia is the one man in a thousand, in hundreds of thousands, who could have overcome the obstacles he met, could have arisen triumphant from defeat and could have become dictator of Peru and remained alive and respected.

At carnivals, at public functions, at horse races and track games he is always present, but no one has yet attempted his life. Perhaps it is his very bravery that has protected him, for the Latin admires courage, or it may be his personal magnetism, or again it may be that even his political enemies feel that he is doing as well by Peru as anyone could. Of course he has enemies. Not only political opponents, but men who have personal grudges against him, men, and women too, who have suffered at his hands, or at the hands of his underlings. And there is no doubt that there has been much suffering, many injustices and inhumanities and disgraceful acts committed in his name. Countless persons, men of the highest standing, of wealth and attainments, have been arrested without warning, judged without trial, torn from their homes and families in the middle of the night, and exiled to San Lorenzo island to be summarily deported. Of course in every case the charge has been that they were conspiring against the government. But in many cases that have been thoroughly investigated there was not the slightest evidence against them, and one such case happened during my stay in Peru.

And whatever else he may be, whatever he may or may not do, he assuredly has the good of his country uppermost in his mind and is using every effort and every available cent to do all he can for Peru while he has the power. Under his dictatorship, wonderful changes and improvements are taking place in Lima and throughout the country. Buildings are going up, the cobbled city streets are being replaced with concrete, magnificent avenues have been laid out and completed, and a perfect automobile highway has been built from Callao to Lima and from Lima to Miraflores. Even in the interior he has done much. Roads have been improved, lighting systems installed, and an enormous amount of work is under way. At Callao, modern docks are being constructed, shipping facilities increased and the port improved. No one can find fault with the way in which the dictator is expending the public funds and inducing outside capital to come into the country. As long as the bulk of the people are wholly unfit to govern or to choose who is to govern them, and neither know or care, and as long as the presence of a dictator in the palace insures peace and prosperity to the land, then, say I, by all means let Peru remain a republic in name only.

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