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from the November 2017 issue

I Am Not Your Cholo

Marco Avilés grapples with questions of difference and discrimination for immigrants in Peru and the US in this essay from his book No soy tu cholo, published in Peru by Debate, an imprint of Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial. An earlier version appeared originally in Ojo Publico.


An American couple relocated to Lima and opened a hamburger joint in one of the city’s culinary hotspots: the formidable Calle Dante, in Surquillo, a neighborhood full of popular chicharronerías and right by the eighth block of Avenida Angamos, where the samurai Toshi Matsufuji runs one of the best ceviche places this side of the universe. The competition is stiff, but Justin and Brandy Wiley seem pretty optimistic. Their restaurant is called PapiCarne, and they write in English on their social media profiles. What are two gringos doing serving up hamburgers in the Mecca of Latin American cuisine? One Sunday morning, Brandy picked up the newspaper at breakfast and Oh my God, its food critic had devoted a review to them.

I told this story one Friday in early spring, at a high school in a well-heeled town in Maine, about four thousand miles from my country. The Spanish teacher had invited me to one of his classes to share my experience as a Latino immigrant in the times of Trump. Many students, he warned me, sympathized with the President’s anti-immigration policies. In other words, I, a brown-skinned Latino, was going to play at being special visitor to a room of school kids who probably didn’t even think I should be there.

There were five students in the classroom: two girls, and three boys; all white, and with hair that spanned a spectrum from blond to chestnut. They looked at me with typical teenage suspicion, as if saying “You want my attention, you’re gonna have to work for it.” The PapiCarne story broke the ice.

“Two gringos opening up a restaurant in Lima,” I said, “is as ballsy as a Peruvian telling the folks at NASA how to reach the Moon.”

It wasn’t the best metaphor, but we all had a little laugh.

“Machu Picchu is Peru’s Disney World,” I went on, showing them a photograph of a young couple kissing in front of an Inca wall. The image was to drive home my point that four million tourists travel to Peru each year. According to Peru’s National Migration Office, a quarter of them come from the US, and many of them decide to stay there and put down roots in the land of the cholos. Which is exactly what happened in the case of Justin and Brandy, founders of PapiCarne, who spent their honeymoon in Lima and fell in love with the place.

“And do you know how many of your compatriots have ended up living in my country in the last few years?” I asked the class.

Silence. The kids listened on, nonplussed. A whole bunch of Americans go to Peru and stay there to live? Wait a second. Wasn’t it the Latinos who migrated and set up home in a country that wasn’t theirs? Citizens of the First World actually cross borders looking for a better future? You bet. Migration is human. One in every ten foreigners living in Peru is gringo –according to the International Organization for Migration–, and the mere mention of these statistics is sacrilege. The United States is the country that sends the most immigrants to Peru; more than Spain, Chile, and Argentina. 

“And how hard is it for someone to become a resident in your country?” another teacher auditing the class asked.

“There’s paperwork to do, just like here,” I told her, and then I turned to the students. “But do you know what the big difference is?”

More silence.

“First, if you guys ever decide to go to Machu Picchu, you won’t need to get a visa. Whereas if a Peruvian wants to visit Disneyland, he or she will need one. And, judging by what I’ve seen each time I’ve had to go through this process, there’s a better chance you’ll be denied a visa than granted one.”

Second difference. If one day those kids decided to move to Peru, no Peruvian would label them immigrants. They’d call them gringos, just like they call Europeans gringos. Gringos, but never immigrants.

An immigrant is anyone who moves to live in a country that isn’t theirs, the dictionary states. But, in practice, the word “immigrant” is only ever used in one sense: to describe those who move from the south to the north. That is, to label the Latinos, the Africans, the Asians, and all those who come to live and work in the so-called developed countries. Latinos would never use that word, unless we’re referring to ourselves in exile.

“In Peru we simply don’t have political rhetoric against Caucasians like you,” I told them, “nor do we have a crazy president tweeting that he’s going to deport all the gringos.”

For us, the world is a huge house full of rooms with locks on the doors. Being born white in a “developed” and wealthy country affords you the privilege to move with freedom in that labyrinth where others live hemmed in, with no way of leaving their countries. Doors open to you when you’re American. You don’t need as many visas as a Latino does and you can move anywhere you like without carrying the stigma of being an immigrant.

So what did the food critic make of the hamburgers at PapiCarne, that American joint in the belly of Lima?

Brandy Wiley opened the paper that morning and read a pretty friendly review: “A new fried-food joint with East Asian influences has just opened up and deserves at least a couple of visits,” Javier Masías had written in his column. “Surprise,” Brandy wrote on her Facebook wall, before adding on the business’s fanpage: “Thank you for a wonderful 3 weeks, Lima! We are proud to bring our food to such a wonderful and supportive city.” She wrote it in English, of course, and I guess that plenty of us are in agreement about one thing: the people of Lima are incredibly welcoming to immigrants. With foreign immigrants, I mean. With those dark-skinned immigrants who come from the faraway Peruvian Andes and jungles, like me, the picture isn’t quite as pretty.

Next I shared the jacket for my book De dónde venimos los cholos (Where we cholos come from) with the students. How do you explain to a group of teenage gringos what a cholo is? Trump has made it easy for me. A cholo in Peru, I told them, is like a Latino in the US: someone with dark skin who has come from far away, from the south, from the mountains.

The students wrote down questions on little slips of paper and now it was my turn to face the firing squad.

“Why don’t you move some place where there are more Latinos?” one of the kids had asked.

“My wife is from Maine,” I responded. “I guess if she were from another country, from Chile, say, I’d have probably moved there.”

Would things have been different somewhere else? From my own experience, in any Western country, be it the US or Peru, things are pretty much the same for people with dark skin. If you’re a cholo in Lima, there’s a good chance they won’t let you into this cinema or that nightclub and that some woman will shout filthy Indian, mountain goat, lowlife at you. It’s happened to me.

I waited for an awkward comment, but none came. The next question was about my favorite dish. When I finished telling them about ceviche, the teacher handed around some popcorn, apple juice, and a plate of donuts. Then, bathed in the friendly vibes that food never fails to generate, we said good-bye. Only one of the five students came up to shake my hand. He was tall, golden-haired, and sort of mild-mannered. In his eyes I saw something like understanding. Perhaps he’d become more aware of his privilege.

 

***

 

One winter’s afternoon, my wife and I went to the movie theater to see I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary based on an essay by the black writer James Baldwin. The movie contains images depicting what it’s like to be a black person in the US. If you are black and drive a car in this country, you have a higher chance of the police stopping you and, oops, shooting you dead. You also have a lower chance of finishing school, going to college, or getting a good job. The movie shifts back and forth in time, covering the years of slavery up to Obama’s inaugural term as the first black president. It’s powerful stuff, full of footage of dead black leaders, black men and women being kicked into submission, black men and women humiliated by white people.  Halfway through the movie, the most interesting part was no longer on the screen, but was happening in the seats around us. Many of the people in the theatre were crying. It was hard not to shed a tear on seeing photographs of Dorothy Counts, one of the first black teenagers to enroll at a white school in North Carolina.
 


Photo credits: Don Sturkey. Courtesy of the Charlotte Observer.

 

When the lights went up, dozens of people were still wiping away their tears. In the theater, there were only two black people. They weren’t crying.

***

 

My high school chewed up cholos and black kids and spat them out. The final image of Dorothy Counts reminds me of the bullying of a black classmate of mine nicknamed Bemba, which means Big Lips. One look at him and you just knew he wasn’t doing so good. The insults, the blows, the spitting in his face had begun to take a serious toll on him. You only had to go up to him and look him in the eyes, you didn’t even need to insult or hit him, and he would tremble with fear.  I remember his nickname. His mouth. His puny body. But I can’t remember his name.

Life wasn’t any simpler for the cholos. Cochachi was like a lost soul. He walked around skirting walls, hiding his cholo face. Back then, I should have made a stand and shown some solidarity with Bemba and Cochachi. I should have taken those blows with them, at their side. I, too, am a cholo. And yet, I chose the quickest route to an easy life. I hid. I never told anyone where I was born, or that my parents and grandparents spoke Quechua. I never invited any of my buddies over because I was terrified they’d work out my origins from my house. Worse still, they might discover just how poor I was. Perhaps even poorer than poor Bemba. More cholo than Cochachi the cholo. These were my ghosts.

 

***

 

My father was old-school and wanted me to study to be a doctor or lawyer. When you’re poor, the degree you choose isn’t always an obvious expression of your talent or what you want to be in the future. Your degree is your ticket out of poverty. But I didn’t pay him any mind. I applied to San Marcos to study journalism. San Marcos is the old public university in Lima where the poor can get a free education without agonizing about not having any money. It is also perfectly representative of the extreme realities of my country. My sister Zoila had graduated a few years before and my head was full of her adventures. She and her friends had edited newspapers, organized poetry readings, fed the miners who came to Lima to protest and who’d set up their tents to sleep in San Marcos because that’s what San Marcos was: a great big open house.

I was poor, but not as poor as a lot of my college friends. G. came from a jungle town in the middle of nowhere and lived at home with a few family members. One morning he showed me the soles of his shoes, riddled with holes. The next day I brought him a pair that I didn’t use anymore. He returned the favor by introducing me to Henry Miller, Gabriel Celaya, Rainer Maria Rilke. I immediately got the reading bug and spent all my free time between the library and the bars around the university, listening to poets.

When I finished my first year, my father insisted that I apply to a private university and switch to a law degree. He was going to do whatever it took to pay the fees. I was his youngest child, his only son, and he, a doting macho. One morning he accompanied me to register for the entrance exam to the Católica, that prestigious, "liberal" private university, where the real paupers studied thanks to scholarships. We traveled by bus for an hour and a half on the Z line, from San Juan de Lurigancho, the working-class cholo "barriada" where we lived, and then walked the last stretch along Avenida Universitaria. It was one of the few times we really spoke cholo to cholo. How were we going to pay the fees? He was almost seventy, had retired some time earlier and was still running a local store, where I also worked in my free time. I didn’t want to be one more burden to him. Maybe I could get another job? To him, this proposal sounded disrespectful. Not a chance.

The Católica looked so perfect from the street: the pristine redbrick walls, the freshly cut lawns, students in summery outfits driving in and out in their cars. The sight of that campus with its flock of privileged students conveyed a reality far from our own. It was intimidating. I took a deep breath and told my father that this university wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to be a lawyer either. “Dad,” I said, “you just have to trust me.” He didn’t insist. We shook hands, as if sealing a deal, and said good-bye there on the street. I walked to San Marcos, read in the library for a while, and that evening went looking for my friends to celebrate.

In San Marcos I could be poor and cholo and I didn’t have the pressure of hiding or explaining myself because most people’s stories were just like mine. I felt at home.

 

***

 

During my first few months as a reporter for El Comercio, Peru's largest daily, I had a colleague who would sleep at the paper on the weekends. He’d arrive at night, pull a pillow and a blanket from his backpack, and curl up under his desk. We were both interns and had to work like dogs to ensure the editors would extend our trial period. I was quick. He was a martyr.

A rumor was going around that our paper only hired graduates from private universities, in particular those in Lima and Piura. The fact that the pair of us were there only partially disproved this myth, because most of the journalists and editors from the previous generation came from private universities. At one point the myth must have been reality. It was 2000. Dictator Alberto Fujimori was on the run. His partner Vladimir Montesinos was behind bars. The times were changing.

The demography at El Comercio was interesting: I’d never seen so many fair-looking people in one place. It wasn’t just their skin; their eyes, their hair, and even the surnames of many of my colleagues sounded different. In San Marcos, my fellow students had surnames like Huamán, Huamaní, Ticona, Ascona, Choque, Chate, Atoche, Calixto, Chahuayo. At El Comercio: Pinilla, Miró Quesada, Del Solar, Cisneros, García Miró, Abramovich, Salem, Larrabure, Swayne. The moment I’d joined the paper, I’d crossed the border from one country into another. Both were called Peru, but they had nothing to do with one another. To which did I belong?

I’ve never been too bothered about clothes, but in those first months as a reporter I wanted to burn my entire wardrobe. I looked at my clumpy shoes, my faded pants, and I hated them because they were my poor clothes, my San Marcos clothes, my cholo clothes. I could no longer hide as I had done in school. I studied my colleagues of the same age: how they dressed, the brands they chose, the cargo pants, the North Face jackets. And then I’d go to those stores, but I never bought anything because it seemed ludicrous to pay so much for so little. With my first intern’s paycheck, I bought myself eleven volumes of Basadre’s La Historia de la República in a second-hand bookstore.

The next day I was back in the office loathing my shoes, my wire-frame glasses, my T-shirts with their stretched collars. I never told anyone (except my wife), when I finally decided to write my story, but I felt so poor, so cholo, so worthless. The only privilege I had (and back then I didn’t even really realize it) was my education. Not the journalist’s degree I’d earned, but the far greater number of books I’d read compared to my colleagues. I noticed it when we chatted, when I read their articles, and when they commented on mine.

I guess if I had been more aware of that advantage I would have been able to make more of it. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t. One day I quit the newspaper. Yet again, I felt like I was out of place. I was tired of having to prove, every day, that despite coming from San Marcos, despite being cholo, despite being poor, I was worthy of that job.

 

***

 

It’s strange to grow up thinking that some things aren’t meant for you, that they’re not suitable or that you don’t deserve them. Stranger still to realize that you’ve spent your whole life telling yourself the same thing: this private university isn’t meant for you, that overseas master’s isn’t meant for you, this job isn’t meant for you, that girl isn’t meant for you. The voice never lets up. It’s there, even now that you live in the United States, reminding you that, for many, your skin and your origin are your disadvantage.

 

***

 

Is it so hard to see the privilege when you’re the privileged one? Is it so hard to see that if you’re born with white skin, with a “good surname” and with money, things will be easier for you than for the rest? For starters, if you enjoy those privileges, you don’t have that constant voice in your head telling you: You’re cholo, you won’t get the job because you’re cholo, you can’t come into the club because you’re cholo, they’re working you harder than the rest because you’re cholo.

 

***

 

Three radio hosts on Radio Programas del Perú had a call-in with a San Marcos student one late summer morning in Lima. The kid was the representative for a group of students who had taken over the university to protest against the fees imposed by the new dean. The dean and the students hadn’t managed to resolve their differences by ordinary means, in faculty meetings, and now the problem had turned into a real public headache. The student’s surname was Huamán, and that’s not an insignificant detail—it gave away his indigenous heritage. Those of the radio hosts—Del Río, Mariátegui, and Carvallo—likewise gave them away as white. Two starkly different worlds were coming together to talk. And they just couldn’t do it. The interview wasn’t an interview; it was a lynching:
 

—And what’s the proposed increase in fees for these people you’re talking about? Del Río, the presenter, asks.

The student explains that it’s between 60 and 200 soles, around 20–60 US dollars.

—Sixty soles per semester, Del Río repeats.

—In other words we’re talking about 10 soles a month, Mariátegui chips in.

—10 soles a month, Del Río reiterates. That’s what—10 cents a day? How much are we talking?

The student doesn’t respond.

—You really mean to say that we’re here discussing this because you don’t want to pay 20, 30 cents a day? Seriously?

 

The presenters speak in the tone you might use to chide a child. One of them even laughs at the student.

I’m not sure which part of this mistreatment machine enrages me more. Perhaps the purely hypothetical possibility that, in another time, that nervous and aggrieved student could have been me or a friend or one of my sisters. I don’t know how many times, while studying at San Marcos, I went out protesting for the same reasons that kid had. Back then, like now, the journalists and authorities branded us terrorists. Never have they said the same of students from the private universities, and nor will they ever. The label only works one way, in the same way that the label of immigrant used by gringos against Latinos only works one way; that is, to mark out the poor, the cholos, the darkies.

The hashtag “#I Attend San Marcos and I'm No Terrorist” went viral on social media over the days following the interview. Many students and former students from San Marcos shared it as a reaction against the stigma laid upon us by those who have the “privilege” to not have studied there. If you study in the Católica or in the Universidad de Lima, for instance, you will never have to prove that you weren’t responsible for a crime that, in Peru, can land you a life sentence.
 


Social scientists could dissect that interview in a lab, analyze its every detail. And yet, as in any other tale of abuse, it doesn’t matter so much what the aggressors actually said. What matters is who they are.

Three radio journalists mistreating an interviewee.

Three full-grown people mistreating a kid.

Three privileged white people mistreating a cholo.

I saw similar scenes of bullying at my high school. Many people who enjoy privileges don’t realize just how privileged they are. On top of struggling with all their “disadvantages,” cholos of all colors and nationalities also have to assume the job of explaining their privilege; that is, how the attributes bestowed on them by the grace of the Holy Spirit work in their favor: for having been born where they were born and for growing up in the family they grew up in. If we don’t explain this, if we don’t complain to the privileged classes, they will go on imposing their points of view and their ways. They’ll eat us alive, just like they ripped that student apart. This is why I took the time to go to that school in Maine and talk with the students. That’s why I’m sharing my story here.

Three white, privileged people sitting around a table in a radio studio do not guarantee a plurality of voices or respect for anyone who doesn’t share those privileges. In countries that are as wildly different from one another as Peru and the US, democracy still doesn’t exist in either: we know the rules, their promise of a just and tolerant world, but we’re still a long way from that utopia. This is why we, as the least privileged in society, have to keep up the daily fight, to enter those spaces we still don’t occupy, where our voice isn’t heard as clearly, where our skin isn’t looked upon with the same respect.

We cholos, Latinos, and immigrants have come a long way and carry a complex history with us. The story of where we come from isn’t our disadvantage, as we’re told, and as we tell ourselves. On the contrary, it is our strength.

 

This essay originally appeared in Ojo Público and comes from No Soy Tu Cholo (Debate) © 2017 Marco Avilés. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Sophie Hughes. All rights reserved.

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