Archive for February 2012

Our Lord of Miracles   Leave a comment

Peru has an annual celebration in honor of Our Lord of Miracles (Senor de los Milagros); it’s marked by an outdoor mass and procession.

Our Lord of Miracles is rooted in African culture. According to tradition, in 1651 an enslaved man from Angola, who had converted to Catholicism, painted the depiction of Christ crucified on the wall of a building in Lima. In 1655 a major earthquake hit the area destroying the building, but the wall adorned with the painting was unharmed. Another earthquake, in 1687, caused the building to collapse and again the wall with the painted image remained intact. This cemented the importance of the image to the faithful.

A replica of the image (with the Virgin Mary on one side) was created and is taken out in procession through the streets of Peru annually. The veneration of the image has international as well as national significance and is associated with miraculous incidents. Additional photos from this series can be viewed at

The Conflict (El Conflicto)   3 comments

One month (July 2009) after a bloody clash between indigenous natives (Awajun), local migrants and the Peruvian National Police, life outside the provincial city of Bagua, in Peru’s north Amazon jungle, returned to normal.

On June 5, 2009 the Peruvian National Police, using tanks, helicopters, tear gas and firearms, attacked a roadblock approximately 450 miles north of the capital, Lima. Protestors had been blocking roads for two months to demonstrate their opposition to laws that gave logging, mining and oil companies access to their ancestral grounds – the Amazon.

According to Amnesty International more than 30 indigenous citizens and 22 police were killed. Some reports indicate 50 people were injured. The numbers are disputable depending upon who is questioned. Shortly after the mayhem, Peru’s Congress repealed two key pieces of legislation that contributed to the protest.

The indigenous community commonly refer to the attack and the events that led up to it as El Conflicto (The Conflict). This photo story (additional images can be viewed at is a portrait of the Awajun community and the way of life they sought to protect from outside commercial interests.

Golden Slum   4 comments

La Rinconada, Peru – Extreme poverty is a way of life in La Rinconada, a shantytown 17,000 feet above sea-level in the high Andes of Peru. It has been said, Peru is a beggar seated on a throne of gold. In the case of this mining community the throne is one of gold and human waste.

Its citizens endure life in what is probably the dirtiest shanty community at the highest altitude in the world. It has no running water, no sewage system and its grounds are contaminated by mercury used to separate rock from gold. While coca leaves or altitude sickness pills may help one survive the high elevation, there’s nothing to provide relief from the horrible smell; the horrendous sanitary conditions result from the unregulated disposal of garbage and human waste. Unpaved streets provide transit for stench-filled mud and garbage litters its grounds. Life expectancy in La Rinconada is the lowest in Peru. Criminals on the run from the law are attracted to the area because there is no police presence. It’s no small wonder you won’t find any vacationing foreigners in La Rinconada.

Many of the 30,000 residents who call La Rinconada home lack basic educational skills. Most are employed under an ancient lottery system – and verbal contract – called cachorreo, in which they work for 30 days without pay. On the 31st day they receive payment in the form of a sack of ore, which may or may not contain gold; they’re permitted to enter a mine and collect what they hope will amount to a payment. It’s a cruel lottery that can lead to indentured servitude.

Martin Luque Vargas, 40, is a miner who insists he makes money under the system because he always finds gold. “I make enough to live each month but not save,” Vargas says. Nevertheless the system is cruel and unforgiving to others. Vargas is a former traffic controller from the nearby district of Quilcapuncu. He was fired because of the worldwide economic crisis. A widower he moved with his mother and three children to La Rinconada in July 2008 to become a miner. He responds “si mucho” (yes, very much) enthusiastically when asked if he enjoys working as a miner. “I think life in both mining and La Rinconada could improve in the future,” he states. However he acknowledged that the work is very dangerous and has no security. “I want to work as a miner for five more years and move.”

The likelihood of death, for miners, is echoed in a local saying, “off to work I go, I don’t know if I’ll make it back.” The area’s population growth, fueled by the unemployed, indicates there are many willing to tolerate the abuses of La Rinconada ensuring the ancient lottery will continue to be played.

Photos from Golden Slum can be viewed at

Camalenque   Leave a comment

See “Afro-Latinos in the Andes:”

Lima, Peru – While working as Camalenque, Eduardo Castillo answers his cellphone as his brother Victor Castillo struggles under the weight of a heavy coffin.

Camalenque are Afro-Peruvian men who are highly sought to carry coffins at the most upscale funerals in Peru. Clad in tuxedos and white gloves they are hired under the belief that their skin-color lends an aura of elegance to the job. In Peru, where racism against blacks and indigenous natives is strong, dark skin is not only used to exclude but to symbolize servitude. In May 2010 Peru’s Ministry of Culture denounced the practice of the Camalenque as racist and requested – to no avail – that the mortuary business end the service.

Additional photographs from the Camalenque photo story can be viewed at

Unexpected Faces   2 comments

See “Afro-Latinos in the Andes:”

From colorfully dressed Afro-Bolivian women in bowler hats working in coca fields to Afro-Colombian children toiling in small-scale gold mining pits, Afro-Latinos exist actively, if not always visibly, in the Andean region. Their history has been cloaked by a legacy of invisibility as governments often fail to mention the participation and contributions of Afro-Latinos to the region; racism is common.

Their numbers in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay are small. Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador best represent the reality of invisibility and racism because they have significant percentages of Afro-Latinos in comparison to Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. In Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador Afro-Latinos make up approximately five, two and ten percent respectively of their country’s populations.

Many people are quite familiar with Afro-Latinos in Colombia or Brazil, but often are unaware of Afro-Latino communities elsewhere in South America. I recall speaking with an American journalist in 2008 and mentioning my interest in documenting Afro-Bolivian and Afro-Peruvian communities. He responded, “I didn’t know there were blacks in Peru and Bolivia.” Afro-Latinos represent the ‘Unexpected Faces’ of South America.

While Latinos in the region will praise the musical and culinary contributions of Afro-Latinos, they often revile dark skin. My arrival to the Andean region, in February 2009, was the start of a journey into the lives of Afro-Latinos who were struggling to have their problems and, in some cases, their very existence acknowledged. This was perhaps best symbolized in Bolivia where the government had always denied the existence of Afro-Bolivians. It was in 2009 that Bolivian president Evo Morales formally acknowledged the existence of Afro-Bolivians. It was also in 2009 that then Peruvian president Alan Garcia held a public ceremony to apologize to Afro-Peruvians for centuries of “abuse, exclusion and discrimination.” Hitherto, the Peruvian government had a policy that proclaimed the equality of all its citizens was written into the constitution, and consequently racism did not exist. By stating everyone was equal it permitted Peruvian policy-makers to deny historic discrimination and the resulting differences in status and development.

Although my work has concentrated on Afro-Latino communities in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, I’ve also documented blacks in Argentina and Colombia. I’m based out of Peru so I’m most familiar with Afro-Peruvians. While Afro-Peruvians can be quite vocal about the stigma associated with being black, seemingly there’s no consensus on how to collectively respond to it. In the Andean region the fact that racism was never institutionalized, as it was in the United States during the Jim Crow era, ensures that Afro-Latino’s fight for equality is unlikely to ever be confrontational, as experienced by African-Americans.

The reality of Afro-Latinos recalls that of African-Americans who challenged racism during the civil rights movement. Unlike the situation in the U.S., the struggle in the Andean region is devoid of protesters engaged in lunch counter sit-downs (although it’s not uncommon for Afro-Peruvians to be denied service at high-end establishments), or confrontations with police officers armed with batons and attack dogs, which were aired nightly on the news. Although it’s a different place, people and era, it’s the same battle – overcoming racism.

Generally speaking there is a lack of sensitivity in South America to negative depictions of Afro-Latinos. From dolls with exaggeratedly dark black skin and big red lips to a young white-Latino girl in black face masquerading as a prostitute, while she solicits tourists for money, Afro-Latinos are often the source of mockery. Racial stereotypes are reinforced daily in the media and on television, e.g., in Peru there’s a popular comedy show character called ‘Negro Mama.’ He’s a grotesque caricature of a black man who’s ignorant and dishonest, played by an actor in black face with a false nose and lips. I document these negative stereotypes to serve as a counterweight to the general South American denial of race as an issue; the lack of an open dialogue on race has contributed to Afro-Latinos being visible in a negative manner. Sadly, in the 21st-century the present generation must overcome images that could impact heavily on their self-esteem.

While race can be used to exclude it is also used to symbolize servitude: Afro-Peruvian men are highly prized for jobs as hotel and casino doormen – in elegant colonial uniforms with top hats – and as pallbearers (a vocational identity known as Camalenque) – dressed in formal attire at upper-class funerals – under the belief that their dark skin adds an aura of elegance to such occupations. In May 2010 Peru’s Ministry of Culture denounced the practice of the Camalenque as racist and requested, to no avail, that the mortuary business end the service.

When the idea for ‘Unexpected Faces’ first came to me the intention was to document the existence, uniqueness, and diversity of Afro-Latino communities in the Andean region. Early on I recognized the problems Afro-Latinos faced and that the issue of discrimination was integral to their story. Theirs is a multifaceted story on the complexities of race, cultural diversity and the embracing of traditions which create a sense of pride and self-awareness.

‘Unexpected Faces’ is an ongoing documentary project that hopes to show how the treatment of Afro-Latinos raises questions about the intellectual, cultural and moral refinement of civilization in South America. The people, governments and media of the region need to understand they will never attain an advanced state of social development until they become an inclusive society.

Photos from Unexpected Faces (and related pics) can be viewed at

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