Peter Klarén on The Lima Reader (LARR)

(…) That does not mean that the capital city, with upward of a third of the total population of the country and its historic place of power, is not still a very important object of historical analysis and widespread interest. This is verified with the appearance of The Lima Reader, which deserves attention here as a worthy complement to the five volumes reviewed above. An anthology of primary selections expertly edited by well-known Peruvianist historians Carlos Aguirre and Charles Walker, the book spans a spectrum of epochs and topics from the Incas and conquest to the modern day. It brings together an extraordinarily rich array of original sources such as travel accounts, historical documents, folklore, poetry, excerpts from short stories and memoirs, maps, and photographs, including translated selections of notable historical and literary figures as well as contemporary intellectuals, politicians, and scholars. In addition to exploring Lima’s identity through its food, sports culture, festivals, and sense of humor, these sources “address how Lima’s multiethnic population, class inequalities and debates of who is a ‘true’ limeño/a have evolved throughout the city’s history” (back cover).

The reader is organized into six chronological sections: “Pre-Hispanic, Conquest and Early Colony,” “Bourbon Lima,” “From Independence to the War of the Pacific (1821–1883),” “Modernizing Lima (1895–1940),” “Interlude: Nostalgia and Its Discontents,” and “The Many Limas (1940–).” The latter two sections are decidedly weighted toward the period since 1940, with a total of twenty-three entries (114 pages) versus the previous five centuries with thirty-one entries (134 pages). Given the projected readership, mainly university students and lay readers, this emphasis is entirely appropriate. Each section and selection or entry begins with a short introduction that concisely summarizes its contents.

The very first chapter, entitled “Pre-Hispanic Lima,” captures the beginning of what would become multiethnic Lima over the next five centuries. Francisco Pizarro and his fellow Spanish conquistadors vainly tried to separate themselves from the conquered indigenous by founding their capital city on the coast far from the Indian core, the Inca imperial capital Cuzco. Yet from the moment of its founding, the City of the Kings was intimately tied to the indigenous people, who not only surrounded it but had built a plethora of huacas, native holy shrines whose remains still dot the city landscape even today. The ensuing process of racial and cultural mixing with the Hispanic population would quickly doom the policy of dividing and segregating Peru into two republics, Spaniards and Indians, as dictated from Madrid.

Garcilaso de La Vega’s description of this early attempt at separation, of course, was not the only reason for the selection of coastal Lima as the new capital, since commerce and trade with Spain and Europe was also paramount. Over time that would bring other components that contributed to the multiethnic composition of the city and colony, such as African slave labor for nearby sugar plantations and as household servants. By the eighteenth century Lima would be described by some as a predominantly black city, as described in several entries, such as Flora Tristan’s “A Slave Plantation,” and another by Natalia Majluf on Pancho Fierro, the Afro-Peruvian watercolorist who brilliantly depicted the Afro population of the city. “Faces of All Colors” by Hipólito Ruiz adds an example of the ugly racial discrimination that the capital’s dominant “white” population subjected this dark-skinned underclass, but which ironically also tagged the creole elite as inferior to Europeans (Spaniards).

Fast-forward to the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when Lima’s population assumed still another racial dimension. This time Chinese and Japanese indentured servants were brought to work in the guano fields and plantations and in railroad construction, respectively, and many eventually found their way to Lima once completing their work contracts. Their ancestors are today’s Asian component that dominates the small retail or bodega trade as well as the famous Chinese restaurants of Lima, called chifas. A variety of Europeans, of course, arrived in Lima from abroad during this time as well.

However, not until the advent of the tidal wave of rural-urban migration that began to build after World War II, particularly during the lost decade of the 1980s economic crisis and internal war, did the ever growing indigenous and mestizo population inundate the capital city. The entry by anthropologist José Matos Mar entitled “A City of Outsiders” superbly chronicles the “Andeanization” of Lima, as does Gisela Canepa’s “Chicha and Huayno: Andean Music and Culture in Lima.” Lima’s population would increasingly resemble the mestizo nation that some argued Peru was becoming.

Numerous entries in the reader, of course, also treat the conflict and periodic violence that erupted as these disparate ethnicities struggled against the exploitation and discrimination they faced in everyday life. These include “A Failed Indian Uprising in the 1750s” (Anonymous), “Chinese Are Not Welcome” by Mariano Castro Zaldivar and, of course, various entries on the War of the Shining Path and accompanying human rights violations. Moreover, wars both external and internal are skillfully treated, such as in “The National Library and the Chilean Occupation” by E. W. Middendorf and numerous gripping entries on the Shining Path such as “The Great March of Villa El Salvador” by Jose María Salcedo, “The Day Lima Erupted” by Enrique Zileri, “The Tarata Street Bombing,” and “Shining Path: A Prisoner’s Testimony,” the latter two drawn from the 2002 Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (Comisión de la Verdad y Reconciliación, Perú).

Modernizing Lima, a city undergoing intense change at the turn of the twentieth century, features several notable entries such as José Gálvez’s “Transformation of Lima after 1895,” Luis Alberto Sánchez’s autobiographical description of “A Middle-Class House in 1900,” “The Growing Popular Taste for Soccer” from El Comercio; entries on religion and the church include “The Spiritual Diary of an Afro-Peruvian Mystic” by Ursula de Jesús, “Auto-da-Fé and Procession,” by Josephe and Francisco Mugaburu, and José Carlos Mariátegui’s “The Lord of the Miracles Procession.”

How to represent the enormous variety, diversity, and contrasts of Lima represents the great challenge to the editors of The Lima Reader. For in the city one finds affluent neighborhoods with manicured lawns of the great mansions; quaint, tidy middle-class sections; and new, teeming hilltop shantytowns. In the historic downtown center, belle époque buildings compete with colonial-era churches, monasteries, and convents and modern bustling business establishments and official buildings, all clustered together on narrow streets, together forming only 5 percent of the sprawling city. In this difficult endeavor, as perhaps one would expect, the editors succeed admirably in selecting the best passages (and photographs) that can be found to represent the rich material and cultural tapestry that unfolds in the City of the Kings over the centuries.

Peru since Independence, a Tortured History,” Latin American Research Review 53.4 (2018): 847-856.


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