Santos Puma Paso speaks with CBC anthropologist Ligia Alencastre in Cusco
Santos Puma Paso speaks with CBC anthropologist Ligia Alencastre in Cusco

Peru: Respecting minority rights

“I was lost. I did not know what culture I belonged to”
Santos Puma Paso

In the mountains of Peru, indigenous leaders are taking a multicultural approach to overcoming centuries of racism and discrimination--and fighting poverty.

Santos Puma Paso used to be a health promoter, a volunteer helping his community of indigenous people to prevent diseases and get better medical care. Despite his commitment to this work, he never got much help from the nearest health clinic. It used to take him an entire day to walk there from his remote village, but no one would ever meet with him or help him.

Paso suspected the reason for this neglect, and it became clear when one health official told Paso that he was not fit to wash dishes in their office because he was an indigenous Quechua speaker, an ethnic group at the bottom of the social order in the scenic region of Cusco. Paso was so discouraged that he almost believed him.

Originally published by Oxfam America

“I was lost,” says Paso, now 37, married, and the father of three young boys. “I did not know what culture I belonged to.”

Racism, and the discrimination it breeds, erodes the self-respect of the highland indigenous people of Peru. They turn away from their culture and slowly drop their traditional ways of living and working that are so well suited to the Andes. As a result, indigenous people are among the poorest in the country.

To get some perspective, Paso visited the Centro de Bartolomé de Las Casas because he had heard on the radio that it was running a bilingual education program designed to help indigenous leaders like him reconcile their place in Peru, learn about their human rights, and develop skills to represent their community with government officials.

With grants from Oxfam America, CBC had just finished a year-long consultation with Quechua-speaking community leaders and had jointly developed a curriculum designed to help young leaders value their own culture while operating in Peru’s modern, post-colonial culture. “We have created a way to help people see they are part of one culture, but they recognize the other,” says Nicolette Velarde, an anthropologist at CBC.

Fruit of Quechua Culture

After developing the curriculum, CBC is now in the midst of training its first group of leaders, which included Paso and 30 others from Cusco and Apurimac.

One of them is Guillermina Mamani Huamán, 53, a mother of four and grandmother of seven. She had a similar experience to Paso’s the first time she visited the city of Cusco, 15 years ago. Huamán went to Cusco to ask a government agency for help in marketing artisan products, but, over the course of four days, she was repeatedly denied the courtesy of even a short consultation.

Paso and Huamán and all the other leaders are planning how they will use their newfound knowledge and leadership skills. Paso is planning to run for public office so he can better represent his community and ensure it gets the schools, health care, and clean water it deserves, without forsaking its cultural identity.

Huamán wants to work to promote the handicrafts produced by women in her community so that they can be more financially independent. “I want to help women educate their children,” she says while weaving next to the rushing river, “so they can read and write, and not face the discrimination that I have.”