Commentary, Customs

On Being a Gringo in Peru

Gringos Taking a Rest in the Plaza de Armas

“He saw you as a gringo. That is why he tried to over-charge you.”

I had hailed a taxi from the edge of Cuzco’s Plaza de Armas and once I was seated the driver told me he was going to charge me 7/S, almost double the going rate for the route. I had said “no” and so the driver asked me to leave his car. The next driver asked me what happened and provided an explanation.

This idea that people charge gringos more is common and provides a certain uncertainty to being visibly different from other people. There is always the doubt that maybe you are being treated differently and charged a different price.

While this is not categorically different from the uncertainty of Andean life, brilliantly discussed by anthropologist Bruce Mannheim, something that requires people build and maintain family ties and friendships to develop a kind of security vis a vis each other and the universe, it is different because of the way it fits into gringo expectations.

As an American who has spent decades in the Andes, I know this stuff well, yet inside there is an expectation that people should treat each other equally based on established rules, laws, and procedures, instead of things varying according to personal status, friendship, or some image of race or nationality.

Seeing you as a gringo is just a tension. Sometimes it opens into a wound and sometimes it just fades into the background. But it is always there.

For example, I arrived in Lima’s Jorge Chavez Airport the other day, left my luggage and went out to go to the avenue to catch a taxi to the city for the day. But a driver stepped as I walked out the airport’s sliding doors into the lot. He offered me ride. “How much?” “I will tell you when we get to the car”

“Oh boy”, I thought. “I wasn’t born yesterday.” But since the path was on the way to the main avenue i saw nothing to lose in walking slightly behind him.

As we got to his car, oncer again I asked “how much.” He told me a price substantially higher than it would have cost from the fixed taxi stands in the airport and more than double the street rate. I just laughed and told him his price was exaggerated.

Afterwards I was thinking how tired I get of always having to be aware, and always having to argue price. Of course I could have contracted with one of the fixed stands. To me this brought forward that I was a gringo, racially and culturally different in someone else’s land and people wanted to take advantage of me as a result.

Even though the same kind of negotiations and exaggerated prices are offered to Peruvian friends, as the drivers suss out their clients, still my blondness, light colored skin, and Spanish “from-somewhere-else” provided the edge of my experience and understanding, until I thought it through.

They say that in the US Whiteness is invisible. Well, it is not for me in Peru. It seems to constantly appear. Whether it is people speaking English to me up front because they assume that must be my language, or when they hear me say anything in Spanish saying “you speak Spanish so well” or “where did you learn to speak Spanish”, these things are a grit that rubs away my invisibility to make me very visible to my self.

Even though I have spoken Spanish since I was a little boy, it is never good enough. Occasionally, especially now that my “dejo” my accent is more Peruvianized”, people will ask “are you Peruvian”. Still the separation is always there. I am almost never just another human being in the crowd, always different.

There are times I look at dark-skinned and dark haired Americans with jealousy because it is my fantasy they will fit in at least visibly, even if they cannot speak the language. I speak the language but my Whiteness, my gringo-ness is always visible as if I carried nationality tattooed on my forehead.

Unlike other statuses, such as being a cholo or such, this one is not stigmatized as low status but as one of high status, although there is the category of wajcha gringo (orphan or poor gringo) to speak about people who do not fit the stereotype. It is privilege that gives advantages at times. It is hard for that fact to pass into the background of existence so that other aspects of my self can come forward to be the most important for identifying me.

While in Peru, like it or not, I will be a gringo, maybe a gringo cholo or a gringo something or other, but always a gringo. That can be hard on my consciousness. Oh well, gringo soy . . .

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