Local approach to fighting racism

By Chris Hufstader
Arturo Lopez (left) of APRODEH with Socorro Arce, a regidora in the city of Huamanga. Photo: Percy Ramirez/Oxfam America

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Second in a series of four

There’s a poster in the office of APRODEH in Ayacucho that depicts a group of highland indigenous people riding on a bus. Each passenger is regarding the others with suspicion: “I don’t like the look of that one,” one is thinking. Another thought bubble over the head of a fellow passenger says, “that cholo might rob me,” using a derogatory term for an indigenous person.

It’s a realistic scene, says Wilfredo Ardito, a 45-year-old attorney who APRODEH’s work on racism and discrimination in Ayacucho. He says Peru is an extremely ethnically diverse country, but years of racist attitudes towards the native people have resulted in the indigenous people themselves rejecting their own identity, refusing to speak their own languages, and turning their backs on their own culture. “They even use derogatory words against people like themselves,” Ardito says. “People lack self esteem, they respect white people more than themselves.” This is one of the key aspects of APRODEH’s training: helping people accept who they are, and to be proud of themselves. “Part of the process of eliminating racism is accepting your own face,” Ardito says.

APRODEH teaches staff at municipal government about discrimination and racism as a means to raise awareness and encouraging local communities to pass local ordinances to promote equality as part of a comprehensive effort to fight poverty in Ayacucho “We know it is more effective to have a local law,” Ardito says. “Most people don’t know about the national laws, not the police, not the judges.” One strategy that has proven effective is to work directly with elected regidoros, sort of like county commissioners, who represent specific constituencies in municipal affairs.

“Like an earthquake”

Socorro Arce, 45, is a regidora in Huamanga who helped organize a training session for all the female elected politicians in the department of Ayacucho – about 113 of them. This led to a network that is helping to promote women leaders, a space where Arce says “we can exchange ideas, and talk about human rights and gender, and we support new ideas like the ordinances, so we can reduce discrimination against people who speak Quechua, have a different religion, or women who are pregnant.”

Arce started fighting against injustice while in a religious high school, which she says was run poorly and discriminated against the darker skinned, poorer girls. “That’s why I became a leader -- the girls were really submissive, and I started to change that mentality,” she says. Arce was expelled twice, once for leading a strike against the school by students objecting to corporal punishment. “They would make us stand facing a wall with our hands on our heads for hours, it was like torture. I told them, ‘If you keep punishing us like this, we won’t go to class’,” she says she announced one day. “I was about 14 or 15 then.”

When APRODEH was looking for an ally to promote local ordinances, program officer Arturo Lopez decided to approach Arce because “she’s really accessible, I called her and she said ‘come on over,’ and she helped negotiate with the other women leaders.” He called the right person, it seems. Starting in her high school days, Arce says struggling against injustice was always high on her agenda. “In all the positions I have held as a leader, I have always spoken out against discrimination.”

Lopez and Arce are an unlikely pair. He is soft spoken, she is an aggressive talker, an avid networker. “I really like Arturo,” Arce says over a glass of fruit juice overlooking the central plaza in Huamanga. “He’s really calm. I’m more like an earthquake.”

Together they convened the women leaders, held a training session, and these women then went out and helped their communities pass four new ordinances in Ayacucho APRODEH says are fighting back against racism and discrimination at the local level.