Calvin Sims, the _Times_ reporter who authored the piece below, is a black. Since he was assigned to the South America/Latin America desk several months ago, he's written some good pieces on the banality of racism. What's interesting, too, is his struggle, coming fr. the US context with racism that's not the KKK nor the subtler variety we encounter in academia and business.
[L] IMA, Peru -- Strapping black doormen in elegant colonial uniforms stand guard at most luxury hotels in Lima.
Stern-faced black pallbearers clad in tuxedos and white gloves carry the coffins at most upscale funerals in the city.
The doormen are usually the only black employees of the hotels, and the pallbearers are typically the only black faces among the affluent mourners. In Peruvian society, these and other menial jobs are reserved almost exclusively for blacks, and their skin color is considered to bring an aura of prestige to the work.
Help-wanted advertisements seeking chauffeurs, cooks, doormen, butlers and maids often state a preference for "negros" or "morenos," as blacks are known in Peru, an Andean nation of 23 million people who are mainly of Spanish and Indian descent. Blacks make up less than one percent of the country's population.
Among wealthy Peruvians, having a black butler or a black maid to attend their door or dinner party is considered chic. No proper funeral would be complete without black pallbearers, and most funeral agencies provide this burial service for about $200.
Many black Peruvians who hold these posts say they are proud of their work and consider it a tribute to their race that blacks are preferred for these tasks.
"Why do the whites want blacks for this job, you ask," said 73-year-old Augusto Chevez, who has been bearing coffins of the rich for 60 years. "Because we are so strong and so serious yet we look so elegant. Who else could do a better job?"
But not all black Peruvians take pride in working these menial jobs, which some view as a throwback to Peru's long history of slavery, which was abolished in 1854.
"Anyone who thinks it's esthetically pleasing to see black people in subservient and demeaning roles has a medieval mind at best, and at worst is a racist," said Jorge Rodriguez Reina, who heads the Movement for Human Rights of Blacks in Peru, one of three black political groups that have emerged in recent years.
The country's Indian majority suffers much of the same racism as blacks. But deep hostilities have kept Indians and blacks from uniting. In the colonial era, Spanish masters often used black men to oversee Indian laborers. Today, many aristocratic families in Lima place a black woman in charge of a household staff of Indian maids.
As a result, there are few ties between the two groups, which often discriminate against one another and refer to each other in the same derogatory terms used by many in the Hispanic elite.
Some black activists said they resent the international aid and attention that many indigenous groups have received under the administration of President Alberto Fujimori, who routinely dresses in Indian clothing and makes highly publicized trips to Indian villages.
Rodriguez and other black activists said that while most Peruvians contend that their country is free of racism, unspoken discrimination and benign neglect has kept a vast proportion of Peru's blacks in menial jobs and deplorable living conditions.
Although nightclubs feature Afro-Peruvian musical groups and a third of Peruvian soccer players are black, the number of black professionals is estimated at fewer than 400, and there are no black executives of Peruvian companies, no blacks in the diplomatic corps, judiciary, or the high ranks of the clergy or military. The country's even smaller Japanese community has produced the current President, but no black politician has risen even as far as Congress.
While incidents of open discrimination are far less common in Peru than in the United States and Brazil, which has the largest black population in Latin America, Peruvian blacks say they encounter racism daily.
In public, they say, they are frequently called derogatory names like "son of coal" or "smokeball." At job interviews, they say, they are often told that their experience and references are excellent but that the owners are looking to hire people with "good presence" -- a euphemism for someone who is white.
Cecilia Ramirez Rivas, a black woman, said that she finished at the top of her nursing school class but that she works as an independent within the black community because she has been refused work at mainstream hospitals and doctors' offices.
In shops and restaurants, blacks say, they must often wait for white customers to be served first or they are denied entry outright.
"The worst is that nobody acknowledges that these events take place," said Paul Colino Monroy, director of the Francisco Congo Negro Movement, a black advocacy group that promotes pride and black cultural identity. "Whites deny that there's racism, and most blacks never protest. They blindly assume that this is way things are supposed to be."
But even if blacks protested, the activists said, there would be little recourse because there are no laws or penalties in Peru to protect them from racism. The government has no programs or agencies charged with defending the rights of blacks or indigenous people. Despite numerous calls to various Government agencies, no Government official agreed to be interviewed on the issue of racism.
But however bleak their prospects, many Peruvian blacks cling to their pride. Chevez, whose sons and grandsons also work as pallbearers, boasts that he has carried some of Peru's most famous personalities, including seven presidents, to their graves.
"No matter how important these men were," he said, "they all had to pass through these hands, the hands of a negro, before they could rest in peace.
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company