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Lima: Where the pallbearers are black

Friday - 7/19/2013, 9:58pm  ET

In this July 2, 2013 photo, a group of black pallbearers eat lunch before working at a burial in Lima, Peru. Black pallbearers are a legacy, historians say, of the concentration in Lima of the bulk of Spain’s colonial nobility in the Americas, a segment of the population that routinely had a sizeable retinue of house slaves. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

FRANKLIN BRICENO
Associated Press

LIMA, Peru (AP) -- Elegant in tuxedos and white gloves, the six black pallbearers silently and gracefully remove the mahogany coffin bearing a Lima tire magnate from his mansion. They slide it into the Cadillac hearse that will parade Jorge Reyna's body through the Chorrillos district where he was once mayor.

The pallbearers are in the job precisely because of the color of their skin, a phenomenon unique to this South American capital that was the regional seat of Spain's colonial empire for more than three centuries. In fact, prominent citizens such as Reyna, a widely respected, charitable man of indigenous origin who died at age 82, request black pallbearers for their funerals.

"He planned his funeral and wanted it to be elegant," said Reyna's widow, Clarisa Velarde.

Blacks routinely bear the caskets of ex-presidents, mining magnates and bankers to their tombs in Lima. The peculiar tradition exists neither in provincial Peruvian cities nor in other Latin American countries with significant black populations such as Brazil, Panama and Colombia.

It is not a profession chosen by Lima's blacks but is rather thrust upon them by a lack of opportunity, say Afro-Peruvian scholars. And racism remains so deeply ingrained in Peru that many don't consider the practice discriminatory.

"Beyond the question of racism or prejudice, I think it is simply a question of employment," said Jose Campos, a leading Peruvian black studies scholar and vice rector of the National Education University.

For 61-year-old Armando Arguedas, who like his fellow pallbearers never finished elementary school, it's simply a job.

"Some people are friendly," he said of those who employ him. "Some don't even say thank you."

Black pallbearers were even used for the recent funeral of the wife of former U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar.

"We were never treated better," said Arguedas. "The family members thanked us and paid us triple."

Blacks are all but absent from Peru's business and political elite and although slavery was abolished in 1854, only 2 percent of Peru's blacks go to college. Afro-Peruvians are consigned largely to manual labor including as field hands in sugar cane plantations along the nation's Pacific coast.

Census-takers don't even register black Peruvians by race. They are estimated to account for no more than 10 percent of the country's 29 million people and only in 2011 did the country get its first Afro-Peruvian Cabinet minister, the internationally renowned singer Susana Baca. Her mother had worked as a maid in rich people's homes.

Black pallbearers are a legacy, historians say, of the bulk of Spain's colonial nobility in South America living in Lima and routinely keeping a sizeable retinue of house slaves.

A historian of Peru's slave trade, Maribel Arrelucea, said that "to have one's body carried by a black is understood by many to be a symbol of prestige, just as it was in the colonial era when the aristocrats of Lima went to church accompanied by a slave."

Tanya Hernandez, a professor at Fordham University in the U.S. and author of the book "Racial Subordination in Latin America," said the tradition also reflects "problems in the entire region with descendants of Africans who have no space in public life or ways of advancing in the economy or politically."

Peru's most prominent funeral director, Agustin Merino, denies the tradition is in any way racist. His funeral home offers black pallbearers by default, unless clients ask for another option.

"It is a custom introduced by the Spanish," said Merino, 81. "The pallbearers were always used in the burials of the wealthy."

He credited black pallbearers with knowing better than to be "laughing or making faces" at funerals.

"They need to be serious," Merino said.

Adam Warren, a University of Washington professor who has studied Lima's funeral culture, said that in colonial days the tradition was "considered both an expression of status and an act of reverence for the dead.

"It bears adding that families (of the deceased) sometimes hired other Afro-Peruvians to participate in funeral processions," he said. "The slaves also sometimes followed the casket."

"To be honest, I have to confess that the very idea makes me sick," Warren said.

Lima has about 50 pallbearers, organized into teams, and each man earns $5 per burial or about $70 a week, the equivalent of minimum wage. They are contractors, not funeral home employees, hired on a per-job basis with no benefits.

In Arguedas' case, it was one of the few jobs that the former drug addict and convicted armed robber could find.

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