LIMA, Peru — Peru’s national identity is tightly wrapped up in its Andean heritage. Snowcapped peaks, fluffy alpacas, Inca ruins and indigenous women sporting bowler hats, brightly woven clothing and puffed skirts all help define this South American country’s self-image.

But based on the controversy surrounding one popular TV character, “la Paisana Jacinta” (the Peasant Jacinta), contemporary Peru still has a long road to travel before it is comfortable in its own skin as a multicultural, multiracial society.

Peruvian television comedian Jacinta poses in an undated picture in Lima. She make laugh his fans, but for its detractors the "peasant Jacinta" --- a character of a television serial embodying a Peruvian Andean rustic who emigrated to Lima --- stigmatizes the indigenous population, illustrating the notorious racism in a deeply unequal society.   AFP PHOTO/STR        (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

In this undated picture, Peruvian television comedian Jorge Benavides poses as la Paisana Jacinta in Lima, Peru. (STR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Played by a white man in drag, “la Paisana Jacinta” portrays one of those Andean women after she has migrated to Lima, where her poor Spanish, lack of education and country bumpkin ways are the continual butt of ribald humor.

The character has long been controversial. In 2014 the eponymous show was dropped from its prime time slot on Frecuencia Latina, one of Peru’s main TV networks, after the United Nation’s Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued a report criticizing Peru’s media for persisting in “broadcasting negative stereotypes” of black and indigenous citizens.

Now the debate about “la Paisana Jacinta” is ramping up again with a new film based on and named after the character, played by the same comedian, Jorge Benavides, to be released in Peruvian theaters on Nov. 23.

“Why pick on such an easy target? Why ridicule someone who is so marginalized and can’t defend themselves?” asks Tarcila Rivera, who heads a local nonprofit that promotes traditional Andean culture and whose activists are considering picketing cinemas that show the movie. “Unfortunately, in Peru we have media that prefer to make money from cheap laughs rather than inform or encourage policies that acknowledge and appreciate our diversity.”

The Peruvian government agrees. In an email, Deputy Culture Minister Alfredo Luna said he had told the film’s producers that his department “repudiated” the TV show for “humiliating and destroying the dignity” of indigenous women.

 His ministry has even produced a web video criticizing the character. It also has a hotline and website for citizens to denounce specific cases of discrimination.
Peru has anti-racism laws on the books. But those deal with areas such as labor relations and access to public services, and prosecutions are virtually unheard of. Humor, however offensive, is usually protected as free speech.

Luna added that although the government was looking at ways of toughening up laws to prevent racial stereotyping, the real challenge in Peru was achieving cultural change to ensure that discriminatory humor is no longer accepted.

Peru and most of Latin America remain sharply divided along racial lines, a legacy of the conquest by the Spanish and Portuguese, and their use of black slaves and the economic and military oppression of indigenous populations.

There is a dearth of official statistics, but around 45 percent of Peruvians are believed to be Amerindian with another nearly 40 percent thought to be of mixed European and indigenous ancestry. Whites make up around 15 percent and the remainder of Peruvians are principally of African, Chinese and Japanese descent.

Although violent groups such as the KKK are virtually unheard of in the region, most countries are still ruled by white elites while poor majorities are overwhelmingly of Amerindian and African descent. In public spaces, such as shopping malls, beaches or nightclubs, the divide can sometimes feel as stark as during apartheid South Africa, albeit without the legal framework, with wealthy white customers being attended by darker-skinned service workers.

In Brazil, for example, whites earn on average twice as much as blacks. In Panama, 70 percent of indigenous people live in extreme poverty versus 30 percent for non-indigenous citizens. A recent study by Mexico‘s official statistics agency found that dark-skinned Mexicans were roughly three times less likely to finish primary school than their lighter-skinned compatriots. And in Peru, 39 percent of the population have reported feeling victims of racial discrimination.

On TV throughout the region, the overwhelming majority of presenters and actors are white, and many companies use only models of European descent – often blondes who appear more Scandinavian than Mediterranean – in their advertising, despite most of their customers being dark-skinned.

Equally, making off-color comments tied to race, including on air, in most Latin American nations – and indeed other parts of the world such as Russia and China – than it now is in the United States.

Marco Avilés, a Peruvian author who has written about racism, says there is minimal public debate here about the issue, although he acknowledges small progress. One sign of that may be Peru’s latest national census, held last month. It included a question about ethnic and cultural identity for the first time in nearly half a century.

“We are proud of our pre-Colombian past, but not of our culture and population today,” he adds. “There are still Peruvians who believe that if we could get rid of people in the Andes and Amazon, Peru would be a better country. Peru is still embarrassed by itself.”

But the producers of the film version of “La Paisana Jacinta” remain unconcerned by these issues. Cinthya Vitery, a spokesman for the Peruvian branch of Bogota-headquartered Cinecolor films, one of the production companies behind the movie, insisted the character was “fictitious” and not to be taken seriously.

Director Adolfo Aguilar did not respond to requests for an interview, but in Peruvian media he has been dismissive of the controversy, insisting that market studies had shown just 3 percent of viewers had been critical of the film. “She is a dear character, very loved in Peru, and I believe that people will go to see her,” he said.

Avilés agrees that the film will likely be a commercial success: “A lot of people don’t care that it causes pain and offense to some of the most marginalized Peruvians,” he says. “It is those public attitudes that need to change.”