Posted on July 22, 2013

Lima Pallbearer Jobs: Only Blacks Preferred

Franklin Briceno, MSN, July 22, 2013

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.

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.


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


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. {snip}

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 sizable 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.”


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.”


In 2009 the government of then-President Alan Garcia issued a public apology to Afro-Peruvians for a racist tradition of colonial slavery but still they never received reparations. A year later, his government suggested Lima funeral homes stop employing blacks exclusively as pallbearers. Nothing came of the suggestion.


At a service this month in Lima’s upscale Miraflores district for his grandfather, who died at age 97, Karim Olaechea said he was taken aback by the tradition after traveling from his home state of Pennsylvania to attend his first Lima wake.

Other members of his family didn’t think twice about it.

“It was shocking for me,” said Olaechea. “Peru has a racist society.”