“In Peru, blacks are soccer and volleyball players, musicians, dancers, or policemen, but they never become doctors, mayors or presidents,” says Marco Antonio Ramírez. “We need to change the mindset.” At just 23, Ramírez is the president of Ashanti— an Afro-Peruvian youth organization dedicated to combating racism and discrimination against Afro-descendants—and believes his community can aspire far higher.
Ramírez, who was raised in El Callao—Lima’s main seaport—is no stranger to the racism that pervades Peruvian society. The only Afro-Peruvian in his private high school class, he often faced insulting comments from both professors and classmates. His concerns about the lack of economic opportunities have been confirmed by a 2013 UN Development Program report, which found that Afro-Peruvians, who comprise about 3 percent of Peru’s population and live primarily in the coastal provinces of Lima, Ica, Lambayeque, and Piura, are on average poorer and have less access to education, formal employment and health care than the rest of the Peruvian population. Their marginalization is further impacted by the lack of data available; the 2017 census will be the first in Peru’s history to include a question about ethnic self-identification.’
Given that the Afro-Peruvian community has hardly benefited from the country’s democratic transition and economic growth over the past decade, organizations like Ashanti aim to empower future leaders who can drive change through advocacy and political action. The organization sponsors workshops, fairs and conferences to promote human rights, citizenship, identity, gender equality, and community values among Afro-Peruvian youth, especially in rural areas. Members of Ashanti also participate in international meetings and conferences, where they meet and network with young Afro-descendant leaders from neighboring countries. Ramírez says the networking has already provided some valuable lessons from the achievements of Afro-Colombian groups. For example, in Colombia, the law reserves two seats specifically for Afro-Colombian candidates in the lower house, legislation that does not exist in Peru.2
Ramírez became president of Ashanti in 2011, but first joined the organization at just 16, encouraged by his father, Jorge Antonio Ramírez Reyna—himself an activist and leader within the Afro-Peruvian community. The younger Ramírez studied political science at the Universidad Peruana de Ciencias e Informática, and now works as a volunteer coordinator for Transparencia, a Lima-based nonprofit that fosters democratic practices and observes national elections.
While several Afro-Peruvians have been elected to congress, Ramírez believes that they have done little to advance the interests of their community. In his opinion, concrete policies that address Afro-Peruvians’ specific needs, such as affirmative action laws, are what the community needs the most. As many as 12 Afro-Peruvian candidates may be running in the first round of the 2016 presidential election, but Ramírez has little faith that they will advocate for the needs of their communities. Real change, he believes, will come from the next generation of Afro-Peruvians. “It is too easy to just denounce corrupt politicians,” he says. “We have to get involved.” Although Ashanti has given him a public profile, Ramírez has rejected invitations from political parties to join their ballots in local elections. He prefers to prepare himself through his community advocacy work before jumping into politics, preferably for a party that would represent multiple minorities, including Indigenous, Afro-Peruvian and LGBT groups.