Maids Still Banned from Swimming at Peru Beaches
- It sounds like a scene straight out of the Jim Crow era in the American South, but it’s happening today in coastal Peru: discriminatory laws in some exclusive seaside resorts prohibit maids (nearly all of whom are poor Andean and black women) from swimming on the beach during daylight hours.
As Juan Arellano described in Global Voices Online in 2007, the beaches where this discrimination is practiced are located south of Lima, among them the fashionable resort town of Asia. Wealthy Limeños flock to beach houses in Asia during the brief summer months, bringing with them their trusted family maids and nannies to look after the children. But while the vactioners have full access to the sand and surf, their servants do not.
Apartheid-like laws passed by homeowners’ associations in Asia forbid maids and nannies, or “domestic employees,” as they are called, from swimming at the beach between 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. Rules of conduct for homeowners also stipulate that maids must wear a uniform and cannot wear a bathing suit – a cruel twist, given the intensity of Peru’s summer sun, notes Hypathia’s Daughter.
The unjust laws at Asia have roused both anger and protest in Peru. On a fundamental level, the town’s discriminatory policies violate Peruvian laws “that state that Peruvian beaches cannot be privatized and must be open and accessible for all,” as Alejandro of LAX-LIM points out. However, the political pull of the homeowners’ association at Asia obscured that legal contradiction — at least for a while.
Then, two years ago, Peru’s National Coordination of Human Rights, an umbrella group of various human-rights, anti-discrimination and anti-racism groups, in coordination with Amnesty International, organized a protest at Asia beach. The group issued a call for concerned citizens to come to Asia dressed as maids and nannies on January 28, 2007, to show their solidarity with household workers at the resort.
The outpouring of support for “Operation Smart Maid,” as it was called, was enormous, as was world media coverage of the event. (See 1/27/07 wire story from EFE.)
About 1,000 activists, domestic workers and even foreigners turned up at the beach dressed in maids’ uniforms and carrying signs that read “Enough with Racism” and “Racism Be Gone,” reported EFE:
The peaceful march moved through the security gate that is usually closed to keep out the public and headed for the beach, where demonstrators formed a human chain and later took a dip in the cold Pacific waters as astonished visitors and police watched.
“Our goal is to call for reflection on the situation of domestic workers who suffer from beastly discrimination and can only go to the beaches at nightfall,” Mar Perez, who runs the economic, social and cultural rights program for the National Human Rights Coordinator, told EFE.
Perez said the protest was intended to “plant the seed of the citizens’ movement against discrimination.”
Organizer Laura Balbuena provided an up-close look at the “Operation Smart Maid” protest on her blog Hypathia’s Daughter (which is intriguingly subtitled, “A Female Philosopher Lost in the World of Peruvian Feminism”). See the photo below.
- “Smart Maid” protestors infiltrate the ocean at Asia Beach, Peru, Jan. 28, 2007 (photo courtesy Hypathia’s Daughter)
So, did the peaceful protests at Asia end the discriminatory practices there?
Two years later, status-seeking Limeños still flock to Asia, local laws still prohibit maids from swimming in the ocean, and maids still sit on the parched sands in their uncomfortable blue uniforms.
The flurry of attention garnered by the protest did not lead to a legal challenge against the Asia homeowners’ association.
What will it take for the discrimination to end? I suspect it will require a dual effort of raising shame among wealthy homeowners and of a concerted legal effort backed up by international aid groups that can put pressure on local and national government.
In the meantime, the “Asia Problem” (as I see it — I believe I’m in the minority here in Lima) rests with the individual. If you are a homeowner at Asia, you can opt to register a complaint with the association. You can give your maid a nice bathing suit and let her swim with the children that she is supervising. And if you are invited to be a guest at an Asia beach house, you can opt to decline and politely but clearly explain why.
As someone who might receive an invitation to play at Asia one day, I know what my response will be.
--story by Barbara R. Drake; first published on An American in Lima, Feb. 13, 2009