All who visit Lima’s Centro Historico district are able to view the colorful brick buildings and improvised wooden structures of the city’s most visible slum, San Cristobal. It is estimated that nearly 75% of Lima’s residents live in slums without access to basic life necessities like electricity, running water, and WIFI. Residents of San Cristobal and the more remote slums commute on foot into the wealthier areas to work as housekeepers, nannies, or in food service. Children as young as six leave their families to find employment as live-in-maids. I watched people cross at Piedra del Rio Rimac, and then snake up the hill along the dusty trail on foot, and I wondered if any foreigners ever ventured beyond the Miraflores and Centro Historico districts while passing through Lima.
The population in Lima’s slums increased exponentially in the 1980s and 90s as people migrated from more rural areas to escape conflict from the Shining Path group. People camped in tents illegally on unclaimed land and united as a neighborhood, then received official paperwork and rights to the land during an election cycle to win votes. In the decades to follow the sprawl of the slums, called pueblo joven, wealthy Lima residents have insisted on the construction of a 10-kilometer wall to seperate the pueblo joven from their own neighborhood. Since many residents of the pueblo joven work to serve the affluent households, the wall has dramatically increased their pedestrian commute times in some cases from 15 minutes to two hours. At the bottom of the hill and at the end of the wall, armed guards staff the gate and check identification for those people who need to cross the divide.
As of 2011, Lima is the most visited Latin American city surpassing even Buenos Aires. The number of foreign visitors has tripled since the year 2000. Most likely, we have Macchu Picchu to thank for that. One shanty town has begun to incorporate tourism into its development potential. Villa El Salvador offers tours to travelers, and part of the payment is received in bricks that are contributed directly to the community to build its infrastructure. The goal of the Villa El Salvador community is to build in brick, since the wooden and cardboard homes offer little protection against the wind, the cold, and the blowing dust, so many children suffer debilitating health conditions. The tour shows visitors the functional markets that sell meat and potatoes, the one room schoolhouse, and the modest hospital. They are also introduced to the women who run the community association and who negotiate with the neighborhood gangs to protect the tourists from harassment. It is a far different type of tour than the one that describes the Spanish colonial architecture on the Iglesia Las Nazarenas, or that normalizes the imperialist conquest.
As our world continues to become more connected, the greatest divide might be within our own communities. Will we build a wall to separate the wealthy from the poor, the sick from the healthy, the fortunate from the undesirables; or will we negotiate constructive and positive solutions with each other to overcome the challenges that impact us all? Brick by brick, we slowly and painfully construct our lives from the choices we make and the opportunities that follow or fall away, and through travel, we meet other people who have been where we are, and who might be able to show us the way across the divide.