The Americas 62.2 (2005) 245-270
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Food, Race and Working-Class Identity:
Restaurantes Populares and Populism in 1930s Peru1
Manchester, United Kingdom
. . . And tell me, which President looked to the future? It was, believe it or not, [Sánchez] Cerro. I fully recognize that he was able to look to the future and . . . he grabbed the rich [by the neck] and took part of their wealth, you there [he said], you're going to give me potatoes, you're going to give me yucca, you're going to give me sweet potatoes, he told them, to feed the poor neighborhoods, you bring me rice, meat, you tell me you have five hundred cows, well then, kill only five cows, otherwise, slash-slash, I'm going to snuff you too, and then, no!, you have to do what Nine-Fingers [Sánchez Cerro—who lost one of his fingers during a military uprising] says. He was a strange president. What did he do? He'd bring out the military officers, the soldiers, [and he would say] you here, you're going to cook, and he'd go off with the trucks to the poor neighborhoods with the food, all ready to eat, the people should not be dying of hunger he would say, but he saw that that too was indecent, so he built the comedores populares [sic]. Who inaugurated them? One-eyed Oscar R. Benavides, but who started them? [Sánchez] Cerro [my emphasis].2
This article examines the creation, in the 1930s, of restaurants, known as restaurantes populares, which were funded and run by the Peruvian state in order to "solve the urgent problem of [the provision of] easy, comfortable and healthy nutrition to the popular classes."3 The study of these restaurants, I suggest, provides a useful perspective from which to examine the interplay of state formation, populist politics, and class formation in the 1930s, a [End Page 245] decade marked by the Great Depression, which had a deep impact on Peru, resulting in high levels of unemployment in cities and the export industries, and by the emergence of political parties of the left—the Peruvian Communist Party (PCP) and the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA)—and of the right—the Union Revolucionaria (UR)—purporting to represent and guide the working class. Most studies of this period have tended to focus almost exclusively on the relation between the political parties of the left and the labor movement.4 Historians have paid little attention to the social policy, including the restaurantes populares, of the Sánchez Cerro and Benavides governments, or have tended to see it as a mere instrument in a broader policy of cooption (or "incorporation") and repression of the organized working class. In so doing, historians have echoed contemporary interpretations, particularly those formulated by APRA and the PCP but also by more neutral observers such as the British minister to Peru who noted in 1936 that the real objective of the restaurantes populares was "to combat labor discontent and communistic ideas."5 Yet, as the testimony reproduced above suggests, some contemporaries saw the restaurants in a different, far more positive, light.
I argue in this article that working-class Limeños perceived the restaurants as a welcome solution to material and moral needs. The restaurants, which attracted a large number of costumers if official statistics are to be believed, were successful because, in a context in which urban workers had become largely dependent for affordable food on eateries run by Asian immigrants, the restaurantes populares provided an alternative place for [End Page 246] workers to eat and socialize but also, and perhaps more importantly, where certain values central to the construction of a working-class identity could be re-affirmed and reinforced. This identity—based on values such as decency, respectability, sobriety, and cleanliness—was constructed experientially and discursively in various spaces, such as the workshop, the factory, the union hall, and the worker press.6 But it was also constructed in contradistinction to...