In Other Words

Lifestyles of the Rich and Peruvian

La China Tudela: Antología de sus crónicas (La China Tudela: Anthology of Her Chronicles) By Rafo León 210 pages, Lima: Apoyo Comunicaciones, S.A., 2000 (in Spanish) Lorena Tudela Loveday — nicknamed la China Tudela by her wealthy, exclusive circle of friends — is an educated, opinionated, and fashionable Peruvian woman. A Sorbonne-trained psychiatrist, she is ...

La China Tudela: Antología de sus crónicas
(La China Tudela: Anthology of Her Chronicles)

By Rafo León 210 pages, Lima: Apoyo Comunicaciones, S.A., 2000 (in Spanish)

Lorena Tudela Loveday — nicknamed la China Tudela by her wealthy, exclusive circle of friends — is an educated, opinionated, and fashionable Peruvian woman. A Sorbonne-trained psychiatrist, she is the shrink de rigueur for Peru’s pampered elites. La China is also an ardent political activist and founder of an institute to prepare upper-class, cosmetically conscious women seeking election to Peru’s testosterone-rich legislature. Although la China willingly mingles with the lecherous foreign investors and cultural attachés who prowl Lima’s cocktail circuit, she courageously defends her virtue, rebuffing the awkward sexual advances of Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs and Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar during their visits to Peru. Indeed, the exploits of this blue-blooded, 40-year-old socialite are so riveting that one almost forgets that la China Tudela is the purely fictional creation of Peruvian writer and satirist Rafo León. Yet, la China’s corporeal limitations notwithstanding, her snobbish, gossipy, first-person columns — penned weekly by León for Peru’s top newsmagazine, Caretas — have sparked very real debates on racism, politics, and globalization in Peru.

La China first came to life in 1980 as a marginal character in a previous column by León, but her popularity with readers earned la China a space of her own. León’s "China Tells You That … " column migrated through several newspapers and magazines during the 1980s and 1990s, eventually finding a permanent home at Caretas in 1996. Over time, her notoriety grew to such an extent that in 1993, Ms. Lorena Tudela Loveday was charged with "contempt against the office of the president" for her frequent tirades against Peru’s head of state, Alberto Fujimori. León had to explain to a befuddled district attorney that the defendant did not exist.

In La China Tudela: Anthology of Her Chronicles, León collects some of his most notable columns from the last five years and includes Mario Molina’s popular illustrations of the title character. León’s writings deftly diagnose the Peruvian psyche, in particular that of its flighty upper class. La China fulfills all the clichés of her stratum: She is rich — Daddy made his money in Peru’s booming fishing industry in the 1960s — and, as the niece of former Peruvian President Fernando Belaúnde and cousin of current Vice President Francisco Tudela, la China was born with privilege coursing through her veins. (The July 1999 column in which la China details her lineage was titled "The Peruvian Kennedys.") She melds pleasure and culture and travel, dining with singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen in Manhattan, joining filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar for ice cream in Madrid, and dismissing the typical Latin American’s once-in-a-lifetime dream vacation in Miami as tacky, trite, and thoroughly lowbrow.

La China’s insights into Peruvian society are best understood through the terms she has popularized in the country’s vernacular. First, la China has given new salience to an old, snobbish acronym: GCU — Gente Como Uno, or People Like Us. The GCU are Peru’s coastal elites: rich, fair-skinned gentry dripping with compound last names and forever reminiscing about the vast landholdings that the military regime expropriated during Peru’s ill-fated agrarian reform of the 1970s. La China — whose full name is, quite appropriately, Lorena Tudela de la Piedra Loveday de Lavalle — is GCU to the core, down to her British-accented English and the roots of her natural blond hair. One cannot join the GCU; membership is a birthright. Or, as la China explains, "only those of us who carry it in our blood understand."

In sharp contrast to the GCU are Peru’s cholos, a longtime pejorative for the dark-skinned descendants of the Incas who migrated to the Pacific coast from Peru’s Andes and mixed with Peruvians of Spanish ancestry. La China expresses her disdain for cholos in unabashedly race-based diatribes. She proposes barring the entrance of these "ugly people" into Miraflores, an upscale Lima neighborhood inhabited almost entirely by the GCU, and claims that the mere thought of having a dandruff-ridden cholo lawyer handle her divorce made her vow never to marry.

As abhorrent as they appear, la China’s views on race find some adherents among members of Peru’s monied elite. The real-life GCU wield a subtle and paternalistic racism. They speak in endearing terms of the cholitos (the little cholos, regardless of their age), with this diminutive form often fulfilling a sharply belittling function. Should a cholito dare address a GCU with the familiar tú rather than the deferential usted, he will quickly be branded a cholo igualado (an "uppity" cholo who thinks he is an equal). Should a dark-skinned woman criticize unjust class divisions, the GCU will dismiss her as a chola resentida (a resentful chola). And a lower-class individual who gains wealth through hard work is still no better than a cholo con plata (a cholo with money). Yet there is a sense of denial about racism, or, as one Lima sociologist expressed, "Nobody sees it. Racist relations are so common in Peru that they seem natural." Indeed, a rare spate of complaints in 1998 over the race-based admissions criteria of Lima nightclubs only underscored the pervasiveness of such practices.

Do León’s parodies represent an apology for racism among Peru’s upper classes? Or does la China embody a not-so-subtle denunciation of this deep-seated social ill? Neither, claims León in the anthology’s introduction. "I don’t promote racism, of course," he writes, "but if I wanted to campaign against this terrible phenomenon, I would not spend my time writing la China Tudela … " Although a serious reading of la China’s rantings suggests that León is satirizing, not praising, the upper classes, his critics don’t let him escape so easily. Social sciences professor Gonzalo Portocarrero of Lima’s Catholic University has argued that León’s columns only sanitize racism by making it amusing; readers laugh and become "(in)voluntary accomplices" of la China’s prejudice.

Although one might have expected la China to dismiss her critics as so many miserable resentidos, she eventually adapted her rhetoric to a more sensitive audience, thus coining a now famous bit of slang. " … today it is so politically incorrect to say cholo," reasoned la China, "well then, we’ll have to call them niupe, as in ‘New Peru’ — great, isn’t it?"

The term niupe is noteworthy for more than its bilingual snobbery. By referring to the impoverished classes as the "New Peru," la China grudgingly acknowledges that the Peru she longs for — the colonial country where young women from "known families" always won the national beauty pageants and where the only cholos on international flights were those mixing her drinks in the first-class cabin — is slipping away. For this loss, she blames Peru’s integration into the global marketplace during the last decade, which has empowered the niupes and enabled them to participate more fully in the country’s economic life. Now, whenever she and her GCU girlfriends embark on business ventures, la China finds they must partner with, or at least market to, an increasingly savvy and mobile lower class. La China recently confided that "I think I was a happy woman until globalization … . It’s that everything, as silly as it sounds, kept a certain order."

Peru’s old order is certainly not crumbling; the GCU still control the country’s economy. (The richest fifth of households account for more than 50 percent of Peru’s annual income; the poorest fifth earn less than 5 percent.) But there are signs of change, particularly in the volatile political arena. Disenchantment with Peru’s traditional political parties led to the 1990 election of Alberto Fujimori, an unknown university professor of Japanese descent, as president. Recent presidential candidates hailing from Peru’s elite — novelist Mario Vargas Llosa and former United Nations Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuellar — have been unable to defeat Fujimori. By contrast, Alejandro Toledo, an economist with unmistakably indigenous features whom the lower class embraced as "Choledo," enjoyed relative success in his 2000 presidential run. He battled Fujimori in a controversial campaign marred by credible accusations of fraud against the eventually victorious incumbent. Toledo took full political advantage of his ethnicity, billing a major anti-Fujimori rally as a gathering of Peruvians from the "Four Suyos" (the four regions of the ancient Incan Empire). Now that Fujimori is stepping down and calling for new elections, Toledo has optimistically declared that he is "prepared to govern." A few years ago, a cholo president was unthinkable; now, several longtime presidential hopefuls simply seem too white — too GCU — to contend.

The history of León’s book itself offers a telling instance of niupe ingenuity. In its first month of publication, La China Tudela reached Peru’s bestseller list, but then sales plummeted. León discovered that street vendors had illegally reprinted the book — "a horrible, pirated edition," he described. And to whom were they peddling these bootleg copies? None other than the GCU summering in Peru’s southern beach towns. Perhaps la China would find some consolation in that, even in this New Peru where cholitos may soon govern the elites, at least she can still find some decent summer reading.

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