Batan Grande is the end of the road.  Traveling from Chiclayo, the highway effectively ends here.  Travel any farther, and the pavement is replaced by deeply rutted dirt roads.  Fields of sugar cane, abandoned after Peruvian land-reform laws were passed in the 1970s, flank the town to the south.  The acutely angled roads and irrigation canals are stark contrasts from the organically shaped irregular fields of today.  A solid metal gate blocks the road about five minutes travel south of town.  The gate is typically manned by two awkward- looking men in uncomfortable nylon vests.  The two men, who would seem more at place tending a herd of goats rather than acting as security guards, cast cautious and slightly worried glances at anyone who approaches.
The land beyond this gate was abandoned almost 400 years ago.  Today, a group of people are attempting to lay claim to this land by establishing homes and fields on it.  This gate serves as the boundary to their claim—their land.  Despite the fact that this is a public road, and technically public land, this group has relatively free reign to block the road and restrict access.  Should they choose to lock the gate and refuse access, anyone wishing to enter would have no recourse.  Squatters here have very strong land rights.  Peru, despite taking long economic strides in the past 10 years, continues to have a massive underpopulation of farmers, laborers, and destitute poor.  Control of a majority of the country’s wealth rests in the hands of only a very small few, most of whom reside in Lima far away from the sugar cane and rice fields, adobe and plaster huts, and herds of goats that block dirt roads.

Batan Grande's Town Plaza

Batan Grande, a town of less than two-thousand people has a thriving downtown area surrounding a beautiful town square.  Tall palm trees, planted by hacienda families, grace the downtown area and surround the old hacienda building.  This weekend is Fiestas Patrias, the weekend Peruvians celebrate the birth of their nation (coincidentally this is July 28, my birthday).  The townspeople spent 2 weeks repainting roads, trimming trees in the town square, and repainting the old hacienda building in mustard yellow and vibrant orange, all to celebrate Peru’s independence over a four-day weekend.  But, despite fresh coats of paint, the hacienda is rotting from the inside out.  Termites have conspired to digest the once highly polished wood interior to dust, such that the building is little more than a shell of plaster and paint that could be easily toppled with a strong breeze.  The townspeople, though, take some pride in the hacienda, as if it is a sign of the good old days when times were simpler and people had no worries about where their next meal would come from.  Pre-hispanic times, such as those of the Inca, are similarly viewed with nostalgia.  As if at one point, the major civilizations of the Andes had provided everyone with food and housing.

Batan Grande's Weekend Market

Times are tough, but they’ve always been tough.  The truth is that an underclass has always existed in the territory now known as Peru.  The Inca, like the previous empires of the north coast, were an elite few who controlled virtually all of the wealth at the expense of millions of laborers.  Spanish colonial times were little different.  Land reform may have ended the hacienda system of sugar cane and banana plantations, but wealth and power remained in the hands of an elite few.  Through it all, Peruvians have maintained a strong sense of humour.  They are used to hard times.  Recycling, something that most U.S. citizens are adopting because of concerns for the environment, is commonplace here.  The woman we hired to do laundry inquired whether we wanted two old soda bottles sitting in the living room, things that we had planned to throw out.  Presumably she wanted them to store water.  Children living across the alleyway from us asked if we had any cardboard boxes, because their parents wanted to construct a door for one of their rooms.  Though lots of trash is burned, little actually goes to waste.  Stooped old ladies, whose backs are hunched from the burden of poverty, rummage through public trash cans, looking for anything that could be re-used or re-sold.

In the U.S., we are busy discussing which candidate wears a flag pin on his lapel, or whether someone is patriotic enough–a meaningless phrase that would have seemed ludicrous 10 years ago–to be our president.  Poverty exists in the U.S., though we rarely look it in the face.  Whereas we lament the dirty dark-skinned children living on dirt floors in South America and Africa, we ignore our own children in New York and Chicago who live in cockroach-infested housing projects.  The homeless, destitute, and poor of the U.S. are seen as failures, people who did something wrong along the way.  They are criminals, drunks, drug addicts.  They are the “Blacks”, the “Mexicans”, the “Chinese”.  They are not us, and we are not them.  We are not morally obligated to help them.  They are morally obligated to help themselves.   They lower our property values, and they introduce drugs and crime to our otherwise pristine neighborhoods.  For this, we construct gates and walls to keep them out.  We hire men, in uncomfortable polyester outfits to patrol these gates and keep out the rif-raf.

For sure, this is a stereotype of most American’s perceptions, based largely on my own experiences and my own perception.  I am not saying that nobody cares about homeless people at home.  My mother, for example, spends countless hours each month working at a homeless shelter in St. Louis, and she’s conducted a food drive for them since 1990 or so.  But, while we walk out the front doors of Best Buy with the HD plasma T.V. sets, hunched unseen figures are rummaging through the dumpster out back.  Looking for cardboard, looking for food.