On her recent trip to Peru, Hollywood starlet Cameron Diaz was called out for committing a fashion faux pas that left the actress grasping for humanitarian words of apology.
While touring the famed Inca ruins of Machu Picchu, Diaz sported an olive-green bag that featured a red star and the phrase, "Serve the People," in Chinese characters. This phrase is known to be one of the hallmark slogans of Mao Zedong's Chinese Communist Party.
The problem? News sources say that Peruvians are especially sensitive to such symbology because it is reminiscent of the bloody guerrilla war that the Maoist group Shining Path, or Sendero Luminoso, waged in the country throughout the 1980s and up to the early '90s. Close to 70,000 people are thought to have perished as a result of the war, but news agencies have omitted the fact that Sendero Luminoso is said to be responsible for 31,331 of those casualties. According to Human Rights Watch, government security forces were responsible for a third of the killings; the remaining deaths are mostly unattributed.
Without condoning the actions of Sendero Luminoso, I think it's important to properly frame the statistics people are citing with regard to the war. It's clear that both the group's actions and the Peruvian government's response to those actions were reckless and drastic -- together they had the effect of making paranoia and violence a part of everyday life. Indeed the war created the social conditions for what the anthropologist Michael Taussig calls "terror as usual."
Diaz, we know, was unaware of this significant aspect of Peruvian history. A Peruvian civil rights activist (on whom news agencies rely to voice the collective opinion of Peruvians who are or would be or have been offended by Diaz's bag), Pablo Rojas, is quoted as saying: "[The bag] alludes to a concept that did so much damage to Peru, that brought about so many victims... I don't think she should have used that bag where the followers of that ideology did so much damage."
Rojas is entirely justified in making this statement, but it seems to me the lack of world-historical knowledge Diaz displayed is hardly unusual for the privileged tourist who travels abroad. I dare say that most American travelers to Peru know next to nothing of the country's history, recent or otherwise. Diaz (who grew up in Australia) is your average tourist; it's her celebrity (cameras focused on her) and pseudo-political chic (where political symbology and slogans are now marketed for fashionable consumption) that led to this cultural misunderstanding.
Rojas's actual target of criticism, then, is not Cameron Diaz the "person" but Cameron Diaz the star-image. The blame for this episode of cultural insensitivity might be equally shared among Diaz's entourage: her publicist, her fashion consultant, her image-makers. Note how the olive-green bag is meant to complement Diaz's "backpacker look": loose clothing, a hat to shield her face from the sun, and what appears to be a hemp bracelet (or one made of a similarly organic material). The only flourish I can detect in these photos is a purple scarf (or two?) rolled around Diaz's neck. At any rate, the bag's political sloganeering is but one fashionable element in a complete celebrity package.
Perhaps blame should also be attributed to the brichero, or "native" tour guide, who appears next to Diaz on Machu Picchu. Note the designer sweater and unsullied jeans -- this guy really came prepared.
The brichero's beaming gaze and I'm-all-ears stance say it all: entranced by Diaz's beauty, that inimitable smile, that aura of Hollywood celebrity, our guide likely didn't even notice the remnant of Maoist symbology that emblazons the bag in question.