lima cultural history james higgins

In one sentence, “Lima: A Cultural History” is the best read on Lima, Peru. However I would qualify that in saying the book is more for a resident than a tourist.

The depth of history and information is too much for a casual visitor, while the breadth of things to do on a short stay is narrow. However for those living in Lima, the book offers an unequaled look into the capital’s history and evolution.

The book is divided into five parts – Introducing Lima, The Pre-Hispanic Past, City of the Kings, Capital of the Republic and The Expanding Metropolis – which detail Lima culture chronologically.

The book triumphs in the areas of history, literature and architecture. Given author James Higgins is a professor of literature at Liverpool University, the book’s coverage of literature is especially thorough. You can’t get through a few pages without a passage from some obscure poem or novel, and the end of the book features a four-page “Further Reading” list with a good number of English-language titles for those who don’t read in Spanish.

Here is Higgins on the “saya y manto” worn by the famous “tapada limeña” women:

The saya y manto was unique to Lima to the extent that, according to Ricardo Palma, it was not worn even in Callao. Moorish in origin, the manto allowed women to circulate freely around the city without fear of molestation. Yet if it was initially an emblem of female modesty, it came to serve a quite different purpose, functioning as a disguise that freed women from social constraints and allowed them to engage in playful flirting or to conduct secret liaisons, as Max Radiguet noted in the 1840s:

The saya y manto, a costume which was originally designed to serve ideas of chastity and jealousy, has come through one of life’s contradictions to act as a cover for diametrically opposite customs; its uniformity makes the city one vast salon of intrigues and ingenious manoeuvres that mock the vigilance of the fiercest Othellos. With such elements scandals, merry adventures and burlesque misunderstandings cannot fail to occur.

The colonial authorities made repeated attempts to ban the saya y manto as immoral, but Lima’s women refused to be dictated to in matters of fashion and it persisted until the second half of the eighteenth century …

That comes from the colonial section, “City of the Kings,” the original name of Lima which inspired the naming of this website. This part featured many of my favorite sections because the city’s colonial history is what makes Lima unique.

While the architecture and history is most attractive to me, Lima’s colonial history was based on the most repressive and enslaving economy in all of the Americas, and the book does not skip over the ugly chapters and ever-present classism in Lima’s history. Higgins demonstrates the era with passages from literature and historical anecdotes to drive the points home.

Higgins describes most of downtown Lima’s key colonial buildings with historical context that help develop the foreign (or native) resident’s knowledge of the city. I most enjoyed the section on Rimac, which was initially an upper-class enclave before descending into its current working-class status which features a few rarely visited tourist attractions.

The book is a necessary tool of reference for bloggers and publishers, which filled the gap in my research of Lima’s patron saint Santa Rosa and is certainly the best source for more obscure cultural icons such as Sarita Colonia.

I was preparing myself to criticize the book for leaning too much on what I call “culture with a capital C” such as poetry and architecture, to the expense of the popular culture of the masses. And while the book does not mention icons such as Zambo Cavero or Machin, the histories of soccer in Lima and the rise of the criolla, chicha and cumbia music genres made the grade.

I have only two beefs with the book, in two areas I consider myself an aficionado: food and economics.

I can pompously attribute the book’s shortcomings in food to Higgins being British, which obviously comes with a genetic predisposition to being a bad cook. The first problem is the Limeñan Cuisine section is that it is just too short at less than three pages. The second problem is accuracy.

The section lacks scope in failing to mention some of Peru’s top plates including Seco de Cordero, Tacu Tacu and Carapulcra. While you could make the argument that these plates may have originated outside of Lima, the book does include dishes from outside the capital such as Papa a la Huancaina.

And if only including Lima cuisine, glaring deficiencies include chicharron sandwiches, picarones and pollo a la brasa. Chifa could have been expanded to include the most common plates, instead of leaving the category at one sentence citing merely “chifa.”

While the main fruit of Peruvian cooking is a lemon or a lime is debatable, listing “corn syrup” as an ingredient in the pisco sour made me cringe. And he would be lynched in Arequipa for attributing rocoto relleno to Lima, where you’d be hard-pressed to find it outside of an Arequipa restaurant or a big, expensive buffet.

And while the literature professor could not resist weighing in on criticizing Hernando de Soto’s landmark book, “The Other Path,” I can’t resist taking the literature professor to task for his incorrect analysis in an otherwise excellent text.

De Soto’s “neo-liberal agenda,” according to Higgins, “disastrously aggravated the plight of the lower sectors.” If you look at the statistics, Higgins assertion was not true at the book’s publishing date of 2005 and could be called absurd 10 years later.

Peru’s transition to a “neoliberal,” market-based economy in 1990 began when the country was the worst basket case in the Western Hemisphere, arguably worse off than Haiti. Today Peru is the region’s shining star which could soon attract more migrants than it produces. And while poverty still exists in Peru, it is lowest in history at less than 25%.

Higgins’ foray into economics should prelude his staying within his sphere of competence for the next edition, and not try to pick on an economist whose work inspired the World Bank to create the Ease of Doing Business rankings.

However on the whole the book is the best cultural history you can read about Lima, the City of Kings. While I would also recommend “The Time of the Hero” and “Conversation in the Cathedral” by Mario Vargas Llosa, those books give more of a feel of the city where “Lima: A Cultural History” offers history, literature and anecdotes spanning various aspects of culture.

The book is a must-read for aficionados of Lima and, in my opinion, greater Peru.

Buy the book on Amazon at

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