Why Paterson, New Jersey, Is Famous in Lima, Peru

Thousands of Peruvian emigrants have turned a city of 150,000 into the unofficial capital of their home country’s diaspora.

A city block in Paterson, NJ, in a stretch of downtown that has been officially designated "Peru Square" (Maria-Pia Negro Chin)

PATERSON, N.J.—Guillermo Callegari Balarezo first came here on a Saturday morning in August of 1962, carrying only one bag. He arrived at a time when, he says, “there were about 11 Peruvians in Paterson.” One of those 11 was supposed to pick him up, but after some time passed, he went into a Puerto Rican restaurant to ask if there were any Peruvians around. “They are coming,” was the response.

Soon after, a group of Peruvians, including the nephews of the man who was set to pick him up, arrived to play pool. Callegari, now 85, recalls how one of the nephews soon took him to an auto shop to look for a job, and, on Monday, within 48 hours of his arrival, he was employed.

“The next week, another four Peruvian men arrived,” Callegari says. “Every week there would be 20 or 30 coming.” Most of them came from Surquillo, a district in Lima, but new arrivals started coming from other districts and cities as well.

The influx of Peruvians to Paterson persisted and grew such that, decades after Callegari’s arrival, the city is now home to 10,000 Peruvians, by the Census Bureau’s count. Community leaders say that the number is closer to 30,000, and that the exact Peruvian population in Paterson is hard to determine because many don’t participate in the Census and many check “other” on their forms because of their diverse backgrounds.

These days, one of the main signs of Paterson’s Peruvianness is a portion of Market Street lined with Peruvian-owned restaurants, hair salons, bakeries, and travel agencies. According to local newspapers, in 2009, Peruvians owned half of the city’s 2,800 Hispanic-owned businesses, including 45 restaurants. Even many stores that don’t “look Peruvian” or fly the rojiblanca—the red and white Peruvian flag—have Peruvian owners.

Some of the first Peruvians to emigrate to the United States came as laborers during the California Gold Rush in 1849. Since the 1950s, a new wave of working-class Peruvians emigrated to the U.S., and mainly settled in New Jersey and California to do factory jobs. Then, in the 1980s, the terrorist groups Sendero Luminoso (which translates to “Shining Path”) and the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement wreaked havoc throughout Peru. The two decades that followed saw massive migrations, human-rights violations at the hands of military forces, and more than 70,000 deaths or disappearances.

In the ‘50s, many Peruvian emigrants ended up in Paterson, drawn to “Silk City”—a nickname earned from years producing textiles—by the industrial jobs that attracted a wave of European emigrants before them. When those factory jobs started to dwindle, in the ‘80s, many Peruvians shifted to entrepreneurship, creating a microcosm, through shops and restaurants, of their home country. Some now call this section of town “Little Lima.”

After Callegari arrived in Paterson looking for a job in textiles, he brought his family to the city, and within two years, they were able to buy a house. He later opened up his own auto shop, and often hired some newcomers from Peru to work there.

Over papas rellenas at Panchito’s, one of the first restaurants started by a Peruvian on Market Street, Callegari and his godson, Roberto Acosta, talked about Paterson’s Peruvian Parade, an annual event that Callegari started with his friends to honor the city’s connections to Peru. This group, which helped make Paterson the unofficial capital of the Peruvian diaspora, pooled their money and solicited donations from other members of the community to make the parade a reality in 1986. Now, every July, tens of thousands of people come to celebrate at the Passaic County Peruvian Day Parade, which passes through Market Street.

Guillermo Callegari Balarezo and his godson, Roberto Acosta, at Panchito’s, one of the first Peruvian restaurants opened in Paterson (Maria-Pia Negro Chin)

“The parade awoke the conscience of that we need to be doing as a community,” Callegari says. “It made us hope that the next generation had as much patriotism and the children of Peruvians could make Peru proud.” After the parade’s success, the Peruvian embassy opened a consulate in Paterson. It now serves the more than 75,000 Peruvians living in the state of New Jersey.

Recently, the city’s status as a center of Peruvian culture was made more official. Paterson’s city council recently named a stretch of downtown “Peru Square,” a designation 10 years in the making that has pleased more than a few locals. “Peru Square is for this community that has worked, fought, and gave its best to Paterson,” says Maria Del Pilar Rivas, a former deputy mayor of Paterson. Rivas, who owned a bridal shop for 26 years and started a bakery in Paterson, was instrumental in officially designating the area Peru Square.

“It is a slice of Peru and this will be more evident once it is known as Peru Square,” says Alfredo Garcia, an adjunct professor in the department of languages and cultures at William Paterson University, in the nearby city of Wayne. Garcia says he has worked “a thousand jobs,” ranging from dishwasher to factory worker to truck driver, after arriving from Peru more than 40 years ago. Then, one day, while driving a haul from Canada to Boston, he started considering another job and decided to go back to college at the age of 47. “I was in the same university as my daughters,” he said. “I got my bachelor’s in six years because I was a part-time student, working on the weekends and driving local routes during the week.”

A native of the Peruvian province of Callao, Garcia says he is proudest of his children’s accomplishments. He has seen his two daughters grow up to be teachers, and his youngest son, after earning his own college degree, will become a physical-education teacher. “Education is what is most important,” he says—a statement probably not unfamiliar to anyone with Peruvian parents. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, 29 percent of Peruvian Americans 25 and older have at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 13 percent of U.S. Hispanics.

While he is fond of his adopted home country, Garcia has certainly not forgotten where he comes from. Ever since he was a truck driver, he has been collecting clothes and canes for those in need in Peru. “Sometimes, people in Peru think that once we leave, we become gringos, but we are still Peruvians and we continue to fight for our country,” he says.

These lasting connections to Peru—in addition to the lively culture that’s developed in the past few decades—are likely behind the fact that even though Paterson is a city of just 150,000, it’s become a household name in Peru.