(above) A couple embrace outside one of Lima's Metropolitano bus stations in Lima September 19, 2013. Enrique Castro-Mendivil/REUTERS


Why Peru's mayors now say: You may (all) kiss your brides

As Peru's economy grows, group celebrations where hundreds of couples get married at once are everywhere. Local governments are promoting the economic and social benefits of marriage. 

By Annie Murphy, Correspondent, Lima, Peru
Teresa Guevara de la Cruz and Ronald Alberti are in their early forties, and have been together for over six years. But they didn't seriously consider getting married until the local mayor's office in San Juan de Miraflores started to promote marriage – along with mass weddings.

"We get along, and we love each other. And we wanted to formalize our relationship," says Ms. Guevara de la Cruz, who wore a short white dress with a black sash to take vows with Mr. Alberti in a sandy plaza outside the mayor's office – along with 168 other couples. She said that in addition to being able to call Mr. Alberti her husband, she wanted to be able to share home ownership, and to set an example for her kids. 

Guevara de la Cruz has a toddler with Alberti, and a teenage son from a past relationship. Both children looked on while standing on makeshift bleachers with hundreds of other couples' family members.

As Peru's economy grows, collective weddings are everywhere: group celebrations where hundreds of couples get married at once. And while some say it's appealing simply because it's romantic, most also want to reap what they call the "formal" benefits of marriage, such as being able to co-own a home or to share pensions. 

Though traditionally Catholic, Peru has one of the lowest marriage rates in South America. And while the economy is thriving, a traditional ceremony remains a significant investment, costing anywhere from several hundred dollars, to thousands. Yet getting married also means greater long-term economic security: Partners can do things like use their home as collateral for loans, and share pensions. According to the Peruvian Superintendence of Banking, access to a partner's pension adds upward of an extra $100 a month in income, or about 20 percent of the average monthly salary in Lima – which is $450, according to independent consulting firm Macroconsult.

In addition to the economic benefits, local governments believe that being married also helps bring stability to families, and in turn, to their neighborhoods. Which is why municipal governments in districts like San Juan de Miraflores encourage citizens to get married by putting on mass weddings.

'Dramatic changes'
San Juan de Miraflores is tucked into a series of dry, tea-colored hills on the outskirts of southern Lima. It's made up of concrete and brick structures, many still works-in-progress, with sheaths of rebar abruptly sticking up out of building columns. It's growing fast, filled with working class families trying to get ahead, and recent immigrants from the countryside seeking opportunity in the city.

At the ceremony, there's a fabric tent, an enormous tiered wedding cake, a sea of plastic lawn chairs covered in fabric, and a stage. Couples enter through a makeshift tunnel, pose for free photos, pick up their marriage certificate along with a slice of wedding cake, and find their seats.

According to sociologist Pablo Pedro Ccopa, the historically low marriage rate has much to do with a tradition imported from the countryside, called sirvinacuy, which treated cohabitation as a sufficient sign of commitment.

"So first you've got the tradition of sirvinacuy, which is basically engrained in our culture. And then it got mixed with modern notions about individual liberty. So you ended up with informality, plus freedom. Which means that a lot of young people ended up saying, 'Marriage? What for?' "

Mr. Ccopa says that while marriage has clear financial and social benefits, he's not totally convinced that old traditions need to be changed, or that the state should be the one to do it.

"It's like this fight against informality," he says. "But if you look around, you'll see that most of this city is built on informality. Business, construction, even relationships. And in many ways, it's worked for a long time."
Still, without being married many couples don't have shared legal and economic rights. And like the San Juan de Miraflores district itself, that's changing.

At the recent mass wedding, a group of local kids opened the ceremony with a squeaky violin recital featuring music from the film Titantic, and the nearby ballet school danced a number from Swan Lake. Mayor Adolfo Campos then took the stage to mention the newness of violin and ballet in this traditionally poor neighborhood, and then public works and roads, as well as the economy and internal migration, before finally talking of love and marriage.

"Our country is going through dramatic changes. We all need to work to support the sort of urban infrastructure that will help everyone in this district have a better quality of life," Mr. Campos said. "And each one of you, for instance, with your families, are responsible for the infrastructure of your homes."

And marriage, according to Campos, is part of the formal framework that enables a place like San Juan de Miraflores to improve quality of life for all its citizens – from allowing them more economic opportunity, to helping them create stability at home.

After his speech, he instructed the couples to stand, and for the men to take the hand of the woman. When the mayor asked if the men took the woman beside them as their wife, all 169 men yelled "Yes!" in unison. After, the women took their turn. And finally, there was a kissing contest, while an old love ballad played through giant speakers.

According to Alberti, Guevara de la Cruz's new husband, their status will now change, and so will the way their home is run. They'll be able to call each other husband and wife – and to reap the economic benefits: sharing pensions, legal responsibility for their children, and ownership of their house. 

"But some things won't change," he says. "It'll be the same respect, the same love that we've always had. This was just a formality that needed to happen."