This proverb is one frequently mentioned by my mother and in Lima, in general. The interesting thing is that it is used to convey a slightly different (somewhat racist) message than its English equivalent. In the English proverb, the meaning is that a person’s worth is determined by who they are inside, not by what they’re wearing. In their words, appearances can be deceiving. In the Peruvian sense, however, this proverb is used to denigrate the “new money” class, the rapidly growing middle and upper middle class composed of indigenous people. Since these people are frequently self-starters who come from poor backgrounds and have no social graces or taste, they are ridiculed by the European class with sayings like these that denote that in spite of their new wealth and position, these “cholos” are still the same illiterate farmers (and should be treated as such).
The informant learned the following proverb from his father:
You cant make a silk purse out of a sows ear.
The informant interprets it to mean that you cant, you know, you cant produce greatness out of nothing. No, you have to have the basic ingredients to create what you are attempting to make. The informant recalls that his father often said the proverb to his mother when she complained about his cutting corners: Since he was a very handy person, heyhe, um, he jury-rigged whenever he could, but he understood that there were limitations to doing so. And when it was brought up that there were limitationswhich it generally was, because my mother was a very nitpicky personuh, his response was invariably, You cant make a silk purse out of a sows ear. The informant himself occasionally uses the proverb when it seems relevant, but only when he feels that the person hes speaking to will understand him: Most people donno [sic] what a sow is any more.
When asked what he thinks of the proverb, the informant says, I feel that its, uh, its terminology is pretty out of date, but tlesson is soun.
A sow is, of course, a female pig, and the proverb most likely is a remnant of times when farming was the major occupation in America. The comparison between the silk purse and the sows ear seems likely to stem from the delicacy of the ear and the way the light shines through it as through silk. A full-grown sow is very large and its ear could conceivably be large enough to use as a purse. The fact that the informants father addressed it to his mother is telling and could even be considered sexist; of course, it would be a woman who would want a silk purse and be foolish enough to think that it was possible to make one out of the ear of a pig.