Alejandro Toledo was born 28 March 1946 in Cabano, Ancash, to poor Andean Indian parents. He was one of 16 children, 7 of whom died as infants. When Toledo was six years old, the family migrated to the coastal town of Chimbote to improve their situation—Toledo's father worked as a bricklayer and his mother worked as a fish seller. Toledo sold newspapers and worked as a shoeshine boy. In 1964, he met two Peace Corps volunteers who were looking for a place to live, and they helped him get accepted to the University of San Francisco. He won a scholarship to Stanford University, where he earned a master's degree (1972) and a doctorate(1992), both in education. In 2003, Toledo was selected by the Stanford senior class officers to give the address at their commencement.
He worked for the World Bank, the International Labor Organization, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the U.S. International Agency for Development. He was a visiting scholar with Harvard University's Institute of International Development from 1991–94.
Toledo was a social policy advisor to the staff of Labor Minister Alfonso Grados in the second Belaunde government. He has worked with ESAN, the leading business school in Peru. He held no elective office before being elected President.
He is married to Elaine Karp, a Belgian-born anthropologist who speaks Quechua, and who also has a master's degree from Stanford University. The couple divorced in 1994, but they remarried in 2000. They have one daughter. There are allegations, however, that Toledo has fathered an illegitimate daughter. Toledo initially denied the charges but has since agreed to resolve the situation.
Toledo has celebrated his Andean Indian ancestry, wearing traditional Indian dress and waving the rainbow flag of the ancient Incan empire during the 2001 presidential campaign. His looks have been compared to the fifteenth century Incan emperor Pachacutec, and this name has been given to him by supporters. He has also adopted the identity "El Cholo," a traditionally derogatory term used by Peruvians to refer to an urbanite of Indian descent. Toledo has embraced this identity.