A Vanishing Presence?
A freedman from Angola, a Peruvian legend says, lived in a shantytown on the edge of colonial Lima. An ardent convert to Catholicism, he painted a picture of Christ on one of the shantytown’s walls. When an earthquake ravaged Lima in the 1650s, that wall remained standing. Devout Limeños declared it a miracle and built a church, Nuestro Señor de los Milagros –Our Lord of the Miracles— on the site.
It is said that in colonial times enslaved Afro-Peruvians used to pray to the miraculous Christ. Now, every October Limeños of all races wear purple and join a procession in honor of that Christ.
That story hints at the role of blacks in Peru’s past and present. Frederick Bowser’s African Slave in Colonial Peru 1524-1650 puts the black population of Lima during that time near 50 percent. Bowser details how blacks cooked cleaned, laid cobblestones, built markets and drove mule teams in this seat of Spain’s viceroyalty.
However, many histories give short shrift to early black Peruvians’ work and numbers. It’s as if the population had faded away. Today, one even hears that blacks in Peru –and throughout the southern cone of South America— teeter on the brink of disappearance. Yet, Peru’s oral tradition celebrates blacks’ presence in colonial times, while artists and activist groups like Movimiento Negro Francisco Congo strive to preserve the country’s black heritage.
Race and religion, two hot-button issues in colonial times, found their way into traditional stories. San Martin de Porres (1579-1639), illegitimate son of a Spaniard Juan de Porres and Ana Velazquez, a black freedwoman was given shelter by Dominican friars. As a teenager, Martin proved so devout that the friars admitted him to the order.
It is said that Martin could make miracles faster than you can say “Hail Mary.” Legend has it that he could cure the sick, levitate, be in two places at once, and talk with animals. Limeños learned of his abilities and clogged the monasteries gates to ask for miracles. The monastery’s prior scolded Martin because supply wagons couldn’t maneuver past the crowds. The prior laid down the law: “No mas milagros!”
Martin obeyed until the day he was in the patio talking with birds. A plasterer slipped off scaffolding and started plunging to the ground. Without thinking, Martin stopped him in mid-fall, but then remembered his promise to the prior. Martin left the plasterer hanging in the air and got the prior’s permission to save the workman before easing him to the ground.
Scant surprise that the story emphasizes obedience. The colonial government, which limited the education and work of “las castas,” persons of mixed white, black and Indian blood, wanted them to go along with the program.
“La negrita servidora,” part of Peru’s oral tradition, has a much different take on religion and Afro-Peruvians. It seems that la negrita, a black cook in the home of a wealthy Lima family, made the world’s most exquisite pastries. Flaky, delectable, they melted on the tongue.
One day, the señor and señora of the house invited a priest to dinner. They hoped that the curate’s conversation would persuade their hell-raising son to mend his ways. After dinner, the maid brought in some of the negrita’s pastries. The instant that the priest tasted one, he knew that no mere human hand could have concocted such a dessert. He asked if he might meet the pastry maker.
When he entered the kitchen, la negrita started stepping away from him until she backed into a corner. The priest thrust his crucifix at her, and she began to shrink until she disappeared, leaving a sulfurous stench. The priest explained that la negrita, an emissary of the devil, had come to carry off the soul of the waywardseñorito. Yet, despite the young man’s mischief, the priest’s intercession saved him.
This damning portrayal of a black woman brings to mind the Inquisition, imported from Spain, the mother country. Inquisition officials often punished and sometimes killed black and native peoples caught practicing their own faiths. Did la negrita germinate when black women performed rituals from their West African homeland? Centuries have hidden the answer, but Lima’s Museo de la Inquisicion displays some instruments of torture used in interrogations.
Historic documents leave no doubt about Afro-Peruvian bandit, Leon Escobar, who belongs in the wilder-than-fiction category. For years, after 1824 when Peru gained independence from Spain, fights with bordering countries ripped the new nation. Escobar cashed in on the unrest, according to the late Leslie Rout’s The African experience in Spanish America.
In 1835, Escobar and his gang galloped into Lima, stormed the presidential palace, and demanded a heavy sum from officials in exchange for not sacking the city. Escobar occupied the palace and issued edicts while city fathers scrambled to get the money.
The upheavals that let Leon Escobar and his gang flourish proved disastrous for many black Peruvian men. They were cannon fodder in the War of Independence from Spain, and went to those front lines of conflicts within Peru. Yet, even as they died, slavery continued. A slave rebellion on a sugar plantation in August 1850, helped move Peru’s government toward ending the institution. An 1854 civil war in which the government enlisted black troops clinched slavery’s abolition.
Slavery’s harshness, severe living conditions, and wars account for one aspect of the disappearing act of Peru’s black population. Most current estimates of Peru’s black population peg it at three to ten percent. Then again, when it comes to the census, Afro-Peruvians are a moving target. Their numbers depend on who’s doing the counting. Government census takers –or respondents of black ancestry— may claim mixed race or Indian blood.
“In Peru you’re black if you look black,” Afro-Peruvian actor Rafael Santa Cruz reportedly said.
Still, having a presence in a community or a nation goes beyond numbers alone. From colonial times ordinances limited where blacks could hold their dances, where their culture could find public expression. A fuming 1824 letter to El Investigador newspaper denounced the Afro-Peruvian Inga dance, notes Heidi Carolyn Feldman, author of Black Rhythms of Peru, Reviving African Musical Heritage in the Black Pacific, 2006. “Only the devil could have invented such an instrument for the downfall of man,” the letter says. Many upper class Peruvians shared that point of view.
Limiting Afro-Peruvian dances enforced cultural invisibility, another side of the disappearing act. Raise your hand if you know that Lima, like Rio de Janeiro, once had a lively pre-Lenten carnival.
Life at society’s margins also tends to push black Peruvians from view. “Afro-Peruvians, as descendants of slaves, have suffered the same problems as almost all black communities of the Diaspora,” says Evelyne Laurent-Perrault, former coordinator of Multicultural Programs at Haverford College, who attended a summit of Afro-Hispanic leaders in Peru some years ago. “They suffer from poverty, lack of access to housing, health services, and a good education,” she adds.
“On the other hand, black Peruvians have preserved African music and other aspects of their heritage,” Laurent-Perrault says. “The peanut stew I ate in Chincha, a black town south of Lima, is exactly like the one I ate many times in Cameroon.”
Afro-Peruvians and other Afro-Hispanic peoples developed the Joint Declaration of the Black Peoples of the Andean Region, to help address their needs: “Located in the tropical rainforests, mangrove swamps, coastal regions and in mountainous zones…African-descendant women and men have a harmonious relationship with nature and have preserved biological and cultural diversity,” reads the document, published by the American Friends Service Committee. “Andean governments aim to exploit and extract the natural resources in the areas historically occupied and protected by African (Hispanic) Americans.”
Black Peruvians also took a cue from the U.S. Civil rights movement and founded Movimiento Negro Francisco Congo (Francisco Congo Black Movement) in 1986. Named for the chief of an eighteenth-century fugitive slave stronghold, the group, according to its pamphlet, aims to organize “…blacks who reside in the coastal towns of Peru to defend our rights and to …rescue and make known our black heritage. We accept members of any color who desire a Peru where peace, equality and joy reign.”
Juanchi Vasquez and Andres Mandros of Movimiento Negro Francisco Congo have worked to revive the traditional carnival. Vasquez and Mandros stand on strong shoulders. Victoria and the late Nicomedes Santa Cruz, an Afro-Peruvian sister and brother team, formed the dance company Cumanana in 1958 to help preserve the country’s black cultural heritage. The dance troupe Peru Negro, also a family venture, hit the world music scene some 30 years ago.
The late Ronaldo Campos de la Colina, founder of Peru Negro, once explained the dance company’s unique instruments. “Colonial authorities forbade blacks from using the drum, so they turned to the donkey jaw, wooden crates and tithing boxes as percussion instruments,” Campos de la Colina said.
“Peru Negro presents traditional Afro-Peruvian music and dance,” current artistic director Ronaldo Campos said. “For example, our repertoire includes el festejo, which the slaves danced after they had harvested a good cotton crop. We also do zapateo (a kind of tap dancing.) Slaves, who had little, offered the dance to baby Jesus at Christmas time.”
Singer Susana Baca, born in Chorillos, a coastal barrio of Lima, in 1944, scaled the heights of international acclaim with her contribution to the CD, “The Soul of Black Peru.”
“I’ve gone all over Peru, recording in rural areas, gathering material from old singers, old composers,” says Baca on her website. Yet, Baca, who often sings and dances barefoot on stage, acknowledges that some songs have eluded her. “We’ve lost so much of these roots because many old people don’t want to remember slavery and hard times,” Baca says. “They don’t want to be interviewed.”
The question remains: Will black Peruvians culture vanish? Not if black Peruvian artists and activists can help it. Instituto Negro Continuo (Black Continuum Institute), founded by Susana Baca and her husband Ricardo Pereira, promotes research and recording of Afro-Peruvian music. Peru has declared June 4th, Nicomedes Santa Cruz’s birthday, Dia de la Cultura Afroperuana.
Movimiento Negro Francisco Congo strives to keep the Carnival tradition alive. Peru Negro, named cultural ambassadors by the country’s government, plans to go on performing and presenting the black customs of nation’s southern coast. “We want blacks in the U.S. and elsewhere to know that there are blacks in Peru,” said Rony Campos. He noted that Peru Negro has launched a new CD, “Zamba Malato.”
In light of this dedication, perhaps the best answer about Afro-Peruvian culture comes from Elisa Murray, who reviewed Susana Baca’s 2000 CD “Eco de Sombras” (Echo of Shadows).
“Any act of art,” Murray wrote, “is a defense against oblivion.”
A native Philadelphian, Constance Garcia-Barrio has roots that reach back to Fredericksburg, Virginia, home of her great-grandmother, Rose Wilson Ware, or Maw, born into slavery about 1851. Some details of Garcia-Barrio’s novel come to her as oral heirlooms from Maw, who lived to age 113. Garcia-Barrio spent some summers of her childhood on Maw’s farm.
Garcia-Barrio, an associate professor at West Chester University, West Chester, PA, has held writing fellowships at the Ragdale Foundation, Dorland Mountain Arts Colony, and the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Her credits include Pennsylvania Magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. The National Association of Black Journalists gave her a magazine journalism award in 2000 for her article on African Americans in circus history. This past summer the Interact Theatre Company chose her short story, “The Sitting Tree,” for its “Writing Aloud” series.
Widowhood and approaching retirement have given her a second wind, and she means to sail on it.