Afro-Peruvians awaken through memory

Afro-Peruvians awaken through memory

Susana Baca poses in front of an advertising poster with a picture of her holding a Grammy.

(Giancarlo Aponte/Archivo de Susana Baca)

An Afro-descendant woman with a child in her arms and a drum by her side symbolises the emancipation of enslaved people in Peru. This monument stands in Zaña, once a colonial city in the north of the country and home to a slavery complex that now pays tribute to memory with an Afro-Peruvian Museum. With this background it is no surprise that – a first in the Pacific coast – last September UNESCO named Zaña a “Site of the memory of slavery and of African cultural heritage”. It is not however the only place where memory and identity are making a breakthrough in the country.

Diverse artistic, political and human rights testimonies take us on a journey uncovering the awakening of a community marked by discrimination.

Susana Baca is vitality personified. She is an artist and a symbol of the rights of vulnerable peoples. A Peruvian of African descent and a Grammy Award-winning singer of international renown, as well as a researcher into the Afro-Peruvian roots in music; she smiles and her eyes light up when she talks about the Cultural Centre for Memory, her home and project next to the Pacific Ocean, 150 kilometres south of Lima, in the province of Cañete.

She and her husband, sociologist Ricardo Pereira, are also building the inclusive “Negrocontinuo” (black continuum) music school, where children and youngsters can train in Peruvian sounds. “The constant in contemporary Peruvian music is the black undercurrent, hence the name. Music is the pretext for affirming identities,” explains Pereira.

A wooden room with high ceilings will welcome visitors to the cultural centre, where memory is part of the project, as well as tracing the origin and history of the contemporary identities that form Peru today: “We will not only exhibit the face of Afro-Peruvians, but also that of other communities like the indigenous, Andean, Chinese or Japanese peoples.”

Baca’s warm image and her position as a renowned Afro-descendent brought her into contact with the most diverse causes during her time as Minister of Culture, in 2011, within the Ollanta Humala administration. Finally, art prevailed over politics, but she oversaw the creation of a public office that attends to the needs of Afro-Peruvians in a country where no body of this kind existed. The office is now giving visibility to this community in Peru.

“We, who were enslaved, give art back to the world,” she says regarding the recording of her next album, Conjuros, in Nigeria. She has travelled with her music from Peru to Africa, a journey back to her origins, to fuse the two worlds. It is not her first journey in search of black identity. For the book El amargo camino de la caña dulce (The Bitter Path of Sugarcane), in 2013, and for the second time, she went on a pilgrimage across her country in search of all things Afro-Peruvian, visiting the most representative Afro-descendant communities.

“Recognising that we are a racist country”, as part of the cure

The history of the Afro-descendants in Peru begins with the arrival of enslaved African people to the sugarcane plantations. Uprooting and forced migration - dictated by the imperialist powers of the 16th century and beyond - and discrimination, exclusion and the violations of their rights throughout the centuries.

The liberation process in Peru did not trigger radical change. Despite achieving independence in 1821, it was not until 1854 that the abolition of slavery was decreed and, even under the Republic, equal rights were not granted to the Afro-descendant or the indigenous peoples.

The inequalities persist to this day, as illustrated by the official data in the Specialised Study on the Afro-Peruvian Population (EEPA), showing that they are disadvantaged relative to other Peruvians in terms of living conditions, education and health, especially in rural areas.

Although late compared with other countries in the region like Brazil and Colombia, Peru is currently engaged in a process of giving recognition and visibility to the Afro-Peruvian community. There are no official figures regarding the size of this community, and no precise information on its socio-economic situation.

Their systemic invisibility is confirmed in a study conducted by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), Social Panorama of Latin America (2016), which estimates that approximately five per cent of the population in Peru (between 110,000 and 600,000 people) is Afro-descendant.

Owan Lay began the fight for human rights 20 years ago. He is an activist, like his parents before him, and has led organisations for young Afro-descendants, but it has been the role he took on in 2012, managing public policy for his community, that has allowed him to see some progress: the need for change had to be tackled within the framework of the state.

He worked on the National Plan for Afro-Descendant Policy, the first roadmap discussed in seven regions of the country with organisations, public officials employees and other actors, which provides the community with a tool they can use to continue fighting for their rights.

“Three hundred and fifty years of enslaved invisibility and 150 years of republican invisibility, marginalisation and exclusion cannot be resolved in a few years,” he points out.

“It’s not everything, but it is all we have to fight for our rights. It wasn’t easy to have it approved, because state officials don’t understand cultural diversity,” says Susana Matute, director of policies for the Afro-Peruvian population within the Ministry of Culture, and the visible face of these policies.

The plan envisages a new census that will include ethnic identification, which Matute describes as a milestone: “It is the first exercise being done to identify us in 70 years. It is an exercise of the right to visibility and social and citizen mobilisation.”

Peru has gradually been recognising interculturality thanks to a favourable international context, now marked by the International Decade for People of African descent, promoted by the United Nations (2015-2024), and, previously, by the Declaration of Santiago (2000) and the World Conference against Racism in Durban (2001). As of the year 2000, what was once ’black’ started to be called ’Afro-Peruvian’ or ’Afro-descendant’.

Politician and former mayor Antonio Quispe explains that he recognised that he was Afro-Peruvian as of that date, since that fight had not existed up until that point. Originally from San Luis de Cañete, a humble town of 15,000 inhabitants, he descends from a small farmer, trade union and labour leader on his father’s side: “My family made great sacrifices to be able to send me to university, to exercise leadership. I am a kind of beacon of hope.”

As a student in the 1970s, he lived through the fight for the trade union rights of labourers and miners: “But there was no fight for Afro-Peruvian rights, because the Afro-Peruvian movement did not exist as a mobilising entity. Nor did it exist in my home town, although everyone was black in my neighbourhood,” he says.

He sees the new policies as a pathway, but does not think they alone will translate into an improvement in his community’s very poor conditions.

“Nothing will change unless funding is allocated by the state. Education in rural areas or in the urban periphery is the first thing that needs improving. With the historic apology extended by the government of Alan García in 2008, the nation’s debt towards the enslaved people was recognised. The starting point should be to turn that into explicit, numerical recognition.”

Another voice that thinks that the policies towards Afro-Peruvians need attention from the state as a whole, at every level, to bridge the equality gap, is that of Rocío Muñoz. A journalist and Afro-feminist, her fights are informed by a gender perspective. Her reference point is the artist Victoria Santacruz who raised the issue of discrimination against women in the 1970s with her autobiographical poem, “Black! They Yelled at Me”.

“The setting is different, but her poem is still relevant today,” she points out. Concerned by the discrimination affecting women, she investigates the stereotypes of Afro-Peruvian women and how they are represented.

Skin colour is still one of the most powerful elements of exclusion and her findings confirm the data published in the EEPA, which reveals higher levels of discrimination in urban areas such as Lima, where this group continues to face discrimination on public transport, for example:

“The women are more insulted than the men in public spaces. We are more vulnerable and we are over-sexualised. In Peru, symbolic racism, such as ridicule, has become normalised and when we protest, as women, we are not allowed to ask for fair and equal treatment.”

“We need to recognise that this is a racist country,” insists Muñoz.

“And that way discrimination and racism can be fought head on, by educating and nurturing intercultural citizens, to make them aware that there is a body of knowledge and identities of different origins in the country,” she concludes.

This article has been translated from Spanish.