“Yo no conozco la O” (I do not know the “O”) is the beginning of a poem that Susana Baca sang to us at the home she shares with her partner Ricardo Pereira in Cañete, 90 miles south of Lima. This poem was not a coincidence. By reciting it, Susana and Ricardo wanted to convey a message to us about Afro-Peruvian history, which is rife with suffering, discrimination, and ignorance.
This poem is a reflection of the analphabetism and lack of education among Afro-Peruvians stemming from a long history of abuse and marginalization. Although Susana and Ricardo told us that the exact origin of Afro-Peruvians is not well-identified, what is known for sure is that they were brought to Perú as slaves to work in sugarcane and cotton fields, in construction, as housekeepers, and in other forms of basic labor. As they explained, this background is responsible to a large degree for the current reality of the Afro-Peruvian population, a reality they are committed to overcoming.
But let’s talk about some history first to understand the meaning of their work.
From what is possible to read about Afro-Peruvian history online as we’re traveling in the country, the first African slaves were brought to Peru by the Spaniards in 1502 to reverse decreasing indigenous labor. Between that year and 1700, about three million Africans were violently uprooted from their lands and brought to Perú in terrible conditions, from beginning to end. They were transported in special ships called “Coffins” or “Tumbeiros,” since only half of them arrived alive in Peru. Upon arrival, they were chained and sold to “hacendados” and city dwellers, who forced them to do hard labor. At the beginning of the 18th century, the “negros cimarrones” (rebel Afro-Peruvian slaves) formed the so called “rancherías,” which were hidden around Lima. These rancherías grew in number, and became rural settlements. The end of slavery finally came in 1854 under the presidency of Ramón Castilla.
The end of slavery, however, didn’t mean the end of unequal conditions in Peruvian society. According to the Agency for Afro-Peruvian Population Policies of Perú’s Ministry of Culture, most of the Afro-Peruvian population still lives under poverty conditions. More than 30% receive an income lower than the minimum salary, and the portion that receives a salary twice the minimum is nonetheless 11% lower than the national average. The agency links this reality to a lack of access to higher education, in which the presence of young Afro-Peruvians is 6% lower than the national average.
This reality, according to Susana and Ricardo, is unknown not only to people outside Perú, but also to the same Afro-Peruvian population, since the Spaniards also fought hard to erase all trace of their roots and cultural heritage. Nevertheless, there is still a strong cultural heritage among the Afro-Peruvian population that is expressed through African sounds in beautiful lyrics, the sounds of Peruvian guitars, and Peruvian cajón rhythms.
It is in this field where Susana and Ricardo work diligently to change history. Through research, music, and social work, they are trying to translate and make the Afro-Peruvian culture visible. One sign of their success was, of course, when Susana won a Grammy Award in 2001. But most important for them is the work that they’re doing in Cañete, where they are in the process of creating an Afro-Peruvian culture museum that acknowledges interethnic and cross-cultural influences over time, and also a school of Afro-Peruvian music for the youth.
The importance of making Peruvians and the world aware of Afro-Peruvian music and culture is a way of contributing to the perpetuation of their culture. If you don’t believe or don’t understand the impact of these kinds of initiatives, please try to go to Cañete, or to Don Porfirio in Lima where Afro-Peruvian dance and music thrive. You can even search songs on YouTube. I’m sure that you will understand what I’m talking about once you listen to this incredible music.
– Valentina Saavedra Gómez