Rediscovering and Rebuilding the Collective Identity of Peru’s Marginalized Peoples

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Photo: T. Hilde

After a thought-provoking lecture on the Peruvian economy by Fernando Villarán in the morning, we headed off around noon to visit the famous couple, Susana Baca and Ricardo Pereira. During the two-hour drive from Lima, we were again amazed by the surprising Peruvian landscape, in this case comprising a sun-baked desert and shiny blue sea, lonely satellite stations and striking billboards, deserted shabby houses and luxurious coastal vacation villages.

Just when everyone was dozing off, we turned onto a bumpy road, surrounded by various crops and simple houses. A few minutes later, we saw clouds of bright bougainvillea sticking out from the fences, and we were welcomed off the vans by many warm smiles and the scent of earth, flowers, and ocean. There, we were fortunate to visit the under-construction “Santa Barbara Cultural Center of Hidden Memory,” the lovely cottage, friendly people, and finally, the loving couple of Ms. Baca and Mr. Pereira. A prominent Grammy Award-winning Afro-Peruvian singer and global legend of Latin American music, Ms. Baca was quite amiable. Wearing a simple pink-orange dress and a pair of hand-crafted earrings, she personally helped set up lunch for us. She has been a key figure in the revival of Afro-Peruvian music, and yet, she was nothing like the arrogant divas but more like a sweet grandmother.

After enjoying delicious, authentic Peruvian Chicken, we sat down around the dining table, eagerly leaning in to hear from our hosts. Mr. Pereira first gave us a brief explanation about the idea of this center. Ever aware of the tough situation facing marginalized peoples in modern Peru, the couple has devoted lots of energy to fighting discrimination against black and indigenous Peruvians. That’s why Ms. Baca joined President Humala’s new government in 2011 to help him implement his vision for social inclusion in Peru’s deeply unequal society, and why she serves as President of the Commission of Culture of the Organization of American States (OAS). The couple has researched extensively the history of Peruvians of African descent, who traditionally have lived mainly along the Peruvian coast. They have walked the 3000km coastline twice to visit the communities and check on their status over the past 20 years. They have found that the situation in these communities hasn’t improved and has somehow worsened because of domestic violence and the invasion of international business mode – the local peasants have been pushed inland as Andeans migrated to coastal areas. Nevertheless, the couple found that the Andeans who have joined Afro-Peruvian communities came to recognize each other’s culture and build up a surging, mixed identity (particularly through music) that is shared by both groups. The couple are excited about this cultural blend and want to pass along the possibility to other communities in the country.

The reason why they chose Cañete is because of its diverse regional ethnic groups and its complicated dynamics: this area used to be the habitations of various immigrant laborers and slaves – Afro-Peruvians, Chinese and Japanese. Three major historical cycles of agriculture correspond to these groups – sugar cane produced by enslaved Afro-Peruvians, general agricultural products like fruit picked by Chinese descendants, and cotton harvested by Japanese descendants. These groups comprise a special, diverse dynamic in the region, in which lie heavy histories and colorful cultures. Being active defendants for marginalized peoples and the diverse culture of Peru, the couple realized that in this place they could build a space to capture the identity of all the races and reveal their hidden histories. This ambitious idea developed into the significant cultural center we visited. The blueprint of the center on the beach contains a conference room, a library of various texts, and a museum of cultural antiquities, which is currently under construction. This admirable couple moved from Lima to Cañete in order to supervise building. They hope that this place will help people learn the history and culture of the various inhabitants of Peru and appreciate their work and contributions to the country.

There was a quiet pause after Mr. Pereira’s talk as everyone was impressed by how great this cause is and how much they have committed to it. Ms. Baca, after a short consideration, talked about the meaning of the place to her. Ms. Baca recalled that as a descendant of Africans herself, she suffered racial discrimination in her youth, and this discrimination persists today in her country. Then she told us that her happiest moment after she won her first Grammy award was when the local indigenous people came out in the streets to thank her for bringing recognition of them to the world. At that moment, she realized how much she is related to Afro-Peruvian culture and people, and how much they have suffered. She understands that there is a complicated dynamic in the local communities, with their different marginalized ethnic groups, cultures, and economies. She is also aware that the younger generation tends to move away from its roots because of their under-recognized status as Peruvian citizens and an unsatisfactory education system that does not appreciate local culture and history. She is worried about the loss of traditional culture with young people eager to discard their identities and dive into a global, commercialized world. So she made up her mind to build up a place to connect to her roots, a place for everyone to discuss openly about their cultures, a place where young people can appreciate their identity and spread this awareness to the world. Since she has been the first Afro-Peruvian Minister of Culture in the history of independent Peru and a winner of Grammy awards, she wants to use her recognition and influence to build up a space where there’s social inclusion and respect for every individual culture, and a collective identity for the country so that no culture will be forgotten. I believe that there must be a painful chapter in her life because of her occasionally saddened face and the tears that welled up in her eyes. This experience is what has built up her strong commitment to fighting racial inequality so that Peruvian children today can live in a more equal society where they can find their roots and enjoy a collective identity. What a strong and noble woman!

Afterwards, everyone in our group asked questions about the current status of marginalized peoples, their culture preservation and the social development, and Mr. Pereira answered all the questions with patience and passion. During the whole presentation, Ms. Baca didn’t say much, just quietly looking up at her husband, nodding from time to time, sometimes lightly kicking his ankle to remind him of a point.

Bathing in the summer breeze after our discussion, I started to think about how much impact and change this center might bring to the local marginalized people, the younger generation, and Peruvian society in general. The mission of the center is so grand that everything else seems minute somehow, yet the challenge is so big that it may make people wonder about its attainability, how much can it achieve, and how much of a contribution it can make to the world. The world is now rocketing towards globalization and to further economic and political convergence; yet, we are losing various other precious cultural and environmental assets. How I wish that this place could really exist someday in the future, a place where people can have a united, collective identity, where people can appreciate their hometowns and their roots, preserve their lost memory, bring in the younger generations, and bridge the connections. It is a world not consumed by the pursuit of simple material well-being, but a place where we can hold on to our own qualities while enjoying the riches of other cultures.

– Yuanyuan Gong

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