Wednesday, June 22, 2016

A Black American in Black Perú

I'm standing in the back, second from the right in the home of Perú's famous Ballumbrosio family.

As I carried my drink from the bar to my table with a big smile in anticipation of seeing a popular black singer from Perú at a Latin American club in San Francisco, California, one of the owners passed me by giving me a frightened look apparently not used to seeing a black American at a Peruvian performance. Perhaps, he thought I may be casing the joint to plan a robbery; I don't know.

The seemingly suspicious individual knew nothing of my exposure to Black Latin America as I traveled to nine countries, mainly Perú, where I made repeat visits. He knew nothing of the Peruvian neighborhoods I visited, the families I stayed with, and not to mention my ability to speak Spanish as I earned my advanced Spanish certificate in Peru.

Singer Lucila Campos whom I heard on this CD, The Soul of Black Peru, inspired my first trip.

It was in El Carmen, Perú, dubbed as the hub of Afro-Peruvian culture, where I made my first family-like connections, not only in the home of the famous Amador Ballumbrosio, the godfather of Afro-Peruvian music where I stayed, but in the community where I also made lifetime friendships.  

Despite El Carmen's abject poverty, crime is next to zero. I could not help but notice how the community lives in harmony; no conflicts, no muggings, no stealing, and no fights. When they party, they party hearty without trouble makers spoiling the fun.  

Despite abject poverty, El Carmen is crime free.

I've exchanged many greetings with total strangers as we passed each other on the street. During my first visit, I was made to feel like a very special guests, consistently being invited to parties, out for drinks, and to other social events in the community. What I love about El Carmen is that it is off the beaten path—very few tourists with the exception of the months of February and March when they celebrate black heritage.

Photo of the late, great maestro, Amador Ballumbrosio, 
the godfather of Afro-Peruvian music and dance. 

People come from all over Perú, and different parts of the world to El Carmen, which is in the province of Chincha, to celebrate with the slogan, “Vamos Pa' Chincha, Familia, meaning Let's Go To Chincha, Brothas and Sistas. El Carmen is in the Peruvian province of Chincha. 

In Perú, blacks are often referred to as “familia (family).” One day, I went into a rough neighborhood in Lima, the nation's capital, and I was greeted with a loud, “qué pasó, familia,” which in essence means “what's up, bruh?”

Back in El Carmen, I had the pleasure of eating home cooked Afro-Peruvian meals as well as meals served at the famous black-owned Mamainé Restaurant. This “soul food” is prepared with recipes that black Peruvian women saved and passed down from slavery.

On the Pan-American Highway, which passes the entrance to the District of El Carmen, you will see this billboard advertising the restaurant where I get Peruvian soul food. 

According to unofficial estimates, 10-15% of Peruvians have African ancestry and face perceptual racism and discrimination. Monica Carrillo, head of a Peruvian civil rights organization known as LUNDÚ is pushing for Peru’s rich African heritage to be an equal part of Perú's national identity. 

Some of the well-known Blacks who contributed to Peruvian society include St. Martin de Porres and his tireless work on behalf of the poor; Nicomedes Santa Cruz, a writer, poet, and musician who helped raise public awareness of Afro-Peruvian culture.


I was treated to live Afro-Peruvian music and dance in the home of the Ballumbrosios where I stayed.

Then we have Teófilo Cubillas, Perú's greatest soccer player ever, and of course, the world renown singer Susana Baca, the former Peruvian Minister of Culture. In 1969, a man by the name of Ronaldo Campos de la Colina founded the world famous dance troupe, Perú Negro (Black Peru), which is billed as the Cultural Ambassadors of Black Perú.  

As El Carmen has become my home away from home, more and more people in the community are getting to know me, or at least, have become familiar with my presence. In fact, I'm even flattered that people who didn't have any communication with me on a prior trip remembered me vividly upon my return.

Ronaldo Illescas, one of the percussionists for the local Afro-Peruvian dance troupe

There is a drawback, I've found, to all of this familiarity; especially with my reputation as an American with a pocket full of money. Some are beginning to think that I'm a walking ATM. One woman showed me her gas and electric bill and asked for my help. A young man whom I tipped handsomely for showing me the ropes around town frequently e-mails me asking for more money. He is now in my spam folder.

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