A Legacy of Black Work and Culture

For more than three centuries, flows of people, the smoke of incense and the sound of horns, bells and hymns have filled the streets of Lima in late October. Every year tens of thousands of Peruvians pay homage to a fresco of a crucified Christ painted by an Angolan slave from the 17th century.

Local tradition tells how the painting survived several powerful earthquakes, including one in 1687 that left everything but the fresco and the altar underfoot. Every year the faithful, many wearing purple robes or habits, such as those of the Nazarene nuns in charge of taking care of the painting, follow a replica of  El Señor de los Milagros  (“the Lord of miracles”) through the streets of Lima in what is  the largest procession in all of Latin America.

Among the masses was my  granny , an expert dollmaker, and a devout Catholic. Putting on her purple dress, white veil and carrying a small copy of  The Lord of Miracles , my grandmother Carmela would join the flow of Peruvians of all races, ethnicities and origins than the “Black Christ”, as the painting is also known.

And while the name of the 17th-century painter of  The Lord of Miracles  has been forgotten, his creation stands as a testament to his life and to those of his compatriots and women who survived the century-long devastation of the transatlantic  Commerce. of slaves.

The human cost of the transatlantic slave trade cannot be quantified, and reasonable compensation is not always possible: any attempt to pale in comparison to the depth of its horror. However, we know that much of the wealth of the Spanish empire was produced by slave black labor.

In addition much of the infrastructure of Lima, West and Central West Africa and their descendants infused their traditions and practices in society-in-manufacturing Peru. They, however, is a lesser-known story in Latin America and remains little known even among Peruvians today.

My own journey in the history of Afro-Peru started about twenty years ago when my mother gave me a pendant to help me recover after being hit by a car. On one side of the pendant is an image of  El Señor de los Milagros,  on the other, an image of San Martín de Porres.

One of the most famous saints in Peru, especially revered for his healing powers – San Martín was the son of a black slave and Spanish colonial official. Stories of the Afro-Peruvian miracle worker had long circulated in my family but little was ever debated about Peru’s African past or its living legacy.

The African diaspora in Peru dates back to 1527 with the arrival of the first black soldiers ( Ladinos , Hispanicized Africans) under the command of Francisco Pizarro. As part of Spanish imperial forays into imperial Inca lands,  Ladinos  were used to conquer the indigenous peoples of Peru. Soon, non-assimilated African slaves ( muzzles ) were imported . In time, many black captives took flight, forming brown settlements ( palenques , runaway slave communities), some just outside the  haciendas  where he had worked but now raided for food and supplies.

Hooked on the protracted war in Peru and without immunities to smallpox and other infectious diseases (most deadly and invisible army of foreigners), entire indigenous communities were destroyed. Captive Africans from the war were brought from across the Atlantic to work the mines and plantations of Peru – that is, to complement the work of the Aymara and Quechua Indians. Over the next three centuries tens of thousands of African slaves were carried across the Atlantic, marched over the Isthmus of Panama, and shipped down the Pacific coast to Peru.

From the Lima sentry box, Callao, the Africans were taken to Malambo where they were ready for auction and distribution. Approximately a quarter of the Africans brought to Peru by the Pacific remained in Lima; the rest were sold to plantations, such as the dreaded Hacienda San José,  with up to 800 men, women and children working the land at any time. But many also escaped. Over time, maroons from the hacienda form their own  palenque  near the city of El Carmen in the province of Chincha.

As more African slaves were brought to Peru through the Caribbean port of Cartagena in New Granada, others arrived through Buenos Aires in the Atlantic, where they left in the searing  pampas  and the freezing Andes to work in the mines. Angolans, which included a wide range of peoples and cultures, were the most prominent captives in Peru, followed by those from the Congo, Mozambique, Gold Coast and Senegambia.

Several chroniclers explain the visible presence of black in Lima during the early colonial period. As Peruvian historian Carlos Aguirre points out in the PBS documentary  Black in Latin America , narrated by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard, Lima was once considered a “black city.” The imperial seat received tens of thousands of male and female slaves, whose traditions, abilities, cultures, religions, and spiritual practices varied widely. Some were animists, others practiced ancestral veneration, still others were polytheists and monotheists, in particular the Muslims of Senegambia; many practice a combination of these religious and spiritual practices.

As the historian Frederick Bowser describes in his classic study  The African Slave in Colonial Peru, 1524-1650 , African captives in Peru cleared the land, laid the streets, brought supplies, and built the churches, houses, and palaces of the Spanish elite. ; indoors, they served as cooks, cleaners, babysitters, and domestic service. Meanwhile, urban black work ran much of Lima’s daily business; Africans and their descendants worked as artisans, street vendors, bakers, water carriers, gardeners, and fruit and vegetable vendors.

Their lives were in stark contrast to slaves working in the mountains. In the Andes, death rates among enslaved black populations were especially high, the hope of freedom especially dim. There, deep in the mines, supervisors broke the backs and the spirits of black people, maximizing the extraction of silver that feeds the wealth of the Spanish empire.

And yet the resistance to slavery, which began in West Africa, took place at every point in the slave trade process: inland, at the first point of contact, while in forced marches to the coasts, while than board the feared slave ships on the high seas and continue  in the Americas in the form of flight, feigning disease, destroying tools, setting fire to crops, and less frequently, armed rebellion.

Men and women resisted slavery in various ways. Spanish archives are full of such suggestions or explicit cases, the most common record is that of The Runaways: in 1595 a Sunday Biafara took flight for weeks at a time (its name indicating that it came from the Biafara Inlet – now in modern-day Nigeria); in 1645, Francisca Criolla was sold “without guarantee” due to her reputation for escape. Official punishment for running has changed over time, but to start with 100 lashes, it was not uncommon.

While Lima may have had the highest concentration of Africans and their descendants in Peru, black and otherwise African peoples were equally significant in other cities. For example, as of the end of 1763, almost a third of the northern city of Trujillo and its immediate surroundings made up of people of African descent. In all, more than 100,000 West and Central West Africa took Peru by force.

Unlike the plight of Africans that ended up in the mountains, slavery in urban coastal Peru allows for a degree of social mobility. A private urban slave, the  day laborer , a day laborer who gave a portion of his earnings to his owner, worked with little or no supervision. Under such conditions, the workers’ day were slowly able to save enough money to buy their freedom and that of their loved ones, creating a growing free population of African descent in Lima.

The 19th century Afro-Peruvian painter Pancho Fierro provides an invaluable insight into the lives of Afro-Lima residents. A painter as well as an ethnographer, in his painting, depicts daily scenes of black, mulatto,  mestizo  (indigenous-Spanish) and other racially mixed people who form the fabric of the vibrant multi-racial, multi-ethnic city. (Over time a wide variety of categories,  castes , were created in Peru, defining racial boundaries and combinations).

Linguistic analysis, as well as music, dance and religious practice, points to African influences and African inspiration in Peruvian society and culture. But it is also the case that Africans were transformed by Spanish and indigenous peoples traditions and practices. Like plain Fierro paintings, Afro Peruvians create new culture out of what they or their ancestors brought and what they found. Among the most notable manifestations are the celebrations of “Amancaes” and “Pinkster”, the latter being a kind of coronation of Mardi Gras. The fusion of musical styles, dances and costumes speak to the synthesis of cultures in Peru.

Today there are an estimated 3 million Afro-Peruvians. This equates to less than ten percent of the country’s total population, a significantly lower percentage than in the early colonial period. The end of the slaves (and therefore new Africans), the migration of the indigenous peoples of the highlands to the coastal cities and the pressures to assimilate in the dominant society are factors for the decrease of the visible black population. Adding to this was the increase in new immigrant groups, including Chinese hired workers after the abolition of slavery in 1854, followed by Italian, German, Polish, Czech, and Japanese immigrants.

A primary reason for the lower visibility of Afro Peruvians, however, is the constant glorification of Iberians and other white Europeans, accompanied by social and institutional forms of discrimination against people of African descent. In 2009 the Peruvian government formally issued “apologies to the Afro-Peruvian people for the abuse, exclusion and discrimination perpetrated against them since colonial times,” a symbolic gesture, but as the Afro-Peruvian artist-activist Mónica Carillo  emphasizes, when it comes to gives equal treatment: “we do not ask, we demand; it is not a favor, it is our right ”. She and other Afro-Peruvians have used art as a means of documenting its history and living presence.

Increasingly known Afro-Peruvian cuisine, dance, and music (although not always produced in Afro-Peruvian terms). Manos Morenas  “(Hands of the Negro del) a  rock,  or  restaurant with live music, was for a long time a favorite place in the Barranco neighborhood of Lima with Afro-Peruvian music and cuisine, Creole food .

As for dance, the  landó , with the powerful rhythmic sounds of  cajons  (box-like wooden drums), has been popularized by the “Queen of the  landó ,” Eva Ayllón. This an especially elegant Afro-Peruvian form of music and dance, which ethnomusicologists track down londu Angolans  . He, like other genres of Afro-Peruvian music, such as  Festejo , are an integral part of the celebrations, including Independence Day (July 28) and emancipation (December 3).

Perhaps no one did more to bring Afro-Peruvian culture to public attention than the 20th century musician and poet Nicomedes Santa Cruz (other cultural ambassadors would include the late Ronaldo Campos from the Afro Peruana Peru  Negro musical ensemble   and  two-time Grammy winner singer Susana Baca) .

Despite raising the awareness of Afro Peruvians, their history and challenges still tend to be left out of most of the nation’s narratives and characterizations, which minimize their contributions to the realization of Peruvian society – an unequal fusion of multiple  traditions, including indigenous, African and Spanish traditions.

But, as is the case in the construction of all racial and ethnic identities, such terms are political in origin. As the historian Rachel O’Toole maintains in  destiny lives: the Africans, Indians and the doing of the race in Colonial Peru , Spanish authorities label various African populations as “Black” to denote a enslaved state and exaction of tribute and work of  various indigenous communities or “Indians.” All-encompassing racial and ethnic identities, therefore, disprove the complexity of our shared and diverse humanity and history.

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