On the morning of July 10th, I arrived in Lima, Perú. Most of my preparations had centered on reacquainting myself with Spanish and little had to do with the landscape of current events. I had decided upon this unconsciously as my purpose was to discover as much as I could as I stranger, as a woman traveling alone. However, as a woman, towards the end of my six weeks there, this notion of what defines a woman I began to reevaluate. In addition, the ideas initially addressed in my project began to transform.
Most of the places I had planned to visit were accomplished with the exception of the region of Abancay, which is north East of Cuzco and Chiclayo, which is several hours north of Lima. In Lima I discovered the contrast between districts. The district of Mira Flores, is much like midtown New York and the Chelsea area. There are banks, a good selection of things to shop for, their version of a Whole Foods. Central Lima changes from street to street with parts heavily occupied by police and businessmen by day, by night; a community of transgender prostitutes and the poor emerge. In the district of Salamanca, one does not feel particularly safe. The safest means of transportation is by taxi. And yet, I found myself in Salamanca several times, discussing my project with a Peruvian rapper named Pedro Mo, learning from him about the Hip Hop community there, his collective, Comite PocoFlor, the situation of housing for poor people in Lima and about his grandmother, who is a playwright from Cuzco.
In terms of an Afro-Peruvian presence, there was little felt in the areas visited in Lima. It is surprising as Lima was once considered a Black city; a place where both day laborers (slaves coming into town from other towns), free blacks and a black military. Now, even with very obvious class divisions, one does see Peruvians of African descent as taxi drivers, as doormen, as cashiers at a grocery store.
From Lima, I traveled to the region of Chincha where the town of El Carmen resides. After leaving Lima, where there are 35 districts (think boroughs) and where preparations were being made to beautify the plazas and parks for Independence Day and the inauguration of new President Ollanta Humala– this was also the 100th anniversary of the scientific discovery of Machu Picchu – Chincha is vastly different. Three hours south of Lima, Chincha is largely rural. There is a central area with stores and markets and banks, but for the most part, it does not have the wealth that Lima has. Over the years, I have been informed that the central area is not safe and after befriending a four-year boy on the bus there, his mother instructs me to take a cab to El Carmen, which is about 30 minutes away.
There is no address for the Ballumbrosio home. Thus, once arriving in the plaza of El Carmen, one must ask for directions from a local.
The Ballumbrosio are a family well known for their contribution to Afro Peruvian Music and Dance. The patriarch, the now deceased Amador Ballumbrosio is considered the godfather of Afro-Peruvian music. The mother, Andia, is seventy-five years old and does the majority of the cooking guests who stay there for a modest fee. This becomes important as there is nowhere to eat in El Carmen and most people cook their food on a hot plate, if they can afford one. Several individuals had informed me that the Ballumbrosio are “doing well” and over time, I had to redefine what this statement meant for me as a Black woman from New York.
The home of Maribel, one of the Ballumbrosio daughters, is a short distance up a hill. Both Maribel’s and the family homes are quaint. The roofs are of bamboo and wood. They both means to cook food and hot water heaters for making tea. While the family home has running water, Maribel’s does not. Daily I filled a bucket to bath, to flush the toilet, to boil water to drink. It reminds of my time living in Mandeville, Jamaica. The floors were concrete. Outside, the roads were dirt and populated by dogs.
Most of the town through conversation I find work in the farms. Right outside Maribel’s home there is a cotton field and daily, I imagined the life of sharecroppers in early America and how their homes might have been directly beside a field. And this is what I come to understand about El Carmen; it is largely a town surrounded by farms. The artichokes farms are US owned. The cotton is said to be of the finest quality. Banana fields can be seen from a distance. There is a cotton gin not too far. Though I had traveled to El Carmen to find some proof of Miceala’s ethnic mixture, I thought a lot about Afro-Peruvian life, this functional level of poverty I was observing and how much (or little) has changed for them there. I thought a great deal about water politics; why the water was so unsafe to drink (even when boiled) and the amount of bottled water I would purchase throughout my time in Perú. El Carmen also became the starting point for a litany of questions women in every region I visited would ask me.
At first, I was comfortable with answering these questions as it helped me to practice my Spanish and they seemed to function as an entry point into the conversations with women in Perú. Theses questions, “Are you traveling alone?” “Do you have a boyfriend? A husband?” “Do you have children?” “How old are you?” “Do you want to have children?” and their many variations prompted questioning expressions from women everywhere I went. There would be laughter, shock, and further conversation. Many of the women I talked to, some in their twenties, were married with at least two children, looked at me with wonderment. Older women either questioned what was I waiting for and reminded me that I was not getting younger. Some, in the presence of their husbands (who did not seem pleased by my answers) would adorn tiny secretive approving smirks. However, over time, I wondered if my answers should be truthful, as these questions indicated something to them that I was not catching on to. My answers sometimes blessed me with invitations to someone’s home for coffee. Sometimes, it was kind gestures from older women to who wanted company at a restaurant table. I often wondered if a woman could truly be as independent (whether it was by choice or not) to do what I was doing and have done for so long. Wandering alone. Contrary to what the perception is of foreign women traveling alone as written in the tour guides, who was this person who did not drink, who was writing all the time, and basically listening more than talking in their eyes?
Before leaving El Carmen, I traveled to the town’s cemetery. In a conversation with Angie Keller, a Peruvian photographer spending time with the Ballumbrosio family, facilitating workshops with teenagers and documenting Afro Peruvians lives in El Carmen, she had suggested that I visit. The old cemetery and new one divide the cemetery. The earthquake of 2007 devastated the older one. Walking through it, it reminds you of an old ghost town. There were caskets above ground opened and barren. Apparently, a medical school nearby took the opportunity to ravage the remains of loved one exposed after the earthquake for the sake of science. Some the graves date back well into the 1800’s.
From El Carmen, I made my way to the city of Cuzco. The introduction was not something I expected. Arriving, travels agents bombarded me and tour guides, attempting to sell the Machu Picchu experience. There are several flyers and vouchers thrown at you. Outside of the small airport (Cuzco wants its very own airport so that international flights can fly directly to Cuzco instead of Lima, but the Lima will not allow it) the taxi drivers continue selling the tour package. For me, it reminded me of Jamaica, the selling of Sun Splash Reggae Festival, Montego Bay, all the lavish attractions tourism thrives on. It was unsettling to be thrown so much on my first day. And this selling of the “experience” never truly ended while there.
I stayed near the plaza in Cuzco, which was both a good and bad decision. One, it afforded me the time to walk everywhere and discovered small traces of Tupac Amaru If’s legacy in central Cuzco. Small because Tupac Amaru II is not a tourist attraction nor does anyone try to sell it as one. In the plaza there are four items that are overshadowed by benches and the daily march of military bands. Across from the cathedral there stands another smaller church where Tupac Amaru and his family were held as prisoners. A smaller structure, which now contains a high priced bazaar, is actually the place where Tupac’s trial was held. In the far back of the building there is small statue of Tupac and a doll depicting Micaela Bastidas. No one notices them. Outside there are two plaques designating the prison, the trial, and those who met their death. One may never see them due to the flood of tourists and those selling hats, dolls, carved gourds, water-colors; erotic massages. Right across the central road in the park, there is a stone cross, the place where Tupac was apparently quartered. Beside it, there is another plaque with more information. It is behind a bench and under a tree. Few notice it. The plaza of Tupac Amaru is not among the tourist attractions to visit as it is in the district of Wanchaq. Wanchaq is a 45-minute walk from the central plaza and in a more local neighborhood. It is an unusual plaza, as it does not contain any lawn or trees. It is largely all concrete, has few seating areas, and hardly anywhere with shade. The center bears Tupac on a horse and several tall monuments are dedicated to Micaela, Antonio Oblitas, Tupac’s children and brother. Few know that Antonio Oblitas was a man of African and Indian ethnicity.
As much as I dreaded sometimes wandering the streets of Cuzco, the museum of Qorikancha has a wonderful library with several books on Africans in Cuzco and other places in Perú. The librarian, an Argentinean economist, showed me the books and with a trip to the photo lab and a copy of my passport, I was able to get a library card that gained me free entry into the museum. Among the books, I was happy to find Negros e Indios, a book written in 1973 by Emilio Harth-Terre, that indicated Micaela as Samba and that her birthplace was indeed in the region of Abancay. However so, books were not the only reasons for traveling so far.
Though I had to cancel my trip to Abancay (it became clear that my Spanish was not strong enough to travel alone to an rural area with no contacts), I managed to find a driver through another hotel to take me to the towns of Surimana, Tungasuca, Tinta and Pampamarca, all associated with Tupac Amaru and Micaela. The towns are some four hours away and in the mountains south of Cuzco, far away from tourist maps. If traveling by local transportation, it would have been impossible to travel to all four in one day.
In these towns, no one spoke Spanish. All spoke Quechua and to my benefit, the driver was from these areas. So while my Quechua was limited, he was able to talk and find information. The towns were small, and often, appeared barren, perhaps because most traveled to work elsewhere. However so, they all knew of their importance to the history, each having some entry sign designating their role in the history of Tupac Amaru II. “Natal Tierra de Tupac Amaru and Micaela Bastidas” was one such sign. Each plaza contained modest monuments of Tupac alone or with his family. However, Antonio Oblitas was rarely part of these tributes. What was also interesting was the argument over Tupac’s home. History has reported them demolished by Spanish officials after Tupac’s execution. However, in Tinta we were shown the home of Tupac’s father and the home of Antonio de Arriaga, the Spanish Corregidor and the first to be killed when Tupac began the rebellion. In Tinta, a man suggested that we not go to Surimana, as it had no main significance to Tupac Amaru. We almost did not since Surimana, was the farthest. However a woman name Nathalie in Tungasuca disagreed and directed us up and around a mountain to Surmana.
From a distance, Surimana is on the side of a mountain and appears almost like a castle in a Cinderella story. Closer, it is the church that gives off this allusion. There, Surimana feels more barren than Tinta or Tungasuca. A small girl was the only person we saw when we arrived in the plaza. More importantly, the home Tupac Amaru still stands. Old and empty, you walk through the rooms and imagine the gunfire used to attack the house, the sleeping area of his children, how long it must have taken to take his family to central Cuzco to be trailed and executed. For me, there are no books that could have given me the view I had looking across towards another mountain, imagining a life here that was once vibrant and active. Even if the information being shared with was not true, I had accomplished one portion of what I had come down here for. I was on land once governed by Tupac Amaru II.
No sooner did we leave Surimana, I became ill and stayed ill for three days.
The climate change from day to night, to mountain to flat land is indeed one to take seriously and by traveling to four different towns in one day was more my immune system could bear. Thus my time in Arequipa was spent in a bed, under blankets, drinking large amounts of tea. I had only planned to stay in Arequipa for five days so once back to health, I traveled to the plaza and through a contact with Odi Gonzales at the Librería de San Augustine, found yet another book dealing with Africans in Arequipa. The mining of such books became important because in areas like Cuzco and Arequipa, it is easy to assume that Africans had no presence here. The focal point of tourism in Perú is largely to sell the Andean experience. Even, the poverty of Andeans culture is for sell in all variations. The women and their daughters travel from rural towns to central Cuzco to walk the streets with a baby lamb or young Llama, selling their identity in the form of photo to a sole (Peruvian currency) or two. However, you may never walk across someone of obvious African descent here. It is assumed that they are mainly in the coastal areas. While a portion of this stands true, few know that Cuzco had a small slave market and that many of the nuns in Arequipa and elsewhere, brought with them into the monasteries their very own personal slaves during the colonial period. This practice was quite normal as many of the young girls selected to be nuns were from wealthy Spanish families.
Leaving Arequipa to Puno, I discovered the same problems I experienced in Cuzco. The tourist trap. Upon checking into my hotel, the front desk attempted to sell a package to Uros Islands, the fame floating islands of the Uru people. I had planned to visit them but not in this manner. In addition, I wanted to walk and understand the landscape. Puno is smaller and perhaps the reason for the intensity of selling tours. Yet, it was the intensity of selling tour packages that made me think a lot about how the “indigenous” experience is an attraction that is limited to bus and boat tours, markets and restaurants. In my one and only trip to the Uros Islands, I had hoped to be taken to the islands were there is a school, a language school, a hospital, anything that would allow me to understand their way of living. Instead, I am taken to a small island where I told how the islands are built while a circle of women wait to sell me miniature boats and pottery.
Puno is considered the capital of Perúvian folkloric music and dance. It has the largest number of musical forms to come from there. Traditional dances like the Morenada come from Puno and deal with the African experience. Yet, again, to come across a black person, in the central area of Puno, is far and few.
Despite the disappointment I encountered attempting to visit Uros, I could not ignore the lake itself. Lake Titicaca is enormous and is shared by Bolivia and Peru. On the Peruvian side, it is facing many problems. From the shore, one can notice the levels of pollution and how far it reaches into the less shallow areas. One also notices the lack of concern for bad habits gone array. Once, a man walked right across from me, towards the shore and began to urinate into the lake. One hears of the reports of birth defects occurring due to the high levels of mercury and waste that is poured into the lake from the mines nearby.
Week Five and Six
I returned to Cuzco for two days before returning to Lima. As mentioned, I had planned to go Chiclayo and Zaña, a small town south of Chiclayo and known for its African presence. However, because of my previous illness, I decided it best to slow down the rate of traveling I was doing and do my last visits to Qorikancha’s library and then fly back to Lima. Through Angie Keller, I found out about the Museum of Afro-Peruvians. It is a new museum, only two years in existence and still in its development stages. I was asked for my opinion and I shared with them some information I felt was not indicated; perhaps information they themselves may not know about yet.
Through the librarian at Qorikancha’s library, I later met with Maribel Arrelucea Barrantes, the author of Replanteando La Esclavitud (Rethinking slavery: Studies of ethnic and gender in Bourbon Lima), and her husband, Jesús A. Cosamalón Aguilar, who wrote the book Indio Detrás De La Muralla (Indian behind the wall. Indigenous Marriages and Inter-Racial coexistence In Santa Ana (Lima, 1795-1820)) It was in Aguilar’s book that he pointed out another discovery connected to my project. In an article footnoted by Aguilar, Maria Mejia, the wife of Tupac’s son, Mariano Tupac Amaru, was also Samba.
The term “samba” or “zamba” I learned that may refer to someone of African and Indigenous descent AND may also be used to classify someone who has one African parent and one mulato parent. Regardless of how this term is used, it proved useful to fully understand as no one abides to such categories in present day Perú.
The remainder of my time was to meet one last time with Pedro and video tape him, as he wrote some of his rap lyrics in Quechua. I also contributed a poem I had written in Quechua to one of his tracks. I also wandered one last time in the district of Barranco. In Barranco I found an old ceramic tile shop that featured a mosaic dedicated to the work of Pancho Fierro. Pancho Fierro was a self-taught painter of mixed heritage known for his watercolors depicting Peruvian life during the colonial period. It was a nice discovery since I had failed to the museum where these paintings are housed.
It is without question that I will return to Perú to continue this project. Beyond the first intentions of this trip, water politics, the lives and roles of women, and the Afro-Peruvian experience were constantly thought of. Due to finding the second document indicating Micaela’s place of birth, I could imagine at times, the distance traveled from Abancay to Cuzco (8 hours by bus in the present day) and what Cuzco must have looked like for a Black woman not from there. I could attempt to imagine, with more information, the curiosity of her relationship to Tupac if she were indeed of both African and Indigenous mixture. In a conversation with professors Maribel and Jesús, they mentioned a small town near to Abancay that once existed, where the population was all Black and fluent in Quechua. Where are the descendants of this town now? What do they look like? Thus, upon my next trip, visiting Chiclayo, Zaña, Lambayeque and finding the location of this now forgotten town will be critical.
Through my conversations with Pedro Comite and a colleague of Odi Gonzales, I was introduced to the work of Nicomedas Santa Cruz. Another figure in the history of Afro-Peruvian poetry and culture, he became important to me as his name was quite known and yet, he did not appear to be included in the canon of Peruvian literature. Thus, because of this, I made it essential that I collect whatever work I could find of his. Books and CDs were all found in areas I would not consider locations with a prominent Afro Peruvian presence.
In the case of El Carmen, I am now speaking to the photographer Lorry Salcedo of possibly returning for reasons outside of the project. I feel that the limitations set upon Afro-Peruvians is because of the lack of education they have and the limitations of income. Even with the recent naming of singer and musicologist Susana Baca named the new minister of culture, one must understand that the Afro Peruvians voice in public opinion is still very rare and hopefully, in time, their presence in politics, will become stronger.
During my time in El Carmen I volunteered to braid women’s hair as it became evident that there was lack of education in regards to curly and coarse hair. I also knew that income through hair braiding is something anyone can do. All one needs are thier own hands, a comb and a little imagination. Thus, I proposed my idea to Lorry Salcedo who thought the idea a good one. I am talking to other artists in hopes that I would return with two hair braiders who would volunteer their time to teach hair braiding and hair care to the women in El Carmen.