(above) Afro-Peruvian diva Susana Baca, left, speaks with Natalia Maturana, a resident of the village of Santa Barbara, Peru, for all of her 87 years. Baca is collecting the stories and music of the descendants of slaves to resuscitate Peru’s black history. (Giancarlo Aponte, For The Times / June 9, 2011)

Acclaimed Afro-Peruvian singer unearths a hidden history

Latin Grammy winner Susana Baca is building a center dedicated to Peru's African heritage. In combing the coast, she found songs rooted in the days of slavery, possibly saving them from extinction and bringing vindication to the present generation.

By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Santa Barbara, Peru—
In this village that still bears the name of the old Santa Barbara sugar plantation, Susana Baca is trudging through a field of sweet potatoes. Not 48 hours earlier, the internationally acclaimed diva of Afro-Peruvian music returned from Paris, the last stop in her latest world tour.

But on this day, she is visiting her mother's tumbledown hometown, a neglected part of Peru that is the cradle of its multiethnic history, where the descendants of black slaves and Chinese and Japanese field hands have lived together for generations, intermarried and even now continue to work the land.

"We are all equal here," says one of Baca's old friends, Carlos Franco Aguilar, a caramel-colored man with almond eyes whose Chinese grandfathers felt compelled to change their last names (Lao became Franco, Lin Aguilar), and whose mother is part-black.

"All equal," he says with a laugh. "Equally poor."

Baca, 67, comes to Santa Barbara as often as she can. The Grammy winner is building a cultural center here dedicated to the African heritage of Peru's people, as well as the conglomeration of ethnicities that for centuries influenced this nation's music, food, art and economy but were routinely marginalized by a class-stratified society.

"I want these people to feel they belong to something … to feel vindicated," Baca says, seated on a patio among the small buildings that will form her center, with its pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. and jazz musicians. The roar of the sea a couple of miles away was interrupted only by the braying of a nearby donkey.

"Official history is white," adds her husband, Ricardo Pereira, a sociologist who helps promote Baca's work. "The idea is to make visible a hidden history."

Two years ago, Peru became the first country in Latin America to formally apologize to its citizens of African descent for years of discrimination. And just the other day, the government bestowed recognition on several black Peruvian luminaries. But Baca and others say it's largely lip service, and racism remains common.

That much was evident in the presidential election last month, in which ethnic epithets were commonly used to insult the two candidates, one of Asian ancestry and the other a mestizo with an Indian name.

Statistically, black Peruvians are generally at the lowest ends of the economic and education scales.

"There are Afro-Peruvians who have gotten ahead," says Rafael Santa Cruz, a member of the legendary musical family credited with reviving the Afro-Peruvian movement. "But many of us are treated as second-class citizens."

As an abundant source of silver, gold and, later, guano, colonial Peru was one of the wealthiest countries in the Americas after its conquest by Spanish explorers and the center of the new empire. The Spanish brought slaves who immediately found themselves at odds with the local indigenous population in addition to their white European masters. The equally repressed indigenous regarded the blacks as part of the foreign colonization, and many hated them for it.

Peruvian slaves were forced to abandon (or conceal) their languages, music and religions. Over the centuries, their relatively smaller numbers in effect obliged them to marry Andean Indians, whites and mestizos, the offspring of Indians who paired with the Spanish. The culture faded.

Only in the last 50 years or so, roughly parallel to the U.S. civil rights movement, a small group of Afro-Peruvians has worked to rescue the simple, percussion-heavy music, poetry, dance and, ultimately, the singularity of the culture.

"It's about more than singing a pretty song or choreographing a dance: It's the search for identity," Santa Cruz says.

Blacks in Peru were never a monolithic group. The slaves of the coastal sugar and cotton plantations lived very different lives from the urban slaves, who attained a relative prosperity and liberty. They were artisans — tailors, glazers, cobblers, blacksmiths, carpenters — who were allowed to keep some of the money they earned; many eventually bought their freedom.

Lima, the regal colonial capital of palaces, plazas and lattice-work balconies, was nearly half black in the 16th and 17th centuries. Today, largely because of intermarriage and the difficulty of sustaining their culture, blacks account for less than 2% of the national population.

After slavery was finally abolished in the mid-19th century, the plantation slaves were largely relegated to destinies as sharecroppers, recalls Natalia Maturana, who has lived here in Santa Barbara for all of her 87 years. She is black, married to an 88-year-old mestizo man, and they have 11 children, most of whom work the fields of sweet potato and yucca that cover this land.

Slightly stooped, with a face full of wrinkles and freckles, Maturana lives in a circa 1900 house that was built for the first influx of Japanese workers, brought in to work the cotton fields. White paint flakes off the side of the slightly sunken house. Inside, on scuffed wooden-plank floors, Maturana's great-grandchildren play while the adults cook, sew and pick through beans for dinner.

Just about anyone over the age of 12 has worked in the fields, while the older folk remember when it was easy to go to the nearby sea and fish for abundant bass and shrimp. "That's all ended," Maturana says.

Peru's agrarian reform in the mid-1900s gave land titles to Indians and mestizos but left out blacks because they were seen as being too close to the white hacienda owners, she says. Only this year did one of her children, Manuel, 45, finally get title to his land.

For Baca, who purchases a 200-pound bag of just-picked sweet potatoes on this visit, it is their stories and music that resuscitate Peru's black history.

She points out the statue of Carlos "Caitro" Soto de la Colina, another legendary Afro-Peruvian musician and member of Peru Negro, one of the first groups to gain fame in the 1970s. Baca says it's the first monument built in Peru to one of its black musicians.

The daughter of a black cook and a black chauffeur working for rich whites in Lima, Baca also suffered discrimination, being passed over as a teen when her school chose the white girls to form the dance troupe even though she was the best dancer. Today Baca still moves with the flow of a dancer, her arms floating, her head slightly tilted, as though she hears a song somewhere in the distance.

She smiles readily, flashing bright white teeth, to anyone who salutes her, from the poorest dirt farmer here to motorists passing in busy Lima.

Acting as part detective, part sociologist, Baca traveled up and down Peru's long coastline for two decades, hearing the tales and studying the music distinctive to each part of the country. Many of the songs and dances went back to slavery times and were in danger of extinction. Afro-Peruvian music is heavy on simple, sensual cadence and rhythm based on the cajon, a box-like instrument that Peruvian slaves started to use after their masters, and the Catholic Church, forbade their traditional drums. The cajon today is a nationally recognized symbol of cultural patrimony.

"A lot of people saw this as the music of the slaves. They were ashamed of it," Baca says. But she tries to show it as something to be proud of. With an album of Afro-Peruvian music, Baca won a Latin Grammy in 2002, and she tours the world frequently, including a stop in Los Angeles scheduled for August.

"The important thing is to belong to something," Baca says. "We need to feel happy with our differences and to feel that we belong to a collective and are not alone."