Living in Peru is like constantly trying to piece together a puzzle, only your puzzle pieces constantly change and you realize that it doesn’t matter what pieces you connect because one way or another it’ll all work. This is how I first felt upon my arrival to Lima. It was this vast expanse and everyday I tried to have it all figured out, my housing, work, running paths, but you realize that the city moves as fast and uncontrollably as the micro-buses that zip through its streets, and while planning is good, sometimes you just have to be.
My knowledge of Spanish helped me communicate to a certain extent, yet it was also the one thing that set me apart from the Limeños of the city. I knew that Spanish accents vary from country to country yet I didn’t realize how different Mexican and Peruvian accents can be. Fortunately these differences in language helped spark conversations between me and people from many walks of life in Lima, and during each of these conversations I made sure to bring up the topic of Afro-Peruvian music. And almost all of the people I spoke to, whether it be a restaurant owner, cab driver, or my landlord, had something to say about this musical genre.
People who learned of my project and my quest to capture, visually, how Afro-Peruvian music has helped improve race relations in Peru helped me get in touch with artists, musicologists, and families who could all provide testimonies on the power of this music. Jaime Zevallos, who directs a dance group, Grupo JIZA, was one of the people I first talked to about the influence of Afro-Peruvian music. Jaime and JIZA specialize in zapateo, an Afro-Peruvian dance similar to stepping in the United States, only zapateo incorporates the cajon, an Afro-Peruvian instrument that functions like a drum. When I talked to Jaime I found out that all of the group’s members are related, and their dances are taught, generation after generation, in order keep the family’s Afro-Peruvian heritage alive. I filmed one of JIZA’s performances at symposium for Afro-Peruvian woman’s rights and I hope to continue following Grupo JIZA and will be posting interviews with the members soon!
Shortly after arriving my landlord, Ibis, invited me to La Candelaria, a peña, to watch her dance instructor perform traditional Afro-Peruvian dances. A peña is a place for people to gather and enjoy the music and dances of Peru’s distinct regions and at night it fills with families and tourists. Watching and listening to the different music made me realize what a musically diverse country Peru is, it also gave me an opportunity to witness Afro-Peruvian dance for the first time. After watching Ibis’ instructor perform I was invited to attend one of her dance classes. There I tried, incredibly hard, to learn a dance vocabulary foreign to anything I had ever danced. Regardless of how hard Afro-Peruvian dance can be, I pretended to know what I was doing, thankfully my instructor didn’t notice and at the end of the lesson I enrolled in the class. At first my dance lessons were a source of constant amusement. Random laughing spurts were a must in order for me to remember that sooner or later I’d get at least one of the dances down. I’ve been learning Afro-Peruvian dance for three weeks now, and soon I hope to be good enough to post a video of the dances I’ve learned. In the meantime pictures of my class will do.
Commuting within Lima, like my dancing, is a beautifully chaotic process. Going from one place to another involves microbuses, which are similar to buses only a lot smaller and fast paced. Unlike bus rides in the United States though, each trip in the microbus usually winds up being an adventure. And if it’s not, than at least the techno blasting from its speakers will light up your day. Aside from making you feel like dancing, Lima’s microbuses are one of the places where people from different socioeconomic backgrounds can all converge. Microbus routes trace the demographic and socio-economic lines of the city, weaving in and out from the ritziest to the poorest neighborhoods of Lima. It was in one of these microbuses that Sharun, a teenager working at El Centro de Desarrollo Etnico (my host organization) and I made our way to San Martin de Porres, one of the districts in Lima where a larger Afro-Peruvian community can be found.
Although I had expected San Martin de Porres to be a bolson, or “pocket”, where a larger Afro-Peruvian community could be found, I realized this wasn’t necessarily the case. The Afro-Peruvian community within Lima is sizable yet at the same time it is pretty widely dispersed. Regardless of this dispersal the inequalities faced by the Afro-Peruvian community are quite evident. In San Martin de Porres most of the homes were two to three story buildings, but a few one-story homes seemed to have stalled their construction for unknown reasons. After talking to one of the local residents I was made aware that homes such as these were usually owned by Afro-Peruvian families who had stalled their construction endeavors due to lack of monetary resources. This was my first taste of the inequalities faced by the Afro-Peruvian community, and I wondered how a community whose music and dance were marketed so fiercely on billboards and in stores throughout the city, could at the same time be so marginalized.