Susana’s Journey

Susana Baca, the jet black, barefoot Peruvian singer, dances on stages thousands of miles from home. She has searched her country on foot for traces of her ancestors.

By  Marcela Gómez
Photos: Demian Colman

From point A to point B, a journey almost always implies a change of physical location, usually aimed at reaching a specific destination, despite the delicious distractions that arise along the way. A journey in time is much less common and seldom more than a fantasy in the universe of the imaginary. This is even more the case when traveling to the past to search for the threads from which your present has been woven and, from the dark caverns of this past, to continue weaving your future.

But for some this kind of trip is possible. Here, for example, stands Susana Baca, the jet black Peruvian singer draped in a blue shawl, dancing barefoot on stage, thousands of miles from home. It is easy to imagine her walking across her country in search of the traces left by her ancestors, still vibrant and proud of the part they play in Peruvian culture.

Susana Baca was rejected by a dance group during her childhood and prevented by her school from accepting a scholarship to attend the National Conservatory of Music, which she won fair and square, all because of her color. Chabuca Granda always said: “Susana will be the one to introduce Perú to the world.” And, indeed, a few years later, during a period of national depression, when her country was in the doldrums, she brought home not one, but two Latin Grammy awards and received Perú´s highest honors.

Her melodious voice echoes throughout Panama’s vast Atlapa Islands during the lavish “Africa in America” event honoring black ethnicity, organized by the City of Panama. Bongos and the Peruvian cajón drum ring out while she seems to float among the lights. Her voice is silky, her steps smooth, her movements rhythmic. She resembles a black angel, an ebony dove.

She appears fragile, delicate, and it’s hard to imagine her in the midst of the hubbub of a highway, engaged in a kind of archeological expedition. She set out, in present-day Perú, to uncover the living presence of Afro-Peruvians in the nation’s popular culture. The result was her book El amargo camino de la caña dulce, aimed at reconstructing a map of Africanness in Perú.

Ricardo Pereira, her husband, producer, and co-adventurer, explains: “When you’re white, you’re aware of your origins. This is also true if you’re black: Africa. Despite the terrible voids left behind by the violent European conquest, even indigenous Americans can recover their origins. But for the enslaved African, brought by force to America, the threads that connect her with her past, her family tree, her ancestral traditions, were forever severed on slave ships.”

The question that motivated the couple, therefore, was simple: What happened to these people after that long journey from another continent? How did their descendants survive? What do they have in common? What remains of what their grandparents brought with them? And, most importantly, have they been able to make present-day Peruvians of all colors and social classes accept any of these cultural traits as their own?

The idea for the book arose twenty-five years ago when they presented the Commission of the Quincentennial of Discovery with the idea of mapping Africanness in Perú. This meant searching out black settlements and bringing them to people’s attention, while disseminating scholarly research to a broader audience.

“We needed each other to engage in dialogue. Me, from my rationalist corner as a sociologist, and Susana, from her emotional corner. I don’t look for academic answers; I want everyday life, and Susana is the bridge to the everyday,” says Pereira. Out of that first work grew their first book: Del fuego y el agua (1992).

Over the course of twenty-five years new questions have come up. Population statistics in Perú recorded a black population of only 2%. “Are we losing our color? Will we disappear as a minority? Which cultural elements would allow blackness to persist within the larger Peruvian culture?” With these questions in mind, they began their journey, covering some 3,700 miles from the border with Ecuador to the border with Chile. Village by village, they identified families by name and surname, profession, hobbies, preferences, and loves.

The story is both simple and fascinating. Susana dons her shawl and, amid the trucks transporting sugar cane, the narrator warns us that the journey is rife with coves and harbors, cathedrals and chapels, tiny restaurants offering tasty treats, and melancholy Republican-era houses.

Traces of successive waves of immigrants (Europeans, enslaved peoples, new bosses) are visible in the landscape, the urban architecture, the faces of men and women of all ages, in their sayings, seasonings, and wise expressions of life with all its joys and challenges.

The couple discovered black communities in both northern and southern Perú, linked to the production of sugar cane. The city of Tumán today stands on the site of a plantation that was once a sugar capital and is now inhabited by Afro-descendants, whose 400-year history has forged an identity based on labor, struggle, and celebration.

The book is a humanistic portrait, a loving look at everyday life in search of traces of a lost African identity. Not a skin color or social condition, but a cultural heritage transformed into music, home cooking, crafts…

“No one chooses their color at birth,” says Pereira, “but behind each of us stands a long line of parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents with their own social experience of prestige or scorn, hopeful struggle or stubborn resistance, and a passion for survival under any circumstances.” Pereira claims that in a homogeneous racial context, blackness implies a sense of belonging. In contrast, in a racially diverse context, being black can be a painful experience: Do I resemble the most or the least favored? Those who do as they wish, or those who are expected to do as they are told?

And things are even more difficult in a racially diverse and racist context, “where being different is a sign of inferiority, limited ability, kinship with the criminal, or existing on the fringes of the law.” A society with so much prejudice that people make comments like: ‘They’re a black family, but decent.

Meanwhile, Susana adds: “No black person wanted to be black until 1970.” At that time, a kind of awareness arose in Latin America, and the struggle for recognition began, bringing with it strong, oppositional defiance. Black people wanted to be black, not colored. “Call me black,” they said.

These movements began in urban areas, among certain elite groups, a middle class with access to higher education. “I became aware when I finished my university degree and was surrounded by older people. Have you read this book? Have you seen this film? And then it dawned on me why my school decided to give the scholarship to another girl… Of course! It was because I was black! It was simple racism.”

“But blackness is not only an experience of the present, with its vicissitudes, contrasts, and semi-legitimated burden of affectionate insults,” says Pereira. The river of black blood running through time and across continents has impregnated the cultures where black people were enslaved, enriched the national identities of the three Americas, and continues to struggle towards an authentic alternative for African development.

Both Pereira and Baca insist on the existence of a current black identity, upright and conscious of its value, demanding global recognition of the Afro-descendant legacy, their civic, economic, political, and cultural rights, and affirming a proud and creative identity as manifested in the slogans: “Black Is Beautiful, Black Is Good, Black Is Hot, and Black is Sweet.”

What conclusions has Susana drawn after her long journey? That Africa repaid our cruelty with art. It infected people with its colors, musical rhythms, and culinary delights. That Africa survived, remained, and is alive in each of the cultural manifestations present in Perú and all of America today, although we still lack a political will to punish racism, cultivate tolerance in everyday life, and embrace our differences rather than reject them. It’s a matter of education.

Susana’s new mission is to found a Museum of Black Ethnicity eighty miles south of Lima, on the site where her great-grandfather was enslaved. “It’s not about displaying the ignominy, chains, or pain. A young person sees this and is filled with hate, or hates herself. We need to find points that minimize the bad memories and rescue the good ones.” It’s about finding value in the cultural dye that blacks contributed to Perú and is now an intrinsic part of the country’s DNA.

The concert continues. Drums mix with the soft, melodious orchestral arrangement. Susana’s incomparable voice intones the words of Chabuca Granda: “At a sad hour I wanted to sing. And in this song I wanted to scream. And in this scream and I longed to cry, but I sing only in order to silence. The star loves brightness. And the water in the stream loves freedom.”