The Afro-Peruvian Women Leading the Black Movement in South America
The image of a smiling Black woman, complete with red kerchief, sits above the word "Negrita," emblazoned on the bright red packaging of various sweets. The brand name stands out, as if taken from the refrain of Victoria Santa Cruz' emblematic poem, Me Gritaron Negra (They Yelled 'Black Woman' at Me).
Negrita is a familiar mammy trope, similar to the United States' Aunt Jemima. Both are set to become relics of their stereotypical past—the Peruvian version declared gone in late June, when AliCorp, the largest Peruvian consumer goods producer, announced the change of the name and image of its brand Negrita after 60 years of existence. Calling the image "inappropriate," the company said it will continue "inspiring respect, inclusion and equity…to build together the society we want."
Black Peruvian actress Anaí Padilla Vásquez, who was integral in the company's decision to remove the image, said, in a post on Facebook: "growing up and living under a stereotype like this generates a lot of damage, pain and even rejection of your own identity." She called racism one of the "largest pandemics in the world" and said the move by AliCorp is an "important and historic action in the fight against racism" in Peru.
Many Afro-Peruvians identify with the global fight against anti-Black imagery that ultimately informs and fosters anti-Black discrimination and violence. According to the Peruvian government, as of 2017, there were close to one million people of African descent in the country. Half of Afro-Peruvians have been insulted at least once on the street and four of every 10 have felt discriminated against in their workplace, in shops or other public spaces.
The current and ongoing anti-racist movement has received further global attention since the death of U.S. man George Floy on May 25—a poignant time in Peru, which honors Afro-Peruvian history every June since the month's designation in 2006. June 4 is the national day of the Afro-Peruvian—in honor of the birthday of renowned AfroPeruvian writer, poet and musician Nicomedes Santa Cruz—and, just last month, Peru declared July 25 as the day of the Afro-Peruvian woman. It's the same day that Latin America celebrates International Afro-Latin American, Afro-Caribbean and Diaspora Women's Day, which was established in 1992, forged by LaRed de Mujeres Afrolatinoamericanas, Afrocaribeñas y de la Diáspora.
Afro-Peruvian activist and researcher Sharún Gonzales has drawn parallels between police abuse of Black people in the U.S. and the over-policing and high incarceration rates of Black Peruvians. Gonzales says that the "differential treatment" in the criminalization of Afro-Peruvians "is a minimized and invisible trend in Peru, along with other inequalities that go unnoticed by those who insist on an abstract equality among all Peruvians."
Gonzales and Padilla are among a group of women who have become the leading voices of the Afro-Peruvian movement. Here are five others to get know.
Ana Lucía Mosquera Rosado. Courtesy of Ana Lucía Mosquera Rosado.
Ana Lucía Mosquera, activist and professor at University of Saint Martin de Porres—named after the first Afro-descendant saint in the Americas—is happy to hear calls for change, as she remembers being taunted as "la negrita mazamorrera," (in reference to the AliCorp brand), as well as "Doña Pepa," the name of a Peruvian chocolate bar, in grade school, where she was the only Afro-Peruvian student.
For her, the Afro-Peruvian celebrations in June were essential because they "recognize Afro-Peruvian contributions to larger society, as they are often put outside the narrative of being Peruvian." Mosquera however believes a month of recognition is not enough because anti-racist actions are not articulated sufficiently within the country, and "these actions must guarantee rights." Access to education, proper health care, especially amid the pandemic, systematic marginalization and invisibility are the most pressing issues in Mosquera's view.
Peru's 2017 census quantified Afro-Peruvians for the first time since 1940, showing that they make up 3.7 percent of the country's population. The number pleasantly surprised Mosquera, as she said there was very little done to inform and promote the "Afro-descendant" variable to the public. Previously, independent Afro-Peruvian organizations estimated Afro-descendants as 10 percent of the population.
Mosquera has been an activist for over 10 years after observing she was among the very few Afro-Peruvians in her university, alerting her to a certain type of privilege that "isolated her in every space" she was in. Mosquera is a member of AfroPeruvian organization Makungu para el desarollo, and formerly worked with the Ministry of Culture.
Rocio Muñoz. Photo courtesy of Rocio Muñoz.
Consultant and activist Rocio Muñoz—who has also worked with the Ministry of Culture to prioritize visibility of the Afro-Peruvian community—shared the positive sentiment in eliminating racist imagery, saying the denial of racism and the act of "delegitimizing the sustained demand of many people of African descent, regarding racist representations and the normalization of racism, is very violent." Especially, she said, when it comes from a system sustained by privilege and from people who "have not lived the painful experience of racial discrimination that also impacts Afro-descendant boys and girls."
In an interview in 2013, Muñoz expressed this pain in hearing the anti-Black bullying of her nephew, after classmates called him "El Negro Mama." The taunting was inspired by actor Jorge Benavide's blackface caricatures "El Negro Mama" and "La Paisana Jacinta," both of which reduce Afro-descendant and Indigenous Peruvians to racist tropes. The depictions were pulled from TV after pressure from Afro-Peruvian organizer Monica Carrillo and her organization LUNDU, but subsequently were returned by popular demand.
Since then, Muñoz says the institutional framework that provides more attention to the Afro-Peruvian population has advanced, yet its scope is still limited. The Ministry of Culture is the only public ministry that has the "most specific data and is in charge of designing public policy and the monitoring of it. There are no other executive institutions that are specifically geared to Afro-Peruvians and that is a huge limitation in the guarantee and implementation of fundamental human rights," she said.
Muñoz is part of Presencia Y Palabra: Mujeres Afroperuanas, a collective founded by Eliza Pflucker Herrera, Sofía Arizaga, Adriana Mandros, Carmen Espinoza, Eshe Lewis, and Gonzales, whose videos during the marches on International Women's Day on March 8, and the National Day against Violence against Women on November 25 went viral. With their bold purple and yellow t-shirts, they invoked legendary activist and writer Angela Davis in their calls for "feminism to be anti-racist or not at all." The Black women's collective highlights systemic marginalization, inequality, racism, and violence against AfroPeruvians and Black women in particular who face multiple dimensions of oppression through poverty, limited access to education, employment, and media imagery that devalues and hyper-sexualizes them.
In the public health sector, Afro-Peruvian women in Latin America are "made to wait longer for medical attention and when they do access a medical professional, they are often cursorily examined and dispatched quickly," cites researcher and professor of law, Tanya Kateri Hernandez. The group lifts up voices of diverse forms of resisting while fostering an environment of mutual care, respect and community-building.
Muñoz said the struggle against systemic racism, patriarchy and oppression requires a "united effort of Black women because our diasporic experiences mark common elements, when one talks to a woman in Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico or any other country, discrimination, our history, pain, narratives of resisting and struggle and of freedom and justice" are the same.
Giovanna Sofía Carrillo Zegarra. Photo courtesy of Giovanna Sofía Carrillo Zegarra.
Journalist Giovanna Sofía Carrillo Zegarra says she did not set out to be an activist but found there was no other way she could live, as her activism has proven a "tool and a way to resist racism, machismo, and sexism…in defending human rights in a patriarchal misogynist heteronormative society…so that no Afro-Peruvian child ever has to go through" what she has gone through, she said.
Carillo has been subject to violence on and off social media, while doing her job, and at times from other journalists—like a racist and sexist exchange that was recently dug up, showing Peruvian journalist Alan Diez, when speaking to Carillo, comparing Afro-descendants to gorillas, among other anti-Black and sexist remarks. The video came to light after it was Tweeted out by a well-followed soccer-themed account, without context or condemnation of Diez's behavior—indicative of a trend in Peru to mask the country's white pathology and anti-Blackness through "jokes."
Carillo experienced more of this pervasive coded and racialized "humor" while going through Peru's airport customs in 2019. An agent made a "joke," alluding to a Black person's incapacity to think after 12 pm. Carillo denounced the remarks in a follow-up meeting with the employee and the employee's superiors.
Carillo also has a history of activism on gender equality. In 2011, alongside her sister Monica, who is the founder of Afro-Peruvian organization LUNDU, she co-wrote a 200-page report with quantitative and qualitative data on the absence of effective gender policies that guarantee the exercise of AfroPeruvian women's rights. The report made clear that the use of "negra" is of political and cultural identity that resists eurocentricity.
We still need normative change, Carrillo said, "through public policies against discrimination and racism, which incorporate actions aimed at prevention with education and is explicit that discrimination and racism are crimes."
Nani Medrano. Photo courtesy of Nani Medrano.
Nani Medrano describes herself as an artivist, combining her music and dance with her activism. She said for her it is generational, naming her mother and grandmothers as feminist activists as well. "So it was impossible for me not to be. I could not triumph and leave my community to the sidelines. My community is my family. To not support the struggle, to not support the fight is like saying I relinquish my rights to my family," she said.
That family extends to her musical family, where Medrano uses the Afro-Peruvian cajon, which she says connects her to her motherland and her ancestry. Sharing the histories, her family lineage and her personal stories through these mediums is not a trend, it is a lifestyle, she said. Medrano wants to take up space as a self-described Black woman, who is also tall and fat in a country where most of the women "are not like me."
Medrano says, visibility is an urgent issue in the country, as it relates to recognizing, valuing, and teaching the country's African history especially in schools where Afro-Peruvian children are often psychologically affected by racist bullying, just as Mosquera and Muñoz pointed out.
Her musical group, Las Respondonas, centers visibility through artistic resistance of "introspection of our bodies as historical and political." She uses her own body to affirm her own negritude and that of other Black women to "shine bright in their own way, because we are all beautiful and our advancement is connected."
Belen Zapata Silva. Photo by Giovanna Sofía Carrillo Zegarra.
Connection is key in representation in anti-racist movements, said Belen Zapata, coordinator at Casa Trans Zuleymi. "There has to be an intersectional focus in the struggle, you can't defend the rights of some and not others."
Casa Trans Zuleymi is Peru's first trans house, founded in 2016 and named after Zuleymi Aylen Sánchez Cárdenas, a 14-year-old trans girl murdered in May 2016. The house chose the name of Zuleymi to remind the state that it is not "fulfilling its responsibility to protect Peru's trans population."
Zapata has worked in various Afro-descendant organizations, Red de Jóvenes Afroperuanos Ashantí and La Red de Mujeres Afrolatinoamericanas, Afrocaribeñas y de la Diáspora. Zapata was also among the yellow and purple shirts on the streets marching this past year with Presencia y Palabra. The group said "they couldn't say the march was for women, if all women were not represented. We had lesbians, cis, trans, and bi folks." Zapata said the machismo that lives within the Afro-Peruvian movement "must be eradicated," continuing: "Peru is only beginning to take the first steps in including the LGBTQ community."
Zapata highlighted that there is still much work to do on the topic of exclusion. "We cannot talk about the LGBTQ movement without all LGBTQ people, we cannot demand human rights for Afro-Peruvian people if we don't include all Afro-Peruvian people. Much of the strides of the LGBTQ movement, ends up benefitting white gay men only. Trans people are excluded from both movements and that calls for us to raise and lead our own."
A native of the predominantly Afro-descendant northern coastal department of Piura, where 26 percent of Afro-Peruvian children are not enrolled in school, Zapata has spent the last 17 years in Lima continuing her work in bringing visibility to the varied experiences of trans people, noting the stark differences in the social trajectories of a white, middle class, generationally moneyed gay person versus a gay person who lives in poverty, or a trans white person versus a trans Black person.
"The majority of trans people have been living in extreme poverty and these realities have been uncovered and viewed more clearly with the pandemic. We are even excluded within social programs and initiatives. Access to livelihood and jobs is extremely limited. How will we eat, live, pay rent? And many of us are immigrants," Zapata said during a forum on June 25.
Zapata, like her fellow Black Peruvian macheteras, embodies the principles echoed in Presencia y Palabra's mission: breaking the pacts that oppress and divide us while "blackening the streets of Lima to vindicate our joy at knowing ourselves together, and in existence. "
And, as Muñoz declared: "We are not alone and all the Black voices, hands and bodies are necessary in continuing the fight."
Dash Harris is a multi-media journalist, doula, and entrepreneur based in Panama. She is the co-founder of AfroLatinx Travel and co-producer of podcast Radio Caña Negra, dissecting themes of Black history, life, anti-blackness, social access, justice, love and joy throughout the Americas.