The African Presence in Ancient Peru
by Runoko Rashidi
Contrary to popular belief, the first Africans to come to Peru did not come as captives, that is enslaved people. Rather, the country that is now called Peru in all likelihood became home to many of the first waves of Blacks who crossed into the Western Hemipshere tens of thousands of years ago. We have already found the bones of these ancient Blacks in Bolivia, Ecuador and Brazil. Why would Peru be an exception? And then there is the Moche civilization.
Peru is probably the most archaeologically rich country in South America and one of the most important phases of its history is the Moche period. The Moche (or Mochica), a militaristic people little known to all but a few of us, erected their empire along the Peruvian coast around 100 C.E. and were not eclipsed for seven hundred years. They built their capital in the middle of the desert around what is now the city of Trujillo. It featured the enormous pyramid temples of the Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna (The temples of the Sun and the Moon). The Temple of the Sun, one of the most impressive adobe structures ever built in the Western Hemisphere, was composed of over a hundred million mud bricks.
The Moche roads and system of way stations are thought to have been an early inspiration for the Inca network. The Moche increased the coastal population with extensive irrigation projects and skillful engineering works were carried out, such as the La Cumbre canal, still in use today, and the Ascope aqueduct, both on the Chicama River.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Moche was their art, especially their amazingly life like portrait vases. In June 2001 I managed to view a number of these Moche pieces in the Lima museums, many of them so Africoid that I thought that they could have easily been manufactured in the Congo. I am talking here about vase after vase after vase. Indeed, based on this artistic evidence alone one could say that the Moche are among ancient America's best kept secrets.
AFRICANS IN COLONIAL PERU
Although some Africans came to Peru with the Spanish invaders as soldiers and translators, beginning in the sixteenth century significant numbers of enslaved Africans were being taken to Peru. During the 1550s there were an estimated three thousand enslaved Africans in Peru, about half of them residing in Lima. And wherever there are enslaved people one can also find slave resistance. Colonial Peru is no exception here and the one name that seems to most personify that resistance is Francisco Congo. He must have been extraordinary man and I am trying diligently to find information on him.
Because of its geography and the fact that Peru was not on the direct colonial slave trade routes (mostly on the Atlantic Ocean) the majority of Africans in Peru were not brought over directly from Africa but were bought from the British, Dutch and Portuguese after they were already in the Americas. Even under the background of poverty and enslavement, however, some of these Africans achieved great distinction. One such person was Martin de Porres.
Martin de Porres, eventually to become St. Martin de Porres, was born December 9, 1579 in Lima, Peru. He was the son of a Spanish nobleman and a freed African slave mother. At age eleven, he became a servant in the Dominican priory. Promoted to almoner, he begged for more than $2,000.00 a week from the rich to support the poor and sick of Lima. Placed in charge of the Dominican's infirmary Martin became famous for his "tender care of the sick and for his spectacular cures." Because of him the Dominicans dropped the stipulation that "no black person may be received to the holy habit or profession of our order" and Martin took his vows as a Dominican brother.
For Lima's poor Martin de Porres established both an orphanage and a children's hospital. And, interestingly enough, he set up a shelter for stray dogs and cats and nursed them back to health. He lived in self-imposed austerity, never ate meat, fasted continuously, and spent much time in meditation and prayer.
In 1639 Martin de Porres died of fever. He has been venerated since the day of his death. He was beatified in 1873 and canonized on May 16, 1962. He is the first African-American saint.
AFRICANS IN PERU TODAY
Today, the African presence in Peru numbers about two million people out of a total population of about twenty-three million. During my visit, however, I saw only a handful of these sisters and brothers. I did manage, with some expenditure of effort, though, to find one African taxi driver, brother Enrique. Unfortunately, the only words of English that brother Enrique ever uttered were "Black power" but that was enough for me to hire him. I saw no Africans working in the airport, in the markets, in the museums, in the banks, in the hotels or on TV.
So, the reports of pervasive and rampant anti-African racism in Peru will not come as much of a surprise to us. What else is new? According to one account, "It is systematic and permanent. It goes from patronizing attitudes to outright discrimination: blacks are dirty, thieves, all the stereotypes. " In August 1996 New York Times correspondent Calvin Sims documented some of the racial bias directed against Africans in Peru, pointing out that:
"Although nightclubs feature Afro-Peruvian musical groups and a third of Peruvian soccer players are black, the number of black professionals is estimated at fewer than 400, and there are no black executives of Peruvian companies, no blacks in the diplomatic corps, judiciary, or the high ranks of the clergy or military. The country's even smaller Japanese community has produced the current President, but no black politician has risen even as far as Congress.
While incidents of open discrimination are far less common in Peru than in the United States and Brazil, which has the largest black population in Latin America, Peruvian blacks say they encounter racism daily.
In public, they say, they are frequently called derogatory names like `son of coal' or `smokeball.' At job interviews, they say, they are often told that their experience and references are excellent but that the owners are looking to hire people with `good presence'-- a euphemism for someone who is white."