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Yo Soy Negro: Blackness in Peru - Introductory Chapter

Yo Soy Negro: Blackness in Peru - Introductory Chapter

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Published by Tanya Golash-Boza
Introduction to "Yo Soy Negro: Blackness in Peru," a book by Tanya Golash-Boza
Introduction to "Yo Soy Negro: Blackness in Peru," a book by Tanya Golash-Boza

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Published by: Tanya Golash-Boza on Jul 14, 2010
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Yo Soy Negro: Blackness in Peru 
University Press of Florida - 2011 Tanya Golash-Boza, PhDIntroduction
It was a typically hot September afternoon in Ingenio de Buenos Aires, a small village in northernPeru. The Ingenio soccer team had won a match with the neighboring village. The losing team hadgone back to their village, and a few men from Ingenio gathered around in a circle, passing a pitcherof 
chicha 
(corn beer) and a
 poto
(gourd) from one person to the next. Sitting on a bench near them, Isaw one of the men pour the dregs from his gourd, wipe his mouth with his sleeve, and declareloudly “yo soy negro” (I am black).
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This caught my attention, and when the men invited me to sit with them, I joined them. When I introduced myself, I told them I was visiting from the UnitedStates and was conducting research on the people and history of Ingenio. They offered suggestionsof people I should talk to who would be able to tell me more about the history of the town.Don Esteban, the man who had declared “yo soy negro,” asked me if there was racism in theUnited States, and if it was true that, in the United States, blacks lived separately from whites. Istarted explaining segregation patterns in U.S. cities when another man, Don Isaac, interrupted meto tell me about racism in Peru. He said that, in his country, whites regard blacks as lesser andundesirable, and that racism is a problem.Our conversation turned quickly to romance and to the fact that, although racism exists,people often marry across color lines in Peru. Don Esteban said that, when he was younger, he wondered how anyone would want to be with him, a black man. He and Don Isaac agreed that they both had desired white partners. Don Isaac said he wanted a white partner so that his children wouldn’t be as dark as him. Don Esteban also pointed out that “opposites attract.” They concurredthat it was better for darker-skinned people to seek out lighter partners. This conversation about race, color, and racism was one of many such discussions I wouldhave in Ingenio while conducting ethnographic research there between 2002 and 2007. Thepreference for lighter-skinned partners in intimate relationships was a common theme in theseexchanges. Despite this preference, people in Ingenio did not hesitate to call themselves or othersblack. I often heard people claim the label
negro
(black), as Don Esteban did. I also heard people usethe label as an insult in some situations, as for instance, when one woman called another a “filthy black” in a heated discussion over who had the right to build a house in the center of town. On
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other occasions, people used
black
in a teasing fashion, as when a brother called his sister an “ugly black.” And, sometimes men used
black
while flirting, such as when several young men called out“hola, negrita” (hey, black girl) to a woman passing by in the town square. Other times
black
wassimply a neutral descriptor, as when people referred to Señora Negra, the nickname of a woman who lived on the edge of town. When I first arrived in Ingenio in 2002 I was surprised to hear people using the word
black
  with such frequency and variety of connotations, running the gamut from prideful to neutral tooffensive. I was surprised because many scholars argue that most African-descended people in Latin America reject the label
negro
in favor of other labels such as
moreno
(see W. Wright 1990; Wade 1993,1997; Twine 1998; Whitten and Torres 1998; Lewis 2000). I soon realized, however, that I could notmake any assumptions with regard to what people meant when they used the word
black.
I could nottake it for granted that the claiming of blackness entailed an expression of solidarity with others of  African descent nor that it indicated any ethnic allegiances. This was made clear by the fact thatmany people in Ingenio insisted to me that blackness was no more than a skin color, with nocultural or historical implications. Any preference for lighter skin was simply aesthetic. When I askedpeople in Ingenio what it meant to be black, they consistently told me that it meant having dark skin.In this book, I explore the ways people in Ingenio talk about blackness in the contexts of Latin American studies and African diaspora studies. When contemplating the meanings of blackness from the perspective of African diaspora studies, we can think about the degree to whicheither the denigration or the embracing of blackness is common in diasporic communities. From aLatin American studies perspective, we can consider how regional particularities must be taken intoconsideration to understand fully the meanings of blackness in Peru. Neither perspective aloneprovides a complete answer to what blackness denotes in Peru. By bringing Latin American studiesinto a dialogue with diaspora studies, however, we can draw a more nuanced map of thecomplexities of blackness in Peru. The local discourse of blackness in Ingenio centers on skin color, with subtexts related tosexuality and physical attractiveness. The existence of this local discourse of blackness raisesquestions regarding how we can conceptualize and theorize the African diaspora. Specifically, itpoints to the need for a fluid conception of the diaspora that allows for localized differences in ideasof blackness. In addition, the primacy that people in Ingenio give to skin color when talking aboutblackness defies the contention that, in Latin America, judgments about an individual’s race correlate with social status and cultural features. My argument that the discourse of blackness in Ingenio is
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primarily a discourse of skin color constitutes a challenge to scholarship on the black diaspora thatpoints to the centrality of slavery for defining blackness in the diaspora and to scholarship on race inLatin America that places cultural and class differences at the core of racial discourses in the region. The arguments set forth in this book are based on fieldwork and interviews I collected inIngenio de Buenos Aires and interviews with migrants from Ingenio who live in Lima. Ingenio is asmall town that sits on the lands of the former Hacienda Buenos Aires in the state of Piura innorthern coastal Peru. The name of the town--Ingenio--refers to a defunct sugar mill that was inoperation until the early twentieth century. The majority of the inhabitants of Ingenio are thedescendants of African slaves from haciendas in the region. The enslavement of Africans and theirdescendants in Peru ended in 1854, and the hacienda system came to an end with agrarian reformsin the early 1970s (Cuche 1975). Today, most families in Ingenio own small plots of land from which they eke out meager existences.
 Afro-Peruvian Cultural Revival and Social Movements
Ingenio is more than one thousand kilometers from Lima, the capital of Peru. Although most of theresidents are of African descent, few residents of Ingenio are aware of the various cultural and social Afro-Peruvian movements that have been based in Lima since the 1940s. Their lack of awareness isa reflection of the low visibility these groups have gained in Peru overall. It is also indicative of theextent to which the overall goals of the movement are out of line with the daily reality of the peopleof Ingenio. The beginning of Afro-Peruvian social movements can be located in the black arts revival, which began in Peru in the 1940s. In 1945, the government of José Luis Bustamante y Riverainitiated a program to revalorize national folklore. Most of the funds were directed at indigenouscultural traditions, yet some black Peruvian cultural forms were also promoted. Don Porfirio Vázquez, for example, was hired to teach black Peruvian dance in a government-sponsored Limeñofolklore academy. Through connections he made there, Vásquez met José Durand and worked withhim to create the Pancho Fierro Company, the first Afro-Peruvian dance company. In 1956, thePancho Fierro Company made its public debut at the Lima Municipal Theater, bringing black traditions from the homes of black families to the stage for the first time. This marked the beginning of the black arts revival in Peru. The revival was strengthened through subsequent nationalistinitiatives of the government of General Juan Velasco Alvarado, and the traditions brought alivethrough the revival remain at the core of Afro-Peruvian cultural production today (Feldman 2006).
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