Music played a central role during the civil rights movement in the 20th century. Be it protest songs on racism, injustice, and violence, or songs adapted from hymns, these offered hope and strength to participants and leading activists in their quest for justice and equality. In Peru, it was the music and poetry of Nicomedes Santa Cruz that brought Afro-Peruvians and their culture to light.
Santa Cruz is perhaps the first Black intellectual to include in his work an agenda for social justice. From the late 1950s to 1992, the poet, playwright, and folklorist published essays, short stories, especially poetry, books in various genres, pieces in newspapers and magazines, and academic articles on Black history, culture, religion, and music.
He sold thousands of copies of albums he recorded, directed radio and TV programs, participated in international conferences and represented Peru in various international festivals. As he traveled, he met other intellectuals around the world, particularly in the Americas where he conducted research on Black culture and music. His work throughout the years did not only celebrate the value of Black history and culture but also denounced racism and oppression.
Curiously, Santa Cruz never went to college. Largely self-taught, he was only able to complete elementary school. Born in 1925 into a family of 10 children that included artists and musicians and raised in the La Victoria district of Lima, Peru, Santa Cruz’s father, Nicomedes Santa Cruz Aparicio, was a playwright who, during his adolescent years in the U.S., read many Shakespearean plays and learned European classical music.
However, it wasn’t his father who influenced his love for music and literature but another man who looked after him in his young days. The man, known as Pilade, would at night sing a ten-line stanza of poetry known as a décima to Santa Cruz, reports said. The décimas as well as other poetic songs that Santa Cruz’s mother sang at home would push him to appreciate the significance of Black culture, history, and traditions. Even when he became an apprentice with a locksmith after completing primary school and later worked for many years as a blacksmith, he always remembered what he heard growing up with Pilade and his mom.
Thus, while working as a blacksmith, he began to write poetry anytime he was less busy. And what finally inspired him to abandon his blacksmith work and sharpen his writing skills was his 1945 meeting with Porfirio Vasquez, a popular decimero and musician around Lima who was helping to promote Afro-Peruvian identity. Not too long after their meeting, Santa Cruz, now a decimero, began traveling throughout Peru and other countries to recite some of the works he had composed. When he came back to Lima, he joined the Pancho Fierro musical company.
Soon, he started his work in music and in theater, radio, and journalism. In the 1950s, he released his debut record, Gente Morena. Focused on promoting Peru’s Black identity, Santa Cruz traveled to Cuba, Mexico, Chile, Panama, Senegal, Colombia, and Japan as a lecturer on Black identity, and spoke at many festivals and symposiums.
But in the late 1980s, he decided to leave Peru and settle in Spain after suffering racist attacks. While in Spain, he completed one of his most important works, La décima en el Perú, and directed a cultural program for the Spanish international public radio station before being diagnosed with lung cancer. The poet and playwright passed away on February 5, 1992, at the age of 66. Described as the most important Black intellectual in twentieth-century Peru, his work including his fight against Black people’s oppression remained unknown for most Peruvians until 2006 when the Peruvian government commemorated his legacy by making June 4th, his birthday, the national day of Afro-Peruvian culture.
African natives in Peru or Afro-Peruvians were transported to Peru during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Spanish conquerors or conquistadors brought them over in 1521 followed by a larger number transported in 1537. The second group was transported after permits were issued to Francisco Pizarro González – a Spanish fighter who led a mission that obliterated the Inca Empire.
In 2009, Peru became the first Latin American country to apologize to its people of African descent for the discrimination they previously endured. But after many years, experts say the country must step up its efforts to fully embrace its Afro-Peruvian heritage and end discrimination.