Victoria Santa Cruz was just seven years old when she had her first personal taste of racism. The Afro-Peruvian was the only Black person among her circle of friends growing up. “One day there was a little girl among them with blond hair who stated to her friends, ‘if this little black girl wants to play with us, I’ll leave!'”
To the shock of Santa Cruz, the rest of her friends agreed and asked her to leave. That was a painful experience she never forgot, but it did change her view of life. She took her story and found pride in it, realizing how ideal it is to appreciate one’s heritage, roots, and culture. And through her work and art, the woman, now considered the “mother of Afro-Peruvian dance and theatre”, demonstrates how beautiful and strong her fellow Afro-Peruvians are despite the discrimination they endured.
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.
Santa Cruz was born in Lima, Peru, on October 27, 1922, to a Peruvian family of 10 children that included musicians, artists, and intellectuals. Santa Cruz’s mother, Victoria Gamma Ramirez, was an accomplished singer and dancer of traditional Peruvian styles. Her 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.
All these deeply influenced Santa Cruz. Along the way, she would teach various styles of theater, dance, and other art forms. One of her major achievements to date is co-founding and directing the first Black-owned theatre in Peru with her brother, even without prior formal education. She then went on to produce three plays, all of which highlighted the struggles of Afro-Latinas. In fact, her first play, Malato (1961), which she wrote, choreographed, and staged, infuriated authorities as it looked at the relationship between enslaved men and women and their oppressors that had been erased from Peruvian history.
While at the Université du Théâtre des Nations and École Supérieur des Études Chorégraphiques in Paris in late 1961 to study theater and choreography, she was widely received for her plays but also for her “unique, Afro-Peruvian styled costumes.” In no time, she was being sought after for her costumes. But by 1965, she had to leave Paris after graduating. She headed to Africa [exact country not stated] that same year, where she staged the ballet La muñeca Negra which looked at the cultural memories that had been lost due to slavery.
The performance was well-received but what was even bigger was a performance in Mexico City during the 1968 Olympics by a group she founded, Teatro y Danzas Negras del Perú. That performance, which earned the group an award after only two years of the group being formed, brought back to life Afro-Peruvian dance forms such as the zamacueca (an ancient dance with roots in African, Spanish, and Andean) and landu, essentially making visible the historic contributions and culture of Afro-Peruvians.
Santa Cruz went on to refine her talents in the arts, releasing her first song, Cumanana in 1970 and then her well-celebrated poem a decade later — Me Gritaron Negra – where she started by cursing her dark skin, kinky hair and thick lips before ending it with the fact that being Black is a blessing. After 53 years in the arts, the Afro-Peruvian activist, choreographer, and composer passed away on August 30, 2014, but is well remembered today for reviving Afro Peruvian culture in Peru.
Thanks to her activism and others, Peru celebrates Black History Month every June to highlight Afro-Peruvian Culture, with scores of cultural activities and conferences. 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.