Photo by Leyla Galvez.

Afro-Peruvian women mark International Women's Day March earlier this year.

The Afro-Peruvian Women Leading the Black Movement in South America

Get to know five women who have become the leading voices of the Afro-Peruvian movement.

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 La Red 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.

Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.

Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko

That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'

"SOFTIE" Movie Poster

Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko www.youtube.com

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