Honoring the African slaves of Peru with a dance

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with theImage of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

The contribution of people of African descent to the performing arts of Peru has followed a long and varied arc. Over the course of several centuries, this intercultural process has taken some unique and quite unexpected forms. A case in point is the popular performance of dance and music by indigenous organizations of so-called negritos, or “little blacks,” as they are commonly known.

The festive dancing of the negritos honors the memory of black slaves brought by the Spanish conquerors centuries earlier to work in the fields, homes and silver mines of the region. These popular societies are found primarily in the central highlands of Peru, notably in Junín Department and farther north in Huánuco. The spirited dances performed by the negritos during the Christmas season are only the most visible aspect of a highly developed social organization, similar in some respects to the Mardi Gras krewes of New Orleans.

Now displayed as an isolated museum piece, this expertly worked satin collar once formed part of a complex, brightly decorated dance costume. The garment fit over the head of the dancer, draped over a shirt like a large bib. The upper part, decorated with two spiders, hung over the shoulders and back, while the longer piece covered the chest.

Vividly embroidered on the chest piece is the image of four enslaved black men, their heads arranged in a semicircle around a mustached white military officer. He wears a uniform of the early 19th century and a red-and-white sash displayed across his chest bearing the colors of the newly founded country of Peru. The relationship between slavery and independence is succinctly established by the conjunction of image and inscription on the satin panel. Below the image of liberation, the words La esclavitud de los negros (“The Slavery of the Blacks”) are boldly stitched in raised letters.

In performance, the faces of the dancers are hidden beneath a mask carved with pronounced black features. The mask projects a lively and sympathetically rendered image of jubilant humanity, much like those sewn onto the collar. Its robust forms are adorned with varieties of beads and other colorful appliqués to give a carnaval-esque appearance to the face. Key examples of local folk art, these masks embody the interlinked historical experience of both Afro-Peruvians and native Americans in the central highlands.

The dancers follow a long-established sequence of characteristic dance steps in imitation of movements brought from Africa by the slaves. The company moves from place to place along its route, to finally end at a church where the participants honor the Christ child in his crib. Proceeding in two parallel rows, the negritos execute a kind of hopping step, as well as the zapatero, or tap dance. Their progress is guided by the caporal, a leader who maintains control with a ceremonial whip. One figure, the flag bearer, or abanderado, wears a white mask. His presence may allude to the figure of the uniformed officer on this collar, the bringer of liberty to the country.

Though now constituting a thoroughly indigenous tradition, the dance of the negritoswas actually once performed by blacks themselves. The origin of slaves dancing during the Christmas season has been traced back at least to 1648, when a local landowner “freed” his slaves for several weeks in December and January. The notionally liberated workers danced and sang through the local streets, stopping at the houses of wealthy families to receive food and strong drink as a reward for their entertainment.

Further documentary evidence of the early stages of the negritos festival is almost nonexistent. By the 1820s all of South America was gripped by the fever of independence from Spanish colonial rule. Spearheaded by the charismatic figures of Simón Bolívar, José de San Martín and others, independence was soon won. After liberation, however, the black population of Peru endured another 30 years of slavery before its abolition was declared in 1854.

By this point, however, the negrito festival had undergone an absolutely transformative evolution because, it seems, of a significant decline in the black population in the central highlands after independence. In the late 1830s the young German naturalist Johann Jakob von Tschudi witnessed a highland celebration by negritos on Christmas Day. His account of their performance explicitly states that the participants were indigenous people and describes their richly colored and embroidered costumes, complete with hats crowned with long feathers, much as they exist today.

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