Katacha Díaz: Victoria Santa Cruz/Me Gritaron Negra
Image: Unsplash, downloaded (https://unsplash.com/photos/A2fOLXgIe6k) 14.08.2022.
The High Priestess of Afro-Peruvian Dance and Theatre
Hoy yo se quien soy / Today I know who I am,
Hoy nadie me puede insultar / Today no one can insult me.
—-Victoria Santa Cruz
One day, in 1927, a five-year-old Afro-Peruvian girl named Victoria Santa Cruz was playing with some of her friends when a new girl joined them. This was a blonde white girl who announced to the group that “If the little black girl wants to play with us, I’ll leave.” Victoria was stunned and hurt when her playmates told her, “You can leave, Victoria.” Victoria did not share the painful childhood incident with her parents. She handled it in time, and in her own way.
In 1978 Victoria reached into the depths of her soul and her African roots, to write and perform her most famous and powerful poem, Me Gritaron Negra, They Yelled At Me: "Black!"
In her sung poem she describes how her friends rejected her because of her African features, but how this experience became a powerful life-changing moment in her young life. Listening to her heart, Victoria let intuition, not anger, be her guide to self-discovery, healing and moving forward with pride as a Black woman.
Victoria Santa Cruz was born in Lima, Peru, in 1922. The eighth of ten children in a family of Black artists, musicians, and intellectuals. Her prodigious talent was cultivated early on by her parents, who shared cultural traditions and experiences with Victoria. Her mother was passionate about dance and taught her marinera and other criollo dances. Her father, having spent his adolescent years in the United States, would share his knowledge about the works of Shakespeare and European classical music.
In 1958, Victoria and her younger brother Nicomedes co-founded Cumanana, the first Black theater company in Peru, which she co-directed until 1961. On the path to discovering her African roots and the history of slavery in Peru, Victoria wrote, choreographed, and staged the three-act musical play Malató. The play told stories of mestizaje, the mixed-race descendants from intimate relations between masters and African slaves, whose records were omitted from official histories of Peru. Slavery has caused a great deal of hardship for many generations of Africans in the Americas. By rediscovering this ancestral memory, and presenting ancient religious messages in rhythm and dance, Victoria was able to summon a positive sense of racial identity and awaken Black pride in a generation of Afro-Peruvians.
At the age of 42 Victoria was awarded a scholarship from the French government to study theater and choreography (1961-1965) in Paris at the Université du Théâtre des Nations and École Supérieur des Études Chorégraphiques, with world-renowned faculty such as playwright Eugène Ionesco, choreographer Maurice Béjart, and the actor Jean-Louis Barrault. During her time in France Victoria was a sought-after costume designer. She visited Africa for the first time and produced the ballet La Muñeca Negra/The Black Doll in 1965. Upon returning to Peru in 1966, she founded the group Teatro y Danzas Negras del Perú. The group performed in Lima and on Peruvian television and toured internationally, including for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. It was during the 1960s that Victoria revived such seminal Afro-Peruvian dance forms as landó and zamacueca. In 1969, under the self-proclaimed Revolutionary Government of the Peruvian Military Forces, she was appointed director of the newly established Escuela Nacional de Folklore, and in 1973 she became director of the Conjunto Nacional de Folklore. The company toured extensively throughout Latin America, the United States, Canada, and Western Europe. Victoria was a prolific writer and publisher of the magazine Folklore. When the Conjunto Nacional de Folklore disbanded in 1982, she took a position as a visiting professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and was eventually awarded tenure, teaching there until her retirement in 1999.
Victoria was a passionate Afro-Peruvian choreographer, composer, and activist, who trained a generation of dancers in her method to reclaim their African heritage. By creating a lasting role for ancestral memory as a choreographic strategy in Afro-Peruvian dance, she inspired the African diaspora in South America. She is known as “the mother of Afro-Peruvian dance and theater.”
Victoria Santa Cruz died in Lima in 2014 at age 91. In recognition for her contributions to the cultural life of Peru, she lay in state at the Museo de la Nación in Lima.
About the Author: Katacha Díaz is a Peruvian American writer. She earned her BA and MPA from the University of Washington and was a research associate of the University of California at Davis. Wanderlust and love of travel have taken her all over the world to gather material for her stories. Among the children’s books, she has authored is Badger at Sandy Ridge Road for the Smithsonian Institution’s Backyard series and Carolina’s Gift: A Story of Peru for the Soundprints’ Make Friends Around the World series. Her work appears with Anak Sastra, Shimmer Spring, Hibiscus: poems that heal and empower, Taj Mahal Review, Galway Review, Poetry Pacific, Barely South Review, Westview, Gravel, Twisted Vine, Pangolin Review, New Mexico Review, Harvests of the New Millennium, Foliate Oak, The MacGuffin, Medical Literary Messenger, among others. Katacha lives in the Pacific Northwest, near the mouth of the Columbia River.