Peru rises, propelled by the rocket of economic growth, and yet its feet stand in an Andes and Amazon of problems. Its images, whether as militant as a cocksure marinera, or as quiet as stories of how food came to be, can tell us about the powerful histories that justify today, as well as the silences that threaten to undercut and break them. It is worth noticing the images that make a nation and what they do and do not say.
Red and white abounds. But the national colors are not the only symbol of the country that seems omnipresent as the military parades and families gather. One also hears the rhythmic sounds of Creole music (Música Criolla).
Creole music, during these holidays and indeed year round, is announced as Peruvian music, simply and straightforwardly. It is like a lomo saltado that originated on the coast, in the fusion of peoples and cultures, and spread throughout the country, in the decades following the War of the Pacific, to become a symbol of Peru.
Just in passing I mention the War of the Pacific because that struggle, more than war of Independence from Spain, seems to be the touch stone of celebration and memory every July 28th. As a result it should not surprise us if that moment is also a key moment in the forging of contemporary symbols and identities.
Like the lomo saltado, which began when the woks of Chinese immigrants met the hunger of Peruvian workers on the coast, Creole Music also was forged when the hammer of development on the coast met the anvil of people transformed into laborers, whether they were the indigenous locals, African Peruvians, or people from Europe and Asia.
Each song style has its own history of composition, popularity, and social context, but together they became known as a music that could serve to define Peruvianity as a folk essence, a culture with soul for a nation. The styles include the marinera, which has taken different styles throughout the country, but which has a strong and identifiable coastal form, the vals criollo, the Creole waltz, the festejo, the landó, and the polka among others. Nevertheless, they come about in that blending of people becoming laborers and and a late nineteenth century elite carrying out the mercantilist development of the time.
Creole music spread, along with other institutions, to become the recognized and dominant music of Peru, a symbol of national identity. In this process, sheet music, cancioneros (song books), records, and the radio where all undoubtedly important, as was the formation of a class of consumers of national culture.
Despite the official story of fusion of different cultures, Creole music hides an absence, the many musics of indigenous Peruvians who were not forged into the coastal creole mass, but continued (and continue) in their communities in the highlands and in the jungle lowlands. This is a telling, and politically important, silence of music unheard and unplayed as part of the nation, except in subjugation to the Creole.
Also hidden are the musics of the regions that compose the country. As a example, Cuzco was the capital of the Incas, and the first capital of Peru, yet its indigenous music is hidden. Even tourists who come to see Machu Picchu do not hear it. It only sounds on local radios, and in local cafes and streets.
A similar silence is also true of the history of food. The histories emphasize mixing, and blending, a story not unlike the political ideology of mestizaje, mixing to form a blended people. And yet the mass of Peruvians still are indigenous, un-blended, even if they are speaking Spanish. Their food history tends to be missing from the national discussion, except when it fits in the story of Creole or national food.
Peru surges forward with very high rates of economic growth.Today its national symbols will be found everywhere, but in their silences and gaps we find some of the political and social challenges the country faces as it moves into the future. Other Peru’s are awaiting their turn.
(My thanks to Rosario Soto Bringas and Alex Sandro Valderrama Valer for their contributions of ideas to this essay.)