The South American countries of Suriname and French Guiana are home to many groups of people called Maroons who are African people that escaped slavery and created their own societies. The Saramaka People are one of six groups of Maroons who inhabit the two countries, the Ndyuka, Matawari, Paramaka, Aluku, and Kwinti are the other five groups of Maroons; together these six groups of people make up the largest remaining collection of Maroons in the world. The Saramaka are comprised of several Central and Western African cultures who were enslaved by the Dutch and Portuguese to work on plantations that produced sugar, coffee and timber. In the 17th and 18th centuries individuals, as well as groups of African people escaped their plantations and created Maroon societies, the Saramaka being one of the societies. Information suggests that in 1690, a mass of Africans escaped slavery and created the first Saramaka society. Escaping into the dense forest of Suriname and settling along the Suriname River, they organized a society to protect themselves and their freedom against Dutch slavers.
In 1862, African people enslaved in Suriname were emancipated by the Dutch, but the Saramaka won their freedom one hundred years earlier. The Saramaka waged war and were able to force the Dutch create and sign a peace treaty that acknowledged their rights as traders and as a territory. Like the other groups of Maroons, the Saramaka were able to retain a number of their African customs and create a way of life close to what they lived in Africa. They speak a form of creole called Saramaccan, a dialect that is composed of Portuguese, English, Dutch, Niger-Congo languages of West Africa, and Akan. Most of the saramaccan dialect comes from the English language, the dialect is also divided into the upper Suriname and lower Suriname River dialect, the Matawari tribe also speaks a form of the Saramaccan dialect. They are matrilineal people who live off of the lands cultivating crops such as okra, maize, plantains, bananas, sugarcane, peanuts, and much more, the men also hunt and fish to help sustain the societies. Because of incorporating trading with other people and nations, they are able to acquire items that are popularized by western societies, today some Saramaka people even use cell phones.
A civil war between the Saramaka and the military of Suriname occurred in the 1980’s leaving many of the Saramaka people displaced, some were forced to migrate to French Guiana to find refuge. The civil war lasted for ten years, following the war the Saramaka were purposely neglected by the government and systematically oppressed. Their lands were being overrun by Peace Corps volunteers, gold miners and other capitalist looking to make money off of the people and the lands. The Association of Saramaka Authorities filed a complaint to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights against the government of Suriname in the 1990’s. The case took seventeen years, but finally in 2007 the Inter-American Court for Human Rights awarded the Saramaka rights to their lands, rights to decide how the land will be exploited, and finally they were compensated by the government for damages that hurt them economically.
The Saramaka along with the five other Maroon groups of Suriname are examples of the fierce and resilient spirit of African people. Though they were kidnapped from their homeland, enslaved and dehumanized, they never gave up their goal of living a life as people free from slavery. They are said to be one of the largest groups of Maroons in Suriname, they relentlessly fought the Dutch and regained the rights to their lands and their way of living. White supremacy came in the form of the Dutch and the Portuguese and literally disrupted the lives of African people, but those same people found a way to restore their freedom and way of living. To the Saramaka People and all the Maroons of the African diaspora, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
On March 14, 1914, Abdias do Nascimento was born to parents Josina and Bem-Bem Nascimento in Franca, Sao Paulo, Brazil. As a child Nascimento experienced racism on several occasions from Italians and Brazilians who did not identify with Afro-Brazilians or lower class Brazilians. He would briefly join the Brazilian military in 1930 but was discharged for conduct undesired by the military. He began his journey as an activist joining Brazil’s first political party, the Frente Negra Brasileira. The party existed from 1931 to 1937 but was disbanded due to the dictatorial Estado Novo or the Second Republic, led by then president Getúlio Vargas. The Second Republic was an authoritarian regime suppressing any ideologies that challenged their control. Nascimento would go on to attend the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and earned his bachelor’s degree in economics. He furthered his studies by attending and graduating from the Higher Institute of Brazilian Studies in 1957, and the Oceanography Institute in 1961.
Nascimento and along with a collective of poets called the “Holy Brotherhood of the Orchid” took a trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina, there Nascimento was privileged to witness Argentinian theater being performed by the Teatro del Pueblo, who incorporated their history and culture within their performances. Inspired by the performances, Nascimento went on to create the Teatro Experimental do Negro, or the Black Experimental Theater, in 1944. Borrowing from the Teatro del Pueblo, Nascimento incorporated African culture, history and education into his performances. Further into his career he starred in a popular play titled Orpheus Of The Conception that eventually became the movie Black Orpheus. The Teatro Experimental do Negro also published a newspaper titled Quilombo after the communities created by the Africans who escaped slavery. Nascimanto’s activist spirit grew stronger and more creative as he found ways to incorporate his messages into the Teatros performances. Democracy was Nascimento’s battle cry as he and the Teatro Experimental do Negro stood up for Afro-Brazilians against racism and unequal treatment. Nascimento became the toughest critic of the Brazilian government and military for their futile attempts at creating a true democracy which included Afro-Brazilians.
In 1968, Nascimento was exiled by the Brazilian military and forced to plant his roots within the Pan-African movement. Even in exile Nascimento did not relent on his criticism of Brazil’s government and military. He would become the vice president and coordinator of the Third Congress of Black Culture in the Americas. He also became a university professor during his exile, he would teach at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York where he established the chair in African Cultures in the New World, and the Puerto Rican studies programs. He was also a professor at the Yale School of Drama, the University of Ife in Nigeria, and he was also a Professor Emeritus at SUNY-Buffalo. In the early 1980’s Nascimento would return to Brazil a very popular man whose activism was undaunted by the exile. He became an opponent of the appropriation of African culture, poor education and interracial marriages. As a member of the Democratic Labor Party he was elected to the federal Chamber of Deputies in 1983, he served on the senate from 1994 until 1999, and in 2004 he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
In 2011, Nascimento died at the age of 97 leaving a legacy that other activist who followed him could learn from. He used his art to promote African history and culture, his activism was used to protect Afro-Brazilians and earn human rights, he published books such as Thoth and Afrodiaspora, wrote the play Black Mystery, published a book of poetry titled Asés of Blood and Hope: Orikis, and took a stand against the military and the government. As a man who was proud of his African origins, Nascimento understood the importance of promoting his African roots to the next generations. Mr. Abdias do Nascimento, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
The La Victoria District of Lima, Peru produced one of South America’s most important ambassadors of Afro-Peruvian culture. Nicomedes Santa Cruz Aparicio and Victoria Gamarra Ramirez produced ten children; the ninth of their ten children was Nicomedes Santa Cruz. After Santa Cruz completed elementary school he would go into the workforce, his first job was a locksmith then he worked as a blacksmith until 1956. During his free time Santa Cruz would write poems but in 1953 he would also open his own shop providing locksmith services. He would close his sop a few years later to give his time to revitalizing and preserving Afro-Peruvian culture. Santa Cruz would go about promoting his culture through his theater company he opened with his sister Victoria Santa Cruz; he would also use the Peruvian media to spread his message. His messages were spread through publications in newspapers such as Expreso and El Comercio; Santa Cruz’s push for the recognition of his history and culture came at a time when black people in Peru were treated as animals.
Santa Cruz would record his first poetry album Nicomedes Santa Cruz y Su Conjunto Kumanana with his group Conjunto Cumanana in 1959. He would follow with the recording of his second poetry album Ingá and Décimas y poemas Afroperuanos in 1960. In 1964 he released a poetry album titled Cumanana Poemas y canciones, and in 1967 he recorded the poem “Benny ‘Kid’ Paret while attending the Canción Protesta Encuentro in Cuba. Santa Cruz was known as a pioneer in terms of using his craft to fight racism and injustice against the black people of Peru. His poetry, music, stories, publications and parties were his vehicles to empower his people. Santa Cruz realized that black historical figures were absent from history lessons; his own family wanted him to marry a woman who would help to “improve” the race, meaning a black woman was not good enough for Santa Cruz.
An outspoken opponent of racism, Santa Cruz was viewed as a trouble maker for seeking to enlighten his people to their current conditions. In 1957 he made his theatrical debut in a show titled Black Rythems of Peru with the Pancho Fierro Company at the Teatro Municipal de Chile. Santa Cruz’s influence led to the creation of such events as the Black Arts Festival which was first held in 1971, an event Santa Cruz and others used to further promote Afro-Peruvian culture. He would become an ambassador for his culture around the world visiting Senegal, Cuba, Mexico, Panama, Columbia and Japan. In 1980 working as a journalist would take Santa Cruz to Madrid, Spain where he would live until 1992. His time in Madrid was spent recording a collection of songbook albums titled Espana en su Folklore, which was released in 1987. He taught a seminar on African culture in the Dominican Republic in 1989, followed by participating in the Expedition Adventure 92 Tour of Mexico and Central America.
At the age of sixty-six Santa Cruz would die from lung cancer but his influence on his people and culture is still living today. He was influenced by Porfirio Vasquez and his work in Peru in the 1920’s, Vasquez was an early pioneer of the décima form of poetry used in Peru. A decima is a ten line poem of Spanish origin still used today. Santa Cruz is regarded as the most important black intellectual in twentieth century Peru; he gave his life and used his many talents to make sure black people in Peru knew their ancestral history. He made sure his people understood that they should experience justice and have the ability to improve their lives, and the lives of their family members. Even though he was a victim of racist attacks himself, Santa Cruz kept fighting for his peoples freedom. Nicomedes Santa Cruz, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
On November 29th, 1958, Maria Elena Moyano was born to parents Dona Eugenia Delgado Cabrera and Don Hermógenes Moyano Lescano in the district of Barranco, Lima, Peru. As a teen she became a community activist and a member of a youth movement for freedom in Villa El Salador, Peru called Movimiento de Jóvenes Pobladores or Fepomuves. She was elected as president of the Federación Popular de Mujeres de Villa El Salador a women’s coalition located in the municipality of Villa El Salador, Peru. The programs Fepomuves offered their community rivaled those of the Original Black Panther Party; they offered public soup kitchens, health initiatives, programs that provided milk for the local children, education committees, and projects that helped to generate income. Moyano was a firm believer that the soup kitchens helped to support the community and expose their horrible conditions. She resigned as president of Fepomuves in 1990 and was next elected as deputy mayor of Villa El Salador; her huaband Gustavo encouraged her to study sociology at Garcilaso de la Vega University.
Abimael Guzman Reynoso became Moyano’s rival, Reynoso’s organization The Shining Path was attempting to gain control of the poor neighborhoods of Lima, Peru; they viewed the community organizations as enemies and sought to eliminate them. Members of The Shining Path blew up a distribution center and blamed Moyano for the bomb attempting to eliminate her. The Shining Path was on a mission to spark a revolution in Peru to destroy its government, they also disagreed with the social programs the community organizations provided to the poor people. The Shining Path’s first strike against the Peruvian government resulted in over 30,000 casualties of innocent people who supported the Peruvian government or military. The people of Peru were living in fear because they were terrorized daily by The Shining Path. The women of Peru chose to take a stand and organize against The Shining Path, but they were attacked and raped, by both The Shining Path and the Peruvian military. The Shining Path’s goal was to shut down any thoughts of creating programs to help the poor people of Peru.
The founder of the Shining Path Abimael Guzman Reynoso was captured by the Peruvian military in 1992, the military was under the control of Alberto Fujimori who suspended the constitution of Peru and dissolved their congress. The Shining Path viewed Moyano as an enemy and a poor leader of the people; she labeled them as terrorist because of their maltreatment of their people. She not only used her voice and resources to confront and expose The Shining Path but the local police also experienced her wrath because of the violence they inflicted upon the people. Moyano’s named was being slandered by The Shining Path via a pamphlet they used as propaganda, she countered them by stating that she would never turn her back on and destroy what she built to uplift the people. February 15, 1992 Maria Moyano was assassinated by The Shining Path’s guerrilla forces, she was one of many women revolutionaries who was murdered by The Shining Path. Maria Antenati Hilario, Margarita Astride de la Cruz and Juana Lopez were three other important women murdered because of helping the people of Peru revolt against The Shining Path. A memorial was erected in honor of Moyano and shortly after her death Abimael Guzman Reynoso was arrested and The Shining Path fell as an organization. Moyano like many others are often seen as enemies of the state because they fight for the freedom of their people, often death may be their penalty, but they refused to become comfortable being oppressed. Moyano was a woman of Afro-Peruvian descent that recognized her people were devalued and often mistreated and murdered. She did not allow fear to cripple her; she and other women of Peru took action to preserve their human rights. Ms. Maria Elena Moyano, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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