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Afro-Peruvian dance in Richmond: ‘We are making sure the tradition is still alive for future generations.’

on March 8, 2023

On a cloudy Saturday morning, Carmen Román and her husband, Pierr Padilla, filled the basement of the Golden Gate Library in Oakland with a symphony of sounds, using their feet, hands and traditional Afro-Peruvian instruments.

A small group of children shrieked with glee and bumbled around the room, dancing as their parents nodded to the beat being created by Román and Padilla opening and closing the top to their cajitas, a box-shaped Latin percussion instrument, and hitting it with a thin stick. 

The instructors performed a dance called zapateo, meaning stomping, and shared facts about their culture, captivating an intimate audience. 

Román has always been interested in sharing her culture, but it wasn’t until the COVID-19 lockdown that she left her job in accounting and chose to teach dance full-time — partially to spread joy in her community, but mostly to help children in predominantly Black and Latinx schools find their voices through cultural music and dance.

Through an organization called Cunamacué that she founded, Román teaches Afro-Peruvian dance at Montalvin Manor Elementary and Verde Elementary, both in Richmond. Padilla  teaches Afro-Peruvian music at Peres Elementary and Stege Elementary, which also are in Richmond. 

For Hispanic Heritage Month last fall, Román and Padilla taught a series of classes in Oakland public libraries as well. And audiences can see the couple perform at 7:30 p.m. on April 8, as they team up with violinist Kyla Danysh in a show, through Cunamacué, called “Huellas,” at Brava Cabaret in San Francisco. Román is choreographing the performance, which, like much of her work, will pay tribute to the ancestors.

“They have such great energy,” said Mika Permutt, the children’s librarian at Oakland Public Library’s Golden Gate branch, where that Saturday session was held for kids and their parents to celebrate Hispanic Heritage month. “They bring this love and enthusiasm. I always come out feeling more energized.”

Carmen Román and Pierr Padilla teach Afro-Peruvian music and dance through their Cunamué organization. (Bella Arnold)

The name, Cunamacué, is a marriage between African and Peruvian cultures. Cuna is the Spanish word for crib, which Román says symbolizes the future generations, and Macué is a stream in Mozambique, which represents the ancestors.

“To me, dance is a form of expression and a way to transmit and share joy,” Román said. “I hope the kids in my classes feel joy through sharing my passion for dance, and I hope they are able to find a voice.”

Zapateo is prevalent in the Afro-Peruvian dance, whose origins date to the colonial era when Africans were enslaved in Peru. When performing zapateo for their audience, Román and Padilla alternate between rhythmically dancing on the balls of their feet and stomping their feet to make bigger sounds. They also break up the foot sounds with clapping and percussion, using their bodies and hands. 

Performing such a dance, even in a classroom setting, helps students connect to their own cultures, Román said. 

Donny Ceaser, an associate professor of sociology at California State University, East Bay, says cultural-based learning teaches children to celebrate other cultures and encourages social and emotional learning.

“To touch things, hit things with their body — that’s a great way to learn. I like the blending of music with cultural tradition,” Ceaser said. “You can start to learn and understand what culture is and how you connect to other people. You get to learn history when you learn culture, even if it’s not your particular culture, it’s history.” 

Ceaser interned at Oakland Academy of Knowledge, a predominantly Black and Latinx school, where African drums were integrated into morning ceremonies. Ceaser said that though the practice was not culturally relevant to all students, it was a great way to get energy out, and practice dexterity and social communication skills. Most importantly was the connection to students’ own identities, he said. 

“When you’re dealing with a kid who doesn’t come from your own culture, your own ethnic background, it can become very easy to invalidate and disconnect,” Caesar said. “For all of us as educators, that number one thing is connecting on that emotional level. A school should be a place where children, all children, should be seen, heard and validated.”

For future generations

The East Bay’s rich diversity is important to Román, who emigrated from Peru to California a week before her 12th birthday. In 2006, she settled in Oakland. She and Padilla’s decision to raise their two young children in the Bay Area and spread Afro-Peruvian culture was deliberate.   

They wanted their kids to be around other people of color, experience different cultures and see people who looked like them reflected in many careers. Román said she wants to be that representation for other people of color in her community. Dance is her way of doing that.

“At first, it was about making community and staying connected to my roots,” Román said. “Then it moved on to wanting to make a difference in the world and do something bigger.”

Her passion for teaching is largely fueled by a desire to make a difference, but her passion for choreography is more spiritual. 

“What we’re drawing from is trauma as well. It’s like a source,” she added. “There’s a message there and we’re leaving the message. The people that are performing now — we are in the present. We are making sure the tradition is still alive for future generations.”

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