“Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben used to be much darker-skinned, used to have the same over-drawn lips and wide blank eyes that I am looking at now in Plaza de Armas.”
by Nat Wyatt
Mammy is never far away from us in the United States. She grins too widely from a bottle of Aunt Jemima and can be seen in the smile lines of Uncle Ben on a box of rice at the supermarket. The “mammy” figure has a history in the United States that is deeply rooted in black minstrelsy and Jim Crow. She is a trope that represents not only the fantasy of a deeply subservient yet benign form of enslavement, but also a perverse nostalgic connection to a world in which enslaved black women nursed, feed, and raised affluent white children. She is an icon of dumb domesticity, an image of blackness that is oriented to put a white audience at ease.
The United States is one part of a much larger Black Atlantic that contains a diversity of experiences surrounding the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and its effects on national culture. Peru, although on the Pacific, is in many ways still part of the Black Atlantic; enslaved Africans were marched across the Andes from Cartagena as early as the 1500s. As indigenous populations suffered from the diseases the Conquistadors brought with them, more enslaved black people entered Peru to work the plantations of the South. Afroperuvians have lived in Peru since then, making community for themselves in Lima and Ica.
When on a visit to these old plantation towns in Ica it is easy to see the ways in which Afroperuvian identity and history have been constructed in the present day to please a predominantly white tourist audience. On the side of the road, straw life-sized figures of black Peruvians painted the darkest shade of black with large red lips are crouched down in the act of striking the cajón, a percussion instrument used in Afroperuvian music. In Plaza de Armas, at the center of El Carmen, the figurines of black women sold at stands have bright red headscarves and dresses that match the bright red of their over-drawn lips. I feel deeply uncomfortable looking at the row of figures, not only because they are primitive caricatures based off of racist notion that black people were somehow naturally suited to slavery, but also because I cannot help but think about how deeply taboo this sort of iconography has become in the United States. Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben used to be much darker-skinned, used to have the same over-drawn lips and wide blank eyes that I am looking at now in Plaza de Armas.
Nowhere is the Mammy more present in Chincha than at Mameiné’s, a family-owned Afroperuvian restaurant run by Mameiné herself. She is a solid, powerful-bodied woman with bright eyes that hold her smile up. It is hard to not know of Mameiné in part because the entire town of El Carmen is littered with posters of her face, encouraging visitors and locals alike to visit the restaurant. On the billboards she is smiling widely; her head is wrapped in the same bright red headscarf of the figurines in Plaza de Armas or the straw figures on the side of the road. Mammy icons are everywhere in the restaurant, on posters and paintings on the wall, figurines on top of the bar and cash register. Again, that deeply uncomfortable sense of carrying my American history along with me wells up as I think about how much harm this trope has caused in characterizing black people.
Mamainé is friendly, eagerly sitting down with us to talk after we finish our meal of tacu tacu con lomo y cau cau, fried black beans and rice with steak and tripe. We ask her about the history of the restaurant, her family, and ultimately her uniform and presentation. She explains jokingly, “If I wore a white apron, it would get dirty,” smoothing her red apron and dress that stand out even more against her dark skin. She says, “the town needed a restaurant like this,” that is, one that serves Afroperuvian food and highlights a history and culture that are beginning to fade away as more black Peruvians move to Lima and abroad, such as two of her sons, who no longer live in El Carmen.
It becomes quickly clear to me that what I assumed was a presentation meant to cater to white tourists is an oversimplification of Mameiné’s choices. She is proud of how she dresses and her restaurant because they allow her to embrace her culture, one which was not publically acknowledged by the Peruvian government until 2009. In a place in which the complete erasure of black heritage seems to be one of the largest struggles Afroperuvians face, Mameiné and her self-identified mammy characterization are a point of cultural formation and pride, even if the iconography is rooted in a deeply racist notion of blackness. Perhaps in future decades Afroperuvians like Mameiné will be able to afford to move past these historically-laden tropes. Although there are are icons and experiences that extend beyond nationality to remind us of the ways in which there are shared experiences in trans-Atlantic slave history, ultimately Mameiné reminds me that there are limits to these connections, that the mammy figure may represent something different to the Afroperuvian community of El Carmen than it does to many Americans, and that both those truths can exist at once.