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In Peru, A Grammy-Winning Diva Takes The Political Stage

Recently elected Peruvian President Ollanta Humala has made something of a surprise appointment for his new culture minister: Susana Baca. A well-known singer, Baca is also thought to be Peru’s first black cabinet minister.

Singer Susana Baca was recently appointed as Peru's new cultural minister
Singer Susana Baca was recently appointed as Peru's new cultural minister
Chrystelle Barbier

LIMA -- When Susana Baca was appointed as Peru's culture minister in July, it took the whole country by surprise. Despite her lack of political experience, the Afro-Peruvian singer accepted the offer made by Ollanta Humala, Peru's new left-wing president. "This appointment comes at a time in my life when I feel it is my duty to accept it," said the artist.

Before getting into politics, Susana Baca de la Colina was mostly known for her suave voice and enchanting melodies played on the guitar and the cajon, the instrument created by black slaves on Peru's coast. The Afro-Peruvian music ambassador even had international success. She was awarded a Grammy in 2002. But despite her thriving career performing on stages around the world, the 67-year-old woman didn't hesitate when Humala asked her to take over the Culture Ministry. "I will be a minister/singer," she told reporters following her.

Political analysts already have someone to compare her to: Gilberto Gil, the famous singer-songwriter who took on the same job in Brazilian president Lula's government from 2003 to 2008 – with success.

The comparison is important. It is yet another way for Humala to follow in the footsteps of the "Great Lula," the former Brazilian president who, a year after stepping down, still enjoys great popularity across the continent. Humala once looked to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his Bolivarian revolution for inspiration. But now he prefers Lula as a model.

Like Lula, the new Peruvian president chose a string of centrist ministers, a move that has helped convince Peruvians that his government will follow the example of Brazil's modern and moderate left. But also like the former Brazilian president, Humala used the culture ministry appointment to put at least something of a left-wing stamp on the cabinet selection process.

But the symbol of Baca's appointment also goes beyond the Brazilian example. "I think I'm the first black minister in Peru's history," said the proud singer. "Afro-Peruvians should play a bigger part in politics," she added.

The United Nations declared 2011 the "International year for people of African descent." The Afro-Peruvian community has given Baca its official support - an honor for the singer who has always been proud of her roots and fought for the culture of her people to be preserved and celebrated.

The first African slaves arrived in Peru with Spanish colonizers in the early 1600s. Slavery was officially abolished in 1854 but Afro-Peruvians continued to be marginalized – both socially and politically. Most of them still live along the Pacific coast, south of the capital Lima, where big haciendas used to stand. There is no official data on Afro-Peruvians, but they could represent 7% to 10% of the country's nearly 30 million people. In the Americas as a whole, there are an estimated 200 million people identified as being of African descent.

"Today, it's still difficult to be black in Peru," says Baca. "This racist behavior is a habit we must get rid of because in a democratic country we cannot accept the existence of second class citizens."

"I think that members of the government saw me as the symbol of both exclusion and inclusion in my country," she adds. "We Afro-Peruvians have always suffered from segregation and been invisible in the eyes of the State. Appointing me is a way of emphasizing the experience of a woman who succeeded at doing things we thought were impossible for an Afro-Peruvian to do."

Critics have also been quick to jump in. On social networking sites, many wonder if her artistic talents will really translate into public management skills. Others believe she is qualified to be in charge of artistic issues but note that Peru's Culture Ministry comes with a vice-presidency in charge of intercultural affairs, a major issue at a time when indigenous people are demanding that their rights be respected. Will Baca stand up to political pressure and fight for the 11-month-old ministry to get the budget it really needs?

Baca faces a tough task, but she's adamant that she can succeed and turn her ministry into "an institution that counts." "We will fight against cultural inequalities," she promises, hoping Peruvians will finally see the wealth the country's great cultural diversity represents.

Read the original article in French

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Migrant Lives

They Migrated From Chiapas When Opportunities Dried Up, Orchids Brought Them Home

An orchid rehabilitation project is turning a small Mexican community into a tourist magnet — and attracting far-flung locals back to their hometown.

They Migrated From Chiapas When Opportunities Dried Up, Orchids Brought Them Home

Marcos Aguilar Pérez takes care of orchids rescued from the rainforest in his backyard in Santa Rita Las Flores, Mapastepec, Chiapas, Mexico.

Adriana Alcázar González/GPJ Mexico
Adriana Alcázar González

MAPASTEPEC — Sweat cascades down Candelaria Salas Gómez’s forehead as she separates the bulbs of one of the orchids she and the other members of the Santa Rita Las Flores Community Ecotourism group have rescued from the rainforest. The group houses and protects over 1,000 orchids recovered from El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, after powerful storms.

“When the storms and heavy rains end, we climb to the vicinity of the mountains and collect the orchids that have fallen from the trees. We bring them to Santa Rita, care for them, and build their strength to reintegrate them into the reserve later,” says Salas Gómez, 32, as she attaches an orchid to a clay base to help it recover.

Like magnets, the orchids of Santa Rita have exerted a pull on those who have migrated from the area due to lack of opportunity. After years away from home, Salas Gómez was one of those who returned, attracted by the community venture to rescue these flowers and exhibit them as a tourist attraction, which provides residents with an adequate income.

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