Carmen Román and Son de Los Diablos

By Yaccaira Salvatierra

November 29, 2018, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Y FUE a esa edad… Llegó la poesía/ a buscarme. No sé, no sé de dónde/ salió, de invierno o río./ No sé cómo ni cuándo,/ no, no eran voces, no eran/ palabras, ni silencio,/ pero desde una calle me llamaba,/ desde las ramas de la noche,/ de pronto entre los otros,/ entre fuegos violentosos/ regresando solo,/ allí estaba sin rostro/ y me tocaba.//

When I think of Carmen Román as a dancer and choreographer, I am reminded of the poem by Pablo Neruda “La poesía” where Neruda personifies poetry in search for the speaker pushing him to write verses. The speaker isn’t sure from where their inspiration comes from, if from solitude or nature, but it is clear that this inaudible calling is present and urgent. More so, it is a calling that can come at any time for those who create whether it comes at birth or one that develops over time. For as long as I have known Carmen, her calling to create has been strong, steadfast, inspiring.  Not too long ago, I had the honor to sit down with her and talk about being a choreographer: how she came to dancing, the work she is dedicated to, and working with the community and her future plans.

Carmen is propped up at the head of the bed, sitting with her legs stretched out in front of her like two sturdy logs, her hair is disheveled into long dark waves, which most likely was brushed by her hand to the right side of her face. In her arms, like a warm loaf of bread, is a newborn baby quietly nursing. I sit next to her, and I am in awe of her not only because of her newborn daughter but because ever since I have known Carmen, her focus, work ethic and love emanates in almost everything she does, and here she is focused and in love.  I have known Carmen for over 13 years, and this is the first time we talk specifically about her work and dancing: interviewer and interviewee.  I have come into this interview with questions I thought I already knew the answers to, but am surprised to have learned so much. She tells me that when she was 11 years old, she emigrated from Perú to the United States to join her father in Santa Clara, California leaving her siblings and mother behind. Years later, her younger sister and brother would join them. Those first few years in the United States she felt an extreme sense of displacement which to this day comes and goes.  All that was familiar to her – the language, the food, the culture (even though she was living with her Peruvian father) – abruptly changed like being thrown into an abyss of the unfamiliar and unwanted.

Consequently, like in Pablo Neruda’s poem, dancing came to her unexpectantly, knocking at her door, asking of her that which she yet did not know existed: a sleeping giant housed in her body wanting to breath in this world. And, when she was 14 years old, she was invited to dance in a Peruvian dance troupe by a family-friend who was starting their own Afro-Peruvian dance company. Desperately feeling a need to connect with her Peruvian roots, she joined the company and answered that inaudible call.  It is here she began participating in Afro-Peruvian dances.

Yo no sabía qué decir, mi boca/ no sabía/ nombrar,/ mis ojos eran ciegos,/ y algo golpeaba en mi alma,/ fiebre o alas perdidas,/ y me fui haciendo solo,/ descifrando/ aquella quemadura,/ y escribí la primera línea vaga,/ vaga, sin cuerpo, pura/ tontería,/ pura sabiduría/ del que no sabe nada,/ y vi de pronto/ el cielo/ desgranado/ y abierto,/ planetas,/ plantaciones palpitantes,/ la sombra perforada,/ acribillada/ por flechas, fuego y flores,/ la noche arrolladora, el universo.//

In the beginning of this stanza, Neruda contrasts not being able to write to having a burst of vision and knowing – he finds the sky, the universe, a change that allows him to see everything with his eyes, inner discovery and excitement. Carmen, in many ways embodies this, too: after having been introduced to Afro-Peruvian dance as a teen, she continued through high school and college, first for a sense of belonging , but then more intentionally for the dancing itself. While in college, Carmen studied Accounting and, after graduating, she worked as an accountant for a few years, but began to feel her inner giant asking more of her, which is when a shift in her life occurred. In 2008, she quit her job as an accountant and applied for another degree in Dance at San Francisco State University. Soon after, she went onto graduate school at Mill’s College studying Dance with an emphasis in Choreography. She says, however, that the contemporary language of her choreography began from when she taught children in the Village Dancers Program at San Francisco State University. She wanted to know how she could help young students understand and feel part of Afro-Peruvian dance, so she integrated contemporary movements making it easier for young students to connect. In 2010, she applied for a Fulbright scholarship and, even though that year she did not become a recipient (she would apply again in 2014 and become a recipient of a scholarship to Perú), the experience was pivotal in helping her decide to create her own dance company called Cunamacué, an Afro-Peruvian dance company fusing historical Afro-Peruvian dances with contemporary themes and dance languages.

Photo courtesy of artist

This December, Carmen and her dance company will be performing Son de los diablos in three pieces: Ofrenda, a duet; a suite called, La ruta de Cachafaz by Pierr Padilla Vásquez, an Afro-Peruvian artist; and Símbolos.  Ofrenda will be the opening piece for Son de los diablos. Ofrenda means “offering” in Spanish and this piece is an offering to the ancestors, a personal offering of gratitude. The suite is based on the historical events in which the dance was created.  Essentially, it shows the process of religious syncretism towards the enslaved Afro-descendants and how they resisted to express their ancestral memory through their dance and music.  Overall, Carmen says she wanted to explore Son de los diablos because of its origins and history for Afro-Peruvians in the face of Catholicism. She explains that the use of masks, with accentuated African features, were used in Catholic processions demonizing Afro-descendants; however, in Perú, as well as for Carmen and Cunamacué, the masks reclaim African heritage and pride breaking free from Catholic hegemony.

In addition, when she began to perform Son de los diablos, it was a deliberate offering to the ancestors, but as the dance projects progressed, others blossomed: dance workshops in Oakland; a symposium about Afro-Peruvian dance emphasizing Son de los diablos; a documentary, which was played in the Fruitvale district; and an outdoor performance of Son de los diablos held in the Fruitvale, as well. Currently, Carmen’s dance company – Cunamacué, has partnered with Pierr Padilla Vásquez and percussionist Pedro Rosales to bring Afro-Peruvian dance and culture to children in schools. She says she looks forward to sharing this dance with others. She wants to continue using outdoor spaces for free performances and for accessibility to communities. Of the upcoming performance at San Francisco City Hall’s Rotunda, she is grateful for the opportunity to have Cunamacué perform and share Son de los diablos once more.  

Y yo, mínimo ser,/ ebrio del gran vacío/ constelado, /a semejanza, a imagen /del misterio, /me sentí parte pura /del abismo, /rodé con las estrellas, /mi corazón se desató en el viento.

Lastly, I ask her about other projects she is working on. She mentions a few that will take place in the middle of 2019, but then she pauses, looks at her daughter, and as if blowing her heart into the wind, she says, “Aitana.”

This article appeared in the December 2018 edition of In Dance.

Yaccaira Salvatierra is a poet, translator, educator and youths’ art instructor. Her poems have appeared in Huizache, Kweli, Puerto del Sol, and Rattle among others. Her honors include the Dorrit Sibley Award for achievement in Poetry, the 2015 recipient of the Puerto del Sol Poetry Prize, the Lucille Clifton Memorial Scholarship as a fellow at the Community of Writers Workshop at Squaw Valley, a scholarship recipient for the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, and a fellow at VONA. She has been nominated a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net. She lives in San José, California.