Every Saturday afternoon, Pepe Villalobos opens his house and heart, converting two rooms at the back of his home in La Victoria into one of the most exclusive peñas in Lima. You must receive an invitation and the brightly colored press tag around my neck, with the words “NYU DRTC PERU 2011,” is my ticket in.
Though I had not expected to feel like a reporter, I quickly realize that a journalist is what I am, especially to all of the Peruvians, whose party quickly adapts to the entrance of 30 American college students turned reporters. Tables and chairs are repositioned, added, and reloaded with bottles of wine and pisco (a brandy made of white grapes and used to make Pisco Sour, the national drink of Peru), to accommodate, what would be to most, an overwhelming amount of people. But Pepe’s daughters and their guests go about making us comfortable with smiles on their faces, drinks in their hands, and music in all the space(s) between.
The walls of the largest room are lined with people sitting, enjoying the home-cooked food. Glasses filled with Malbec and shot glasses containing drops of pisco fill every small table and most all of the peña goers’ hands. The small kitchenette hides itself beside a dividing wall; Señor Villalobos’ daughters and granddaughter slip gracefully in and out of the closet-sized kitchen bearing tasty gifts for the guests.
My mind is urging me to be social, to learn about Afro-Peruvian music and culture by interacting, but my eyes and ears are overwhelmed. As the strong cajon beats and feverish guitar strumming flow through my body and out of my tapping feet and swaying hips, I try to multi-task and take in the wall hangings; black and white photos of currently unknown musicians and innumerable trophies, plaques, and framed certificates awarded to Pepe Villalobos inspire a stream of questions that paralyze me. I don’t really know where to begin. Who should I be talking to and what about?
Laura Andrea Leguía, the talented saxophonist in the Gabriel Alegría Afro-Peruvian Sextet, saves me from the flood of questions and waves me over to a table far from the musicians: “This is Pepe Beltrán. He used to own one of the most important peñas in Lima, El Capitán.” Mucho gustos and kisses on the cheek are exchanged and I take a seat across from him. Behind me are two women. I lean towards them to introduce myself. The music is loud and stimulating, making conversation difficult; dancing is undoubtedly the activity to which most of the room feels more naturally inclined. Even when seated, my hips roll open to allow the music in, but I refuse to surrender to the music’s sensuality and continue to get to know my neighbors.
The women next to Señor Beltrán, Eliane Sa, is a Brazilian historian here in Peru doing exactly what we are attempting, and Patricia De Nauperi is a Peruvian woman sharing her culture with Eliane and whomever else has an interest. Though they have explained away their presence at the peña, I am still curious about what it really is that drives such a crowd to La Victoria—a district in Lima that is considered a less affluent, rough part of town—every Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m.
Looking around the room at all of the men and women dancing, drinking, and socializing with a group of Americans in their early 20’s, I find myself wondering how old these Peruvians are. In trying to guess the ages of the people around the room, I settle on two challenging subjects, twin sisters, one of which is a marinera dance champion. They have spent the afternoon with multiple dance partners and one of them has taken the floor with Señor Beltran for everyone’s viewing pleasure. She’s petite and thin, able to move and dance easily in her red, flared pants and flowy floral, off-the-shoulder blouse. Her cheekbones are prominent, as is her chin, and her brown eyes are bright, enhanced by the lavender powder shadow on her lids. She must be older than 50, but she sure doesn’t look or act as such; she is more active than the 20 year olds in the room, though this could be due to our nervousness; after all, we have never danced the marinera. Perhaps the peña environment holds a secret to defeating age and transcending the number of your years in life: a fountain of youth. I wonder if the peña goers, themselves, think of music and dancing as the secret to maintaining youthfulness.
“El Capitan,” Señor Beltrán’s nickname as of now, has been seated for a few minutes speaking with a neighbor about me; my broken Spanish capabilities get me deep enough into the conversation to realize that he has nicknamed me “la periodista,” the journalist. I graciously accept my nickname and hope to live up to it during the rest of my week in Lima.