Afro-Venezuelan Culture and Resistance: A Conversation with Ines Perez-Wilke

Venezuelanalysis interviews an activist and researcher who has written extensively on issues of black identity and struggle.
Ines Perez-Wilke, university professor and activist. (Venezuelanalysis)
Ines Perez-Wilke, university professor and activist. (Venezuelanalysis)

Ines Perez-Wilke is an activist and researcher who works on issues of black and mestizo cultural production – particularly improvisational performance – from a decolonial perspective. A professor at the Universidad Experimental de las Artes (UNEARTE) in Caracas, Perez-Wilke has written and published extensively. She is part of the Caracara Research Group (focused on decolonial esthetic mediations) and heads up the Semeruco Investigation Team (focused on improvisational performance). In this VA interview, published during Afro‐Venezuelan month (May 10 through June 10), we examine issues of racial identity and black cultural production in Venezuela.

The Federal Wars in Venezuela that took place during the nineteenth century broke down the barriers of the old society and led to a great deal of racial integration. Since then racial issues have not been so decisive in Venezuelan society as they are, for example, in US society. However, that does not mean that there isn’t racism in Venezuela. Can you explain how and to what degree racism still organizes this society?

Venezuela’s social configuration is more flexible than that of most countries that were once colonies. That means that people of African descent are more integrated into society, and the laws in Venezuela aren’t necessarily racist, but the spaces blacks occupy here are still peripheral ones.

In that sense, Venezuelan society has always had a double standard. There is a discourse of inclusion – ever since the incorporation of campesinos and indigenous and black people in the Independence Wars and later the Federal Wars – but the opportunities that our society offers to these groups go hand in hand with a double standard.

The double standard is that you have to adapt yourself to the Creole cultural pattern on which the national imaginary has been based since the end of the nineteenth century… Creole culture constitutes a (false) path of social ascension. [The belief is that] the closer you get to that Creole ideal, the more you are going to move from the society’s margins to the center – without ever of course occupying the center, which is reserved for the power elites!

The double standard leads to a situation in which people of African descent are clearly situated in the spaces where there were formerly slave estates, like the Tuy valleys around Caracas or in Barlovento, where there were plantations producing coffee and cocoa.

If you see a map and think about class relations, you see that racism expresses itself, not in the discourse or the laws, but still, it turns out that indigenous and black populations are on the cities’ margins, in the peripheral spaces that were once encomiendas [Spanish colonial system that rewarded European settlers with the labor of particular groups of subject people] and plantations. There you see a clear expression of racism.

That double standard also affects the cultural sphere: our way of speaking, our way of treating the Afro, that zone between care and contempt, between the contemptuous, the comic and the judgmental. That is the complex space where the race experience has operated in Venezuela.

Barlovento and Tuy are in the outskirts of Caracas, but Caracas itself has a black urban culture that is quite rich. Can we talk about black urban culture here, and urban racialized identities?

Here there is something very important and visible. It’s the relation, in urban contexts, between the black communities and the rest of the city. There are, on the one hand, ghettos and spaces of coexistence, where there are specific structures, languages, festivals, and calendars and, on the other hand, there is the city.

People from the black communities sometimes even say, “I’m going to the city” even if they are already in the city. They are transiting from the mainly black community to the formally denominated city. Their ways of being in each of the spaces is different. This points to a disputed terrain, which is still important, especially for people of African descent.

I can’t see it so clearly among indigenous people. Maybe it exists with some national communities like the Peruvian community or the Colombian community. (However, it happens more with the Afro-Colombian community than the Colombian community in general, which is more mixed into the city.)

So there is a tension that modifies the manner of being of a black person, in his or her community, versus how they move through the so-called city or how they move through the east of the city. The experience of moving and the way of seeing and being seen changes in these contexts. For example, they can be objects of a racist treatment in the city center.

These are things that one sees in relations that happen more or less in the same way in Havana, for example or in Brazil… The entrance of the black person, from the periphery, into the places that are considered “the city” is very clear and evident, fully identified. So here we see how the discourse of racism’s non-existence is belied in a physical sense.

Black urban cultural production in the barrio of Petare, Caracas. (Alba Ciudad)

There is a racist tendency in Venezuela’s political right-wing. How is it connected to the history and structures that you are talking about?

Of course, one of the things that President Chavez did is make the racial issue visible. The double standard here produces a situation that is very different from what people experience in English-speaking societies, where there is clearly a racialized policy and that explicit racism allows one to organize a struggle directly against it. It doesn’t mean that that system is better, but it does allow you to make the debate clearly and publicly.

The double standard here makes things more difficult because when a person, militant, or group takes up the theme of racism, it is often perceived as if it were merely a fantasy. It appears to be just an invention of that group. So one of the things that Chavez’s discourse did was to make [the existence of racism] explicit and visible. It made explicit the power relations that, in fact, exist regarding access to means and goods, to education, to territorial occupation for black people over the course of our long history. Chavez’s discourse allowed us to express, propose, and make visible the links between the question of class and the issue of race.

For that reason, the popular base that identifies with a racial minority sees itself reflected in the discourse. It makes that discourse its own, because formerly there had been a kind of interdiction or prohibition. The prohibition operated by means of the mechanism of the double constraint in which there is an oppression but it seems like a fantasy. So you can’t speak of it.

Once it’s made explicit, you can take part in that political discourse: you can make it your tool in the struggle.

Orlando Figuera was burned alive for being poor, black and Chavista. Altamira, Caracas, May 20, 2017. (Reuters)

You have claimed that cultural diversity, if it includes spiritual, political and social dimensions (and is not merely seen as folklore), can be a revolutionary force. Can you explain this to us?

I think that the main problem is that modernity and the capitalist world has been built on a categorical framework, on a way of seeing reality. It is a way that we have been discovering and denouncing that is really narrow, unfair and unequal.

When I say that cultural diversity offers revolutionary potential to us, I am basing that claim on the fact that in each of our cultures and ancestral peoples there is knowledge. There are proposals about how to see the world, nature, and life that offer alternatives to modernity and capitalism. They have a great deal of potential.

Yet to acquire a profound understanding of those epistemological proposals, you have to take them seriously. Quite often, however, the place that is given to cultural diversity is the place of folklore or of conserving traditions. There is a profound lack of knowledge about their functional contents: the knowledge, and technology that form part of a culture. (I refer to technology in the ample sense not only of tools for working with nature but also technology of thinking and of curing and other forms of knowledge that we can compare to scientific knowledge and have a great deal of transformative potential.)

So if you have a profound familiarity with African, Yoruba or indigenous traditions… well, there you find knowledge of biodiversity, of relations with animals, of productive technologies on many levels, links between the spiritual and the material, and radically different teaching forms. These are things that are revolutionary. They operate to directly open up, to denounce and demonstrate the limited nature of the strategies that modernity offers.

You have claimed that there is a mobile and plural space of popular urban creation in Venezuela in which the contributions of the African diaspora dominate. Why is that the case?

In urban communities, which are made by exodus of waves of campesinos to the cities, black and popular immigration has been concentrated in certain sectors. There, they constitute a force, a political and social force that is clearly identifiable.

If we think of Caracas, the black population is concentrated in centers such as San Agustin del Sur, La Vega, Pinto Salinas, and Petare. What’s more, the people there organize themselves. They have generated mechanisms of organization, of self-recognition based on the African cultural patterns. The forms of struggle they deploy against the social decomposition that results from drug trafficking, violence, alienation, and endo-racism, have to do with seizing hold of their African roots and cultural narratives to generate activities and organizational structures based on, for example, festivals or foods to respond to urban forces that tend to dominate not only African cultural patterns but also other heritages. (The city is a very modern apparatus that efficiently erases any political force that is not useful to it.)

The practices of the African diaspora have a greater visibility and have more evident resistance than other cultural patterns, because they bring themselves together around a cultural pattern as a mechanism for confronting [the urban environment] and creating mechanisms of social dialogue.

The interpretation you use depends on the framework from which one is seeing things. That interpretation will determine if we understand improvisation, orality, or marginalization as stigmas – as they are seen in modern society – or if they will be seen as cultural elements and community strategies that go with certain concrete aims that work for society. Everything will depend on that conceptual framework from which you read things. For that reason, you have to do a reading from other frameworks of thought, to be able to advance here.

Take the case of the comparison between the oral mechanisms of transmission of knowledge versus the written ones. Leaving aside the hierarchies set by academia and by publishers about non-written knowledge, it is indeed very hard for the academic thought to address social processes. It gets bogged down in these contexts. It is backward and has problems getting away from pre-written texts to adapt itself to new social realities.

By contrast, oral processes, working with the most ordinary elements, can continually absorb and update knowledge, incorporating new facts that are being developed in real time, even second by second. You can see in festivals: how when people sing or improvise decimas [a ten-line song format used in the Cruz de Mayo festival], they incorporate what is happening at that very moment, or they refer to what has happened in the course of the year. They work on that material right there for the community. In these practices, you can see the potential of oral culture to process reality.

Marginality is more difficult to analyze in a positive sense. Yet one of the things that one finds when one works with marginalized populations of a society is how, for sure, the privileged center has more access to resources that the state administers, but to the same degree they have mechanisms of population control. They control the middle classes especially, who have codes of behavior, clothing, consumption and discourse that are very closed and pre-established.

The elite are freer from this. They have spaces of liberty. However, among marginal groups there are also spaces of freedom. They are outside of the focus, and they have the possibility to be creative. “Gordo Edgar” [Edgar Antonio Perez, a committed libertarian militant from the La Vega barrio in Caracas] said a few days ago that everything new was invented by poor people, by the marginal classes. Later what they invent is captured, coopted and used by other people, who turn it into a commodity.

Can you tell us more about improvisation and how it operates in popular culture?

When I speak of improvisation, I am thinking in part about rituals among the African diaspora, where there are generally agreed-upon codes. I will talk about an example of that that is close at hand here: the “Velorio de la Cruz de Mayo” [religious‐cultural mestizo festival in honor to the cross, which is adorned with flowers], where they sing a kind of music that is typical of Barlovento that is called the fulia [musical style that is played with a string instrument, maracas and drum plus vocals]. The fulia has a basic chorus that is repeated and everyone knows it in the festival. There are moments for soloists that are four strophes and have a rhyming relation with the basic strophes.

In the fulia festival, all those who want to participate freely in this form of improvised expression can participate. Everybody sings in front of a cross. They make an arch in front of the cross, and everyone who incorporates him or herself in the arch can improvise a strophe for that fulia, using some very simple codes so that everybody can take part. Normally there is an token – it could be a flower or an instrument – which is passed [from one person to another]. The one who sings is whoever has the instrument…

So there is a whole apparatus that is prepared in advance, but it is all geared for the participation of everybody in an improvised way. Everyone who takes part using codes that are very simple, brings a new perspective, which generates a reinterpretation of what is happening in the present. It could be a re-interpretation of the community, of the person herself or of life. In these events, it often happens that many themes are discussed: gender, race, history. Perhaps there could be a discussion about barrio gangsters. Using the song forms, people improvise on themes that concern the community.

As I see it, improvisation is an apparatus for collective creation that allows one to deal with themes that are important, or forms that are important, or questions of the community, based on simple structures that allow everyone to participate.

In Curiepe, a former cocoa plantation town in Barlovento, improvisational drumming is part of all local festivities. (Reference)

Cedric Robinson in his book Black Marxism, points out that despite the participation of black people in most of the rebellions and revolutions in Venezuelan history, they never projected a future African or black state, as happened elsewhere in the continent. Instead, the blacks, poor whites, mulatos, and indigenous people joined together in a broad class struggle. Is it true that this tendency toward integration into class struggle persists in Venezuelan society today?

I think the discussion about mestizaje [cultural mixing] in Venezuela – and that has developed elsewhere in Latin America as well – is important. It’s related to the discussion of the Creole cultural pattern. Indeed, there has been a wager for homogenization and an erasure of black struggle through the nationalist discourse and the discourse of the Creole and the mestizo [mixed race person].

Yet black and indigenous social movements have been critical of the mestizaje discourse, pointing how it tends to put the national or mestizo culture above problems, stories and situations that might related to indigenous groups (such as Yukpa or Piora) or might relate to the blacks from Aragua (who have very specific problems).

However, it’s also true that in Venezuela the dynamic of racial interchange and mestizaje has been much stronger than in other areas of the continent. That is a reality in Venezuela, and the struggles that have existed are very racially mixed. So it is a bit difficult, a bit unrealistic to project a black or indigenous state in Venezuela.

I think what must be put forth is an intercultural state. The struggles have to be directed toward building a state that is fully intercultural, with a view to really understanding, respecting and valuing other categorical frameworks.

In this moment there are parallel struggles taking place. The black movements and communities are leading – and it is a very powerful movement – their own struggles with regard to recognition of black culture in the constitution. With regard to education, there has been a process of incorporating the discourse of blackness, negritude, maroonage, etc., and thought given to how we interpret those terms. It’s necessary to make visible such cultural issues and the same goes for themes of indigenous culture.

However, with regard to the project of the state, there must be an effort to bring together all those efforts. There must be a space for everything to come together, a space for sharing and discussing a multiplicity of tendencies.

In Yaracuy state, a classroom implements a community‐organized black pensum. (Alba Ciudad)