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Sara and Susana
When Mom cooked with the famed Afro-Peruvian singer
A found print photograph brings back memories of an afternoon when my mom and Susana Baca, the famed Afro-Peruvian singer, cooked a creole lunch and her band played a house concert for us.
Decades ago, when I was in graduate school in Minneapolis, I called my mom at her home in Toronto and told her she had to come visit because I got us tickets to Susana Baca’s concert.
A global ambassador for Afro-Peruvian music and culture, Susana Baca is a three-time Latin Grammy Award winner. And the year we saw her in concert she was promoting her fourth album, which had one of our favorite songs—“Negra Presuntuosa,” a slow lando rhythm about a Black woman.
During Susana’s concert, almost 25 years ago, my mom and I stood at the front of the floor and, song after entrancing song, watched Susana glide barefoot across the stage to the ancestral rhythms of the cajón wood box drum, guitar, and bass.
When the music stopped, and the venue’s overhead lights invited guests to leave, I whisked my mom backstage to meet Susana.
Though it was their first time meeting, they greeted each other like old friends, and immediately began to talk about the Lima of their youths and Peru’s comida criolla—its creole food. By the time we said our good nights, they’d made plans for lunch the next day at a friend’s house.
Recently, I found some print photographs of that day, stored in a box I had not opened for decades. When I saw the picture of my mom and Susana, the memories flooded back.
I remember standing at the entrance of my friend’s long, narrow kitchen and watching Mom and Susana cook a large pot of arroz con pollo for lunch.
Standing side by side, and chatting like Limeñas do, my mom sautéed the onion, garlic, cumin, oregano and aji amarillo aderezo while Susana seared chicken thighs, bone and skin on. Then, they added the rice, stock, vegetables, and chicken to the pot, plus a cilantro purée, and dark beer.
They cooked like musicians—with harmony, rhythm, and soulfulness.
While the pot simmered, Susana and her band played an acoustic concert for us. And their songs transported us to Lima, to a house in the Bohemian neighborhood of Barranco, where musicians often got together for jaranas—day long jam sessions fueled by creole food and pisco.
Because my mom and I have been immigrants most of our lives, food and music have always been integral to preserving our cultural identity, our Peruvianism.
My mom gifted me family recipes when she taught me to cook. And growing up, family reunions and celebrations were always filled with Peru’s creole food, music, pisco sours, and dancing. Now that I am vegan, I cook plant-based versions of Peru’s traditional dishes that still celebrate my roots.
Mom only met Susana once, but her music is always with us. Whenever I cook for my family in Portland, I play Susana’s songs. So does my mom.
The last time I visited my mom in Toronto, she still had a small poster of Susana pinned on the refrigerator. And as we cooked side by side, like we’ve done for more than four decades, we put on one of Susana’s CDs and danced on the kitchen floor while Susana’s image smiled at us.