Biography
Stage 1925-1960

Victoria Gamarra Ramírez and the décima
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Nicomedes speaks about his mother and the décima

My mother, Doña Victoria Gamarra (1887), spent the whole day singing while she worked washing clothes in a laundry basket for eighteen or twenty hours a day; she knew everything: panalivio, festejos, habanera, old waltz and décima. She had learned the latter when she was a child, with the wagon drivers of the English railroad in Monserrate; one day she was left with the notebook of décimas forgotten by a troubadour and she learned the verses by heart. That troubadour had gone overboard with wine in the cellar of the Italian where these carters used to counterpoint; the bodeguero liked the décimas very much and always took a bottle out of the house so that they would keep on singing. 

In the evenings, I remember, a little black boy twice my age called Pílade would look for me; he would recite to me the décimas he had learned from his father; when he died in 1930, I was very impressed because he was the first person I had ever seen dead. My relationship with the décima suffered a break in its first years: my mother had a heart condition and because of this she no longer sang; soon after we left La Victoria.

My father was a good technician in ammonia refrigeration and steam boiler work, which was still used and went to work on a farm that was called Lobatón, in the neighborhood of Lince (early thirties). And there, in Lobatón, I forgot about the décimas, but not about poetry, which I liked very much. At that time I composed silvas, sonnets, formal verses that did not satisfy me. 

Since my school days I liked poetry, but with the eye that the teachers had, they chose the boys who 'should' recite poems. The décima still retained some social function back then; besides, poetry was very present in the educational program of the time, although almost everything that was studied was from the Spanish Golden Age. The only time I performed was in my class. The teacher said, "Let's see, who has a vocation for art". I said, "I want to sing. (Libertad Lamarque had just made the movie Besos Brujos.) Then the teacher introduced me: "In third place, Nicomedes Santa Cruz singing Besos Brujos". When it was my turn I took out the songbook because I didn't know the lyrics and that was the end of it: "Go sit down...!"

Nicomedes Santa Cruz Aparicio
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Nicomedes Santa Cruz Aparicio
shortly before leaving for the U.S.

 

 

"Mr. Santa Cruz's comedy reveals exceptional conditions for dramatic art and a profound knowledge of the very difficult mechanics of the movement of the characters with logic and naturalness".

Review of Variedades Magazine about the play 'Confort del hogar' by Nicomedes Santa Cruz Aparicio, father of Nicomedes.
Lima Peru. 1909.

In 1881, my grandfather, Pedro Santa Cruz Isla, had a son killed by the Chileans during the War of the Pacific, and so that they would not kill another son, he put my father, Nicomedes Santa Cruz Aparicio (1871), on the last refugee ship leaving for the United States with a foreign family. There he realized that because he was black and illiterate, they were going to put him as a 'little slave' and he escaped. Thus he was left alone in the world at the age of eleven.

America is hard but, in honor of the truth, we must add that it was also the country of great opportunities. Thus, Nicomedes not only acquired American residence and citizenship but became a complete man: technologically trained in ammonia refrigeration, handling boilers and steam engines (energy force of that time). Culturally, apart from English, which was almost his natural language, he learned French, German and Italian, and possessed a valuable library whose jewels included the Encyclopedia Britannica in its special edition of 1900, commemorating the advent of the twentieth century.

Testimony of Octavio Santa Cruz Urquieta

Years go by in North America. Nostalgia comes to him. He begins to remember what he had left behind, the war, the desolation, the world he had abandoned so as not to die. He feels Peru and returns in 1903. He triumphs as a playwright between 1908 and the mid-twenties with the plays 'Confort del hogar', 'Servicio Obligatorio' and 'Un Don Juan Criollo'. Here he meets my mother (1887), who was the granddaughter of his godfather, Demetrio Gamarra. They fall in love like crazy and he stays.

He said that his great-grandfather was an Indian. A ‘curaca’ from Santa Cruz de la Sierra. That is why we are Santa Cruz, and when it was separated from the viceroyalty of La Plata, which was created in 1776, the ‘curaca’ had to come to Lima for some titles, and here in Lima he bought a black woman in the slave market, because there was a law that provided that the noble ‘curacas’ or Incas could buy black slaves. He has offspring with that black woman and gives her his name, Santa Cruz. He was a man with a flat forehead, as if flattened and with a long braid (my father kept it as a jewel).

I had very little communication with my father. However, when he died in 1957, I began to realize that he had left me something. He would say to me in his last years: "Congratulations Mr. Santa Cruz, you are giving them something to talk about".

View: Octavio Santa Cruz Urquieta / Don Nico, el primer dramaturgo negro del Perú. D’Palenque Literatura y Afrodescendencia AÑO VI - N.° 6. Año 2021.


Lima
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At 435 Sebastián Barranca St.
Sebastián Barranca Street. 1979.

 

 

I was born on June 4, 1925 in La Victoria, the first slum of the Republic, because the colonial slum had been the Rimac. Many black and mulatto people lived there. My childhood was wonderful. We were the most creative children in the poverty we had. It was a time when Lima was surrounded by huacas, farms and orchards. You would reach down and find a rifle from the '79 war. I played with the rifles from the war with Chile. Everything was carts. It was all pregones.

On Sundays all the aunts and grandmother would come and prepare a picnic; in five minutes we were already crowning a huaca. Because Lima has been a sanctuary that was surrounded by huacas, and crowning huacas, which were very low, the whole family would tell stories of slavery, or of burials, of the Indians and Gentiles. They said that the gentiles had been buried for centuries, generations after generations, they lost the color of their skin and had descended to a totally zoological condition; then they went out to the streets to exchange gold cobs for food, and people ran terrified when they saw transparent people with gold cobs in their hands, asking for food. Those things my grandmother told, as they had been told to her.

Lima was an enclave that was more linked to the Caribbean than to the rest of Peru, because it had developed a mulatto culture in three hundred years and between walls. There were no highland people. Nobody spoke of huaylas or muliza. There was a generic name: "Serranito are dancing serranito".


La herrería

Testimonio de Octavio Santa Cruz Urquieta

(en la foto Nicomedes y su hermano Fernando Santa Cruz)

 

We are ten siblings and our mother always saw what we played with, what artisan inclination we had, and according to that, she looked for a trade for us. When I finished fifth grade, my mother told me: "You are going to be a locksmith". "And what's that," I told her, "You'll see that you'll like it". Then she took me by the hand to one of the best master locksmiths in Peru: Nicanor Zúñiga (author of the railings and railings of the building occupied by the newspaper El Comercio). He told him, as they used to say in the old days: "Master, here I give you my boy so that you can make him a man". "Just leave him alone, ma'am..." That was in the year 36. At that time, many things were learned. They did 15th century craftsmanship. You would go to a workshop at that time and they would say: "Do you know how to work? How much do you want to earn?" "Two soles a day" "Well, make your own tools". And then we had to make a hammer, a set of tongs.... Making a hammer is a beautiful thing. You can buy it at the hardware store, but making your own tool is an extension of the arm itself. Peruvian locksmithing was of Spanish style, based on arabesques, due to Arab influence. Each blacksmith had a style that characterized him as a signature or fingerprint. This handcrafted seal was achieved in ten, fifteen years of work.

It was always sung in the smithy, because forging has a rhythm. You see, they work with two taps or cams, and since the hammer does not bounce when the iron is red, to save the effort of lifting it, it is struck on the anvil so that it bounces. That's why there is a musicality: between the dull sound of the camber, the blow of the hammer on the red iron and against the anvil; like the chorus of the blacksmiths in the opera 'The Troubadour' by Verdi: Kimpun kapun, kipun kapun.... One sang on that rhythm, with the bellows of the forge that made like a tuba. So there was a harmony that made it easy to sing. It is an 'a capella' song that has no other rhythm than that of the fragua. This somehow linked me to the artistic activity which, in the end, is not a substantial change: from forging iron to forging words, that's the way things are. And it was precisely in the 1940s when I began to write my first décimas, on the back of the plans I was given to make railings. Sometimes I would return the scribbled plans without realizing it. Fortunately, the owners were Italians who were condescending towards my hobby.


Porfirio Vásquez
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Some boys from Breña, with whom I played soccer, told me to go and meet their father, who was a criollazo.  I don't know why they wanted me to, since at that time I used to go to the Jardines to dance boogie-boogie and other fashionable rhythms. (There were many academies and I sang swing in the orchestra of an academy that offered dance matinees to which youngsters came in droves. I knew all the songs. The professional singer would go drinking or dancing and leave me and another boy to sing). The fact is that I went to see this man and I liked him very much, as well as the people of his neighborhood: among them was Don Porfirio Vásquez (1902). There I recovered my contact with that tradition, with what I had heard from my mother. Porfirio had eight children, but he sort of 'adopted' me and became for me a sort of paternal image.

Every day for two or three hours he told me not only how a décima was made, which was the simplest thing, because I had already studied it at school, but also how a décima was used in rural areas or as a counterpoint singing weapon, which was no different from the singing of the payadores of the Southern Cone, the singing of the jarochos huapangueros of the Gulf of Mexico or the singing of the guajiros of the Antilles. He taught me a whole folkloric world that was unknown to me, although not alien to me, because my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, being black, were of urban extraction as opposed to Porifrio who was rural.  

 

With him, in the year 49 I heard a décima again. It was in the chingana of the Japanese where I heard it and right there I made him the plant of a gloss to don Porfirio that said this way: 'Criollo no, criollazo! sings in the tone that you scratch, they call him El Amigazo his name: Porfirio Vásquez'.

It was Porfirio who took me to his brother Carlos, who was a disciple of the famous Higinio Quintana. I had a good amount of glosses and it was Porfirio who told me: "tell me one, Nicomedes", when I finished Carlos Vasquez was crying. He told me: "I thought I was going to die without leaving a disciple, you are going to be one", and he took out some old accounting notebooks, in which he had thousands of glosses in which he had sung to everything imaginable. Then I told him that I didn't want to continue it, that I wanted to recite my own and follow my own path. He didn't like that. But later he understood and we became great friends.  


Rafael Santa Cruz Gamarra
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Rafael and Nicomedes, 1940s

My brother Rafael was key in my takeoff. When he made his debut in '47, I jumped into the ring, because we had grown up together and we treated each other as compadres without being so; they were already carrying him on their shoulders because he had killed his second bull, which was the sixth for being a debutant. It was March 23 and I told him: "Compadre, you have triumphed, what do you think!" "It seems that it was not me", he answered. From that moment on, he began to fight every Sunday and I began to live off my brother's glory. I would come back drunk, we would sleep in the same room, and I would find him sleeping. I would say to him: "Father, Lima is yours and you are sleeping! "It's just that tomorrow I have to train." "But all of Lima is drunk because of you and you are here sleeping...!"

 

Rafael had to go to Mexico first and then to Spain. He came back after three years of fighting in France and Spain and the first thing he said to me was: "You are an artist". Of course, I am a iron artist," I said. "No! You are an artist and not an artist of the iron, because I have seen people in the world who have what you have and live like hell". For me that was difficult to understand because Rafael was three years younger than me, with less world, although he knew a world that I had not yet glimpsed.

 

 

Searching for his destiny

 

The poetic art was gaining ground and on April 25, 1956, I left the blacksmith's workshop that I had set up in 1953 and went out into the world to find my destiny reciting my verses, which already numbered several hundred glosses. My own teacher, don Porfirio, was something already surpassed by me, because all he had done was to prepare me to compete with other decimists who no longer existed and who in the best of cases, as in the case of his brother Carlos, were in their eighties. They were framed in a theme and in a totally rural activity, in the human and in the divine, and I saw a different series of events. I traveled north to Ecuador, village by village and chichería by chichería. I would ask the people in the corrillos: "What are you celebrating?" "His birthday, her wedding, or his farewell..." "Can I offer you a poem as a tribute?" and then, well...wham! I would improvise a poem. They wanted to pay me. "No, nothing to pay", I said. Then they would buy me drinks, food.... It happened that dizzy with so much chicha I was no longer there but in one house and in another. Suddenly there would be fights because someone didn't like me and everywhere I went I would change the meaning of the celebration. What a wedding, what a birthday! Everything was distorted by Nicomedes. Some people, in order to give themselves airs of cult, would say: "That's not his, I've heard that and it's Chocano's". Because the illiterate people of that time, everything they thought was good was attributed to Chocano. So I thought: if they think it is by Chocano, then I must be good...


José Durand Florez:
'Ritmo Negro del Perú'
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The first serious attempt to stage Negroid folklore as a theatrical show dates back to 1956 and was the result of the initiative and effort of Dr. José Durand Florez. In its beginnings, to the 'Trio los Morenos', integrated by Humberto Samamé, Lito Gonzales and Ricardo Ramírez, who interpreted Negroid airs, he added the participation of the guitarist Roberto Arce and the popular singer Juan Criado, renaming this group with the name of 'La cuadrilla morena de Pancho Fierro'. Taking this group as a base, he began to recruit any brown man with any ability, whether as a singer, dancer or instrumentalist of Peruvian Negro airs. Durand penetrated all the alleys of Lima and La Victoria. He managed to be invited to select encerronas and jaranas. He got a guitarist here, he got a singer there, he convinced a zapateador there. They spread the word to relatives and amateur friends and began rehearsals in Durand's own apartment. Each one contributed what he knew, they worked with ardor and when the thing began to take shape, they took the rehearsals to the Municipal Theater of Lima. An acceptable program could be structured thanks to the advice of personalities like Rosita Alarco, Toño Pinilla and other society people; thanks to the knowledge of don Porfirio Vásquez; to the long artistic experience of Juan Criado; to the compositions and arrangements of Samuel Márquez; to the instructions of the mother of the Soto brothers; to the quality of the veteran Mendoza Reyes; to Juan Mejía Baca, Rosa Graña, Manuel Cuadros, José María Arguedas and some others who really knew their stuff. Durand invested in this new venture of his company, 'Estampas de Pancho Fierro', up to the last cent. Alberto Terry was in charge of the scenery and Marcos Kaplansky of the administration.

Durand received wide support from the press, but due to the anonymity of his cast, about forty people, and the unusual nature of the show, he wanted to ensure the box office with a renowned and prestigious figure and so he got the participation of Chabuca Granda as a special performance. The opening night arrived and when the curtain rose at the Teatro Municipal de Lima, before the astonished eyes of 1,200 spectators who filled the hall, a two-hour show was presented, in a series of songs and dances of ours that were almost unknown to Peruvians of this generation. The ovations followed one after the other from the opening "Ritmo de quijadas"; the version of "Son de los Diablos" was dazzling; the cane field stamp with the staging of the panalivio "A la Molina"; the scene of "La Chacra", with décimas, cockfighting and contrapunto of Creole zapateo; the 'Serenata en el callejón' and its climax of marinera and resbalosa; the scene of the 'Toro-mata', a grotesque dramatic scene in memory of the black bullfighters of Lima. It was a display of images that, in retrospective vision, transported the spectator to the Lima of a century ago. After the success of the first performances, Chabuca declined to remain in the cast, no matter how 'very special' her participation was (later, in January 1957, Durand would pay her a well-deserved tribute in the Plaza de Acho with a full house*).

*Nicomedes participates in this tribute with the Pancho Fierro Company, although he is not yet a member of it. This event, held on Thursday, January 17, 1957, can be considered as the beginning of his professional career.

After the favorable impact of the first presentations and without the specialized critics being able to pronounce themselves in a didactic way, since they also did not know our folklore, it was the audience itself who would be in charge of drawing conclusions. The opinion of the spectator was developing in parallel to adverse circumstances within the company that in the end would put an end to the show: the artists that in the rehearsals formed a dark brotherhood, began to separate into groups and dismiss each other: cañetanos, chancayanos, chinchanos, limeños... Indiscipline began inside and outside of the stage. Whoever was able to get the most out of his act, and he would stay on stage for a long time. To all this, Dr. Durand had disagreements with such valuable elements as Porfirio Vásquez and Juan Criado, who left the company. Under these circumstances, rehearsals of new prints for the following season began.

Audio by Nicomedes on Estampas de Pancho Fierro. 1970

Foto de: http://caneteartenegro.blogspot.com/


At the beginning of 1957 a short season was announced, which began at the Municipal Theater of Lima from May 11 to 15. After several performances in the Plaza de Acho and theaters, it was transferred to the Municipal Theater of Arequipa, where two performances were given. They returned to Lima and traveled by air to Chile, performing on June 12 under the name 'Ritmo Negro del Perú'. Four performances at the Teatro Municipal de Santiago, three performances at Radio Corporación and two final performances at the Caupolicán on June 18 and 19. The new program began the same as the previous one with 'Ritmo de Quijadas' (for this stage design Terry painted the jaws with a green compound that reacted phosphorescently to the effect of the 'black light', a technique that was premiered in Lima; with the hall turned off and the black players dressed in dark, when the curtain was lifted, the audience saw and heard eight phosphorescent jaws floating on stage). The 'Son de los diablos' followed (he was inspired by watercolors for the costumes and instrumentation; there were ten devils and one older devil). Both numbers had gained from a year's worth of work. But instead of the following painting 'Una escena en la chacra' with Porfirio and Juan Criado, now followed 'El cainuco', a meaningless picture. Gabriel Alvarado did not go to Chile either, who created 'Toro-mata' in his role as a black bullfighter. The zapateo counterpoint that caused a sensation in Lima was transformed into the 'Ciempiés'. And finally, the panalivio 'A la Molina' performed by Juan Criado was replaced by 'La Navidad Negra' (Black Christmas), a scene that was disambiguated by the absence of scenery, confused by the fragmented nature of its folkloric documentation and disorienting for being a deficient adaptation of the 'Hatajo de Negritos' from El Carmen (Chincha). The show went unnoticed by the Chilean public and so after the debut, the silence of the Chilean specialized critics lasted until the farewell of the new company. Everything had gone downhill since the presentation of the show in 1956. Once these commitments were fulfilled, they returned to Peru and José Durand dissolved his company.


Professional world

 

I joined Durand's company in May 1957. They had made their debut and were preparing to travel to Chile. Alberto Terry, who was the artistic director, told me: "The Vásquez have told me about you and here, nobody 'speaks' ". So I offered to present the paintings with décimas. Terry warned me that the dress rehearsal was the following night. "For tomorrow are the décimas," I told him. I lived alone in Breña. I locked myself in my room and meditated as never before in my life. It was the decisive moment. I knew that I had already lost my job. Just at the end of World War II, all the blacksmith's craft that I had mastered had disappeared. And a lot of people had to become singers or poets, like me, because there was no more work and learning a trade at the age of forty, for example, was very hard. Then I said to myself: This can be my continuity and I have to do it so well that my life is rooted there. At dawn I finished the last tenth. I was exhausted, but at night when I went to the rehearsal, my colleagues were dumbfounded and when I said the last tenth, which was the Black Christmas closing the act, Terry had to shout: "Keep up the f**ing action!" And nobody could believe that from one day to the next I had written so much. 

I realized that I was going to live on applause. However, given its instability, I knew I would not be able to support myself the way blacksmithing had supported me. So I immediately got into journalism. A son of the Miró Quesada family ran the Sunday edition of El Comercio and I offered him an article on folklore. I had nothing prepared but when he asked me what the first article would be about, I answered that it would be about the Marinera. It was heroic. It took me a whole night and it was published on June 1, 1958, just when I was 33 years old ('Ensayo sobre la Marinera'). View Archive/1958. 

Nicomedes talks about his first article in the press

Nicomedes talks about Salazar Bondy

That same year, Sebastián Salazar Bondy summoned me to the editorial office of the newspaper La Prensa and after having a long conversation with me and seeing my notebook of décimas, he told me that he was going to write an article about me, but that it was going to bring tail and generate controversy. Indeed, that is what happened, because Sebastián titled his article: 'Nicomedes Santa Cruz: poeta natural' Immediately José Durand Flores answered him denying that such natural poetry existed (in which he was right, I believe); Luis Jaime Cisneros also entered the debate. The following year, Juan Mejía Baca published my first book of décimas and entrusted the prologue to Sebastián, who corrected some things in his polemic article with which, to tell the truth, I did not agree. Sebastián had helped me by introducing me to the intelligentsia of the time and had guided my readings, but on that occasion we argued and the book was left without a prologue. I believe that someone who understood the phenomenon of the décima very well was Ciro Alegría, a great friend of mine. He was the one who presented my second book, published by Studium. Ciro had lived for a long time in Cuba, land of decimists.

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Talk at San Marcos. 1958 

 

 

Also in 1958, in addition to creating the Conjunto Cumanana, the students of the University of San Marcos invited me to the Casona, in the University Park, to give a talk on the décima in Latin America. The text was later published in 'El Comercio' with a claim that I added that a detailed study of this poetic form in our country should be made; at that time I did not even imagine that it would be up to me to do that work.

The thing is that there were very good studies on the décima in Panama, Mexico, Cuba, Argentina and Puerto Rico, but none of them mentioned Peru. I, who was born in the smell of décimas, was annoyed by this situation and wanted it to be rectified. And so it was that from the year 60 I began to travel the coast, which is the territory where the Peruvian décima had remained, in order to collect as much material as possible. When I arrived at the small towns, the octogenarians agreed to sing their décimas, but there was always a child (children don't keep quiet about such things) who would come up to me and say: "That man is from Radio Nacional, I listen to him". And then came the distrust and the troubadour kept silent, believing that I had come to steal his song. Now, this does not mean that the décimas were not repeated and that each poet was obliged to be original; the illiterate decimistas of the twentieth century (I have met some) had a prodigious memory that allowed them to remember thirty glosas in a single counterpoint. Just think what that means, considering that each gloss is made up of four décimas and a quatrain.

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Extraído de: Revista Juventud (Argentina).
Buenos Aires, 21 de mayo de 1974.
“Nicomedes Santa Cruz: El Perú entero”
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"La nostalgia de un autodidacta", por Nicomedes Santa Cruz.
El Comercio. 10 de julio de 1977
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Suplemento. Revista de la Semana
Lima, 17 de julio de 1983
“Yo nací en olor de décimas” por Peter Elmore y Federico Cárdenas.
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Estampa. Suplemento del diario Expreso:
"Folklore IV. Estampas de Pancho Fierro". Nº 38. 2 de febrero de 1964
"Folklore V. Ritmos Negros del Perú ". Nº 39. 9 de febrero de 1964
"Folklore VI. Gente Morena". Nº 40. 16 de febrero de 1964