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Peruvian Artist Making Impact Away from Home

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Mariella’s Afro-America Cuenta y Canta association promotes the history and cultural contributions of the African presence in Ibero-America and its Afro-descendants. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac
Mariella’s Afro-America Cuenta y Canta association promotes the history and cultural contributions of the African presence in Ibero-America and its Afro-descendants. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

Maybe it will take time, but if it’s meant for you, it will happen; you just need to keep your eyes wide open,” Mariella begins, as she recounts the moment her life took an unexpected turn when she was only 16 years old. Back in 1982, as she was waiting for a friend in downtown Lima, Peru, a couple of Belgian tourists approached her, asking for directions to the legendary Gold Museum.

The question immediately took Mariella back to two years prior when she attended a lecture about the Gold Museum at the Cevatur Higher Institute of Tourism in Lima. After Mariella’s father died when she was only 14, her mother Ranulfa found a job at the institute’s cafeteria. Not wanting her daughter’s idle moments go to waste while she waited for her mother to finish her shift, Ranulfa asked her supervisor for permission to let Mariella sit in for a few of the classes.

“I was so fascinated by what I learned that day, that it stayed with me forever,” Mariella recounts.

“Throughout the years, I saw Spain drastically develop; it went from horse and carriage to Opel Corsa,” Mariella laughs, as she gets ready for her show. Photo: IOM/Monica Chiriac

Sitting in front of the tourists, using the English she worked hard to learn all throughout her teenage years, Mariella started explaining not only how to get to the museum but also the importance of the amazing collection of objects that they were about to see. The tourists were so impressed with Mariella’s presentation that they immediately invited her to be their guide at the museum.

At the end of their visit, they told her that they were professors and invited her to visit them in Belgium. After they left Peru, before the advent of social media, they started sending each other letters and occasionally calling. Then one day, they asked her whether she was interested in studying abroad. Without consulting her mother, Mariella accepted and started preparing to apply for a scholarship to study psychopedagogy in Belgium.

Four years and a multitude of bureaucratic procedures later, Mariella was on a flight to Belgium. Six months later, she phoned her mother to let her know that she wasn’t coming back. “I would stand in line for the payphone with dozens of other migrants for ages, waiting to call my mother,” she recalls.

With only a few minutes to chat, the conversations would shift from laughter to tears in a matter of seconds. “She would tell me about who else had died and my aunt’s birthday, I would tell her about my classes and my health.”

It was going to be another 11 years until she would touch Peruvian soil again.

Mariella in 1983 with her mother Ranulfa and two of the Belgian professors who helped her move and study in Leuven. Mariella credits her mother for her desire to study. She passed away last year at 99 years old. Photo: Mariella’s personal archive

Since she always loved teaching, Mariella chose to study psychopedagogy. Here, featured with her university friends from Nicaragua, Mexico, and Peru in 1985. All were studying in Belgium on scholarships for Ibero-American students. Photo: Mariella’s personal archive

In Leuven, Belgium, the professors had found a place for her to stay and left her a bike and directions to the post office, supermarket, and university. Mariella immediately felt at home. “I was one of the very few black girls in Belgium at the time, but I felt like I belonged,” she recalls. “People used to call me la morenita (in English: the little brunette), but I didn’t care about any of it and wasn’t afraid to claim my space.”

Mariella frequently travelled between Belgium and Spain to visit friends, until she finally decided to move to Madrid. The 90’s music boom along with her new home reignited her love for music. “I’ve always wanted to make music, but when you’re young, you can’t tell your mom that because she’ll think you’ll be doing drugs instead,” she laughs.

Doing translations to support herself, Mariella was able to find a place to stay and soon enough, to book shows. “As one of the few black migrants around back then, most people thought that I was either working as a domestic worker or in a brothel,” she recalls.

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