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Madrid – “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.
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.
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.
Today, Mariella Köhn is a singer, poet, composer, musicologist, and president of the Afro-America Cuenta y Canta (in English: “Afro-America Narrates and Sings”). The association promotes the history and cultural contributions of Ibero-America and its Afro-descendants. Their projects are linked to music, gastronomy, poetry, and theatre and are an avenue to promote integration and coexistence, and according to their website, “not only to entertain, but to educate and why not, heal.”
At this unique time where the international community faces a confluence of crises and profound global transformations, the 2023 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Summit in New York (Sept 18-19) ought to be a moment of truth and reckoning: it is imperative that human mobility is incorporated into the Rescue Plan the UN Secretary General is urging world leaders to deliver at the Summit.
Mariella is one of 60 migrant representatives from 55 migrant associations across Spain to have participated in a technical training organized by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Spain in the framework of its MATRIZ project. In line with Sustainable Development Goal 17: Partnerships for the Goals, the initiative aims to enhance the value of migrant associations based in Spain and their contributions to sustainable development by strengthening their technical capacities and network as well as their link with the communities they represent.
At the end of the project’s first phase, IOM launched the MATRIZ Awards, a competition opened to all migrant associations wishing to submit an innovative project proposal. Mariella’s association was one of the two lucky winners to receive a EUR 10,000 cash prize, thanks to her reinterpretation and rendition of the famous poem “Me gritaron negra” (in English, “They Yelled at Me: Black!”).
Written in 1978 by Peruvian choreographer Victoria Santa Cruz, the poem references many of Victoria’s lived experiences as well as those of Afro-descendants and women in particular who have suffered from racial discrimination. Since the poem had shaped her life in many ways, Mariella had always hoped to one day perform it on a big stage. As soon as the call for proposals for the MATRIZ Awards was launched, Mariella reached out to Victoria’s nephew to ask for permission to use the poem.
After winning the award, the association used the video along with additional supporting materials to train representatives from other migrant associations to raise awareness about hate speech, racism, discrimination, and bullying in schools.
Since first meeting her Belgian professor friends on that unlikely day in Peru, Mariella has acquired her Spanish citizenship and has become the artist that she had always hoped to be, as well as a fierce activist for migrants. However, she knows that not everybody is as lucky as she was; but luck is only one per cent, the rest is hard work, she says.
“Victoria’s poem has taught me that you have to face your own demons, no one can do that for you,” Mariella explains. “Someone might shout some awful things at you, but it’s up to you to give those words value. Rise above.”