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Meet the Dance and Music Teachers Bringing Peruvian Culture to the Bay

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Several women of all ages practice dance moves in a mirror at a dance studio.
Monica Mendoza (center) leads a marinera dance class in San Francisco on April 1, 2024. (Kathryn Styer Martínez/KQED)

When Juan de Dios Soto first arrived in California in 1990, he dreamed of a place where he could share the dance and sounds of his beloved birth country: Peru.

Soto settled in San Francisco, where he saw how different Latin American cultures coexisted in the city’s Mission District. He saw Honduran Garifuna punta performed alongside Mexican son jarocho in the city’s annual Carnaval celebration. He heard salsa, banda and samba all regularly played on the same block.

He and his sister Lydia — a teacher of Afro-Peruvian dance — quickly got involved in festivals and community celebrations with the hope of growing the presence of Peruvian music and dance in the Bay. And both of them knew that, eventually, they wanted to bring about a permanent home for Peruvian culture here in San Francisco.

“To speak of Peru is to speak of Latin America,” Soto said. “There are so many cultures in one place: There is such a strong Indigenous culture. There is such a strong African culture— and a strong Asian culture, as well.”

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As a city, San Francisco has one of the biggest Peruvian diasporas in the world, and there are many more Peruvian communities throughout the rest of the Bay Area, including in cities like San Jose and Redwood City. More and more Peruvians are migrating to California cities, according to official data from the Peruvian government – and as more folks settle down, many are also seeking opportunities to teach (and learn) traditions and arts from all across Peru.

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After more than three decades since arriving in San Francisco, the Soto siblings opened Tradición Peruana Cultural Center, located in the Mission District. “The Peruvian community in the Bay Area has grown a lot in the past ten years, which makes having this place even more important,” he said. “But this place is open to all, both to Peruvians and non-Peruvians alike.”

A woman on the left, and two men sit on blocks in an art studio and clap their hands.
Juan de Dios Soto (center) leads Lucy Babayan (left) and Hopeton Hess (right) in a cajon class at the Tradición Peruana Cultural Center in San Francisco on April 1, 2024. (Kathryn Styer Martínez/KQED)

The center, which has several exhibition spaces, a dance studio and a computer lab, also serves as a practice space for Tradición Peruana’s contingent in this year’s Carnaval parade — a true symbol of the Peruvian community’s role in the Bay Area’s biggest Latino cultural celebration.

And right now, there are more classes and workshops on Peruvian dance and music offered in the Bay Area than ever before. We’ve brought together the voices of those working to expand the reach of Peruvian music and dance throughout the Bay Area, along with just some of the ways to learn yourself through classes and workshops.

In San Francisco, following the beats of the cajón

“The cajón is the flagship instrument within the Afro-Peruvian musical tradition,” Soto said, holding up a simple wooden box the size of a microwave with a hole on the side. When he sits on it and begins to play a rhythm that quickly grows in complexity, the sound of the cajón carries throughout the multiple rooms of Tradición Peruana. When he deftly switches up the beat, it’s difficult not to want to dance along.

“The cajón may be simple, but it’s a very versatile instrument,” said Soto, who’s been playing it almost his whole life. “For us, to play the cajón is a lifestyle — a philosophy.”

The history of the cajón also reflects the larger history of the African diaspora in Peru. During the colonial era, the Spanish brought tens of thousands of enslaved Africans to Peru by force. In Lima, leather-bound drums were banned as part of a larger effort to repress African culture and traditions. In the 16th century, folks resisted these prohibitions by looking for alternatives and started using empty wooden boxes — of which there were plenty in the busy ports surrounding Lima — as percussion instruments. Over the following centuries, what that wooden box evolved into is now an indispensable part of several musical traditions of Peru, like the marinera, tondero and festejo.

A man wearing glasses and a white t-shirt stands outside.
Juan de Dios Soto teaches the cajon class at the Tradición Peruana Cultural Center in San Francisco on April 1, 2024. (Kathryn Styer Martínez/KQED)

Soto teaches cajón at both Tradición Peruana and the nearby Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts. On a Monday afternoon at Tradición Peruana, he joins his students in a circle, each of them with their own cajón — and as they practice in the main exhibition space of the center, which opens up to 22nd Street, the warm afternoon light streams into the center and the rhythm of the cajón flows into the street.

Cajón classes with Juan de Dios Soto:

  • Mondays and Tuesdays from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Tradición Peruana Cultural Center, 2815 23rd St., San Francisco. The center does have cajones available for students to use.
  • Wednesdays from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, 2868 Mission St., San Francisco.

In SF and San Mateo, ‘a dance of love’

In the dance studio across the hall from Tradición Peruana’s cajón lesson, Mónica Mendoza prepares to lead a class of her own. In her hands, she carries several white handkerchiefs — essential for marinera norteña, one of the national dances of Peru.

Mendoza has taught marinera — a dance she first saw as a little girl in the northern coastal town of Chimbote — for years. A storied marinera dancer in her own right, she’s participated in multiple international competitions and recently became the Queen of this year’s Carnaval San Francisco — a historic competition recently held at KQED’s headquarters.

A woman wearing all black clothing adjusts a white skirt of a young girl in a dance studio.
Monica Mendoza (left) secures a falda on her daughter, Gabrielle Poth (right), during marinera class in San Francisco on April 1, 2024. (Kathryn Styer Martínez/KQED)

“The marinera is a dance of love. It could be a love between a couple, or two friends or kids,” Mendoza said. “The idea is to show that on the dance floor, to express that message.”

Like the cajón, the marinera has been shaped by Peru’s African diaspora. But the dance also has very strong Indigenous and European influence. And in a reflection of the immense racial and cultural diversity of the country, each region of Peru has its own variation: marinera limeña, arequipeña, andina and norteña, which is what Mendoza teaches. “Each person can also add their own individual style to show where they come from, which region they represent,” she said. “And here in the United States, we’re adding our own twists.”

A woman wearing a red polka dot skirt and purple top practices in a dance studio with a young girl in the background.
Solange Bonilla, 48, attends marinera dance class in San Francisco on April 1, 2024. Bonilla learned marinera when she was growing up in northern Peru. She said dancing now keeps her connected to her culture. (Kathryn Styer Martínez/KQED)

“I’m in love with this dance,” said Mendoza, who makes a round trip from San José every time she teaches at Tradición Peruana. And when she’s not there, she’s teaching at her own dance academy in San Mateo: Peru Expressions.

“I want people — both Peruvians and non-Peruvians — to learn about what this dance represents and the joy it brings,” she said.

Marinera norteña classes with Monica Mendoza:

  • Mondays from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Tradición Peruana Cultural Center, 2815 23rd St., San Francisco
  • Multiple weekly classes at Peru Expressions, 1880 S. Grant St., San Mateo. Contact Mendoza via Facebook to register for a class.

In the East Bay, ‘the music of the jungle, the coast and the Sierra’

Across the Bay in El Cerrito, there’s yet another effort to make Peruvian culture more accessible. For the past few years, dance teacher Diana Angulo has been bringing dancers and musicians to this small city in Contra Costa County to offer workshops to the community — out of her home.
“There’s not many Peruvians over here,” Angulo said — “but what we offer is very valuable to those who are here.”

What began as informal meet-ups among friends and neighbors has evolved into the dance school Con Fuerza Perú Academia de Danzas, which offers lessons on marinera norteña and marinera limeña, along with tondero and festejo dances.

“We want to represent the incredible diversity of Peru through what we teach,” she said, “and show the music of the jungle, the coast and the Sierra.”

Two young women wearing flowing skirts dance in front of two other women in a dance studio.
Gabrielle Poth (center) and Susana Mejia (right) practice in their faldas at Monica Mendoza’s (left) marinera dance class in San Francisco on April 1, 2024. (Kathryn Styer Martínez/KQED)

Raised by a musical family in Lima, Angulo migrated to the United States in the 1990s. When she dances marinera norteña, she said it brings so many memories of Peru — but it also gives her an opportunity to claim her new home, the Bay Area. She’s represented San Francisco in multiple international dance competitions and is currently one of two queens for the San Francisco chapter of Club Libertad, which is a marinera norteña club with affiliates all over the world.

When she isn’t dancing competitively — or working her separate full-time job — Angulo dedicates whatever is left of her free time to growing the academy. Accessing this kind of cultural knowledge through dance, she said, should be open to students from all backgrounds — not just Peruvian families.

“No matter if they come from El Salvador, Mexico or Colombia, the idea is to deepen the ties of our community,” she said. “We want to continue growing that seed of affection, respect and pride for our cultures.”

Class schedules and offerings for Con Fuerza Perú vary by week. You can contact Angulo through the Con Fuerza Perú website.

Other lessons and opportunities

At Tradición Peruana, Lydia Soto teaches Afro-Peruvian dance on Tuesdays from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The center also offers percussion, guitar, boxing, capoeira and yoga classes. You can find the complete listing here.

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In Berkeley, La Peña Cultural Center offers lessons for several traditional Peruvian dances, including, Marinera Limeña, Festejo Peruano, along with several workshops on Afro-Peruvian Percussion & Dance Ensemble. The schedule varies each week. Find the complete listing here.

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