How Does New York City’s Latinx Community See Itself?

Fascinating article by Graciela Mochkofsky for The New Yorker (and shared by Peter Jordens—thank you!) Mochkofsky writes, “Personal photographs posted on the Instagram account Nuevayorkinos offer a revealing portrait of the city.” She explores Nuevayorkinos, a site curated by Dominican filmmaker and archivist Djali Brown-Cepeda.

Late one night in February, 2019, Djali Brown-Cepeda finished binge-watching “Siempre Bruja,” a Colombian television series that had just premièred on Netflix. The series purported to tell the story of a strong Black woman with magical powers, and Brown-Cepeda, a Black Dominican American raised in Inwood, in upper Manhattan, had hoped to see, at last, a groundbreaking portrait of Black Latinidad. Instead, “Siempre Bruja” (“Always a Witch”) centers on the romance between its protagonist, a seventeenth-century enslaved Black woman, and her owner’s son. Accused of witchcraft, she is condemned to burn at the stake by the Spanish Inquisition but is saved by a wizard who shows her that she has magical powers and instructs her to travel in time to 2019, where she is free. A few episodes later, however, she chooses to go back to live as a slave so as to be reunited with her owner-lover.

Incensed, Brown-Cepeda, who is in her mid-twenties, did what any woman of her generation would do: she turned to social media. Where could she find an example of Latinx representation that felt right? After much clicking and scrolling, she came across the Instagram account Veteranas and Rucas, which features personal photographs of Southern California Chicanas from the nineteen-eighties and nineties and is curated by the Los Angeles artist Guadalupe Rosales. Brown-Cepeda had “a light-bulb moment,” she told me, and decided that la gente of New York City should tell their own stories, too.

She opened an Instagram account labelled Nuevayorkinos and posted a portrait of her mother, Raquel Cepeda, from 1989, when Raquel was sixteen. In the picture, Raquel sits in the stairwell in front of her best friend’s apartment in Inwood, looking defiant. The caption quotes her saying, “That was one of my safe spaces. Lisa’s parents will never know how grateful I am to them for being so welcoming to me in their home. My real home, several blocks away, was hell.” Once Brown-Cepeda had posted it, she opened the account to submissions.

Three years later, Nuevayorkinos has posted more than eight hundred and fifty photos of New York Latinxs, and has been celebrated for “redefining” the community’s history. For the past three years, a selection of its posts, curated by Brown-Cepeda, has been featured on the city’s more than eighteen hundred LinkNYC Wi-Fi kiosks during Hispanic Heritage Month. El Museo del Barrio partnered with her for an exhibit to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, in 2019, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of New York’s highest-profile Latinas, wore a Nuevayorkinos T-shirt during a virtual Q. & A. Nuevayorkinos is also at the center of an installation at moma P.S. 1, which runs through January 10th.

It is no accident that such a simple concept has garnered so much interest. According to the 2020 census, New York City is home to the largest Latinx population of any American city: almost two and a half million of its total 8.8 million inhabitants. Latinxs are the second-largest group in the city, almost equal in size to whites (28.3 per cent versus 31 per cent), and could become the largest group by the next census. If they once lived mostly in enclaves on the Lower East Side or in Washington Heights, they are now spread all over the city. The Bronx is almost fifty-five per cent Latino; Queens is almost a third; Latinxs are about one out of five Brooklynites and Staten Islanders, and about one out of four Manhattanites. “It seems to look like old patterns that we saw with preceding ethnic groups, like Italians and Jews and the Irish,” Joel Alvarez, the deputy director of the population division at the city’s Department of Planning, told me. The Latinx population growth during the past decade has come not from migration but from births, and that trend has resulted in a very youthful population: Latinxs account for more than a third of New Yorkers under the age of eighteen.

In that context, Nuevayorkinos becomes more than just a way to showcase how Latinx New Yorkers see themselves—it is a take on the identity of the city itself. So what do Latinxs have to say about that identity? You might expect laments, protests, a rosary of miseries to match the dire numbers, especially among Latinx immigrants. According to 2019 statistics, Latinx immigrants have the lowest average earnings ($34,800 versus $51,200 for all foreign-born residents of the city) and, tied with Asian Pacific Islanders, the highest poverty rate, at twenty-four per cent, with Dominicans, Hondurans, and Puerto Ricans earning the least among the Latinx population. (People born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens, but the city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs counts Puerto Ricans who take up residence here as immigrants.) [. . .]

And yet most posts in Nuevayorkinos are celebrations—birthday parties, baptisms, trick-or-treating, dance parties, graduations, weddings, family reunions. Even hardship is part of a joyful narrative. “I found this picture a while back and asked my mom what everyone was doing in the basement. ‘They lived there,’ she told me,” Connie, from Jackson Heights, writes in a submission. “My father came here from Mexico and every time a friend or relative would arrive, they would help each other out with a job or a place to stay. So for a while, 8 of us lived in that basement. My parents and brother in a bed, me in my crib, and the 4 ‘tíos’ I am pictured here with. They slept on a bunk bed, rotating depending on who worked the night shift. I love how happy everyone looks in this picture. How a sense of family can be created in any situation. How NYC was where everyone came to make their dreams come true.”

In Nuevayorkinos, people dance merengue and salsa in overcrowded apartments; families cram into tiny kitchens for Caribbean meals; children run free in run-down apartment buildings in which the door locks are broken; a man enjoys a beer in the back of an uptown bodega. There is a photo from around 1993 of two children laughing in Maspeth, Queens, the only Latinxs on their block in an Italian and Polish neighborhood. “It was interesting the different dynamics in how we were received by others,” the caption reads. “As you can see in our faces. . . no fucks given.” Another photo is of a woman who was bullied in school, because she spoke Spanish, and who went on to become a beloved teacher. Nostalgia for the country that was left behind is turned into deep love for the city that was made home: A Mexican woman cried herself to sleep every night during her first year in Manhattan, until she found a church, and in it a community; she spent the rest of her life here. Another woman, from the Dominican Republic, landed in the city wearing sandals “in the dead of winter,” overstayed her tourist visa, worked in factories, met the love of her life, and got to see the “milestones her children would meet in life.” A caption that includes an emoji of the Puerto Rican flag reads, “I’ll be forever grateful to have been born and raised in New York with my mom.” [. . .]

[Shown above: The first photo that Djali Brown-Cepeda posted to her Instagram account Nuevayorkinos was a shot of her mother, Raquel Cepeda, as a teen-ager. Photograph courtesy Lisa Leveque.]

Read full article atThe New Yorker.

For more about Djali Brown-Cepeda, see https://imdjali.com/home/about.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s