Preserving New York’s Latino History, One Photo at a Time

·4 min read
Djali Brown-Cepeda
Djali Brown-Cepeda

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On Feb. 14, 2019, Manhattan-native Djali Brown-Cepeda launched Nuevayorkinos—a digital archive dedicated to documenting New York City’s Latino history and culture through family photos and stories. “I started the project as basically this love note, this ode to my city, to the five boroughs in which I grew up,” Brown-Cepeda said during an interview for TIME100 Talks that aired on Oct. 15. “It was a way for me to give the flowers now to people that have been overlooked, forgotten, and that are being displaced.”

The Nuevayorkinos digital archive has collected hundreds of stories, ranging from recollections of childhood in Brooklyn in the 1990s to a grandparents’ East Harlem wedding in the 1950s. Nuevayorkinos, which has more than 31,000 followers on Instagram, has also memorialized loved ones who have passed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. With past physical exhibitions at the El Museo del Barrio in Harlem, New York, and the Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana in San José, California, the archive has grown in popularity outside of New York City’s 2.5 million Latino population. Despite this, Brown-Cepeda says the archive will continue to center New Yorkers.

“My submission guidelines [are] very simple, you have to be Latinx from New York city first and foremost,” Brown-Cepeda says. “This does not include New Jersey and I stress this because you would not imagine the amount of, ‘well, I can see New York from where I’m from. I’m not saying that in any sort of exclusionary way, but I’m not from New Jersey. So I don’t know that experience.” (In addition to those two conditions, the guidelines state that the digital materials submitted should have been taken within one of the city’s five boroughs before 2010.)

“Latinidad doesn’t look one way. The East Coast experience is different than the Miami experience, different than Texas, different than California,” she continues. “It felt important as a Black woman, as a Latina woman, as a second-generation American, as someone from my zip code that I was the one sort of providing this platform and providing this space.”

With Dominican and African American roots, Djali described how her identity uniquely furthers her mission behind the archive. “As someone who grew up in a very pro-Black, pro-Indigenous, pro-immigrant household by my Dominican mom, my Haitian stepfather, my Black dad, my Afro-Indigenous grandmother, I just always knew the importance of showing up for all of my identities. It was something that I never have and I will never compromise,” the Afro-Latina curator explains. “As a Black woman, as a Black Latina, Latinx, Latinengra, Afro-Latina, Afrodescendiente, there was just no representation.”

Afro-Latino stories have often been relegated to the margins of history. According to a study by USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, across the 100 top-grossing movies from 2007-2018, only 3% of films featured leads or co-leads with Latino actors. Afro-Latinos were an even smaller fraction. Only 6% of the U.S. publishing industry identifies as Hispanic/Latino/Mexican, according to a 2015 survey conducted by children’s publisher Lee & Low Books, and only 5% as Black.

Read More: ​​These Afro-Latino Actors Are Pushing Back Against Erasure in Hollywood

“I want to show people with different racial backgrounds because Latinidad is not monolithic,” Brown-Cepeda says. “We are not all Sofia Vergara, who I love, but we’re not all her. We are not all Penelope Cruz. We are not all Salma Hayek. We don’t have the same story.”

With the hopes of amplifying Black and brown stories and legacies—especially in New York City’s rapidly-changing neighborhoods—Brown-Cepeda partnered with LinkNYC to display images from the Nuevayorkinos archive on its kiosks across the city’s five boroughs as part of a Hispanic Heritage Month campaign. These are people, she says, who have contributed to the social fabric of the city, of the state and of the country, without recognition, proper payment or a platform to speak up.

“So many of us are given our flowers post-mortem. So many people read the works of Zora Neale Hurston after the fact,” she continues. “We need to do better in showing up in the present and so that’s why I found it to be important for people to share their own stories.”

Through the Nuevayorkinos project, Brown-Cepeda hosted a back-to-school drive earlier this year, providing local school children with backpacks, supplies and free bilingual books featuring Black and brown main characters. “We are who we are because of our communities,” Brown-Cepeda says. “​​In predominantly Latinx neighborhoods that are being gentrified, it’s so important that we remain committed to our communities no matter how big or how small the scope is, it really does go a long way.”

From Oct. 22, 2021 to Jan. 3, 2022, the collection Nuevayorkinos: Essential and Excluded, highlighting the stories of essential, immigrant workers who were originally excluded from unemployment and pandemic aid, will be exhibited at MoMa PS1.

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