Las caras lindas de mi gente negra,
Son un desfile de melaza en flor,
Que cuando pasa frente a mi se alegra,
De su negrura todo el corazon,
Las caras lindas de mi raza prieta,
Tienen de llanto, de pena y dolor,
Son las verdades que la vida reta,
Pero que llevan dentro mucho amor
The beautiful faces of my black people,
They are a parade of molasses in bloom,
When its blackness passes in front of me,
It fills my heart with joy,
The beautiful faces of my brown race,
They have tears, sorrow, and pain,
They are the truth of life’s challenge,
But inside they are full of love
—Ismael Rivera, “Las Caras Lindas”
From across borders and continents, the Afro-Latinx community has brought a world of culture, spirituality, and rhythm to Washington, D.C., their contributions woven into the fabric of Chocolate City. Through music and spoken word, community organizing, visual expressions, Afro-Latinx artists have stood in the liminal spaces between African and Latinx diasporas, activating cultural activities across the city.
But as the demographics of the district shift, the spaces dedicated to celebrating the intersection between Latinx and African diaspora culture are at risk of disappearing. Documentarian and D.C. Afro-Latino Caucus chair Manny Mendez is one of the activists pushing back against erasure by working to bring visibility to the historical and contemporary contributions of the community.
They are currently in the fight to ceremonially dedicate a block of Quarry Road NW to Casilda Luna, a prominent elder and pioneer community activist. Now in her nineties, Luna’s voice paved the way for the next generation of Latinx activists by helping establish organizations like the Latin American Youth Center, Vida Senior Center, and the annual DC Latino Festival.
“To me, Afrolatinidad is the reference point to all the work I do from documentaries to podcasting,” Mendez says. “It bothers me when Latinos talk about sameness. It bothers me that Indigenous folks and black people are not given the same opportunities. I want to be able to highlight and show Afrolatinidad first and foremost.”
Together with Afro-Colombian artist and student leader of Chango at Howard University Gyselle Garcia, Mendez co-hosts Las Caras Lindas Podcast. Through conversations, the podcast sheds light on the untold narratives of Afrolatinidad in the district and worldwide, featuring community leaders, elders, and artists such as Cuban rumbero and local legend Francisco Rigores. After Rigores passed away last December, he was honored on January 19 at the Gala Hispanic Theatre, where the community of artists, musicians, dancers, and cultural practitioners that gather on Sundays at Malcolm X Park came together to celebrate his life and legacy.
“It was like we brought all the originals from Malcolm X Park, put them on a bus, and brought them to Gala Theatre,” says Pa’lante radio show host and housing rights activist Daniel del Pielago, who emceed the memorial celebration. “There were young people, old people, everyday people who are engaged in preserving culture and pushing back against D.C. becoming this kind of sterile, boring place.”
As part of my fellowship at the Center of Folklife and Cultural Heritage, I talked to seven Afro-Latinx artists and community organizers about their experiences growing up or immigrating to the United States and how their racial identity is perceived in Washington, D.C. We discussed how artists continue to push back against displacement and take leading roles in preserving the social health of a city.
Daniel del Pielago was among the interviewees who mentioned gentrification as the leading factor in the disappearance of culture in the city. “When we hear ‘new,’ that’s obviously different from what was here. And Chocolate City is what was here.”
In 2016, the black population that once made up seventy percent of the city’s residents were no longer in the majority for the first time in decades. Historically home to Latin American populations, the Mt. Pleasant and Columbia Heights neighborhoods have also experienced the shifts of gentrification in the last two decades. Both communities are affected by redevelopment efforts that threaten to erase their living memories.
This year, the Decennial U.S. Census will take a snapshot of the resident population to determine how many congressional seats are assigned per district and how state and federal funds are distributed. Accuracy is essential, and immigrant populations, as well as first- and second-generation communities of color are at risk of being undercounted. Afro-Latinxs face issues of visibility, due to the complicated ways in which race and ethnicity are categorized.
In a 2016 survey done by the Pew Research Center, 67 percent of Latinos identified as being Hispanic as part of their racial background. Only 18 percent of Afro-Latinos identified as black—whether full or mixed—while 39 percent identified as white, 24 percent as Hispanic, and only 9 percent as mixed race.
Identity is fluid and unique to an individual’s experience, but self-identification in checkboxes erases the complexities of people’s lived realities. While not all Afro-Latinx people identify as being black, census data points to a larger phenomenon that identifying with being black in the United States is a socially dangerous choice. Proximity to whiteness means access to better education, healthcare, and opportunity, pointing toward the implications of erasure within Afro-Latinx communities.
Though the legacy of colonialism limits our understanding of cross-cultural identity, the age of social media has opened the door to important conversations on visibility. In 2015, Louie Ortiz-Fonseca, a storyteller, photographer, and activist for HIV-positive queer youth, moved to D.C. from Philadelphia, where he grew up in an Afro-Puerto Rican household.
“When I became a teenager and came into my own identity, it played out when I would be with other Latino gay boys. It was clear,” he explains. “I would hear, ‘Why you always tryna be black?’ I think I’m still learning to be okay with it, but I began to be more at peace with it when there were more conversations about what blackness looks like for different people in this country. The more stories I shared, the more folks resonated with feeling the same way and not being able to name what that feeling was.”
As a first-generation American of Afro-Brazilian and German descent, that feeling to me is estrangement. It’s about not knowing where or how you fit in and if your contributions are worth fighting for.
Afro-Dominican poet and D.C. native Elexia Alleyne echoed this sentiment. “When I was coming up, I used to be a part of Words, Beats, and Life, where I wrote and performed with their slam team. We put on these big art festivals with street art and DJ crews. Everything was free to the community. It was about bringing resources together for people to speak their truth.”
Growing up in a family of musicians, self-expression through the arts allowed me to connect with my cultural heritage and ancestral past. Music and storytelling are vehicles to understanding how my hybrid identity fits into the context of the black and Latinx experience in the United States. Each interview conducted for this project brought me closer to my understanding of self as I found resonance in both the individual and collective story of the local Afro-Latinx experience.
The Afrolatinidad: Art & Identity in D.C. interview series will cover a cross-section of artistic mediums and dive into questions regarding spirituality and ancestry, displacement, and cultural resistance. From spoken-word poetry to abstract paintings, these social practice artists show D.C. that the Afro-Latinxs who are still here have something important to say.
Carolina Meurkens is a graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park, and a fellow in the Smithsonian’s Internship to Fellowship (I2F) program at the Center of Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is a musician and multimedia storyteller, taking inspiration from the sounds and stories of the African diaspora across the Americas and beyond.