Afrolatinidad: Art & Identity in D.C. is an interview series highlighting the vitality of the local Afro-Latinx community. Since before the term “Afro-Latinx” entered popular discourse, Latin Americans of the African Diaspora have been sharing their stories through artistic manifestations online and in community spaces. Their perspectives are intersectional in nature, existing between spaces of blackness and Latinidad.
Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock was the first record Daniel del Pielago “went crazy over.” Since then, Daniel has collected over 5,000 records, each a unique snapshot of his connection to the Afrolatinidad Diaspora. As an ’80s kid, hip-hop was not only the voice of his generation, but it opened the door to understanding his position as a dark-skinned Peruvian immigrant living in Northern Virginia.
“I immigrated here in 1980, when the commercialization of hip-hop was hitting big, going global,” he says. “This was before MTV, so I remember watching the Friday night video show. That song came on, and it was so different and new. It had a big impact on me. When Run-DMC came out, it just cemented how this is my music, this is my culture.
“I’ve always felt like somewhat of an outcast in D.C., not just because of how I look but that I’m Latino. Hip-hop inspired me to gain knowledge of self. I did take that to heart and ask, am I Latino? What does Latino mean? Latin is what the Romans were. I grew up with black folks in the district and in Peru. I started to unpack that, and I searched for a wider meaning for myself.”
Daniel was born in Los Barrio Saltos in Lima, Peru, and immigrated to Northern Virginia with his mother and sister in 1980. His father had arrived in New York two years earlier before settling in the D.C. area. The del Pielago family lived in Arlington for two years, among a small but tight-knit Peruvian community. They moved to Culmore in Fairfax County, where Daniel remembers growing up among significant diversity and watched the waves of migration unfold.
“I had friends from all over the African continent, Asia, Laos, Afghanistan, and all over the Middle East. Towards the mid-’80s, the neighborhood started to change. It became more of a Central American neighborhood, with a lot of folks from El Salvador settling there.”
Daniel’s intersectional identity manifests in his exploration of music and language. Like many first-generation Americans, his relationship with language is symbolic to the immigrant experience of existing in the third space between the old and new.
“I speak Spanish, English, Spanglish, and sometimes I just make stuff up. I never learned it through the school system. It was interesting when I started developing my worldview, I started to become really proud of the fact that I’m Latino y hablo español.
“I remember going to the Zulu Nation’s twentieth anniversary in New York. I met this cool graffiti writer from Arizona. In physical appearances, he appeared to be Latinx. This was back in the day before texting, so I called him and started speaking in Spanish. Immediately, he was like, ‘I don’t speak Spanish, man. I don’t do that. That’s the colonial.’ That took me to a next level of understanding. This is a language we communicate in, but there’s unpacking to do as well.”
On his radio show Pa’lante (“forward”), which airs Sunday nights on WPFW, Daniel explores the intersection between Latino culture, music, and the African Diaspora. He shares with his listeners what he learned at a young age: music is the key to gaining a deeper understanding of the African Diaspora across the Americas. Pa’lante features a mix of salsa, Latin jazz, bugalú, hip-hop, as well as public affairs segments, where he highlights the work of Afro-Latino folks in the district. Pa’lante is his platform to expose both the Latinx and African American communities to the intersections between their cultures.
“I remind my listeners, this is African music: the rhythm, the words you hear, the clave. It’s been interesting to experience how on both sides of the aisle, folks have a lot of catching up to do with learning about blackness.”
“Afro-Latinx” is a term that gained popularity in recent years. It’s a product of the unique experience of growing up black and Latin American in the United States. As a biracial American of Afro-Brazilian descent, my experience resonated with Daniel on the murkiness of not wanting to co-opt black identity. I asked him the question that led me to begin this project: where does Afrolatinidad fit in within the context of the black experience in D.C.?
“In my immediate family, there’s no one who identifies as African descendant. However, if you look at me, that’s how I appear to a lot of folks. It’s funny because I’ve gotten into situations where I don’t want to own it, in the sense that I’ve had the privilege of also not passing as black. I am aware that I do have African blood in me. I’m sure it’s in my family somewhere. I’m coming to own that. The platform that I have doing this radio show is to highlight the African presence in Latin America and to paint a wider picture of so-called ‘Latinidad.’”
In addition to DJing and hosting Pa’lante, Daniel works as tenant organizer for Empower DC, where he advocates for low-cost housing for brown and black communities.
“One of the main tasks is outreach. Because my appearance is more African than the average Latino immigrant in the DMV, I’ve had situations where I’ve spoken to Latinos in Spanish, but because of the way I look, they’re awestruck and don’t comprehend. They don’t expect Spanish to come out of my mouth.”
The right to accessible community space is an issue plaguing black and brown communities in the district. Music venues that once made up Black Broadway on U Street have been replaced by real-estate developments. Malcolm X Park still remains a stronghold for Afro-centric political and cultural activity. Before moving to Riverdale, Maryland, with his family, Daniel lived across the street from the park, in the Ella Jo Baker Intentional Community Co-op. The housing community was founded by black women activists with the intent to create low-cost housing in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
“We believe ‘affordable housing’ is a misnomer because the question is, affordable to who? As the neighborhood began to gentrify, developers bought a building next to ours and named it Ivory Towers. To me, that was a microcosm of what’s happening in the city. The Ella Jo Baker is holding on and hopefully will be for a long time. But the message was clear: we’re coming for your housing in your neighborhood.”
No space is sacred to redevelopment and Daniel worries that Malcolm X Park is next.
“It’s changed significantly, where this literal space that was used to uplift culture and to pass it onto other generations is being whitewashed. That’s why the things that you and I do are important. It is this memory, encouraging folks to remember what’s greater than us, what we have to preserve, and what’s at stake. It really reminds people of the strong culture that this city has, how Latinos and Afro-Latinos have contributed to and shaped this city.”
Tune into Pa’lante every Sunday 8 to 10 p.m. on WPFW, 89.3 FM in D.C. or streaming online. On April 5, 2020, I’ll be Daniel’s guest, talking about the intersection of identity and artistic self-expression and what Afrolatinidad ultimately means to me.
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.