Records of Relation
While pandemic-induced isolation has estranged loved ones and dispersed many in-person communities, individuals have been eager to look back and reflect on their personal archives. Online users took to virtual spaces like Instagram to both memorialize and sustain community and place by sharing personal photos, family heirlooms, and stories on archival pages like The Bushwick Archive. Amateur archivists have thus been able to repair historically neglected archives while simultaneously co-creating a future in which they no longer exist at the margins.
Afro Latina filmmaker, curator, and archivist Djali Brown-Cepeda founded Nuevayorkinos and BLK THEN—two digital visual archives dedicated to documenting and preserving New York City, with the former committed to Latinx communities and the latter to Black communities. These archives have proven to be fertile grounds for bringing Black and brown individuals past the “margins of history”— Black and brown histories and legacies that have been historically erased and marginalized beyond the bounds of the archive. The margins of history acts as a boundary between what is recognized and remembered and what is forgotten and erased.
Taking inspiration from both the Studio Museum in Harlem’s recent programs— the Memories for the Future workshop series and Hearts in Isolation: Expanding the Walls 2020— and this uptick in community-created digital archives, the Studio Museum’s Spring Communications Intern, Yume Murphy, met with Brown-Cepeda over Zoom to discuss these digital repositories and their lasting impacts on the communities they remember.
Being a filmmaker, racial justice advocate, and archivist, how do you see the digital archives you’ve created as a form of storytelling?
Historically, we look to the tangible for records, but as time evolves, social media has become an archive itself. Though I am not necessarily a fan of social media, I utilize social media for storytelling, for archiving, so that everybody who has access to social media, Wi-Fi, or a smartphone can be reached and become a part of a more holistic and cohesive archive.
When people submit and engage with either archive it shows that we the people are the ones who serve as repositories of history. We the people are the ones who live in and make up these communities of color. We know our histories. We know our communities. We know our cities. We know what we've been through. By creating this platform where people can say “we exist,” or rather “I exist,” I’m in a position to facilitate dialogue that decolonizes and reimagines the archive in a digital space. Through Nuevayorkinos and BLK THEN, everyone is able to undo histories and rewrite histories.
You also curated MI BARRIO: Memories of Home, an ongoing online exhibition at El Museo del Barrio. How do you see the archive as it relates to museum institutions?
First of all, I hope to continue to present in museums and to one day open a museum of my own. Still, most museum archives are incredibly exclusive.
When it comes to museum institutions and their relationship with the archive, the only way to move forward is to acknowledge the inherent caste system, classism, racism, and white supremacy that has been integral to the formation of museum institutions. Whether you're talking about historical institutions like the Museum of Natural History or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where collections and archives comprise stolen works, artifacts, and religious regalia, or more contemporary art museums that showcase predominantly white artists, the archive tends to cater to a white Western gaze.
Moving forward, museums have to reconcile their problematic pasts and interrogate how they continue to perpetuate these problems today. They need to not just present more artists of color, but they need to give seats at the table to folks of color. They need to reevaluate what histories are being put on a pedestal. We need to decolonize museums in order to decolonize the archive.
As an Afro-Latina and native New Yorker, you’ve discussed how self-representation is integral to reflecting a nuanced and honest portrayal of what being Latinx looks like. What has self-representation taught you about Latinx communities in New York City?
I've been able to learn about a diverse mix of people from different parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. Growing up in Washington Heights and the Bronx, my understanding of being Latinx is very specific–I’m familiar with Haitian, Puerto Rican, and Dominican histories. Through this project, I’ve been able to learn more about my city by way of learning about people from different parts of Latin America and the Caribbean that I didn't have access to or knowledge of before.
It's given me a greater appreciation for the legacy of immigration both in terms of the immigrant community and lived experience [of New York City’s Latinx community]. It’s given me a greater appreciation for these five boroughs that I hold so near and dear to my heart. It’s really put everything into perspective.
What stories does Nuevayorkinos tell about New York’s Latinx community?
Even though Nuevayorkinos is a Latinx-centered project, I receive so many messages from individuals in other immigrant communities— from folks who are second-generation Italian, Polish, or Filipino sharing how they see themselves in the Nuevayorkinos archive. They're like “Wow, even though we didn't speak Spanish growing up and we didn't come from that region, my mom also had five jobs,” or “Our apartment was also a meeting place for all of our family when we first came to this country.”
What I've seen is that across making that immigration journey, establishing yourself in a new land with a new language and acclimating to a new climate, new technology, new resources, these are all diasporic stories of love and resiliency. The stories of how people's parents met, how their families raised them, how they made it here are all a testament to the strength of the immigrant community.
How do you see Nuevayorkinos and BLK THEN growing and enduring?
I really cannot wait for this project to exist beyond the digital sphere. I can't wait for there to be a physical place where people can go and engage with these archives to learn more about both the Latinx community and the Black diasporic community of New York City. I hope that I'm able to house these two projects in a permanent physical space, especially in the context of a rapidly gentrifying New York, so that marginalized communities can continue to share and remember their stories.
The more this project is seen by people and the more people learn about BLK THEN and Nuevayorkinos, the more organically stories will be shared, and the stronger this storytelling tradition lives on.