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Latinidad through an African American Lens

The Smithsonian Institution is comprised of 19 museums, 9 research centers and a zoo. None of the 19 museums are wholly dedicated to Latinx art, history or culture. However, there are curators, like me, who focus on aspects of Latinidad within their respective museum missions.

I am the curator for Latinx Studies at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. [note: NOT Afro-Latinx studies. More on that another time].

Image credit: Alan Karchmer

As we know, mainstream Latinx representation is not diverse. It can perpetuate stereotypical, exclusive, and unwelcoming narratives. Latinx spaces and people can be racist. For example, when the Smithsonian Latino Center posted my Ted Talk on their facebook page last fall, this was someone’s response

[screenshot by author on 9/24/2019]

Public comments like this are irksome and predictable. The comment was on a Smithsonian organization’s public social media site. This man assumed I am not “Hispanic.” (Plot twist: I am African American too.) I use this screenshot in presentations to underscore the brazen and widespread anti-Blackness within Latinx spaces. I especially love to point out that Jose Trujillo returned 12 hours later and upon learning that I am Afro-Latina, was still troubled that I am Black, and therefore not representative of “us” Hispanics (even if I “appear” to be “competent” and “capable”!)

My Blackness is not just an issue in unmonitored public Latinx spaces. Latinx interviewers often conflate my identity and profession, attempting to exoticize my being a Black Latina and focus questions on my identity rather than my scholarship. It’s annoying and misguided. I am proudly Afro-Latina. It contributes to but does not define my work. Also, being Afro-Latina is not unusual. Afro-Latinidad is marginalized. It is not uncommon. (Normalize Blackness!) Being a Black Latina curator is unusual. Working in a national museum that centers Black stories is uncommon. Working in a Black museum that includes Latinidad as curatorial work is rare. I collect around a “non-white” experience through the lens of a non-white experience. That, not my identity, should be the focus of inquiry and discussion.

I had intended to write only about the five pillars of my work. However, right now as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic, we are witnessing the infrastructural and financial collapse of institutions, including museums. Leadership is cutting back, laying off, and furloughing employees and contractors. Some museums are closing indefinitely, maybe permanently. Dr. Arlene Dávila recent wrote an article about how these cut backs adversely impact Latinx contributions to the arts and cultural sectors, work which often originates in (and is sometimes confined to) education departments. In universities, Latinx spaces are also in peril. Dr. Lorgia García-Peña wrote a sharp critique of academia’s dismissal of Latinx Studies. In the article she outlines the intellectually critical and socially transformative work of anti-colonial ethnic studies. However, because they are the antithesis of elite power structures, Latinx studies, Latinx students, Latinx knowledge creation, and Latinx lives, although nice for “diversity”, are deemed institutionally nonessential. The permanence of my job is important to highlight in this climate.

My position is not based in educational programming or outreach, the places where most museums initially seek to “diversify” staffing and programming to build a more diverse audience. It is not grant funded. It is not a detail from the Latino Center. It is not temporary. I am a federal employee. I hold a permanent curatorial position at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Curatorial is notoriously one of the whitest positions in museums. Curators are content specialists and knowledge producers. We research, create exhibitions, build/steward/ interpret collections, present, publish, mentor. The mere existence of my permanent position signals that Black centered Latinidad is as important to the intellectual production and material foundation of NMAAHC as any other curatorial specialization- sports, photography, slavery, etc. That is a powerful and, thus far, unique statement. I believe I am the only curator for Latinx Studies at an African American museum. Black diversity matters. I work collaboratively across departments to help build an understanding of Latinidad and within my own curatorial department to build collections. All of my colleagues collect objects that are Latinx-related. I am the person that focuses on it. Years from now when I am no longer at the museum, someone else will hold this position. The work will continue. Latinx Studies at NMAAHC is not an individual effort; the work is institutional.

I did not work at the museum when it opened. I am strategically building a collection in an inaugural position at a new museum, but, like curators everywhere, am also thinking about how I make sense of the thematically related collections that my colleagues are bringing in. Latinx and Latin American museums in the U.S. have led with art. I am an anthropologist. I work at a museum that is predominately history. What does Latinx Studies look like in material culture? And how do we mark it as Latinx-related when we collect it? Scholastically, and practically, I have organized Latinx Studies at NMAAHC into five collecting areas that include all geographic spaces and time periods. Everything collected within Latinx Studies should fall into at least one of the following categories:

1. Diaspora

2. US Afro-Latinx

3. US Latinx

4. African American and Latinx

5. African Americanness and Latin America

These deliberate articulations about the connections and specificity of Blackness and Latinidad matter in how we construct “we”. They matter for how we see ourselves, how we see each other, and how we understand and present our shared history, especially in storied public spaces like the Smithsonian. Some people do not want to see Latinx stories in NMAAHC, Afro-Latinx or otherwise. ADOS supporters repeatedly use social media to question the place of Latinx Studies at NMAAHC and to discredit my African Americanness. Some Latinxs, Afro-Latinx and non, do not want to be represented at NMAAHC. They feel a Latino Museum or the National Museum of American History (read: museums that do not center Blackness) are better suited for Latinx Studies. I do my job anyway, which is researching, collecting, interpreting, presenting, and publishing about Latinidad through an African American lens. Because especially in a white normative public history setting, our accurate representation matters.

NMAAHC tells American history through an African American lens. Latinx history is American history. Therefore, my job is: Latinidad through an African American lens. We often talk about diversity but, in my experience, have a difficult time enacting the diverse collections-based narratives that museum movements like #MuseumsAreNotNeutral and #DecolonizeMuseums demand. I intend to publish a longer work about these five collecting areas, with multiple examples from each, and detailing their contribution to our national and global patrimony. Until then, here are a few examples from the NMAAHC collections that represent each area and show why “Afro-Latinx” is insufficient to document Latinidad through an African American lens.

**None of these categories are mutually exclusive **

DIASPORA centers Afro-Latin American and Afro-Caribbeanness outside of the U.S.

This Ecuadorian boat seat is from the Esmeraldas, a maroon community. The engraving of a spider web and a spider, representing the West African folk character Anansi, connects it to Black communities throughout the diaspora including the US. This was the very first object donated to the museum’s collection. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Juan Garcia Salazar

This November 1857 Spanish language letter discusses an enslaved person in Cuba who has run away [cimarron]. Cuba abolished slavery in 1886. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

U.S. AFRO LATINX centers U.S. based experiences. Latin American is Latin American. Latinx is Latinx. They are not mutually exclusive. And to be unequivocal: Afro-Latinx means Black.

Celia Cruz is unambiguously Black. She is represented in 5 different Smithsonian museum collections including NMAAHC. Although she was born in Cuba and recorded exclusively in Spanish, her work and legacy are rooted in the U.S. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the Celia Cruz Knight Estate

This 1958 sign celebrates the integration of the Detroit Tigers, one of the last teams in the MLB to do so. The first Black player to play in a Tigers game was Ozzie (Osvaldo) Virgil. He was the first Dominican to play in Major League baseball. Collection of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

U.S. LATINX centers connection to Latinx/Latin America with a relationship to African Americanness. Everything Afro-Latinx is also Latinx, but not everything Latinx is Afro-Latinx.

Panamanian pitcher Mariano Rivera was the last player in the MLB to wear #42. Major League Baseball retired the number across the league in honor of Jackie Robinson. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture purchased with funds provided by the Latino Initiatives Pool.

AFRICAN AMERICAN AND LATINX focuses on shared physical, cultural, or ideological spaces between these groups. Both objects below express solidarity, but this category also includes conflicts. Objects that depict the colloquial expression “Black and brown” often fall here.

This pamphlet is co-written by Cesar Chavez and Bayard Rustin. It visually includes African American and Latinx people on the cover and is written in both English and Spanish. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the family of Dr. Maurice Jackson and Laura Ginsburg

The Young Lords movement is an example of the categorical overlap. It is also US Latinx and Afro Latinx and Diaspora. This object in particular shows the connection with the Black Panther issue as the cover story and the leadership of Denise Oliver-Velez, an African American woman, in the Young Lords Party Central Committee. Both are a direct link to African Americanness. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

AFRICAN AMERICANNESS AND LATIN AMERICA. In museums, we do not talk enough about African American emigration or artistic, political, and cultural influence outside of the political boundaries of the U.S. Examples include: the underground railroad to Mexico, African American settlement in Samaná, Dominican Republic, African American political engagement with Latin America and of course, music and performing arts. A quintessential example of this category is the African American and Mexican sculptor and graphic artist, Elizabeth Catlett. Unfortunately copyright prohibits me from sharing her work in our collection so I offer another:

In this multilingual 1968 poster from the Havana based Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America (OSPAAL), Cuban designer Lazaro Abreu uses the artwork of Emory Douglas, the Minister of Culture and official artist of the Black Panther Party, to depict global solidarity with African American struggles for civil rights. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

[I would not be a good curator if I didn’t remind you: if you are interested in donating an object or image to the museum, click here: ]

Ariana Curtis

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