Preserving Latinx History Through Vintage Photos


El Espace is a column dedicated to news and culture relevant to Latinx communities. Expect politics, arts, analysis, personal essays and more. ¿Lo mejor? It’ll be in Spanish and English, so you can forward it to your tía, your primo Lalo or anyone else (read: everyone).

Over the past few years, my Tío Julio has developed a habit of sending me old family photos on WhatsApp. He writes long, novella-like captions with each image, sharing old family lore. Recently, he sent me a fading photo of my bisabuelo’s old house in Santiago, Dominican Republic, and recounted the time a torrential rain flooded the home and almost washed my uncle (then a newborn) into the street in a basket.

I love these messages, partially because I’m always in my diaspora feels, but also because they show his commitment to documenting our family stories.

My Tío Julio isn’t alone in his commitment to remembering our personal history: A new wave of digital archivists is capturing the forgotten stories of Latinxs across the diaspora through vintage photos, newspaper clippings and other ephemera, including concert posters and magazines.

One of the earliest examples of these digital archives is Veteranas y Rucas, which was founded by Guadalupe Rosas in 2015 as a virtual museum of Chicana youth culture in 1980s and ’90s Los Angeles. Since then, several independent collectors have created their own accounts on Instagram, using the platform to recover local Latinx cultures and contextualize them as part of a broader United States historical narrative.


CreditNelson Molina

Djalí Brown-Cepeda founded Nuevayorkinos in February, after observing the rise in visual archives focused on West Coast Latinx experiences. “The existence of those stories and projects is radical,” she said, but “as an East Coast New York City Afro-Latina, I could only relate to so much.”

The first photo she posted was of her mother, the writer and filmmaker Raquel Cepeda, at 16, and then she began crowdsourcing submissions from her followers. Each post on the account, which now has more than 12,000 followers, includes a brief personal chronicle of the story behind the image. Brown-Cepeda has also started IRL components, such as interactive installations in spaces like El Museo del Barrio in Manhattan and a T-shirt line to raise money for families separated at the border. In the context of the current immigration crisis, Brown-Cepeda says this kind of storytelling has inarguable political utility.

“Nuevayorkinos takes a stand against widespread hate by storytelling — sharing the endless experiences and stories of New York City Latinxs from various countries in itself combats the stereotypes affecting Latinx and immigrant communities and destroys the one-note narrative,” she said.

Brown-Cepeda has also observed how the project has functioned as a way to combat gentrification. “As a native New Yorker, it’s bittersweet to see the dichotomy between the images I curate and those taken recently at any location in the city,” she said. “Nuevayorkinos takes up and reclaims ownership of our beloved and fading barrios.”

Considering the endless stream of heavy news about policies and tragedies affecting Latinx communities in recent months, these accounts are also a reminder of our forebears’ ability to temper darkness with joy. For example, Jorge N. Leal’s Rock Archivo de LÁ celebrates Los Angeles’s rock en español movement in the late 1990s and early ’00s. Leal, a former concert promoter, spent much of his youth in that scene, slowly amassing a collection of memorabilia.

Years later, while preparing his doctoral dissertation in 2016, Leal decided to write a chapter on the era he remembered so fondly. He interviewed musicians, promoters and fans of “rock angelino” for his research, many of whom shared their own photos, fliers and ephemera.

Inspired by Veteranas y Rucas, Leal turned to Instagram and began his archival project about the movement in spring 2017. “I figured that posting these kernels of knowledge would be a good way to share and collectively reassess this important moment in Southern California and Latin American history,” he said.

The account also intends to write Latinxs into United States rock history, with a specific focus on their politics. “The intent for musicians and fans was to no longer to be part of the mostly white U.S. mainstream rock genre, but rather join this expansive socially and politically conscious genre that connected them with people throughout the Americas,” Leal said.

For him, this form of digital stewardship is a reminder that Latinx history is a fundamental thread in the cultural fabric of this country. “By making sense of our collective history, we understand ourselves as historical agents,” he said. “We also recognize that our presence in the near past not only matters, but that we were a fundamental part of the forces and conditions that built current Southern California and the U.S.” Leal is working with Occidental College in Los Angeles to incorporate some of what he has collected into its digital institutional archive and to develop a course based on the materials.

Creditvia Archivo Trans

These digital collections are emerging in Latin America, too, highlighting the experiences of groups typically left out of historical texts. For instance, Archivo de la Memoria Trans, a project based in Argentina, is dedicated to compiling and recovering the cultural heritage of the Argentine trans community.

“For a long time in Argentina, there were forgotten lives, photos that families preferred to hide, laws and edicts that systematically punished and persecuted trans identities,” the group said in an email. The archive “gives weight to the voices of the women who are no longer here,” it said, emphasizing the group’s intersectional approach to preserving this history.

The project emerged from the work of the trans activists María Belén Correa and Claudia Pía Baudracco, who founded a trans rights organization in the early 1990s. Shortly after Baudracco died in 2012, Correo started a private Facebook group for friends to share anecdotes, letters, photos and memories and to commemorate the Argentine trans community’s activism against police violence and government neglect.

A year later, the photographer Cecilia Estalles and members of the group began the process of digitizing and preserving these materials, as well as additional contributions from friends and activists of the era. Today, the archive includes more than 8,000 images and documents, sourced from members of the collective itself and the private Facebook group, which now includes over 1,200 trans Argentine members living across the globe.

The group that manages the collection includes activists, photographers and photo archivists. They meet in person once a week to digitize and appropriately preserve the materials they receive. The archive, the collective said, is constantly evolving.

In addition to demonstrating the heterogeneity of Latinx and Latin American experiences, these accounts share a common underlying mission: to democratize access to histories that are often written out of textbooks and excluded from museums.

Bárbara Calderón, who is trained as an arts librarian and serves as assistant director for the Latinx Project at New York University, says established institutions in the United States have historically overlooked these micro histories — and there is concern among traditionalists about the sustainability of archives hosted on Instagram.

“There’s pushback against these practices being called archiving,” she said, “because they’re not from academia.” But Calderón said that there was space for both digital and conventional archival endeavors and added that there should be archivists and librarians “doing the work, strong-arming the material collections — that needs to happen, too.”

Archivo de la Memoria Trans, Nuevayorkinos and Rock Archivo de LÁ are by no means the only projects undertaking this work. There are several more accounts across the country documenting these histories, like ATX Barrio Archive, Chicago Raza Research, Firme Hinas and more.

As more people set out to reclaim their local histories, Calderón says that traditional institutions should make an effort to work in concert with community members, for example, by establishing artist residencies to help support independent archival work.

Leal hopes to see the digital archive movement grow and help “recover, reframe and center immense, nuanced and diverse Latinx histories,” he said, adding that such efforts can reveal “the myriad of ways that we can use the past to build and create our more equal, inclusive and just futures.”

These archival efforts and their inclusion in traditional spaces are necessary, Calderón said, but they are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to addressing the representation of Latinxs in these institutions. But at the very least, it’s a simple “but absolutely radical” step, she said.

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