Scroll through Walter Thompson-Hernandez’s Blaxicans of L.A. Instagram portrait project and you’ll see subjects that come in black, brown and everything in between. In photographs that feature both smiling and straight-faces, individuals share their experiences growing up black and Mexican – “Blaxican” – in Los Angeles. It’s a racial and cultural identity that has been a part of the city since its origin, but one that has rarely been explored.
Since its launch, the photo series has sparked many conversations about the complexities of race and identity on social media. Now, the series is going from Instagram project to gallery show with an exhibit at Avenue 50 Studio called “Duality: Blaxicans of L.A.” that will bring the conversation back to where it first began: Los Angeles.
“I don’t know when I first knew I was a Blaxican woman. It’s always been. I didn’t have a come to Jesus moment. But I think growing up both cultures never let you forget and certain times both are proud of you but it’s kind of like a mind fuck – it totally can be. One minute they love you and the next they are saying that you don’t belong. So I think I’m most proud of maintaining my sense of self through it all.” : @mychivas
“Duality: Blaxicans of L.A.” will be a curated version of the photos seen on Instagram by University of Southern California (USC) Researcher Walter Thompson-Hernandez.
Thompson-Hernandez spearheaded the photo series as a part of a research project for the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at USC. The Instagram account is a friendlier way to touch on his findings, and the complex issues that arise as a result of being bi-cultural and multi-racial. While the black Mexican identity in L.A. can be traced back to the settlers of Afro-Mexican descent that helped found it, the project focuses on the experiences that black Mexicans face in the city today.
The project also touches on a personal experience for Thompson-Hernandez, whose mother is from Jalisco, Mexico and father is a black man from Oakland, California; the two met in South Los Angeles in the early 1980s.
"My mother is from Jalisco, Mexico and my father is from Oakland, California. They met in South LA in the early 1980s and came of age in this community. My mother was almost always the only Mexican woman in my father's circles and vice versa. There was explicit racial discrimination that they had to navigate through for their relationship to have a chance. On top of that, South LA, in the mid-1980s, was experiencing one of the largest demographic, racial, and social transformations that it had ever encountered. And there was a strong movement to divide African American and Latinos in and around LA. Defining myself, with the understanding of this historical context, is why I have always said that identifying as a Blaxican is a political and revolutionary act." : @mychivas
“My mother was almost always the only Mexican woman in my father’s circles and vice versa,” says Thompson-Hernandez in his own portrait on the Instagram account. “There was explicit racial discrimination that they had to navigate through for their relationship to have a chance.”
His parents’ experiences as an interracial couple tell the story of a changing city. Their intimate story reflects Los Angeles’ population changes over the years, as African-American and non-black Latino populations have come together in areas like South L.A.
An influx of Mexican and Central Americans into South L.A. has changed the once heavily black populated neighborhood. “South L.A. was about 80% black in 1970. Today, the latest Census data show Latinos make up 74% of South L.A. residents and blacks make up 25% of the population,” Fusion reports.
"I was born in East Los Angeles to Phillip and Mercedes Reeves. Phillip is an African American WWII veteran and grew up in Fort Worth, TX. Mercedes is Salvadorian and was born and raised in Zacatecoluca, El Salvador. My parents met at work. He was a foreman in a factory in Inglewood and my mother came to this country illegally looking for work to send money back home to take care of her three children. Super long story short; They met, fell in love, had me, got married, had my sister, brought the three children from El Salvador here to live with us and we slowly became one big happy family." : @mychivas
Other Angelenos share personal stories of longing to connect to both sides of their cultures as a result of growing up only really knowing one side.
But although the focus of the project may be centered on black Latinos in L.A., it reflects an even greater story.
“As each day passes, the U.S. is becoming increasingly multiracial, multilingual, and multi-ethnic, but African-Americans and Latinos continue to be the victims of state-sanctioned violence, mass incarceration, mass deportation, and searing educational and health disparities,” reads the description of the exhibit.
Ultimately for Thompson-Hernandez, the project is a way to connect the commonalities between these two ethnicities and bring awareness to the issues blaxicans and other Afro-Latinos face in the U.S.
“Duality: Blaxicans in L.A.” is curated by Nathalie Sanchez and can be seen at Avenue 50 studio from its opening night on February 13 through March 5, 2016.
Editor’s Note: Walter Thompson-Hernandez is a Remezcla contributor.