After decades of invisibility, Central Americans are stepping out of the shadows. Online, the #CentralAmericanTwitter hashtag has provided a common space to share diverse cultures and political views dear to the peoples of the region. The hashtag has allowed them to assert their identities online and form a community that goes beyond Twitter.

Before the iconic hashtag, Central Americans had few digital spaces for themselves, with the online communities that existed consisting of things like campus groups’ Facebook pages. Latino media has mostly catered to Mexican and Mexican-American audiences, the largest Latin American group in the United States. While the two neighboring regions share some common ground, they also have a contentious history that makes the erasure of Central Americans that much more painful. However, this past year, Central Americans from Boston to Berlin have built a much-needed community through #CentralAmericanTwitter.

“Now, my culture and network can be found online.”

The hashtag came into existence in the last few years, with one of the first mentions coming in 2014. But it didn’t truly become active until mid-2017, months after Zaira Funes launched @CentralAmericanBeauty – a Twitter account showcasing the beauty and people of Panama, Belize, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Guatemala. Funes has encouraged her followers to use the hashtag to share their stories. With more than 13,000 tweets to date, the hashtag gives the Central American community a chance to see themselves and to connect with likeminded individuals, making it an important resource.

In Utah, where Salvadoran poet Willy Palomo grew up, Latinxs – and even more so Central Americans – are rare. He often felt alienated from his roots. “When I grew up, internet wasn’t what it is today… now, my culture and network can be found online,” he tells Remezcla.

Similarly, Carmen Palao, whose family comes from all over Central America, has discovered an online community she didn’t have when she entered college. “I never felt out of place in downtown LA because everyone was represented, but then I had a culture shock at UC Davis [in Northern California],” she recalls. “The campus is Mexican centric and Central Americans have to fight to be in the conversation and be visible amongst Chicano culture.” For her, contributing to the online community is “self-caring and empowering.”

The hashtag has also centered the experiences of Black Central Americans, an often cast aside group in an already marginalized community. On November 19, 2017, for example, some used the hashtag to celebrate Garifuna Settlement Day in Belize. Garifuna, descendants of enslaved Africans who intermarried local Carib and Arawak peoples in areas like St. Vincent before they made their way over to Central America, do not get the acknowledgment they deserve. This is despite the fact that Garifuna have made important contributions to Central America.

For Chris Fernandez, who identifies as Honduran Garifuna, this meant feelings of isolation. Growing up, the musician didn’t feel “Honduran enough,” and like many of his peers, considered himself African American. That is, until he learned more about Honduras and the Garifuna culture. For him and other Black Central Americans, the hashtag has helped them find cultural references online and contributed to building their identity.

Kathleen Eccleston’s story is different, but nonetheless, vexing. Others often felt confused because she identified as both Black and Latina. The entrepreneur of Panamanian descent has always understood her identities; yet, she has felt “discrimination from Afro-Americans who wouldn’t understand that I take curry chicken, pork chops, and frijoles to school.” The hashtag shows that her experiences are a reality for many others.

The digital community’s first steps were to share cultural quirks and jokes from the isthmus. “People realize that, ‘Hey, my family is not the only one who does this or that,'” Associate Professor of US Latina/o Studies at the University of Maryland, Ana Patricia Rodriguez, tells me. “Social media helps create the space where people come together to share common experiences, images of food, and folkloric wear.”

“I saw how our community was supportive and that brought me even closer to it.”

Today, the network still thrives on the users’ professed love for platanitos fritos and Guatemalan dolls, but political campaigns have also come to the forefront. Palao has used #CentralAmericanTwitter to promote the renewal of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a program Congress enacted in 1990 to provide relief to those fleeing natural disasters and war.

Though TPS affects more than 300,000 people from Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti, Nepal, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, it hasn’t garnered the same kind of news coverage and outrage as the recently canceled Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which protects young undocumented immigrants brought to the United States at a young age. Even now as the program has ended for some countries and as the Trump Administration decides the fates for the remaining regions, it hasn’t caused the same uproar. Many Central Americans feel they’re alone in their fight, but the hashtag gives them a support system during these trying times.

“I [use the hashtag] to reach an audience I’m familiar with… I know they will retweet it like any friend would,” Palao says. “Then, I saw how our community was supportive and that brought me even closer to it.”

Unity is the community’s strength. Danilo Sierra, a born and raised Honduran art director who also uses the hashtag, realized that “Central American countries, taken apart, are so little, and our people are dispersed, but put together, we have more weight.”

Yet, for years, Central Americans abroad have felt invisible. Oftentimes, their parents or themselves had fled a country burdened by violence and in which the only way to survive was to hide, a habit that continued in the US, regardless of immigration status. As a result, many older generations of Central Americans don’t like to discuss the distressing moments that make up their past.

“This generation is going against the norm of hiding by going into the public space to affirm their identity and diversity,” Professor Rodriguez says.

Users click on the hashtag to bond over a shared heritage, but also to peep into other Central Americans’ customs. “I am learning about different kinds of Hondurans, like the Garifuna community, who have their own culture and worldview,” Sierra says. “It’s a new wave of people documenting existence.”

Some countries and communities within Central America are less visible than others, even online. Eccleston is one of the users who documents her country of origin, Panama. “Panamanians are always that one person in the middle of 30 others, so I feel like I’m a Panamanian spokesperson … and that’s an honor for me.”

“It goes way beyond the hashtag.”

Leaving the shadows online has an impact offline, too. “Being part of an online community helped me become confident to speak my own Honduran caliche because through the network, I stay more in touch with my identity,” Sierra says. The online community inspires an offline community — today, Sierra feels even more enthusiastic when meeting fellow Central Americans in Berlin.

For her part, Palao has created networks through the hashtag that have met in the physical world. “People have contacted me to collaborate in real life … we’re taking this outside Twitter to do things for the community,” she says. “It goes way beyond the hashtag.”