Back in 2017, illustrator Veronica Melendez and photographer Kimberly Benavides started the zine La Horchata as a way to break open an entire culture of Central American creativity and expression that rarely gets visibility in mainstream spheres. They’ve published seven issues of the zine so far, each an intricate, beautifully printed compendium filled with DIY work that reflects experiences both within Central America and throughout the diaspora. 

“The idea was to just start it ourselves.”

“Instead of waiting around for someone to create a magazine that would feature our artwork, the idea was to just start it ourselves,” Melendez tells Remezcla. 

Now, she’s pushing La Horchata’s proposition into new territory: In November, she debuted Connected Diaspora: U.S. Central American Visuality in the Age of Social Media, a wide-ranging exhibition at Duke University’s Fredric Jameson Gallery that is on view until February. The show is a way of boosting the Central American representation that Melendez has already championed, except she’s focused on bringing the work through the often rigid doorways of higher education institutions and the insular art gallery world. 

“Throughout the time we’ve been doing La Horchata, we’ve met so many amazing Central American creatives that live in the diaspora and also in our home countries,” she says. “Just seeing the amount of work that’s being produced by our community and the lack of representation in gallery spaces for our community was a huge motivating factor.”

Photo courtesy of Connected Diaspora

The idea for the exhibition emerged after Melendez met Claudia Milian, a professor who leads the Program in Latino/a Studies in the Global South at Duke University. With the backing of Milian and the program, Melendez began asking artists to contribute work. She tapped people like Celea Guevara, a printmaker belonging to the Garifuna community in Houston, Texas, who sent a piece right away

“It was such a beautiful moment to be present and recognize the power in taking up space.”

“When I unpackaged her work and I saw it, I was literally like, ‘Oh my God,’ just taken aback,” Melendez remembers. “I could still smell the ink. It was just gorgeous.” 

She also reached out to Galileo Gonzalez, a Los Angeles-born visual artist who offered select works from a series called Vivir Eso Es Una Angustia, made up of 12 drawings and a 10-foot banner. 

“They focused on stories my grandmother told me about the Salvadoran Civil War, and I used raw video stills as references,” Gonzalez tells Remezcla. “I used a sketchy, quick style of drawing and painting to try and capture the chaos of the war and would describe it as a mix between a figurative and abstracted style.” 

Melendez collected a range of work that focused on myriad issues, like intergenerational trauma, invisibility, empowerment and everyday contemplations in Central American communities. But she spent a swath of time studying other exhibitions and figuring out what tied hers together. Eventually, the unifying thread presented itself: She realized that all of the artists had come to her through social media. 

Photo courtesy of Connected Diaspora

“It’s been a huge connecting factor for all of us in this day and age, and this is something that I don’t think would have been possible 10 years ago,” she says.

Kiara Machado, a Guatemalan and Salvadoran artist whose work revolves around the erasure and intersections of Central America, said one of the reasons she connected with the themes in the show was because of the deep cultural ties.  

“I don’t think [it] would have been possible 10 years ago.”

“It was such a beautiful moment to be present and recognize the power in taking up space in an institution like Duke University with fellow Central American artists,” Machado tells Remezcla.

Gonzalez knew a few of the artists — he had gone to school with Machado and was familiar with the work of Johanna Toruño, the Salvadoran artist whose Unapologetically Street Series went viral. But he also says he was excited to get to know other members of the community, including Xiomara Garay and Eddy Aldana. The 16 artists featured all represent diverse perspectives in the show.

“When it comes to Latin American art in the U.S., Chicano art is always front and center. While I love Chicano art and know the importance of its impact, other voices need to be heard as well. Veronica’s show is extremely important in helping push our narrative,” Gonzalez explains. “I’m hoping future generations of Central Americans see what we did and become influenced in not only making art and continuing this movement but also rediscovering their roots through the process.”

Photo courtesy of Connected Diaspora

“Veronica’s show is extremely important in helping push our narrative.”

While the exhibition runs through the end of February, Melendez says the work is far from over. She is currently searching for other academic institutions and partners that might be interested in hosting the exhibition so she can keep it traveling and reaching as many people as possible. But she’s grateful for the impact the show has had at Duke, where there has also been an effort to interrogate and analyze the art at a deeper level — something she hopes continues across the board. 

“Some of the professors there were planning on bringing their classes and their students to see the show and talk about it,” she says. “They’re taking it seriously, which I think is amazing to see. It’s not just like, ‘Oh, it’s some community-organized show and it’s cute.’ It’s like, people that are studying Latin American Studies are coming to talk about it and write about it in an academic setting.”