Nueva Yorkinos Djali Brown-Cepeda,
Photo: Tiago Chediak/Instagram/@nuevayorkinos
Culture

Meet Djali Brown-Cepeda, the Afro-Latina Preserving Latinx & Black New York

Passion project turned communal emancipation, Nueva Yorkinos, a digital archive of the triumphant lives of Latinx New Yorkers, is a family album too prolific to keep stored away. Exemplifying the rich cultures and walks of life from multiple generations and Latinx ethnicities, Nueva Yorkinos is a glimpse into the stories and lived experiences of Latinx folks in the Big Apple. While no picture or story is the same, there is a collective nostalgia when flipping through the metaphorical pages of the family album that remind Latinx New Yorkers of the cultural imprint we have ingrained within our city. Whether it be a photo of Nochebuena at grandma’s house or your dad and his friends posted up on the block in the late 90s, these moments in time reflect a larger narrative of resilience and joy that up until two years ago was scarcely documented.

With very few platforms available to preserve the Latinx culture in New York City, Djali Brown-Cepeda crafted Nueva Yorkinos as a love letter to OG Latinx New Yorkers. The second-generation Dominican American New Yorker opened it up to the community to also share their stories. An Uptown native, Djali shares with HipLatina the cultural significance behind the digital archive and what led her to curate Nueva Yorkino’s sister project, BLK THEN, an homage to Black folks of New York back in the day.

“I didn’t create Nueva Yorkinos and BLK Then with any set expectations except hoping that people would be able to share their stories from the heart and have a platform where they could be bashfully, unapologetically themselves” Djali states. In an effort to preserve Latinx and Black New York City history, Djali reveals to HipLatina how traditions of storytelling, building the bridge between the Latinx and Black community, and celebrating collectively remain critical to the development of these archives.

Storytelling

Nueva Yorkinos reached its second anniversary this past Valentine’s Day, Djali is no stranger to storytelling, her name quite literally meaning storyteller or griot, which comes from West Africa, particularly from Mali Empire. She has a lineage of historians within her own family, perhaps the best known being her mother Raquel Cepeda, author of Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina. Despite these coincidences, she dives deep into the value of storytelling, specifically verbal storytelling, within Black, brown, and Indigenous communities echoed through Nueva Yorkinos and BLK THEN.

“When it comes to our stories and our histories we had no choice but to pass them down verbally, we had no choice when our grandmothers and great grandmothers told us these stories as they braided our hair or told us these stories as we (preverbal ‘we’) toiled the land,” she states.

In reference to the enslavement, genocide, and violence towards Black and brown folks, verbal storytelling was one of the few methods that enabled us to share the joys, struggles, and traditions we hold to this day. For centuries, oral history has been discredited both in and outside of academia, under the assumption that it’s littered with inaccuracies but Djali highlights the radical act that is sharing our Black and brown stories. Djali claims, “storytelling is a way to actively emancipate ourselves from colonialism and it’s a kind of a ‘F U’ to the colonial narrative that we subconsciously or consciously ingest.”

Through Nueva Yorkinos and BLK THEN, the historian sets nearly zero guidelines on how Black and Latinx New Yorkers can participate in sharing their stories and even provides Spanish or Portuguese translations to each submission. “Allowing people to pick up this preverbal pen, like write their own entry into the photo album, the big family photo album that is Nueva Yorkinos, I try so hard to not repeat any colonial dynamics…. I wanted it to be known that no type of censoring or auditing, nothing like that, was going to be happening.”

Bridging the Gap

Identity and a sense of belonging differ from person to person, and while Djali is very much proud of the various histories that molded her into the person that she is today, she acknowledged she was neglecting a tremendous part of her family and essentially herself.

“I started to feel disappointed in myself, my dad is Black American, literally fifty percent of my whole identity is here and from this country and in that I have always been proud of my heritage and lineage but I started to feel like I was ignoring one side of me like a huge side of me.”

Birthed through an unconventional epiphany, seated in a parked car in Brooklyn this past summer, BLK THEN was Djali’s desire to not only celebrate the other half of her family but more importantly her on-going efforts in bridging the gap between the Black American and Latinx communities of New York. “Through creating BLK THEN, it was my way to honor my whole family and then by proxy be that bridge — as someone who is Dominican and Black American —  between the Latinx and Black American community because every time we have come together historically we have created the most beautiful things ever.”

Allowing Afro-Latinx submissions within Nueva Yorkinos to share their stories through BLK THEN, we begin to see the disruption of the singular Latinx and Black narrative and the coalition of individualism for Latinx and Black folks. “Blackness is not monolithic and neither is Latinidad and we, unfortunately, hold on to this idea of Latinidad so hard as a community.” A note to how racism and colorism persist within the Latinx community and the little overarching unifications we have outside of “Latinidad.”

Celebrating Us

Nueva Yorkinos, and now BLK THEN, is a virtual gathering of our collective New York stories, and Djali makes it a point to also bring our communities together in real life. Whether it be parties or installations, the native New Yorker comments that our Black, brown, and Indigenous bodies are not solely the product of our generational trauma but also our creativity and triumphs that need to be celebrated.

“Black and brown joy is literally one of the most radical acts of resistance, to be able to show up, dance, sing, bochinchar, and get dressed up for a festivity and take pictures. These things are so integral to our culture.”

Living in our dualities as humans, Black and Latinx folk can find a haven for their stories and experiences through these projects. Djali is unsure of where these archives may lead, but at their core, she hopes Nueva Yorkinos and BLK THEN will bring people together in real life. “We are the embodiment of love and will power so why not celebrate.”